Un­tan­gling Roots

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - MARY CHEN

I have my mother’s hair. It is a thick, deep black—the kind she calls wūhēi. The strands fall straight down my back af­ter I wash it, glossy and sleek like the feath­ers of a crow. It never holds a curl.

I have only ever had it cut in malls, or in the base­ments of dif­fer­ent aun­ties my mother be­friends. Of­ten, I stare into the smudgy mir­ror ahead of me, quiet as my mother and which­ever aun­tie we’re vis­it­ing this time chat away about their ag­ing par­ents, about soar­ing hous­ing prices, about which uni­ver­si­ties their chil­dren at­tend. Some­times the aun­ties have bold red bobs. Oth­ers have curled long hair they tie up into a bun, their grey roots only vis­i­ble when they lean down to snip at the ends of my hair. And al­most all of them have tat­tooed eye­brows, fad­ing from brown to green, which sit high above their brow bone and give them a con­stant look of ca­sual sur­prise. It’s never longer than twenty min­utes be­fore my long hair is wran­gled back into neat, straight edges.

But to­day I have booked an ap­point­ment at a real salon. I am cut­ting it short. When I tell my mother this, she looks up from where she’s mak­ing break­fast. Scram­bled eggs, cof­fee, rice. Shred­ded pork floss in a lit­tle dish.

“Why? Won’t you be cold?” she says. “Sum­mer’s end­ing.”

I want to raise my eye­brow and joke, “What re­spectable queer woman has long hair?”

But I don’t. I shrug and sit down at the ta­ble in­stead, rest­ing my cheek against my palm. “I just feel like it.”

She fills a bowl of food and takes out the creamer for the cof­fee. She places them both in front of me, then smooths her hand against the back of my head. “Well. I’m sure you will look very pretty. You’re my daugh­ter.”

The salon is on the cor­ner of a street in Gas­town, tucked be­tween a liquor store and a sand­wich shop. I am too early, so I pace around the block in slow, mea­sured steps. As I walk, I catch glimpses of the staff twist­ing their hair into braids and spread­ing mag­a­zines, art­fully hap­haz­ard, across their pris­tine coun­ter­tops. By the time they fi­nally il­lu­mi­nate their open sign, my hair has snarled it­self around my

shoul­ders like it’s teth­er­ing it­self to me.

The stylist is wear­ing sweat­pants and has her hair tucked up in a per­fect bun. She is so pretty I have to force my­self not to feel guilty for look­ing. But I still have the urge to check if my lip­stick has smudged.

“I’m here to have my hair cut?” I say. My voice lilts up like I’m ask­ing a ques­tion and I can feel my cheeks heat­ing up at my own id­iocy. What else would I be do­ing here?

The stylist just smiles. “Won­der­ful. Come on over.”

I make my­self smile back and sit where she ges­tures. “Okay.”

“So, what are we think­ing to­day?” she asks. She runs her fin­gers through my hair as she asks me, man­i­cured nails graz­ing lightly against my scalp. It makes me shiver. “Wow. You’ve got re­ally lovely, healthy hair.”

Some­how, it’s em­bar­rass­ing for some­one who touches hair all day to com­pli­ment mine. It feels like I’ve brought a paint-by-numbers paint­ing to an art show and fooled ev­ery­one into think­ing I did it on my own.

“Thanks,” I say again, fin­gers twist­ing around the ends of my shirt. “I, um. Want it cut short.”

She nods. “Like a bob?”

“No, shorter than that.”

“Pixie cut.”

I bite my cheek. “Shorter. I want it buzzed, ex­cept the top.”

We meet eyes in the mir­ror and she raises her eye­brows. Lifts a lock of my hair and lets it fall, each strand cas­cad­ing down to kiss my shoul­ders. “All of this? That’s a big change, hon.”

I think of the count­less hours of brush­ing, of un­tan­gling. Of do­ing and un­do­ing knots. My hair, this heavy beast who’s grown with me—who’s held me, closer than I’ve ever let a woman touch me.

“That’s okay,” I say, and it is, even though my voice wa­vers. I take an­other breath and say, more surely, “I think I need a change.”

She takes out her scis­sors and snips. I watch the first cut locks fall to the ground, light and sound­less as eider­down. Then, what is left of my hair fans out where it has been sev­ered, and it re­minds me of the way my mother used to give me and my sis­ter match­ing bowl-shaped hair­cuts. They were al­ways slightly crooked be­cause we wouldn’t sit still when she tried to trim our hair. But now I hold my­self still and

watch as the stylist takes out the shaver. Watch as she runs it across the back of my head in slow, steady strokes, un­til the soft pink skin of my scalp is ex­posed.

The house is quiet when I come home. I won­der for a mo­ment if my mother has taken the dog out for a walk, but then I see her shoes are still stacked neatly on the rack.

I find her asleep in the fam­ily room, curled up on the couch. The dog is there, too. His ears poke out from be­neath the blan­ket close to her feet. Back when I was in ele­men­tary school, that had been my spot—cud­dled be­tween her and the cush­ions. We took a nap to­gether ev­ery Mon­day. I don’t re­mem­ber when we stopped, but when I see her like this, it some­times makes me wish I could make my­self small again, just for a while.

“Mom,” I say. “I’m back from the salon.”

“Wel­come back,” she mur­murs, still doz­ing.

“Mom,” I say again. I feel bad for wak­ing her, but I need her to see me. “Look.” I do a lit­tle twirl, and it feels strange not to have the cor­re­spond­ing swish of hair brush against my neck. But my head also feels very light, and it’s thrilling. “What do you think?” I ask.

“You—” She sits up, dis­lodg­ing the blan­kets. “You never told me you were get­ting it cut this short,” she says.

I smile as bright as I can. “It’s cool, right?”

But she has her hand pressed to her mouth, and her gaze flicks from my face to my head, over and over again. My smile stiff­ens.

“Never mind,” I say af­ter a mo­ment, and turn away.

Up­stairs, I un­dress and leave my clothes in a heap on the floor of the bath­room. Small hairs still cling to the back of my neck and I brush those to the floor too, be­fore step­ping into the spray. I make the wa­ter go as hot as I can stand, but the back of my neck still feels cold with­out the mess of hair to en­velop it.

I am ly­ing in my bed, feel­ing as spine­less as a jel­ly­fish, when my mother comes into the room. I see her in my pe­riph­eral vi­sion, but I don’t move.

She comes to sit at the side of my bed. Af­ter a mo­ment, she runs her soft hands in the fuzz of my head, very slow. Very qui­etly, she asks, “Amian, why did you cut your hair so short?”

Amian. It’s her nick­name for me. It means “my life.” I feel sud­den tears well up in my eyes. With­out my hair to cover me, I have to turn my face into the pil­lows so she can’t see.

I want to tell her: Be­cause I’m tired of be­ing told to keep it long.

I want to tell her: Be­cause I wasn’t a per­son: I was an Asian girl with long hair. A fetish.

I want to tell her: Ama, I like to kiss girls some­times.

But I have been brave enough for one day, I think, and my heart feels too soft. So for now I tell her: “Be­cause I wanted to.”

And she doesn’t say any­thing, but she keeps comb­ing my hair with her fin­gers, very gen­tly, and it feels good to let her do it.

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