I come home to find a message on my answering machine from the nurse at my daughter’s school. “We had a case of head lice in the 5th grade, so we did a school-wide check.” Pause. “Meredith has some nits.”
I immediately think of The Thorn Birds, which I read when I was a kid. I know it was meant to be a sweeping epic love story, but the scene that made the greatest impression on me was the one in which the main character, as a little girl, catches lice from a classmate. She has bugs crawling all over her hair. Her mother chops it all off and douses her head with kerosene and lye soap while calling her names like “dirty little grub,” leaving the girl with oozing red bald patches all over her head. All the family members have to wash their hair with kerosene and lye soap, and the mother boils all the bedding and sprays everything with kerosene. The girl’s father and brothers run the family of the classmate out of town, and her father tells her she may not associate with any children other than her brothers ever again. But--The Thorn Birds takes place in rural New Zealand in 1917. This is Manhattan, early 21st century. How did lice get here? And where does one get kerosene?
I then make the mistake of looking up lice online. Never do this. It serves no purpose to look at enlarged photographs of lice. Looking at the close-up of a person with eyelash lice, in particular, serves no purpose. It does not provide useful information, and it makes you want to throw up.
While I am riding the bus to school to fetch Meredith I manage to calm down, which is good, because the thing I keep thinking is that I’m mad at my daughter for getting lice. How could you be so careless? Didn’t I tell you to wear your hair in a ponytail after we got the notice about head lice in the school? I listen to myself and decide I sound like the mother in The Thorn Birds, so I stop calling my daughter names in my head and remind myself that this is not actually, or not entirely, her fault.
By the time I get to school I am in the proper frame of mind, which is, concerned more for her than for myself. Even though I’m the one who will have to boil all the bedding. I’m afraid she will be upset, as I know I would be if someone found larvae stuck to my hair. But when she sees me come into the nurse’s office she runs up to me and says, do you want to see my nit? And holds up an orange card with a piece of her hair taped to it. There on the hair, under the tape, is a single, tiny dark speck of something. Printed on the card is the toll-free number for “Licenders,” a company that exists solely to treat cases of head lice.
I take the card from her between thumb and forefinger and I call the number on my cell phone. The woman who answers tells me we can come right down. She starts to say something about how much it costs and I can’t believe she would even think that I care. I collect Meredith’s things and we race out to the street to hail a cab.
Licenders is at 32nd and 5th Avenue, on the 5th floor. In the cab, I wonder whether Licenders, or its equivalent, exists in other places in the world. I wonder if it is only in New York that is it possible to both 1) get lice AND 2) not know how to deal with them. I wonder if it is only in New York that people want to hire professionals for everything.
We arrive. We take the elevator to 5 and follow the signs for “Head Lites” -- Licenders’ prior appellation. The “salon” is quite small, one receptionist and three stations each consisting of a high chair and a bright white halo-like light with a magnifying glass in the middle. On the wall is affixed a plastic box with copies of a pamphlet entitled “Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Lice.” There are three folding chairs along one wall, in which sit three Lice Ladies eating take-out. The place smells like food, which seems like an odd and wrong thing for a place like that to smell like. The receptionist asks for information, address and credit card, where I have traveled lately. As I fill out the form I think about the fact that the Lice Ladies are eating their lunches in the same room where they comb microscopic bugs out of people’s hair. Then I decide that an excellent working definition of a “professional” is a person who is capable of eating on the job.
They tell me to sit on one of the stools so they can check me. Until that moment it has not fully dawned on me that I could have lice, too. I sit on a stool and one of the ladies puts her lunch aside. She shines the light on my head and lifts sections of my hair with a long pick. She looks me over thoroughly. Fortunately for everyone, I don’t have lice, although my head now feels very itchy.
Meredith is asked to take my place, and the Lice Lady pins all of her hair on top of her head. Meredith has a lot of hair, thick and auburn, and it takes some time to pin it up. Then the lady unpins a few strands. She combs a mixture of Licenders Conditioner and baking soda through the section, with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. I think about the interesting impact head lice have had on the English language. Fine-toothed comb. Lousy. Nit-pick. Then the lady wipes both sides of the fine-toothed comb on a white paper towel and peers at the towel. Then she takes down another few strands. She says this will take about two hours.»
The doorbell rings and I answer it because I am sitting in the folding chair closest to the door. Outside are one of Meredith’s classmates and his father, J. I don’t know them well, but I am very glad to see them, because the saying misery loves company, like most sayings, is true.
J. is a former soap opera star. I have never watched soap operas, but everyone in school knows about him and his wife, who is a current soap opera star. My sister-in-law, a soap opera devotee, once showed me a video from 1994 called “Daytime’s Most Wanted Men of Passion” that features J’s face on the cover. In that photograph, J.’s hair is thick and dark. He has blue eyes that could charge your cell phone, and a wry smile. He and his wife are both very nice, friendly people. Very down to earth. Yet there is something about them. Once they both came to a pot-luck school-related function wearing white. Everyone else was wearing black, or else gray. Her sweater, in addition to being white, was fluffy angora, and little feathery bits of angora floated around her in a cloud and settled gently on the lapels and shoulders of everyone she spoke to.
The Lice Ladies are kind of excited to see J. The one who gets to check him for lice giggles a little while she brushes his hair to one side. J. doesn’t have lice, either. J. fills out his information form.
“Oh, you were in California recently?” the receptionist asks him, reading the sheet.
“You must have brought the lice from California!” the Lice Ladies tease.
“We don’t have lice in California,” he says. “We have ringworm in California.”
“Ha ha!” the Lice Ladies laugh.
“Do you know [name of soap opera character]?” one of them asks.
“Well, you know, that isn’t actually a person,” J. says. “But I have met the actress who plays her. She’s very nice.”
“What soap are you on now?”
“You can’t be retired! You’re too young to be retired!”
J. shrugs. I feel bad that the Lice Ladies are interrogating him.
“Good thing I’m retired,” he says. “If I were working, I wouldn’t get to bring my son to Licenders.”
Meantime, they are working away at Meredith, and pinning up J’s son’s hair.
“You’ll need clean t-shirts for the kids,” says the receptionist. “If you didn’t bring your own, you can go buy one somewhere around here.”
“Ok,” I say. J. and I get up off our folding chairs.
We walk a few blocks and see a souvenir and t-shirt shop. The sign outside the shop says “3 shirts for $10,” so we buy 3 shirts, one for each child and one for their teacher, who also has lice and is scheduled to arrive at Licenders any minute. We walk back to Licenders, passing by the Empire State Building. We briefly discuss the Empire State Building, and how we have not taken our children there, despite the fact that we live in New York City.
When we get back to Licenders, the teacher is there, and another classmate with her mother and nanny.
“I need this like a hole in the head,” says the mother. She and the nanny take turns having their heads checked.
The time passes. We all chat. J. is telling us about his first job.
“I had to learn to ride a horse,” he says. “I didn’t know how to ride a horse, but I had to learn. And I also had to learn gun tricks. In the show, I was playing a guy who goes around impressing people with his gun tricks.”
We all laugh.
“Gun tricks!” J. says, and dazzles us all with his smile. After a while, Meredith’s treatment is complete. Her hair is oiled, and neatly done in two braids. I learn that the oil prevents the lice from hanging on. They just slide right off. The receptionist gives me a small bag containing a vial of Licenders shampoo, Licenders oil, a metal Licenders comb, and instructions for Meredith’s hair care and also suggestions for cleaning the house. It isn’t so bad. I have to put things in the dryer.
We say goodbye to the others. Out on the street, I take Meredith’s hand. She is wearing her brand-new “I ♥ NY” t-shirt, and she smells, not unpleasantly, of citronella. We walk past the Empire State Building, past the dumpling restaurants of Koreatown.
“We’ll have to go to the top of the Empire State one day,” I say. “And we’ll have to eat at one of these restaurants.” I feel cheerful, and, amazingly, hungry. You know, if you’re going to get head lice, this is the place.
Carol Paik's essays have appeared in Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, Brain Child, Literary Mama, Newsweek, and elsewhere.