Weekend Fiction: Cascading
There was no other option. Naked bum perched on frigid porcelain, I jerked forward violently as my back touched the freezing, off-white tiles that covered every wall of the window-less bathroom. I followed the line of my body – brown nipples pointing solemnly down towards the soft curve of my stomach connecting to the pale triangle of my stubbled crotch, long thighs, inexplicably and permanently hairless, the rest of my legs disappearing at the cliff edge of my knees. Resting on the sodden bathmat were my toes, blistered and bunioned too early from all the running. I lifted one bulbous digit – the big toe of my left foot – and prodded the electric razor that lay beside my feet. I had tried everything.
* * *
Six weeks earlier I sashayed into my office with a wholly unfounded confidence. I took the main lifts through the gilded central lobby of the building, rather than slouching to my usual route at the back entrance, and assumed a central position facing the mirrored doors for my ascent to the 14th floor. I sipped my scalding Americano and fixed my face halfway between pointed indifference and unintentional seduction. I glanced at the other lift occupants, held their gaze for half a second before letting my eyes slide away as though bored of their existence. I had even ditched my trainers and over-sized knitwear for pleather trousers, heeled boots and a satin blouse. I wore Armani Code and a deep purple, matte lipstick. I wanted to be seen.
I remember how the braids felt against my back. How they swished like real hair when I turned my head. I had longed for that swish. Cascading was the word that came to mind. That's how they always described hair wasn't it? Cascading down her back. A waterfall, liquid-like, flowing, fluid. Not dense, brittle or rigid, no, it had to move, to swing, to tumble coquettishly over your shoulders when you undid your topknot. The braids were my disguise, cloaking me from scalp to ass, placing me in the cascading category for the first time in my life.
Mirrored doors slid open. The sun behaves differently 14 stories up, and a clarifying autumn light poured through giant windows, bouncing off white desks like the roofs of some quaint, Mediterranean village. Six rows down, eleven across. I settled in my computer chair, switched on the screen, logged-on to the system, opened my six tabs – Twitter, ASOS, Gmail, Spotify, BBC, Google – and prepared to make myself look busy until lunch. It was 9am, my barely-touched Americano was still boiling, but today I was going to walk the length of the office to make a coffee. In the communal kitchen. At peak time.
My 50-foot catwalk snaked the open-plan labyrinth. I took every corner with an unnecessary head-toss, pleather squeaking, braids bouncing, heels tapping obnoxiously on the faux-marble flooring. I found the kitchen disappointingly quiet, only the intern furtively trying to make tea and avoid any social interaction. She glanced up at me and gave an awkward half-smile before returning to her struggle with the plastic milk cap. She didn't recognise me, despite the five excruciating days of shadowing where she had been surgically attached to my hip. It took a beat, then she frowned and looked back at my face, mouth open.
"Oh my GOD!"
"Oh this?" I smiled, and looked away, "I do this sometimes."
She darted forwards, Earl Grey abandoned.
"Wow. Wow. You look, like, so different. Like, SO different. Like a different person!"
I kept smiling and poured boiling water into my mug. She handed over the jar of Nescafe and darted in front of me to inspect me properly. As ever, she was fractionally too close.
"How long did it take?" she asked.
"Eight hours," I said immediately, proudly. It was a badge of honour, a symbol of my ability to endure and endure. She shook her head in disbelief, eyes wide. I stirred coffee granules into my mug and placed it down on the counter, lingering, looking for sugar, looking for an excuse to continue the conversation. Before I could say anything else she lifted the end of one the braids and rubbed it between her fingers, strands of the Beyoncé-blond extensions frizzing against her chipped, red nail varnish. I imagined reaching out and grasping a lock of her lank, dishwater hair.
"What's it made of? It doesn't really feel like hair does it?" She dropped the braid and returned to her Earl Grey. Pallid, brown liquid sloshed over the edge of her mug as she dunked the bag almost viciously.
* * *
Goosebumps sprang up on my thighs. I shuddered and stood for lack of anything else to do. The razor nudged at my foot but I ignored it and turned to the opposite wall to face the mirror instead. The tungsten light turned my skin a dank grey, the smattering of freckles across my nose and cheekbones had a bluish tint like Biro dots. The feral, knotted mess on top of my head made me want to vomit.
In the shower I had cried desperate tears, half from the peppermint conditioner searing my eyes, half from shame and panic. I clawed breathlessly at the knots like a wild animal, ripping out fistfuls, snarled vines wrapping themselves around my fingers. Without windows I lost all sense of time, the water poured over my skin until I began to feel amphibious. I grabbed my nail scissors and decided to snip out the worst of it – it was only when the shower ran cold and I climbed out, trembling, that I realised I had gone too far.
I pulled at a section near the front of my scalp, above my left eyebrow. It sprang about 2cm in length before settling limply on my forehead. Next to it, dead centre, was a patch that was practically bald – less than an inch of brown fuzz, my scalp poking through between the half-curls. At the base of my skull, where the coils were looser, long strands grazed my shoulders. A frizzy tuft stuck out at a perfect right angle above my left ear. You don't know what the fuck you're doing. You never have.
It had taken me exactly four hours to remove the braids – I watched trash TV and drank a bottle of wine to help the time pass. I was excited to get them out; my scalp was itching and sore, they had frizzed and lost their silky sheen, and they were so goddamn heavy. They came out easy – I filled a bin-bag with synthetic hair and held it at arms-length, shocked at the weight of it, proud that I had managed to live with this burden attached to my head for six weeks. All the forums said that you never, ever get in the shower after removing your braids, without combing it through first. The wet shed-hair will fuse into dreadlocks. I didn't know this. I didn't know anything.
The scissors lay in the bottom of the tub beneath a mass of coiled frizz. I retrieved them and began to cut off the rest of my hair. I started with chunks at the back of my scalp and worked my way forwards. It became methodical, rhythmic. The metallic snip of the blades connecting was soothingly decisive. The mania that had gripped me in the shower had passed – my gaze fixed steadily on my reflection, my breathing was calm and measured. I kept cutting.
I felt the matted chunks tumble down my body and land on my feet. I caught one as it fell, the hair glued to itself, flecks of oil and white residue from weeks of product build-up. I tried to pull it apart, to free the hair into the perfect curl it had never been. It wouldn't untangle, instead ripping apart between my fingers. I gave up and blew on the hair, it fluttered to the bathroom floor with a surprising delicacy. I thought of home, of being wedged between my mother's knees, bum numb, a comb lodged somewhere in the frizz, exact whereabouts unknown. Neither of us had ever learned much more than the golden rule – it had to be tamed.
Finally it was all less than an inch in length. I could see the shape of my head for the first time. It bulged out at the back like an alien, but it wasn't unpleasant. My cheekbones seemed to elongate, stretching past my ears and back beyond the horizon of my skull. I was more angular; I was all bone, the structure of my face on display like naked scaffolding. But I felt softer, somehow, like I had given up on some great deception and my features could relax.
My flatmate hammered on the door with a fist.
"Fuck off." I called, calmly.
"Bitch!" She kicked the bottom of the door. I heard her retreat to her room.
I picked up the electric razor that was still nudging at my toes. It buzzed to life, excited to have its moment.
I lifted the razor to my scalp, blades spitting. I gave myself a GI Jane buzz cut. Then I meticulously gathered up every knotted chunk, every strand, every tangle that was strewn about the bathroom. I cradled the mountain of fallen hair in my arms and, naked, opened the bathroom door, walked the length of the corridor, opened the front door and tossed my ruined afro into the wind.
The next morning I pulled on my kit and went for my first run in six weeks. I ran for two hours, facing into the wind, naked scalp freezing. Only turning towards home when the sun started to rise and commuters flooded the streets. I stopped at the top of my road and placed my hands over my heart to feel my body working. I caught my reflection in a parked car and smiled at the girl I didn't recognise.
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