On school nights when my parents were the only ones to bear witness, my hair was on its best behavior. I’d coil my Shirley Temple ringlets around my index finger as I studied Latin verb conjugations. Sometimes, my dad even took out the video camera and coaxed me into singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” for him. But by the next morning, the beast returned, wilder than ever, with a three-inch-thick afro of inconsolable brown fuzz.
I grew to predict its mood swings. A rough night’s sleep or a day of bobby pins left it sorely bent out of shape. I prepared my bottle of Bed Head Control Freak Serum that left a thick, goopy film on my fingers.
The older I grew, the more I longed for straight locks. In art class, I drew pictures of myself with blonde, pin-straight hair. If only life were that easy, I thought. Sitting next to me, Caroline — with beautiful golden butt-length locks — drew herself with dark curls. “I’ve always wanted curly hair,” she whispered. I scoffed.
Caroline and I became fast friends. At her birthday party in the fifth grade, she handed out pink plastic Hello Kitty hairbrushes as favors. We were attached at the hip — the hairbrush and me, that is. It worked wonders on my knotted, bushy frizz, and I refused to use anything else. The paint chipped so that the white Hello Kitty logo became indiscernible. I gave up on plucking out the strands of hair from between the bristles. Then the bristles broke off. “Please, let me buy you a new one,” my mom would beg on our bimonthly trips to the beauty supply store where we’d stock up on serums, sprays, glosses, creams, pomades, and glazes. She dropped at least $50 during each excursion. “That brush won’t last past middle school, trust me,” she said.
But it did.
Once, I showed up at my regular salon to find that my favorite hairdresser had quit. In the midst of a split-ends crisis, I settled for a young woman in her early 20s with the type of hair I loathed — soft, silky, and impeccably stick-straight. As she pried the extra-strength elastic from my tightly wound ponytail, she stood back and gasped.
“I’ve never seen this much hair before!” she shrieked. “Donna, Santo, c’mere! You gotta see this!” Donna and Santo, the salon owners, understood how to speak rationally to a hypersensitive 12-year-old who knew very well just how much hair she had. “It’s beeee-autiful, darlin’, and don’t you forget it,” Santo cooed, attempting to run his fingers through a strand. He got about an eighth of an inch deep.
During my freshman year at college, I hid the decaying pink Hello Kitty brush in a plastic Stop & Shop bag. After showering, I awkwardly lingered in my dorm room, buying time until my roommate stepped out. Then I rushed to my bedside drawer and unwrapped the package. I had the whole science down to 50 seconds flat.
Then, over winter break, my mom drove me to a new salon that specialized in curly hair. A balding man in his 50s scooped on a relaxing crème that he used on his black clients. “You have African American hair,” he said matter-of-factly. “You shouldn’t be brushing it at all.”
“After all that?” my mom gritted her teeth. I looked in the mirror and sighed.