In a Box with a Few Tiny Teeth
Your aunts surprised your mother with a trip to the salon to have her hair cut. On the phone, she tells you her long hair made her feel “trapped.” You want to laugh. Trapped? Trapped, like her saying that when your cousin cut her hair she looked like a gardener, a nobody. Saying long hair is beautiful, men love long hair, it’s sexy. Telling you long hair can be worn any way you like, but short hair is only short, and makes you look like a boy. Those threats, stated as fact, make you feel trapped.
Trapped, like living with a mother who doesn’t like going outside or visiting other people’s homes, and doesn’t want you to go to outside either. Trapped, like your dad and her coworkers telling her she’s smothering you, and her saying they don’t understand. She told you she was proud of you and your beautiful hair. But your hair was not a ladder to better things. If you could’ve braided it, thrown it from the bedroom window, and found a better life for yourself, you would’ve.
Your hair was another way she kept you small, childlike, with golden curls tumbling from barrettes. She said it made you beautiful, but you feared the kind of beauty that might bring men to the window. Feared making men want to have you. You didn’t want that kind of beauty. You didn’t want beauty at all. Beauty seemed envious, dangerous. One day your mother told you it was natural for men to stare. I know you’re innocent, she said, but you don’t look innocent. It’s not your fault. Your lips are so big, your hair is so long.
You felt trapped in their stares. Trapped, like her telling you that only sluts wore black eyeliner and tight skirts, and that no one would give you a job if you didn’t wear makeup and high heels. That no one likes a woman who’s lazy, who doesn’t give a shit about how she looks. You wanted to revel in baggy clothes and wash the concealer from your face. To force the world to see you in all your complexity. You wanted admirers to see past the green eyes she gave you, wanted them to ignore her freckles and lips on your face, her blonde hair crowning you. Like Medusa’s, your hair was a tangled nest, shrouding you. When you tried to brush it, you cried, and strands broke your brush. Your hair fought and sought to claim you.
Until you were twelve, your hair was the color of grain in Ohio fields, where your mother was raised. It became honeyed, then darker, like the circles beneath your eyes. Then brown, like the soil that fed the grain. You snuck behind your mother’s back and asked your dad to make your hair golden again. He paid his girlfriend’s daughter to streak your hair with corn colored lines. The chemicals were strong. You could smell her stripping soil from your hair, washing the color away. When your mother saw you the smell was gone, but she said you looked like a skunk.
Now your mother colors her hair, but with smaller streaks than the ones you asked for then. When her hair grows, the highlights fade, and color leaves your mother’s cheeks and eyes. She looks drained, and she tells you so. She says she hates how dirty her hair looks, how dark it is. When she looks at her hair, she doesn’t see soil. She sees dirty dishwater blonde. The color she sees is too embarrassing on the head of a once-glamorous woman. Youth took the gold from her hair when it left her.
Your mother’s body displays consequences of her choices. The tanning oil, wrinkles, casual sex, STD, the bubbled skin on the rim of her eyelid, where she slipped and pricked it when she tried to separate her eyelashes with a pin. It seems she has only recently realized she can’t trade this body in for a new one, that she’s trapped with the physical shadows of her mistakes. Trapped, like you were when you thought college wasn’t an option because you’d have to leave her alone, and then who’d take care of her? Like telling this to one of your mother’s friends, over dinner, saying you didn’t think you could move out. Like your mother challenging you, later screaming and throwing a pizza box at you.
Then and now, in your mother’s house, is a box with a few tiny teeth and a lock of your hair inside. The box is iris, your mother’s favorite color. She painted this box and it sticks slightly when you slide the lid. Inside is a bundle of gold, wound together by a small hairband. This was your hair when it was soft, wheat colored, curled. Your mother keeps the hair locked away with your baby teeth, untouched by all but time.
If long hair is a gift, why does it feel like a struggle? After swimming in chlorine pools or walking outside on a windy day, you paid the price, trading time and tears to untangle your hair. You felt trapped in the bathroom, staring at the mirror and dragging bristles over snarled strands. Like when your mother said you were special because you preferred one-piece bathing suits. Said your stepsister was a spoiled little girl that needed attention, and would get herself into trouble one day. Your stepsister wore two-piece bathing suits. You felt trapped when, years later, your mom was saying you needed to get out of your shell, stop being so modest, stop being such a prude. Telling you she doesn’t know where your modesty came from, that you’re wasting your beautiful, young body. That a woman’s body is nothing to be ashamed of.
When you transferred from community college to a four-year university, you wanted to reinvent yourself. You wanted to be taken seriously, seen for your brains and your energy. You decided to cut your hair. Your mother said no. She said you could cut it when you had kids. You said you’d cut it anyway, and she told you how much you could cut. Samson’s hair made him stronger. Yours did not. Your hair gave you headaches, tangled around your neck, blurred your vision. Samson lost strength when his hair was cut. You gained strength and went back for more. You asked them to cut it again, this time above your shoulders, the shortest it’d been since childhood. And your mother cried. She wept for the loss of your innocence, your femininity. She wept because you were her chance to be glamourous again, to be young, and you threw it away.
You can’t help but think of the first time she had her hair cut short, about six years ago. Your mother was a loan officer, dependent upon clients and commission. A few of the big hitters at the real estate company planned a day at the salon and asked her to join. Your mother agreed, followed them to a salon she couldn’t afford, where the stylist “cut it too short.” Your mother pretended to take it in stride. She couldn’t cause a scene, but was barely able to cope. She asked to keep the hair and clutched the severed locks in her fist. Then she went home and cried.
She said she’d lost her femininity, said only women think short hair is cute, and that cute is all you can be with short hair. Beauty is only for women with long hair, men only love women with long hair, she said. When her tears dried, she asked you to take pictures of her new hair. She told you how to position the camera, you told her to smile. In the pictures, her smile is wide and her eyes are glassy.
You put your mother’s hypothesis to the test, and ask your boyfriend which he prefers. He says he likes your hair long and likes it short. He says he likes your hair, no matter the length, because it’s yours and he loves you. You wonder if a man ever said this to your mother. You wonder if that would’ve freed her from insecurity. She was trapped, comparing herself to past selves, equating beauty with power. One day, she told your boyfriend she was jealous of him. She said she was jealous because you love him too, and because he helped you travel to places she never took you. She said she never thought she’d let you love someone that much.
Later, your hair grows past your shoulders. It doesn’t grow because you want it to, but because growing is what it does when you aren’t deliberately making it stop. When you ask the stylist to cut four inches, she asks if you’ve told your boyfriend. No, you say, but you’ve told your mother. You pay the woman, then speed home to put curls in your hair and blush on your cheeks, so when your mother sees you, her shock will be lessened. When you see your boyfriend, he hardly notices the cut. You say you wanted to cut your hair because it made you feel trapped, and he asks if you want to shave your head. You think he’s joking, but he’s not. He says he wouldn’t care. He’d still love you, he says, still think you’re sexy.
Your mother still tells you to wear heels. For special occasions, you obey, and she tells you the heels are too short. Tells you to stand up straight, even though she knows you have scoliosis. She says your makeup looks natural, but you could use a little eyeliner. When you’re with her you feel trapped. Trapped, like being the only child of a woman who is sick, always sick mentally and physically, and needs you. Needs you there, needs you to take care of her. Trapped, like hating the person who gave you life, and loving them enough that if they died, you would too.
Sweat and foundation from your face stick to the cell phone screen as your mom tells you about her latest trip to the salon. How her sisters surprised her and paid for her haircut.
“I’m glad I got it cut. My long hair made me feel trapped,” she says. “You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, mom,” you say. “I do.”
Brooke White received her bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. She’s a Michigan native, with a penchant for prose and long conversations. Winner of the Hopwood Committee’s Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship for nonfiction, her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, as Lunch Ticket’s “Amuse-Bouche” feature, and the title piece in Z Publishing’s Confined Connections Anthology.