I am The Weird Girl. The Freak. The Barfy Little Feeb. I have glasses and thin white hair that drizzles over my shoulders like dandelion fluff.
I am the smallest kid in the 5th grade.
I stand in front of the mirror that used to be my mother’s mirror, and I can see her: With her long dark curls and frosted pink lips, swiveling this way and that, admiring herself.
“When I was your age,” she likes to say, “I had lots of friends.”
I guess my mom thinks this is helpful. That hearing about the great times she had as a kid will inspire me to create my own great times.
Either that, or she wants me to hate her.
I can’t decide.
I pull my hair down over my forehead, looping it around in a U-shape.
I want bangs.
I want thick caramel-colored bangs like Sarah W. Soft yellow wings like Sarah B. Wisps, straight and light as matchsticks, like Sarah M.
Of course, my bangs won’t be like the Sarahs’. They’ll want to break rank and divide down the center. They’ll want to curl up over my forehead and disappear like smoke.
But that’s okay. I couldn’t be like the Sarahs, even if I tried. I’m shy. I’m quiet. When I’m not paying attention, my features seem to arrange themselves in a scowl.
This has nothing to do with my brother dying – it’s just my face.
The Sarahs stand around in skintight jeans, performing complicated maneuvers with great masses of shiny hair.
They wear candy-colored lip gloss and matching gold charm bracelets that say “Best Friends Forever” in big bubble letters. If you want to get to the bathroom, you have to pass their table.
They talk in whispers, but their laughter is sharp and dangerous, like broken glass.
I sit against the back fence with the Fat Girl.
We are not “Best Friends Forever.”
We are not really friends at all.
We are like flies caught in the same web, pretending we are not flies and that there is no web, all while furiously plotting our escape.
I hate the Fat Girl.
I hate how she cries when Peter B. calls her Pushin’ Cushion.
I hate how she smells like baby powder.
I hate the frilly pink ribbons in her hair, and how her eyes look like two blueberries pressed into dough. I hate how she fakes being sick so she can stay home from school. When she’s sick, I have to stand at the fence alone.
I hate that most of all.
For reasons she cannot quite explain, my mother is totally against the idea of bangs. She meets my repeated requests with a steely resolve that makes her mouth turn down at the corners, like dead-end roads.
“Absolutely not. You have a lovely forehead.”
“Everyone has bangs, Mom. Everyone.”
She dismisses this argument with a wave of her hand. “Those girls at school are just jealous.”
My mother is a former beauty queen from a city in the Northwest. She lives on another planet, where girls like the Sarahs secretly kneel by their beds at night and pray that their moms will buy them tomato red cords and furry purple jackets, so they can be friendless little pukes. Like me.
I make my first cut and then watch as the hair explodes into the space in front of me; a constellation of tiny white stars that almost makes me smile.
These scissors do not make the airy whir-whir sound of hummingbird wings. Not even close. Instead, they creak and stick at weird intervals, and then at the last instant, fling open, nicking the side of my hand.
Unfortunately for me, these are the only scissors in the house. My mother shops all the time, spending money with the kind of manic glee familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a game show, but you could drive a truck through the blind spots. Like, say, if you want to brush your teeth with actual toothpaste, or wipe your nose on anything other than your sleeve, well then, you’re out of luck. But if you’re crazy for junky old tins or busted wooden chairs or antique typewriters with missing keys, then this place is a freakin’ goldmine.
Meanwhile, I take baths in a tub so gritted with dirt, hair, and human scum that I imagine another kid will just rise up out of the tub one day, fully-formed, ready to take my place.
Open our fridge and you’ll find half-eaten strawberries swimming in globs of spaghetti sauce, carton after carton of curdled milk, chicken drumsticks with tight green Afros.
Fleas, mice, dust bunnies the size of feral cats. I try to help – no one notices, but I do. I’ll scrub the bathroom or do a half dozen loads of laundry, but the next day there is just another mess and more piles of laundry, so I guess I am with my mother on this one: After a while, it’s just kind of hard to see the point.
My dad says I would make a good spy because I keep things locked up tight: my diary, my smile, my heart.
I think I would make a good spy because I can listen to that stupid pie-faced teacher’s aide, Miss Hybarger, talk about her dead grandmother, and how she still cries for her sometimes (“Because crying is a good thing…a really good thing!”). And I can smile and nod, while I am secretly driving a stake through that sad crease in her brow, the one that says, “I care about you,” and “How are you feeeelllinnnggg?”
Ha. A dead grandmother. Give me a freakin’ break. I could take a hundred dead grandmothers. In polyester and pearls. Stacked up like kindling outside my door.
Anyway, I am sure it would disappoint Miss Hybarger to no end, but I don’t cry about my brother. I don’t talk about him, either. In fact, I try not to think about him at all.
I dream about him though.
I dream I am walking up the hill to the place where he died. The hill is very steep and very long, and there are trees on all sides, standing should to shoulder, like angry giants blocking out the sun.
Halfway up, I see my brother’s yellow Schwinn leaning against an old shed. I stop to run a finger over the cracked seat, the broken bell, the dark blue license plate screwed to the handlebars that reads, “KELLY.”
I consider riding the bike home, but then decide against it. The handlebars are too high and I can barely reach the pedals. And besides, I am pretty sure they don’t want me playing with his stuff anymore.
So I keep going, even though the whole time I am walking I am really, really scared because I know what I am going to find. And at the top of the hill, under the low cradling branch of a sycamore tree, I find it: in blue Converse high-tops and a red flannel button-down. My big brother.
Blond head smashed in like a melon.
I cut and cut but it’s not bangs, or wisps, or anything at all really. Just a few short pieces sticking out over my left eyebrow, like tiny little exclamation points shouting, “Surprise!”
I’ve already used up everything in front, so I pull a fistful of hair from the top and another from the sides. My bangs are just going to have to start a little further back, that’s all. This is because my hair is, “super, super fine,” which is really just my mom’s way of saying that it’s thin.
According to her, my brother got the best hair.
Also, the best skin, the prettiest eyes, and the sweetest disposition.
Which, if you do the math, doesn’t leave a whole lot left over. Not that I have to do the math.
Sometimes I hear my parents discussing me.
My mother says, “She should talk more. Take an interest in other kids. Ask them about their hobbies.”
As if 5th grade was some giant cocktail party, and I just needed to work the room a little more.
My dad says, “It’s a tough time,” and “Those kids don’t know what they’re missing.”
I love my dad. I love him so much, too much, like my life depends on it, that’s how much. His words are like lifeboats tossed out on a raging sea, and when he looks at me, I know he understands.
Anyway, I was quiet before, too. But no one seems to remember that now.
My room is blue. Blue walls, blue rug, a dark blue comforter.
At night I like to curl up on the floor and pretend I am on a sailboat, any one of the dozens you can see from the bridge on Saturday mornings. Red, blue, white – a swirl of colors, rolling like marbles out to the Pacific.
I love the bay. I love the bridge. But when it comes right down to it, I don’t really want to be on a boat, and certainly not on the shark-infested bay, the Golden Gate Bridge swaying like a drunken soldier over my head.
But a lot of things are like that, I guess. Just better in your dreams than they could ever be in real life.
My bed is a bunk bed, or at least it was, until my dad took the top bunk away. I guess it made my parents sad seeing both beds. But now the posts are too high, and there are all these holes where the screws should be, so as far as I’m concerned the bed is still in two parts – what is there, and what is missing – so most nights I just drag my comforter into the closet, pull the door shut, and wait.
I do not sleep. I read.
I read my dad’s books, my mom’s books, books I’ve read a dozen times before. I read school books, library books, cookbooks, phone books, and the manual to the 1972 Triumph Spitfire propped up on blocks in our driveway. I read until my eyes feel like bruises, and the words swim like fish across the page.
My mom lets me stay up for as long as I want. I know she worries that I don’t get enough sleep, but I think this might be the one thing about me that she actually understands. She spends hours every night in front of the TV, watching show after show, until all four channels turn to fuzz. And then she just sort of lies there, half asleep, watching the fuzz.
When I am through cutting, I stand for several seconds, just staring at the girl in the mirror.
She is me, but also not me. Or rather, she is me, but she is also something far, far worse than me.
These are not the Sarahs’ bangs.
They are related, in that they both involve hair, but not closely related. All of the hair that used to be on the top and sides is now in front. The bangs, if you can even call them that, are ragged, and jagged, and wildly crooked. These are Jason F.’s bangs, the slobbery retarded kid who fondles his wiener under the slide.
I am in so much trouble.
My mom is off the phone now. I can hear her moving about the living room, not cleaning (she does not clean), but drifting around in distracted circles, picking things up and then putting them down again. She will come in here soon – she always does.
Actually, it’s not my mom I’m worried about. My mom can scream and throw things, and then a little while later we’re in the parking lot outside the 7-11, tossing back Cokes and handfuls of M&Ms. She is like a bomb set to go off every ten minutes or so.
Sometimes, when she’s really mad, she kind of swats at me. But she always misses.
“Hmm,” I’ll say. “Is it windy in here?”
This only makes her madder, but honestly, I think she misses on purpose.
Because my mom never touches me anymore. Not even by accident.
I dig my fingers in to my scalp, and watch the hair skitter across my knuckles in every direction, like hundreds of crazy white spiders.
The Fat Girl will leave me now for sure.
Of course, that’s been in the works for months, ever since she found her mom’s stash of diet pills. Cheekbones, sharp as tiny knives, have started to poke out under her blue eyes. And the big flobbery boobs she’s had since 3rd grade are looking more like real boobs now – the kind everyone wants.
Ten more pounds and I’ll be at the back fence alone, chucking acorns through the chain-link and wishing I could be a different kid altogether.
Like the kind of kid who doesn’t care about bangs, or friends, or school, or clean sheets, or parents.
Or dead brothers.
Or better yet, the kind of kid who doesn’t care about anything at all.
I hate to admit it, but I guess my mom was right. Not about me having some amazingly awesome forehead – as far as I can tell, it’s just regular – but about the bangs. They’re just not for me.
I take a deep breath and pick the hair up by the roots, working the scissors down and in, until I feel the cool zing of metal against my scalp.
I have to get rid of these things. The sooner the better. The scissors squeak and complain, but the hair falls to the floor without a sound.
I can hear the clock in the living room. Six chimes. My dad will be getting off the ferry soon. I can picture him walking towards his car, his sun-browned face and silvery hair, his expression tired and a little too sad.
Most of the time, when I do something weird or wrong, my dad just sort of shakes his head and laughs.
“Kid,” he’ll say, “you’re one of a kind.”
Even if he doesn’t laugh, even if he only shakes his head, you can see the smile he’s holding back: it’s in his eyes.
Other times though, like when I fight with Mom, he lets the silence in. And seriously, when my dad gets quiet, it’s the worst. Hours, days, sometimes whole weeks will go by where he just stares past me, his eyes cold as a grave. When this happens, it’s all I can do not to throw myself at him.
To scream, to cry, to beg for mercy.
Honestly, I wish he’d just haul off and hit me. I know that sounds terrible, but I do. Because yeah, sure, it would hurt for a bit. But then it would all be over. And we could just get back to the business of being friends.
I must have some rare form of mental retardation.
Seriously, I am starting to wonder.
How else to explain that the whole time I am cutting off my bangs, it never occurs to me that there will still be hair. That you can cut and cut, until the scissors scrape against your scalp, but the bangs will not go away. Not really.
Rather, the hair will simply move through a series of positions, until it is short and springy, like freshly-mown grass.
I have a bald patch now. It is large and rectangular, and stretches across the entire front of my head. Like a big white billboard, advertising a product no one could possibly want.
It’s horrible. It really is.
But here’s the thing – it’s also kind of funny in a weird way. Because now I can finally see how my hair works. It’s like cursing a television for its crappy picture, only to look behind it one day and see a giant ax lodged into the back. My hair grows in zigs and zags – every which way but straight.
Bangs or no bangs, it was never going to be like the Sarahs’.
I can see that now.
It was always just going to be me.
I hear footsteps in the hall. The slow slip-slide of my mother’s sandals outside my door. For once, I feel surprisingly calm. There is nothing to fix. Nothing to do. I might as well have tied myself to a rocket and lit a match. I am way beyond the fence now. Beyond the Fat Girl and the Sarahs. I am in the stratosphere.
I don’t think I’m coming back.
Art by Matt Monk
River Holmes-Miller is an creative nonfiction author based in Colorado.