Make a list, I told myself.
Things I swore not ever to do again:
1 Go out drinking with my best friend, Wendy, which somehow always got me into trouble.
2 Return to the relaxer chair, where I now sit.
3 And most important, never ever fall in the path of Clint Fairchild again. Dr. Clint Fairchild to you, the man who broke my heart, stomped all over it, then gave it back, telling me we would always be friends. Nothing good ever comes out of dealing with the past.
“All right, Miss Thing, you know there ain’t no going back. Once I lay this product on, it’s O-V-A, over.” Shane stirred the white mixture until it looked like a perfect Betty Crocker icing. I stared at myself in the mirror. I’d stopped counting how many people confused me with Melanie B, the chocolate spice of the Spice Girls. I had the same coral-toned skin, wild spirals coming out of my head in some spots, and a serious Pam Grier–Foxy Brown style in others. Countless times I’d been asked who did my weave. No add-ons, no glue or thread, just me, 100 percent, the real deal.
The woman in the next chair spoke with her chin pushed down to her chest, with long straight extensions attached to a winding circle of cornrows on her head. “I can’t believe she’s about to put a chemical on all that natural hair.”
“You putting a chemical on her, Shane?” Josie, the salon owner, was so engrossed by what she was about to witness, she could barely lead her closed-eyed customer to the washbowl, bumping her into the chair. “Oops, I’m sorry,” she told her customer, then turned her attention back to Shane. “You thought about just pressing it out, see if she likes it straight?”
“I’m just giving her what she asked for.” Shane took notice of all the eyes upon him. “I’m not selling crack, here, ladies. Back up off me.” He waved a plump hand to his peers.
My mother had made sure I got my monthly dose. It was all coming back to me, from the age of five years old when my mother stood on one side of me and pulled my hair out of the barrettes and bands. “Do something with this. I can’t work this hard anymore.”
“Yeah, it’s thick. Pauletta, how have you gone on as long as you did, girl? You were right for bringing her in. We’ll start out with a mild.”
“Mild?” someone questioned. “You ain’t gone do nothing but tease that child’s hair with mild. Put some super on there.” The first perm was thirty years ago, and nothing had changed. It still took a congressional meeting over my head to decide what to do.
“Everybody in here would pay for that hair, solid cash, and you about to put the heat to it,” Stella chimed in from two stations away.
“What a waste,” Tikki said in between the smoke rising from the flat iron going through her customer’s hair.
Women lined the dryer seats, the waiting chairs, and the hot seats where they’d been ordered not to move or they’d be burned, but no one could resist spying on the frantic young woman with the healthy natural mane who’d demanded chemical assistance. Pronto.
Few black women even knew what their natural hair looked like and probably hadn’t seen it since the baby pictures their mamas still held in a chest at home. It was the curse of the Dark & Lovely boxes and Ultra Sheen ads from fifty years ago. Nothing had changed. But when one soldier was bold enough to rough it, discover her true natural beauty, everyone else cheered for her freedom. Offered support and praise. Run like the wind, child, be free!
Shane combed through the parted center of my hair. He took two handfuls and twisted them in a clip. “Now, Miss Thing, I know I just met you. You coming in here flashing hundreds, offering anybody with an available chair five big ones to straighten you out, but I am a sympathetic black man. If you want to talk about it, we can. No charge.”
“I don’t need a therapist. I need my hair straightened.” I pushed back the heavy mass of hair nearly covering my eyes. “Do you think you can give me some blond highlights while you’re at it?”
The room went into a dizzying hush. Blow dryers clicked off. Gossiping voices turned down to silence.
“Miss Thing, you will lose every strand of hair on your head if I do a color lift on top of a relaxer. I don’t care how much money you got in that, Gucci via Rucci, or whatever bag of yours. I am not going to let you ruin my good name.”
“Okay. Fine. Just straighten it then.”
The salon door flew open as if a gust of wind had carried the woman who stood panicked with a weave so tight, her eyes bulged. “Where’s Cee Cee? Where she at? Look at this.” She spun around, “Cee Cee! You gone fix this, you hear me? I paid two hundred cash, and I can’t sleep ’cause my damn eyes won’t shut.”
A few snickers came from behind the partitioned wall where fingernails and toes were being tended to. The woman was tall and lean and used her height to peer over the top half of the wall. “Who the hell thinks this is funny?” She was a fright with her eyebrows in permanent flex. “I said, who the hell thinks this is funny?”
“Cee Cee is not here,” Josie said with a hand on her blow dryer like she was ready for a duel at the O.K. Corral. “Now, you’ve called here ten times, and I’ve told you the same thing. She doesn’t work here no more. And you and a few more unhappy customers are precisely the reason why. Now I’m sorry about your hair, but nobody in here is responsible.”
The woman’s eyes bulged even more. “Well if this is your shop, you are responsible.”
“No. I’m not. I wasn’t the one to do your hair, ’cause if I did, it would’ve cost five hundred instead of two. This is a simple case of you got what you paid for.”
“You hired that heffa. This is your shop, so I’m suing you.”
“I didn’t hire anybody. She rented a space from me. Everybody in here is a free agent. Now if you’d like someone in here to remedy your situation for a modest fee, you’re going to have to act with a little more civility.”
“You think I’ma let somebody in here steal some more of my money? I already paid once. I’m not paying again. This place ain’t nothing but a fake. Just ’cause you in the nice part of town, got your fancy shiny floors and your painted walls, I should have known better. High rent don’t make you better than anybody else. You ain’t nothing but a chop shop, messing up people’s heads. I could’ve gone to any hole in the wall and got better.”
Josie was a stocky woman who looked like she preferred giving a good beatdown to a monotonous treadmill workout any day. She took a step toward the lean brown-skinned woman, prepared to do whatever was necessary to protect Josie’s House of Style’s good name. “That’s it, you’re out of here. I’ve tried to be reasonable, but you’ve got to go.”
Shane leaped between the two women. “Okay, now, this is a place of business. Now look, we all sympathize with your problem, but the party responsible is only two blocks up at Weaves R’ Us. . . . Oops, did I say that?” He put his fingers to his lips.
The lean woman started crying in a painful whimper. Her tight scalp prevented her face from falling into the full grieving frown. “My wedding is Saturday, and I’m out of money. Not a cent left. I can’t show up at my wedding looking like this.”
Shane wrapped one of his burly arms around her, then waved Josie away. “You’re going to be a beautiful bride.”
A few snickers could still be heard scattered about.
“I’m not. I’m not going to be beautiful, not like this.”
I would have to agree she looked like Medusa’s spawn. The hair attached to her head stood up in bountiful spirals shooting in every direction. A reasonable-minded person would have gotten right out of her seat and headed to another salon with less drama. That reasonable-minded person was not me. I felt sorry for the woman, I suppose, as sorry for her as I did for myself.
“It’s supposed to be the happiest day of your life,” I said out loud before I could contain myself. “The day when you marry the man of your dreams, isn’t it supposed to be the happiest day of your life?” I wiped the tear that trickled down my face. “Is he the man of your dreams?” I asked the woman who’d begun crying in the midst of everyone else’s amusement.
She nodded silently. “I’ve loved this man since I could tie my own shoes.”
“I’ll pay for her hair.” I twirled my chair around to face the woman instead of staring at her through the mirror. I went into my purse and pulled out more ones—one hundreds, that is. I’d married well for all that didn’t know. My husband, Jake Parson, owned JP Wear, an urban clothing line based on his reputation as a rapper. My Jake was a successful businessman, just as safe and sound as any doctor. Dr. Clint Fairchild wasn’t special. So what he was in the business of saving lives. Rap and urban clothing had its special place in society as well, did it not?
Shane rushed over and pulled out tissue for each hand. “Oh, this is bad. Worse than I thought,” he announced. “We got a full stock of sanitary napkins in the bathroom for the rest of you crazy bammas.”
Josie looked around, miffed by the contagious blubbering. “I’ll do your hair for free, just stop crying. Everybody, stop that,” she ordered. From the hair dryer to washbowls and back to the stationed chairs, not a dry eye in the salon. No one knew what she was crying about. A universal tear of sadness for every trust betrayed and every hope dashed by a cheating lying man or in my case, a woman.
As I said, if I’d made a list and stuck to it, I wouldn’t have traveled down this road again. Women did that from time to time, traveled the same path knowing what waited at the end, yet unable to stop and turn around.
“It’s always a man, isn’t it?” Shane said, spinning my chair back around to face the mirror.
“Sometimes it’s two,” I said, sniffing and wiping with the beaten tissue in my hand.
“Whew, I know that’s the truth. Sometimes three or four, but we’re not counting today.” He paused long enough to hand me another tissue. “You poor thing.”
I couldn’t help myself. The chair is a vulnerable place to be.
I’d fought long and hard to stay out of the chair. Rehab had been a son of a gun. Breaking a lifelong cycle of chemical dependency was something to be proud of. Black women yearned for that freedom and celebrated others’ success when the spell had been broken. Feeling themselves helpless, always citing excuses of why they couldn’t do it: not strong enough, pretty enough, secure enough, or just plain crazy enough to go natural. Besides, there were no African-American super-natural beauties for role models, none recognized in the host of magazines or on the entertainment circuit. When a black celebrity donned natural hair, it was store bought, a prop for a photo shoot, an added wig, or extensions. The word natural meant cut from the head of another woman somewhere in Asia or Africa then sewn or twisted in. And here I was, the exemplary model of what we were trying to achieve, backsliding. All the way back, all because of a man, which only made matters worse.
When I first cut off all my long straightened hair, it was about the freedom. Not Angela Davis–type freedom. It wasn’t a black power movement; it was one woman’s quest for sanity and clarity. Get control of your hair and you get control of your life. Little else in one’s world could be controlled: Weight, ha! Shoe or dress size, double ha. A man, ha ha ha, with two more on the end. Hair, yes, fast and easy. An instant charge in spirit and attitude could easily be found in a new hairdo.
I’d made a terrible mistake somewhere along the way. Being in control was a lot of work, a daily siege of contact with every side of the big picture frame. A frame I’d created, by the way. Control meant staying in between the lines. Functioning within the space I’d defined. I was tired. I’m not going to lie, being a Black American Princess required daily affirmations and continued renewal of the vows.
Shane interrupted my thoughts. “So, I’ve already sent two of my best customers to the waiting chair. They’re not going to stay over there long, at least not peacefully. Tell me what you want me to do.” Shane picked up the long-handled comb.
I swallowed hard, but the lump wouldn’t remove itself from my throat. I tried to speak again, but it stayed, tight and resolute. He placed his large hands on my shoulders. The weight felt good. A grounding swell moved through my body. “Do you love him? My bad, do you love ’em both?”
I nodded my head. “Different love.”
“Now see, I don’t believe you can ever love two people at the same time. Not in the same space and time. I think sometimes our lines get crossed and we’re living in multiple spaces, you know like Star Trek in the episodes with parallel universes. Something’s happening over here but at the same time it’s happening over there. But eventually you have to decide which universe is real. Which one is just a visit to the past and which one is your future.”
“Ooh, listen to Shane-man over there getting deep. Tell it, Shane. Preach, my brotha.” Josie had the unruly customer controlled and sedated with a plastic cape around her chest and shoulders. I’d long associated the plastic beauty cape with the straitjacket in mental hospitals. Once placed around a woman’s body, she went into a mind-numbing state, losing all track of time. I looked around the salon and noticed there were no clocks, at least not any visible to the paying customers.
“Hush over there and mind your business.” Shane bent down and whispered near my ear. “You want to hear a joke?” He asked, not giving me a chance to answer. “Okay here it goes. This guy worked construction, every day he’d sit up on the scaffold with his buddy and open his lunch box and be like, ‘peanut butter sandwich again. I hate peanut butter, damnit if I have to see one more peanut butter sandwich, I’m going to jump.’ His friend got tired of hearing the same complaint every day so he asked, ‘why don’t you tell your wife to stop making peanut butter sandwiches if you hate ’em so much?’ The guy stares into his lunch box. ‘It’s not her, it’s me. I make the gah-damn peanut butter sandwiches.’”
Several women sputtered with laughter, even the woman with the scary fixed eyebrows.
Shane was right. I’d fixed my own peanut butter sandwich way too many times. I put my hand over my mouth and nose to try to contain the mixture of tears and laughter. Shane reached over and sat the entire box of tissue in my lap. “Oh hell, we’re not going to do this today. You have way too much to think about. Whatever needs fixing can’t be done in this chair.”
Copyright © 2007 by Trisha R. Thomas. All rights reserved.