Dark was the day when my darling daughter came home from fourth grade wielding the dreaded note from the school nurse:
Kindly observe your child for the following signs of pediculosis:
- sticky white deposits on scalp
- sesame-seed-shaped insects in hair
Kindly hardly described the way I took a step back and asked my daughter, “So who’s got the cooties in your class?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Well, which of the Codys or Dakotas has been absent?” I asked.
My daughter reported that Cody Number One and Two were in class. Also both Dakotas. Before she could run through the entire roll call—twin Tiffanys, multiple Ashleys, half a dozen Madisons—I handed her back the note and headed down the hall.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To take a shower.”
“But the note says you’re supposed to give me a head check.”
I prodded my daughter into the bathroom, flicked on the overhead light, and parted her thin blond hair with a black plastic comb.
“No sesame seeds in here,” I reported as I inspected her squeaky-clean scalp. “Or here. Or here.”
I was about to sound a cheerful all clear when I spotted a single glossy white bulb clinging to the base of her neck. I tried to convince myself the white spot was just dandruff. But I knew all too well what a nit looked like, because once upon a time my whole head had been studded with them.
I remember 1970 as The Year of the Lice. One morning as my three older sisters and I were braiding our hip-length hair, one said, “Hey, there are bugs in my brush.”
We stared down at her blue paddle hairbrush, where half a dozen brown bugs weeviled their way through the pale white bristles, crafty as maggots on rotten cheese.
My mother was summoned. She grimly parted each girl’s hair and then spoke the unspeakable word four times:
I wanted to die. We had bugs! (and bugs! and bugs! and bugs!) The only good thing about bugs! was that my mother ordered us to stay home from school. Ordinarily I loved sick days—lolling on the couch with a cold washcloth on my hot forehead, watching reruns of I Love Lucy. But now I slumped in an armchair, scratching my suddenly itchy scalp, and glumly listening to my sisters blame the lice on one another: You used my comb. You wore my hat. You borrowed my barrettes. Well, YOU like John Lennon better than Paul McCartney, so you probably got the bugs first!
I sat there in silence, convinced we had lice because I had stolen a quarter from the loose change my mother stored in a chipped New York Mets mug. With my booty, I had purchased a forbidden pack of Twinkies from Molly Bruno’s Market and had failed to admit my sin at Confession. Clearly it was all my fault God had sent down a plague of cooties upon our heads.
Desperate to lay the blame on somebody else’s nit-filled head, I said, “We have lice because we’re poor.”
My mother swatted me on the back of my head. “Only poor people are poor!”
I couldn’t argue with that statement. But my sisters cringed, knowing I had set my mother off on what we called one of Ma’s old scagiole and fagiole stories.
I closed my eyes (and wished I could close my ears) as my mother catalogued the hardships of her own childhood: nine kids in three rooms, an outhouse instead of a toilet, scagiole and fagiole (dandelion greens and white beans) every night for supper.
“We had lice so bad,” Ma said, “that my mother washed our hair with kerosene. When that didn’t get rid of the bugs, she took out a razor and shaved our heads.”
We shrieked. “You aren’t going to shave us bald, are you?”
My mother got a Sweeney Todd-like look in her eyes. Then she laced up her gray suede Hush Puppies (also known as her clodhoppers) and marched down to the corner drugstore to buy the necessary de-bugging supplies. When she returned, she led us into the cellar, a damp dungeon where bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling, cobwebs hung in the high windows, and daddy long-leg spiders crept along the exposed eaves.
In the back corner sat a monstrous white enamel sink with two rickety spigots. One by one, my mother forced us to stand on a step stool and lean over the smelly drain while she sudsed our hair and dug her unforgiving nails into our tender scalps. The Kwell shampoo smelled like cherry cough syrup. And the fine-tooth comb my mother scraped over our scalps and raked through our tangles seemed like one of those instruments of torture—arrows, hooks, whips, nails—used to send virgin martyrs to their sainthood.
I stood there with wet hair, shivering, as I sent up my prayer to whichever saint served as patron/patroness of pediculosis: please take these disgusting bugs away and I will never eat a Twinkie again. But my prayers must have gotten misdirected, because the next morning I woke up and a bug crawled out of my ear. And my sisters’ long, thick braids were strung, like Christmas trees, with glistening bulblike nits.
My mother clodhopped it back to the drugstore. Again with the Kwell. Again with the fine-tooth comb. Again my mother lined us up in a row, oldest to youngest, and forced us to pull nits from each other’s hair. We looked like chimpanzees grooming each other at the Bronx Zoo. We also looked like four girls who feared our mother was nuts enough to take a Norelco shaver to our heads.
For close to a week we stayed home from school to wage The War Against the Lice. We sterilized our brushes and combs in ammonia, and washed all our clothes and towels and sheets in Clorox. Every night beneath the bedcovers, I clasped my hands together and told God how sorry I was for my Twinkie-greed.
My fervent acts of contrition must have done some good, because finally the nits took a 24-hour hiatus.
“Back to school tomorrow,” my mother announced.
We groaned. “What do we say when people ask us where we’ve been?”
“Say you were home sick,” Ma said.
The next morning I met my friend Laurie at the corner.
“Where were you?” she asked.
“Homesick,” I quickly said.
“Why are you talking like Donald Duck?”
“My nose is stuffed.” I summoned a fake cough from the depths of my lungs.
She took a step back from my spittle-spray. “Gimme the news, not the weather!”
When we reached the playground, I was careful to cough some more to keep my classmates at bay. But once we filed into the classroom, I knew my number was up. I’d been seated in the front row because I couldn’t see the blackboard without my monstrously thick tortoiseshell eyeglasses. I was terrified a louse lurked in my curls, just waiting for a chance to jump onto the long-division worksheet of the Maria or Donna or Donna Maria who sat behind me.
I sat on my hands, trying not to scratch my tingling scalp, all through mathematics. Halfway through 36,078 divided by 51, I looked up and saw an alarming specter—dressed in a white bonnet, white uniform, white tights, and white shoes—standing at the front of the class.
This walking, talking, sanitary pad was called Nurse.
“Boys and girls,” Nurse said. “Line up outside my office.”
We put down our pencils and jostled down the hall. The rumors ran thick. A Donna claimed Nurse was doing vision checks. A Stevie said she wanted to test our hearing. A Joey claimed Nurse wanted to give us all a shot to keep us from going mentally retarded.
We scoffed. “You’re born retarded, yuh retard.”
I alone suspected the gruesome truth: Nurse was about to conduct a dreaded scalp check.
One by one, Nurse summoned us into her office. When it was my turn, I slowly walked in and found Nurse standing next to a gooseneck pharmaceutical lamp, a pair of tongue depressors in her hand.
“Stand here.” She pointed beneath the bright light.
Nurse repeatedly parted my hair with her tongue depressors, as if they were chopsticks and she were searching for some tasty water chestnuts in a bowl of chop suey. Then she sniffed my hair.
“What shampoo do you use?” she asked.
“Head and Shoulders,” I lied.
She let loose a suspicious hmph. “Your teacher said you were out of school last week.”
“I was home sick.” I coughed without covering my mouth.
She stepped back and checked my name off the list.
I had passed the test, or else we all had flunked it, because at the end of the day our teacher distributed to the entire class a Nurse note, fresh off the blue mimeograph machine, that read:
Your child must be treated for head lice IMMEDIATELY. Please call the principal’s office if you need this notice translated into Italian.
Some of the Stevies held the note to their noses and pretended to get high off the heady mimeograph fumes. Some of the Tonys made the note into paper airplanes. The Angelinas and Rosarios who couldn’t read English conferred together in Italian. On the walk home, the girls gossiped about who had spread the head lice (prime suspects: the Sicilians) while the boys loudly blamed each other:
“You got duh bugs!”
“No, you got duh bugs!”
“Fongool yourself, ya fuggin’ fongool-oid!”
Finally it was just me and Laurie left on the street. Laurie—who had begun to develop—knowingly told me, “I heard you could get bugs down there.”
“Where down there?”
“In your down-there hair.”
I had no such hair yet. So I claimed, “I heard you can get lice in your armpits.”
Laurie sniffed. “I shave my armpits and I wear deodorant.”
“So do I,” I said, even though the closest I ever had come to a can of Ban was when my sister sprayed a louse that had crawled down my forehead.
I was the first of my sisters to return home from school. Since I already had a mortal sin on my soul, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to add a venial. So I retreated to a small room at the back of our house known as The Sun Parlor. Here my mother, a former Army nurse, kept her old nursing manual. I pulled down the book, opened it to the gynecology chapter, and stared down in horror at the black-and-white photographs. The vaginas looked like lobster rolls, the Candida albicans looked like tartar sauce, and the pubic lice looked like the sign that hung above the door of my favorite Cape Cod restaurant: WELCOME TO JOE’S CRAB SHACK!
As I searched in vain for a photo of a penis, a tiny grown bug fell out of my bangs and onto a photo of a swollen breast. I jumped, then slammed the book shut, squishing the louse between the pages. Convinced I had to get rid of the bugs before they migrated DOWN THERE, I ran into the kitchen and told my mother I had to go to Wednesday confession.
“What for?” she asked.
“Because you kept us home from church last week,” I said.
My mother herded us all down to church. I loathed confession because I always got stuck with Father Eyebrows. I parted the red velvet curtain and entered the dark, hushed wooden cabinet. I knelt and jumped when he pushed back the screen. I didn’t dare tell Father I had stolen a quarter. So I said, “I lied.”
“Is there anything else you want to confess? Any impure acts? Any sins of the flesh?”
Since I had looked at the photos of the lobster roll vaginas, I said, “I guess.”
He let out a sorrowful groan. “How old are you?”
“God is very displeased,” he said.
Father’s usual penance was three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers. I could whip those suckers off in less than sixty seconds. But now Father gave me ten Hails Marys and an Apostles Creed. Getting through all that would take me a good five minutes at the altar rail.
I ran up the aisle, mumbled through the prayers as fast as I could, then rejoined my sisters in the vestibule.
“You were up there a long time,” one sister said.
“I just wanted to look at the candles,” I lied. Then cringed. Such was being Catholic: no sooner did you go to confession than you had to return to confession. It was like having diarrhea for life—might as well just camp out in the bathroom, instead of bolting back and forth to the toilet.
On the way out of church, my mother reached beneath my chapel veil and nipped a nit off my hair. I was not cured. My soul had not been saved. I had made a bad confession and I was convinced I would have lice for life.
Eventually Rid and Nix slowly sent our lice on their merry way. But I always knew that these evil-weevil bugs would return to haunt me. Now seeing that solitary nit lurking on my daughter’s head, I asked her, “Have you been eating Twinkies?”
I pinched the nit off her scalp and held it in front of her face. “This is a lice egg.”
She looked at it cross-eyed, then burst into tears.
I flicked the nit into the toilet, flushed it, then refrained from giving her a hug.
“Don’t move,” I said.
“Where are you going?”
“To get some bug-nuke-shampoo at the drugstore.”
I laced up my own version of Clodhoppers—a bulbous pair of Reebok Princesses—and drove to the drugstore. At the Walgreen’s I was too mortified to ask where the Lice-B-Gone was kept. As I trolled up and down the shampoo aisle several times, I remembered why I was a registered user of drugstore.com. Several quick clicks of the mouse and my cart was full of all the “discreet purchases” I was too mortified to buy in person: Super Plus Tampax, Wart-Off, Preparation H, Beano To-Go, Extra-Strength Gas-X.
“May I hellllp you to find your desired item?” a singsong voice asked.
I turned. A strikingly beautiful Indian clerk, with waist-length black hair, looked expectantly at me. I snatched an economy-size bottle of Head and Shoulders off the shelf. “Found it!” I said, and high-tailed it around the corner.
I turned down the aisle marked SEASONAL MERCHANDISE (which, since we lived in Florida, was perpetually stocked with flip-flops and beach towels). I skulked up and down the remaining aisles until I finally located the lice treatments tucked between the Tums and the Excedrin. I wondered which of the two brands—Rid or Ovide—would zap the lice most effectively. I also wondered if I should buy both, or stock up on several bottles of each in preparation for the infestation I knew lay ahead.
With many a furtive glance over my shoulder (what if a neighbor or colleague should see me?), I ditched the Head and Shoulders by a display of sleeping aids and carried one red-and-white box of lice shampoo to the pharmacy counter.
The pharmacist’s name tag read RAHESH.
“Are you having any questions?” Rahesh asked, as if I were on the verge of giving birth to multiple question marks.
“No questions,” I eked out—and paid with cash, so as not to leave any embarrassing record of my purchase behind.
When I got back home, my daughter was still standing in the bathroom, still crying.
“You told me not to move,” she said.
I marched her into the kitchen and fetched her a graham cracker. Then I opened the box of Rid and unfolded the instruction sheet. I read the directions in English, then re-read them in Spanish, a language I only half-understood, just to make sure I was following the proper procedure.
I turned on the sink. “Por favor: stick your head in.”
I doused her hair with water and half the bottle of shampoo. I tried to be gentle, but scrubbing the nits off her scalp was like trying to scrub soap scum off the bathroom tile with an SOS pad and Bon Ami.
“Ouch,” she kept saying.
“Hold still,” I said as I rinsed her scalp, like a head of cauliflower, with the vegetable sprayer.
I toweled her off and used my Conair 1800 to blast out whatever bugs remained.
“Are the bugs all gone now?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, with absolutely no conviction. “But now we have to comb the nits out of your hair.”
I got out the tiny red fine-tooth comb included in the Rid box, then suited up in an apron, a shower cap, and rubber gloves. I looked like I was about to start an eight-hour shift at the Perdue chicken slaughterhouse.
“Why are you dressed like that?” she asked.
“Because I don’t want to get lice again.”
“You mean you had it, too?”
“And how,” I said.
“Tell me all about it.”
I knew it would take a good half hour to search and destroy whatever nits I found still clinging to my daughter’s hair. I also knew I had turned into my mother when I launched into a good scagiole and fagiole tale myself.
“When I was ten,” I said, “my sisters and I had lice so bad, the bugs fell into our soup.”
“Ew! and then what?”
“We got infested so many times, we considered entering ourselves as an experiment in the state science fair.”
“Gross! and what then?”
“We had lice for weeks,” I said. “Months. Four seasons. A whole year.”
“You’re such a liar, Mommy. Nobody could have lice for that long.”
In 1970, the common louse was a hardy devil. But by 2001, when insects began to breed like bunnies on my daughter’s pretty blond hair, lice clearly had become super-Satanic. Every night I parted my daughter’s hair with a tongue depressor, and gazed through a magnifying glass to locate the lice. I squished countless bugs between my fingers. I used Scotch tape to pull the nits off the back of her neck. I dumped so much Rid on my kid’s head I feared she would grow a brain tumor. I vacuumed the carpet, upholstery, mattress, drapes. I vacuumed the ceiling—and still the scalp-biting, blood-sucking, egg-laying little creeps kept creeping back. And back. And back.
I considered spraying my daughter with a can of Raid. Sticking her head in the oven and baking the bugs off. Or sending her through a car wash, without the car to contain her. I Googled lice and discovered old-fashioned remedies—baking soda, olive oil—that didn’t work. I Froogled lice and found a product advertised as “used safely by ARMY RANGERS AND DESPERATE MOMS!” (their capitalization).
“And to think,” I told my daughter as I pulled the thousandth nit out of her hair, “that I used to wish you were twins.”
Twenty-first-century lice were capable of surviving a neutron bomb. But I knew I couldn’t keep my daughter out of the fourth grade forever. She’d never learn her multiplication tables. So I guiltily sent her back to school. Then I also returned to my teaching job. Although I was lice-free, I still felt like my whole head was crawling with cooties. So I gladly sat next to my worst enemy at faculty meetings, used any excuse to deliver mail to the dreaded dean’s office, and even considered stopping in on our highly overpaid university president for a friendly chat. Office hours? My door was wide open to the most troublesome students-—especially those who wrote thousand-page dungeons-and-dragons epics, in which the characters were called Mordren and Morwid and Morwon and the dialogue ran like this:
Be hold! A beast! Prepare to die beneath my sord, fowl creature!
Such students, I felt, deserved death by pediculosis.
I wanted to warn my friends to keep their distance. I also wanted to call the Cody- and Dakota-moms and ask how they were handling the ongoing infestation. But head lice are the silent farts of the Tupperware party, one of the few topics still taboo enough never to make an appearance on Oprah or Dr. Phil. Example: rather than admit I had been exposed to lice, I cancelled my next haircut. I feared my stylist would part my hair, spot a creepy-crawler, and blacklist me from all beauty salons forever.
Medical experts say lice have nothing to do with poor hygiene. But they miss the point: head lice make you feel dirty as a corner of the house no broom or mop or dustpan can reach. They also claim lice know no socioeconomic boundaries—that nits are just as likely to be found in the glossy up-dos of the privileged residents of Beverly Hills as in the snarled hair of the Beverly Hillbillies. Again, missed point: although I now lived in a suburban home (complete with in-ground swimming pool) having bugs made me feel poor as my grandmother, who had raised those nine children in three rooms and whose no-nonsense method of dealing with lice involved shaving all her kids’ heads.
I wasn’t willing to take a razor to my daughter’s head. After eight weeks of delousing her, I found myself considering desperate measures—buying each bug a ticket for a ten-day Caribbean cruise, joining WICCA so I could witchcraft the nits away.
“Don’t worry,” I told my tearful daughter as I yanked another nit out of her hair, “some day the bugs will get bored of you.”
“Soon. And then the next time you see the bugs, they’ll be on your daughter.”
“Will you be there to help?”
“But you told me you’d rather be dead than deal with this again.”
I stopped plucking nits and looked in the bathroom mirror. Suddenly I seemed old and aged as my mother. I should have shuddered at the thought of dealing with yet another round of lice.
Instead, I prayed I would live to see them.