Abrianna bounced her legs in the passenger seat while she worked her tongue around a wad of peanut butter and white bread glued to the roof of her mouth. The excitement she attempted to keep concealed in her legs was spreading up through her, rising into a smile on her face. She pinched her lips into a kiss and curled her tongue to peel flakes of the sweetness down. She knew that her father, Damon, was less than thrilled to be driving her to the Hair ‘n’ Beauty, that he wanted to hurry home and nap before heading back out to work evening construction on the Mixing Bowl, a project that would connect northern Virginia to D C, making the whole trip under twenty minutes. The section of the project that he’d been assigned to was congested, and the work that had been moving slowly all summer was suddenly stalled.
Damon’s hours were being cut, but he picked up whatever he could. So Abrianna swallowed her lump of joy as he pulled the rusted, black Ford-F150 up to the crumbling sidewalk of the Hybla Valley Shopping Center. Her father shifted into park, handed her a worn ten-dollar bill without looking at it, holding his gaze determinedly elsewhere like a child being administered a shot, and told her to hurry up. Abrianna slid down from the passenger seat, grinning fully now that Damon could not see her. She wormed a finger of the hand pressed tight around the money into her mouth, then hesitated on the sidewalk to clean her hands on her jeans before the red and white banner arched in the shop’s gleaming storefront. The sunlight on the window mirrored her smiling face, the truck, her bleary-eyed father. Abrianna once again attempted a look of seriousness as she gripped the door handle, swallowing, pushing down the smooth taste of oil and the bitterness of coins.
The concrete wall at the edge of the Hybla Valley Shopping Center left the beauty store poorly lit. Abrianna jumped, startled by the darkness and the bell’s jingling as the door slapped shut behind her. And then again by the Koreans who appeared to her now. An older man and woman counting bundles of hair paused to eye her suspiciously from behind the counter. She suddenly became aware of the flapping sound of the damaged sole of her shoe, the air filtering through the hole in the left knee of her jeans.
“What you looking for?” the older man said, pushing up his glasses.
He was already around the counter, ready to follow her there before she could answer,
As the man led her through rows of candy-colored jars, she couldn’t help noticing the distance that he was walking in front of her, the speed, as if he couldn’t wait to be rid of her. She tightened her hand over the cash in her fist, unable to remember her father ever giving her this much money to spend on herself before. She could smell it sweating into her palm as the man stopped at an aisle full of boxes. He stood over her, peering at her through his heavy frames as she took in the chorus of women smiling against green and brown earth-toned packages. Thick, dark hair glinted like new asphalt against the boxes, fading into yellow sunsets, exploding into purples and reds in their organization on the shelf. She already knew which she would choose—the song from the commercials, the one with the girls snapping their fingers along to the beat and bouncing up and down to show how their hair could move. She eyed the box with the rainbow, cartoon lettering but continued admiring the aisle. Hair kissed their eyelashes, the tips of their noses, the curves of their mouths. It closed over their faces like a hand, the elision of a magic trick.
This was the last day she would be ugly. She had written about it the night before on the college-ruled loose leaf she kept on the floor of her bedroom. Writing about things this way always gave Abrianna’s loose ideas a sense of firmness. Lying on the floor on her stomach, she wrote in pencil, in tall looping cursive that was difficult for anyone but her to decipher, how it would all work. Her hair would be smooth and pretty. More specifically, it would lift in the wind like her friend Lauren’s did. She had plans to wear it loose often, brushing it straight down with a part on the right side like she had seen her friend Angie do once. Her hair would be straight and she would be as pretty as the women smiling out at her from the cardboard boxes.
Abrianna reached up to soothe the dry frizz behind her ear. Her hair now was short and nappy. Her growing frustration with it showed in her thinning hairline. The puff she wore it in daily never seemed to grow any longer than the pinky that Monet measured it with every time they were made to line up in school alphabetically. It was the first week of October, only days after Monet from her sixth-grade class drove his fist into his mama’s face at the park after school for everyone to see. His body regretted it soon afterward; Monet’s mother had whooped his ass all over that park so bad that no one in the neighborhood would be likely to forget it anytime soon. But what stayed with Abrianna was how his mother had looked when Monet swung, her hair pulled back so the golden trim of the sun setting behind the red brick illuminated the contours of her round, dark face. For an instant, the hard line of her mouth broke, trembled.
Standing there in her wrinkled scrubs for Sunrise Resting nursing home, her ponytail a thin blade of grass folded under the weight of a hairnet, she looked as if she might cry, like a giant leveled by the throw of a child. The years on her life, the weight on her frame, provided no protection from the humiliation of a boy.
Abrianna’s face grew hot thinking of it now, the entire neighborhood watching Monet beat on his mama. What was worse was that no one had stepped in, no one had said anything.
Because Monet’s mama was poor, black, and ugly. The combination, Abrianna knew, made people believe that you somehow deserved all the bad things you got. No one cared if you got your hair pulled during fractions or the backs of your heels stepped on on the way to gym. Only pretty girls got to be treated like dolls, boys touching them and then sprinting away as if too much handling might cause them to break. Only pretty girls got invited to sit down near the basketball court on the stoop of apartment 7961 by the eighth-grade girls so that they could sink their hands down into their soft heads and play in their hair as they watched the boys doing layups. Abrianna had studied herself and decided that she was decent looking. She had brown skin—not light but not too dark either—and eyes and hair all of the exact same sandy shade. It was a symmetry that Angie had approvingly remarked on before as, “matching,” just before telling her to wear a shirt that didn’t ride up and expose so much of her stomach next time. Abrianna couldn’t do much about the clothes that came to her in large black plastic trash bags from Mrs. Hoffman across the hall, but then again most everyone in Sequoia Court was wearing someone else’s hand-me-downs anyway. It was the hair, short and thick and nappy, that Abrianna believed was truly holding her back.
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CHIOMA URAMA’s work has been published in Pleiades, Blackbird, Paper Darts, The Normal School, and her work is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner She received the 2015 Fred Shaw Fiction Prize and an honorable mention in the 2017 Lindenwood Review Lyric Essay Contest. Urama is a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship alumna and a graduate of the University of Miami M F A program, where she was a Michener Fellow. She teaches creative writing and composition at the University of New Orleans.