Fiction Literature T. Liem

Over Two Decades of Dedicated Maintenance

This one Sunday night I stood in my bathroom with the door open while Cass talked me through her most recent horrible week. Cass was tall, blonde, thin. Light on light on light. Except, she kept her long hair dyed bright colours and wore baggy clothes with a lot of patterns. This all had the effect of making her look big and small at the same time, like seeing a bird with a huge wingspan flying far up overhead. When Cass asked me how I was, I was looking in the mirror. She was bad. Burned. Look at my back, she said. She had just gotten back from a spring break trip to Mexico. Don’t judge me, she said. It was awful end to end. It was all end, and she spent the whole flight home thinking of what to say now when I hadn’t asked her how she was. I missed you she said. And, I don’t know, she kept saying. Bad. I don’t know and yet details piled up along a string of and then, and then, and then. More pool water than ocean. More cocktails than water. More waiting to leave than being there. When she dedicated a quick sentence to picking up her boyfriend’s phone one afternoon to check the time, one sigh to finding a series of hot texts from a number saved as first name daisy emoji last name devil emoji, it was too late for me to stop. I already had a handful of hair at the front of my head carefully twisted around itself once, just like it said to do in the video. The scissors were already poised to cut as she spoke. Then it was like I was offering her a handful of hair as a consolation.

Her mouth hung open and she asked if I just gave myself bangs. I had watched a tutorial, I told her. Why though, she asked. You should have let me do it, she added. I missed you this week, she said. Are you OK, I tried. Are YOU OK, she pointed to her own forehead then mine and continued her way to our kitchen.

I meant to tell Cass when I met Day. It was the night before she got home from her trip. Day and I, we leaned against a wall shoulder to shoulder and I felt myself sweating through my shirt. Day was dressed unlike themself, they explained. They had on a long black blazer, dark purple lipstick, and a leather choker—all things I would never see on them again. Don’t judge me, they said. The party we were at was meant to be a stop on the way to somewhere else, they told me, pointing in a vague direction. It’s weird to be here like this, they said, no one else dressed up. But if we actually went there, I would make sense, this—they looked down at their clothes—would make sense. It didn’t matter, I said. Outside there was still snow on the ground and when we arrived to my apartment building, I told Day I was anxious to make the switch into a spring coat. Day told me soon, soon enough.  

Later in the week, Day and I went for a walk. Rain had taken away most of the snow, but the air was still like ice. Even with my toque on Day noticed what I had done and told me, you look different from the weekend. I watched a how to cut your own hair video the other night, I told them. Different but the same, Day revised. If you saw a picture of me from two years ago, you wouldn’t think it was the same person, they added. This. This is nothing. We looked ahead. I said, it’s not nothing. Then we got ice cream despite our chills because Day said if we do spring things, it will feel like spring. That night, I couldn’t sleep and joy swooped around me like a trapped bat.

The arc of hair from temple to temple showed up across my face as promised by the tutorial, but I still felt like a warped mirror version of myself. It was especially bad when I stood next to Day, whose hair was obviously perfect. I saw the way other people with obviously perfect hair looked at Day. It was as if they were nodding approval at each other. My hair was so wrong that I looked at no one. I stopped plucking my eyebrows to see if that made a difference. The few hairs that grew in felt like drastic additions after nearly two decades of dedicated brow maintenance.

One afternoon in junior high, Cass leaned over the desk aisle during Social Studies, and whisper-asked if I plucked my eyebrows. As she said it her eyes had already flicked up and she interrupted herself, her voice a little louder this time, never mind. My hand dropped away from my brow bone as quickly as it arrived, like a salute to the wrong answer. I couldn’t find tweezers at home, so I tried one of my father’s disposable razors that night and ended up shaving off half of my left brow by accident. Cass said that was when she decided to be my friend, when she knew she could make a difference in my life.

I hadn’t seen Cass’s blonde hair or her body since we were teens taking lifeguarding classes. I took the classes because Cass did. Cass took them because after the weeks of drills in and out of the water, and after the CPR training, we were allowed to jump from a platform in the rafters into the deep end of the pool. Where would you be without me, Cass would always ask. Maybe not anywhere I’d think. Jumping from the rafters was not a skill that would ever be needed to watch over the public swim, or lead swimming for tots in our small town. It was not where I wanted to be. It was the kind of thing you learn just in case you ever have to jump off a cliff to save someone from drowning, Cass said. You can’t not want to, she said. What if I fall off a cliff into the ocean and knock my head and you have to save me, she asked. What if, she shook my bare shoulders.

On Tuesdays, Day had a routine, which included going to their favourite bar where their friends passed in and out from week to week. The first time Day invited me to meet their friends, Cass asked where I was going, and I decided not to lie. She said she was coming along too because she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. When one of Day’s friends arrived, they sat down and pointed their chin toward me. I nodded and they leaned over to Day and said, is this your baby dyke. Hey, don’t flirt, Day said and smiled at me. Your words not mine, they said. Baby-dyke! Cass repeated as she pinched and jiggled the back of my arm above the elbow. I love that. Can I say that? Before anyone could answer, she went on, placing her hand on the table, believe me I thought about it, you know, since you—she widened her eyes toward Day and turned back to me—since it seems to be working for you and you’re my friend and apparently you are a baby-dyke. Day put their arm around me and squeezed. I took a gulp of beer and Cass kept going. What do you mean you’re not coming home tonight, she said when we were leaving. I’m sorry, I said. Call me if you need me, Cass said, looking at Day. In the middle of the night I woke up. The light from the streetlamp across from Day’s window felt like it was in the room, like anyone could see us.

Since I cut my bangs and since they only made me look the same but different, I decided when they had grown out three inches, I could book a hair appointment for what would be my perfect haircut. In the meantime, I would do research and learn what my hair type was and how to make the best decision for my face shape. Once a week I measured and wrote the number down on a post-it note I kept stuck to my bedside table. Next to it was a sticky note on which Day had drawn a heart with a “u” in the middle. Next to that was another on which Cass had written love you more than anyone. When I think about that summer now it’s like making a wish. My hair-mistake was growing out. Sure I was a little worried that the memory of kissing a girl in middle school—the swelled pulse of remembering it—was something I made up for proof, but otherwise the only thing I needed was the right haircut.

Later in the summer, Day and I spent most of one week in bed and watched the Olympics. The synchronized diving from the ten-metre platform was my favourite. One afternoon, Cass pushed my door open and then pushed us over and herself onto the bed. She asked if I remembered lifeguarding classes. I ended up loving the tight-muscled feeling following that step off the rafters during our last class. I often thought of the ungraceful way we hit the water feet first, noses plugged, arms bracing our bodies for impact until we were safely submerged. I loved the pressure of being under water and the muffled sound of everything above it. Being with Day felt a little like that, but I just said yeah, Cass, I do remember that. So brave, Day said. No, she was so scared, Cass said. You would’ve never had the guts to save me, she continued, as she rolled herself off the bed and walked out of the room again.

As Day and I continued watching, we adopted the words we heard judges saying and tried to parse the three seconds between the platform and the surface of the water. I like her hair, I said about one of the divers, then asked, she looks gay, right? Yeah definitely some butch energy in her back pike, Day nodded. Really? I think it’s her reverse front full that gives her away. No, no, it’s the takeoff. Watch.

We examined each dive and its repetition in slow motion from at least four different angles. The replay was the only time we could notice the divers out of synch. One of them would extend their arms a little later, one body would unfold slightly earlier, one’s splash was a little splashier. After a while we wondered why the divers never seemed to look at each other. That must be the hardest part, I said, how do you not look over to see if you match, or give a little nod, like OK I’m ready. Day laughed. Repressed homo stuff if you ask me.

I wrote down the one diver’s name so I would remember to look her up later. Beyond her name and the word haircut, my search terms were lesbian and Asian. Though I hadn’t really used those words to describe myself, others had and as a group they seemed more effective than new dyke hair. When it started snowing again, I called to make the appointment. I gave up on research and pushed aside the cuts that, according to many sources, were suited for my face when I saw a picture of a woman with wispy gold-sand coloured hair and a bowl cut. Predictable, if you think about it, Cass said.

In the salon the hairdresser examined my hair, picking up the ends and dropping them and petting my head. I love doing this cut, they told me. Then the woman with the golden hair appeared behind me in the mirror. She seemed to skip. She’ll wash your hair, the hairdresser said, squeezing my shoulders. I smiled and it felt like something was stuck in my esophagus. Cass said she would go with me, but I had said no. It’ll probably look great on you, too, the woman said after looking us up and down in the mirror. When it was done, the hairdresser turned me around for a final look and asked if my head felt so much lighter. I shook my head as if I was saying no but said yes, doing my best impression of enthusiasm.

I left the salon with my toque in my bag to show off what I had bought and walked to meet Day instead of catching the bus. With fast, long strides, I tried on confidence and barely noticed the frigid air tingling against my head. Your ears, Day said when I got to the bar. They’re bright red, you must be freezing, come here. So androgynous, Cass said while she held my face. Kind of cute, she added, but I should have gone with you. As my ears warmed up they stung.

After that, I started measuring again. Every few days, I leaned over the sink, holding a ruler against my head and nearly headbutting the mirror. Beyond the ruler, I only saw what I could already always see. The ends were splitting like normal as if the strands wanted to multiply themselves in lieu of growth. My hair seemed stuck. Cass thought so, too, and said it, reminding me that she would have asked the hairdresser to cut it in a way that would grow out nice if she had gone with me. She would have convinced me not to get something I couldn’t pull off, but, she sighed, at least it will grow back to normal.

Sometimes Day measures my hair with this cloth measuring tape their grandmother gave them. It is ripe-banana yellow with black lines and numbers. Day says it looks exactly the same as it did when they were a kid learning to sew. It reminds me of this feeling I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I keep expecting something will save me from it and then I will be good and right. When Day holds the metal hem of the measuring tape against the crown of my head and smooths the soft material between finger and thumb, I hear the movement hiss through my skull, as if it is only in my head. It sounds old, like a blank cassette playing, or the space right before the song starts.

 

T. Liem’s writing has appeared in Apogee, Grain, Maisonneuve Magazine, The Boston Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry collection, Obits. (Coach House 2018), was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award and won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award as well as the A.M. Klein Prize. She lives in Tiotia:ke/Montreal—unceded Kanien’kehá:ka territories.

Photo credit: Surah Field-Green