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.