The Doll House

Can a Glendale beauty school be a path to salvation? Recovering addict Bebe hopes so in this excerpt from Jillian Lauren’s new novel, Pretty
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After lunch, I clock in three minutes early and go to the back of the room, taking my regular station next to Violet. The room in which we spend our afternoons looks like a combination of a classroom and a beauty salon. It’s called “the floor.” Stations line up back-to-back in crowded rows and are lit blue-green with fluorescents glaring from the particleboard dropped ceilings. Everything here has a film of grime ground into it that dates from Paleolithic times. If Hercules went at it with a river of Clorox, this place would still look dirty. All along the walls are posters from the ’80s that are bad Nagel rip-offs meant to demonstrate an array of hip hairstyles. All the white girls in the paintings look like Sheena Easton, and the white guys look like David Hasselhoff. The black people have their own separate poster, and they look like the cast of The Cosby Show.

The Armenian girls spend their days highlighting each other’s hair until it breaks off in clumps. We’ve perfected the art of looking busy while we do as little as possible. We use the same doll heads styled with the same finger waves to get points every day. In all fairness, finger waves are seriously hard. Women have it rough, man. We do. I can’t believe women used to do that to their hair every day.

Anyway, most of us, excluding Javi, are usually either trying to scam the teachers for our points or hiding in the bathroom or cutting the hair on our doll heads progressively shorter and shorter in random terrible haircuts until they look like butch dykes. At which point we paint tattoos on their necks, and Violet makes facial jewelry for them out of paper clips. Violet and I duck beneath our stations when real clients show up, but Javi bounces up with enthusiasm every time someone walks in the door. We don’t get all that many clients anyway. Mostly we just gossip, roll the occasional wet set, and stare at ourselves in the station mirrors that hang mercilessly in front of us all afternoon.

We’ve each named our favorite doll heads, the ones whose hair we don’t cut but rather leave long to style into wet sets and finger waves and blow-dries and beehives. Javier’s is a blond named Lorelei Lee, mine is a redhead named Kitty Hawk, and Violet’s is a brunet named Bella Donna. I’m not sure why I named mine Kitty Hawk, except that maybe something about her pert, shiny face reminded me of pictures I saw once of Grandma Betty when she was young. Grandma Betty, my mom’s mom, was born in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and she maintained that there was an unusually high population of angels there. She told me that was why it was the place where the Wright brothers first took flight. She said they didn’t just fly, they were lifted. My mom used to roll her eyes and say I got my religious streak from her.

When I get back from lunch, Javier is already at work directly across the aisle from Violet. He is in a particularly jovial mood because last night Paul dyed his Mohawk sky blue, and new hair always makes him as giddy as a schoolgirl. Also, he’s breathlessly excited about the extravaganza he has planned for his daughter Milla’s birthday party tomorrow. Paul calls every three-and-a-half minutes with cupcake disasters and complaints about Javi’s bitchy sister and, I imagine, worries about whether Violet is going to pull off her all-important role in the festivities.

Violet has been cast as Snow White because of her vampire-pale skin and jet-black hair, but mostly due to the fact that she has an incredible costume. She inherited it from her mother, who was Snow White at Disneyland for a record 15 years—the longest-lasting Snow White in Disney history. Vi pretty much grew up at the happiest place on earth, and you can see how far all that happiness got her. But she treasures that costume, and it wasn’t all that hard for Javi to talk her into carrying the torch for the day. I suspect she’s regretting it now. I’m glad I turned down the role of Ariel with the excuse that I have a mandatory meeting with my social worker.

Javi drills Vi on the lyrics of “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and criticizes her performance until she’s almost in tears.

“Do it again. You’re singing like an emotionally retarded turnip.”

“Javi, stop terrorizing her,” I interject.

“Oh, you’re right,” he concedes. “I’m a psycho. I’m sorry. You’re gonna be great, pumpkin. Even if the best you can do is stand there and look like you don’t want to hang yourself, you’ll still be better than last year’s princess. Ugly as a bucket of homemade sand.”

Every day Javier tapes pictures of Paul and Milla all around the mirror of his station. The teachers make him take everything down at the end of the day, but each morning he decorates anew. A single daisy stolen from the farmers’ market sits in a Starbucks cup next to his color-coded wet set rollers. Javi knows what starting over is all about. Most of us do, here at Moda, one way or another. In Javi’s case, he was married with a newborn and working a desk job at American Airlines when he wandered into Pottery Barn one day and saw Paul restocking the Fiestaware. It’s hard to imagine—Javi in polyester uniform pants and a matching tie. Javi coming home to a pregnant wife and a town house in Simi Valley. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Javi goes back to work putting the final touches on his black doll head. To set off her press-and-curl, the doll wears a leopard-print scarf on her head. For her face, Javier glues on fake lashes, then applies dramatic liquid eyeliner. He’s been working on her with fierce concentration for hours. He steps back as if he’s done, then sees an invisible flaw and fusses again for a few minutes. Finally he presents her to us with a flourish.

“Do you love her? She’s Diana Ross circa the Supremes era. Can you tell?”

“She’s fabulous, honey,” I say, because she is.

A few of the other students gather around to ooh and aah over his work. He has the kind of talent that comes from love.

“I have a vision. She’s the star of my new musical,” says Javier, indicating the disembodied head stuck to the top of his station. The heads have a hole in the bottom of them. You set them on a short steel pole with a little vise on the bottom to secure it to the end of the table. The stand looks like a silver butt plug and is the subject of many jokes.

“What musical is that?” Violet asks.

“The musical I’m presently composing about our rich experience here at Moda Beauty Academy. It’s called Beauty School Massacre. All the doll heads come to life and mutiny. They murder the owner of the school. It starts out with a scene where one of the students graduates. The doll heads sing for him…”

As Javi begins his song he mock-cries, dabbing at his eyes with a pantomime hankie. He acts out the scene of his musical, doing the pomp-and-circumstance slow step down the aisle between the stations:

One of the students is now moving on
To a Beverly Hills salon
When he leaves we will surely cry
That queen could style a great beehive 

Violet laughs so hard at Javi’s song that she has to wipe her tears with the corner of her smock. I think the musical is actually kind of a good idea.

As if on cue, a cloud rolls over our little party. The owner of the school, recently cast as the mutiny victim in Javier’s new musical, waddles down the stairs directly behind us. She no doubt heard the laughter and aims to quell any merriment that might soften our daily misery.

Mrs. Montano looks disturbingly like pictures I’ve seen of John Wayne Gacy when he dressed up like a clown. She appears to be wearing a giant beach ball costume, with only her dwarfed hands and feet sticking out. Her hair is a lacquered auburn helmet, the exact shade preferred by beauty school teachers the world over. Her makeup looks like a mean puppet face, with white foundation, an angry gash of red lips, rainbow-colored arches of frosted eye shadow highlighting the crepey skin of her eyelids, and two perfect circles of blush that sit unblended on her cheeks.

“Hello, students,” she says—real evil—as she passes us and walks to the reception desk.

Mrs. Montano looks at the books and gets on the intercom.

“There is a perm client here. Javier, please come to the front.”

Let me explain that this is meant as a punishment. Perms reek enough to make you gag, they take forever, and they’re so toxic they peel the skin off your hands if for some reason there are no gloves, which sometimes happens in this chintzy pit.

“You have no power here. Be gone. Before someone drops their house on you, too,” Javi says under his breath before sauntering, unshaken, to the front of the room. He doesn’t hide from the clients and cheat on his credits like the rest of us. A devoted clientele of local biddies always asks for him. Javier offers his arm and chivalrously escorts the perm client, a deflated old Chinese lady, to his station. One of her gray knee-high stockings has crept down around her ankle. A thing like a fallen stocking can make me so sad some days.

“How do you stay so cheery? And without meds even,” I ask him, ignoring the client, who just sat down in his chair.

“Honey, I could have it a lot worse, OK? I could be in Guatemala farming sugarcane with my ten brothers and sisters.”

“You grew up in the O.C., so spare me.”

The old lady sits in Javier’s chair looking dazed. He spritzes her thinning hair with water before sectioning it off in neat little rectangles with his rattail comb and then rolling each section onto a thin hourglass-shaped perm rod. He works quickly and with a little wrist flourish after he secures each rod. A fat drop of water runs down the client’s nose, and she makes no attempt to wipe it off. Javier sees it and blots it gently with a towel.

Javier pauses and turns toward where I’m slouched in the chair next to him, pulling at a loose thread on the hem of my smock.

“Sit up straight,” he says. “You’re such a pretty girl, and you go around slouching like you’re wearing a 50-pound hat on your head. And even if you are, honey, sit up straight anyway.”

Mrs. Montano strolls the room like a chain gang foreman while I roll Kitty Hawk’s hair in wet set number 185 of the 200 that are required. Closing in on the finish line, I tell myself. Eyes on the prize, sweetheart.

I look in the dingy mirror, sticky with a film of hair spray. My cheap black pants snag on the nail protruding from my station. My hair is greasy. Painful purple zits blossom along my chin. Remnants of last night’s eyeliner hang on beneath my lower lashes. Huge caffeine- and exhaustion-dilated pupils nearly eclipse my dark brown irises, and the effect is blankness.

When Javier finishes with his client, he styles her tight perm into a fluffy confection. Then he takes the daisy out of the Starbucks cup vase on his station and pins it above her ear. She looks like an ancient version of a WWII dance hall girl. It’s transformative. Her head perks up and her eyes look almost alive, and suddenly her stockings don’t seem so sad.

After she leaves, Javier calls me over to his chair and throws some quick curls into my hair with the iron, then rolls each curl around his finger and pins it.

As he rolls and pins, rolls and pins, we talk with Vi across the aisle.

“What I don’t get is, where in the story are you?” I ask. “Are you Snow White, like, already married and living happily ever after? Or are you at some other point where you still have that catastrophic apple thing ahead of you?”

“You don’t get it,” says Javi. “Snow White is a magic princess. She exists pre- and post-apple at the same time. Pre- and post-happy ending at the same time. And Milla gets to insert herself into the script any damn place she chooses or take them all to brunch with Goldilocks and the Three Bears at their summer place in Mendocino County. People get all ‘Blah blah it sends the wrong message that all the princesses get saved by men.’ Like these stories are going to ruin the rest of my daughter’s whole life. It’s bullshit. Milla knows that she can write another ending for the princess anytime she wants.”

I don’t feel like arguing, but I don’t agree with Javi. I think it can ruin you to think that some man is going to kiss you awake and that you’ll open your eyes to a new world. Prince Charming or Jesus or whatever.

But at the end of the afternoon, Javier takes the pins out and runs his fingers through the waves, and I am transformed into a poor man’s fairy princess. It’s that easy. And I remember why I’m serving out the remaining 64 hours of my sentence at Moda.

“Just sleep on a satin pillowcase, and those curls will still be luscious tomorrow,” he says.

I clock out with confidence. Stop believing in one thing, and you make room for believing in something else. Hopefully something that works a little better.

A hairdo can change the course of your whole day. Maybe your whole life, I tell myself, if you let it.

Excerpted from Pretty: A Novel by Jillian Lauren. Published by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA). Copyright Jillian Lauren, 2011.

Illustration by Carmen Segovia

ALSO: Read our Q&A with Jillian Lauren