Anne Coray, “Bobo”

It started with the baby.

The baby who was, in all ways, a model of developmental perfection, beginning with the opening of the eyes (“She has savvy,” said the doctor, “she can track a source of light”); then the kicking of the feet and the opening of the fists before her second month; and sitting upright on her own at the sixth . “Look,” said her mother, following the doctor’s lead, “Bobo erectus,” (Bobo being the baby’s nickname). All was on schedule, and even a bit advanced, in the fast-twitch muscle category, surely; a child with triple lutzes or double pikes in her future, or perhaps at least a snowboarding trophy from her local grade school.

But although her independent crawl on hands and knees at eight months was proving Bobo would maintain her quick-sinew status for years to come, there was, alas, an impediment. Not one that should, necessarily, disrupt her athletic potential. Except there was the inevitable social stigma on her five-year horizon, the age at which other children would begin to cast sideways looks and label her different. Or weird or creepy or cootie-coated, or another popular denigrating phraseology of the day.

It was the nose hair.

Arriving just after the stand-and-walk-freestyle-across-the-room-to-her-mother’s-outstretched-arms phase, it fast became cause for concern.

Did the baby feel her mother’s arms wilt a little when she clutched her—a clutch that should have been suffused with nothing but praise and admiration at Bobo’s first steps? Did she sense her mother’s dismay as she held her at arm’s length for a scrutinizing view?

Yes, there it was. Excess growth of those tiny filaments composed of ninety-five percent protein, rising from the root and sprouting out of the epidermis, to form, in Bobo’s case, a brunette weave that resembled a nest of dark straw. Not coarse though—fine, very fine.

The dismay gave way to secrecy. And there passed a full week during which her mother felt at a loss, not knowing how to communicate the discovery to her husband. And she made sure to always be the one to lay the baby in the crib for sleep and to pick her up upon awakening, the supine position being the most revealing of the imperfection. Naturally the mother’s actions were instinctual, protective, but there was another, unsettling emotion growing like the bulb of one of those miniature hairs, deep in her dermis—shame. Her baby, perfect in so many ways, stricken with this unsightly and unfeminine affliction.

The mother did tell the father, finally, who had already made the discovery on his own, but who also did not know how to broach it, and was fearful that such a revelation would spark in his wife an uncultured anxiety.

“It’s awful.”

“Definitely unusual. But she’s breathing fine. That’s the important thing.”

“Don’t undermine it. This has huge social implications.”

“Who cares what other people think? Who needs approval? We’re all alone in this world.”

“Oh, Jim, you don’t understand humanity.”

“Don’t panic, Diana. We’ll take her to the doctor. I’m sure there’s an explanation.”

Such was the seriousness of the situation—they had taken to calling one another by their first names, rather than the familiar and endearing Honey and Spud. And the baby, formerly Bobo and Bobo alone, was now addressed exclusively by her birth name, Mona.

The next week, Jim and Diana made preparations to fly to town, which was no small feat, given their remote and northerly location in a town of three hundred residents. A neighbor  cheerfully agreed to look after the home in their absence, as it was the heart, the dark and frigid core, of winter.

Once in the city, the doctor examined with consternation Mona’s hirsute orifices, only to declare, “Well, I never.”

Diana bit her lip and cast Jim a worried and accusatory look, as if to say, You promised, but he’s not going to help, is he?

Jim, sensing his wife’s alarm, if not downright hysteria, took swift control. “Dr. Gage, what do you recommend?” (If Jim spoke too sternly, it was merely self-preservation, for it was Diana to whom he would have to answer.)

The doctor set down his magnifiers and swung the baby up from the table and onto her father’s lap, where she gurgled and cooed; she was a blissful, sprightly soul.

“I know a good ear, nose hair, and throat specialist.”

The words were out of Dr. Gage’s mouth before he could catch the slip; Jim frowned and Diana’s face became an instant eggplant.

“I mean,” the doctor backpedaled, “a good ear, nose, and throat specialist.”

He covered his embarrassment by calling in his lab assistant for a blood draw from Mona, the results of which he promised to share with the specialist. “Just to make sure her hormone levels are normal, though I don’t expect anything out of the ordinary,” said Dr. Gage. Once that was done, he sent the parents on their way with well wishes and a referral. And assurances that Mona was a model of health.

Unfortunately, the good specialist, Dr. Stein, in good doctorly fashion, was on vacation and would not return for two weeks. With her appointment calendar booked for a solid month, Jim and Diana and Mona flew home via air taxi with thirteen other passengers, everyone bundled in boots and down coats and hair-hiding hats. (But Mona’s hat did not conceal her nose hair, and  Diana was compelled to invent games that kept the baby’s face averted until she fell asleep.)

Snug in their home, Jim and Diana were still discontent. Six weeks was ages to wait for the specialist. Jim weathered the delay differently, but not less frantically, than Diana. Although he remained collected in his family’s presence, at the office he burrowed into his work and spent longer hours at the lab, monitoring water quality for the local river systems which were situated downstream from one of the largest copper mines in the state. He became ever more dedicated to his job, uncovering trace amounts of toxins in three consecutive samples from the stream where community members obtained their drinking water. This worried him greatly, and he wondered if somehow there could be a link between his daughter’s strange disfigurement and the water. But he quickly discarded the notion; he was overreacting, just like his wife. He had to think logically. There was no scientific explanation that he could fathom. He’d been doing this job for fifteen years, and never had he heard or read about a connection between nose hair and water toxins. He recommended the installment of quality filters, to be changed a minimum of every six months.

Diana, meanwhile, did her best to adapt to the feelings of impotence and isolation, which at last gave way to rage; but this she corked like a champagne top and worked instead into a devious plan. If no one was going to help her solve Mona’s disfigurement, she would take it upon herself.

She first tried both scissors and nail clippers, (no nose hair trimmers in the house, and none available in the single small town store) but they were hard to manipulate, and she feared cutting into her baby’s nostrils. And neither worked well with such fine hair. They pulled more than snipped, and Mona cried and kicked. Diana did manage to shorten a few of the longer strands, but it was far from a remake, and within a week the nose hair was back in full bloom.

Her second thought was Clairol. She went so far as to buy a box of ultra-blonde and do a test patch on her own coiffured locks; the result was middling, not ranging even to fair, Diana’s color being a shade darker than her daughter’s, and not much amenable to change. She lopped the test patch, hoping Jim wouldn’t notice the severed strands, but then he’d not been looking at her closely of late, their words and manner still strained.

When Jim was next at work, Diana tried the Clairol on Mona anyway, but application was difficult, the child squirming against the saturated cotton swab and fussing as she’d never fussed before. Diana succeeded, however, and sponged away the dye after forty minutes, (the longer time recommended for those desiring a lighter tint). The effects, mid-day, were disappointing, Mona’s stubborn walnut-brown refusing to concede to gold.

But Diana, too, was without concession, and she followed this trial with another product, one that wasn’t designed to simply change the filaments’ hues, but rather, eradicate them (the filaments, not the hues). A pink-bodied vessel of a product, with blue print and promises to lift away, for days unspecified, those perpetual, reprehensible hairs. Sayonara, auf Weidersehen, Sans-cheveux, the manufacturers might have called it. But most American consumers, not up to date on their Japanese, German, or French, would have been confused, and the makers were ready to settle on No-Hair when a board member pointed out the benefits of a one-syllable word for marketing. N’Hair, they considered seriously, but it had a Hebrew look, and the apostrophe was obstructive. The name needed to be smooth—just as the skin would be once it was treated—and thus the ultimate, consummate, Nair.

This time the mother invoked a steelier will on the infant’s head, again using the swab for application, running the soaked cotton around the inside of those vulnerable little nostrils. And there erupted Mona’s first scream, but now the deed was done, and there was less than one hour’s wait for the troublesome thatches to fall mercifully away.

Except that it didn’t quite work. While a few hairs made a willing defection from their well-humidified home, the majority hung on with a kind of patriot’s zeal, refusing to relinquish so easily their rightful turf.

Then there was the inevitable reaction. Red, rashy, pustular skin that conjured witches’ tricks and ill omens.

When Jim saw Mona he crossed his arms tightly against his chest, as if to suppress a snarl, but was unable to refrain from accusation. He glared at his wife. “What did you do to her?”

A pause, a turn of the head. “Nothing.”

“I’m not a fool.”

Diana was trapped, and in truth, not much of a liar.

“I tried Nair.”

“You did what?”

“I was hoping it would remove that … that … insufferable hair.”

“Do you know what’s in that stuff?” Jim pulled at his own hair in such a way that it might have made Nair, the company, file for Chapter 11. “Give it to me.”

Diana, all cowering canine, retrieved the vessel from its deep-shelf hideaway.

Jim snatched up his glasses in one hand and the container in the other.  “Potassium thioglycolate. That’s in the thiol family. Thiols eat skin. And calcium hydroxide. That destroys the weakened hairs. It’s used in the tanning business, for God’s sake!”

Diana cringed further.

Jim struck his head with his knuckles. “Nair … it’s used to clear clogged drains. You put this on your daughter’s skin?” He gave an exasperated snort. “She’s six months old! These are dangerous chemicals!”

At which Diana fell into bodily weeping. “You’re inhuman. You don’t understand women.”

Jim straightened his posture and resumed his crossed-arm stance, but finally drew up two kitchen chairs and asked his wife to sit.

Seating himself opposite her he commenced a discussion of the chemicals, the first of which Diana could scarcely pronounce, but which sounded admittedly unfit for sweetening one’s tea. Not to mention applying to the skin—whose pores, Jim explained, were waiting like hollow-bellied frogs, ready to suck up every toxin known to man.

In the days that followed, Mona’s inflammation gave way to blackened scabs that sloughed onto her bib as she swallowed her strained carrots, or fell like admonishing reminders on Diana’s pale and swollen breasts. But soon Mona was herself again, nose hair still intact. Her mother, approaching resignation, vowed to love her anyway, even if the specialist, whom they were shortly to see, could offer no solution.

Which is precisely what happened. Again the preparation, again the flight to town, the terminals, the taxis, the waiting rooms, the filling out of forms. All for naught—this Harvard medical degree had no more inkling than her colleague of Mona’s affliction, though her rates were twice as much.

“I think you should wait,” was Dr. Stein’s conclusion.

“Wait?” Diana’s voice had taken on a decided helplessness.

“Yes, many childhood afflictions simply disappear with time. Adenoidal problems, for example.” And the doctor explained how old school methodology was to remove the tissue, but today the recommendation was usually to let the swelling take care of itself.  “Your daughter, of course, has no such difficulty. There is no inflammation. Her hormone levels are fine. Her breathing is excellent, you should be thankful.”

Jim nodded cooly, but Diana was quickly back in her parka, hood up, boots unlaced, Mona in hand, and out the door. Jim followed, suggesting to his wife that they simply accept the doctor’s verdict. By saying it, he believed, he might convince himself.

Life back home resumed a less stressful routine, the phase of bitterness and consternation giving way to an apparently peaceful, if not occasionally wistful, family life. Things could be much, much worse—think of the well of debility: Down syndrome, Spina bifida, heart murmurs, blindness, deafness, missing or crippled limbs—oh, it was cruel, undividedly cruel, what parents and children sometimes endured. So Jim and Diana coped, and watched their daughter grow, and did not speak of creams and cosmetics.

Secretly, however, Jim was still working on a solution to the problem. Perhaps Diana had passed something on to Mona in her breast milk, and the little girl by now had long been on solid foods. So when Diana was out or in another room, Jim went through cupboards and refrigerator and copied down every strange ingredient in every canned or frozen or wrapped good in the house.  He researched the preservatives, dyes, and flavorings at the lab, methodically going through his encyclopedic copy of Every non-Food Food Known to Man, but could find no correlation between hair growth and additives. Had there been, he reasoned, wouldn’t some pharmaceutical company have capitalized on it by now? Think, after all, of the scores of balding men who would down with alacrity potions full of Yellow No. 5, aspartame, sodium nitrite, ammonium phosphate —if they thought even minute follicles could spring from their glabrous scalps.

Over a year passed before Jim and Diana heard the whispers. Whispers concerning Denny, Laura and Will McAllister’s little one-year-old boy. They thought at first it might be rumor, but what a strange coincidence. Could it be true? Diana’s heart lifted with secretive glee even as she recognized the cruel satisfaction of learning that she may not be alone in her suffering. That Mona might have a playmate. A burgeoning nose-hair buddy.

And when Laura rang Diana soon after to confirm the gossip, Diana was at first speechless. How could this woman so candidly admit to her child’s imperfection, when Diana had sealed and secluded for nearly two full years Mona’s own?  It didn’t seem fair, Laura’s ability to pole-vault over the long months of humiliation. There was also Diana’s indignation when Laura specifically asked to talk to her, who was, after all, the mother of a child already blessed. Blessed? How dare she? And how did Laura know, anyway? Diana had kept it all under wraps, or rather, kept Mona under wraps, whenever the two of them ventured to town.

Then it dawned on her. It must have been Jim needing to talk. So Diana softened a little, and softened more when Laura said, “I’m so thankful you’ve already been through this. Now I have someone to look to for support.”

As a result, Diana earned a kind of status, as Mother-Who-Knows-Nose-Hair.

The upshot of the conversation was that Laura hoped Denny and Mona could play, and could she please bring him over? In part it was Laura’s pleading tone, in part it was Diana’s wanting what was best for her daughter, in part it was simply loneliness after this long trial alone.  So come Denny and Laura did, and the children got on famously, and Diana even saw a future glimmer when the two youngsters, in their early twenties, might stand before the altar and deliver their solemn vows.

Mona, however, would have other boys to choose from. After Denny there followed Ralph, and Peter, and Harry, who as they grew would gaze with ardor not only at Mona, but at Amy and Krissi and Ruth. For nose hair had grown; it seemed to be developing a following, like the latest fad. These children were done with piercing. They had opted for a natural genetic modification, the parents joked. And why not laugh? The kids were happy.

But Jim, in his research, was aghast. The toxins in his water samples had risen to an alarming red alert. His American filters were inadequate, chemicals were leaching into the town’s clean water. Could the water be the source of the hair growth after all? Back in his office, he spent frenetic hours on the telephone sleuthing out the best technology, finding at last what he sought in Bremen, Germany.

“Yes, Herr Smith, it is state-of-the-art, you will not be disappointed,” he was assured. “The best filters in the world, and guaranteed for five years.”

Jim fully shared his wife’s former panic, and in his harried brain he felt for her a deepening empathy. “A guarantee’s not good enough, how about a warranty?”

“Yes, Sir, excuse my English, that is precise.”

“Send me five, and ship them express.”

Name, address, credit card, all the information recorded, then the German, in his pleasant but formal way, ended the conversation with an enquiry. “May I ask, Herr Smith, what is your application for the filters?”

“You needn’t call me Herr,” Jim said irritably. “Our town’s water supply. Drinking water, right? That’s how your product is advertised.”

“Oh yes, they will serve you very well. Nothing to worry. But, excuse me, have you monitored your air? I would recommend.”

Then the sign-off, and the telephone back in its cradle—Jim still used an old push-button phone—and a few strokes of his fingers on the outside of the receiver as he mused on the German’s last words.

Air. Have you monitored your air? Or had he said hair? Have you monitored you hair? No, that wouldn’t make sense. Maybe he meant sampled, not monitored. Have you sampled your hair? Jim patted his head. Why was he thinking like this? Was he crazy? But no, the light bulb behind his eyes was growing gradually brighter, and he found himself uttering trite rhymes. Air, hair, Nair.

And it came to him: the copper mine, the emissions—particulates and sulfur dioxide. The mining company was not capturing them, or capturing but a small percentage. Now he understood.

Jim’s mind leaped back to his college science classes.  Butterflies that learned to eat poisonous plants, which in turn made them unpalatable to predators.  Industrial England’s famous peppered moth, which turned black as coal soot, becoming so camouflaged that birds rarely picked them off. What happened to those that did not evolve? Jim suddenly feared for his own generation. Genetic adaptation was no joke. He explored with his finger the rim of his nostrils.

He thought of his daughter, his Mona, and the town’s little girls and boys. How healthy they were, with their nose hair excess. For them, there would be little danger. No breathing difficulties, no pulmonary edema, no heart failure, no circulatory collapse. Again he ran his fingers around the inside of his nose. Not bare, but remarkably spare.

 

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