I’m an expert at going against the flow. I will not be one of them. Every other girl at my high school has long, straightened hair. When they walk by, you can smell the crispy, burnt ends. Sort of like a campfire. Not really. Campfires smell good.
I embraced my curls. My mom bought me Herbal Essence Tousle Me Softly shampoo and conditioner by the gallon. Bad hair day? No prob. I’d sweep my bra strap-length jumble into a messy, hair-banded bun. Pull out strategic tendrils to frame my face, accent my Kraft Caramel eyes.
Last semester in biology lab, some girl felt sick. We had to open windows to let the Formaldehyde fumes escape. Icy, Appalachian air rushed the room. I liberated my hair, to warm my neck and shoulders.
“What is that smell?
“Is it flowers?”
“Naw. I think it’s apples.”
I surveyed the guys around me—hotties, creepers, athletes. They all had their noses in the air. They closed in, sniffing. A blonde wrestler boy pointed at me.
“It’s her,” he said. He stuck his face in my curls and inhaled. “It’s her hair. Holy crap! It smells amazing!”
I shoved him, pretended offense. But really? That’s my favorite high school moment to date.
“What have I done?” I practically shouted into my mother’s anxious face.
On my daybed, she clasped her hands, her pointer fingers steeples.
“It’s darling, sweetheart. Really it is.”
She reached out to stroke a long, random piece. It looked like an accident, a hairdresser’s lack of expertise. I dragged my hands over the choppy darkness.
“Did you see this coming? Did you?”
Mom stood and fluffed my pillows. She glanced in the mirror over my dresser. Used her pinkies to get lipstick out of the corners of her mouth.
“Tami and I both told you there was no telling what your hair would do short. She said you’d have to blow dry, straighten, and use product to make your hair look like that picture.”
I threw my comb at the mirror. “When? When did she say that?”
Mom started to count on her fingers. I crumpled to the floor.
“What am I going to do? Tomorrow’s school. They’ll call me skate rat and boy. If I wear my leather jacket, they’ll call me dyke on a bike. Dyke! I hate that word.”
Mom joined me on the rug. Tossed my Converse high tops toward the closet. She surrounded me with her legs, parentheses of love. No, protection. Well, both.
“Oh, sweet pea,” she said. “You’re gorgeous. No one would ever think you’re a boy.”
She tweaked some wild, stick out hairs. Tried to smooth them. Epic failed. I fell against her, my hands fists between us.
“I lied, Mama,” I whispered against her neck. She smelled familiar. Fruity. Flowery. “I told myself I didn’t care what anyone thought, but that’s not true.”
Her breath warmed my ears. Made them moist.
“I want to be beautiful,” I said. “More than anything. I told everyone I wanted to be different, but I thought I’d look classy, elegant. Like Audrey Hepburn.”
Mom’s breathing stuttered. Is she crying too? She turned my face toward the mirror beside my bed, pointed at us.
“Baby, look who you’re talking to. I’m addicted to my eyelash curler. I won’t go to the grocery store without makeup on. For crying out loud, I’m a Sephora Very Important Buyer. I know. I know what it’s like to want to be pretty, sweetie. Me of all people? I know.”
I laid my cheek against hers and our tears swam together. I played with her rings. Made them all face up.
“I kept thinking, even if I’m ugly, some little bald girl can be beautiful with a wig made from my hair. But now? That’s not enough.” I turned to look Mom in the eye. “Does that make me a bad person?”
She clasped her hands around my ribs and rocked me. Shushed and there-thered me.
“I never thought I’d be ugly, Mama. Never.” My voice sounded as if I’d inhaled helium.
A heaving suck of air escaped my mouth. I felt my face start to implode. She cupped my cheek and gazed at our reflection.
“But you’re not, sweetheart. There’s no—“
I snorted snot. “I know. I mean-- My face is still pretty. But you don’t know high schoolers. They’re mean, Mama. So, so mean.” Flesh caught in zippers mean.
Mom rested her chin on my shoulder. “I’ll pray for you tomorrow. I promise. I won’t stop. Not for a second.”
I nodded and smiled. Tried to anyway. “I know you will. Thanks.”
I stood. Walked to my dresser. Got a purple eyeliner out of the mug I made in eighth-grade art class. I stepped in front of the full-length mirror on my closet door. Wrote in cursive on the glass. “I am beautiful.” I made a kissy face, then I underlined the sentence. Over and over.