At sixteen, I’m a pro at resisting the flow. Every other girl in my school boasts almost butt-length, straightened hair. As they slink through the halls, I inhale the scent of their tresses—crispy, burned, sort of like a campfire but not really. Campfires smell good.
For the longest time, I embraced my curls. My mom made sure I never ran out of Herbal Essence Tousle Me Softly shampoo and conditioner. Bad hair day? No prob. I’d gather my bra strap-length jumble into a messy, hair-banded bun, tweak out strategic tendrils to frame my face and accent my Kraft Caramel eyes.
I remember the time some preppy girl got nauseous in biology lab. We had to open windows to let the Formaldehyde fumes escape. Icy, Appalachian air rushed the room. To warm my neck and shoulders, I liberated my hair.
“What is that smell?
“Is it flowers?”
“Nah, I think it’s apples.”
I surveyed the guys around me—hotties, creepers, athletes. They all had their noses in the air. The lot of them closed in on me, sniffing. A blonde wrestler boy pointed at me.
“It’s her,” he said. He hovered his face near my curls and sucked in their fragrance. “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?”
On my daybed my mother cringed, avoided my eyes, steepled her fingers.
“It’s darling, sweetheart. Really, it is.”
She reached out to stroke a random long piece. It looked like an accident, a hairdresser’s lack of expertise. I dragged my hands over the choppy darkness. Moaned.
“Did you see this coming? Did you?”
Mom stood and fluffed my pillows. She glanced in the mirror above my dresser, pinky-fingered 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 like that picture.”
I hurled 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 say I'm a dyke on a bike. Dyke! I hate that word.”
Mom joined me on the rug, tossed my Converse high tops toward the closet. On either side of me her legs were 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 tugged at a cluster of wild, stick out hairs, wet her fingers and tried to smooth the strands. Epic failed. I collapsed 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 left ear, made it moist.
“I want to be beautiful,” I said, “more than anything. I said 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 nudged my face toward the mirror beside my bed, pointed to us.
“Baby, consider 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 twisted to look Mom in the eye. “Does that make me a bad person?”
She clasped her hands under my ribs and rocked me, shushed and there-thered me.
“I never thought I’d be ugly, Mama, never.” My never sounded as if I’d inhaled helium.
I sagged forward and poked my fingers into my hair. I felt stinging as my face started to implode. Mom reached around me to cup my cheek.
“But you’re not, sweetheart. There’s no—”
The girl in the mirror snorted snot. “I know, I mean— My face is still pretty but you don’t know high-schoolers, Mama. They’re mean. 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 heaved myself up, trudged over to my dresser and plucked an aqua 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 and wrote in cursive on the glass: “I am beautiful.”
My breath fogged the mirror as I underlined the sentence, over and over.