Last weekend I heard the words from my teenaged daughter that every father dreads.
You raise ‘em up, you teach them right from wrong, bandage their scraped knees and protect them from as much of the world’s ugliness as you can, but then comes the day when all that comes crashing down around your ears with one blunt question.
“Hey, Dad, can I dye my hair red?
“Sure, whatever. Wait, what?”
“I want to dye my hair red.”
Speaker is a freshman at Missoula’s “inclusive” high school. As her brother did before her, she chose the school because it was reputedly free of cliques, bullying, classism and bigotry of all kinds. You know, the polar opposite of High School.
We’ve always encouraged Speaker to express herself, and she has gleefully done so throughout middle school with creative makeup and colorful outfits that loudly proclaimed her rejection of society’s preconceived notions of “matching separates.” So I really wasn’t surprised when she wanted to move on to the next phase. At least it wasn’t a tattoo, right?
I gave her a confused look, which to her must seem my natural expression, and said, “But, honey, your hair is already red.”
She twisted a strand of her strawberry blonde locks. “Yeah, but I mean red red. Like this.” She held out three packets of Kool-Aid.
Oh, man. I don’t know where she found out about Kool-Aid, but I know from experience it ranks up there with Sharpies when it comes to permanent skin coloration. Because I’m an idiot, I told her about the classic summer camp stunt where you find the kid with white sheets and sprinkle a packet of Kool-Aid powder into his bed. When the kid sweats during the night the moisture activates the Kool-Aid, and when he wakes up he looks like a pre-schooler’s finger painting. For the rest of summer camp.
“That’s mean,” she said.
“Yeah, that’s the point. This stuff might turn your hair red, but it will also dye your scalp. You don’t want people to make fun of you, right? How long is this supposed to last, anyway?”
She shrugged. “The website said six weeks.”
Good lord! Six weeks? And people let their kids drink this shit? “Oh, man, I don’t know. Maybe we should wait and ask your mom.”
Let me tell you something about daughters and fathers. Girls possess a magic gene that boys do not. This gene, when triggered, has the capability of turning a normally stolid, 200-pound man into a simpering mound of Jell-O. This gene’s outward manifestation consists of large, wet doe eyes and a pooched out lower lip. Throw in a slight head tilt, and daddy will buy you a BMW.
“Aw, all right. It’s just hair. It’ll grow out, right?” I said as I felt my spine liquify.
“Right! That’s what Mom says every time you get a haircut.”
I helped her get set up in the back yard, and she prepared for the transformation by mixing up a bowl of unsweetened Kool-Aid and cracking open a new roll of paper towels. Rat tail comb and hand mirror at the ready, she got down on her hands and knees in the grass and dunked her head.
Reluctantly, I participated by marking the time on my wristwatch and telling her when three minutes were up. While her head was in the bowl, I asked her how she was keeping the skin near her hairline from being dyed too.
Vaseline, she told me. “Well,” I said, “that’s not going to wash out very easily. Vaseline isn’t water soluble.”
“How do you know that?”
“None of your business,” I said. “Three minutes.”
She pulled her head from the bowl and squeezed the excess juice from her hair with paper towels. Then she wrapped the dyed segments in aluminum foil.
“Why do you do that?” I asked.
“Keep it from getting more dyed.”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t want that.” I held the mirror so she could see her foil wrapping. “You smell like a popsicle.”
“Black cherry,” she said. “And regular cherry.” She clamped back another section of hair and plunged her head back into the bowl. “Tell me when it’s three minutes.”
A half hour later she’d put all the stuff away, changed out of her black cherry-stained clothes, and combed out her tinted hair. I passed by the bathroom and saw her scowling at the mirror, turning her head slowly back and forth. “It’s not really red red. More like auburn. I was hoping it would be, like, cartoon red.”
She was right. The color was more like henna. More natural. In fact, I noticed later at the dinner table that it was now exactly the same shade as her brother’s hair.
“Well,” I said, “live and learn. I think it looks good. Besides, you should see the Kool-Aid mess you left in the yard. Totally red red. Looks like there was a Valentine’s Day Massacre in Mouseville.”
She laughed. “Don’t worry, Dad. It’s just grass. It’ll grow out, right?”