The wig shop is on 13th Avenue, above Rubinstein Skullcap Company. A bright blue awning with white letters advertises yarmulke kippah benchers tallit. Underneath this, a short afterthought: rawa’s fine european wigs—upstairs.
Jason has never been to Borough Park, but his wife has.
“The B63 cuts right through here,” she says, gesturing her bony hand to the street as Jason pays the cab driver and climbs out of the car behind her. “At least, it used to—” Annette adjusts the turban wrapped tight around her bald head.
It is early evening on a Friday, and the sidewalks are crowded, mostly with women—all of them pushing strollers—in knee-length dresses with heavy pantyhose and chunky loafers. They wear old-fashioned pillbox or cloche hats atop their thick hair, which, Jason reminds himself, is not actually their hair. Children flank these women: girls wearing ankle-length long-sleeved dresses, the boys in navy pants, white tassels appearing below their belt lines. Each boy’s head is fixed with the type of little cap Jason has worn once in his life, in seventh grade at the bar mitzvah of his classmate Eric Chudnow—the only celebration of its kind he’s ever attended.
Looking at the Hasids, Jason thinks they must be uncomfortable. It’s only May, but already more than eighty degrees and he is sweating through his cotton T-shirt. Annette is still going on about the bus.
“I wouldn’t know where it goes now. But I rode it to the 36th Street station every day. That was faster than taking the R the whole way to school.”
She looks around now, blinking her lashless eyes at the women and their children, at the bearded men in dark overcoats who pass by quickly, at the neat rows of two- and three-story brick buildings lining the street, and says that Borough Park is the same as it was fifteen years ago. There is nostalgia, and sadness, in her voice. Annette grew up a few miles south in Bay Ridge. She’s been living there again since she and Jason separated last year. Her one-bedroom apartment is a bit smaller, but renovated and better laid out than the place the two of them shared on 10th Street in the East Village, where Jason still lives. He’s given away all the baby stuff they never used—the tiny clothes and the crib and the stroller—but continues to surround himself with much of the material of their marriage: their old cat, Hamster, and the view over the fire escape of garbage bins in the alley, and sometimes the film school girls who live on the first floor, who smoke out their kitchen window. He keeps Annette’s books, the ones she has yet to notice missing from her shelves. And her odd curation of framed prints—art she bought at museums in Europe during their honeymoon—are still hanging: Chagall from D’Orsay in the bathroom, Goya from the Prado above the mantel. And he still thinks of these things as theirs—as belonging to him and to Annette collectively—despite the stuff he’s acquired since she left, including his new girlfriend, Holly.
“Come on,” Annette says, pulling the metal handle on the skullcap shop’s door. She is so thin that the bones of her bent elbow make three sharp points.
“I’ve got it,” Jason says, pushing the door back so that Annette isn’t holding its weight. He does this too quickly and she jolts, her balance lost for a moment. He grabs her arm, applies a steadying pressure.
“Jesus,” she says, annoyed, shaking off his grip. “I can open doors myself.”
“I know,” Jason says. But he doesn’t believe that, not really. Since Annette was diagnosed with leukemia, but especially since she’s started chemotherapy, he sees her as a hollow-boned bird. He wants to trap her, hold her somewhere soft where they can both sit still and wait for things to go back to normal. Of course, normal is Annette and Jason living separately and rarely speaking. If she hadn’t gotten sick and needed to stay on his health insurance, they’d be in the process of finalizing a divorce by now. He thinks sometimes, Would we be signing those papers today? Right now?
Jason follows Annette up a narrow staircase with drab office carpet. They enter a low-ceilinged rectangular room. Here, the floor is covered in that same rough gray, and along one wall there’s a sterile-looking glass case. A makeshift dressing room hides the opposite wall. A lot of round mirrors line the counter, but not many wigs are on display; a few chin-length bobs balance on glass mannequin heads in the far corner by a cash register. In the case, swathes of hair are laid out neatly on velvet-lined shelves. It would be a depressing, even creepy, place, but the room is filled with natural light from the wide street-facing windows, which are open. A pleasant breeze fills the space, helped by a noiseless floor fan. The fan could ventilate better if it were tilted diagonally, but instead it’s pointed at a ninety-degree angle, and cool air wafts across the floor, hitting Jason’s legs, which need the fan far less than his sweaty neck and torso.
There are two other customers in the shop: a young woman—a girl, really—and an older lady who must be her mother. The girl has long, lovely varnished red hair tied into a loose ponytail—it is absolutely real, growing from her head. Both wear the uniform of the neighborhood, though their version is slightly more contemporary: calf-length beige dresses, dark brown stockings, and ballet flats. The daughter has on a fitted blazer, also, and is speaking softly but with obvious vigor in a language Jason is sure he’s never heard before. They are examining a long wig that looks a lot like the girl’s hair. It’s fixed to a plastic stand, no head. An elegant-looking striped box, which the wig must’ve come from, sits beside it. Another woman stands behind the counter and watches the two converse. It isn’t clear whether she understands them any better than Jason does. She is squat and sturdy, with many-ringed hands, and wearing a black dress. This must be Rawa. She looks over to Annette, makes eye contact with Jason, and interrupts the women, saying in accented English, “You don’t mind if I help some other customer while you discuss?” She gestures to Annette standing just above the stairwell in jeans, loose blouse, and a turban. The women turn. When they see Annette, they do what Jason has noticed people all over New York doing: their heads go down, snapped away as if pulled by an invisible force,and they nod, quick and polite. Some of the women walking on Thirteenth Avenue wore turbans instead of wigs, but Annette’s pants, sneakers, and patchy eyebrows give her away.
“Of course, of course,” they mumble as Rawa moves to the other end of the counter, beckoning Annette and Jason over.
“Hello,” Annette says as they approach. “I’m Annette Caramanico.”
Hearing her use her maiden name, Jason winces. This is a recent change, and, he thinks, an untrue one. She is still Annette Benson. Her driver’s license, credit and debit and library cards—her health insurance card—all say so. They are Jason and Annette Benson, and if they weren’t, she would owe Mount Sinai Hospital and various medical labs and pharmacies upwards of $50,000. He hates that he thinks this way. He knows a better man wouldn’t hold Annette hostage to conditionals, even if only in the privacy of his own mind. But he isn’t as good as he wants to be. He still loves his wife; lately, he loves her with an intensity and desperation he thinks of as teenage, or disturbed. Disturbed because he is grateful to be back in her life, though, given the circumstances, he shouldn’t be. And, underneath the exhaustion of his sadness and worry, there’s the exhilaration of being needed again, of being necessary. He can call her and she will talk to him. This is the swirl of horrid thoughts Jason regularly sorts through since he found out Annette was sick. Sometimes he wants her back as much as he wants her to recover. In the middle of the night, when he lies awake in bed or sits, trying to read on their old saggy futon, the two futures seem equally important.
“I called earlier this week and spoke with Rawa,” Annette says.
“Yes, I remember,” Rawa says, a curt, professional smile crossing her face. And then she surprises Jason, because she doesn’t wade through the awkwardness of discussing Annette’s illness, or offer condoling statements in hushed tones. She doesn’t even turn to let Jason introduce himself, though she’s not ignoring his presence, either. “Did you bring a photo?” she asks, and leans down to slide the glass back on her side of the case, pulling out a few panels of display hair.
On the velvet backing, the hair is arranged as necklaces are in jewelry stores. The case is laid out by color—light to dark. The blonde hair is all at the other end of the case, where the mother and daughter are still talking in a hush over their new wig. After the blondes are the strawberry-blondes, then the deeper reds, the auburns, then the ash browns, and so on. Jason and Annette stand in front of the almost-black, and what Rawa has pulled out are several shades of dark brown. There is no gray in the case, which Jason finds strange. Surely some older women must want gray wigs.
“Yes,” Annette pulls a picture from her back pocket and lays it on the counter. Jason doesn’t have to strain to recognize it as one of his favorite photos, taken five years ago at the wedding of their friends Rob and Ashley: it shows only Annette, from the shoulders up, looking directly into the camera. She was a bridesmaid, and had worn contact lenses for the occasion. It is one of the last times he can remember her in public without her glasses; she’d complained mildly throughout the evening of how uncomfortable contacts were, and when they got home, slipped hers out and tossed them into the kitchen trash. Jason likes Annette in her tortoiseshell glasses—he wears glasses, too—but there’s something about her bare-eyed in this picture that he finds mesmerizing and singularly, stunningly beautiful. She has bright, dark eyes and long eyelashes. Annette was twenty-nine the year Rob and Ashley got married; she and Jason were newly married themselves, and she was tan from a week-long trip they’d taken to Cape Cod earlier that summer.
If he had to say, today, why he likes the picture so much, Jason might mention how healthy Annette looks. Her skin is firm, luminous, her heavy hair piled over one shoulder. But he’s always loved this picture. He used to keep it framed on his desk at work. And it wouldn’t have occurred to him, before, to consider his wife’s appearance of health in any given photo or memory. She was just beautiful. Her health was a given; it wasn’t something that mattered because it was a simple fact. But there’s the terrible irony to this line of thinking, because Annette must’ve had AML long before she went to a doctor to have it discovered. They aren’t sure exactly how many years the disease progressed inside her, new blood cells crowding her bones and spilling, eventually, into her bloodstream. She complained of headaches, she bruised easily, was tired a lot. She also had three miscarriages. And delivered one stillborn baby a month before the due date. That these things were symptoms of such a serious illness—vague or insignificant or overwhelmingly devastating, marriage-ending—seem obvious now, but, of course, it was an expert who finally connected them to one another, and to the disease that had, by that time, completely taken over Annette’s body.
Rawa picks up the picture, looking over it several times to compare with Annette now, scrawny and wearing a turban instead of thick curls.
“You want one this curly?” she asks. “That will be difficult. But you can always perm a straight one.”
“You don’t make curly ones?” Jason asks.
“I make them,” Rawa says. “But the hair isn’t as easy to find. How it works is: I have this hair for show,” she gestures to the case, “and the company I order from in France uses the same women whose hair this is. As much as they can, that’s what I get. But not always. Nobody can grow enough hair to supply all the fine wig shops in New York, let alone the world. They do a very good job matching, but no person’s hair is exactly the same as anyone else’s.” She’s raised her voice, Jason realizes, for the benefit of the Hasidic women talking about the red wig at the other end of the counter. They’ve actually stopped talking, and seem to be waiting patiently now for Rawa to return to them. “Because of this, curly hair is rare. Few suppliers buy it. Straight hair is more … it’s consistent. But like I said, you can perm a straight wig. It’s cheaper this way.” She turns to the waiting mother and daughter, pointing. “Here I come,” she says to them. To Jason and Annette, she says, “Excuse me. Just one moment,” and paces back to her other customers, who seem ready now. The mother has taken a credit card from her pocketbook.
Annette turns to Jason. “This is why they’re so expensive,” she whispers. Jason shrugs. He doesn’t want Annette to worry about the price, though of course, she’s right. The wigs are so expensive. Their cost is the reason he’s here now.
Their insurance, which covers up to $800 on a wig—one per subscriber per lifetime—comes from Jason’s work. He’s a software engineer for a corporate architecture firm. It’s very good coverage—Annette’s treatment has cost nearly nothing so far. But $800 is actually cut rate. Any wig under a thousand is made with synthetic or, at best, a mix of real and synthetic hair. Rawa’s wigs are 100 percent human hair, and among the best available in the city. Here, the cheapest, shortest pieces are priced at just under twenty-five hundred. When Jason learned this he offered—no, insisted—on paying. It’s actually not a lot of money, all things considered: because they aren’t divorced, Jason isn’t paying Annette any spousal support, though he’s offered to help her financially a number of times. He isn’t actually sure what she’s living on. It’s not as though her family could help; her mother is a retired secretary and her father, at sixty-three, still works as a custodian in a Bay Ridge public high school. Annette has a degree in childhood education, but up until a few months ago, she was a barista at a coffee shop in DUMBO . For a few years, she’d been a teacher at a Montessori preschool, but left that job a few months before she left Jason.
Late in January, Annette had sent Jason an email asking if he would meet her somewhere. She needed to talk to him. He’d assumed—as anyone probably would have—that she wanted to discuss their inevitable divorce. Jason wrote back, saying they should meet at Shopsin’s, because it was one of Annette’s favorite restaurants. He planned only to agree with whatever Annette wanted; besides his own selfish, useless desires, he didn’t have any arguments for why they should stay together, and, by this point, he’d begun seeing Holly, who works for a PR firm on the floor below Jason’s Midtown office; he was resigned when he’d asked her out, had been looking and found—quickly, a little more quickly than he’d really even wanted—the consolation of her company.