The other day while I was in the craft supply store looking for construction paper and dry erase markers, I came across some embroidery floss. Although I had a fling at embroidery and cross-stitch when I was a kid, embroidery floss has a slightly different memory association for me, maybe you did them too in high school or college, –hair wraps. We used to put them in our hair as a way to pass the time and add color and I thought, well why not? It’s not as if I can’t have hair decorations here and it could be fun. I picked out some shades of green I thought would compliment my hair tone and forgot about them for a while. When I came across them today, I decided to take the plunge. But as I was relearning how to create this icon of youthful rebellion, I couldn’t help but think of the girl who had taught me in the first place.
Becky and I went to high school together. We were not friends, but not enemies either. I was a nerd and a little too fat to be popular and she was, well there’s no nice way to put it, Becky was the class slut. She had an amazing body, a beautiful face, and no self esteem at all. Although rumors can be hyperbole, I don’t doubt that she did have sex with way more people than is good for a high schooler of any gender.
When our drama department decided to put on ‘Lil Abner to involve non-theater folks in thespian activities, football jocks were cast as the village yokels, cheerleading choir princesses got leading lady roles, and Becky was cast as “Stupifyin’ Jones”, a female character whose whole job is to be a sexy bombshell. She came to more than one performance drunk, and nearly everyone avoided her. Somehow, I ended up in the garden behind the theater keeping her company while she threw up. I remember because she chided me for not knowing that you have to hold someone’s hair back to keep them from getting vomit in it. But she was also grateful to have someone there who wasn’t lecturing her or trying to take advantage of her.
She was also quite brilliant. She scored a 32 on her ACTs. For those of you in any other standardized testing zone, the ACT is a basic college entrance exam, like the SAT. The highest possible score for the ACT is 36 (I did have one know it all friend who got this by the way, wore a jersey with 36 on it the day the results came in). I myself didn’t study very hard in high school but never scored higher than a 29. Becky got a 32. She didn’t advertise it, but I knew that her blonde bombshell routine wasn’t all she was.
We had gym class together and I remember her telling me she was jealous of my butt. I couldn’t believe that someone so beautiful could be jealous of any part of my awkward teenage body, and maybe she was just being nice, but it was one of the first and only body image positive things anyone said to me in high school. After that we didn’t talk much. We’d say hello in the halls but we didn’t share any other classes or activities. Then we graduated and moved on.
I was 17 when I graduated. My best friend was a month younger and a year behind me, so she was still in high school while I was starting college. I had gone to visit her at her house one day and as I was leaving I saw Becky on the sidewalk. Not, I should point out, strolling down the sidewalk, but on it. She looked like a total mess. I called out to her and I’m not really sure she recognized me, but she said hi and started talking. She’d left her parents house and been hitchhiking around and homeless. She hadn’t eaten in a while, and someone had thrown her out of a moving car at some point and she’d broken one of her front teeth on the pavement.
My mother is a woman of infinite patience. My sister and I both have a habit of bringing home bedraggled creatures in need of help. When we were children it was kittens and baby birds, but as we grew older it was people. My mother let her use the shower and we found her some clean clothes. Becky was vegetarian at that time, so my mom even made a fresh pot of lentil soup for her to have something wholesome to eat. She slept in our house that night and the next day she came with me to work because I didn’t know what else to do with her and couldn’t just put her back on the street without a plan. I was trying to talk her into contacting her parents and letting us take her home, but she wasn’t ready yet.
At the time I worked in a family run candy store. I’m sure my boss would have flipped out if she’d known I brought in a homeless girl to spend the day with me there, but since it was a Saturday, my boss wasn’t in. The store was pretty quiet most of the day, so we had a lot of time to ourselves. We talked about different things, although for the life of me, I can’t imagine what my 17 year old self could have said that would have been useful. She smoked a lot of cigarettes, but looked better than she had when I’d found her. Once her hair was clean and brushed, I could see the colored wraps that she’d put in it. When I asked about them, she decided to teach me how to make them.
She started one in my hair, warning me that she was doing it in a way where it wouldn’t slide out easily, so it would last a long time, but I’d have to cut it out when I was ready. Once it was started, she taught me the simple “4” shaped knot that makes the spiral pattern all down the wrap, and how to switch colors and tie in beads or charms. My hair is really long, so it took us all day with lots of interruptions.
I think she stayed with us for a couple of days. Eventually, I guess something changed in her, because she told me she was ready to go back to her parents. She called them from our house, although they only lived a few neighborhoods over. I don’t know the contents of the conversation, but that evening I drove her to another suburb full of beautiful homes and watched her enter one. Somehow, it didn’t seem like my place to go with her anymore.
I never saw her again.
From that time on, I’ve made dozens of wraps. I’ve taught others to make them and even put some in the hair of friends and lovers. There’s a small piece of her in each one, whether I realized it before or not. It’s been over a decade since I have worn one or seen one for that matter. I have no idea why the embroidery floss jumped out at me in the craft store just now, 20 years and half a world away from that day at the candy store, but as my hands retraced the once-familiar movements, the memories returned.
Why am I telling it here? Well, I could give you some sap about International Women’s Day and how important it is for women to pick each other up, but really it’s just because this story wanted to be told.