Red

by Hazel Dickey

 

It was late Sunday night and Rita still had homework, tests to study for, chores to complete, and her weekly task of applying her red hair dye still needed to be done. She thought about putting off the dying until tomorrow, but she knew someone at school would make a dig at her, and she just could not handle that right now. Only last Monday her boyfriend informed her that he “just didn’t feel anything anymore”.  Mid-week her dog, of nine years, had suddenly taken a turn and seemed to be becoming more lethargic by the day. Time was barreling down at her, and she had to make up her mind. To dye or not to dye; that was the question.

 

A little after 11:30 p.m. she finally checked the last thing off of her Sunday to do list, other than dying her hair, and realized if she hurried, she could manage to fit it in before bed. So she simultaneously dressed for bed, brushed her teeth, and mixed the red hair dye- a formula she had mixed some thousand times since her 12th birthday. She could do it with her eyes closed, or so she thought.

 

What you may not realize is that everyone else in the 12-18 year old age range had been dyeing their hair red every Sunday night as well. It is what you did in the town of Roxbury.  No one has any recollection of how it began, but for as long as anyone can remember, that’s what teens did.  If you missed a week or even went one day over your reapplication schedule, people talked. It could be ruthless to say the least.  So, it wasn’t something that often occurred, somehow, someway, you found a way to dye your hair each Sunday night.

 

Rita, applied the dye, wrapped her hair and feeling relieved went to bed. But when she looked in the mirror the next day her hair was not red like she expected; it was brown. She realized she must have been too cocky the night before and probably should not have tried to do so many things at once. She wished she could stay home from school and play hookie, but she knew she had multiple tests that day that she couldn’t afford to miss. This was horrible. She had no idea what she would tell her peers. Maybe, she thought, she could just tell them the truth that she had accidently made the hair dye brown instead of red. No, she couldn’t tell them; it wouldn’t fly because like her, they had mixed and applied the dye over and over each week for years. Why would anyone believe the truth? Rita couldn’t remember a time when somebody messed up and came to school with hair that wasn’t red.

 

She would just have to figure out a way to hide it. What if she told her teachers she wasn’t feeling 100% and the hoodie was keeping her warm and comfortable. Besides telling the truth, what other choice did she really have? So Rita pulled on a sweatshirt, placed the hood over her head, and walked off to school. Her plan had worked well. Nobody at the Roxbury high school noticed Rita’s non-scarlet hair, until fifth period when Rita’s math teacher, Mrs. Crimp, a stickler for the rules, forced her to remove the hood. This was the moment she had dreaded all day. Maybe they were all busy in their conversations, she was in the back, maybe no one would notice. As to avoid drawing more attention from Mrs. Crimp, Rita quickly complied with the request. But with the removal of the hood came gasps. They did not just notice, they made it loud and clear that they noticed. The kids at school were ruthless, not so much with the comments to her face but the sneers and obvious, behind the back, snide remarks. “Witch! Burn her at the stake”, she had heard one of her classmates say. They seemed to genuinely hate her for having brown hair. But it wasn’t her brown hair, as much as it was the gall she had to break an age old tradition. Who did she think she was anyway?  Didn’t she know she was thumbing her nose at her own ancestors, who had worked to build and keep this tradition alive, a tradition that binds the teens of the community together as one.  Now what?  Damn her selfish act. How do we fix this? Can we fix this they wondered?

Rita just sat there. What else could she do? Tell the truth?  So what? Even if she did they would just accuse her of being careless, and thoughtless and wonder how she could not take this tradition more seriously? Mrs. Crimp, herself, was a bit taken aback by the situation. She too had been a part of the teen tradition some ten or more years ago. No one even questioned it, it was just something all teens did in Roxbury. Just the same, Rita was a top student who often went out of her way to inquire about Mrs. Crimp’s welfare.  This genuine interest in an elder was almost unheard of. Genuine, that was a word that often came to mind when Rita was part of the conversation. Mrs. Crimp realized she at least had to provide some relief for Rita, even if it meant bending the rules a bit. “Rita,” she said, put your hood back on. It was a small gesture, but it did seem to quelch the fervor at least until the end of class.

 

Thank goodness this was the last class of the day, she merely had to escape the building, head back home, mix up a batch of dye, apply it and hope everyone forgets about the day Rita came to school with brown hair. In her heart of heart she knew it would not be that easy, but she had to tell herself that in order to find the strength and determination to make her way out of there. As she maneuvered down the halls, hood on, head down, the loud silence was deafening. She almost wished they would say it to her face.  Let her have it.  Didn’t she deserve it anyway?

 

Once home she found her way to the bathroom and her stash of dye. This time she would carefully measure and mix the chemicals. No mistakes this time, she told herself. But before she leaned her head over the sink to pour the dye over her hair, she looked into the mirror. She took some time to look at herself. To think. To consider. What was the big deal? Nobody even knows why we do it! She thought out loud. What is the worse that could happen?  What if I don’t turn it back? We could have two hours more each Sunday night to relax, to do school work, to visit with our families? We could be individuals, individuals that control our own destinies. Sure it was just hair color, but it had felt constraining, a bit suffocating. It was always there, every Sunday, every week. I’m not going to do it. I’m marching back into that school tomorrow with brown hair. Let them talk, let them stare. I’m the one that will be free. I’m the one that can question some of the other Ruxbury traditions. What is the worst that can happen? What is the worst that can happen?

 

The alarm rings, she gets up. She surprises herself. She has a feeling of confidence she had not expected to have just the night before. I’m doing this, I’m really doing this. Her phone had been noticeably silent last night, but now it buzzed with a notification of a text.

Rita glanced down to see a text from her best friend, Charlotte.

“Meet me at the gym entrance.”

“Why?”

“Just do it!”   

Rita tried to get more information but no response.

Oh, Lord, even Charlotte.  Maybe I am making a mistake.

Twenty minutes later she walks up to the gym entrance with her hood up. That confidence she had felt first thing in the morning had faded a bit on her way to school. Thank goodness the rush of students had not flooded the steps yet. Where was Charlotte? Rita questioned if Charlotte had said gym entrance or art entrance. Just as she retrieved her phone to check the message’s content, she heard, “Hey.”

With that, she turned around and saw her sweet friend. Her friend she had traded secrets with, laughed uncontrollably with, cried with, and even competed against. Was this going to be one of those competitions? What happened next was unexpected and expected at the same time. Charlotte was wearing her hood too. But why, it wasn’t cold at all. In fact it was a bit warm today. “At the count of three,” she said. “Wait, what?”  Just do it! 1, 2, 3.  As Rita reached up to pull back her hood she watched the mirror image of her friend Charlotte pulling hers. Purple! Purple hair!  She ran over to hug her and as she did she saw over her shoulder several other students sitting on the steps, all with their hoods up as well. Then one after the other each reached up and pulled back their hood. Orange, yellow, blue, blond…  

 

It was only a handful at first, but gradually the tradition of red hair faded, replaced by an emboldened youth, a youth that decided to make their individual shall we say rainbow of marks on the world, or at least on Roxbury. These days you can find the youth of Roxbury spending a little bit more time studying, playing or visiting together on Sunday nights.

 

Jeffersonville High School, 2019