On Hair (How I Fought Mine And Lost, Kind Of)

Saturday mornings began evenly enough: buttery pancakes, Beach Boys on the radio, a hop along the uneven concrete sidewalk. My parents would crack the windows open, let in the breeze, do a bit of housecleaning while I read a book on the couch, enjoying the friendly hum and warm breath of the vacuum cleaner as it slid by, lazily, again and again.

The change: suddenly the vacuum would lurch, begin shaking convulsively, emit an inhuman shrieking sound that set all our teeth on edge. Then, a distinct smell bloomed, spreading until the whole house smelled like a tire factory.

Ah, shit, Daddy would say, yanking the cord vehemently out of the socket. Then he’d tilt the vacuum prone, squat over the offending rotor, fumble around in it a bit, then finally, after a few minutes, stand up triumphantly with a horrific wad of matted brown hair in his hands.

“Whose is this?” he’d ask, feigning indignation. He wasn’t really angry. We’d all giggle and demure and accuse each other until finally, with a long-suffering sigh, he’d turn away, click the vacuum on again, and resume cleaning the floor. The smell of singed rubber belt lingered in the air for hours.

The hair was mine. There were three Smith women, all with brown hair, but I knew it was mine because mine was thick and unruly and the most evil of all. It plugged up bathroom drains, and killed household appliances, and any time you pulled a hair out, five more grew in its place. It refused to lay flat on my head, eschewed the influence of every spray and styling aid, broke combs.

Mommy didn’t know what to do with it, other than brush it with a black plastic brush, hard, until it surrendered. So after I cleaned my hair she would take her place on the ancient couch, and I would sit between her knees, and she’d pull, and pull, and pull the brush through my hair while I set my jaw, blinked away the tears.

Me, circa about 1995, in a golden haze of unruliness.

Girls with smooth, blonde hair mystified me. I viewed them as if across a chasm, artifacts I admired but couldn’t understand. What must their life be like? How could the top of their head be so shiny, so flat? I was an eight year old anthropologist, confronting an alien race.

I could never figure out quite how to talk to them correctly — to them, or, when I was older, to the row of teenaged girls in church, the ones with bubble-pink braces and strappy tops and flat-ironed hair that looked like it came out of a Pantene ad and was cut into a V at the bottom. Those girls talked about bands and hung posters of boys and exchanged everything in a currency I didn’t know, couldn’t even try to know. I peered at them from behind my glasses, little voyeur windows, and tried to speak their language, but my tongue felt thick, as if the dentist had injected me with that chemical that made everything stiffen, the cheeks, the jaw, and maybe, with a large needle, the heart.

But I grew and the pew full of fancy girls blurred into the past. My hair got even heavier, but I learned to comb products into it, to let it dry on its own, to coax it into ringlets on good days. I threw away my last hairbrush. Some college boy, onstage, buried his hands in it and reveled and  quoted Ibsen. Up late, I scribbled poems and songs in the light of a computer screen, stray hairs drifting into the glow and igniting like lightbulb filaments. Everything falls into place with time, someone said.

Still. A friend with a mass of untameable hair moved west and a miracle occurred: the curls and flyaways surrendered, lengthened, became straight and glossy. Amazed, she cut her new hair into neat bangs, braided it atop her head like a mythological princess, which was appropriate; it was as if she had found Shangri-La, a land of magical transformation. I viewed her pictures from afar. You traitor, I thought.

I moved away from childhood, in and out of countless squat apartments, traveled, made messes. I went over every inch of other people’s showers, peeling stringy, disgusting pieces of me from their Colgate-white bathtubs. I got fed up and cut all the hair off, all of it, until it was as short as my brother’s, too short to do anything awful other than exist. I spent thirteen months memorizing the feeling of my own fingers against my scalp, then grew it all back.

It was just about down to my chin when I warned the man I loved — the only one I ever loved — about my hair. Can you deal with this? I asked, Not everyone can. I felt that he should be notified of rubber belts burning, of drains so clogged that we’d have to pay the plumber in installments.

Yes, I can, he said, I think I can handle it.

Anyway, he manages. On weekend mornings, I puzzle out my sentences and strategies and dabble with tubes of paint while he washes the breakfast dishes, picking out the sneaky little deserter hairs that fly about and land in the sink and on the stove, that fall into the glass of spoons. He puts them in the trash, wordlessly. When he finds a stowaway in a particularly unusual place, he shows me, and we laugh heartily, and everything about life feels good. Recently, I found a little rubber gadget that successfully defends the shower drain from the onslaught. They call it The Mushroom, and it was all I could do not to bow down and worship it.

So things have gotten on. I mostly let the hair be. We have called a cease-fire on mutually acceptable terms: that is, it does what it likes and I carry a hat. We have learned to be content with each other. On some days, I wash it, and then plait it, still sopping wet, into a long, sleek braid down my back. It’s shower smooth then, so damp it is nearly black. It is hiding its true identity. For about four hours, I can pretend that I am a woman like all the rest, who knows what to do with eyebrows, and the correct order of skin preparations, and how to saunter and line lips and tilt my head, nicely, to the appropriate angle, the angle that shows the slope of the neck, that keeps them looking.

Then everything dries, and all is chaos again, and I feel very myself.

But the other day, I saw a picture of a young girl, the daughter of old friends, who is growing and growing, too. She has hair like mine when I was thirteen. She draws, writes, makes interesting and profound things, and is all lit up by ideas. She is a bright and piercing flame. I looked at her, at the wise, deep face, the dark mystery of hair, and thought of the black, coiled paths made by ancients into the marrow of the world; of the tangled and impenetrable dream-jungles where men seek visions; of the wild, twisting river that soothes and cools the thick heart of the Amazon, and I thought God help the one who tells that girl she is anything but beautiful. God help them.

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One thought on “On Hair (How I Fought Mine And Lost, Kind Of)”

  1. What a masterful writer you are, Nelle. Only an artist could write so beautifully. I remember when you looked like the picture you posted. You have grown into an amazing woman!

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