Wednesday was laundry day. Stupid, boring laundry day. Andy sat on the floor in front of the dryer block, watching clothes spin round and round like he had been for the last hour.
How much longer did he have to be here? The rhythmic hum of the machines was putting him to sleep, like the monotonous drone of his elementary school teacher right after lunch. He rested his forehead against the clear panel of the machine, long hair falling to either side of his face like a knotted curtain. Too much roughhousing, his mother always said. Why don’t you just play pretend with the other girls?
His eyelids started to droop, and suddenly his stomach growled and he jerked upright. It was our o’clock and he hadn’t eaten a crumb since noon. If he ddin't eat right that very second, he was going to die of starvation. But where was his mother? He stood and brushed dirt off his dress, peering around the facility.
There she was: sitting by the window with a group of younger woman, chatting and gossiping, wearing last decade’s fashion and sporting streaks of grey in her light brown hair. The wrinkles across her face deepened when she smiled, laughing at something soneone-or-other said, and as he edged closer, she didn't turn or even seem to notice him at all. He cleared his throat and one of the women prodded her with an elbow, and as she turned toward the boy, her smile immediately fell to a frown.
“Mom?” he said, tugging at the hem of his dress. “How long ‘til we go home?”
She sighed and got up, ushering him away from the group. “Another hour, at least. Maybe more—especially if you can’t keep the clothes you’re wearing clean.” She tutted, rubbing at a stain on his sleeve.
“But I’m hungry.”
“It’s not dinnertime yet. Didn’t you eat at school?”
“I did, but I’m hungry now.” He pointed to the corner of the room. “Can I get something from the vending machine?”
“You’ve asked that a hundred times and my answer isn’t going to change. You can eat when we get home.”
“Please, mom? Please? Just this one time, and I won’t ask ever again!”
“No. You’ll get all the food in your hair anyway. Look at this.” She took a clump of his hair and plucked mashed potato out of it. He squirmed and whined. “What happened to your ponytail? I sent you to school with one for a reason, you know.”
She slipped an elastic off her wrist and he pushed her away. “I don’t like ponytails!”
“Too bad. You can stop wearing them when you learn how to take care of yourself.” She gathered up his tangled hair but he fought back, whimpering as she pulled on his sensitive scalp. “Hold still,” she said, batting away his hands.
“Your hair looks so pretty when it’s up like that, honey!” one of the other women called to him. “Isn’t it nice being able to keep it out of your eyes?”
His mother finished wrestling him into a ponytail and let go, still missing a few flyaway strands. “See? It’s nice. Everyone else likes it.”
“They don’t have to wear one,” he grumbled, reaching up to tug on the elastic. His mother grabbed his wrist, narrowing her eyes.
He moved it slightly, scowling at her.
She glanced at the audience of women, cheeks turning pink as they nodded to her, then she gritted her teeth and said, “If you don’t stop that right now, you’re losing TV for a month.”
His jaw dropped. All that over a ponytail? He was used to his mother being unreasonable, but this was too much even for her. “Ugh! I hate you!” he blurted, tearing himself away from her.
He made a break for his backpack, in a chair on the other side of the facility, but his mother grab his arm and he stumbled. She forced him to face her, bending down until their noses were inches apart, hot breath blowing in his face out of flared nostrils. In the corner of his eye, he could see her caked-on makeup starting to clump.
“You don’t say things like that to your mother,” she hissed. “Tell me you’re sorry. Now.”
The room was silent, save for the gentle tumble of laundry. He peered at the women this time, and though they stared with wide eyes at his mother, they seemed to be talking to him.
“Hey now, we all say things we don’t mean,” said one. “You don’t want to hurt your mom’s feelings, just be nice and say sorry.”
“We all know you love her, honey. Go on,” said another.
He looked up again, his mother’s face contorted in rage, and his heart started to beat like he was running home through a thunderstorm. She squeezed his arm tighter and his bottom lip quivered. “Sorry.”
She let go and stalked back to her group, leaving him in the middle of the aisle with a red spot on his arm. He rubbed it, curling in on himself and biting his tongue, holding back tears.
“Your mother means well, sweetie,” one of the women said with a frown. “You’ll understand when you have kids.”
He burned up on the inside. Would he be as unhappy as his mother always was? Every day she found a reason to yell at him, and he couldn’t understand what the point of being a mother was if it just made her angry. He’d rather die than do the same.
“No way. I don’t want kids,” he said.
The group started chattering again.
“Did you hear that?”
“She’s just a kid herself!”
They giggled and talked over each other as if nothing happened. Even his mother was smiling again, sitting in the middle of the group with her legs crossed as she rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“I swear my husband would have divorced me if I hadn’t agreed on a third kid.”
“Little Jimmy got me married in the first place!”
“The only women without kids I know are lesbians.”
He piped up. “Why are you laughing? It wasn’t s’pposedta be a joke.”
One of the women grinned and gave him a limp wave. “You’re so young, dear! Things are different when you’re older. You’ll change your mind, or—”
“Someone’ll change it for you!” said another woman, drawing more laughter from the group.
“I still don’t get it,” he muttered, rubbing the sore spot on his arm.
His mother leaned forward and scrunched her nose, staring at him like he reeked of dog shit. “You don’t always get to choose what happens to you. Not when you’re a kid, but not when you’re an adult either. And when you’re a woman, sometimes things just happen whether you like it or not, and you have to figure out a way to deal with them.” She relaxed in her seat, turning her nose up. “You should be glad you’re still young—you don’t need to worry about these things yet. Go finish your homework before we have to leave.”
The high-pitched chatter resumed and he stood frozen with his arm across his chest. What did any of this even mean? Maybe she was right: he was too young to worry about these things. He shuffled away and sat in an empty chair next to his backpack, watching the women out of the corner of his eye as he dug through his school supplies. One of them turned to whisper to his mother, taking a small, orange bottle out of her purse and offering it to her. His mother held out her hand and she placed a white tablet in her palm, which she popped into her mouth and swallowed. He must have made her so angry, she’d gotten a headache.
He kept staring until a woman got up to check her laundry, and he quickly flipped to a page in the middle of his workbook. He kicked his legs and hovered his pencil over the first question, but how could he think about math after what just happened?
His mother’s ominous words played in his mind like a stuck tape. If he couldn’t make his own choices as an adult, why bother growing up? He didn’t want someone following him his entire life, deciding how he should wear his hair or forcing him to have kids. Was that all he had to look forward to?
He peered at his mother again. Aging hadn’t been kind to her, taking away her curves and leaving her skin sagging from childbirth. Her hair was thinning, losing its shine, and it never seemed to grow past her shoulders. Pieces of him were made of her—when he was forty-four, would he look the same, talk the same, snarl at his unwanted children the same? His stomach clenched and gurgled.
He glanced at the woman next to her. She was ten, fifteen years younger than his mother, with highlights in her silky hair and a petite build, lips painted cherry red. Would he feel better if he grew up to be like her? He imagined himself in her place and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. He didn’t want to be her, or his mother, or the women standing beside them, but there was nothing he could do about it. Everyone in the room knew there was no running from his fate.
Sick to his stomach, he pulled his knees to his chest and turned toward the wall, staring at a stack of flyers on the seat next to him. They advertised Best In Town Housekeeping, pink font outlined with black, just like his mother’s uniform. At the bottom of the page, there was a repeating phone number cut into tear-off fringes. A pair of scissors sat on top of the stack.
He craned his neck as he read the flyer and the elastic pulled his hair taut. He reached around to loosen it, glancing over at his mother, who folded their laundry at a counter with her back turned to him. If she wanted him to take care of his hair so badly, why was her only solution rubber-band torture? There was a much easier way to make them both happy.
He grabbed the scissors and slipped out of his seat, crouching behind the block of laundry machines. His hands trembled, and he pulled his ponytail taut and opened the scissors behind the elastic. He took a breath, then squeezed.
The first chop took more stength than he'd imagined and he grimaced, hacking away with dull blades, but he didn't stop. As he snipped the last strand, his ponytail went limp, and he held it in front of his face with a gasp, shivering with excitement, and ran his hands through his short hair. Some chunks were still too long, and he cut away the excess like he’d seen his mother do to his father in the backyard, until a blanket of hair covered the floor around him.
He brushed off his clothes, smiling down at the mess he'd made. The back of his neck was bare, and he felt weightless—he hadn’t even seen himself in the mirror, but he didn’t care what he looked like. When his mother realized how much happier he was, she would surely forgive him and cut it proper.
Suddenly, her voice came from across the room. “We’re leaving!” she called, and his body filled with thick, oozing dread. “Where did you go?”
He abandoned the scissors and scooted around the corner of the machine block, his heart beating so fast he thought he was going to be sick. He crawled opposite his mother’s footsteps, trying to piece together an explanation she would understand, his body tense and rigid.
“Oh my God!”
A woman rounded the corner and gasped. She put her hand over her mouth and pointed, sputtering. “Marie, look! I don’t even have words!”
The rest of the women hurried to catch a glimpse of him, and he sat frozen on the floor, cowering. He could pick out his mother’s gasp among the rest, and her hand was immediately upon him, forcing him to look at her reddened face.
“What did you do to yourself?” she screamed, eyes bulging out of her skull. She held up sections of his haphazard crop, her jaw agape and rabid. “This is awful! I can’t fix this! You may as well have shaved your head!”
“I didn’t like the ponytail…”
“I don’t care what you don’t like. You don’t get a choice.” She let go of him and grabbed their belongings, shoving his backpack into his arms and taking his wrist with her free hand. She parading him through the facility as he hung his head, unable to hide his face behind his new haircut.
The crowd parted by the entrance, and he stumbled onto the sidewalk behind his mother. He looked back at the women, who watched her nails dig into his skin and tears flood his vision, but none of them moved a muscle as the door swung shut.