Lea concluded that her hair was a curse. It was punishment for an ancient sin committed by a vexatious, brown-skinned goddess whom the other gods struggled to contain. The almightiest of them — chaparral and unyielding — sat high in his throne wreathed in an iridescent mist and dispassionately said, “If you wish to be unruly, unruly will become you and all of your descendants for eternity.” The goddess gave a smug chuckle which then morphed into a scream as she watched her long, silky hair shrivel up into course, tangled kinks. She and her descendants would bear the curse of kinky hair until the end of time. Each passing generation would wonder what they had ever done to deserve this.
Lea would never give voice to this theory. Making such a proclamation as a black woman was a sweeping assault on the entire black race. She already wrestled with the psychological implications of her self-inflicted microaggressions. There was no need to set herself up for a lecture by some overly righteous social media activist about the history of the black hair struggle. She was already entrenched in the present one.
She titled forward for a better angle in the mirror in her dimly lit foyer-slash-vanity station. Her hair was tangled in an earring. She twisted the strands in several directions, only making them more tangled. She couldn’t tear the ends out, even though it was the most logical option. Tearing violated the foremost rule of the natural hair community: protect the ends at any cost. Though, in this precarious state, she couldn't help but question her reasons for remaining in this movement of authenticity. Black women across blogospheres called upon other black women to banish their chemical hair straighteners and delight in the freedom of their natural texture. It was a rebellious charge towards a revised standard of beauty. Rid yourself of the “creamy crack!” Detoxify the hair and soul! Liberate yourself! Live unencumbered! Denounce the unnatural and become awash in a new wave oils, sprays, creams, conditioners, blogs, vlogs, conventions, conferences, presumptuous coiffeurs, unattainable Pinterest looks, and insecurity.
Lea had under an hour to look the part. She was hosting the Healing Hearts Community Center Appreciation Awards Ceremony, a regrettable commitment. Her hair was afroed and insubordinate, and would stand out as profoundly as a drunk frat boy in a monastery. She snaked her way into a beige, ok-looking dress and slipped on a pair of loud leopard-print heels. She needed to find earrings that were simple, yet distracting, but not too hood. Never too hood. The thought of standing before the crowd of mostly non-black inner-city heroes made her wonder if Aaron Gold had asked her to host because of the optics. She never went through the Healing Hearts program. Her upbringing was far from underprivileged, but she was black – as were many of the Healing Hearts mentees – and she was well-spoken, as they say, which was a bonus. The donors and volunteers would tell themselves that their money and time were being put to good use, because look at how smart the host is.
She would have said no to Aaron Gold, but the day he called she had just come from a woman of color hair empowerment convention. She couldn't remember the name of it, but lots of semi-famous, YouTube famous, and non-famous black women gave speeches. By the end of it her endorphins were running high from an empowerment overload. So, when she got the call from Aaron Gold she said yes, of course she would host, because she was strong, and she was fearless, and she was a black queen.
She wished Aaron Gold would have called the next day when the endorphins were gone, when she was drinking wine alone on her couch, streaming Grey's and trying not to think about Emilio.
Lea yanked out the earring along with several strands of hair. This was heresy, she was sure of it. If there were such a thing as a natural hair tribunal she imagined that she would be in a world of trouble.
The door slammed at the neighbor’s apartment followed by the voice of a sportscaster that came through so loudly it was as if the broadcast was being shot in her living room. This was the first and only time Lea was glad to know Sean was home. Earlier, she had anonymously tucked a local AA pamphlet behind his doorknob. She found his alcoholism grating. Days prior she and Sean had ridden the elevator together. He’d leaned against the wall — shirt untucked from his slacks and his tie loose around his neck — muttering to himself. He smelled like a gin distillery. He hadn’t even realized when the elevator had stopped at their floor. Lea left him there. She figured that he’d eventually find his way home, or another, more enabling neighbor would lead him to his apartment.
She yanked the butchered strands from the earring, and cringed at the sound of the hair tearing even though it was no longer part of her head. She placed the earring back into her jewelry box and picked up a pair of gold-plated hearts.
She thought she had gotten rid of everything Emilio had given her. She couldn’t fathom how she’d missed these. The heart earrings were a gift for their one-year anniversary. He handed them to her at the commercial break during an episode of House Hunters. Before she could even say thank you, he’d promised that after he finished his master’s program he’d get her real gold for sticking with him through the hard times. They kissed, had sex, then went back to watching TV.
She tossed the earrings into the garbage and picked through the jewelry box for another pair.
The neighbors were shouting, which meant Jill was home too now. Sean barked that Jill she was a fucking terrible cook and that she was trying to poison him. Jill called Sean a son-of-a-bitch and said that he was already doing a good job of poisoning himself. She encouraged him to have several more drinks. Lea tried to go back to not noticing them, but it was like waking up from an amazing dream and then trying to force yourself back to sleep.
Emilio was the reason she went natural in the first place. They’d been walking home from a free wine-tasting class he’d won for subscribing to some foodie newsletter. He’d been tossing out hypotheses on human flight – actual humans flying, not aviation — which somehow led to him voicing his frustration on the limitations of the physical self and physical love. Emilio regularly took to these types of metaphysical musings. It was one of the things she’d loved most about him. He’d said that love should be powerful enough to penetrate physical barriers, and then declared that he wanted to be fused with every part of her existence. He ventured onto the topic of her physical appearance and asked her why she had chosen to hide behind chemicals. He told her that she should not be persuaded by Eurocentric ideas of beauty. Be you, he said. That’s all I ask.
So, she stopped hiding.
She stopped getting relaxers and went natural so that she could merge souls with Emilio, but now their souls were unmerged and she didn’t know what to do with herself. She considered going back to relaxers, but she couldn’t. She complained a lot about her hair, yes, but it wasn’t the hair itself she hated, it was the baggage that came with it. She resented that it was so hard to tame. She resented that going natural was a show of courage. She resented that no other race of women could possibly understand her resentment. She resented that she hadn’t made this decision on her own, but because of Emilio.
She was really running out of time. She picked through the box of earrings with a bit more urgency. There were going to be close to one hundred and fifty people in attendance at the awards ceremony. Many of them she knew in passing, but mostly these people were just a mob of dissenters. Their sole reason for attending was to watch her melt into a brown puddle of muck that they would splash in like children while laughing and drinking champagne out of shiny flutes. They would whisper to each other wondering why Aaron Gold did not call them to host, or anyone else frankly, because did he really think that they wanted to spend two and a half hours looking at this nappy-headed girl?
Weeks into the transformation, her head became a thicket of curls that deflated into slick, greasy strings. It was an awkward phase, a two-textured eyesore leaving her self-consciousness on an endless simmer that bubbled up and boiled over anytime she left her apartment. She decided to do the "big chop" — what they call it on all the blogs when you cut off the chemically treated ends. At least then she could somewhat face work and outings with Emilio and Sunday dinners with his family with a small scrape of ease. She’d no longer have to endure that strained look people had given her, like she was an old polaroid picture that hadn’t quite come into focus.
When she’d made the first cut, Emilio stood by her side. He swept up each dead strand as it dropped to the floor so that she wouldn't have to look at it. When it was over she was left with a short crop of tiny curls and puddle of tears. Emilio tilted his head, examining her new look. He told her that her tiny curls were cute and reminded him of a late-90s Jada Pinkett-Smith. Everything, though, is cute when it's tiny.
Sean and Jill hurled more insults at each other. Sean had just called Jill a lazy fat ass — his favorite insult — despite its inaccuracy. Jill was of average height and neither fat nor thin, but Sean knew all her buttons and pushed them like it earned him a profit. Lea couldn’t muster sympathy for Jill anymore. She mostly just felt embarrassed for her. The way she trailed behind Sean when they would come in and out the building, the way she would drape her hair in front of her face and looked at the floor when she walked, the way she sometimes heard Jill crying when it got close to the time when Sean would come home on the days that she got home before he did – it was all so tragic and all so fixable. She didn’t understand Jill. She didn’t want to. She turned on music from her phone and turned the volume all the way up, trying to block them out as best as she could.
She had felt it when she and Emilio’s soul started to unmerge. She didn’t know how that could be. Their souls were two elements come together to form a single compound, one element indistinguishable from the next. How he managed to unbind them was a science she could not comprehend. It was eight months into her transformation. Her hair was nothing like the shining bouncy curls she’d seen on the internet. It was thick and course, and couldn’t decide which direction it had wanted to sit on her head. Emilio was deep into his second semester. There was class, study group, solo study, never any time. She understood. There was also an extraordinary number of notes that he collected quite often from some Puerto Rican girl. She didn’t understand that.
He had new friends, whom she’d only ever met once. She’d covered her head with a floppy beach hat that day. Emilio didn’t bother to tell her she didn’t need it. Whatsherface — whose presence hovered like the stench of week old rot when Lea and Emilio were together — didn’t show up that day. Lea didn’t bother to ask why.
Sunday had come and Emilio said he felt sick so they couldn't go to family dinner. The next Sunday he said he had to study. The third Sunday she couldn't remember what. The fourth Sunday she’d asked him why they weren't going to family dinner anymore and he shrugged. The fifth Sunday she demanded an answer. He’d said that he wanted to break up to find himself and etcetera, etcetera. The day after that their apartment had only her things.
Six months after Emilio was gone one of their mutual friends complained to her, by accident she swore, that she had no idea what kind of gift to buy for Emilio and Whatshername's wedding-slash-baby shower.
A human-sized thud came through the wall, and the jewelry box fell to the floor. Lea paused and listened. This was a first. Sean and Jill slung verbal insults, not each other. She strained her ears waiting for the slightest stir. The silence felt like a drawstring pulling at her chest. Just like that she had sympathy for Jill again. This would be the time to call the police, but she waited. The one and only time she called the police she and Jill had an ugly exchange of words in the main lobby. Still, it was a small price to pay if Jill was seriously hurt. She reached for her phone, but at that moment a get the fuck out reverberated through what felt like every wall in the building. Sean bid his goodbye with a fuck you, cunt and slammed the door.
Lea scooped up her earrings and placed them back into the box. She felt rattled and suddenly irritated. Her reasons for following through with this event started to get further away from her. She should leave the whole thing to Mrs. Bennett, the program administrator, who passive-aggressively tried to talk her out of hosting by insisting how nerve-wracking it could be, and made numerous comments about how she was such a surprising choice for host and she hoped that she was really, truly ready to take on such an enormous responsibility. The reason she hadn’t already dropped out was just so she could watch Mrs. Bennett sit at her table sour-faced for the entire evening.
A pair of faux-ruby earrings were buried underneath the pile she’d just picked up from the floor. She’d bought them at a flea market in Chelsea years before she met Emilio. She was glad that she still had them. She put them on, and then dumped all the other earrings into the trash.
If she didn’t leave within the next five minutes she’d be late. There were still the Thai left-overs she wanted to heat up so that she wouldn’t be stuck eating dry, ceremony salmon. The food alone was reason enough for her to bail, turn on Greys and see if should could make it through the rest of Season 12 before passing out.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the potent odor of high-grade marijuana. All this time Lea thought it had been Sean compounding his substance dependency issues. She closed her eyes and welcomed the aroma, fragrant and alive and intoxicating.
For months, it felt like all her days whirled together, like she was in an endless cage match with a hurricane. Most days she wondered it if this was it. Emilio didn’t find her good enough for reasons she’d never know, and she would be left reeling forever.
Jill had turned on something soulful and bluesy. Lea turned off her phone and listened. She sat down against the wall and let herself be taken by the sounds. She wanted more music. She wanted to taste the weed, let it put her mind elsewhere. She’d never ask Jill, uncordial as they were, so she willed herself to drift into the melody. She needed the break. Just five minutes. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. No thoughts. Just riffs.
She laid on her back, arms relaxed at her sides. Her hair sprawled in several directions. It was crown. It was a halo. She tapped her toes to the purposeful, soft thump of the drums and smiled as the trumpets wailed.
Rayna White: "My previous work can be found in eFiction Magazine, Liar's League, Flapperhouse, and is forthcoming in The Other Stories."