“We could try doing this hairstyle if you’d like,” she’d whisper to me, my memory instantly leaping to the previous morning when her tired hands fumbled my hair into a braid again before she collapsed on the couch to sleep.
“Sure,” I’d answer, and then turn my iPod volume up higher to block the sound of the crackling heat hissing from the room behind me – the sound so sharp it seemed to sting my ears.
As the visits became more common, and my mother busier than ever, by the time I finished the eighth grade, she had decided to finally get my hair relaxed to limit the appointments at the salon. She told me that the chemicals would help in untangling my rambunctious twists for months at a time, so that dealing with my hair in the morning would be easier. What she didn’t tell me was that once the chemicals drizzled in, they must be routinely added so as to prevent the hair from rebounding against their suppression. I later discovered that for some people, the chemicals sucked the life out of the strands’ vivacity, slowly eating away at their ability to naturally curl over time, eventually turning the puffed coils into brittle sticks.
Nowadays, I take my time in-between relaxing sessions and moisturize my locks a bit more than is probably necessary. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a small pang of disappointment in my chest when I found out the relaxer did not in fact give me the permanent Pocahontas hair. After almost a week had passed since the relaxer appointment, I washed my hair only to see it slowly expand and lift in the air once again. Why don’t you wear your hair down? I’m trying, I’m trying.
…But should I have to? Who decided that it was straight hair that was beautiful? My grade-school self, confused and unable to produce an answer, forced the question down, locking it away in the depths of my subconscious. I pulled the questions back by tying my curls away into a ponytail or a bun like my mother had—I contained it all into something I could either comprehend or ignore. And no one questioned why I wanted to try or ignore or push all the questions and attempts away. As I slowly grew older, my hands, tired like my mother’s from work, found their fingers also carving simple buns from my tresses, opting to busy themselves for longer amounts of time with pens instead. My eyes, no longer shielded behind old glasses, sharpened, easily spotted the differences between the pigments, slopes, and valleys of other people’s faces, and recognized that expecting the same white beauty standard onto someone of mixed ethnicity such as myself just wasn’t possible. My hair had known that. The memory of The First Studio Beauty Salon then started to churl and rot in my stomach. Princess, who had raked my scalp like a dirt field, had silently sown seeds inside my head she knew would never grow. The sopping white creams of relaxer chemicals had wrapped my curls with their pale arms, so I could never hear their cries. Meanwhile, my mother was too busy darting her darkened eyes to the next magazine issue on the rack. Staring at the French wallpaper I realized this was never my world and never could be. My hair followed its own rules, and maybe it was trying to tell me something.
Though it was too late to turn back and I was far too busy to actually deal with all my curly hair’s demands, once I started getting relaxers, I stopped entering the chipped yellow doors of The First Studio Beauty Hair Salon. All of a sudden, my mom felt uncomfortable with Princess dunking my head in white, stinging liquid and wanted an older woman to tame my frizz. She doesn’t call me Pocahontas anymore either, and it’s strange because now whenever I make a passing compliment on someone’s straight hair her voice will raise an octave, her hands twitching, and she’ll ask me why I can’t just be happy with the curls. The laughter on the irony of her compliant gets caught in my throat. Maybe her perspective shifted the last time I visited the salon, when my Grandma drove me there instead. She, unaccustomed to Princess’ pink nails clawing through my head, hacking the tangles with her silver scissors, and applying the crackling heat of the hair straightener, seemed worried when she saw me flinch and suck in deep breaths each time Princess made an unexpected jerk of the elbow, reddening my neck or ears. Gray eyebrows cinched in confusion, dry lips tugging downward, my grandmother’s figure is still so visible to me as she nervously clutched her battered turquoise purse, gazing at my face and speaking softly and slowly, “Baby, why are you crying?”