Paige Clark

Why My Hair Is Long

We would shout and swim about
The coral that lies beneath the waves.
Oh what joy, for every girl and boy,
Knowing they’re hap­py and they’re safe.

                   -Ringo Starr, “Octopus’s Garden”

If my moth­er had called me and asked, “What have I done that you can’t for­get?”

I would have said, “I can for­give any­thing.” But she nev­er called and that is what I can nev­er for­get.

 

Instead I get an e-mail. It shines bright and blue on my phone in the dark bed­room of my new boyfriend. It says, “When peo­ple ask how you are doing, I will say that I tried my best and it was not good enough for you.” I am con­fused. I am always the one that is not good enough.

I turn off my phone quick­ly. I do not want to wake my new boyfriend up. He sleeps with a smile on his face, as if he is hav­ing the most pleas­ant dream. When I ask him about it in the morn­ing, he tells me he dreamt we were in Hawaii and I was learn­ing to hula, my dark hair reach­ing to my waist.

How won­der­ful,” I say. I for­get to tell him about the e-mail.

It all start­ed with my mother’s hair. It stopped grow­ing. In a pho­to­graph from her youth, she is stand­ing in a red ging­ham shirt and tiny jean shorts eat­ing an ice cream sand­wich. Her hair floats behind her like a sheet hung out to dry. A morsel of choco­late cook­ie dots her lip. She looked at this pho­to often, won­der­ing why her hair would not grow past her shoul­ders any­more.

Then it start­ed falling out in clumps. I would find bits of it wrapped up in toi­let paper and stuffed into the bath­room waste­bas­ket. The show­er drain was always clogged with loose strands, so I stood ankle deep in murky water while I sham­pooed my hair. She nev­er said any­thing to me about it. I took out the trash often and secret­ly bought drain clean­er from the super­mar­ket.

She enlist­ed a famous hair­dress­er that she saw on David Letterman. The salon was all the way in Beverly Hills and my moth­er forced me to go with her. She said she need­ed com­pa­ny for the long ride. She raced through Laurel Canyon to get to the appoint­ment. Her urgency round­ing every cor­ner made me uneasy, as if I knew already what dis­ap­point­ment await­ed her. Or maybe I was just afraid of the canyon, how it seemed like it could swal­low a per­son whole.

When we arrived, Ringo Starr was pay­ing his bill. My mother’s eyes flashed when she saw him, but I noticed he was bald­ing, just slight­ly, on the crown of his head.

 

My new boyfriend likes his moth­er. She wears lip­stick in con­tem­po­rary col­ors like fuschia and man­darin. She dri­ves to his apart­ment with spare keys when he acci­den­tal­ly locks him­self out and looks after his dog when he trav­els for busi­ness and even for plea­sure. When I first meet her, I notice her hair is plat­inum blonde. My moth­er always hat­ed women who dyed their hair. “They think they look younger,” she said.

If my new boyfriend asks about my moth­er, I switch the sub­ject. It is eas­i­er to change the top­ic than to change the mind. Tell some­one you do not speak to your moth­er, they always say you should instead of why.

Maybe we should go to Hawaii,” I say. His face goes dreamy and qui­et.

Will you wear your hair down?” he asks.

I’ll even get a tan.”

 

Next my hair­brush went miss­ing. This was after sev­er­al vis­its to the fan­cy salon and a few bot­tles of sham­poo that smelled like pars­ley and pow­dered soap. It was after my sec­ond con­ver­sa­tion with Ringo Starr, the first one being about the weath­er. He said, “You are such a beau­ti­ful, young girl. Look at how you shine.”

You should just keep qui­et,” my moth­er said on the ride home. “You are always in everybody’s busi­ness. It’s aging me beyond my years.”

I noticed how her cen­ter part was widen­ing. Like the canyon, I feared it would take me. How strange, I thought, how strange that even when you have so lit­tle hair, you can still not pos­si­bly count all the strands. Later, I found my hair­brush snapped in two and dis­card­ed in the kitchen trash.

 

My new boyfriend gets a hair­cut. “Do you like it?” he asks.
“No,” I say, “but you are very hand­some.”
In the ear­ly morn­ing, when he is still asleep, I notice tiny bits of hair sprin­kled around the back of his neck—the hair­cut. The sight makes me queasy, so I try to imag­ine we are in Hawaii. The waves crash on our ankles as we walk beside the water. The thin chords of a ukulele drone as we kiss while the sun goes down. He picks me up over his shoul­der and throws me into the frothy surf. For a moment, I am hap­py— weight­less as a child being tossed above her father’s head at a birth­day par­ty.

When he wakes, he asks what is wrong. I don’t know how to tell him the answer to his ques­tion.

Instead I say, “You are my island of hap­pi­ness.”

 

I bought a new hair­brush and hid it at the bot­tom of my sock draw­er. I brushed my hair secret­ly in my bed­room and wore my hair up in a tight bun. One night, my moth­er barged in on me exam­in­ing myself in the mir­ror, my hair long. She said, “Your van­i­ty is end­less.” I did not men­tion that I had seen her star­ing at a new photo—a before and after shot giv­en to her by the expen­sive salon, a close up of the back of her head.

She stopped tak­ing me with her to Beverly Hills. The bot­tles at the bot­tom of the show­er mul­ti­plied. Their labels described them as every­thing except what they were—stimulating scalp sham­poo, pro­tein dai­ly rinse, den­si­ty boost con­di­tion­er. I over­heard her on the phone to her friend men­tion Ringo casu­al­ly, as if she’d known him for years. She did not say how she met him.

From the Internet, she pur­chased a laser wand to encour­age hair growth. She held it over each inch of her head for five-minute inter­vals twice a day. When I asked her what the wand was for she said, “Vitamin D. I don’t get enough sun.”

Why don’t you take a walk,” I said.

 

My new boyfriend goes on vaca­tions with his fam­i­ly. Once, he took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow with his par­ents and his younger broth­er. On the train, the Russians were hos­pitable and made sure his fam­i­ly always had a bot­tle of vod­ka. His moth­er, know­ing once a bot­tle is opened it must be fin­ished, drank with them shot for shot.

When they went to Disneyworld, she went on every ride. I imag­ine her there—platinum hair rat­ty from the wind and clothes soaked in chlo­rine water from Splash Mountain.

We nev­er went on fam­i­ly vaca­tions. But one time, my moth­er drove me to Santa Monica beach. We shared a corn­dog and a glass of lemon­ade. We walked along the pier and I had my car­i­ca­ture drawn while she watched from the shade, apply­ing high-SPF sun­screen and comb­ing her fin­gers through her hair, then long. Later, when her hair was short, she would still run her fin­gers down her chest, remem­ber­ing.

 

If we go to Hawaii,” my new boyfriend says.

When,” I say.

When we go, I will wear my hair down and drink rum cock­tails dec­o­rat­ed with tiny umbrel­las in the sun until I am light­head­ed. We will dance all night at the cheesy hotel luau, the col­or­ful leis scratch­ing our sun­burnt skin.

 

My moth­er told me I need­ed a hair­cut. She had just start­ed see­ing a doc­tor who inject­ed her scalp with tiny nee­dles and pre­scribed a mix of growth hor­mone pills. I found the bot­tle of med­i­cine first, then the invoice from her doc­tor for her week­ly pro­ce­dures.

Look how long your hair is get­ting,” she said. “You look like a hobo. Or a fun­da­men­tal­ist.”

I am afraid of hair­dressers,” I said. “They’re always telling you what you’re doing wrong. Split ends, dry scalp, I don’t care.”

I can cut your hair then.”

When she came back with a shiny pair of scis­sors and no chair, maybe I begged or maybe I said noth­ing.

I know she told me to hold still, remem­ber the way she touched the back of my neck, her fin­gers dig­ging in but not leav­ing a mark. She only need­ed three snips. My new hair was short and jagged, as if I were a doll that a small child had giv­en a hair­cut.

I can’t for­give you, I thought.

Tell every­one you got gum stuck in your hair,” she said.

 

My boyfriend and I book flights to Hawaii. I buy us match­ing Hawaiian shirts and eat macadamia nuts to pre­pare for the trip. If I am by myself, I prac­tice wear­ing my hair down, flip­ping it behind me as I walk. On our way to the air­port, we drop his dog off at his parents’s house. His moth­er waits at the door as we dri­ve away, wav­ing until the car dis­ap­pears around the cor­ner.

 

When we are in the air, high above the Pacific, I try and tell him why I don’t speak to my moth­er. But what I can’t explain is this—how she is always there like a phan­tom limb, the body’s mem­o­ry of what is lost.

~

Paige Clark works in the spe­cial­ty cof­fee indus­try in Melbourne, Australia. She stud­ied Mass Communication Theory and English at Boston University. Her short fic­tion has appeared in Menacing Hedge and is forth­com­ing in Weave Magazine.