Pillow Shams

I had a recurring nightmare when I was a girl. It usually happened just before I came down with stomach flu, or just after I did poorly on a test at Hebrew school. In the dream, I was walking home from school in the wind, my long brown hair whipping around my face, strands sticking to my chapped lips.

When I turned the corner onto my street, I could tell something was wrong. It took me a moment or two to realize my house was gone. All that was left at 475 Lincoln St. was a large square of grass.

A clothesline stood in the center of the lawn. We'd never owned a clothesline before -- next to our Tiffany Shabbas candlesticks, our industrial-size Kenmore washer and dryer were my mother's pride and joy -- but there it was, metal wires humming. Pillow shams flapped from it like horse lips. The shams weren't ones my parents carried in their store; these were dingy, grotesquely flowered, a scratchy acrylic blend.

I always woke up screaming.

I started having the dream again about a week ago. Not exactly the same, but close enough. I'm coming home from work. As soon as I open the door to my brownstone, I know something's wrong. All the furniture is gone. The ceiling has disappeared, the walls opening to the sky. The hardwood floors are covered with sod. A clothesline stands in the center of the living room.

At first it looks like nothing is hanging from the clothespins, but then I realize each one is clipped to a long strand of hair. They dangle over the space, a fine fringe, where my couch used to be. The hairs look brown, but when the light hits them, they become filaments of fire. I wake up breathless.

The dream started after I found a hair on my boyfriend's pillow. It looked like my hair -- brownish, a little coarse -- but it had an auburn tint to it, like it had been dyed. I picked it up between two fingers and brought it to the bathroom.

"Whose hair is this?" I waved it in his face.

"Are you kidding?" Joel kissed me, his mouth full of toothpaste, then spit into the sink.

"I don't think so." I watched the foam, my kiss, slide down the porcelain. Little chunks of blue were still inside; he obviously didn't brush very well.

He wiped his mouth on a towel and looked at me strangely.

"It's not my hair." The strand fell out of my fingers and got stuck on one of the blue gobs. "See, it's more red than mine."

"Yours is red in the sun." He turned on the water and rinsed everything away.

"Why are you destroying the evidence? If you were innocent, you wouldn't be destroying the evidence!"

I was crying. I couldn't help it. I rushed into the bedroom and collapsed on the duvet. "How could you? How could you bring another woman onto the sheets my parents gave you?!"

My parents used to own a store, Linens and Misc. The Misc. stood for Miscellaneous, but everyone pronounced it "Misk." Linens and Misk. They still have most of their old inventory, piled up in the garage. They've always kept me and my friends well-stocked (everyone celebrating an occasion -- a bas mitzvah, a wedding, a bris -- is lavished with sheets) but Joel was the first boyfriend they ever gifted with bedding. It was a pretty big deal. They had never acknowledged the fact that my previous boyfriends owned beds. When they gave Joel the plastic bag full of Ralph Lauren whites, it was like giving us their blessing; it was like giving us the canopy for our chuppah. We moved in together soon afterwards.

"You're the only woman who's been on these sheets, Melissa, you know that." He kissed my shoulder.

I wanted to believe him, I really did, but that hair freaked me out. I dreamed about it every night. Each night, the curtain of hair grew thicker. Each day, I scoured the sheets for more strands. There were always new ones. Joel worked at home -- it would be easy enough for him to sneak someone in while I was at work. It would be easy enough for her to rub her head all over our pillows.

Joel tried to appease me. He took some hair from the bed, took me outside with a mirror, showed me how similar my hair looked in natural light.

He pulled some of my hair out of the shower drain and wrote "I LOVE YOU" with it on the tile wall, but I still wouldn't calm down. What if some of Her hair was woven into those slimy letters?

"Maybe you're just losing more hair than usual," he said. "Maybe you have that disease where all your hair starts to fall out."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" I shouted. "You'd like it if I had that disease and died and then you wouldn't have to worry about me any more. Then you could bring her into our bed all the time!"

"Come on, Melissa. It's not a fatal disease. It just makes your hair fall out."

I spent the night researching hair loss online. Maybe I was losing my hair. Maybe I had low thyroid. Maybe I had alopecia. Maybe it really was my hair on the pillow shams. There was one way to find out for sure.

Saturday morning, while Joel ran errands, I washed all the sheets, hung them on a makeshift clothesline in the kitchen, and set to work on my hair.

I started with my legs and armpits, since I do those already. I used the same razor for my forearms. I waxed my upper lip, plucked all my eyelashes. I Naired my eyebrows, sugared off my pubes. I nail-scissored the wisps around my nipples. For the crowning touch, I shaved off my long hair with Joel's electric clippers. I imagined myself an Orthodox bride, like my great-grandmother who shaved her head because her hair was too intimate to share, even with her husband. By the time I was done, I was hairless as a soul, smooth as an alien, naked as a pillow stripped of its sham. If a long hair showed up in our bed now, I'd know for sure it wasn't mine.

About the author:

Gayle Brandeis is the author of FRUITFLESH: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperSanFrancisco) and a chapbook, DICTIONARY POEMS (Pudding House Press). Her novel, THE BOOK OF DEAD BIRDS (HarperCollins), won the 2002 Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change. She lives in Riverside, CA with her husband and two children.