As a child, I had very curly hair. Although the ringlets disappeared into memory some time around my fourth birthday, the curl returned when it rained, when it was humid, and after I swam in the ocean. I speak not of some beach goddess wave, but of actual ringlets, small, perfect spirals appearing at the nape of my neck and colonizing the rest of my head. That uncontrolled, disorganized tangle of curls has disgusted me since I was old enough to express an opinion about my appearance. It was wild, alien, and messy. Even as a child, I sensed that I was not a person who could carry off hair that attracted attention. I preferred to be invisible, thinking that if no one was arrested by the sight of wide, frizzy curls, no one would look closer and see the fat cheeks, tummy pooch and obdurate plainness.
The hair required constant vigilance. It was first twisted into tight braids, and later blown dry in exhaustive sessions involving approximately 32 products with “smooth” in the name. I once attended an August wedding in Cleveland, during which I went into the bathroom eight times in two hours trying frantically to beat my curls into submission. It really didn’t matter what I looked like; my date was gay and the only straight man I knew at the ceremony was the groom, but I was obsessed. By the end of the evening my hair contained as much lacquer as a Chinese screen, and had assumed the shape of a rather unattractive lampshade: straight-ish to a point just below my ears and then bursting into a row of curls resembling that bobbly kind of fringe.
On a recent Saturday grocery run, I noticed that I was fixating on the cascading ringlets of a woman in the Self-Serve checkout line. In that sort of subjective, subconscious assessment we all make a hundred times a day, I classified her as “sexy.” She was not particularly beautiful, but her hair spoke of an unfussy life spent savoring sensual pleasures. I knew by looking at her that she could get up, take a shower and get dressed with barely a glance in the mirror. Her light was not hidden under a bushel of styling product, and she was comfortable in her skin, in her hair, and in her being.
This was a woman who slept naked in the heat of summer, and would never give up a chance to swim in the Atlantic because of the way her thighs looked in a bathing suit. She would never order a plate of field greens when she wanted a steak, and she would be able to dance without the pathetic White Girl Rigor that has always afflicted me. If she ate a juicy peach she would let the juice run down her cheek, and it was likely that some very lucky person might get to kiss some of it from her lips and chin. She looked un-careful, un-controlled, and un-inhibited.
Surfacing a bit to place my groceries on the belt (as always, grouped by food type and in straight lines down one side of the belt) I considered my own hair. It is, at that moment, blown straight with tiny ringlets popping up at the nape of my neck. It rains often, lately and the air is heavy with the spring humidity that makes the green of buds extra vivid and carries a whiff of damp earth. I thought about letting go, surrendering to nature and giving the curls a season of living large and out of control. It would be hard for me, a control freak who could, until recently, have taught a class called Tightly Wrapped at the local community center to young women in danger of surrendering to a life of musky perfume, excessively loud laughter and saying “yes” to things just because they might be fun. I have always lived with an invisible monitor watching me from the near distance, shaking her head at any action that tends to draw attention. “Do not,” she says, “sway your hips to the music at the concert. You look ridiculous. Do not leave the house without your face on, don’t make trouble for anyone, don’t draw attention to yourself.” In the past couple of years I have been fighting back, one toe ring, expletive and mid-week beer at a time, flirting with the checkout guy, and leaving the odd thing to chance. It’s time, I think, high time to let my hair out and see whether I can bury her, frown line and all, in a mass of soft, crazy curls.
I wink at my oppressive monitor as I burn rubber and drive away, ringlets tangling in the moist, fragrant air, and middle finger raised in her general direction. Music blasts from my stereo, I sing out loud with my mouth open wide, letting the warm sun relax me so that I can move fluidly to the beat. I am alive, I am floating to the surface like a cork, and I’m on my way to buy peaches.
I am something wild.