There are moments that are harder to recall from paper. They live in the figments of themselves, wandering through memory and only living through the sometimes-recollection of “remember that time.” The best memories work to build themselves up from others; like stacking blocks in chilly doctors’ offices to create the perfect temporary monument. Does that make them any less valid or useful as a starting point to a tale like mine? To tell the whole story, the complete story, it cannot be told just from the beginning. It has to be from a point of reference.
Much like the movie “Juno,” it begins and ends with a chair.
I was about five or six when I could first recall it. That excitement of Sundays when my mother would pull back the sleeves of her faded high school sports t-shirts and begin the struggle of taming my hair. It began with her manicured hands running through my frizzy, lopsided, badly-stretched braids, untying them. My tiny feet were perched on the specially designated stool in the kitchen, bent neck-forward into the sink. The water hit, running cool down my forehead, and I smelled the lather of the shampoo through my scalp. My brother, amused by some toys or a coloring book, would hold only the slightest interest at this strange ritual.
My hair hung damp when my mother finished, and I was moved to the living room. She sat on the off-white couch, and I moved my favorite floor pillow to the spot in front of her. I would hear the opening credits of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and she bent my head forward, parting it with the comb and braiding it for the week.
This was our Sunday ritual.
Until elementary school, I’d never given much thought to my hair. It was on my head, and it hung with different styles and barrettes, but other than that, I really didn’t have an opinion on it. But then, over time, I noticed the way that strangers would fawn over my hair, marveling at its length and its shine, saying, “Oh, look at how healthy it is.” After a while I just reasoned that yes, hair was an important thing and I should make an effort to make it look nice because that’s what people like me do.
The first time I visited a hair salon, I was accompanying my mother on one of her religious visits. My mother was always someone who took pride in her appearance, and I admired her for it. She reminded me of one of the limited-edition Barbie dolls that you weren’t allowed to play with, but would marvel at its beauty on the highest shelf in the store. The hairdresser had a stool unlike the one at my home for the sink-washing Sunday rituals. This one stood firm, with unfriendly wood that even looked uncomfortable from afar. I climbed in, and it would be a long time before I would find joy in the hair-washing rituals again.
There were no more sink-washing days for years. Instead, every six weeks I would go to a salon where I would be tortured for the sake of appearances. At least that’s what it felt like to me. The creamy white product spread to my fuzzy scalp and edges were deceptive. White was supposed to be the color of purity and innocence, but this was straight up demonic. I was forced to reduce my wiggling and discomfort to sitting on my hands and moving my feet. As much as I despised the burning of the product, I wanted to know what it would be like to be the doll on the highest shelf. I wanted to feel the weight of the admiration for something other than being quiet, obedient, smart. I wanted to feel pretty.
The product did not disappoint. The perm, once washed out, left my hair bone straight. My mother showed me how to keep it straight in between appointments, and remain neat and pretty. For the first time, I saw my own reflection and I felt like I matched with my mother. I still had my wire-rimmed glasses with the string around my neck to keep it from falling off of my face. My two front teeth had begun to grow in crooked, leaving a rather large gap in between. I couldn’t always tell if the laughter of my classmates came from the punchline of my jokes or a punchline I was somehow immune to hearing.
But at least I was pretty.
I reached high school with a dull feeling of contentment. I was weary now of the stares and the fawning, because I could see them now as the superficial glazing that they were. I no longer believed that the goodness of a person lied within the amount of praise that they received. When I looked into the mirror, I just saw strands that reminded me of tripping before the goal line. There were no words for what I felt.
Before I knew it, the summer of my senior year bloomed before my eyes. As I delved online, I came across the most peculiar looking images. Women, with skin sparkling toffee like mine, threw their heads back in the kind of bright confidence I’d only heard myths about. And their hair was nothing like mine. They were curly and frizzy and spiraling, in colors of carrot and cherry and marigold. They were alive. I was captivated.
After a few weeks, I discovered that this hair wasn’t the kind that I could sit and achieve in a session at a salon. It would grow from my head, the unattached crown to declare my identity to the world. I’d never craved something so badly for myself. Taking a good, hard look in the mirror at my own limp, dried strands, I now saw that maybe — just maybe — I could shine like that. The kind of sparkle I could now see came in my own size.
I was filled with apprehension to bring the idea to my mother. Years of dedicating Saturday mornings to crowded salons had left her stuck in routine, and worse, thinking I’d enjoyed the process. I’d spilled the idea to her over a car ride to the store — I couldn’t contain the excitement any longer.
“Wait… you want to cut it all off?” she said slowly at a red light.
“All of it? Like your brother’s?”
“That’s right, Ma.”
She pursed her lips in thought for a moment. I braced myself for the initial rejection. After all, what other kind of reaction would she have? She was still vibrantly glistening, almost unaware of her place among the high shelf even after all these years. But for the first time, I saw the glisten in her eyes that her child hadn’t quite made it up with her. I think that’s what made her change her mind.
“Just do me one favor. Keep it long for senior portraits. Then I’ll take you to the salon myself,” she sighed as she pulled out her phone to make the appointment.
I could hardly contain my excitement. When I brushed my hair for the last time, I could only remember feeling that tingly bubbling in my stomach, like when you fall down a roller coaster for the first time. I willed the discomfort of the pin curls out of my mind, because I was so close to the freedom I’d never known that I wanted so badly. It tickled my palms now, wanting to grab hold and exclaim, “Yes, we’ve made it together.”
In my senior portraits I beamed; I didn’t need to chase the seat on the high shelf anymore. My mother stood in the corner, giving me a thumbs up. She was on my side.
The streets were quiet as we drove to the salon that Friday night. The regular lot was filled, the only remaining parking located on a side street a few blocks over. In all of my experience with salons, that tingle of excitement bubbled for the first time that night. Never mind that the salon itself was filled to capacity, with all kinds of students and grandmothers waiting patiently for their turn with the hellish white liquid perm. Today, I would not wait my turn.
My hairdresser called me over between an elderly grandmother in the middle of her roller set and a twentysomething with a track of weave hanging from her hairstylist’s fingers. I shook out my hair, still bouncing from the senior portraits taken earlier, and felt the familiar eyes lingering on the length.
“So what are we getting done today?” My hairdresser said. I saw the beginnings of the possibilities playing in her head. I pulled out the folded picture of the nameless model with her close-cropped hair, head bent back in laughter.
“Wait, you want it cut off?”
In all my years I’d never heard a hair salon, filled to the brim on a Friday night, fall so silent.
I smiled shyly. “Yep. All of it. Just like this.”
The hairdresser looked at my mother with apprehension. Even the elderly woman next to me turned around, ignoring me, and remarked, “You’re just gonna let her cut it all off and run around like a boy? What will her boyfriend think?”
I wanted to sink into the leather chair and hide from embarrassment, but my mother’s voice rose above the silence. “She’ll look beautiful, just like she does now. She’s making the right decision.”
Gratitude swelled inside me.
My hairdresser returned, placing my hair into ponytail holders to cut. Snip snip went the scissors, and I saw the first long tresses fall to the floor. I imagined that they were the strands of insecurity that held me back all those years, tethering me to the lukewarm ideas and half-intended compliments thrown my way solely because of long hair. Now, the shorter my hair got, the more I felt the sparkling confidence wash over me. There was no more hiding now. I could be myself, and it would be all right.
Once my hair was mostly cut, my hairdresser grabbed an electric razor and cleaned up the edges. When she was finally done, I spun around to face the mirror.
My mother’s hands clasped my shoulders. She kissed my cheek and said, “You look beautiful.”
For the first time I believed her. I saw us both, sitting together on the high shelf. Running my hands through my scalp, I settled into the freedom. I had reached inside and cut to the root — literally. What remained was the beginning of showing my true self to the world.
I climbed out of the chair, renewed.