No email subject line strikes fear in the hearts of parents of young children quite like "Head Lice."
These emails invariably arrive late in the day—maddening in timing, ambiguity, and precision all at once. Also it's impossible to read one without feeling itchy.
"Dear Kindergarten Parents,
We have a confirmed case of Head Lice in the classroom. Please be aware our school has a no nit policy!
Have a great evening!
"Best," as Samantha quipped years ago on Sex and the City, is the worst. In this case, it means your evening plans are shot to hell. It means 837 loads of laundry and hours of combing.
The first time one of the Head Lice greetings hit my inbox, I remained calm and called the school.
And scratched my itchy head while I sat on hold.
The Grape, they assured me, had checked out nit free.
Which of course meant nothing, seeing as the whole problem with Head Lice is they spread. They've got strong little legs, and they lay eggs like it's their job. Which I suppose it is.
To make matters worse, I'd just spent the day on a field trip with all 32 kindergarten students.
I'd encouraged them to cram in closer for a group photo.
I'd ridden the bus for forty-five minutes each way with these kids.
I'd laughed as they literally piled all over each other on the playground.
It was five p.m. when I saw the email. I'd arranged to meet an old friend for an early dinner. I was still dusty, sweaty, and utterly unfit to be seen in a nice restaurant. I'd banked on having thirty minutes to clean myself up.
Now I had to de-louse the Grape.
I did what any reasonable adult would do.
I procured the special shampoo and the evil metallic nit comb, forced the Grape to shed all his clothes on the patio, and refused to admit him to the house until I'd treated his head. (This all seemed reasonable at the time. In my defense, it was an extraordinarily warm spring day.)
I asked Siri to find me a photo of a nit. I held the phone next to the Grape's head, barked at the poor little guy to hold still.
There was something small and white. Dandruff? It really, truly looked like dandruff, but I wasn't about to take chances.
I know about Head Lice. I got them at school (twice) at age five.
The first time, I got shampooed with awful insecticidal liquid. It came in a brown prescription bottle, smelled like industrial solvent, and was dispensed to my frazzled mother by a frowning and judgmental pharmacist.
I remember it burning.
I had long hair. It took four hours to comb.
The second time I came home with Head Lice, I got the horrible shampoo again.
I also got a tragic home haircut and spent the rest of the school year looking like the Dutch Boy from the paint can—a drastic esthetic my mother inexplicably saw fit to commemorate with a Woolworth's portrait, which still, equally inexplicably, hangs in a place of honor in my late grandmother's living room.
I was not getting a boy haircut, but I had twenty minutes remaining to get turned around and nit free.
I hauled a bucket of warm water and the modern, pleasant-smelling special shampoo outside.
The Grape went along with it all until he realized I was proposing al fresco hair washing. He started to whine. He appealed to logic. "My teacher didn't see any on me!"
Lila the Dog and Lucy the Cat wandered onto the deck to see what the fuss was about.
"Siri!" I demanded, as a fresh terror gripped my soul. "Can dogs and cats get head lice?"
It took her a minute, but she was certain they could not.
The poor, naked Grape protested, cried that he wanted to come indoors. He was so very tired and he didn't like all this combing, and he was so, so, so hungry, too. And the towel I had wrapped around him was soaking wet.
"STAY ON THE PATIO! I WILL GET YOU A CRACKER!" I yelled. "NO! YOU CANNOT COME IN THE HOUSE AND MOMMY IS LATE AND STILL NEEDS TO SHOWER AND PUT ON MAKEUP AND YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW BAD IT WILL BE IF LICE GET IN OUR HOUSE! YOU STAY OUT THERE OR ELSE! AND BY THE WAY, THIS SHAMPOO ISN'T NEARLY AS BAD AS WHAT MOMMY HAD TO ENDURE AS A KID, SO FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST WORK WITH ME HERE!"
The Grape burst into tears. Loud tears. It was not a proud parenting moment for me.
My neighbor, an innocent and childless bystander, who happened to be walking his dog in the alley below, heard the whole exchange. He gave me a strange look. He didn't appear concerned enough to call social services, but I got the distinct impression he walked away thinking we might deserve a reality show.
I decided I had to cancel on my friend at the very moment a text arrived from her: "You won't believe the day I had. So happy to be going out. See you soon!"
I couldn't bail. I hate when people bail.
I texted back: "Head Lice. Need Wine. 15 minutes late. So sorry!"
She responded immediately, offering to cancel. Nonsense, I told her.
R. arrived home. For twenty minutes, I combed what I now believe were pieces of the Grape's scalp through his wet hair while R. examined mine, strand by strand. We probably looked like an ape family picking at each other. Every stitch of clothing the Grape and I had been wearing went into the washer. R. and I congratulated ourselves on dodging a bullet. I told R. I probably should go apologize to the neighbor, explain it was a louse emergency. He advised leaving well enough alone.
I made it to my dinner, half an hour late, with wet but (hopefully) nit-free hair.
My friend declined to hug me.
We got the Head Lice email again this week.
By now, the parent community has enough louse-based war stories that everyone has a suggestion.
"Drench your hair with olive oil and sleep with a shower cap over it," is the best one I've heard. "It suffocates the buggers."
That's hot, right?
It's not like there aren't a million blogs bemoaning the fact that adult time becomes non-existent in households with little kids.
Now we are supposed to sexy ourselves up with shower caps?
I'm going out right now to buy them for all of us. Just in case.