Outbreak

The strands of my hair sizzled like raw meat on a skillet.

The heated comb of iron glided so slowly that I feared my hair would be burned. The steam from my ironed hair, blended with smells of hair sheen, chemical relaxers and hair grease, created the most unpleasant and suffocating odor. But despite the smell, I inhaled deeply, trying my hardest to breathe. I could almost taste the sour odor of hair spray and grease and rotten eggs.

My ears were ringing from all the noise. Too many conversations took place at once, and it was impossible to process most of what I heard.

The women were like tone-deaf members of a choir, each of them trying to out-sing one another. Occasionally, the background music of hair dryers would be switched on. Then their voices would burst forth with a new kind of energy as they tried to drown out the machinery.

You’d think that they were trying to call out to God.

“Oh, she got GOOD hair!” yelled an old lady from underneath one of the dryers.

“She sure does!” shrieked another woman with a head full of curlers. “And that’s because mixed people have the nicest hair.”

“You’re tellin’ me!” said the old lady, looking wide-eyed. “Shoot, I’d take some mixed hair over these naps ANY day.”

The soft-cushioned leather seat started to feel like concrete against my thighs. I could feel the heat of the comb against the back of my neck and I gripped the arms of my chair as if my life depended on it. If I had “good hair,” then I wouldn’t have to endure this torture in the first place.

I caught a glimpse of my mother who sat only a few feet away from me, fanning herself with a wrinkled church bulletin she had pulled out from her bag. Of all of the loud voices in the salon, she was the only one who remained completely silent. She occasionally exchanged smiles and “hellos” with the people who sat next to her, but the exchanges never went further than that.

She was gazing at my hair, but seemed to be lost in her own thoughts. As if sensing my eyes on her, she suddenly moved her eyes to my face and she blinked. She gave me a wink and grinned. And I returned a wide smile.

“Turn left,” my stylist, Maxine, said.

She abruptly swung my chair away from my mother and turned my head sideways before I could process the message or figure out which way was left. My smile disappeared as quickly. Several strands of my hair were combed into my face while she straightened my hair from the back. But then I peeked through my wild strands of hair, careful not to move my head while my stylist fried through a new batch. Sitting across from me was an old woman who looked old enough to be my grandmother. Her stylist, who looked about thirty years old, had a pained expression on her face.

“Your hair is lookin’ so brittle, Miz Taylor. When last did you do your protein treatment?”

“Girl, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, my hair is perfectly fine. I don’t need no protein treatment… You’re just tryna get me to spend all of my money.”

“No no no, Miz Taylor, it’s just that I’ve noticed your hair is very dry and it’s breaking. It needs more protein and conditioner—“

“I don’t want no protein or conditioner! All I came here for is a wash and set.”

“Alright, Miz Taylor… If that’s what you want.”

‘Mizz Taylor’ looked a lot like a grown child, with her knitted brows and her huge pout. I stared at the lanky wet strands of gray hair that hung down to her shoulders. Saw the way her stylist carefully combed through the fine strands with trembling hands. But despite how careful she was, after each glide, small clumps of hair were pulled out with the comb.

“Bend your head.”

Before I could react, I felt the warm tips of her fingers grasp my head and tilt it downward, as if she were controlling a machine. When she let go, I froze, feeling both annoyed at her impatience and afraid that the slightest budge would cause me to get burned. My head was bent so low that my chest began to hurt. I gazed at the tile floor.

“Hey Max!” yelled an old customer who sat nearby, “You’ll never believe who I saw in church last Sunday!”

“Who did you see?” Max answered.

“Nicole!” the woman yelled.

“You’re lying!” A new voice chimed in.

“Are you sure you weren’t seeing things that day?” my stylist asked. Then she paused, resting her heavy hand on the top of my head as she spoke to her customers.

“Girls I swear, I’m telling y’all the truth. Chick had on a blue mini dress with heels she could barely walk in. And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous neckline. She might as well just let those things hang out in the open.”

“Oh, dear Lord. That definitely sounds like her.” my stylist said with a sigh.

“Sounds like she went to church to find herself a new man…” another voice said.

“And she had the nerve to show off her jewelry in church! Wavin’ around her left hand from the pew so she can show off her rings!”

“Hmph, I bet you that bling as fake as her weave…”

“Probably… And those skimpy legs looked like drum sticks. Don’t know how she had the nerve to wear something that short…”

Maxine giggled at the last remark as she lifted her hand from my head. Seconds later, she shoved a wooden spoon into my hand. “Hold this over your ear.”

I grasped the wooden spoon and held the wider end against my small ear, careful to cover it completely. I tried to sit as still as I could, but I began to fidget uncontrollably. Getting my edges straightened was the worst part.

“Calm down, calm down,” said Max soothingly as she pulled me back to the chair again. “It’s just the steam you’re feeling. You have to stay still.”

I nodded and I tried to stay still… But I couldn’t. I was either trembling or cringing each time the hot comb came closer.

I took a few deep breaths, but the foul odor only made my eyes water. I couldn’t clear my head because the voices were overpowering and it was hard to think straight. Every muscle in my body stiffened as I tried desperately to sit motionless.

Meanwhile, Max carried on with her conversation, laughing and pausing while she handled my hair.

But then suddenly, I felt a hot sting on my scalp, and jumped so hard that I dropped the spoon. “Oowww!!” I yelled.

And just like that, the choir was slowly silenced by my cry of pain. I could feel their beady eyes begin to fasten on me, both curious and judgmental.

“Oh, now I know you don’t have the nerve to be tender-headed with all these naps!” Max chuckled lightly. “Now listen, just sit back, it’ll be alright…”

Excuse me?!” boomed my mother’s voice.

Now everyone’s attention had turned to my mother, who happened to be glaring fiercely at Max. A young woman who pretended to read a copy of Vibe magazine let out a low whistle.

I took this opportunity to quickly glance at Max’s reaction in the mirror. She simply stared back at my mother in shock, like captured prey.

“First of all, don’t you dare assume that my child can handle being burned because of the texture of her hair; it is your responsibility to be careful with a hot comb. And second, if you burn her again, I’m going to the manager to file a complaint. Do you understand?”

Then all eyes were back on Max, who looked pale and frightened. “Oh, of course, of course, I…. that won’t be necessary,” Max stammered. “I’m so sorry, it won’t happen again.”

And in the awkward silence that ensued, I could hear Ms. Taylor’s voice:

“You know, Ms. Campbell… If I were you, I’d demand a discount.”

My mother, still fuming, did not bother to respond. I looked over at her as she glared at Max’s gentle hands in silence. Although I knew her anger was not directed towards me, even I was afraid of her wrath.

Tension lingered in the salon after my mother’s outburst, and the cacophonic chatter now turned into hushed voices and tentative whispers. Max remained silent for the remainder of the time that she handled my hair, only pausing to ask if “I was okay.” No one dared to talk to her or include her in another conversation while she worked.

And there I sat, tight-lipped and stone still. Terrified that I would feel another burn. And afraid that this would cause my mother to start World War III.

But the burn did not come. And so I relaxed.

I closed my eyes and listened to the flurry of hushed voices. I wondered what these women would say about my mother and me when we were gone.

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