When you were fourteen, your scalp was burning, you left the cream on for two hours longer than the instructed forty-five minutes-you desperately needed this product to work. That night you almost had to go to the emergency room because you were blistering, bleeding and screaming.
When you were fifteen your hair turned orange.
When you were sixteen, your hair fell out in clumps in the shover.
When you were seventeen, you seriously considered shaving your head and buying a wig.
All this suffering because you wanted to be like Amy, the dance-team captain who sat in front of you in biology class...
-from The Sky Isn't Visible from Here
At salons, when the shampoo girls shampooed, they'd ask: Have you ever considered straightening your hair? Or the more frequent: Are you black? Hispanic? Mixed? My heritage has always vexed them. My skin too white. My hair too dark and coarse. They couldn't fathom the disconnect. And while I wondered how people think it appropriate to ask complete strangers for their personal history while they were simply paid to wash hair, I opened my eyes, stared up at their hair, so loose and flouncy, and considered strangling them with it. For years I feverishly pursued friendships with pretty blondes in hopes of skirting the edges; I was desperate to blend in. Yanked out of Brooklyn and its sea of beautiful, diverse color to Long Island - to a town devoid of color, a town that grew suspicious of anything other - will do that to you. I've always been incredibly self-conscious about my hair - it used to be that wearing my hair straight or curly was the difference between life and death. Although my mother's hair was thick (you could bury yourself in it), it was straight, fine. And my real father, well, he's the wildcard. The untold story.
Back to the matter at hand. Yesterday, I'm making small talk with my stylist, who, over the years, has become a very dear friend. She's nervous, practically has an anxiety attack when she tells me that she's booked a vacation the week my book goes on sale. She won't be able to straighten my hair for my first reading, my book party & she's so sorry. I wave her away; I tell her that it's okay, no big deal, and when we talk strategy, replacements, I blurt out: I just don't want some white girl doing my hair. She leans over and says: I don't mean to break the news, but we are white. We laugh and switch topics.
On the way home, something disturbed me and it was only when I came through my door and saw my book on the table did I realize it was this, it is this: My skin may be the color of paper, but I don't feel white. I feel white and something other. Something I can't quite identify. A whole identity that I can wrap my arms around. A whole heritage and culture unrealized, uncelebrated. My friend wrote a book about transgenedered teens who felt trapped in their own sex. They may be born a male but they sure as hell didn't identify as one.
Uncertainty of self is a cancer - it gnaws at your self-esteem, eats away at everything until all that is left is a negative of yourself. An x-ray of a person you think you know, but not really, and your life is reduced to a series of print-by-print movements. For years, I loathed these fair-haired, peach-lipped girls mocking color with their faux tans and bronzers. Kinking their hair with crimpers and irons, crying out to me: If only I had hair like yours!. Right. But I realized that I didn't envy them their hair, I sought their company because they had clear lineage when I had none. They could chart back their families hundreds of years if you asked them to. Their family tree was verdant and pregnant with information when mine was barren. The lone limb belonging to my mother, a woman who severed all ties with our family, who said I didn't need anyone but her. She was a woman who frequently claimed that she was my author.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have been okay with all of this uncertainty (or okay by degrees) had I remained in Brooklyn. Had I not been thrust into a school whose only exposure to color was MTV. Girls who rode the Long Island Rail Road into the city to visit a strip of stores in Soho (Unique, Antique Boutique) and then scurried back to the safety of the Five Towns and Grant Park. Teenagers can be terribly cruel especially if they're racist and your race is questionable.
And other times I'm angry. I'm angry that I wasn't strong enough to make my mother tell me the truth, the real truth.