Everyone’s schedule was booked solid, which wasn’t different from any other day. The sun was just beginning to come up over the dry hills, the palm trees stood in a languid sort of way, and then there was Andrew, wearing a ripped t-shirt on a motorcycle in traffic. As soon as he walked into the salon, a daily schedule was placed in his hand by one of the assistants. After she adjusted her headset, she offered him a cup of espresso. She kept following him with a wide, shiny smile until a call came through. It was the tightness of the watch on Andrew’s wrist that reminded him of the time, even though there was a large clock on the wall.
Blindingly bright, there were skylights and windows that stretched down the long walls. Assistants, colorists, stylists, and models frantically ran around the salon, as if beauty was something to be chased after. Most of the employees wore black, with smudges of dye splattered against their clothes. Outside there were quick, haphazard photo shoots for bookings and agencies that would need to be informed immediately of any changes in hair color or weight. Crisp, white walls confined the whole process from within.
After the third time Andrew felt the buzz in his pocket, he told Leanne, his assistant, that he would take a break. When he stepped outside, he noticed on the cracked, glass screen of his iPhone that his mother had called five times. Andrew did not expect her to ever come in for an appointment, or to visit him. But as it happened, she won a free round trip ticket from the classic rock station in the greater Ann Arbor area. She correctly named Bon Jovi’s first album, and by that afternoon, her ticket to LAX was booked.
“I’ll be working when you arrive.”
“Oh honey, that’s fine. You are always working.”
“Take a cab from the airport. I’ll tell the receptionist that you’ll be in at ten. You might as well come in for an appointment while you’re here.”
“Oh, Andrew, it’ll be so good to see you.”
Of course it would be. It had been nearly three years since Andrew moved to L.A. and began working ten to twelve hour days, five days a week. His success may have seemed to be produced by hard work and dreams, but only part of that statement was true. Prior to this, he envisioned his life only coming to a few conclusions, and coloring hair was certainly not one.
There were other possibilities for how his life might’ve ended up, like the ones that came from growing up in a little Midwestern town and spending summers on Lake Michigan. Then there was Sam. She was definitely a possibility, before he dropped out of Ohio State and drove across the country with her. Once they hit Oklahoma, it was the farthest Andrew had ever been from home. They watched the landscape become parched, and then open up to the water’s edge. However, none of those details even mattered to Andrew anymore. He lived a life far from what he once considered masculine, far from what he thought couldn’t get any lonelier.
The following week his mother did not arrive at ten. Glancing back and forth between his wristwatch and his client’s head, Andrew convinced himself nothing was wrong. For as long as he knew his mother, she had been a pragmatic woman. She had long blonde hair and skin that remained tan throughout the change in seasons. Along with Andrew’s younger sister, she raised her children alone in a small apartment that was painted a dull yellow on the outside. It was exactly the type of place that would condition Andrew to come to only one conclusion about his life.
“Good Lord,” his mother sighed heavily when she rushed in the salon, “I’m so sorry. I took that cab driver all over God’s creation to find this place.”
Leanne took over what Andrew was doing. Andrew’s mother was draped with a black robe that had the salon’s emblem stitched above the left breast. When taking her seat, she was given water with fresh mint. Before they could hug, Andrew gave her a quick peck on the cheek and started to sift through her long hair.
After slurping the rest of her drink she said, “You know what people are saying about you sweetie,” her face became scrunched, and she glanced around as her voice became quieter, “breaking up with Sam and working at this place?”
“I don’t really care. Besides, Sam broke up with me.”
“Well there you go,” she raised her eyebrows and cleared her throat, setting her empty glass on the vanity. “And I’m not gossiping. I’m making a statement.”
“Mom, your roots have grown in horribly. And your hair has been cut asymmetrically.”
“Then cut it.”
“Mom, I don’t cut. Only color.”
“God, what the hell was wrong with Sam, leaving you? She had two bachelor’s degrees. Too bad she didn’t have a brain to go with ’em.”
After six hours, Andrew’s mother’s hair was turned into something that would “grow out nicely.” But Andrew worried if his mother had been polished into someone he didn’t recognize. How many trips did it take for people to visit the salon and turn into identical versions of each other? Andrew wasn’t quite sure. He knew there was a process to follow; that it took time to look into the mirror and see a reflection of L.A. When he got a new client he never knew how long the process would take, but always recognized it once achieved.
A week later Andrew left Los Angeles for New York City after the day ended. Alone, he traveled in the back of a yellow cab to LAX. Leanne told him she’d meet him at the airport. They had worked together for two years and were used to frequent rushed work trips departing late at night. Andrew was lucky enough to maintain relationships with multiple salons, creating a bicoastal client base. His only piece of luggage had been neatly packed since the night before. All day it stayed at his feet while he worked under the clear Los Angeles light. A notebook poked out of its side.
Andrew saw Audrey’s photo on the front display of a bookstore’s magazine rack in LAX; a thick copy of Vogue with her name stamped across the bottom. They had known each other back when she still had a day job, when she still fumbled through her words. Yet he still hadn’t seen any of her work. He eyed the photograph of her and the hair he touched so many times, just like so many other clients. It was as if he could feel it, the thin pieces gliding between the spaces of his fingers like silken straw waves. Styled in a white-collared shirt and dark high-waisted pants, she had a look of both seriousness and lightness that lacked any self-doubt. A quiet smile spread over his face. Eager to leave he slid the magazine into his leather bag after he purchased it.
He did not see Leanne until after he was seated on the plane. “I made it!” she exclaimed, plopping down next to him. At five minutes past eleven, they were taxiing and ready for take off. After Leanne asked how many clients were booked for New York, she fell asleep almost immediately.
Four days later they flew back west. He remembered the magazine and fumbled through his bag to find it. Serious reading for Andrew, since moving to L.A., consisted of glances at nutrition labels, or the occasional freeway sign. The article left a sinking feeling in his heart that he was familiar with, but it was never induced in that way. The plane landed smoothly on the ground. Andrew said goodbye to Leanne. He hailed a taxi in the early Los Angeles light. There was something he felt he would never be able to get from the city, a sense of being grounded. Everything in Los Angeles seemed to be perpetually new. And even if it was old, there would be new light that would fall on it the next day. What he felt wasn’t sadness, but he knew it was something like it.
The following day, Andrew was with another client when Audrey came into the salon for an appointment. Stopping briefly from applying a gloss to a client’s head, he watched her walk in. Abruptly, the lingering grogginess from his trip to New York City had faded. Audrey was noticeably thinner. Her skin was more golden. Andrew thought about the first time he saw her, over-processed hair with bangs cut too high on a pale forehead; the memory she left was always endearing.
Initially it was refreshing to look at wild eyebrows, baggy clothes that seemed to cling to uncertainty, and a slightly plump face. But he knew it was inevitable, that she would become groomed, plucked, and thinner. After her third appointment, he saw it. The fabric she wore aimed to make a statement. Her skin looked freshly scrubbed. After six hours of vanity, the light from the windows and skylights had fallen dark. The glow from around the mirror exposed an unexpected self-satisfaction.
“But fading is inevitable,” Andrew said. “Your hair will turn brassy and orange again.” He watched her grin disappear as she looked at her reflection. A worried expression spread over her face, and she asked when she should come back. He laughed, “Whenever it bothers you.”
One of the assistants walked Audrey back to where Andrew worked. “Leanne,” he pointed to a young woman’s head, “Can you finish up this gloss?”
At that moment he hesitated, standing there in khakis with hair dye stains speckled down his long legs. He began to untie the leather apron hanging loosely around his neck. Despite this, Audrey dutifully sat in the empty chair next to Andrew. Slowly he sipped the espresso one of the assistants set on the table next to them, and he began to study her profile. Licking his thumb, he rubbed it against his forefinger, and with a pinch, glided it down one of her locks. Then he stood behind her as he combed his hand through her hair, grazing the top of her scalp. At this point he usually called Leanne over and told her the verdict, paced around with his hand on his chin and murmured hair dye formulas for her to mix up, which she quickly wrote down. Only then would he tell Audrey how he thought her hair should be colored. Usually Audrey did not say a word; it was as if she did not mind paying to be the vision he wanted her to be.
This time was different. He couldn’t manage to tell her that he read the article in Vogue about the latest film she would appear in and her aspirations as a playwright. Dropping out of college left him with a feeling that his life had been permanently misdirected. Coloring hair could never correct this, even if he did charge three hundred dollars just to touch someone’s head. When he told Audrey, her cheeks became flushed with a warm pink, and she said, “I would have given you a copy.”
Next Tuesday she would turn twenty-nine years old. Next month she would go to New York to meet with her literary agent. She wanted to discuss details. After much deliberation her play was being turned into a film. Not a movie, but a film. It would be an art house blockbuster. There would be a cameo where Audrey would sit on an open windowsill. Bold letters would appear in the beginning and end, reading, “BASED ON THE PLAY WRITTEN BY AUDREY HEEMSON,” on a lit moving screen for just a flash, unknown to the audience sitting in front of it.
“That is, at least how I imagine it,” Audrey said. “We will see what happens when I go to New York next week and talk with my agent.”
“Either way, I’m sure you’ll do great,” Andrew concluded.
“Do you ever have trouble relating to the people you grew up with?” Audrey said, an audible shift in her focus.
“Of course, it’s all ‘this person is marrying her,’ ‘new baby’ that.”
Audrey laughed. “Now that’s a life that is difficult to imagine.” Her face became void of expression, and she squinted into the mirror. “It’s more difficult to imagine than getting Botox at twenty-five.”
Simultaneously, Andrew worked on four other clients while Leanne checked Audrey’s foils and set the timer. Audrey sat with the other clients waiting for the dye to transform their heads. Some were under circular blow dryers, and others were staring blankly out the window. A timer went off and none of the employees were nearby. A silent look of fear passed among them.
“Is this okay?” Leanne asked Andrew. She slid the foil off Audrey’s hair and wiped it clean.
“It’s not there yet. I said banana. The inside of a banana.”
Eventually the salon began to clear out. Friday nights were reserved for regulars. While walking into the other room, Andrew caught a glimpse of Audrey staring at him. Initially he knew Audrey assumed he was gay. This was a commonly held prejudice in his profession. Just to pay rent, he created hair that made God jealous.
Towards the end of Audrey’s second appointment, he mentioned that he went on a date with a girl he met at a photoshoot, and then he felt it break. There was a sudden awareness to her actions. Whenever he placed his hand gently on her shoulder or swiveled her chair around so she had nowhere to rest her leg but against his, he felt it. It was like a magnet pulling back.
At this point the music grew louder, some of the stylists and colorists started to dance with each other and make plans for Friday night. An assistant walked up to Audrey and asked if she wanted anything to drink. “We have gin and tonic,” she said with a grin. Andrew looked over at Audrey and said they’d take two.
When she returned, Andrew thanked her and asked how she was doing. Gloria was about five-foot-two. Her green eyes were subtle compared to the brightness of her smile.
“It’s fine, Andrew.”
“Sí,” she laughed. “Tell me what you want to say, and I’ll translate. How are you doing?”
“I’m chilling. I’m living the dream. How do you say that?”
“Chilling?” Gloria said.
“How do I say ‘living the dream?’ That’s what I wanna say.”
“Estoy vivendo en un sueño?” She said it quickly and had a look on her face as if she just ate a sour lemon.
“Yeah… Estoy vivendo en un sueño.” He nodded smoothly as he continued to apply the dye on Audrey’s head. Gloria laughed. Andrew did not realize he had said, “I’m living in a dream.”
Audrey took the final sip of her drink. Andrew walked over to look at how the color was developing. He let out a roar of a yawn, and Audrey said, “You must be tired.”
“Do you ever have trouble falling asleep?”
She hesitated. “Sometimes.” She let out a brief sigh and leaned back further into her seat. “But only when I concentrate too much. You know—when I start counting days instead of letting them pass by.”
He felt the gin wash away any feeling of restraint and he asked, “Do you ever get lonely living by yourself?” After he said it, he realized Sam had been the only other person he had posed that question to. After a few months of living in L.A., they were friendless, struggling to pay the high rent, and he still had anxiety about driving across the six lanes on the freeway. Of course, Sam laughed at the question. Loneliness is not something that is supposed to come with a life on the Golden Coast.
“Why did you come out to L.A. anyway, Andrew?” Audrey asked.
He exhaled with a sigh of defeat, “Honestly, because of my ex-girlfriend, Sam.” The way he said “ex” was final. Still, he held onto her name for just a little too long.
Once Andrew finished the second application of highlights, Audrey stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. As she walked out the door, there was a mane of silver foils around her head that bounced with each step. Just as she walked away Andrew called out, “Feel free to make another drink!”
Andrew only had two semesters left of college before he decided to leave for L.A. with Sam. She was a year older and about to graduate with a job already lined up. When they arrived, all of their belongings were unpacked within a day. Their modest one-bedroom apartment was settled into within a week. When Andrew got to L.A. he had apprehensions about driving on the busy streets and worried if maybe some people were just meant for different roads. Immediately, he began to look for work. Perhaps it was the vivid uncertainty in his life that pushed him to succeed, but within a few weeks, he enrolled in a beauty college. When he was about to graduate, he landed an assistantship with a top stylist, then about six months later he had his own business card at a Beverly Hills salon.
Sam and Andrew’s relationship grew more tenuous the farther west they went. Sam made it easy, though. After work one night, he found a note along with the following month’s rent. As he looked around the apartment he noticed a few of her things missing, like the vase her mother brought back from Spain. Not knowing what to do, he sat in his room in silence tracing the outline of his foot onto the carpet while listening to the traffic roll along the streets of Santa Monica. Eventually he fell asleep, the space next to him cold and empty. The bedroom door was left open.
When he woke around three in the morning his mind had not been wiped clean of deep sleep, and he wondered if it happened at all. He went into the bathroom and brushed his fingers against a towel on the drying rack that was still slightly damp and smelled distinctly of her scent.
She had two bachelor’s degrees. Too bad she didn’t have a brain to go with ‘em.
Andrew held Audrey’s head while he scrubbed the rest of the lightener off her hair, even though that’s what he paid Leanne for. Audrey was a client before he got an assistant, so he had difficulty letting go—at least that’s what he told himself. “I got you,” he said when he first washed her hair while her neck was stiff, unwavering. It was said not as a statement, but as consolation. That was three years ago.
But that’s not what he thought about. Instead, he focused on the feeling of the nape of her neck and the bubbles that started to collect while he scrubbed her head. Her eyes were closed, a smile widened across her face, droplets of water fell on her cheeks. No one else was in the room, and Andrew said, “I can tell you’ve been taking good care of your hair.”
He wrapped a towel around the ends of her locks and rolled it up into a tight bun on top of her head. Audrey asked, “Do you think I need to get it cut?”
“How many months has it been?” he counted on his fingers. “Nah, you’re fine.”
“Then I have more free time tonight than expected.”
Once he turned the blow dryer off, Audrey’s hair fell obediently around her face. Andrew ran the comb through for the final time.
“It’s perfect.” Audrey said.
“You always say that.”
“And you always tell me that it’s going to fade.”
“What are you doing with the rest of your night?”
“We could go on a drive,” she said. As she smiled her top teeth rested on her bottom lip.
“Yeah,” he said softly, “I’d like that.” Audrey collected her things and took off the salon’s robe. Andrew put his phone in his pocket, grabbed his bag, and told Leanne to finish everyone up. They walked outside, both forgetting that Audrey didn’t pay.
Once in Audrey’s car, they manually cranked the windows down and turned left on Pico. While admiring the shiny oldness of her car, he ran his finger down the side of the door. “How much did this thing cost?” he asked.
She laughed. “Too much. More than it’s worth,” she said, staring ahead, stepping on the brakes at a red light. They lightly screeched under her feet.
They headed west. The drinks they had were forgotten about. It didn’t occur to Andrew that maybe they shouldn’t be driving. As they started down the road, Audrey seemed preoccupied. Finally she said, “I want to go somewhere new.”
Photo by Angie Rodriguez
They didn’t say much. Instead, they listened to the crash of waves, the buzz of cars, and the music that played through the speakers that only worked in the front of the car. Their bodies slid back and forth across the seats as they sped through the Pacific Coast Highway’s curves.
No barrier stood between the two opposite moving lanes on the highway. Slowly, Audrey drifted into oncoming traffic but quickly corrected herself. Turning to Andrew she smiled, spreading her upper lip as if she found the whole ordeal funny. Her gray tank top exposed small collarbones and a guarded display of how her body shook when amused. She lit a cigarette and turned up the radio, then tightened her grip around the steering wheel. Andrew chuckled too, but not out of amusement; it was something more like resilience.
Behind her, through the window, Andrew watched the ocean, sandy rocks, and horizon. All of it sped by, turning the scenery into a linear gradient with Audrey’s profile as a foreground silhouette. He reached for the camera that was in the well-worn bag at his feet. Pointing his camera at Audrey, he focused the lens, and clicked.
The sun started to fall, but they kept going. Past Malibu, past the hills with dried grass that looked like straws poked into the thirsty earth, and past the burnt hillside of Point Mugu. The sky gradually turned black. This was the California coast that had not been played over and over again across windshields Andrew has sat behind.
A few hours had passed by the time they hit Lompoc. “You can really see the stars tonight,” Andrew said, craning his neck so his face would not be smashed against the windshield.
“I’m going to have to get gas soon.” Even though it was dark Andrew knew she spoke through grinning lips.
While she pumped gas into her car, he got out and walked to the edge of the road. Little pieces of gravel were kicked out from under his feet while he checked his phone. After he bought a small bottle of vodka and lemonade from the convenience store, they continued into the night. Andrew poured the vodka into the bottle, and they passed it back and forth. Audrey hit a curb, but the rattle it made was masked by the music and their laughter, and was eventually forgotten.
Audrey pressed the turn signal down, and the steering wheel made a slithering noise as it glided over her fingers when they veered left. They had gotten to the point where the highway drifted away from the shore. At first Andrew was worried she was turning into a field. “I wanted to go back towards the coast,” she said. “This road will take us to a beach.”
By that point it was eleven o’clock at night. Andrew had never been down Jalama Road. It was winding and woody at times. He found it difficult to keep awake as the car slowly hummed along. Childhood was the last time he felt the lull of a long road trip. Driving slowly, the car’s headlights illuminated groves of live oak trees and tired-looking barns with deep red paint chipping off. The scene was bucolic and reminiscent of his Midwestern youth. The tires rolled over train tracks, and although he couldn’t see anything, he felt the road open up. Rolling down his window further, he heard the faint whisper of the coast. He looked over at Audrey and took her hand.
The parking lot was spread out at the edge of the sand. Audrey’s eyes were heavy from alcohol and the pull of sleep. Andrew was relieved to no longer hear the hum of the car. A damp breeze blew from the water, and they didn’t have anywhere to sleep. Andrew opened his door and walked towards the ocean. The waves were small, and their timing was spaced out. The oil rigs produced a distant glow off the coast, but other than that, only the stars could be seen.
When he returned, Audrey was curled up on the hood of the car using an oversized towel as a blanket. “It’s still warm,” she said. Andrew got on the car and the warm metal pressed against his back, half of his legs dangling off the edge. “At night, the ocean reminds me of the place between dreams and sleep.” There was a weakness in Audrey’s voice when she said this, and she appeared to be giving in, as her breath grew shallower.
“Audrey,” Andrew said, “what is your mother like?” But she did not answer. She was already asleep.
Andrew stayed awake all night. He listened to Audrey’s breath and how it mixed in with the sounds that came from the shore. For some reason it reminded him of how he felt after moving out of his childhood home. He consoled himself in that there had been a time where he had yet to discover the meaning of things, back when life did not have hard edges, and time was not attached to a clock. Like when he’d visit his grandparents’ farm, before it was sold and replaced by a Walmart. That was years ago. He was thirty-one now. Every morning he drove a barely-working motorcycle to work and came home to silence.
Audrey’s hand was exposed to the chilly night air. Andrew reached out and held it. The softness of her skin reminded him that he barely knew her. Still, months would go by and thoughts of her lingered. When he would go to the grocery store to buy fruit under the buzzing fluorescent lights, he would grab a mango and suddenly think about what it would be like to touch her bare skin.
Her hand did not resist; she adjusted her body towards him, and her fingers curled around his, making the whole ordeal seem more secure. In this moment Andrew knew that there would always be space between their worlds. His youth had been replaced by an exhaustion that had settled in some time ago, and in this way, too, his life was sealed.
The sky lightened, turning from gray to pink. The hood of the car was no longer warm. Next to Audrey, he stared at her in her final moments of sleep. Her eyelids fluttered awake. She did not let go of his hand. A few fishermen walked by, making their way through the parking lot and out to the waterfront. Large fishing poles were slung over their backs. One tipped his red hat at them.
Audrey sat up. She took the sweater out from under her head and pulled it over her body. “It’s nice to wake up and this be the first thing you see,” Audrey said, nodding towards the ocean. “Wanna walk out to the water before we leave?” They had nothing else to do there. The morning light had exposed them.
Audrey pulled off her shoes. Andrew trailed behind. Even though she rolled up her pants, the water still soaked her hems. For a moment the roaring waves stopped, and the ocean looked placid.
“I’ve never noticed before that it kinda looks like scar tissue.” Andrew’s arms were stiff, and his hands were bunched in the front pockets of his jeans.
Audrey turned to him, and said “What?” but he didn’t respond. He focused on the distance between the shore and the horizon. He looked down. It was as if the ocean was perpetually coming towards their feet.
Just then Audrey stripped off her clothes. They fell into a neat pile at her feet, but she bunched them together and hurled them farther into the dry sand. There wasn’t much time for him to catch a glimpse of her before she waded in. “Come on,” she said. Andrew laughed. He pulled his sweater over his head. Audrey was already pretty far out, a strong swimmer, diving under the early morning swell. As he stood on the shore, the tide pulled back and his feet sank deeper into the sand.
Andrew slowly started out, dodging the seaweed and the waves that settled into whitewash. Even though he had lived near the Pacific for years, he was always hesitant to swim. It was something that produced more anxiety than driving. After all, it was the end of the American frontier. During the set break, the ocean was calm and Andrew fell still. He stopped swimming, turned, and floated on his back. The glow of the rising sun was just above the hills near the shore, and it glistened on top of his wet toes. Thousands of bubbles quickly pushed into his ears.
Then suddenly it pulled him; the tide swept back from underneath him and up into a powerful wave. The sky was almost invisible, and all that could be seen from Andrew’s view was a wall of water. He called out to Audrey who was on the other side. Forcefully, the wave swept up under his feet.
Photo by Andrea Careaga
In the beginning, it wasn’t apparent to me. Was I as obvious as the girls who would leave their number along with your tip? Perhaps. After I first went to the salon I was confused because your kindness didn’t make sense to me. There wasn’t any other way I could justify the great deal of care you gave me, other than pity. But then you got in my car, and we drove to Jalama Road.
I never told anyone about you, but they sensed it in my voice. Often, I would think of you when I’d go a day without eating, or when I’d get out of the shower and push my nail bed back further. Then I thought maybe it was something more when I would lie in bed at night. Above the silence, I thought about what your breath might sound like during sleep. But no one finds love in a Beverly Hills salon.
All I wanted was to look effortless in a photograph. I didn’t know you never learned to swim, or that Lake Michigan never provided you with an opportunity to understand the Pacific undertow. That morning, the early sun rays held on tightly to your eyes. Eventually, though, it would fade. You told me that. The light we see eventually disappears.
Cover photo by Andrea Careaga