October 17, 2016

The L-Word

Every parent gets the email, amidst field trip announcements and gentle reminders about snack policies.

Subject: Head lice was reported in your child’s classroom. It’s an ordinary thing, an email you can delete. It’s always someone else’s kid.

Until it isn’t.

Ours arrived on a Thursday. I was at the dinner table, wearing my soft pants that say “I give up” as I sputtered across the finish line toward the weekend. My evening plans were to eat tacos, play Candy Crush, and be in bed by 9.

The girl was scratching her head. The boy was scratching his head. Come to think of it, my head itched, too.

5 minutes later, I was throwing a coat over my pajamas and driving toward the kids’ salon before it closed. I burst through the door like a mad woman, blurting out my confession: "Lice! Help!"

“I have lice” is one of those phrases that instantly changes a conversation. Some people try to act cool, smiling with polite sympathy as they slowly, nonchalantly back away. Others make no attempt to hide their disgust. Some people attempt to relate by offering childhood stories that end with shaved heads or globs of peanut butter in somebody’s hair. One helpful person told us about a service called the Lice Lady, who makes house calls.

I pictured a Mary Poppins-type character swooping into my living room, detoxifying my furniture with a snap of her fingers and a spritz of magic spray, and leaving all of us with clean, shiny, fresh-scented hair.

I eagerly called and reached a voice mailbox that sounded neither magical nor particularly promising. Her website showed available appointments, a week and a half out. 10 days with lice? I left a desperate voice mail that was not returned. I imagine that all of the Lice Lady’s voice mails sound desperate.

The treatment kit I bought at the kids’ salon was gentle, earth-friendly, with a minty aroma. It came with a lot of instructions. First, you wash and dry your hair. Then you put the first stuff on. Then you wait 15 minutes. Then you rinse it out. Then you comb through your hair without conditioner or detangler (that sound you hear is me and my fine-haired, tender-headed daughter still whimpering a week later, remembering how much it hurt to rip through our tangles). Then you put the other stuff in. Then you wait 5 minutes. Then you put more stuff in. Then you wait 5 more minutes. Then you ask somebody who loves you very much to comb through every single piece of your hair, which by now feels like damp straw, using a teeny tiny metal comb, and removing every louse and nit that they find. Meanwhile, other family members are boiling hair brushes and rounding up stuffed animals for a cruel exile.

It took hours. I drew the metal comb through the girl’s spun-gold hair, wiped the comb on a paper towel, and watched a tiny brown bug crawl across the white paper. I tried to smush it; it resisted smushing. This was entirely too real.

I am not a neat freak or a germ phobe. My housekeeping motto is, “I’m so grateful for my cleaning lady.” But after meeting the unsquishable bugs crawling on my daughter’s head, I wanted to scrub the entire house or set it on fire, whichever was more likely to kill the lice.

A few weeks earlier, I’d had two boxes of high-quality 12-inch hair extensions carefully taped into my fine, thin hair. It was my first time wearing extensions, and I can’t overstate the confidence boost of long, thick, shiny hair.

I was so happy and bug-free.

I texted my hair stylist, even though I knew what her answer would be. The extensions had to come out. Even worse, my chichi salon had a “no lice” policy and I would have to remove them myself.

I went to the drugstore and bought the most toxic treatment I could find. It contained three bottles, and even more instructions than the other kit. If I was giving up my lustrous mane, this was war.

Vodka didn't make the instructions any easier to follow.

I mixed a vodka drink and spent Friday night pulling out my extensions and the unfortunate bits of hair trapped in the adhesive. With a stinky stew of pesticide on my head, and my beautiful extensions spread out over the bathroom counter, I realized this was the nadir. 

I call this "A farewell to beauty."

My best case scenario was that there were dead bugs on my head.

I texted my neighbor to see if she wanted to drink with me.

She declined.

A week and a half later, we are lice-free.

I am trying to look on the bright side. I got new hair brushes, the bedding is all clean, and even the slip covers on my couches are now fresh as daisies. 

I learned that I don't need fancy extensions to feel confident about my hair; I just need to not have bugs on my head.

I can laugh about it. I can offer up stories the next time a friend tells me that the L-word has invaded her home. I can tell her which stuff to buy, and I can offer both empathy and sympathy.

And throughout the conversation, I'll be very slowly, almost imperceptibly, backing away.

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