Denise continued to hurl, her body convulsing like it was possessed while Dusti and Charlie tried to comfort her and Rene assessed the chaos that was unfolding.
“What a fucking mess.” Rene says, pushing Dusti and Charlie aside and wrapping her huge arms around Denise in and attempt to keep her body in control.
“I’m so sorry…” Denise utters out before vomiting again.
“Try and stay calm, baby.” Rene tells her with a surprising sense of compassion then looks at the crowd that’s formed with phones in hand.
“Y’all need to get back to minding your business before I put you out of business.” she yells. “And whoever is dumb enough to put this online, I will destroy you and your family.”
The crowd disperses and Rene turns to Charlie.
“Run to admissions and grab the first aid kit, there’s nausea medicine in it.”
“Ok.” Charlie says, sprinting away gracefully in her high-heels and pin-up dress.
Denise’s involuntary personal protein spill finally subsides and she leans her body up against the towel bin trying to catch her breath as if she’s just finished running a marathon.
“What got her sick?” Rene asks Dusti whose eyes go as big as Frisbees.
“C’mon now, take baby girl’s lead here and spit it all out.”
“I’ve got food poisoning.” Denise says, panting for air. “I had something bad the other night, thought I was better but…”
Dusti and I share a glance then look at Rene for the verdict.
“Oh fuck. I’ve had that so many times and it’s hell when it hits you.” She says, grabbing a clean towel to wipe Denise’s face. “Just be glad it ain’t comin’ out both ends.”
She’d bought it hook, line and sinker.
It was Denise’s most spectacular moment of cunning and clarity because if there was one thing Rene couldn’t contest or be unable to sympathize with it had to be the result of accidentally getting sick from eating because Rene was a professional eater.
Charlie ran up with the first aid kit, popped it open and handed Rene the medicine.
“Stuke.” Rene barks. “If you’re gonna stand around then make yourself useful and get this girl some water.”
I do as I’m told and come back with a bottle of water for Denise. She pops the pills and chugs the water.
“Thanks.” she says, passing the bottle back to me as her body starts to settle down from being dope sick.
“You’ve gotta be burning up in this jacket.” Rene tells her as she pulls on its sleeve to take it off.
“It’s fine.” Denise says, yanking the sleeve out of Rene’s grip. “I’m just really cold.”
“Ok” Rene tells her without pushing the matter.
“Is it ok if I go back to class?” Denise asks.
“I think you need to take it easy.” Rene says, putting an arm around Denise’s waist and moving her toward the stairs. “There’s an empty office upstairs, I want you to go there and lay down ‘til school lets out.”
“But what about my Core exam this Friday? I need to study so I can be prepared.”
“Denise, don’t worry about it. You’re going to be allowed to take it on your own time with no penalty. Right, Rene?” Charlie says without waiver.
“That’s not gonna be a problem. You just need to relax right now.” Rene says.
“Ok.” Denise tells her, allowing Rene to guide her up the stairs.
“Stuke.” Rene says, turning back at me. “Make sure all them towels in the bin get clean.”
Oh you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.
“Can’t we just throw ‘em away?” I ask in an attempt to avoid the revolting task I’d been given.
“You gonna pay for a buncha new towels?”
“Haven’t I already with my tuition?”
“Don’t push me, boy.”
“I’ll help ya.” Dusti says.
Rene and Denise disappear upstairs and I grab the vomit filled bin and walk to the washing room with Dusti at my side while every Future Professional and their client cringe at the sight of the container in my hands.
“That was a close call.” Dusti says.
“What’s a close call is if I can make it to the laundry room without getting any of Denise’s puke on me.”
“Well if you do you can just add it to the list of all her other fluids you’ve gotten on you.” she says with her Southern sass.
We go into the washing room and I do my best to shake all the towels from the bin as well as its liner without having to come into contact with them.
“Do you think she’ll be ok?” I ask Dusti as she dumps an entire bottle of detergent into the washer.
“As long as she lays up there ‘til schools out she should be.”
“How about you?”
“How ‘bout me what?”
“Are you gonna be ok having her at your place for the next week, taking care of her?”
“Yeah, we’re gonna be fine.” Dusti says, closing the washer’s lid and firing it up.
We walk back to class and everyone looks at us as we walk in.
“Everything good?” Charlie asks.
“Oh you know, just right as rain.” Dusti says as we take our seats.
“Good.” Charlie says with a sigh of relief.
“What was going on with Denise?” Bree, the waif-thin blonde who swore to Rene she’d never cheat on her fiancé asks.
“She got food poisoning.” Dusti says matter of factly.
“I’ve never known food poisoning to make you nod off or act stoned before.” she says with a roll of her eyes.
“And I’ve never known people with uninformed opinions to look smart before.” Dusti says, glaring back at her.
“I mean…we can poison you and see how it all plays out.” Jimbo adds.
“You don’t have to be bitches about it. I just think it’s wrong if someone comes to school all fucked up and throws up all over the place.”
By this point in the day Dusti has been under so much stress, uncertainty and pressure that all of her nerves have been grinded down to one singular, distressed strand and now Bree has decided to jump on it like its a god-damn trampoline.
“I THINK…” Dusti screams as she bolts up from her chair so fast and furious that it falls over. “YOU NEED TO SHUT YOUR FUCKING-“
“HEY!!!!” Charlie yells in a desperate attempt to gain control. “Everyone needs to calm down and get a grip on their emotions ok? It’s been a crazy day and scrapping with one another isn’t gonna make it any better.”
“Well I’m just saying-“
“We heard what you had to say, Bree and while I value your concern the truth is Denise has food poisoning and the past few days have been rough for her and we’re leaving it at that.”
“And if you got anything else to say about it then start a fucking blog.” Jimbo tells Bree with a sneer.
“Jimbo!” Charlie yells.
“Or say nothing at all.” Dusti follows up.
“I’ll say whatever I want.”
“We’re all family here so stop your bickering because it’s un-lady like and unprofessional!” Charlie says, chiding the testy trio.
Dusti picks up her chair and sits back down while Jimbo grumbles something about a spit-roast and Bree adjusts her posture to look prim and proper.
“We’ve got a lot more to cover for the exam in 3 days so open up your books and lets get to it.”
We spend the rest of the afternoon reviewing for the written exam because Charlie has figured the only way to instill order is by assaulting us with a steady stream of information like a cop with a firehose to keep us paralyzed and in in-line.
But a few minutes before school is to let out Charlie ends up undermining all the order and obedience she’d acquired by saying these 6 fatal words:
“Why don’t we play a game… “
I’m gonna hit the pause button right now to fill you in on a little something about Charlie…
Charlie was every student’s favorite Learning Leader. If you were to ask any Future Professional what they thought about Charlie you’d hear nothing but praise and adoration.
She was smart, sincere, and polite and always conducted herself in a way that showed she was wise beyond her years and she LOVED to teach with kindness and support.
But Charlie had one mortal flaw:
Charlie loved orchestrating games.
Now when you have a group of normal, secure, emotionally stable adults, any game can be played without someone becoming aggressively competitive, taking things personally or losing their shit.
However, when you have a group of creatives, most of whom are insecure, emotionally unstable, ruthlessly competitive, take everything personally and are always losing their shit, it’s better you don’t have them play a game because all you’re doing is starting the timer on a thermonuclear bomb.
Yet for some reason Charlie could never grasp this fact.
No matter how many times she’d have Future Professionals play a game that game would always nosedive into chaos and explode with a high velocity impact. Because when you have 200 creative students under one roof it’s not so much a student body as it is a village of savages.
And those savages require very little provocation to turn murderous on one another.
“What kind of game?” Bode makes the mistake of asking.
“Musical chairs!!!” Charlie shouts as if we’ve all won some Publisher’s Clearing House prize.
She gets a gaggle of groans in return.
“Oh come on, it’ll be fun, especially after a tense day so let’s get in touch with our inner-child!”
“Charlie, everyone’s inner-child is a raging lunatic.” I tell her in a plea to abandon this venture.
“Oh stop it, Stuke and get up and play.” she says as she moves all the tables out of the way and puts the chairs into formation.
I do as I’m told and assume the position along with everyone else.
Charlie turns the music on and we all walk around the chairs with the same heightened anxiety as a platoon of soldiers walking into a minefield and then…well, you know how this fucking game works.
I was happily one of the first casualties and after a few go-arounds it was down to 2 chairs and 3 students: Bode, Dusti and Bree.
Charlie hits the music, kills it and Bode immediately (and very gentlemanly like) takes a chair.
Dusti is hovering over the other chair and just as she begins to sit down Bree shoves her out of the way causing Dusti to lose her balance and fall face-first into the floor while Bree plops down on the chair.
A collective “OHHHH!” is let out as everyone looks at Bree with a WTF expression.
“What? I wanna win.” she answers back without apology.
The whole move demonstrates a reckless lack of foresight on Bree’s part because Dusti is a former figure skater whose entire body is toned muscle while Bree is a former bulimic whose entire body is a twig.
Still, you had to hand it to Bree for having balls so big she needed a wheel-barrel to cart them around in.
“YOU FUCKING CUNT!” Dusti screams, jumping to her feet with clenched fists.
“WHOA TIME OUT!!!!!” Charlie says, running over with arms flailing towards Dusti, intervening just as she’s within choking distance of Bree. “Let’s have you go outside and take five.” she tells Dusti, steering her to the door.
“Bree…” Charlie says. “You’re disqualified for unsportsmanlike behavior. Bode, congratulations, you’re the winner.”
“You mean I’m the musical chair king?”
“You are. May your reign be long and DIGNIFIED.” she says, locking eyes with Bree then ushering Dusti out of the classroom.
While Charlie is outside trying to convince Dusti not to pulverize Bree the rest of us move all the tables and chairs back to their original place while Bree stands off to the side.
“She didn’t have to call me a cunt.” she bemoans.
“She didn’t call you a cunt.” Jimbo says, pushing chairs up against a table. “She called you a fucking cunt.”
“I don’t know why you have to be so hostile to me, Jimbo.”
“And I don’t know why you have to keep breathing but here we all are.” Jimbo spits back.
Seconds later Charlie comes back in the room without Dusti.
“Stuke, can you take Dusti’s kit and purse out to her please?”
I grab her stuff and find Dusti at the foot of the stairs with Denise who looks coherent but spent.
Since school is one minute away from being let out Future Professionals loiter around the area where Dusti and Denise are standing and take turns gawking at them and then whispering amongst themselves.
“That was some fucked-up shit.” I tell Dusti as I wheel her kit and purse over to her.
“This whole day has been some fucked-up shit.” she says with a drained voice. “Thanks for grabbing my things.”
“Sure. You feelin’ better, Denise?”
She takes a deep breath and gives a faint smile.
“Yeah, I’m just tired, ready to sleep for a couple days.”
The 5pm bell rings and a herd of black stampedes around Dusti and Denise who slowly trudge towards the exit like two weary warriors, exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally.
On Wednesday Charlie breaks the day in two to simulate what our Core Exam will be like on Friday.
We spend the first part of the day practicing on our doll heads for the practical exam. Going over all the different services we have to know and reciting the 19 perm steps until our voices are hoarse.
The next part of the day Charlie has us taking multiple-choice practice exams. We’re given a set amount of time to complete each exam and when we’re finished we review it. Then we take another exam and review that one.
This monotony continues until it’s time to go home so I can practice everything over again until I pass out.
But since I’ve been diligent about not drinking more than two beers a day so I can focus on my prep it’s good to be passing out from doing instead of drinking. It’s also a good feeling to have my mind and body operating with a lucidity and precision that I haven’t experienced in a long time.
On Thursday we start it all over again, practicing every service on our doll heads until lunch then returning to study and prepare for the written portion afterwards.
“Is Denise good?” Bode asks Dusti during one of our 10min breaks.
“Yeah!” Dusti says with a big smile. “She’s been eatin’, sleepin’ and recovering.”
“When’s she coming back?” I ask.
“Has she heard from her boyfriend?”
“He’s been blowing up her phone and leaving threatening messages but she refuses to give him the time of day which is good. Her parents are flyin’ in tomorrow from one of the Dakotas, Virginias or Carolinas, I can’t remember which, and they’re gonna help her get a new place so she can get away from him for good.”
“That’s awesome news.” Bode says.
“It is.” Dusti says. “And Denise has talked with the school about taking her Core exam at the end of next week so it looks like things are gonna work out.”
“What about her staying clean?” I can’t help but ask.
“She feels so shitty about everything that happened that she never wants to use again so she got in contact with her old sponsor from NA and is gonna start going to meetings and she also came clean to her parents about everything so they’re gonna help her get some outpatient treatment.”
“That’s so good to hear.” Bode and I say as the three of us walk back into school to prepare for another afternoon of practice tests.
“I have a proposition for you guys.” Charlie says as we take our seats. “Based on everyone’s results in all the practice exams we’ve done, you’re all more than ready for it. So if you’d like to take the actual written exam right now we can and that way all you have to worry about tomorrow is the practical exam. And once that’s over you can take it easy the rest of the afternoon.”
Everyone looks at everyone else, trying to gauge who falls on what side. Personally, I was more than ready. I’d been studying my ass off and had no doubt that I was going to ace this thing.
And as far as the rest of the class, they were also down to get it out of the way.
Except for Jimbo.
“I don’t want to do it, I don’t feel like I’m ready.”
“Trust me, Jimbo, you’re ready.” Charlie tells her.
“Besides, everyone else wants to take it today.” I tell her.
“Go fuck yourself and everyone else.” Jimbo yells back at me in a fit of anxiety.
“Jimbo, calm down.” Charlie says, walking over to her and putting her arm around her in a comforting manner.
“I’m just scared.” Jimbo responds, throwing both arms around Charlie’s waist and nestling her head against Charlie’s boobs.
Charlie tries to politely step away but Jimbo has her in an iron grip, slowly inching her hands towards Charlie’s ass.
“Ok, ok…” Charlie says, tapping Jimbo on the back and finally breaking free before Jimbo’s hands hit pay dirt.
“Alright, I feel better now.” Jimbo says, sitting upright and taking out a pen. “Let’s do this.”
Charlie administers the exam. I finish it in 20min flat, being the first one to hand it over to Charlie.
“How do you think you did?” she asks.
“I killed it.”
Once all the exams have been handed in Charlie grades them then calls us up one by one to give them back to us with our results.
Each person gives a smile of relief upon getting their exam and I’m the last one to be called up.
“You got the highest score.” she whispers to me, showing that I’d only missed one answer. “Congratulations.” she says with a warm, dimpled smile.
A sense of pride surges through me like an electrical current igniting a stadium full of bright lights.
“I’m proud of you, Stuke.”
“Me too.” I tell her, grabbing my exam and holding onto it as written proof that I can conquer whatever I set out to do.
“Everyone, I cannot tell you how awesome you all are. Each one of you rose to the occasion in taking this test by surprise. You all adapted to the situation, used your heads and came out on top, all traits of being a successful stylist. Now give yourselves a god-damn round of applause!” Charlie says.
The room erupts in cheers, hoots, hollers and clapping and seconds later the 5pm bell rings.
“Now don’t get cocky, you’re only halfway there and tomorrow is a monster. Make sure you get plenty of rest because you’re going to need all the concentration and energy you can muster.” she warns us as we spill out of the classroom.
On my drive home I look in the rearview mirror and realize that I like what’s looking back at me.
I hadn’t thought about Gums much and when I did I didn’t want to fall apart, I didn’t want to do anything because I had proven to myself that I could recover and become so much more than what someone had done to me.
It felt empowering, liberating and above all else, redeeming.
I was now on the path I was meant to be on and I was on my way to becoming who I was supposed to be.
I get home and grab a beer and then another one, drinking for the first time in months to celebrate instead of medicate and it feels soooooo good.
Good enough to break my self-enforced two drink maximum because feeling successful feels exhilarating.
So I have a few more, then a few more after that, then a few shots, celebrating with myself (and paving the way for a tremendous hangover) passing out around 4am and completely disregarding Charlie’s warning about needing rest, concentration and energy for the practical exam in a few hours.