A Story for Mark

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The clock on the wall seemed to be clicking backward two minutes for every minute it went forward. Katie just slouched at the kitchen table, unable to believe what she’d read.

She and Mark had dated years ago, the whole relationship blew up into one of those ugly break-ups that people have, and you hope it never happens to you. Sure enough, it had happened to Katie. Eventually, she and Mark grew to become friends again and kept in touch at the holidays.

Mark would confess his urges to cut Katie’s hair, she would laugh at him, and tell him it was never going to happen, not during his lifetime, anyway. Sure enough, it never did.

The letter from Mark’s mom told Katie what had happened: Mark had been run down by a drunk driver, and never regained consciousness. The funeral was Thursday, and Katie would fly back home to attend.

She sat silently at the table, remembering all the nights they’d laugh at one another, joke with each other and sometimes end up in bed. In the quiet moments afterward when Mark would try to persuade Katie to let him chop off her locks. “Come on, you’ll love it,” he’d plead.

“Not in your lifetime,” she’d say, and she’d hand him a brush. Mark would lovingly brush her auburn hair until it shined, braid it for her lovingly and ask, somewhat playfully, if he could take the braid home with him. “Not today, maybe at your funeral.”

The words almost haunted her. They seemed to echo as she pulled out her photo album and looked at the pictures of them, running up the streets of Quebec City on holiday, laughing and screaming. The effect of wine and stupidity had made them anything but camera shy. And anything but quiet. They’d mock the waiter, using horrible French, playing up the Ugly American angle until he was so flustered he began to swear. Them, Katie would respond using the clearest, most eloquent verbiage she could find. The waiter would walk away, chuckling and ended up joining the giddy morons for dessert.

Katie looked at the pictures, her hair was just past her shoulders then; it now hung to about an inch from her behind. In the ten years since they broke up, Katie had never let anyone touch her hair except for trims every six weeks. It was a healthy mountain of thick, full tresses.

She phoned the airlines to book a flight back to Portland, and went to the attic to dig up more photos. There was the hysterical shot of Mark and Katie on a zebra-striped donkey in Tijuana – the effects of the summer sun and $1 margaritas obvious. Katie’s hair, about mid-back, blew toward Mark’s face. The shot of Mark and Katie, both paired off with dates for a Christmas party, hung in Katie’s hand for a long while. She noticed how his eyes had been caught in the picture: looking over toward Katie and not at his date, or at the camera lens. She knew, all too well, that hers were trained on his date, shooting darts at the innocent girl.

Pictures of the pair in last year’s Halloween costumes, Mark with his head freshly shaven to play Darth Maul, Katie with her face white as a sheet to be Princess Amadala, brought a smile to her face. She had shaved Mark’s head the night before the party. “Feels great,” he said, “now it’s your turn.” And he held up the razor and the can of shaving cream. “Not in your lifetime, baby,” she responded with a grin.

For about a month after Halloween last year, he’d show up at Katie’s house, she’d shave his head and trim his incoming goatee and let him shampoo her in the shower. The two had come a long way since “Black Saturday” as they came to call their break-up. One Christmas, Mark had put together a booklet of every short-haired female celebrity he could find. Pictures of Charlize Theron, Janine Turner and Sinead O’Connor were all neatly bound into a book that Katie kept with her other memorabilia.

She took a job in January that took her to San Francisco, miles from Portland and Mark. They swapped phone calls and e-mails but slowly drifted apart. Katie was going to come home for Christmas, but got hung up at work and had to cancel. She called Mark to tell him she’d be in town for New Year’s Eve and they could celebrate 2001 in style.

The evenings of drinking had given way to more sober pursuits… huge meals and obscure foreign films. Mark said he’d look forward to it and keep his schedule open. “And what better way to start the New Year than with a kicky new ‘do?” he added at the end of the call. “Not in your lifetime, honey,” Katie said, figuring she’d see Mark in a few weeks and everything would be like always. Sadly, it was not meant to be.

Mark’s mother’s letter sat on the table downstairs, Katie put down the pictures and went to her bedroom to try to sleep. “Not in your lifetime…” echoed over and over again.

After two hours of tossing, Katie got up to shower and try to clear her head. The shampoo felt good as she dug her nails into her scalp as she scrubbed and sang.

Outside the shower, Katie combed her hair and looked into the mirror. She began braiding her still slightly wet hair, and saw his face behind her reflection in the mirror.

Katie began to sob, missing him horribly. She looked into the mirror, his face was gone now, just hers remained. Eyes puffy and red, she looked into the mirror. “Not in his lifetime? What about mine?” she asked herself. She opened up the medicine cabinet and hunted around for the scissors he bought her “just in case.”

She reached up behind her head, feeling the braid to the end closest to her head. She plunged the scissors in and said, “Take this home with you,” and cut it off with several chomps of the unused scissors. It was without ceremony, and Katie didn’t seem to care that she was getting rid of a decade’s worth of effort to keep her hair perfect. Her fingers weren’t strong enough to get through the mound of hair in one chomp.

Katie looked at herself, scissors in one hand, braid in the other. Her hair clung around her cheeks in an uneven way. All jagged and choppy, she knew she’d have to get it cleaned up before the funeral.

She looked through Mark’s Christmas gift book, all the pixie cuts and chin-length bobs starring back at her… Katie closed her eyes and flipped to a random page. “This one.” She opened her eyes to see a face staring back with hair cut half-way over the ears and buzzed, very short in back. She took the book with her and tossed the braid into her luggage to place in Mark’s casket. She walked out of the house and up the street with the photo in tow to the nearest salon. She wanted to look perfect for him. She knew he’d be looking down, smiling.

(For “Markus Surrealist” 12/10/62 – 12/01/00. You will be missed)

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