It wasn’t like Em didn’t have other friends. She had plenty of people to hang out with, plenty of people to give her rides to the airport and things like that; but I was the only person she knew that had a spare room. Em was my friend, and you don’t turn your back on a friend.
Her mom and dad disowned her the day she came out. “How could you do this to us, Emilia?” was the question her mother asked, as if discovering your sexuality was something you could choose.
I’m no saint, I’m not Mr. Understanding-and-compassionate-Heterosexual, nothing like that at all. I enjoyed Em’s company, it didn’t matter who she was sleeping with, because it was never going to be me, and we were both fine with that.
The knock on the door came at 4 a.m.. Em’s eyes were beet-red and swollen. She had a look on her face that can only be described as the look of a broken heart; hers was, she’d just lost the two people that she really loved – her parents. They were still alive, but she was dead to them. Something about “shame you’ve brought on this family” or something, I couldn’t understand what she said through the tears and sobs.
I’ve never been very good at noticing when someone needs help, but if they ask I’m happy to oblige. I made her some of my ultra-strong coffee. The kind that Turkish people run from. The kind that kills espresso machines on contact. I wrapped Em in a blanket, we sat at my kitchen table and talked. Well, she talked, I listened. Listened and poured more coffee for her. I leaned over to kiss her forehead occasionally and told her things would work out.
“How?” she asked, tearing up again. “Where am I going to live? What am I gonna do for money?” Her parents had thrown her out, and also fired her from the family business.
“Who needs money?” I asked, trying, vainly, to cheer her up. “You can stay here as long as you need to. You know that, Em. Em? Em…”I looked at her across the table, asleep.
The sun was coming up over the billboard outside my second floor window, the morning paper hit the porch. I called in sick to work, my boss knew me well enough to understand when I told him what was up. She slept until around noon. I was in the shower when she walked in to say good morning.
“Uh, Em. I’m, uh, wet and naked here,” I said as she peeked in through the shower curtain.
“Yeah, I know,” she said, smiling weakly, “don’t get the wrong idea. I just want to clean up, and you use all the hot water.”
“How do you know that?”
“We have shared a room on vacation. You do remember going to Seattle, don’t you?”
“I thought we went to Portland.”
“Yes, on the way to Seattle.”
“Oh yeah. Are you all right?” I asked, noticing her voice was faster than usual, more forced.
“Yeah. I’m okay. Thanks for letting me stay here while I get my shit together.”
“Not a problem. Let’s go grab lunch.”
“Now? But we’re naked.”
At lunch, Em seemed to be coping as well as possible. I told her she could move in on a semi-permanent basis. I’d float her the money she needed until she got a job. The only thing she’d have to do was help me keep the apartment clean; I’m not the neatest person you’ll ever meet.
“Okay,” she said, “I’ll be your scrub woman for a while.”
“I thought you were my requisite lesbian friend?”
“I can multi-task.”
Over the next couple of weeks, Em made my otherwise hovel of an apartment gorgeous. The spare bedroom stopped being the place where all my comic books go to sit for years, Em turned it into a sparsely-furnished Mecca for Gillian Anderson pictures and the novels of Elmore Leonard.
One night, she brought a date home from some club. I was lounging in front of the television. Her date looked at me as if I were a leper.
“I didn’t know you lived with a guy?” she said, the word ‘guy’ sounding like a disease.
“He’s cool,” Em replied, trying to drop the subject. Her new pal would have none of that…
“He’s male,” she said, stating the obvious. She muttered something hateful about me and my gender. I let it go, figuring that watching “the Sopranos” was more important than trying to solve her problems. Em would have none of that.
“Just shut up,” Em said, turning from sweet and happy to downright ominous-looking in about 1/10th of a second. “The day you’re 1/1,000 of the person he is, you call me. Until then, get the hell out.”
She threw the door open, pushing the other woman out. “Sorry, B,” she said, sitting down near me, snuggling in for warmth. “So, who’s getting shot this episode?” she asked, looking at the television.
Em never lost the lovable qualities she had in abundance. She did, however, become more than comfortable with who she was.
Never one for make-up before, now she wore none. “Why waste my money on that crap?” she said. She found a job at a gay and lesbian book store, but she insisted on doing most of the cleaning around the apartment: “Because you, my love, are a slob.”
She wouldn’t even let me wash the dishes. And I wasn’t about to fight someone asking to do more so I could do less.
I came home one day after getting a haircut, and she couldn’t keep her hands off the fuzziness of the back of my neck. “I’ve never felt anything like this,” she said, thrilled with the feel of the bristling, freshly cut, hair on my head.
After an hour or two of staring at me, Em piped up with, “Let’s do that to your whole head.” She meant the buzzed back of my head should take place of the haircut, for which I’d just paid $10. “Come on,” she said, selling me on the idea as well as herself. I didn’t want to, I liked my hair the way it was. But, Em was, like always, persistent. And me, well, I wasn’t as attached to my hair as I was to her, so off it went.
We headed off to Target to grab a pair of clippers. As always, we goofed around in the aisles, joked about our new home, and the “coming baby”. A kindly-faced older woman overheard us, and nodded with approval. “You two are married, aren’t you?” she asked.
“No ma’am,” Em said, incredibly polite, “I’m a dyke, and this is my landlord.”
Back at the apartment, Em draped me in a towel, and tried to figure out how to use the “Buzzmatic 5000″ as she called it. It was more than a little scary, seeing the confused look on her face as she played with the attachments. It was also an emotional rush.
The heavy, black, machine popped and buzzed to life. Em was tentative at first, working slowly from the sides toward the top. I looked at myself in the mirror… it was interesting to see that I actually looked better with less hair. Em rubbed it, cut another patch. Cut again, rub some more. For a person that was a purely platonic friend, the mood got quite sexual. We didn’t do anything though, we weren’t built that way. Both of us were involved, to various degrees, with other people.
When she finished, Em dusted me off and gave me a playful kiss. She rubbed my 1/4” hair and marveled at how even it was. “For a first time,” she asked, “How do ya like your head, boy?”
“I like it a lot,” I said, looking at myself, seeing someone with nice features, and a friendly pair of eyes. The world would never mistake me for George Clooney or a Mel Gibson, or whoever women find attractive these days. But, for what God gave me to work with, this was a dramatic improvement.
“So, ya like your head, boy?” she said again. “Headboy… it suits you much more than Bartholomew.” Her fingers rubbed my head again and again, the nickname stuck. “Now,” Em said, with a sense of command. “Do me.” She handed me the clippers and took off her top.
“Good Lord,” I said, more than slightly shocked. “Is it part of the lesbian manifesto to never wear a bra?”
“Naw,” her voice thick with sarcasm, as always, “I just like driving you nuts.”
Being a total novice at this, I took my time. Working in short, slow, strokes upward, I took away 8″ of hair from Em’s head. Short, continuous, strokes. Slowly, a different woman showed through all the hair that was falling to the ground.
Sadly, it was not a more beautiful woman. Em was a natural beauty. A pretty 22-year-old. A pretty 22-year-old that needed hair to balance her oblong face and small, petite features. Well, almost everything was petite. Her nose looked too large with no hair to frame her face. About 2/3 of her hair was reduced to stubble when we stopped to look at the work in progress.
“Scrub Woman hopes it starts to improve, Headboy,” she said. It didn’t.
I hurried to finish up the damage, trying in vain to make it look better. It wouldn’t. The cut was fine, it was just on the wrong head. “Damn,” she said, “I’m gonna get kicked out of the Dyke Union for this.”
We laughed at how bad it looked. I felt horrible.
“You feel that bad?” she asked, grabbing a razor. “Well I don’t. Life sucks if you’re not bold. Or is that bald? To hell with it, finish the job.”
“I can’t let you do that,” I said. “It could look worse.”
“Look Headboy, that’s your new job around here,” her voice content. Em was never one to linger, or regret. “Your solemn duty is to service this head of mine.”
“Fine,” I said, reaching in the medicine chest for the shaving cream, “but when do I get promoted to Headman?”
“When Scrub Woman gets promoted. Now finish me, boy.” Em’s hand waved, in some Empress of Rome kind of way.
Being out of shaving cream, we were forced to use a bar of Irish Spring.
“Oh great,” she said, “I’m getting my head shaved by leprechauns.”
The blade rode across her head without the ease of shaving my beard. But with each pass, it got easier. Her freshly shaved dome had a nice roundness to it, an almost too bright sheen. The hot towel followed, with more shaving and, thankfully, no nicks.
“Well, Headboy,” she said, rubbing the smooth surface that would stay bald for a good while, “you never know until you try.” She stood up to kiss me. “At least it’s low maintenance.”
(For Emilia Sontori August 3, 1966 – May 5, 1989 who never got the chance to grow her hair back, due to a careless pinhead behind the wheel while stoned. I’ll never forget the best person, with the kindest heart, I ever knew.)