At the hotel room in Rhinebeck, I set Axel on a chair by the foot of the bed. I lay towels down, on his shoulders and at his feet. We turned on the TV and scanned the channels. Hairspray had just begun. He watched. I drew back the curtain of his hair to check his neck. There I saw what I feared I would see -- patterns of red blotches. The footprints of lice.
When I peeked more deeply, into the universe of his hair, I felt what I imagined Galileo might have felt -- after he invented the telescope and used it to peer into the night sky: awe at the multitudes. The first day at the school office, there had been one nit per strand, like one dancer on a pole. Now, strands were studded with nits. And more. Axel's head was a veritable city of lice, a lice capitol. The lice there were so unrestricted, so free -- they expressed every phase of their life cycle: to be born and mature, thrive, reproduce, and live out their life's term. Everything that could happen to a louse was happening to those fortunate enough to inhabit the strands of Axel's very long hair. There were eggs, nymphs of every stage, young adults, mature and active adults, as well as the carcasses of the dead.
I wanted to cry -- crying would have been the right response -- only there was no time to cry. My dismay was greater than any relief I would derive from crying. My tears would have told Axel how bad it was. His infestation made me feel horrible; it would only make him feel worse.
Instead, I started to cut. Sometimes it seemed I would get ten per snip, and sometimes a hundred. Still, they were numberless. I have hardly ever felt so humbled in my whole life. I went silent and worked for the duration of Hairspray, hardly glancing up at the screen. Dimly, I recalled that the big mama in the movie was played by John Travolta -- yet not even this feat, this curiosity, distracted me from my task.
After, I gathered the towels strewn with piles of his hair. I took them outside and shook them. It was dark, moonless. The stars shined. Yet the beauty of the night sky did little to dispel my despair over my son's hair.
Axel and I shared a king-sized bed. I made special pains to huddle close to the edge of my side. I did not want him near me. I did not tell him that his head was a locus for lice.
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