Hair by Carmella Guiol
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
For other uses, see Hair (disambiguation)
"Hairy" redirects here. For the epithet, see List of people known as the Hairy
2.1 Natural color
2.2 Human hair growth
3.3 Touch sense
3.3.1 Eyebrows and eyelashes
4.1 Human hairlessness
4.2 Evolutionary variation
4.3.1 Curly hair
4.3.2 Straight hair
5. Grooming practices
5.2 Lice Removal
5.3 Cutting and trimming
6. Social role
6.1 Indication of status
6.2 Religious practices
My hair speaks the language of conquistadors, the cousins of Columbus.
But it doesn’t tell the story of frijoles negro and yucca frita, ropa vieja and abuelas. My hair can’t tell you about my mother, age nine, boarding a plane with a doll in one hand and her brother’s palm in the other, destination unknown. My hair doesn’t tell you what my first words were after “Mami.”
Pan con mantequilla.
Main article: Human hair color
“Rubia.” That’s what the hairnet-clad ladies behind the counter at la cafeteria called me with their red lips.
“Can I have your hair?” the women who ran the after-school care asked me every afternoon, nail polished fingers running through my tangled curls.
Human hair growth
I was born with a thick shock of dark black hair. “So much hair,” my mother tells me, “until it all fell out.” After a stint as una pelada, a baldy, my hair finally grew back, this time the color of sunshine on snow. In my mother’s bedroom, there’s a dusty 8 x 10 of toddler me looking out a window, afternoon light sifting through the slatted shades, my hair a white halo.
If my hair was a soup, it would be a stew full of meaty beans, hearty vegetables, and chunks of pork fat. Sturdy. Strong. Life-giving.
For a long time, I wished my hair was a thin broth, uncomplicated and clear. The kind of hair that slips through fingers, swims over shoulders, kisses clavicles. Easy. Low maintenance. Dry and go.
But even broth is made of bones.
In the top drawer of my mother’s dresser, there’s a little plastic bag of feather blond hair, saved from my first haircut.
I first started pulling out my hair when I couldn’t fall asleep. I was an anxious child who already felt the weight of the world, and I spent many nights awake with wide-eyed worry. The feeling of my hand running through my hair soothed me. With each pass, a few strands would stay between my fingers, sliding out easily, as if they’d never been attached to my head at all.
I played with each strand, tying them into knots, curling them around my finger, plucking them like guitar strings, or running them through my teeth. I liked the way the thickness of the hair changed from one end to the other, going from stout to fine. The thick end is the bulb, or hair follicle, that was once buried underneath skin. I liked to put this end in my mouth and bite down. Then I pulled the other end, wispy as an eyelash, and stretched the hair until it sprung back at me.
I still have this habit. When I’m reading or talking on the phone, or when sleep escapes me, I run my fingers through my hair, hoping for loose strands.
Sometimes I think about the many places in the world where I have dropped threads of my blond hair: under the seat on an airplane, atop waves the color of sunset, on a lover’s lonely pillow, between creased pages of an old book, in fresh soil to become tangled with the roots of a mango tree. Everywhere I go, I mark my trail with curly wisps of genetic material. Everywhere I go, I leave whispers of myself behind.
I used to cry when I got my hair my hair cut. Watching tufts of hair fall from the stylist’s scissors, my eyes filled with tears that I blinked away. Holding my hands tightly under the black plastic cape, I watched the other stylists go about their business: soaping heads at the sink, brushing lumps of hair into neat piles, shaving a man’s sideburns, brushing loose hair off chests and shoulders. When my stylist spun my chair around and held a mirror up so I could see the back, I would force a smile on my face.
“Do you like it?” she’d ask, and I’d nod my head vigorously, struggling to pull off the plastic cape fastened tightly around my neck. It wasn’t until I was in the car that I would let my tears flow, sobbing as my mother drove slowly down the street with one hand on my knee.
Eyebrows and eyelashes
Growing up, my mom had to hide the tweezers from my sister, Gaby, and me. But especially from Gaby. She plucked her eyebrows so thin, they all but disappeared.
We were in ninth grade when they found cancer in her spine. We’d been friends since kindergarten; Mrs. Bareck used to call her “munchkin” because she was the tiniest girl in our class. But she never looked tinier than she did in that hospital bed the first time I went to see her, tubes and cords tangled around her bird bone wrists. Her already fine angel hair, the color of windblown sand, was thinning fast. Soon, her scalp would be naked, tender skin exposed to the elements.
She cried the first time she wore her wig. The color was darker than her natural hair, and it had an orange tint to it. This hair felt crunchy and tough while hers had been soft and flowy. It was cut into a blunt bob around her shoulders and there was a row of bangs above her eyes. She’d never had bangs before.
“Why do the ladies at school tell me they want my hair?” I ask my mother after school.
“Because they think it’s pretty,” she says.
“But they have pretty hair, too.”
“Yes, but they want to have blond hair, just like you.”
It didn’t make sense to me. Many of these women who complimented my hair, strangers at the store or my own tias, had hair color similar to mine – some shade between yellow brass and flan custard. It took me years to understand that their color was fabricated in a lab while mine was free of charge.
Over the years, my hair has darkened. Sometimes, at the beach, I squeeze whole lemons on my head. They say this lightens the color. The tart lemon juice mixes with salt on my lips. Later, in the shower, I rinse clumps of pulp and seeds tangled in my curls.
For much of my life, I only liked my hair when it was dripping wet. I loved the feel of it as it rained down my back, so long and straight and heavy. But as the moisture evaporated, my mane sprung up and out. Released from the weight of water, my hair became a tangled, frizzy mess.
It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I considered cutting it all off. I was studying abroad in Australia and most of my waking hours were spent in the ocean. My skin was coated in a permanent layer of salt and my hair never had time to dry between early morning swims and late night dips. My options were dreads or chop. One of the girls in my program had a decent pair of scissors and a habit of using them on her own hair.
Without the inches weighing it down, my hair was free. Curls were born – curls I never knew I had, or had forgotten that I had. My new hairdo required no styling; still, strangers stopped me on the street to ask me how I got my hair to look like that.
“Why did you do that?” my father said when he saw what I’d done. “Don’t you know that men prefer women with long hair?”
In middle school, I used to blackmail my sister into straightening my hair. I’d sit on a low stool, hair splayed out on the ironing board, while Gaby ran the burning iron across its surface.
“Get as close as you can,” I’d tell her, squeezing my eyes shut when I felt the white heat near my scalp. I wanted my hair to be like my best friend Charlotte’s dark chocolate mane. Her hair swung when she walked, never tangled, not a frizz in sight.
For a few days, I’d have that, too. Gorgeously uncomplicated straight hair. I ran my hands through it constantly, amazed at the way my fingers slipped through without getting caught in a knot. I made sure not to get it wet in the shower. But after a few days, the grease built up and I’d have to wash away the straightness.
At some point, I let my Tia Hebe convince me to get my hair straightened.
“Keratin’s actually good for your hair,” she assured me, taking side roads all the way across the city to avoid getting on the highway. I guess she didn’t know about the formaldehyde. Neither did I.
“But it’s so expensive,” I argued.
“Ay, it’s nothing, chica. It’s worth it, believe me. Plus, it’s my treat.” The $200 for the treatment was no object to her; for the women in our family, the pursuit of beauty has no price.
The salon was actually an apartment, the home of a stylist named Kimberly. Kim was originally from Australia and she’d been doing hair for 15 years, she told me with a bright smile. She examined my mass of thick curls while Hebe settled into a chair with a stack of tabloid magazines. For three hours, Hebe and Kim made small talk while I sat, a statue, lips pursued.
“Now, you look beautiful,” Hebe said to me when Kim was done stripping my hair with chemicals. It would take months for the Keratin treatment to fade from my hair, but the only real way to be rid of it was to cut it off.
I joke that my hair-dye-happy tias and primas don’t know how to wash their own hair. Most of them go to the hair stylist several times in one week, sometimes just for a wash and blow-dry.
I don’t tell them about the six months I went without shampoo or conditioner, as an experiment, or that I switched to regular bar soap and apple cider vinegar once the experiment was over. They don’t ask questions they don’t want to know the answers to.
There were a few weeks in the second grade when all the girls in our class had to go to the main office first thing in the morning. There, a secretary would comb through our hair, checking the roots for any signs of life: lice. The parents stood by anxiously, wondering whether they’d be going to work that day or spending hours de-lice-ing their home and child.
My sister and I caught the bug on more than one occasion. We got to miss school so we didn’t mind it so much. I remember sitting outside in the backyard, my hair slick with some product that promised to kill lice in all of its stages, from invisible egg to mature adult. I wore a towel around my shoulders like you do at the salon when you’re getting a haircut. Mami sat beside me, running a fine-tooth comb across my pink scalp, through every single strand of my dark dampened hair. Like a gorilla grooming her young, my mother bent over me for hours, making sure to catch any insinuation of lice. She was not taking depositions, whatever that meant. I was not in French class reciting my dictation. No. We were here, sitting in plastic chairs on the slab of concrete beside our tiled pool, the afternoon sun winking at us through the broad leaves of the sprawling schefflera tree.
Cutting and trimming
We drag a chair out to the field. It’s early fall and the leftover lettuce heads and broccoli stalks are decorated with flowers. Soon, the farmers will move on to their winter homes; me to South Florida, Emily to New Orleans. Others will stay here in New England, snowed in with knitting projects, piles of books, and farming spreadsheets.
I drag a chair out into the field and Emily brings her pair of scissors. We choose a spot in the middle of a field of wildflowers: Queen Anne’s lace, cousin of the carrot, and red clover, whose puffy blossoms I will harvest for tea.
“Take it all off,” I tell her.
It’s been a strange season. First, a late frost. Then, mid-summer flooding, the wet kiss of a wayward hurricane. Next, a freak tornado? And a broken heart, to top it all off. In a few days, we will be taken off guard by an early snowstorm that will wipe the area of electricity for weeks.
I don’t need to see what she’s doing. I can hear the scissors snip near my ears. A clump of blond hair floats by me like windborne dandelion seeds. In the distance, the chicken coop sits in the field, our flock of 200 laying hens squawking and scratching the field for leftovers.
See also: Hairstyle
Indication of status
In kindergarten, the girls in my class fought over the privilege of brushing our teacher’s hair. Mrs. Bareck’s mane hung down to her waist, like a smooth copper curtain. Her desk drawer held hair accessories of all kinds: glittery butterfly clips, bejeweled barrettes, poufy scrunchies in all the colors of the rainbow. She let us braid and decorate her hair the way we did our Barbie dolls’, but we always made sure to hide the brushes behind our backs whenever another teacher came into the room.
For the women in my family, the salon is their cathedral. The stylist, their preacher. The whirring of blow dryers, a constant hymn. Hairspray is holy water and glossy magazines are the book of Psalms.
Theirs is a congregation of women, unified in their pursuit of beauty.
Their dreams are more than what they seem.
Carmella de los Angeles Guiol’s work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, The Inquisitive Eater, and elsewhere. She teaches and studies creative writing at the University of South Florida, and serves as the nonfiction and arts editor at Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. You can sometimes find her gardening, biking, and kayaking around South Florida, but you can always find her writing at www.therestlesswriter.com.