Katherine’s Shadow

Why are my pants on backwards?

Sarah felt the tag of her pajama bottoms itching against the bottom crest of her belly. She tried to lift her head and pop-rock whiteness exploded behind her eyes. She’d never had a hangover before, or she would have known what to call it.

Vaguely, Sarah remembered stumbling home. A girl from her class had supported her the full four blocks back to the dorms. Her armpit and the underflesh of her triceps still ached from where the other girl’s shoulder had held her up. Sarah stretched, raising herself up slowly. She remembered feeling acid, the taste of batteries, at the back of her mouth. Had she thrown up? She didn’t know. Her tongue felt dry and stale, but that was to be expected after such a night of hard drinking. Wasn’t it? Sarah pushed the heels of her palms against her eyelids in an attempt to stop the pulsating of her vision. What did people do in these situations? This was all new to her.

Sarah was aware of the emptiness of her dorm room then. It was just big enough for two twin beds, placed directly opposite of each other as close up to the cold, red brick walls as possible. In the extra space there were two three-feet-by-three-feet desks with matching shelves overhead, and two shallow closets flanking the one door. It was sparsely decorated with Third Eye Blind posters and neon throw pillows.

Sarah’s roommate was hardly ever in. For the fourth week in a row, she had gone home to her parents’ house in Aurora for the entire weekend. Sarah practically had the room to herself, most of the time. She wouldn’t say that it was lonely. It sure gave her plenty of room to work. She just had expected more from her first dorm experience. It would have helped to have someone much more…present, in a situation like this.

A knock on the door.

“Sarah? Sarah, did you make it back okay? Sarah, its Siobhan- let me in, please.”

Siobhan was a freshman, like Sarah, who sat next to her an early morning three-hundred level statistics class. She had been Sarah’s guide to the local house party the night before- down to fiftieth and King street, where the party there had already been a bust, up to forty eighth and Osceola, where they were some of the first to arrive- as part of a group of their classmates who had wanted to go out and get loose.

A burgeoning math major, Siobhan was pretty and moderately popular. Sarah had figured she was someone who was safe enough to cling to, this early on in her college career. Not unreachably perfect or overshadowing, but also not a hole-in-the-wall troll who would weigh Sarah down in public. A good stepping stone, to begin with.

“Hold on, I’m getting there,” Sarah said as she fixed her pants the right way ‘round. She was embarrassed by the amount of effort it took to slide out of her lifted bed, to steady her legs and shuffle slowly to the door. If this was what hangovers were always like, Sarah was never going to drink again.

Siobhan stood at the door, her eyebrows drawn together with concern. She had a small cup of McDonald’s coffee in her right hand, a tightly gripped, greasy meal sack in the other. The smell of it nearly made Sarah want to retch, at the same time that it made her feel urgently the emptiness of her own stomach.

“Figured you wouldn’t be heading over to the café today. Could barely handle the sun myself,” Siobhan said. Her tone was an uncertain apology, as was the way her clean green eyes swept Sarah’s room. What was she looking for? Siobhan set down the breakfast bag on Sarah’s desk, still looking uncomfortable. Sarah hauled herself back onto her bed, where she could rest the back of her throbbing head against the cold, hard brick. She patted the purple comforter next to her.

“It’s more comfortable up here,” she invited.

Siobhan clambered up beside, snugly sitting Indian-style, holding the small cup of coffee like an anchor between her hands. Her pixie short, flame colored curls were pinned down close to her head, emphasizing the soft freckles of her round, friendly face. Her hair was slightly damp and her features fresh, as if she had recently showered. Had she really come over right after waking? After that and getting breakfast, of course.

“How’s your head?” Siobhan asked.

“Like the inside of a broken strobe light,” Sarah laughed.

Siobhan wordlessly handed Sarah the dollar coffee. Sarah didn’t know if it was supposed to help her hangover, but she also couldn’t just reject it. So Sarah took the coffee, warm between her palms.

“I’m sorry if I made an ass out of myself last night,” Sarah said after a small pause, “I don’t know when I passed out but it couldn’t have been good.”

“You…don’t remember?”

“I remember wanting to throw up. I remember waking up on someone’s couch. I think Mikayla walked me home. You know, Mikayla Martinez? She almost had to carry me. Don’t think the D.A. noticed, though. I’m not in trouble, anyways.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, that’s all I got. I suppose I might have thrown up on something. Someone? Woke up clean, though. Did you wipe me off? Or Mikayla?”

Siobhan pushed the heels of her palms against her knees. Sarah closed her eyes, letting the coldness of the brick wall seep through the nape of her neck. The colder her skin got, the less the room wobbled.

“You don’t remember anything, do you?” Siobhan said. Her Southern tone was strangely leaden.

“What do you mean?” Sarah asked.

“You called me Katherine.”

Sarah’s eyes flew open. Katherine. Her mind sharpened like a knife, and froze.

“What happened?”

“Well, you did throw up in the backyard around eleven. Cleaned yourself up, there. But you kept on going. Danced on the tables, almost broke a few plates before some guy pulled you down. You kissed Tammy for a dollar, though I don’t think she paid you. Slapped Kevin’s ass, too.”

“Holy cow, really?”

“Yeah. He seemed to like it, but you were way too drunk to be going home with him.”


“You’ll thank us later.”

“I’m not allowed to thank you now? Did I pass out then?”

“No. Then the cops came.”


“Seriously. You were pretty gone. We didn’t know how gone yet, but you didn’t want to leave. I had to drag you out, basically. Almost put you on my back.”

“Wow. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. It’s alright.”

But Siobhan didn’t sound alright. Sarah took a deep breath and tried the coffee. It was, by then, lukewarm, tasting stale and bitter without cream. Sarah swallowed.

“You said I called you…”

“Katherine. Yeah.”

Siobhan looked down at the floor of Sarah’s dorm- the tacky, marbled blue carpet spread thinly across it.

“You screamed when you said it,” Siobhan continued, “You threw yourself to the ground and grabbed your stomach.”

“Did I?” Sarah’s voice was as flat, as empty as she could make it.

“You sounded…scared. Scared of me. Scared of me as Katherine, I guess. Who is Katherine?”

“Did I say…did I do anything else?”

“You told me you were ready.”

“For what?”

“To die, Sarah. You asked me not to hurt you and you told me you were ready to die with me. With Katherine. Sarah, you were screaming on the ground, you were curled up on the ground, and you were crying. So hard.”

Now Siobhan was crying, her skin mottling with a red flush deeper than the flame of her hair. She sniffled loudly, pressing the heels of her palms up to her eyes to stem the flow of tears.

“I’m so sorry, Siobhan.”

Sarah took another sip of the coffee, slurping loudly as Siobhan wept. It was cold, now, and flat. But Siobhan had brought it to her, had brought it when it was hot right after waking; to comfort her. Sarah would drink every drop.

“Katherine was my step-sister,” Sarah said when the coffee cup was empty, “She lived with us until I turned fifteen. She was never really…right in the head, but she was the only sister I had, you know?”

“She hurt you.”

“I don’t know if she really knew what she was doing, to be honest. Neither did I. I just wanted to be a good baby sister. She was so lonely and hurt. Our dad’s a bit…distant. He’s all she had, apart from me. Or so she always said.

“She wanted to kill you?”

“She wanted to kill herself, but she didn’t want to go alone. I promised her that I’d follow her, when she was ready. That she could take me with her.”

“Did Katherine hit you?”

“She was always so angry, and I was always there. She ran away when I was fifteen. Got caught in Utah stealing food and Monster from a Conoco. My mom wouldn’t let me go to her. She’d found my diary by then. Found out what Katherine had been doing. Made me go to counseling- me, her and my step-dad. Haven’t seen Katherine since, you know. But I still have dreams.”

“And you thought I was her.”

“I guess I did, Siobhan. I don’t remember a thing.”

Siobhan began to cry harder. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand as if she had hurled. Sarah sunk down into her position, letting her legs dangle over the side of her bed, pushing the top of her head against the cold brick.

“I didn’t know, Sarah, I didn’t know. I was so scared, so worried, I….” Siobhan hiccupped and covered her mouth.”

“It’s alright,” Sarah said, closing her eyes. She folded her hands over her chest and breathed deeply. “It’s not like I go around announcing it. How weird would that sound? ‘Hey, my name’s Sarah, my sister used to hit me, what’s your major?’ I’d rather just forget about it, if it’s all the same to you.”

“I’m so sorry,” Siobhan repeated, though her breathing had started to descend from hysteria.

“Well you didn’t run away, at least,” Sarah conceded, “You don’t need to be sorry.”

“When you did pass out, we took you to Mikayla’s,” Siobhan protested, “and I came back. Without you.”

Eyes closed, Sarah grabbed the empty coffee cup and shook it. A smirk spread across her face.

“You brought me breakfast, didn’t you? I’d say that’s a good enough apology.”


“You think those sandwiches are still going to be good?”

Sarah could hear Siobhan’s hesitation and the freeze inside her bones stiffened with fear. Siobhan had gotten up early, had gotten her breakfast, had come to see if Sarah was still okay. Siobhan had seen the darkest of Sarah’s memories, seen worse than just Sarah’s scars, and still had knocked on her door. Sarah squeezed her eyes shut tight, waiting.

“Which do you want- the sausage or the bacon?”

Sarah smiled as she thawed. Siobhan was the answer to her prayers. Maybe now the nightmares would be over.

“I think we’re going to be the best of friends, Siobhan. I really do.”

One More Shot

It’s early in the morning, the gym is cold and the lights are on. One, two, three dribbles and then silence. The ball flies through the air, into the basket and onto the floor, creating the empty gym’s only sound. The daily ritual continues. Coach retrieves the ball, walks back to the free throw line for another shot. He blows into his hands and rubs them together for warmth. He steps up to the line: one, two, three dribbles. Each bounce echoes through every vacant seat, to the high vaulted ceiling, around the brick walls and back to the unforgiving floor. He visualizes the ball going in, bends his aging knees and shoots. Forty six out of fifty: not bad, he thinks, but he can do better.

The leather ball smells like high school, like Saturday nights and teenage anticipation of what might happen at the after-game party. Who’s going to be there? The familiar smell extracts sweaty memories of past games: that game. That game, a razor sharp knife that sliced his life into equal halves: the time before and the time after. He steps up to the line. Coach dribbles the ball three times and eyes the front of the rim, and visualizes it going in. He shot 96% at the line his senior year. This was cake, automatic. There were two seconds left, his team down by two. The State High School Championship was at stake against Cedar Heights, the team that had beaten his school last year in the same game. It can’t happen again. Focusing on the rim, he imagines the ball going in the net. The talented athlete bent his youthful knees, careful to transfer energy up his body, through his arms, to his hands and out his fingers in one graceful motion. The ball felt his skillful strength and obediently flew up into the air and down into the net. They were down by one.

The crowd cheered wildly. One more free throw would send the game to overtime. His girlfriend Lisa sat on the front row behind the player’s bench as always. He caught a glimpse of her bright blue eyes shining proudly. She gave him a wink and a thumb’s up, yet smiled nervously. He heard his mom cheering from somewhere in the stands. The crowd was chanting his name. He loved to hear it. The referee handed him the ball. He stepped up to the line, dribbled the ball three times and focused on the rim.  Every eye was watching, every breath held. The air seemed sucked from the gym, the tension palpable. The crowd with wide eyes and hopeful faces was silent as the ball flew through the air, in what seemed like slow motion. It hit the left side of the rim, hit the right side, and bounced off. Cedar Height’s rebounded. The game was over.

The sun rises slowly, casting its comfortless beams on the bannered wall showcasing county and regional titles, but no state championship.  Shadows creep across the friendless gym floor. Coach steps up to the line, bounces the ball three times and focuses on the rim. “Visualize it going in,” he whispers to himself. “See it going in.” If he hadn’t looked to the stands, maybe he’d be a champion. He can still see Lisa sitting there, in this very gym. Was it her nervous smile? It shouldn’t have mattered. He bends his old, sore knees, releases the ball from his tired fingers. It soars through the air toward its destination. He slowly retrieves the ball and steps up to the line for one more shot.


I had three arms. At night, I used one of them to expand the crack in the wall. Its fingernails were remarkably resistant to the old plaster. Naïve I was, I hoped the hole would burst and collapse the house in the end, but it never did.

Father didn’t know about the gap or perhaps he was in denial that it was there at all. Mother didn’t care.

We had lived in the old house ever since the day I got up and walked. Mother thought it was a sign that when she put me down onto the wooden floor, I stood up and took my first steps.

“Look, Henry!” she called on father. “Selma is walking. This is it! This must be our home forever.” Then I took another step and threw up.

Mother liked to hide that detail when she told the story to strangers. Strangers loved the vintage atmosphere of the house. They were the people she had met, whilst running errands – shop assistants, post office clerks, hairdressers, policemen and women. A shy, but kind, sociable woman, she’d invite some of them over for tea or dinner. She loved to host. And even though she only had one arm, she was proficient in the kitchen. These people told interesting stories of their busy days, their boredom at work, their loves and their hates. Mother joined the conversations, always disguising father’s muteness with her naïve, cherishable, but incessant cheeriness. She sought out company, perhaps because she was a single child. Or maybe she did not want to feel inadequate with her one arm.

Mother’s dinner invites began to dwindle after the lady from the post office came round for dinner one night. She asked the question they had asked so often:

“How did you lose the arm?”

Mother topped off the water in our glasses and father left to take his cognac in the living room. He had heard the story many times. The post office lady waited for an answer.

“One day, when I was five, I woke up and it was gone.”

“What do you mean?”

“When I opened my eyes, I found that someone had taken it off during the night.”

The lady’s eyes opened wide.

“How? Why?”

“I asked myself the same questions. I posted signs across town to find the arm thief, but I never got an answer.”

“How tragic!” the lady exclaimed.

And though mother could have worn a prosthetic arm, she did not like to wear it.

“I used to have a prosthetic one. I never got used to it. It wasn’t my arm. And I’d rather have no arm than one that is not mine.”

The day she threw it out, I wasted no time to fish it from the bin.

All of a sudden, father stood in the door.

“I think it’s time for you to leave,” he said to the lady, who had begun to chew on mother’s carrot cake. She stopped and swallowed hard, looking up at father, then down towards mother, who avoided eye contact.

“Just this piece of cake Henry,” mother murmured.

“She can take it home,” he said and skulked out of the dining room.

Mother rose, excusing her husband, for he had a hard day at the office. She excused herself for being such a bad host.

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” the woman said at the door. “Take care.” With that, she left. Mother never saw her again much afterward.

I carried in the dishes to the kitchen for mother to clean. When I was done, I ran upstairs to my attic room. A doll lay on the floor. Her porcelain stare was sad and I felt bad that I had left her there, alone in the dark. She would feel safer between the bear and mother’s prosthetic arm on the shelf. After I had changed for bed and brushed my teeth, I crawled under my cotton cover and closed my eyes.

Right on time, at 3 a.m., I heard the doorknob turn. The floorboards creaked under his weight. Five steps and he would be beside the bed – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. He lifted the duvet and slipped under next to me, pushing me against the wall, because the bed was too small for the both of us. I pretended to be asleep. He slid his fingers underneath my nightgown, wandering up and down my skin. His breath was sticky tonight from the cognac and excitement, but his routine was the same. He put a pillow in between our heads so our eyes could not meet in the moonlight. With a mechanical motion he pulled aside my underpants. Then he came in and out of me, growing faster, panting heavier. I could always tell when he was done, twitching rapid. He rolled himself out of bed.

“Forgive me,” he whispered standing by the door, ready to turn the knob and flee from the clinging air that had filled the room. When he was gone, I got up and strode over to my shelf. I took mother’s arm and sat down before the crack. I could feel the places where the paint had chipped on the limb, uncovering the steel structure. Beneath the full moon, the hand looked graceful still, its long fingers formed into a delicate V. I held it tight to scratch out little pieces of plaster. I dug until I was too exhausted to continue, picked up what debris had come undone and put it in the empty cookie jar that I had hidden underneath my bed. I would empty it tomorrow; bury the pieces in our garden. Then I returned to bed and fell asleep with an empty mind.

When I turned 16, my breasts sprang into place like mother’s muffins in the oven. Boys began to notice me.

His name was Gilligan. Mother did not like him. Father hated him. I loved him.

“He is far too old for you,” mother said one night at dinner, after Gilligan escorted me home. I shook my head.

“He is 34. You are only 16. Why don’t you find a nice boy your age?” she insisted.

“Because I like him,” I answered as I fiddled with my fork.

Father shook his head. “Disgusting,” he muttered before he left the dining room. His pace had slowed over the years. His walk was firmer thus, but otherwise he had not changed. Mother began to wash the dishes. She looked beyond her years; paler, sicker now. A sudden fatigue had fallen over her in the last few years. Now more than when I was a child, I admired her tenacity to do the housework, despite the missing limb. I offered my help, but she rejected with a flick of a kitchen towel. I ran up to the attic and wrote a few nice words into my diary. I drew little hearts for ‘i’s in ‘Gilligan’.

The first time we met, was at the library. I was reading a book on herbaceous plants, standing in the aisle. I liked to grow herbs in the garden. Gilligan suggested an alternate book for the herb enthusiast. I followed his advice. When I returned the book, I thanked him with a few fresh leaves of basil I stole from the neighbor’s yard, because mine had not grown yet.

“You have beautiful eyes,” he said. I blushed and looked away. He brushed aside a strain of hair that came undone from my ponytail. He lifted my head by the chin and pressed his lips against mine. Never before had I been kissed and never again would I let anybody else kiss me, but Gilligan.

From that day, we met in the aisles of the library and kissed in secret, between romance novels and cookbooks. He held my hands tight. After two months, we went from kissing in the library to his flat. I came to see him after class and he cooked lunches and then touched me on the sofa. His hands were softer than father’s.

He drove me home at night. As soon as he had left, I stood in front of the mirror inspecting my adolescent shell. I did not understand what Gilligan saw in me. My nose was mediocre. My hair was too short and I was a little chubby around the hips. Other girls were far prettier. I vowed to eat less of mother’s carrot cakes.

At night I continued to scratch the gap. Mother’s hand now fit right inside of it. I began to see the brick that lay beneath the plaster and before the insulation.

One day, mother fell ill. She developed an unrelenting cough. It would not go away. She brought up mucus speckled with blood and found it hard to breathe. Over her wheezing, we feared that she would die.

“I can’t go. I’m sorry,” I said to Gilligan, who had made plans for us to move to a nearby town where he was appointed head of sales for the local printer service. He promised he would come visit me every weekend, whilst I took care of mother. She welcomed my decision and tried to help around the household, attempting the chores she had committed to for many years, but she was too weak. After mugs and plates shattered by the dozen, I confined her to her bed and played maid.

I was waiting for Gilligan by the train station the night she died. He said he’d come that weekend. Father sat by mother’s side. And Gilligan never arrived.

When I found mother dead, her crumpled body on the sofa in the living room where father had moved her to, I dropped down on my knees. I felt the burden of mother’s battle lifted from the house, but it did not console me. Instead, I prayed for Gilligan to return to me soon now that I was free to move away with him. I stumbled into the kitchen. Mother had wanted carrot soup that night.

The broth was thin. Father and I sipped it in silence. I could only hear the silver spoons scrape along the ceramic bowls. When we were done, I left the table uncleared, suffocating at the thought of never hearing mother call for me again.

Father disappeared into the living room and I rushed upstairs, crying full-bodied tears that dropped all over my diary. The little hearts in ‘Gilligan’ smudged and faded. I took the arm and sobbed into its hand, breathing in fine cement dust.

I lay awake for hours, waiting to hear the doorknob turn, but it never did. Drowsy from the tears, I drifted off to sleep. At 3 a.m., I woke to find myself lying in the center of the bed. I expected to be up against the wall by now. My rejected heart pumped fast. I got up and crossed the hall into father’s room, where he lay snoring. I took off my nightgown and climbed into his bed. He did not move and I stared at the ceiling and the glass chandelier that jingled in the breeze coming through the open window. The room still smelled of mother. I turned to face his back and reached out to touch the warmth between his legs.

“Go,” he said without turning around. I touched him then. He kicked his legs hard, reached down between his legs, grabbed hold of my hand, and threw it towards me. I held my breath and put back on my nightgown. I returned across the hall and sat on the edge of my bed, exhaling. My eyes wandered, searching for a spot of familiarity. I jumped up, determined now to finish what I had begun. Mother’s arm dug deeper, ripping through the yellow insulation. When I reached the outer layer of the wall, I was drenched in sweat. My arms were heavy, but I dared not stop. So I scratched and pulled and pushed the porous brick and kicked it with my foot. It cracked and snapped and larger junks of it came undone. When I was finished, sunlight broke through. The gap had expanded to the size of a small window and I could see the morning birds fly by. I closed my eyes for a minute, drained from the labor. I stroked mother’s arm, before I shoved it through the hole and pushed it out. I heard it tumble down the roof and plummet to the ground. When I searched the garden and all around the house in the afternoon, it had gone.

A Mixed Blessing

It was a steamy first date, kiss and night; its fifty shades of juicy detail would make a novel series.

“Seems we’re a couple. It’s time to start revealing some of my dark secrets,” I tell her a month later.

“I enthusiastically agree, on both. Any cherished perversions?” she says.

“I’m turned on beyond sanity when I kiss you.”

“I remember just purple-hazily… Thanks for telling me. Anything more on your perv shortlist?”

“One more thing. I write. Sometimes, or oftentimes.”

“Like presentations slides? Or, romantic-explicit text massages to me, having various sliding meanings?”

“On the top of non-fiction texting, I also write fiction.”

“Like fictitious text messages?” she asks, in a broken voice.

“Not at all;” I give her a deep kiss of deep consolation, “rather, short stories and novels.”

“What’s special about that?”

“Some parts of it; a sex scene or ten.”

“Like, body parts kissed all over and all under?” she asks, back in her over-the-moon voice.

“Partly. Please don’t start telling your mom, grannies, and everybody we know.”

“Deal! I prefer practice to writings,” she says, and gives me a French kiss.

* * *

Nights, weeks, and years slide by, some in writing, some in practice. One day she says,

“I think I’ll hit upon a new mental challenge for Mom, to give some exciting exercise to her brain, and to prevent it from ageing. You know, atop of all the usual retirement stuff…”

“Like crosswords, Sudoku, and genealogy?”

“Something more, to keep her going and make her feel smart and indispensable.”

“Wait, didn’t you mention the other day that she loved languages?”


“I keep receiving spam about translator work: Keep your slippers and PJ on, while working over the Internet. Etc. Ad lib. Ad naus.”

“Fun idea. I’ve three search engines in my purse.”

“It’s googleworthy, even on slow purse gadgets.”

“Now listen!” She reads aloud, “Earn big bucks while sipping coffee on your veranda. Choose a specialty, language, and work volume that suites you, on a text-by-text basis. Register NOW!”

“Email her the link.”

“Done. Welcome to the blessings of the realtime economy, Ma.”

“The mixed blessings of,” I add, for some reason.

Nights, weeks, and years slide by, in writing, language practice, and other practice.

* * *

Two years later, she brings a printed tantric scene full of kisses, weird metaphors, and questionmarks scribbled in red. On top of that, the scene reads eerily familiar to me…

“I remember you loved languages; any French-translation hints on this, for Mom? She gets most of the Sanskrit, but not the sexual anatomy…”

Frankly, I’ve never penetrated French deeper than the vital basics of amour, embrasser, baiser, and danger des avalanches.

“What’s the deal,” I say, “they’ll just send a translation draft to the author via his agent, and ask for comments.”

“Or, address the author directly?”

“No need to; in fact, you’re doing it right now.”

“Didn’t I tell you translations were a fun idea,” she says, laughing, and demonstrating what embrasser et baiser mean.

“Didn’t I tell you realtime business was a mixed blessing? Now, don’t tell your mom who’s the author.”

“I won’t. But, in private ways, I’ll make you stand for what you’ve written,” she says, giving me a more hands-on demonstration, “and by the way, guess why she chose this particular text?”

“To brush up her Sanskrit and red-questionmark scribbling?”

“Plus, the flame of her first university years was a young tantric yogi.”

She tells me a long, ananda-ending, yoga name; eerily familiar, too.

“Lucky then-young woman. And by the way, lucky my first yoga teacher…” I say.


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.

It Was Really Nothing

On the way home from the library, I passed an alley where it sounded like two guys were pounding a third guy.

They must have seen me looking, because they shouted in my direction. First reaction: run. But I couldn’t. It’s the wheelchair.

I wheeled across the street towards a figure who was making haste down the empty sidewalk. I called and then yelled to her but she didn’t answer, didn’t even look my way. Probably the same bitch who deliberately closed the elevator door in my face when I was leaving the stacks.

On the other side of the street, I felt a little safer since no one was in sight. However, when you’re in a wheelchair, things in the distance are a lot closer than they look.

I started to phone Sally, my girlfriend. Girlfriend in the sense that she’s a female friend. She’s normal. She’s been very patient with her paranoid, handicapped friend. On more than one occasion, she offered to give me a lift when I was working late on my research. Except for a couple of times when it was raining like hell, I routinely declined, partly to manage my mental IOUs and partly to assert my pathetic independence.

Tonight was a matter of pride though, so I stuck the phone back in my jacket pocket and rolled on—my anti-Samaritan lady out of sight save for that bobbing head of hers.

It occurred to me that I should call the cops and report the incident. I hesitated. Those guys could recognize me. For God’s sake, I was in a wheelchair on a well-lit sidewalk,and they were in the shadows.

Besides, what kind of idiot gets caught up with a couple of thugs like that? Probably just a family dispute among criminals anyway. And if the cops did … well, these guys might be off the street for a night but they’d be on the lookout the next.

And what about Ms. Door-in-your-Face? Why didn’t she call? She could at least run.

And why don’t the police at least patrol this area once in a while?

I don’t ask a lot, and I don’t expect charity, pity or any of those other self-indulgent sentiments from others, so why shouldn’t I expect not to be expected to show them to anybody else?

For Sally, yes I would. Definitely!

For a stranger, why? It was a stranger who put me in this damn chair. What do I care—why should I care—about a stranger if it means risking my own—

It was Sally’s ring tone. As soon as I answered, she noticed a difference in my voice and immediately asked what was the matter.

By this point, I was fully committed to the belief, reached by a more or less systematic reductio ad nihil, so I answered, “Oh, nothing. It was really nothing.”

“What? What was really—”

“Nothing. I’m just real tired that’s all. Think I could cash that rain check?”