In the bedroom of a small apartment outside Kielce in Poland, a man named Gustaw Smolak had a heart attack just as his wife left to get groceries in their olive green Camaro. The Smolak family lived on the second floor of a building that had been redecorated so many times by its tenants over the years that the amassed layers of paint were visible if you looked closely at the moldings. Eggshell, grey, green, a garish yellow so awful that they began repainting before they finished, grey again – a chipped rainbow where the walls met the floor, which, incidentally happened to be about three inches in front of Gustaw’s face when he fell flat on his back, clutching his chest and cursing with whatever gasps of breath he could manage. The phone, a Soviet rectangle with buttons that faintly glowed orange, sat upright in its cradle on the nightstand beside the bed – an impossible trek across the room from his current position on the wood floor. His voice seemed locked in his throat. He managed a few sputtering coughs.
Gustaw lifted the claw of his right hand, contorted the fingers into a fist, and pounded three times loudly on the wall (which was now the lovely cream color Mrs. Smolak had chosen from a packet before they had moved in). It was fortunate first that Gustaw had fallen against the wall that connected their apartment to the apartment of the widowed sisters Irenka and Maja Jaskulski, fortunate that Irenka had been delayed in leaving for work because she forgot her bus pass and needed to double back, fortunate that the wall’s thickness was mostly due to layers of paint and therefore had very limited sound insulation, and very fortunate that Irenka had a key to the Smolak apartment that Mrs. Smolak had given her so she could watch after their cat while the Smolaks were out of town. Irenka heard the three knocks (and a series of distressing groans) and dashed into apartment 2B where she saw Gustaw on the floor, and promptly dialed for an ambulance.
Gustaw woke several hours later in the hospital to see his wife’s face above him, tear stricken and without red lipstick for the first time in thirty-one years. His youngest daughter sat on a plastic chair and punched angrily on the keyboard of her cell-phone. She had warned him about this sort of thing for years, his failure to eat right or exercise, but she properly understood that awakening in a hospital after a heart attack was no time to hear “I told you so” and that put her in a proper lousy mood. She had already phoned her two sisters, one living with a leather manufacturer in Italy with two blonde and bilingual children and the other who worked at a fancy salon in Chicago cutting hair for stockbrokers and suburban women.
When the middle daughter, Katarzyna, the hair stylist who had “Kate” on her nametag, listened to the message, a frantic Polish rant about their do-nothing father who gained twelve pounds since the doctor told him to start exercising, who always ate the skin on his chicken and cooked eggs in bacon fat even after that article she sent him, had a heart attack, she was about halfway done cutting my hair. She had apologized before reaching in her apron to silence the buzzing cellphone, apologizing again when she held it up to her ear after seeing the name of the caller. A drop of water ran underneath the black smock and down my neck while I watched Kate’s face become ashy in the mirror. The right side of my hair was already cut, and the left was gathered up with a few broad, pinching plastic clips. She hung up. She picked up the scissors. She slid two of the clips out of my hair at once. I heard the snipping begin again, faster than before.
“My dad.” she said, “My sister called. My dad had a heart attack.”
“Oh my God. Is he ok?” I am so awful at talking to the people who cut my hair. Kate has been cutting my hair for about a year now and I still don’t know whether to treat her like a friend or an adult or an employee. She looks less than five years older than me, but I know she’s in her thirties at least. “I’m so sorry.”
Her eyes started to fill with tears that she brushed away with the back of her hand on the follow-through of a stroke with the comb. “Is his fault. He never exercises. Eats chicken skins, cooks his eggs in bacon fat even after I sent him an article.” She is looking at the ceiling, trying not to let the tears overflow and fall onto her cheeks.
“Is… is he ok?” I ask. She gives a shrug.
“I don’t know.” The front part of my hair was still in a clip above my forehead. I was going to ask for side-sweeping bangs today. Kate’s tears began in earnest, heavy, body-shaking sobs that reverberated through the chrome chair I was sitting in. Snip. Snip.
Now, it seemed cruel of me to be having this crying woman style my hair. The other women in the salon looked over. “Do you need to go?” I said. “To the hospital, maybe?”
“He’s in Poland.” Snip, snip, snip. “There’s nothing I can do. I’m not going to go to Poland.”
I try one more time, delicately. “If you need to go, and -“ my hair was still about half-cut – “finish another time, that would be ok.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” she said again. “I resent him for it, you know? For never taking my advice.” Her comb was whipping through my hair faster now, in rhythm with the cadence of her voice. She was sobbing again, hands still working like two independent beasts, like snakes on Medusa’s head.
I began again, talking quick and quiet: “If you could maybe just even out the….” My voice disappeared as a new wave of sobs shook the chair. She took out her phone, secured it between her ear and shoulder and communicated in a new language of alternating gasps for breath and monosyllabic shouts.
“I was thinking maybe about bangs…” Before I finished my sentence, she began the blow dryer and my words where lost in the whirl of heat and wind. After a few minutes of tugging with a round brush and one or two uncomfortably hot moments of the blow dryer focused on my neck, Kate whipped the black smock off me, flinging a few inches of damp brown hair onto the floor. She covered the mouthpiece of her cell phone, mouthed the words “thank you” toward me, and gestured with her head towards the front counter where I should pay.
As it so happens, it ended up being a pretty good haircut, maybe one of the best haircuts I’ve ever gotten, like in the way that artists do their best work when they’re inspired by fits of passion. I went back six months later when I was on Spring Break from my junior year of college and Kate told my hair had gotten so long, that she needed to take at least three inches off. I asked how her dad was, which seemed like a very mature and polite thing to ask your hair stylist with whom you had an adult relationship with and she gave a small laugh and said he was fine, fine. I didn’t try to ask for side bangs again because I figured I had been given a sign and everyone I knew who has ever gotten bangs desperately tries to grow them in after three weeks anyways.
Irenka Jaskulski got married to a man seven years younger than her and left her sister Maja alone and bitter in apartment 2A. Mrs. Smolak now jokes that if her husband had a heart attack now, Maja would let him die on the floor. Unfortunately, the effect of surviving a heart attack gave Gustaw something of a sense of invincibility and he went on to eat chicken skins and fry his eggs in bacon fat with twice the vigor he did before. When Kate came to visit her parents in their tiny apartment outside of Kielce in Poland, she clucked her tongue at the tired beige walls and forced her mother to allow her to pay for a painter to add some color to their bedroom. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Smolak really liked the light blue she picked, but their daughter worked at a fancy salon in the United States so they had to trust her.
Dana Schwartz lives in Chicago and is currently an undergraduate at Brown University.