My Cousin Deborah by Dennis Milam Bensie

     I had all the doors and windows in the house wide open. Three fans were strategically placed about in an effort to circulate the air around, but it was hot air and did no good. It was a miserable day. I was not sure why I agreed to put a home perm in my fifteen year old niece’s hair on the hottest day of the summer of 1980.

     Penny bounced into the house and my knees almost buckled. She had brought with her our fifteen year old cousin, Deborah. I hadn’t seen Deborah in several years. The girls were talking a mile a minute and I was absolutely stunned to see Deborah. She had gotten so tall and beautiful.

     “Hey, Janet. Debbie wants a perm, too,” Penny announced and launched right back into their girl talk without skipping a beat. Fifteen year old girls took everything for granted. I was quickly reminded of when I was fifteen years old and all that crazy gibber-jabber.
     Penny was my sister’s girl, born without her father around. There had been many stepfathers around since. I had as many marriages as my sister. So had our mother. Bad choices ran in our family.

     “Who wants to go first?” I asked.

     “I will,” said Penny. She sat down with Toni the perm kit and took out all the pieces and placed them on the kitchen table.

     The girls kept talking and talking about boys. Penny was no stranger to the older boys who smoked and drank and had their own cars. Penny never really had a curfew and could pass for a twenty-five year old with her ample breasts.

     Despite being cousins, I never got to know Deborah very well. I quickly figured out from the girl’s conversation that my cousin was much calmer than my niece. Cousin Deborah strictly liked boys her own age from afar. I gathered that she never had a boyfriend and was still a virgin. She copied everything Penny said and did and obviously aspired to be more like Penny, but didn’t have the confidence yet. That concerned me greatly.
     “Here, let me help you, Janet. I’ll hand you these so this will go faster,” Deborah said.
     “Thank you, Honey,” I said with sweat running down my back. Her attention barely left Penny’s boy-crazy chatter as she began methodically handing me the perm rods, one by one, on my cues.

     Cousin Deborah had a past that she didn’t even know about. She was adopted by my uncle Henry and aunt Emily when she was a baby ...the result of a teen pregnancy. But Deborah still didn’t know that she was adopted. The whole extended family wondered when and if she would ever be told the truth by her adoptive parents. The girl had been raised well by Henry and Emily, but she was living in a lie and didn’t even know it. Uncle Henry sternly warned everyone in the extended family not to spill the beans about Deborah’s adoption or there would be serious consequences.

     I got Penny’s hair all rolled on the rods and it was Deborah’s turn. She traded places with Penny at the table. She got comfortable in the chair with her back close to me and I almost passed out. A wave of hot air hit me which made the stench of the perm solution smell much stronger.
     My hands were getting very tired as I finished rolling Deborah’s hair. The girls set the egg timer and ran off to watch their soap opera with their heads reeking of the perm solution.

     As much as I loved my niece, I would never want to be her or be fifteen again. A girl never forgets being labeled a slut. My sister wasn’t doing a good job of being a mother. How could she be a good mom? We never had a good mom ourselves.

     The timer dinged.

     The girls went to the bathroom and rinsed each other’s hair. I watched them pull their own perm rods out. They giggled and admired their wet, new curls in the bathroom mirror.

     “Now don’t wash your hair or go swimming for a few days or the perm won’t hold,” I warned as they bounced toward the front porch to leave.
     “We won’t, Janet. Thanks for perming my hair,” Deborah said giving me a hug and staring me square in the face.
     I froze on the hottest day of the summer of 1980.

     I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Looking back at me were the eyes of a cute young guy who picked me up one Friday night by the side of the road when I was fifteen.

     “You’re welcome, Deborah,” I said. “Please be careful.”

Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. He holds a degree in Theatre Costume Design from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and completed an apprenticeship in theatrical wig construction at Los Angeles Opera. His costume and wig design for Valley of the Dolls at Empty Space Theatre in Seattle garnered him a feature article in Entertainment Design Magazine and a Seattle Times Footlight Award for Best Design. 1n 2012, his video WE DO THE (WIG) WORK took first place at the Washington State Labor Council Film Contest and was shown at the Seattle International Film Festival. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men, was published by Coffeetown Press and was a pick by the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011″. His second book, One Gay American, was released in September 2012 to rave reviews. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs.

Bay Laurel  /  Volume 1, Issue 2  /  Winter 2012