This Thursday when Leah comes to my farm to pick up her weekly produce box, all her hair is gone. Just like that. Last week mousy brown strands brushed her shoulders, slid behind her ears. Today a pink scarf wraps around her head, hugging the skin like a bandage, so close I can see the unevenness of her skull.
When Leah joined my farm CSA, she explained how she’d never liked vegetables but was having health problems. It’s breast cancer, she’d said, so I’m trying to eat better. It crossed my mind that this might happen one day, Leah arriving hairless from chemo, but I hadn’t thought of what I’d say.
I don’t look at her head. I act as if I don’t notice any difference at all. I wave hello and rush to the back of the barn where boxes of produce sit stacked inside a cooler. I clench my fists, digging my fingernails into my palms until they etch lines across my skin. I’m certain there’s something I’m meant to say in this situation— when a not-quite-friend, not-quite-stranger shows up one clear afternoon without a wisp of hair left on her head. I try to come up with the right words but all I can think about are the paper doll cut-outs I had as a kid, how I’d select a hairdo for each doll, cut it out and paste it around her face. I imagine placing a cutout of a brown bob atop Leah’s bare head.
In the cooler I lift a box of produce from the stack and turn to leave. Then I remember something Leah said months ago: I’ll eat everything except peppers or onions, she’d told me, that’s where I draw the line.
I look down at the box in my arms, it’s full of peppers. Green ones, red, and orange. I pull all the peppers out and shove them into neighboring boxes. But then I remember a few weeks back when Leah told me she’d been reading about healing with food, so now all your vegetables are really important to me, she’d said. Had she truly meant all the vegetables, had she meant the peppers too? I fish my hand into the other boxes to retrieve the discarded peppers and arrange them neatly back into Leah’s box. I throw in an extra melon for her two young boys who I know dislike vegetables as much as their mother but love the sticky sweetness of watermelon, then stuff in a handful of zucchini, an extra basket of cherry tomatoes.
The air inside the cooler pimples my skin. Leah’s box is heavy and heaping in my arms. Have I given her too much? What if she can’t make use of everything? Maybe she’s too tired to cook, too tired to fight with her boys to make them eat their vegetables. Now she’ll have to watch the extra veggies go soft and slimy in her fridge, toss them out with old newspapers and milk cartons. I pluck out the added zucchini, shut the cooler door, and walk back to where Leah waits. Still, I have thought of nothing to say.
Leah stands with her back facing me. A strand of her pink scarf has come loose and falls over her shoulder. My forearms burn from the weight of the box, and I set it on the counter behind Leah. Here it is, I say. I don’t mean to look her directly in the eyes, but she turns to face me and it’s unavoidable. For a moment, our eyes meet—mine brown and stuck wide open, hers blue and narrowed by puffy lids. If there is a right thing to say, I’m not going to find it.
The box is pretty heavy this week, I can carry it out to your car, I offer.
No thanks, Leah says, and scoops the box from the counter. I half expect her to collapse with the weight of it, but she hugs it to her waist with one arm like a pillow. With her other hand, she brushes the loose tail of her scarf over her shoulder in one quick flick, like she’s done it a thousand times before. She walks out to her car, her hips swinging the box as if it is filled with vegetables made only of papier-mâché, as if it weighs nothing at all.