We watched old films the summer my father left us. “Catharsis,” my mother would say, and then my sister and I would curl up next to her on the couch. The sadder the film, the more cheerful my mother seemed to feel when it was over.
Caught between fury and shock, my mother had informed us in June that since the house in Narragansett belonged to her, we were going to spend our summer at the beach. Soon it seemed as if our life in Providence — our very house — didn’t exist. After three months at the beach, Lisa and I longed to go home, to be with our friends again and sleep in our bedrooms, and this longing was growing stronger than our worry about our mother.
We discussed her well-being one morning in the backyard as we lay in the webbed chaise lounges wearing last year’s bathing suits. Too small, they stretched tight over our long torsos and the straps bit into our shoulders. The weather was hot and humid, more like August than early September. We used the sweat beading up on our foreheads to slick back our long hair in imitation of the 1940’s movie stars we’d been watching. Lisa said we needed to convince our mother to move back to Providence and then she’d be happier. I nodded in agreement, too hot to do much else.
When the three of us finally set off for the beach, we walked barefoot on the sandy edges of the road and on the yellow lawns of the weathered houses dotting the street. The whirring of the cicadas made me dizzy. At the intersection, we did not race across the road as we usually did, but matched our steps to our mother’s, then crossed to the worn path leading through the beach grass and dunes. The hot sand burned my feet.
Sitting close to the surf’s edge on beach towels, the three of us dabbled our feet in the water. I thought about my father. The first month it had seemed impossible. I awoke every morning feeling certain he would return that day. He had left us in May — just went to work one morning and didn’t return — and then a letter appeared in the mail a few days later. Lisa and I opened it when we got home from school, even though it was addressed to our mother. We were so excited to see his handwriting that we thought surely he was writing to explain, to let us know when he’d be back. But his note only confirmed he was gone for good, that he “needed to be away, it was over.” When my mother read it she tore it into tiny pieces, too angry even to chastise us for reading her mail. When, in tears, we asked her why he had left, her expression of bitterness silenced us.
On the beach my mother hid her eyes behind sunglasses, but I knew she was frowning. The v-shaped crease on her forehead had become a permanent part of her face, like a scar, just deeper or lighter depending on how sad she felt that day. Lisa was also frowning, but for an entirely different reason. With the new school year beginning in a week we should be shopping for clothes and school supplies. When Lisa had pointed this out to our mother she had received a “yes, later this week.” And here it was past Labor Day, the beach deserted, a mile of uninterrupted sand in each direction. Although I was happy enough to be spending my days swimming and reading in the sun, a part of me wished my mother would begin organizing us as she usually did, telling us what to pack, when to get ready. She didn’t even seem surprised that her 10 and 12-year-old daughters were clinging to her like young children.
I took my mother’s hand, lifted her tanned arm up around my shoulders, and moved close to her. Her warm skin smelled of sun and salt air. She turned to me and attempted a smile, more a downward turn of her mouth, then tightened her grasp around my shoulders and took off her sunglasses; I hated seeing how dull her blue eyes had become and the dark circles which ringed them.
She glanced up and down the beach, noticing for the first time that we were alone. “Where is everyone?” she asked. “Must be too early,” she said, putting her sunglasses on again.
Lisa rolled her eyes and said in a firm voice, “Mom, school’s starting in two days! That’s why no one’s here. We’ve got to leave tomorrow or we’ll miss the first day.”
My mother shook her head slightly. “Already?” she said, and after a long pause asked, “Is it really September?”
“September 6th to be exact,” Lisa said in that snippy tone she’d started using whenever she was unhappy with one of us.
“I wish we could stay here all year.”
I caught Lisa’s eye. She glared at me and shook her head. All she’d been talking about for weeks was going home to see friends and return to middle school. The beach house had taken on a sad, quiet air that frightened us and made us whisper and walk on tip-toe as though we were trying not to disturb a sick person.
“But we can’t stay!” Lisa said.
“You could go to school here.” My mother paused and bit her bottom lip, thinking this over. “We could stay for the first term, at least. It would be an adventure, like taking a long holiday.”
We knew what she really meant. Our house in Providence reminded her of life with our father. The beach house was not so bad: he hadn’t been there much, only a few weeks each summer, and so she would not have daily reminders of him here.
“What about your third graders?” Lisa asked. “Aren’t you going to teach?” For fifteen years, my mother had taught elementary school and she was moving from the second to third grade — she was finally graduating, we had teased her.
“I’ve taken a leave of absence.”
“No!” I said. How long had she known this?
“That’s not going to work for any of us,” Lisa scoffed. As the summer progressed, Lisa had taken charge. It seemed natural to all of us that Lisa, so neat and efficient, should be the one to organize us into a routine — eating three meals a day, doing the laundry, reminding my mother to go to the bank.
“It’s already decided, Lisa,” my mother said. “I need a break.” She looked at Lisa and then me. She’d lost a lot of weight in four months and her cheekbones jutted out, like sharp stones under her tanned skin.
Lisa jumped up. “Oh, like this summer hasn’t been the biggest break you’ve ever had. You make me so mad. I won’t live here. I’m going home. I’ll live with Nana and Grandpa. They’ll let me.” With that she was sprinting down the beach and kicking up sand with her long, muscular colt legs, scattering the lines of sea gulls facing the water.
I leaned back, dug my elbows into the sand, and watched her go. I was nervous about being alone with my mother. Lisa was much better at keeping her steady. I was no help because I would cry along with her. I looked up at her as she watched my sister run away. I did not think we would actually live at the beach house that winter. My mother’s frown had deepened, and as I leaned against her, I felt her back slump, as if she had already given up.
That night we watched Roman Holiday for the fourth time that summer. It was our favorite film: silly enough to make us laugh and forget ourselves, sad enough at the end to make us burst into tears. Halfway through the movie, Lisa turned from the television to study our mother’s face.
“You look like Audrey,” she said.
That actually made her smile, the frown like a scar growing faint. Wanting to keep her interested, I lifted a strand of her hair and curled it behind her ears.
“Lisa’s right,” I said and a shiver ran up my back at the thought that we could somehow make our mother more like the laughing, bright-eyed Audrey. The woman who, in the end, knew which painful choice she had to make and was strong enough to do it.
The three of us turned back to the screen: Audrey had just emerged from a Roman salon transformed from a modest schoolgirl into an elegant young woman — all because of a haircut.
“You should cut your hair short,” Lisa said.
A year ago we would have laughed at such a suggestion; my mother’s glossy hair that swirled past her shoulders was her greatest beauty, the one personal trademark she fussed over. During the summer it had lost its luster and now looked stringy and limp. I wished her vibrancy and beauty would return, as if that would somehow make us magically happy and whole again.
My mother shrugged. “Maybe.”
Lisa and I glanced at each other and smiled knowingly. We did not believe her. She had so little energy she scarcely ever left the beach: when we needed groceries, Lisa and I walked to the corner store, and it had taken all of our persuasive powers to get her to celebrate her fortieth birthday with dinner in town.
On the television Audrey cavorted with Gregory Peck. I felt bored with their antics this time around. My mind kept wandering to thoughts of living at the beach and going to a new school. Twice during dinner my mother had raised this possibility. I wondered if I had misjudged her intent. I shifted restlessly on the couch; the air felt sticky and so still we could hear the roar of the surf a quarter mile away. Lisa was playing with an elastic band and staring glassily at the television, clearly thinking of other things. Probably her friends, I thought. I nudged her and made the motion of dealing cards. She nodded. We slipped off the couch, sprawled on the floor, and began a game of rummy, our favorite card game because it lasted the longest. We usually placed some kind of bet (an element of risk our father had introduced), and this time Lisa said, “If I win, you have to live with me at Nana’s house.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw my mother watching us with raised eyebrows. “I bet…”
“Don’t go making any bets you can’t keep, Katherine,” she interrupted.
I slyly said, “I bet Mom will cut her hair if I win.”
She stood up, picked up a cushion off the couch, and lay down next to us on the floor. “If you’re going to bet against me, I’d better get in this game.”
Lisa and I laughed. She was a terrible card player, so one of us would win. We’d learned everything we knew about cards from our father.
“So, what’s your bet, Mom?” Lisa said, looking at her with her head cocked to one side as she shuffled the cards.
“Let me see.” She considered her bet for a few moments, and then said, “If I win, we live here the rest of the year.”
Lisa smirked. Either we would be living with our grandparents or our mother would be cutting her hair short.
Lisa finished shuffling and dealt the cards. I won the first two games, chalking up one hundred points. It made me feel cocky, this winning, and terribly excited to think that my mother would do something that I had decided. Her willingness to agree to Lisa’s bet made me wonder, though. She seemed too eager to win, and her frustration grew with each game she lost. She was already in the hole by fifty points, and I felt sorry for her. But not so sorry that I didn’t want to win. As we played I thought about what would happen if Lisa won. Would she really let us go? I didn’t believe she’d stay here without us.
My mother won the next hand, but winning only raised her score to zero. Her unexpected win surprised us. We shrugged and pursed our lips at each other as she smiled broadly and scooped up all the cards to hand them to Lisa.
“Beginner’s luck,” Lisa said. Lisa was the competitor in our family, and when she played cards she focused with the intensity of a cat stalking birds. Sometimes it was enough to make me uncomfortable and indecisive, but tonight I could see she was irritated by her lack of success, and this lent me confidence. It was her turn to deal again; she shuffled and reshuffled the cards hoping to get just the right mix. While she did this, I turned to the television; the film was at the final scene — the heart-wrenching separation between Audrey and Greg — and I braced myself for the now familiar sensation of tears welling up in my eyes, but Lisa distracted me with a quick tap to my shoulder. “Pay attention. It’s your turn to draw.”
Lisa won the next two hands. I kept ahead of her by just a few points, hoping my good luck would hold. With only another 100 points to go, I just needed to win big, and I’d be escorting my mother to the nearest salon. “Just like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday,” I’d say, nodding my head sternly at the hairdresser. But Lisa wasn’t far behind, with 375 points. My mother looked ready to quit but she kept playing, doggedly, as if being in the game would somehow lessen Lisa’s chances of winning. She gave me the thumbs-up sign whenever she tallied our scores so I knew she was rooting for me. And I did win by five points.
Before I went to bed, I kissed my mother goodnight and whispered in her ear, “Let’s go for your haircut first thing in the morning.”
She drew back from me to get a better look at my face. “You’re really going to keep me to that bet? I thought you liked my hair long.”
I felt a part of me relenting. I’d always liked brushing her hair in the winter, marveling at the way the static made the strands dance. But a more stubborn part egged me on.
“Promise me, Mom.” Somehow I believed that everything hinged on this haircut — whether we stayed or went home, whether my mother would try to be happy.
She sighed deeply and said, “I’ll sleep on it.”
I hugged her, happy enough with her half-promise, for that’s what it was — whenever she was uncertain about something, but leaning toward approval, she said this and the next day we were usually granted our wish.
Morning came with a thunderstorm, dark clouds hanging low; from our bedrooms we could see the ocean greenish-gray and churning. We closed the windows against the cool, autumn-like winds and then sat at the kitchen table eating cereal and watching the morning light turn dark. I worried that my mother would refuse to leave the house. But she seemed more energetic that morning; she had always claimed to be refreshed by the drama of a good thunderstorm. With her long hair pulled back tightly so it was smooth against her skull, her blue eyes looked enormous against her pale and angled face. I thought she looked rather exotic. When I told her this, she smiled.
“Oh, you’re just buttering me up so I’ll get my hair cut,” she said.
“Yes, I will. But not because you won a bet. It needs it anyway.”
Lisa paused over a spoonful of cereal. “I can’t believe it! You love your long hair.”
My mother looked sad for a moment. “I guess that was the old me,” she said quietly.
I glanced at Lisa, thinking of the way my father had sometimes brushed and braided her hair, how tenderly he had seemed to do this, and I was caught between the adoration I had felt for him then and the sour doubt that filled me now.
“Girls,” my mother said, as if she knew what I was remembering. “I wish I could explain all this to you…and I will, but not yet.”
“Dad might come back,” I said hopefully.
“Don’t count on it,” Lisa said.
I scowled at her and then turned to my mother. “Let’s go into town and get our hair cut. I’ll call and make an appointment,” I said, mimicking the no-nonsense voice my mother used whenever we had to visit a dentist or doctor.
“You’re getting your hair cut, too?” Lisa said.
“Yes, I need a change.” These were the words I longed to hear my mother say.
“Hasn’t there been enough change around here already?” Lisa said as she left the table and carried her bowl and glass to the sink.
My mother drove cautiously through the rain and gripped the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white. The rain flooded the windshield and we could barely see the road; every few minutes lightning flashed and made us jump. When she didn’t turn around at the end of the beach road, I knew she’d go through with the haircut.
In town we ran from the car to the salon and shook the rain from our hair when we entered. Glossy photographs of models with beautiful hair decorated the walls and made me wish I had brought a picture.
“Do you know the film Roman Holiday?” I asked the stylist, Susan. She looked at me blankly. “You know, with Audrey Hepburn. She’s the princess that has her long hair cut into a short pixie in a salon in Rome,” I said, impatiently. “Everyone knows who Audrey is.”
My explanation of the film sounded weak to my own ears, so I wasn’t really surprised when Susan just shrugged and stared at me. “What kind of haircut do you want?” she asked, snapping her gum.
“It’s not for me, it’s for my mother,” I said and turned in exasperation to get some assistance from my sister. Lisa and my mother were flipping through oversized style magazines. “How about something like this, Mom,” Lisa said, holding up a picture of a model with short, slicked-back hair.
“No way, Lisa!” I sat down and looked through another book, frantically searching for an Audrey-like style before my mother lost interest. But she took the video from her purse and showed Susan the photo on the cover.
“Oh, yeah. Now I know what you mean. It’s not too modern a cut, though, you know?” Susan motioned for my mother to follow her to a chair and sat her down in front of the mirror.
“But it’s a classic,” I yelled after them. I didn’t want Susan discouraging my mother.
They murmured together for a few moments, Susan letting my mother’s hair fall loose around her shoulders and then bunching it up here and there to see the effect of a shorter style. Soon long chunks of hair fell to the floor. We had never seen our mother with anything but long hair, and I suddenly felt anxious. What if she hated it? Susan leaned forward to listen to my mother who was making snipping gestures around the top of her head.
“Don’t cut it too short, Mom. You might not like it,” I warned.
“Katherine! I thought you wanted me to cut it short.”
“Not too short,” I repeated, watching Susan’s scissors closely. I thought of Audrey’s transformation in the movie; the haircut had given her a new look and a new attitude, but in the end she had returned to her life as a princess and said goodbye to Gregory. Why had I believed a simple haircut would fix our problems?
When she was done, Susan turned the chair so we could see our mother’s new haircut. We gasped: she did look like Audrey as we had thought she would. My mother was smiling and for the first time that summer she looked happy.
“Lisa,” I whispered, “Maybe she’ll want to go home now.” Lisa nodded, not taking her eyes off our mother.
On our way back to the beach house we stopped to watch the gray churning ocean. We all felt giddy and rolled down our windows; the damp wind blew through our hair and cooled our flushed faces. My mother said the breeze tickled her neck and that it had been a long time since she’d felt that sensation. She laughed and tooted the horn as a wave hit the breakwater and rose high above us, shattering into thousands of droplets before falling to the shore. Lisa and I laughed with her — bright, high-pitched laughter that signaled our relief.
Four days later we were sitting in classrooms, but not in Providence as we had expected. “You’ll be fine,” our mother told us. “Just think of all the new friends you’ll make.”
With her penchant for planning and organizing, Lisa made friends right away; I waited, as I always have, for others to befriend me. And in my loneliness I comforted myself by repeating my favorite line from Roman Holiday: “Life isn’t always what one likes… is it?” I pretended I was Audrey, self-sacrificing and brave. I pretended I had her strength and courage to deal with my new life. My mother had announced we were living at the beach house until “further notice.”
My mother stopped watching old films and started substitute teaching. As the days grew colder and shorter, her listlessness of the summer months disappeared, replaced by a quiet peacefulness. She kept her hair short all that fall and winter, faithfully having it trimmed each month. She’d run her hand through the short shiny strands and finger the soft fringe of curls around her neck as she sat grading papers at night. I’d sprawl on the couch next to her on those cold evenings, doing my homework or reading. And sometimes I’d just watch her. I felt strangely comforted by the fact that she looked so different, like someone I was just getting to know.