Salon

By: Gazzmine Wilkins
This story explores bi-racial identity and a young WOC’s relationship to her hair, her white mother, and to what others project onto her in the outside world.
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The fist time Aida went to a black hair salon, the smell remind her of her the chemicals and burnt things on the skillets her grandmother used to restore; it burned the hairs in Aida’s nostrils, but it didn’t seem to bother the rest of the women; they all talked about Denzel Washington and laughed with their mouths open.

There were yellowed newspaper and magazine clippings plastering the windows. No one could see in at the women with their hair undone. Decades of black women with pixie cuts, press and curls, afros, up-dos, finger waves, long weaves that reached their waists, box braids and Havana twists, corn rows, micro braids, etc. filtered the sunlight through the windows. A framed dollar bill and photo of Madam CJ Walker hung beside the register up front. A portable radio tuned in to 102 Jams! – a station that ranged from oldies, like Ray Charles to new R&B, like Jodeci. Back issues of Jet, Ebony, and Essence stacked on the table in front of the hair dryers. The shampooing sink was just a regular pedestal sink with a low-backed chair leaned up against it. Today, there were hot combs, flat irons, texturizers, and roller sets being done. The women smacked on gum. Pink Lotion styler, Blue Magic hair grease, and Olive Oil Sheen lined the counters in front of the mirrors at each section.  Occasionally, a roach would crawl by, but the women just stomped them dead without flinching.

The building was old. Owner Miss Dianne had been doing hair since Kennedy was in office, back when the flip bob was popular. But at sixty-five, her skin was still smooth, and her shape still held high. The only thing that gave her age away was the beehive streaked with gray she’d worn for the past thirty years. On her table, between a lime green spray bottle and bright blue barbicide, was a framed photo of JFK and MLK shaking hands and looking in the eye. She marched with King and was jailed in Tuscaloosa for three months before calling it quits.

Aida flipped through an old issue of Essence with Janet on the cover. One headline read “Am I the Last Virgin?” She turned there and was careful not to let Mama see over her shoulder.

“Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” by the Four Tops came on the radio. “Ooh,” Miss Dianne said, “y’all don’t know nothing about this.” She snapped her fingers and swayed her hips up and down. Two other women did a little step and jig, with a broomstick handle as a microphone. The women all joined in song and moved their shoulders and tapped their toes to the beat. Miss Dianne mouthed the words at Aida with red, red lips. For a moment, everyone was in sync. Aida imagined this happening hundreds of years before her and continuing hundreds of years after her.

The bell above the door dinged. A man wearing a black durag, a black polo with a white emblem tucked into baggy black khakis, and Jordan 3s came into the shop. He opened a black backpack filled with small white tapes.

“Ladies, ladies,” he said, “it’s been a long time since I seen so many beautiful women in one room.”

The women waved him off but smiled nonetheless.

“Adonis,” said Miss Dianne, “What did I tell you about coming in here?”

“Miss Dianne, now you wouldn’t want to stop a black man from making an honest living, would you?”

“Nigga, selling bootleg Biggie tapes is not an honest living.”

Adonis pulled out Crunch bars, Kit Kats, and Tropical Skittles. “I got candy, too.” He slid Miss Dianne a king-sized Reese’s.

“You got five minutes, Adonis” She looked him up and down. “Your mama know you boostin’?” Adonis was quiet. She unwrapped the candy and took a large bite over the head of hair of the woman she was working on. “Mhmm. Tell her to call me.”

He sighed. “Yes ma’am.”

He made his way around the shop to all the women in black capes seated in swivel chairs, the women with plastic caps covering their hair under the dryers, and finally to the women reading back issues with their legs crossed in the waiting area. Mama gave him a fiver for two dark chocolate bars. Told him to keep the change. He blew a kiss at Aida on his way out.

They’d been waiting there for an hour at least.

“Mama,” said Aida, “how much longer you think it’s going to take?”

“From what I’ve heard, the beauty shop is an all-day affair.” Mama bit into the chocolate bar, ignoring the lines of the square breakable pieces. “We’re going to be here a while.”

Aida sighed and broke off a square of her chocolate. She looked through the paper-covered windows and saw the figures of three men huddled at the side of a car. Their bodies seemed cartoonish with the loose wide-legged pants they wore with bulky shoes, and durags with the tails flapping in the breeze like the capes of heroes.

The bell jingled above the door as it was opened. The soft smell of pine needles and mowed grass billowed into the salon. The air tasted sweet in Aida’s mouth. The sun covered her eyes, so she couldn’t make out the man’s face at first; his head eclipsed the sun. The first notes of Etta James’s “Sunday Kind of Love” sounded muffled from the speakers, like the sound was coming from far away and being absorbed by padded walls. He smiled at Aida with white teeth stark against deep black skin and looked down at his feet. His arms and legs swung through the air with grace as he walked.

He went up behind Miss Dianne and grabbed her waist and spun her around. She let out a quiet half-scream, then laughed when she saw who it was.

“Marcus,” said Miss Dianne, “don’t scare me like that!”

“Sorry, Auntie.” He smiled with those white teeth.

He slow danced with her up, down, then between the swivel chairs, and dipped her as the song ended in violins.

The women all looked on with slow blinks and jealous smiles.

“You come here for a haircut?” she asked Marcus.

“Now, you know I cut my own hair.” He kissed both her cheeks.

Miss Dianne sat the woman, whom she was putting a roller set on, under the dryer. “You ready, Miss Aida?” She waved.

Aida made her way to the chair and sat down, careful not to make eye contact with Marcus, but she looked up at him through the mirror and he winked at her. Aida blushed a deep red that spread down her neck to her upper chest. She felt all hot.

Miss Dianne said, “Boy, stop flirting and tell me what you want.” She slapped at his upper arm.

Marcus smiled at Aida in the mirror before turning to Miss Dianne. “Can you take Terence to Grandma’s this weekend?”

“Why?”

“The lights got turned off at the house,” he said in Miss Dianne’s ear.

Aida pretended she didn’t hear and adjusted the cape at her neck.

“Why can’t he stay with you?”

Marcus looked at her like she already knew the answer.

“OK, nephew,” she told him. She looked at Aida in the mirror and patted her shoulders. “All right, Ms. Aida we doing a relaxer today?” She let Aida’s hair out its bun, and it came down every which way. She looked kin to a troll doll. Her cheeks were hot again.

“Tell me you ain’t getting rid of this curly hair,” Marcus said.

“Boy, hush!” said Miss Dianne. “Go on and get out of here.”

Marcus bent down to hug her, said, I love you, and walked out. Miss Dianne stood from the door and watched him leave, then she locked it because a woman called Ayesha had arrived. Men were not allowed to see her hair. Ayesha walked to the last station on the left. She wore a black silk scarf that covered her head and neck. A few strands snuck out at her forehead. Why would she need her hair done? Apparently, her husband was allowed to see her hair and he liked it straight. Beneath the wrap, her hair was jet black with caramel highlights.

Aida was nervous when Miss Dianne locked the door. She was scared. But Miss Dianne came and rubbed her shoulders warm, so she relaxed a little. Miss Dianne sectioned Aida’s hair off in four equal parts and tried to comb out the kitchen at the nape of her neck. She felt the paddle brush struggle through; it sounded crunchy, like the first hard bite into an apple. Miss Dianne spun Aida around and made her way to the front of Aida’s head. Her nipples pointed through her shirt and eyed Aida as Miss Dianne stood in front of her. “Are you sure about this?” She asked, “its permanent, no going back.” Aida thought it over for a moment. Yes, she was sure, she said.

Miss Dianne left and came back with a large white tub and what looked like a black bristled paintbrush. She put on latex gloves. She opened the tub and stirred the creamy relaxer with the pointed end of the paintbrush, and then wiped the end clean on a rag. Then Miss Dianne saturated the bristles with the relaxer and started at her kitchen and brushed it through her hair from roots to ends. Grandmama told Aida not to scratch beforehand or else it would burn. But she did, of course, and boy did it burn like hell! but like a slow burn, she felt the skin bubble and scab.

“How you doing?” Miss Dianne asked. “It burn yet?”

It was excruciating. But the longer it stayed on, the straighter the hair. “No, ma’am. I’m OK.”

“Did y’all see my man score 42 points last night?” said a woman getting her hair hot combed. The smell of burnt hair was strong.

“And your man would be…?” asked Miss Dianne.

“Jordan.”

The women laughed, including Aida.

“Girl,” said a stylist with the nametag KEISHA, “who I did see was Coupe at Steps dancing with some white girl.” She sucked her teeth.

The women oohed.

Mama flipped her hair over to hide the right side of her face. She broke off a square of chocolate.

“If she hadn’t’ve been white,” said a voice from behind the screen concealing the shampoo sink, “then nobody would’ve gave a damn.”

Miss Dianne looked over at Mama in the waiting room. She said, “Mary, hush,” to the woman behind the screen.

“All I’m saying,” said Mary, “is if one white woman has to die for us to get some justice. I’ll make that trade any day.” A few women said, girl yes! and say it again! Aida remembered a picture in the newspaper Daddy read last week: black bodies on cement with their arms zip tied behind them, cops circling with guns in hand. There were burning buildings in the background.

Mama walked over to Aida. The women looked up from their reflections, magazines, fingernails, as though they just noticed her. She said, “Hey, I think I’ll go get us some smoothies.” Aida reached for her hand. Mama squeezed and went towards the door. But it wouldn’t open for her. Miss Dianne took off her gloves and grabbed the keys to unlock it. Mama’s face was red. She left in a hurry.

“Why y’all so quiet?” asked Mary when she came back to her seat with wet hair.

The women snickered.

“Come on, baby girl.” Miss Dianne patted Aida’s shoulders. Thank God; the smell was starting to make Aida feel sick and her scalp was almost numb from the pain. She sat in the low-backed chair in front of the pedestal sink. Her neck bent down at an uncomfortable angle to fit her head beneath the faucet. Miss Dianne filled a large pitcher with the sink water and emptied it at Aida’s roots while the running water rinsed her ends. Aida’s scalp felt bare. When Miss Dianne turned around to get the shampoo, Aida reached up and felt thick scabs like caterpillars on her scalp. She snatched her hand down as Miss Dianne turned. The tea tree and peppermint oils in the shampoo seeped into the raw pores of her scalp and stung. Miss Dianne’s fingernails did not help. “You scratched? I feel a lot of chemical burns.” Aida thought she may never feel relief. Miss Dianne applied a deep conditioner and a plastic cap, and stuck Aida under the dryer.

Aida hoped she looked like her mom; that was all she ever wanted her whole life. Her Mama had long, long blonde hair that reached her waist. Hair that you could detangle with a single brush stroke, that you could wash and go, that looked good no matter what. When they went to restaurants men stared and had drinks sent over. Aida felt burnt, ugly around her even though Mama would always say how she wished she had Aida’s brown skin or hair that would do anything but lay there limp. Aida longed for limp hair.

There was also Dylan – first-chair bassist in the orchestra. When his fingers slid down the long, long fingerboard, or plucked strings so that a loud, deep note bellowed or when he sat in the barstool and leaned the bass against his inner thigh, Aida pictured her body in place of the bass, his strong fingers doing vibrato down her chest, to her navel, and lower. She wanted to go to the Winter Formal with him. Her friend Becca said, “Just ask him. I’m sure he’ll say yes. I mean,” she blew a Hubba Bubba bubble and when it popped continued, “you’re first-chair and you’re only a sophomore and you’ve got great tits.” When Aida rolled her eyes Becca went on, “Besides this month’s Cosmo said to ‘make the move he’s too afraid to make.’” And with that, Becca flipped her hair over her shoulder.

Aida was most often described as “smart” with a “great personality.” Her parents expected her to be more honey-colored and maybe with grey eyes, because of her mom. Or like Halle Berry with loose, curly hair and sweet, light brown sugar skin. Maybe her daddy being the color of an oil-slick seal was the reason Aida’s skin was closer to milk chocolate and why her hair coiled tightly like the tiny spring in a ballpoint pen. The darkest person Dylan was seen with was Naomi when she came back from a summer in Spain with a tan that lasted till mid-October. Aida once heard Dylan tell a joke that went like: “Why do Afro-Americans always have sex on their minds?” he paused, “Because of the pubic hair on their heads!” He and the others laughed.

The women in the beauty shop who could afford it (not really) spent entire paychecks on virgin Indian body-wave weaves that they paid Miss Dianne a hundred dollars to stitch to their heads. They braided their hair close to the scalp underneath and covered them with the foreign strands. The women who couldn’t afford virgin weave (really, really couldn’t) bought synthetic hair that had to be replaced monthly that Miss Dianne would crochet and mix into their own hair. The women, as they aged, after so much stress to their scalps, would come to Miss Dianne, with their edges patchy and their hair broken and stripped and close to the scalp and damn near gone, to get wigs fitted. The women would never admit that they all ordered magazines with Cindy Crawford and Brooke Shields and Pamela Anderson on the covers, that they cut out their pictures and pasted their own faces over the celebrities, like Jacob with the speckled cows, and prayed to God for better. The women all knew (or if they didn’t know, they were soon told [or if they weren’t soon told, they inherently suspected]) how everyone felt about their hair. The women had heard stories about before, about Africans with bantu knots and intricate head wraps and braids shaped into crowns; how these were worn by warriors and royalty. The women remembered their great-grandmothers telling them how their ancestors were shipped here, and had their heads shaved and their ranks stripped. They told them this while they wore synthetic wigs. The women all have a story about being laughed at or stared at when they have their real hair out; or a story about a discussion with HR at work on “professionalism” or no discussion at all, just a pink slip; or a story about their own mothers, grandmothers, cousins, aunts calling them nappy and telling them that they’ll never find a man. The women brought all of this with them to the beauty shops, and though they were all always thinking about it, never brought it up.

After Miss Dianne pulled Aida from under the dryer and rinsed out the deep conditioner, she blow-dried her hair; it landed in long sheets down her back. Aida had never seen her hair this long. It seemed to always skim the top of her shoulders, but now it reached her hips – longer than Mama’s! Then Miss Dianne took the hot comb from the stove and ran it through her hair to make it even silkier. She finished off with some spray sheen.

“OK, Miss Aida. How you like it?” asked Miss Dianne as she spun her chair around, so she faced the mirror. Aida’s face seemed to have thinned. The dimensions were more noticeable. Before, her curly hair seemed to make her face rounder and softer. Aida smiled. She ran her fingers through her hair with ease. “You got a pretty head of hair on you, girl.”

The women turned up their noses and faced away from Aida.

There was a quiet knock on the front door. Miss Dianne and Aida both turned and recognized the shape. Miss Dianne grabbed the keys and unlocked it. She told Mama: “We finished up – go on and take a look.”

Mama looked up and down the rows. “Where is she?”

Aida turned, and Mama audibly gasped like a cartoon or a soap opera. She came and stood next to Aida, put her face next to hers. For the first time, Aida could see how similar they really did look – same pointy chin and nose, same eyebrow and eye shape, even the same pink lips. Aida just looked darker, like Mama’s shadow.

“Wow,” said Mama, “have we always looked this much alike?”

The women looked at them, rolled their eyes, and whispered to one another.

Miss Dianne said, “Now, to keep up the style, you got to wrap your hair around your head and tie a satin scarf around it.” Aida and Mama exchanged glances. “You need me to show you how to do it?” asked Miss Dianne. They nodded.

Miss Dianne took a paddle brush and slowly brushed all of Aida’s hair in one direction around her head until the hair resembled a small cyclone. She used crocodile clips to hold the hair in place while she knotted a patterned scarf at the back of Aida’s head and tucked the tails in. Then she took the clips out once the scarf was secure.

“OK, this is how you’re going to sleep and, in the morning, you take off the scarf,” she undid the knot, “and part your hair where you want,” she did a deep one on the left, “then brush it down,” she brushed her hair until it was in its earlier shape. “If you do this, then your hair should last about two weeks.”

The women couldn’t believe that Aida didn’t know how to do this.

Mama paid Miss Dianne seventy-five plus an extra twenty for a tip.

The women noticed this, too, and didn’t like it.

Aida stepped outside to see the sun setting. Her hair blew in the wind – blew in the wind! Mama flipped her hair over her shoulder, and Aida saw this and did the same. They listened to Billy Idol on the way home with the top down, so their hair could blow behind them like beach-bound blondes in movies. In those moments Aida and Mama both felt lighter, as if a weight had been lifted.

Gazzmine Wilkins

Gazzmine Wilkins received a BA in English at Houston Baptist University and is a current MFA candidate at Texas State University. She has written for Coachella Review, Porter House Review, and Texas Observer.

Featured image by: Graciela Iturbide

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