When I Was Twelve, I Couldn’t Brush My Hair
by Taylor Manigoult
Hair strands on wood floors are just as bad as splinters, but that’s only what my Mother taught me, and when next door neighbor Ashley’s hair lay on our floors, it’d get on me; I would pretend it was mine. Sometimes blonde strands sparkled on my little black shoulders and if I looked at it I could say it was mine. Mine, and straight, and right, but only when it got on me.
My mom said the landscape of her shaved scalp looked something like potholes of little gravel, but instead it was dirt and tendrils of yesterday. After that, she never said much- we were altogether taciturn on matters concerning … her head. She laughed hairless and loved hairless, but all through undertones of truths that said the world would disregard her bare. Truths, or womanly, feminine things, that tasted like salt tears – I know this taste from when I looked at her. I was hush, but what I cried wasn’t her moods.Regardless of who felt what, I wanted to follow feelings that would hide her head and hairless body – because I had seen the way she crossed her arms so softly over her tummy at the hair store cashier counter and give her debit card money to a man, while pulling her white wool sweater further, and further over her hands, and glancing slow and. nervous to check out the perimeters for people, while buying new wigs. Her alopecia was to shame there, on her scalp, but funny how on her legs and arms that softness was good and desirable. My dad shaved my mom’s head the first time it happened, but my mom never let me see under her unders, or beneath her hides – without her wigs, until years later when I was much older. So when I was a child, living under something meant being sweaty to me, and my mom always was fanning her dark sticky leather skin face and saying she wanted to “…take this thing off”. For all her laughs and loves, she still lived of an under, and I followed moods of embarrassment and hid her scalp too.
During elementary school is when I hated my Mother. I dropped crayola marker letters from the banister, and they had illustrations on them – to say “I hate you”. I was all curt attitudes of stupid and stupid and stupid, and she told me she hated me too. Her, “I hate you too” was an educational method of reverse psychology to make me feel some vitriolic connotation; we never said those words again. But it was during the same time I told my mom I wished she was a white woman, and I wonder if those words are worse than hate. It was a TV time, and while she watched something intently I sat idly nearby on my own computer playing dress up girl dolls on barbie.com. I only liked commercials and feeling safe, and it was for those breaks I’d glance up. My mother liked news to stay in the know, but channel two wasn’t any know I wanted to know I didn’t want to know he died and they’re missing and still burning – and then the breaks made me feel … alright. Hidden Valley Ranch dressing did leave me nauseated when I ate it, but the commercial was such harmonic songs of a haven, one octave higher than my tune, sung by peach pretty people who never stopped smiling- and although their jingle was subtly discordant, I sang along to be there and to be nice. I liked hair commercials too, and I knew the hair of white people to be soft like paint – and the women feminine-soft like squash. Their hair moved just like it was supposed to. I was far from them, and always a little exhausted fret, or craving to be a soft girl like squash and have smooth hair like paint. Sometimes I was watching to get closer, or more alike: to step out of my tendrils. My hair was the place I was sad and hating myself, but when I was younger it was still too look-alike straight for realization. In relaxed hair I did feel dark day dreams of yearning to be flipping my hair over my shoulder, and my little timid black body quivering at the thought of being kinky.
Anyway, once while watching TV with Mother, I told her I wished she was a white woman.
When I saw hair commercials as a child, I always did, for a fleeting moment, feel into the low, inferior shadows of my hair and skin. I began to project the bright hues of white skin into my life. In a despicable subconscious wish I muttered, “I wish one of those girls was my mom”. Then the next few minutes of memory are mute, and slowed. Mother’s face went down, and (I’d never seen my mother in this furrowed energy) it is like I saw warm energies slip slide off, until she was just heavy perplexed. Next she stood from her spot, came to me, who was glazed oblivious as ever, and grabbed my arm. It was my upper arm. I remember this because of the proximity of her hand to my face. Her hand was not harsh; it was hurt, but firm enough to stunt that permeable sigh that happens sometimes when my disappointed Mother touches.
A cold purple temperature occupied the rooms feelings while the hum of the hovering fan hid the lull in my mothers actions. We were standing quiet, then we were walking quiet to the front hall. In both spaces we stood alone and in both places we carried thick airs. It was curious that she manhandled me for the purpose of moving into yet another room we were the only people in. But – that other room did not have a TV in it.
My eyes could not follow her quiet-sinking down.
“Why would you say that?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged simply, as if she just asked me why I wore a blue shirt that day.
As a much older child I could follow Mother’s sinking soul that day. As an older child when my hair was thinning, I apologized to my Mother; I said I was sorry I told her I wished she were a white woman. She did not remember what day I spoke of.
Leftover strands of blonde hair on my shoulders were just tangible dreams of pretty. My fantasy was crisp, anti-self. See, my fantasy was all that I’d seen out, everywhere. The BIG white sparkling pretty pretty archetypes burned me right in my mirrors. And burned them to such ash that my fantasy of myself was all white-sparkling. I thought, “In high school I will be popular and cool, with brand outfits that are more expensive than the meals I eat.” – In high school I would wave to all my friends in the hallways while my very long, straight hair, would move softly along with my body in the wind my movements created. It was visible fantasy, and becoming a legitimized fantasy. Because out, popular girls were just white popular girls. Kind girls were just white kind-girls. White-sparkling is just a white girl, sparkling, fitting a pretty I wanted and wished for, every night. For all my space was full with love and effervescence that often attracted varieties of people. I did sit in traits of kindness and popularity and sparkling pretty, but my child character was elusive when I sought it elsewhere. There was no me to find in every medium and media. There was no me out there, like there was no me in my own mazed interiors and mirrors. The invisibility of brown people, like me, on television, did scrub at my childhood identity, until sometimes I only caught my reflection on broken glass pieces scattered behind my wet irises. While outward, I hadn’t come to the reality of my natural ethnic identity. I mean I’d never touched my curls, for fourteen years; I was snuggling ill-fit into molds that could never be my color. Like, before my arms had enough muscle to churn water in a pitcher using a large spoon, my hair was already flat from lye.
My mother divided my hair into four sections, all evenly separated. Using the rat-tail comb, she’d take the pointy end of the utensil to my scalp to part strands in 3 millimeter groups. The hair straightening mixture was a thick white paste sitting in the fridge and it could only be touched with gloves on or it would burn you. On the cherry oak kitchen table, on a rag towel, amidst all the combs that could still tame me, were all the creams and oils of a hair relaxer. These monthly actions of alteration were like natural wrinkles on my Mother’s hands, and we’d both follow the crevices of her hand lines that ended with wisps of limp strands behind my ears. Mother always did my hair, always slowly working toward my value and my pretty – took always three hours or more each time. I wanted my hair to slip out of ribbons, and slip like from my grasp, or be silky. My head was a kitchen in the back; I’d sit small on the flat cherry oak chairs we owned then. She said her hands were manly and overweight, which was a nuisance and eye sore. But when I sat on a cherry oak chair for her to relax my hair, she only used touching language to move my head left and right. I liked it. Surely, everything in my mothers hands was secure – even that jar of white cream relaxer. I knew the process like I knew how to microwave mac & cheese – the cream was brushed into the roots of my scalp, for ten minutes I’d sit still, I’d neutralize and then double shampoo, soft towel dry, blow dry, moisturize, brush. Mom got tired and started taking me to a hair stylist, Jared- his hands were like hers but less sure, and he would leave the relaxer on my roots for a few minutes too long. It felt like pointed insects with scratch claws frantically landscaping my scalp. It wasn’t scalp after that- it was a red vulnerable spot of flesh with my hair glued down by I don’t know. I wouldn’t even dare touch my own hair, then. I didn’t want to rip my skin off. That was bad and hurt, but familiar and I never cried. All this was for straight hair, and the satisfaction of feeling the air touch my head was all “mmm” but a fleeting happy at that. I’d go home to test out the gravity in the mirror, test out the hair do’s in Seventeen Magazine. But. when he left the relaxer cream in too long, the skin of my head got sensitive and stolen; in some parts of my head I had no scalp.