Washing Your Hair In A Truck Stop Sink

Jessica Blankenship
Jessica Blankenship

The first bathroom we used on tour was in the house where we played our first show. Two members of the band we played with, Anchors, Balloons, still lived with their parents in Lombard, Illinois. They gave us clean towels that smelled like mountain-spring dryer-sheets. Peeling, floral wallpaper curled over itself and trembled beneath the exhaust fan. The shower itself was made of peachy tile, that awful signature color of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. It was June 18th, 2007.

I avoided eye contact with my reflection in their bathroom mirror. Given the task of defining myself in a million different contexts in the upcoming weeks, I was a bundle of nerves. The band was headed west, as far out as Omaha, Nebraska, then down south through Oklahoma, and then back to Indiana via Missouri and Illinois. This would take about two weeks. Fourteen days away from my friends, my family, and my boyfriend, Tony. This tour was a practice round for post-collegiate life. We had high hopes as a band, especially on the second half of the tour.  After a four-day break we would head east through Richmond, VA, Washington DC, and straight for two shows in New York City, where a representative of Island Records was waiting to meet with us. We would head home through Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In Milwaukee, two nights in, we used a dim-lit, grungy bathroom of four hipster dudes from the opening band we performed with. They lived in the former attic of an old Victorian home that had been gutted and turned into apartments. The single light fixture of their bathroom had no working bulbs.  A small half-moon window offered the only light. It was a struggle to read the labels of the four different organic shampoos they had. A small pile of hair clogged the drain. I showered in record time.

My duffel bag had been my constant companion that summer. Through May and the beginning of June I had been splitting my weeks between Muncie and Bloomington Indiana, between a barista gig and an unpaid internship at a record label. When in Bloomington I stayed with Tony. He was taking French classes to prepare for the Peace Corps. Neither of us knew anyone in Bloomington, we spent the bulk of our time together walking around the town and making up stories about the homes or reading aloud to one another or listening to books on tape. Every few nights we would splurge and buy a few cheap bottles of German white wine and drink them all. Before the end of May he had bought me my own toothbrush to keep at his place. I left it there for safekeeping when the band hit the road, a small attempt to leave traces of myself planted wherever I could.

In my duffel bag you could find my own shampoo, Garnier Fruictis 2-in-1. It made the trip with me to every bathroom. The myriad of hygiene options presented in each strange shower were often too hard to resist, beginning with the hipster’s bathroom in Milwaukee. Mint-scented organic shampoo? What would that feel like? It ended up being no thicker than the water running down my back. It seeped between my fingers and circled down the drain.

“Man, my hair smells so good!” Gavin, our front-man, exclaimed on the bus, on the way out of Milwaukee. His sandy-blond coif whipped him in the face as we sped down the highway. I asked him if he had used my Garnier, which I had left in the bathroom for the rest of the band to use.  “No, I used that mint stuff they had. Actually I used all four shampoos they had, and it was awesome.” He paused and ran a hand through his hair. “I love showering at other people’s houses. They always have such cool shit.” Gavin’s showers were marathons, and rarely left the person who followed with any warm water.

We were headed to Iowa that day, I let my hair air-dry in the open window of the bus. It snapped back and forth with violence, whipping my cheeks, my eyes. By the time we reached our venue in Iowa I had a small rats’ nest on my head. We unloaded our equipment quickly and I ducked into the women’s restroom to try and transform before our set. Combing my hair was painful. I put on my makeup under a single flickering fluorescent light. The walls of the bathroom were dark blue and littered with drunken sharpie rants.

The next day, the morning of June 20th, I took my favorite shower. We had spent the night a farm an hour outside of Des Moines. I was the first awake and tip-toed over the sleeping bodies of my bandmates on the living room floor. The bathroom was white and had a steady clean breeze through its lace-curtained window. It gave me goosebumps under the hot water. Outside roosters crowed, horses whinnied. I washed my hair twice. The bathroom belonged to one of our MySpace fans. She picked fresh eggs and made us breakfast. Afterward I played “Claire de Lune” for her on her baby-grand piano while the rest of the band got ready.

Our banjoist, Justin, was particular about his hygiene. It was a wonder he wanted to be in a touring band at all.  He refused to go a day without a shower and was consistently first to use the bathroom if he woke up in time.  He was self-conscious about pitting out shirts on stage, which he always managed to do.  The other four guys would rough it, waiting a day or two between cleaning, settling for a fresh application of deodorant and a new undershirt. Justin wouldn’t compromise.

On June 22nd, in Minneapolis, we were kicked out of the house we stayed in immediately upon waking. Justin became the first of us to wash his hair in a bathroom sink that day. The rest of us waited it out. We were staying with good friends in Nebraska the next night. We were fortunate; out West we always had a place to stay.

In a last-ditch effort at self-preservation, I held back from calling or texting Tony too often, instead writing him letter upon letter, all of which went unsent. He wasn’t pleased by my aloofness and wasn’t afraid to say so.  His complaints were warranted. Regardless of our inauspicious circumstances, we were attached to each other and in too deep to refute it. When the four-day break arrived I charged sped down the highway in my Chevy Cavalier straight to him, wearing a white and blue dress. Tony greeted me open-armed in his backyard and twirled me around. Afterward he made me dinner and sang Bob Dylan tunes.

We woke up late and hung-over after sharing a few bottles of wine. I was happy to discover my toothbrush right where I left it – in a plastic toothbrush holder next to his sink. Despite the automatic air freshener that distributed an awful fake-cotton scent in the room every four minutes, his bathroom smelled overwhelmingly of Old Spice. Tony’s bathtub was claw-footed and had a heavy grey shower curtain. The tile floor was black and white, checkered. We showered without the light on, instead letting the sunlight filter through the leaves of a tree outside the bathroom window. We sang each other songs.

The four days passed calmly. We were careful not to discuss either of our impending departures or his forthcoming country assignment, though it loomed anyway. We went to the used bookstore and purchased a 1960’s army survival guide. We passed the days wandering around Bloomington, figuring out different ways to start fires and determine which way was north. At night we played cribbage and listened to books on tape. We made plans for him to come and pick me up in Toledo, Ohio where we would perform our last show of the tour, two weeks later. His aunt and cousins lived in Toledo and invited us to stay with them. On July 5th, he kissed me goodbye and left for his French class. By the time he returned to his apartment that evening, the band and I were well on our way to Richmond, Virginia.

There’s an art to washing your hair in a truckstop sink. Within a week my scalp was littered with faucet-shaped bruises from attempting to soak my shoulder-length hair in shallow basins. The worst of them I received In Richmond, Virginia, our second stop East. The doors of the bathroom stalls were something from a B-52’s music video, glittered red vinyl. The sinks were fake black marble, the faucets brass. I was brushing my teeth when another woman walked into the bathroom. She grimaced at my foamy Crest mouth and soaked head and ducked into the bathroom stall closest to the door. I rinsed off, brushed my hair, and washed my face before she flushed – two minutes tops. I exited the bathroom like a bullied kid with a swirly, my pride cut in half. My wet t-shirt clung to my shoulders and back. My face was bare.

We had pinned all of our hopes on one show on July 22nd in New York at the Knitting Factory.  A scout from Island records would be there to see us perform. Two journalists from an Indianapolis arts magazine would be there to cover our performance. We arrived in New York in the early evening the night before to play a set at the Yippie Cafe on Bleecker Street, two blocks from CBGB’s. We spent the night at our friend Reuben’s hallway of an apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I slept on a chair in his kitchen.

I woke up with a horrendous neck cramp and took a quick shower. There wasn’t enough space for all of us to mill about the apartment so I spent the morning reading on the front stoop of the brownstone. Around eleven my phone rang, it was Tony. He had big news – he had just gotten off the phone with the Peace Corps. They had his country assignment. He would be leaving for Togo, Africa on September 19th.  My relationship officially had an expiration date. I was hollowed out. Ten hours to gather myself before the big show. We walked around New York City all day – Times Square, the Chelsea District, Greenwich Village – none of these sights committed themselves to my memory.

Then, show time. We loaded in at seven and hunkered down at the bar to answer a few questions for the journalists before taking stage. The house drum kit disintegrated during our second song. The cable connecting my Wurlitzer to the PA provided nothing but feedback before giving out completely. Gavin managed to break not one but two strings by time we limped our way to our fifth song. It was a catastrophe. There wasn’t enough PBR in the world for us to drown our sorrows in. What little band beer we did get was completely flat.

Afterward, we were unable to get a hold of Reuben, who had graciously invited us to stay with him again. We ended up imposing ourselves on the one-man band who had opened for us. He had a 500-square-foot efficiency in Brooklyn. There wasn’t enough space for the seven of us. Our drummer Joey ended up sleeping in the bathtub. The bathroom was wallpapered with pages from old anatomy textbooks.

We didn’t really use it — the one-man band was a preschool teacher by day, and had to leave for work by 5 a.m. We left when he did, in the early morning rain, and slept for a couple of hours on the bus. We departed New York City damp, defeated, and unbathed.

In New Jersey, a woman changed her daughter’s diaper in a regular stall rather than use the changing station next to the sink I was using. We were the only three people in the bathroom, which was airport-sized. In her eyes, I was homeless.

On July 27th, I woke up to the sound of my phone vibrating against the wood-paneled seat of our bus.  We had stopped at a truck stop 140 miles from Toledo. The rest of the band was asleep. I sprayed them with Febreze as I exited.

The stop had private bathrooms for truckers. It looked vaguely like a bathroom of a Motel 6, but without towels or sample soaps. The yellow-orange fluorescent glow was the same, as was the half-assembled stainless steel hardware. The showerhead was cheap and hosed me down with aggression. Several people tried to get in the bathroom. I studied myself in the mirror while they fiddled with the locked door handle. It was the last day of tour. I ached from each hair follicle to each toe. There were circles under my eyes. My collar bone protruded. There was a bruise the size of my heart on my upper-thigh. Originally a lesion-black, it had transformed into a muscle-tissue mauve, my skin transparent. The bruise a direct result of my aggressive tambourining. It’s bastard brothers covered my body. You could see my ribs. Ten pounds lost over the course of two weeks. Tony would pick me up that night. What he would think?

The image of the lace curtain in Iowa came back to me.  How the sunlight had ached through the unscreened windows. The murmur of my bandmates rousing on the couches in the living room. The comfort of soft water on my bare back. That was only six weeks prior, but felt like eternity.

Late that night, Tony’s heavy and bare shoulders rose and fell next to me. I lay awake and concentrated on the blade of a ceiling fan. We had one more month before he left for Africa, but already his anxiety caused his jaw to clench in his sleep. He couldn’t feel me holding him, and doing so gave me little comfort. The women in the restrooms in Virginia and New Jersey were closer to the truth than I could admit. My apartment in Muncie was sublet through the end of the month, my parents had financially cut me off, I had no job, and nowhere to go once Tony took me back. I had placed my bets on the heads of myself and six boys, musicians, without a plan for the future or enough ambition to get us anywhere.

The ceiling fan made me nauseous. I got up for a glass of water and studied my fading frame beneath one of Tony’s old wrestling team tees. I took it off and drew a shower. It was 3 a.m. My bag with my shampoo and body wash was still in the trunk of his Camry. I reached for the shampoo that hung from the shower head and braced my eyes against the falling water. TC Mark

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