The first time my heart was crushed I had just turned ten. Sure, I had been “in love” before, it was just that those who came before Robert really didn't count.
I was a skinny, gangly thing, taller than all the boys in my class and to top it all off I had a weird mop of short, bushy, frizzy reddish hair. My one wish throughout my childhood was to have long hair, but my mother had decided early on to spare me this torture. Being the only one of her three daughters to have inherited her thick, unruly hair, my mother felt she was doing me a favour by keeping it short. Her memories were dark of the long hours she had spent submitting to her mother's merciless tugging with a fine-tooth comb, braiding her hair so tight her scalp hurt. But I believed I would have welcomed that pain, and so year after year on Christmas and birthday wish-lists there it was at the very top: long hair.
But she never relented, and as a result I spent my formative years constantly being mistaken for a boy. Instead of being the stereotypical adorable chubby little girl, with ringlets tumbling down her shoulders, I was a stick-like, straight-backed boy/girl.
OK, so maybe I wasn’t that pretty, but for ages that didn’t matter, there was no real awareness of any awkwardness. Sure it was annoying when strangers assumed I was a boy, but in my carefree existence, gender issues did not feature high on the agenda. And boys liked me, perhaps not in the same way they liked my best friend Lotta (who looked like an angel with her long blond curls), but because I was one of them. For several years I could even out-jump them in long jump, and I guess they respected me for that.
But then Robert moved to our village and everything changed. You have to try and visualise the devastating effect he had on our little community. Not only did he speak with a Stockholm accent, he had lived in America and so spoke fluent English (or so he said, we had no way of knowing of course). He was tall (even taller than me, and that was a first), he was blonde and he was wonderfully good looking. Dynamics in our class changed almost over night. All seven girls instantly swooned and we found ourselves in competition with each other for the first time. The well-established hierarchy amongst the boys was of course disrupted and challenged. Robert became the new leader.
In my innocence I saw no reason why he shouldn’t like me. After all I was one of the most popular girls. I recall the day it all changed, clearly as if it was yesterday. Robert was at the teacher’s desk sharpening his pencil with the only communal pencil sharpener. I was standing next to him, waiting my turn. It was late spring and I can even recall the sun streaming in through the dusty windows. When Robert had finished he turned to me and said, “Why does your hair always look like a mushroom?” I don’t recall my reply, but I do remember trying to play cool even though inside I was crumbling. He hadn’t said it in a nasty way, but the effect it had on my ten year-old self was enormous and immediate. Not only was this my first experience with heart break, but the origins of the very fragile relationship I have with my hair all my life, can be traced back to that very moment.
Many years later when I was living in Toronto, I opened the newspaper one day and came face to face with a photograph of him covering almost half the page. By now he was a successful ice hockey player, playing for Montreal Canadiens. He was still glamorous, he was still dangerously handsome. But although I had by no means morphed into a swan, and I was only a student waitressing to make ends meet, I noted with a sense of relief that whilst my heart did skip a beat or two at the sight of him, it was no longer crushed.