I love Ali MacGraw. I love her hair in the movie Love Story.
She accosts us―my friends and me―as we emerge from the theater that screens English movies. I’m in a celluloid trance as she grips my arm with her work-worn fingers and drags me home, where she stands me in front of the ironing board.
She stomps over to the balcony and retrieves the clothes drying on the line: two saris, two blouses, two petticoats, one housecoat, one nightgown, three sets of undergarments, two pairs of socks, one bedsheet, and three towels. After dumping the pile on the bed, she instructs me to iron them all.
Everything gets ironed in our Chennai household. Even handkerchiefs.
“These foreign movies, with kissing-vissing and all, will teach you God-knows-what. And this, on the first day of your summer holidays? From tomorrow, you’re going to science and math tutoring. Let’s get you ready for class 11.”
She retrieves some rupees from the cupboard, tucks them inside her sari blouse. Picking up her red-and-white woven-plastic tote bag, she announces she’s leaving for the bazaar and slams the door behind her.
I swallow to ease the knots in my throat, turn the knob on the iron to the highest setting; I press the hot iron on the washed towels, fold and refold them into haphazard squares; I iron the expanse of the bedsheet, crinkly-crackly from drying in the sun.
Ma cannot understand love between a man and a woman, or perhaps she doesn’t believe in it. Ma’s marriage was arranged. Besides, my father died so long ago, she’s probably forgotten what it’s like to be married. I only know my father from old photographs.
When I witness the beauty of relationships on film, my heart expands and knocks against my rib cage as if it wants to burst out and dance, takita-takita.
Love Story’s theme song resounds in my head as I spread Ma’s sari on the ironing board. I crave Ali MacGraw hair―parted in the middle, hanging gorgeously straight. My tresses are the opposite: too wavy, too frizzy, too wild unless confined in braids.
I undo my plaits, part my hair in the middle. Separating my hair into three segments, I tie up two bunches with hair ties and lay the third over the just-folded towel. I run the clothes iron over the length of my hair and repeat the painstaking process section by section.
As I iron Ma’s sari, my straightened, silky-soft hair swishes on my shoulders. I release the iron, stand in front of the mirror and toss my hair, left-right-left.
A sharp odor tickles my nose. “No! No! No!” The machine’s left a triangular burn mark on Ma’s cotton sari.
Ma will say, “See, this is what happens when you fill your head with rub-bish.”
I frantically unfurl the sari, then refold the six-yard length, tucking the heat-singed shape into the innermost layers, finish as I hear the front door open.
She sniffs, “What’s that smell?” She sniffs again, then screams, “What have you done? You’ve ruined your beautiful locks. Oh my God, you’ll go bald!” She pauses, declares her final nightmare, “Who will marry you, then? How will I ever find you a young man?”
She drops the grocery bag, leaps into action, and heats coconut oil with four grains of rice. She rubs and rubs the warm oil into my scalp and hair. While the hair soaks, she switches on the water heater. She seats me on a stool, mixes shikakai powder with water, works the paste through the density of my hair, and finally, finally, rinses off the mixture.
After, she steers me to a chair on the balcony, where I must stay until my hair dries.
She arranges my hip-length, wavy hair to hang, curtain-like, over the chair-back.
I sit on the balcony until the sun goes down. I sit and run the scenes from Love Story through my mind. I sit and think about Ali MacGraw’s hair cascading over her shoulders. I sit and tight-braid my hair, finish by securing the length with a tie.
Sudha Balagopal is honored to have her writing in many fine journals including CRAFT, Split Lip, and Smokelong Quarterly. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can't Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc fiction in 2021. She has stories included in both Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions, 2022. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com Twitter: @authorsudha