Getting Back to the Root
by Odetta Wright
As I entered the salon, I inhaled the familiar aroma of perm, hairspray and burning curling irons. I have been coming here for three years and my stylist, Tracey was the best in town. She could sew in a weave in record time. I was one of her faithful clients who never missed a weave appointment. I elected to wear weaves because they were easy, fun and because I hated my own hair.
"What are you getting today, Jessie?" kidded Tracey.
"Your weave extraordinaire."
"Jessie, I donít see why you continue to put the stuff in your hair. Your own hair is as long as the weave," she informed me as she led me to the shampoo bowl.
I know, but my hair doesnít respond the way a weave does. My hair doesnít behave!"
"Have you given it a chance?"
I pondered that question as Tracey put me under the shampoo bowl. As she massaged my scalp, I closed my eyes and sighed under the lukewarm water.
Grandma would straighten my hair every Saturday after she washed it and conditioned it with mayonnaise. Then she would braid it into two long ponytails. The kids in school called me Pocahontas. One girl named Erica would tease me and pull on my hair. She was stronger than me so I just cried and told the teacher.
"Sit up, Jessie. Time for the dryer."
Tracey was the only stylist I knew who still used mayonnaise. Even though I put it under a full length human hair weave, I still remembered grandmaís tried and true grooming techniques. As the dryer heated around my head, I relaxed for the thirty minute conditioning session. I observed weaves, texturizers, braids and finger waves and I remembered my first perm.
"Ouch! Itís burning Auntie. How much longer?"
"Girl, this is your first perm. Itís gonna take a crowbar just to work it through. Be still."
Aunt Lena was our official family hairdresser and at the tender age of six it was time for me to join the ranks of the big girls. It was a kiddie perm and my hair sucked it up like a sponge. I swear it was left in for at least an hour and my head felt like a million tiny flames dancing.
"Auntie! Can we wash it out now?"
"Five more minutes, girl."
I breathed hard and upward to try and douse the flames but nothing helped. Five minutes is an eternity when you are waiting out a perm. "O.K. letís go."
I shot out of my seat and raced over to the sink. When the lukewarm water hit my head, I breathed a sigh of relief. The euphoric feeling lasted until she put in the neutralizer.
"Ouch!" a little girl cried out as she struggled with her first perm. Tracey was trying her best to keep the wiggly little thing in her seat. Yes the cycle does continue. I closed my eyes and recalled one of the episodes of my "Dark Hair Ages." It was the 1980s and Jheri curls were running amuck in our community. Since I has fried, dyed and rolled every other hairstyle to the side, I said why not.
In the hair salon, the hairdresser alerted me that she would have to cut out traces of my straight perm in order for the curl to take. The tears welled up in my eyes as I saw my long locks drop to the floor. A couple of hours later I emerged from the salon with a shiny, dripping, curly afro. The devastation of it all made me cry but I had committed to the hairstyle, so I sucked it up. My hair did grow quickly and I soon had a long, curly, bounciní and behaviní style. I finally had "good" hair like my mother. I knew this would be my style for the rest of my life.
The "good" hair started coming out after a year. I would play with my hair and a few strands would come out which seemed normal. It was when I reached up to scratch it and pulled out a plug that I began to panic. Sitting in the hairdresserís chair the next day and hearing her mouth the words "Chemical...Reaction...Falling Out...Cut out immediately," I felt like I was dreaming as I watched my good curly behaving locks drop to the floor. My hair was shorter than it had ever been in my life. She assured me that if I came in every two weeks for a conditioning that I would eventually get my old hair back. But I didnít want my old hair. My old hair was the problem. My old hair was the reason I was in this mess. From that moment on, I vowed to silence it and wear a weave. Old hair? Please! Why tease when you can weave?
"Time to wash it out Jessie." Tracey took me over to the bowl and turned on the water. I settled back for another scalp massage. "How long you been wearing weaves, Jessie?"
"I guess about fifteen years"
"Girl, you trying to join the Diana Ross and Chaka Khan Weave of Fame?" Tracey chuckled and blotted my hair with a towel. "Listen Jessie, do you trust me?"
"You are the only person, including past boyfriends who has touched my head in the past three years. What do you think?"
"Well, let me try something different today. Let me style your hair," she said as she held my bag of weave hostage.
"Oh no, donít even think about it. Absolutely not," I exclaimed as I lunged for the bag unsuccessfully.
"I promise that it will look beautiful."
Iím sure that you are right but unless you are gonna follow me home and style it every morning, then the answer is an all around no." Tracey shifted with the bag still out of my reach. "Listen, Iíll make a deal with you. If you hate it after I style it, then I will put your weave in for free."
"Itís a waste of your time and mine, Tracey."
My heart quickened as she blow dried my hair. I broke out in a sweat when she applied the spritz and flat ironed my hair. I started to hyperventilate when she smoothed down the ends. I cried when she told me she was finished. I felt like a junkie. A weave junkie! She handed me the mirror and it took me about a minute to look into it.
"OOOH, I like your weave," a young girl exclaimed as she walked into the salon. I opened my eyes and stared at the mirror. Years and years of cover up, shame and neglect did little to deny my hair its full potential. It seemed happy to be free. I must have stared at the mirror forever.
"Lord, the girl done gone crazy from the shock of it all. What do you think?" My mouth opened but no words could come out.
"Say again. You really like it." Tracey laughed as she helped me out of the chair and I stared blankly at her. Yes, I liked it. I liked my hair. After all these years of hating what God had given me, I finally liked my old hair! Tracey knew what I was experiencing and she respected my epiphany. She gave me her home number in case I had a relapse and set up my two weeks appointment. I numbly took the appointment card and left the salon. As I started towards my car, a whistle came from a male admirer. I put the key in the lock as I overheard a little girl say aloud that she wanted hair like mine. Her mother quickly told her that it was a weave. I laughed and turned to them and confidently proclaimed, "No it isnít maíam. This is my old hair."
And I got into my car and drove away.