Hair

‘I’m going to do your hair’, she says, as she pushes me down into the pink bean-bag. Though she is only 8, she has the intonation of a 40 year-old (copying her mother, no doubt) and I know she is not to be trifled with. I sit meekly in the shiny bean bag with my arms hanging over my knees and my wrists somewhere down near my ankles.
It is not comfortable.
Thin little fingers start grabbing and twisting thin little strands of hair, ‘I’m not hurting you, am I? Tell me if I am,’ she says, mistress of the salon. I’m almost surprised she doesn’t hand me magazines and a coffee and offer gossipy tidbits heard from other clients. 
You’re hurting me, I think, but don’t say it, she’s too happy.
‘I’ll have to brush it first.’
‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘Of course.’
‘Its very knotty.’  
Its always knotty, I want to say, no matter what I do. I feel like leaping to my own defense. Its always dry and thin and its been years since I could carry off that phrase from the Pantene commercial, ‘There’s more air in my hair’, with a big swish of the head. My hair falls out at an alarming rate, in the shower, on my clothes, in my hands if I run them through it too hard. How much of my remaining hair is going to end up on the floor, not cut, but ripped, pulled out at the roots by angry little fingers furious with angry little knots? I’m powerless, here on the floor, wrists scraping the carpet, this dark-haired pixie leaning over me. I’m completely at her mercy, her mother in the other room, gossiping with the other guests. I’ve been singled out, cornered. She spied me across the room and made a bee-line, grabbed my hand, the lion picking out the weakest gazelle. I’d felt special. I had looked out the corners of my eyes at the other guests to see if they noticed me being pulled away, the special one, the chosen one, the ‘one-the-child-picked-as-her-favourite’, as if it meant something important. I’d smiled in a fake embarrassed way as we passed her mother, gave her a little shrug as if to say, ‘Oh, well, what can you do, I guess I just have one of those faces children like.’ As if to say, ‘It happens to me all the time, every party, all the kids adore me… ‘ But, she’d ignored me whilst her daughter continued to drag me across the room with those thin little fingers. Almost pulling my arm off, tugging me towards the living room.
‘I’m going to do your hair.’
Standing up, standing over her, it had seemed cute, I’d laughed. But, now, squashed into a child’s bean bag and with the little fingers twisting tendrils tighter and tighter, the comment seems full of menace. What is she going to do to it, this pint-sized mad scientist, who has chosen my head for experimentation? She is lifting up fistfuls now, muttering over it. ‘How did you get it so knotty, honestly?’
I shrug helplessly, not sure if she is expecting an answer or is content acting out the pre-written script from inside her head. I attempt to lean sideways and peer through the half-closed doorway, begging another guest to rescue me by the desperate look in my eyes.
But she won’t have a bar of it. ‘Head straight, please,’ she commands, and when I don’t comply quickly enough, she puts her hands on my head and pulls it back to the middle. ‘That’s it,’ she encourages, as she holds the sides of my head in place and begins to sort through the stands again. She pulls at some of the bigger knots, puts her fingers in them and tugs downwards, and its all I can do to stop myself from whimpering as I feel the strands break apart and bunch up. 
‘Yes, yes,’ she says with all the confidence of an expert, ‘it definately needs a brush first.’
Abruptly, she removes her fingers and lunges for her plastic-green brush lying on the tabe.
‘Don’t worry. I’m good at brushing hair, really I am.’
Its beyond my acting ability at this point to pretend I agree with her. Instead, I suck in and wait for the coming onslaught.
‘I’m good at brushing hair,’ she re-iterates and begins the attack.
She puts one of her tiny hands at the top of my head to hold it still and pulls the brush through. The knots slip out easily, more easily than I expected. She pulls the brush through again, and follows it with her hand, smoothing it out and oohing and aahing over the different colours in the sunlight.
‘Your hair is so lovely,’ she coos, ‘Look at that, its so pretty and silky!’
She continues around my head, gently pulling the brush through and smoothing it out, pulling and smoothing, pulling and smoothing until it is completely flat against my back. The brush sometimes goes a bit further than the strands of hair and brushes my back through my jumper, giving me little goosebumps up and down my back and legs. It’s surprisingly relaxing, I realise, as my shoulders drop and my hands unclench. The muffled sounds of the party next door and the tiny, gentle hands are almost soporific as I’m staring out the living room window at the blue, cloudless sky. Its almost hypnotic, as I’m transported to another time and place, a different kid’s bean-bag, which this time I fit into easily, and bigger, but no less gentle hands stroking and brushing. Back when my hair was thick, so thick you could barely get a hair clip around it. Thick and blonde, but soft and as straight as if it had been flattened with a hot iron.
‘I’m good at brushing hair, aren’t I?’ the 8-years-going-on-40 voice asks, breaking the spell.
This time I agree. She puts down the brush and runs her fingers through the hair, letting it cascade down my back.
‘I’m going to do a plait,’ she announces, and gathers together the hair.
I nod and as she divides the strands into three, and I’m back on the other bean-bag, with the bigger hands. The older hands that were also twisting up plaits and gently tugging at knots, but not gently enough, as far as I was concerned, not gently enough, and I made sure she knew it, accompanying every little pull, every tiny jolt with cries and yelps loud enough to wake the dead. Cries and whimpers that would break the toughest of men, melt the coldest of hearts. Oh the arguments that were had on that little bean-bag, the screaming and sobbing, the name calling and the face-pulling, until the older hands had had enough and they took me by the hand, and walked me down the road and had all my lovely thick blonde hair cut off so that I looked no less a boy than my brother.
‘Actually, I’m going to do two plaits,’ the voice behind me announces, and she lets go of my hair and starts dividing it again.
No less a boy than my brother, and everyone thought we actually were brothers when I was wearing shorts, something that made him laugh hysterically, doubled-over for hours afterwards and he would always always always remind me of, especially in front of other people, especially in front of other people that I wanted to think I was pretty and nice and definately a girl. No less a boy than my brother, and when those bigger, older, gentle hands were one day suddenly still, suddenly gone for no reason I could understand or people could properly explain, and they couldn’t sew me any more lace-covered dresses, or help me dress my dolls, or put clips in my hair, or find me the pretty pink sandals in the shoe store, I began to think I wasn’t a real girl anymore.
Of course, my hair grew back, grew longer. People stopped asking me if I was a good boy or if I wanted to see where the truck section of the toy store was. But it hung loosely over my shoulders every day, my father’s hands too large and self-conscious to even attempt a simple pony tail and my own hands also too clumsy and completely untrained to do anything but flick the stray strands out of my eyes.
‘Hold this,’ the younger voice announces, and gives me a plait to nurse. ‘I’ll get you a band later,’ she says and starts on the other side of my head.
To nervous to even fumble it into a ponytail, let alone a plait, I coveted the girls at school who came in with elaborate twists and braids and curled ribbons bouncing around their ears. These were the girls who would sit in circles at recess and lunch and do each others hair, trying out their mothers’ movements and voices on their friends. But, to be part of those circles, you couldn’t just have your hair done. You had to contribute. You had to be able to create your own artwork in your friends’ hair. So, I sat on the edges and I ate my lunch and I watched.
‘Here, this one too. I’ll be back soon,’ says the voice and she trips out to get bands from her mother.
One day, in class, listening to our teacher read some story or another, I had felt someone’s hands pick up my hair and let it fall down against my back. The hands did it again. ‘Its so pretty,’ whispered a little voice. The hands picked up the hair again and let it fall. ‘Can I braid it?’ My throat went dry as I nodded, and felt the knots gently being pulled, being brushed out with just the tips of the fingers. Little shivers went up and down my back and legs, and I couldn’t remember the reasons I had ever complained about those bigger, gentle hands. Gradually, over the course of teacher’s story, my thick hair was brought into line. The little hands tied up the braid carefully, though I was secretly hoping it would fall out and they would have to start again from the beginning, and then it would fall out again and they would start again and so on and so on like Sisyphus and his rock, and they would never ever be able to stop braiding my hair. To my father’s annoyance, I refused to take out the braid, the hair getting dirtier and messier and more ridiculous with every passing day.
A cheerful head is suddenly poked around the door.
‘There you are! We’ve been looking all…’ suddenly the face breaks into laughter, ‘Would you look at you? You’re like a 3rd-grader who just got in trouble for eating the glue! Why don’t you come and get some wine?’
‘I’m just waiting…’
‘Do you need some help up? Do you want red or white?’
‘No, no, I’m having my hair done…’
‘I can see that, don’t worry about it, I’m sure she’ll find someone else to torture…’
‘Its ok, really, I’m fine, its….’
‘Dad! Dad, did you see what I did? Aren’t they great?’ In comes my pint-sized hairdresser, who grabs a plait and starts to tie it up.
‘Darling, don’t you think that’s enough now? She probably doesn’t want to look like Pippi Longstocking…’
‘Its fine, really…’
‘But they’re really good!’
‘I can see that, but why don’t we leave her alone now, let her do her own hair.’
‘I like it.’
‘She likes it. See? She likes it.’
‘She’s just being polite.’
‘No, I do, really…’
‘There’s no need to be polite, she’s got plenty of dolls she can…’
‘But, Dad, it’s not the same…’
‘I don’t mind, honestly…’
‘Come on now, darling, let her go.’
A pause. A stand-off.
Grumpily, the hands drop the bands and let the plaits fall. She plonks herself on the sofa and turns her head away from us.
‘You can do them again later if you like…’ I try to say as her father leads me out of the room, but she’s staring out the window, sucking the thumb of one hand and twirling her own dark hair around the other and the moment has passed.
The moment has passed.

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1 Comment

Filed under NYWM

One response to “Hair

  1. jenny i love this. so much. SO much. xo

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