My legs were crossed on the scratchy, beige carpet; pressed firmly into an embroidered sofa cushion. Cartoons danced across the TV screen, blurry through teary vision. I whined and cried, twisting away from my mother and that sharp-toothed thing she called a brush as it ripped and ripped and ripped through my hair. I wanted this to be over, so badly, I wanted this to be over.
I wasn’t sure what was worse: the feeling of pins being pushed into my scalp, or the sound of my hair ripping, each coil yanked until it turned into a fuzzy cloud of hair.
“Sit still.” My mother’s words were an apology and admonishment all in the same breath. I wanted to stop squirming, to be good for her, make this go faster, but every pull brought another lump to my throat and a fresh wave of tears.
I closed my eyes at the first drop of the relaxer, cold against my scalp. The scent was strong, overwhelming, and it tickled my nose. Excitement bubbled in my stomach as Ms. Tanya painted my curls in white sludge, the mix that would straighten my strands until my hair brushed my shoulders. I could put it in ponytails now! I could run my fingers through it, style it like my blonde friends. Boys would notice me now, in all my straight-haired glory. I’d look like the girls in the magazines. I imagined my hair growing all the way down my back, how beautiful it would be.
After a few minutes of daydreaming, my eyes popped open. My head was itchy. I called out to Ms. Tanya, asked if it was time to wash the relaxer out yet. My hairdresser just smiled, checked her watch and shook her head. I waited, clenching my fists against that need to scratch scratch scratch. The time stretched longer and longer, and my scalp began to burn. When I asked this time, I barely kept the wobble out of my voice and Ms. Tanya wheeled me over to the sinks. The faucet squealed, and the water was ice cold, then too hot. But I didn’t want to complain anymore. I just closed my eyes again and let the relaxer wash down the drain, excitement pooling in my stomach once more.
My coach blew the whistle and all the girls in the locker room scrambled out into the hot spring morning, but I wasn’t ready quite yet. I stood in front of a hair-clogged sink and stared into the mirror. The locker room stunk of chlorine and damp clothing; floors wet and slippery from the slap of hundreds of feet. Such was swim season.
I pulled out a swim cap and gathered up my soft straight hair, tucking it neatly beneath the plastic. Satisfied, I reached into my backpack and pulled out a second cap, snapping it over the first. My head felt tight, a balloon filled with too much air, but I ignored it.
It can’t get wet, I thought. My hair can’t get wet. I didn’t want to sit in front of my dresser again tonight, blow-dryer screeching behind me.
The whistle blew outside, shriller this time, and I triple-checked for any strands left out before zipping up my backpack and scampering outside.
Living forty-five minutes from school meant a lot of time in the car with my mom, but I didn’t mind.
“How was school?” The question that some kids dreaded, but for an eleven-year-old who loved to talk about myself, forty-five minutes might not be quite enough.
“I had gym today and since it’s spring term, we started our swim unit.”
“Your swimsuit from last year still fits you?” My mom glanced in the rear-view mirror.
I nodded. “Yeah. Oh, and, Coach Sherett had us do laps in the pool to compare our times from the beginning of the year, and she said I should try out for the swim team this year. Then today in Math, Mr. Helmer said we were gonna focus on solving equations more this term, and less word problems, which I hated anyway-”
“Hold on, the swim team?” At a red light, my mom turned back to look at me where I was strapped in the back seat. I wasn’t tall enough to sit up front yet, a fact I frequently complained about. “You’re not interested? Hockey doesn’t start again until next term. You have the time.”
I didn’t look up from the homework in my lap. “I don’t want to worry about blow-drying and curling my hair so many times a week. It’ll start breaking off.”
My mom pursed her lips but didn’t seem to have a reply, so I went back to explaining how to find an unknown and the value of x.
The next time I went into the hair salon for a touch-up to straighten out my new growth, the hairdresser set the timer for fifteen minutes too long. I left the salon with the stench of chemicals in my nose and scabs on my scalp. I winced for the next month whenever my brush landed on that patch of burnt skin and hid it with calculated partings and ponytails.
But at least I looked pretty.
The hair at my kitchen, just above the nape of my neck, was getting shorter and thinner, day by day it seemed. Even when I fell asleep on my stomach to give the back of my head some relief, I woke up with it tangled anyway. It was fragile, and brittle, the thin strands struggling to hold on to roots meant for coarse and curly, but I didn’t care. I only gritted my teeth and combed harder, picking out the knots and sweeping the debris from the bathroom tile when I was finished.
“I’m going to go natural.”
I rolled over on my sister’s carpet and stared up at her. Her head was bent over her desk as she finished up homework for the night.
“I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos on it,” Davis continued. “I think it’s the right thing for my hair.”
“Go natural?” I asked, more to be polite than anything else. In my head I was wondering how I could get Keelan Rollins, fellow sixth-grader, to ask me out.
Davis spun around in her swiveling chair to look down at me. “Like with my hair. Cut off all the relaxed parts and stop relaxing it all together. Go natural.”
Now, I sat up, all thoughts of Keelan vanishing. Cut it off? But her hair was even longer than mine! It seemed so soft, never broke off like mine did. “Why would you do that?”
“Because,” she started, as if it were obvious, “that-” she pointed at the knotted mass atop my head “- is not what our hair is supposed to do. It’s damaging, it’s exhausting, and I’m tired of it.” Before she turned back to her homework, she side-eyed me. “You should consider doing it to. I can show you some of the videos I’ve been watching.”
I made a face and left the room. In front of my own mirror, I stared at myself. At the straight hair meant to turn me into a model, the type I saw on TV. It was fine. Just a little tangled. I reached for my brush and began the process all over again.
“It’s a time to reinvent yourself,” my best friend told me. Across from the lunch table, she bit into her apple. “Not everyone gets to move halfway around the world and become a new person.”
I stared down at my own food, picking at it in disinterest. Tampa, Florida. As elusive as it was inevitable. It wouldn’t be long until I hopped on a plane and kissed Johannesburg goodbye.
“Look at the bright side,” she continued. My friends were doing everything to cheer me up, to no avail. “You could become a whole new person, and no one would know.”
Of its own volition, my hand raised, skating over the tight ponytail I’d force my hair into this morning, running down to the fragile ends of each strand.
I hacked at my hair the next morning, frustrated tears welling in my eyes. When I didn’t brush it, it looked awful. But when I did, it just kept breaking apart in my fingers, falling limp to the counter. It barely grew, just kept coming apart in my fingers. I didn’t want to be pretty if it meant this. I didn’t want it.
I sat in a swiveling chair, facing the mirror. All my baby teeth were out, and I was almost a foot taller than the first time. I watched the scissors, loosely gripped in a heavy hand, weave between my strands. My eyes followed the hair that floated to the floor, until there was a sea of black around my ankles and I worried I would drown in it.
“Okay, Jordyn. All done.”
I didn’t want to look, but I also didn’t want to be rude, so I sucked in my bottom lip and stared in the mirror. My eyes followed the curve of my exposed neck, scanned my empty forehead and open cheeks. A shaky hand reached up to touch the short-cut hair along my head, fingers brushing over the tightest coils I’d ever seen. I pushed my shoulders back, sat up straighter, turned my head this way and that.
The curls covered my scalp, winding up and out of my head, happy and healthy.
It had been years since I’d seen my hair shine. It felt like something alive and electric and I couldn’t look away from my reflection.
New town, new school, new people. And now, new hair.
An afro. I’d never had one of those, never been raised to think they were all that nice. What if someone thought I was a boy? What if I didn’t know what to do with it?
Despite this, I smiled.
Because damn. I looked pretty. And maybe for the first time, I felt it, too.