Elegy for Upper Westside Visits, or, Sheer Blonde Shampoo

by Alexandra Reinecke

My aunt used to have an apartment on the Upper Westside, a twelve-hundred square foot outfit with a kids’ room of two infant beds and one crib and an air conditioner that hummed bored and persistent into the night, and a marble bathroom the size of a coffin turned and wedged between a bedroom with a low mahogany bed and a dresser with rows of her husband’s cufflinks and the city smells and sounds of New York in August.

There was a market on the first floor of her apartment building where they sold fish with intact eyes the color of lavender and skin the color of sterling, where potato salad and spaghetti and meatballs and veal parmesan and other such like pre-made meals were packaged in little plastic containers with prices which anywhere else would have been deemed outrageous but in a corner market in New York were deemed an adequate ask for what convenience they gave to those—which is to say most of said metropolis—without more than a wingspan of space to call a kitchen.

Whenever my sister and I slept over there, we slept respectively on a twin sized Colman air-mattress with little aspiration for fulfilling its purpose and a Bass furniture leather couch with bronze-studded arms intended to invoke a better made Restoration Hardware model. We ate food from the market and administered carrot and celery sticks to our younger cousins in plastic cups and watched wondrously as the lights of the apartment building opposite, an office building bearing windows affixed with sticky notes and taped-up papers, flicked on and off through the night as late working admins or copywriters stayed on to meet deadlines in dark or returned, with shoulder-swung trench coats or Brooks Brothers sweaters, to escape arguments or themselves into the hours which anywhere other than New York merit the use of the word “still.”

We woke with the kind of apologetic, half-hearted neck cramps which result of such haphazard sleeping arrangements, and which appear almost friendly in their impotency, almost polite in their administration of pain, as though they too understood such arrangements as haphazard, such contortions of muscle no fault your own, as though in their pangs and smartings they were as sorry as you were in experiencing them, as two friends are in argument or contentious conversation in which one administers and one accepts criticism or comment but each regretfully.

We woke with such pains on the Turkish carpet the color of cranberries and midnight and deep English blood sausage, and in the evenings listened to the hum of the air conditioner which shook in its administration of cool air like a dog throwing the sun off its back in sleep. We watched the lights flick on and off across the street, marmalade and lemonade colored light in cubicles like we too believed then we someday would work.

Awake in the night we heard street sounds float up from the veins of the West Side feeling before we knew the words for them the weight of lives that went beyond those supported there then—of Native American who nodded American beech fibers into canoes, of the African American regiment of the Spanish American Civil War returned home, of German Jews escaped. Now of rail-thin fawn-eyed girls in black matchstick jeans and of Taiwaneese immigrants whose $10 manicure promises littered storefronts in bubblegum font, and Nike-wearing NYU students new to town who’d taken the wrong subway exit.

Now of financiers, mid-twenties, dark and haughty in their exceptionally long khaki-clad legs and Harvard degrees who were yet to have met the world, or been introduced it by way of earthly confrontation, of prep school kids ditching their designated cafeteria for Cafeteria the Restaurant’s $25 truffle-crusted mac and cheese, of mothers, who, like my aunt, wore jewelry from Cartier’s braided line and toilet paper thin turtlenecks from J-Crew and paid what majority of resource could be tapped from shared bank accounts and liberal arts acquaintances to get their children past the vicious admission requirements at any dozen of the acceptable elementary schools within a twenty-block periphery of their marble-bedded dwellings.

My aunt used to use this certain shampoo in that upright coffin of a bathroom, and that, more than any of the other smells—cold fish in the market, Dunkin Donuts coffee in Rutgers Crew mugs, the dense brown of takeout hot and sour—or sights—Pottery Barn bedding, rows of star stickers in the yellow children are yet too young to differentiate from gold on Isabella’s “I-Slept-Through-the-Night” chart, shoes in a metal tray by the door—or sounds—Brian Williams’ Nightly News, adult deliberations over dinner, my grandmother’s conciliatory voice in telling Jack he’s lost Go-Fish—stands out to me, erect in its pale gold colored bottle, as it did then in those childhood showers, asking my consideration.

And I’m thinking now as I remember it, that cramped, white-marble studded space, with the window open to the sounds of New York in August, as I remember the fog clouding the rectangular prism in which I stood among the smells of eucalyptus and Dove soap like an innocuous version of the First World War fumes of which I was reading at the time in Hemingway, how strange it had seemed to me for my aunt to have on that white porcelain shelf a bottle of John Freida Sheer Blonde shampoo.

How strange it had seemed that straw color of her part behind the headbands she used to wear was born not of a genome but of a bottle, that despite the dark hair my family wore like a Gaelic plaid in place of the plaid we had misplaced or never known—my grandfather captured as the elementary school pundit, chin propped up on hand in a modern version of Byron, my mother in mink-colored pigtails and a childish bikini, baby blue—she had opted a less familial camaraderie-bedded route.

And I’m thinking now as I remember it of my own interactions, post acquaintance with the Sheer Blonde shampoo, with the color blonde. How in a brief stint of middle school self-obsession I used to have aesthetically-stylized photo shoots with friends on the hill which backs my house—photo shoots from which issues pictures with which I was always less than pleased, for there was always, unlike the case of my honey-haired company, a certain unbecoming contrast between my dark hair and the images’ background of drought-lightened grain.

How when I ask my sweatshirt and Nike shorts-clad friend, who at eighteen wears slate colored eyes and oatmeal coloring with less excitement than one would expect from the beneficiary of so sound a combination, she explains the side-effect of blondeness as one considering who you are, what you do, the authenticity or inauthenticity of your blondeness aside, as somehow “less real” (this she says with a lethargic pair of air quotes).

How despite the fact that my dark-haired friend and I—twins as we stare out of the snow-storm of my queen bed at the floor-to-ceiling mirror opposite—have found a certain truth in the bon mot ‘men prefer blondes’ we’ve found happy appeasement in the fact that ‘brunettes do it better’ at least, in our experience, if ‘it’ is the act of acute and point-determined academic achievement.

How I hate Serena van der Woodsen on Gossip Girl, whose razor thin nose and considerable chest merit the simple epitaph ‘the SVDW,’ which is probably more due my resentment of her fictitious ease in obtaining a Yale acceptance packet, a scholarly boyfriend, the like, than it is due any difference in our respective designations of hue. How despite my newfound contentment with that brunettes are considered soberer than their fair-headed peers, I am still, probably out of both my own bias and childhood spite, predisposed to preferring Belle to Cinderella, Katharine Hepburn to Grace Kelly.

So, my aunt used to have an apartment on the Upper Westside where she shampooed her hair blonder. So, of that place I remember lavender-eyed market fish and the presence, as concrete to me as the cool air issued the AC’s persistent hum, of New Yorkers, dead and live. So, of that place I remember sticker charts and an imitation Restoration Hardware couch, and the apologetic muscle knots which, in Gaelic patterns of flesh, indicated no more or less than the dark hair which hung over them a certain Irish sympathy which in my aunt, then a broker at Chase, had rejected, quickly and early, as she had her darker strands of keratin.

I’m glad to report that my cousins, now somewhat physically, if not emotionally or intellectually grown, wear a darkness of brow which survived them my tawniness through the long-Americanized but originally Spanish bloodline supplied their father. I’m glad to report that she lives in a Colonial, in New Jersey, painted a sober gray in which she, having abandoned that naïve plan to raise her children urbanites in quarters the size of closets, has allotted a respective room for each child and in which she also, despite a similarity in bathroom tiling—marble, white—has discarded all bottles of John Frieda Sheer Blonde, in an effort to let what small rebellion of dark roots she can bear to let grow in grow in.

-- Alexandra Reinecke is a Siblíní Blog Correspondent.