I trailed my black hair
in the water, the water opaque with seaweed. From the water opaque
with seaweed I filched strands of plants and plastic and these I
plastered to my scalp with wet sand. With wet sand I caressed my
scalp and neck and I shaped the strands of my hair into snakes,
curls, and undulant waves. Into snakes, curls, and undulant waves
I shaped my floating hair. I shaped my floating hair this way with
a purpose. My purpose: a Medusan fury, a Medusan glee, intently
pursued. I thought that I had never felt such a thing. I lay stretched
on hot sand with my snaky curls baking and I thought I have hair
I have hair I have hair on top of my head that I will never let
anyone take off.
My grandmother's cousin got a haircut
and came home and went into his room and died, just like that, she
says. Just like that. I see what comes of taking hair off the top
of your head: nothing good.
I combed white dry sand and brown
damp for ornament, for green sea glass and violet shell and stone.
For that purplish white striped sea stone, that soft glass. With
that striped stone and soft glass I will adorn myself, I will string
them like beads through my seastiff hair. I will walk into town
head high eyes proud and see people cower and quake. Maybe one or
two of the women will see the humor too but I doubt it. It will
be even better than Halloween because I'm the only one in costume.
And new-minted heat will pour over me and burn my scalp and crust
my salted pungent head.
Before this: I walked in the rain
without an umbrella. Not like Gene Kelly.
I baked and I curled and I salted my hair until it sat piled
high in layers, a snaky salty pompadour glinting with bits of
shell and stone and dried fish skins. Five layers of viperous
curls crawled about my head; one perfect spit curl sat on either
side of my forehead. A few tendrils, stiff and briny too, framed
my face. As I walked into town a gull shadowed me, had caught
the scent of something lodged there in my scalp. I quickened my
pace, the gull sped up, hovered, plummeted straight down. As I
crested the small hill that rose just before the bay, I felt his
sharp claws grasp. As his beak probed behind my ears I wondered
what he was feasting on: a tiny dried fish, a bit of meat left
in a shard of shell. An early jogger, fathers coddling wailing
daughters with ice cream cones, old ladies with necks preternaturally
arced like defective swans, boys careening on rusted bikes saw:
a woman with unwashed, sculpted, snakish hair, hair with hissing
tongues; a woman in a gray cotton dress; a woman with a seagull
standing on her head.
Before this: I walked in the rain
without an umbrella. Not like Gene Kelly. And slept. And walked.
And cried. And sleeping, walked. And walking, cried. And crying,
I asked for
time off from work at the restaurant, on the grounds that in summer
everyone is out of town anyway. My manager reluctantly agreed.
I packed a vinyl bag and dragged myself to the train. I had to
switch trains to get here; on the second train, tall and red with
old-fashioned latched windows, I pondered my walkings, my sleepings,
The early jogger, panting, glanced
at the gull; his mirrored sunglasses reflected nothing. Girls
with melted ice cream wailed, and the swan ladies sailed off.
I walked, head high, eyes proud, hoping the seagull would soon
tire of his unexpected windfall. I felt the fabric of my dress
press against my knees, felt it as a foreign unwanted thing draped
there. Rising heat beat in waves and poured, burnished my scalp
and turned its rough surface scabrous. From the shallows of the
bay a rifling of wings rose, summoning the seagull, who left his
perch. With hissing hair, reeking curls, I walked over the splintery
wood to the benches at the end of the dock. I sat on one, carefully
chosen because it faced back to the town, such as it was. I waited
for when my hours of salting and layering and teasing would begin
to have effect, for when I would be gripped by this Medusan rage
and jubilance. Ardently almost I waited, sweat etching damp rivulets
down my neck and in a fold of my stomach.
Before this: I walked in the rain
without an umbrella. Not like Gene Kelly.
From my ponderings on the train
I had figured one thing: that sleepwalking and nightcrying after
a time lead towards death. From the peeling red walls, the begrimed
windows of the Jamaica line, I had gleaned one thing more: that
I wanted to live. From the grimy glass and its view onto rushed
nothings I learned too: that nothingness begets more of itself.
That I could not remember having
As I stepped off the train and into a van that would take me
to the ferry I reached a conclusion, my first in many months.
I resolved to pursue wracking emotions, like those of the Gorgon
who killed (according to some) and laughed (according to others),
who slew men or giggled in solitude. Or both. I decided to dress
my hair with hours upon hours of salt and sun, to arrange it briny,
brackish, matted on top of my head. I thought that I would pursue
these emotions hirsutely and see what happened then: whether Medusa
killed or laughed, whether she was indeed a slayer of men or a
lover of women or neither or both. For this I needed an audience.
I sat facing the town with its
general store, its ice cream stand, its rubber raft and sun block
and trashy novel store, its liquor. Eddies of heat slammed to
a stop against me as the day expanded, opening, and veered to
its end. Silverwhite light glanced off glass, searing my eyes;
a new seagull came to a stop on a post by my left shoulder. Its
beady eye glittered, stonelike; it jerked its neck towards me.
I stared back, licked my lips. I ran one finger gingerly over
the dried scales and shells in my hair, hoping to arouse some
terrible birdish envy. The gull cocked his head and eyed my own,
hopped away in a ruffle of disdain.
I sat still, as I had been.
Newminted heat poured over me,
burned my scalp and crusted my salted, pungent head. Before this:
I walked in the rain without an umbrella.
My snaking waves and briny curls
glinted in the light like metal. A gaggle of children clustered
around me, not too close. One of the braver, redheaded and translucent,
approached in bare feet with a pail and a popsicle. Orange sherbet
slush dripped onto her left ankle and overwarm water onto her
right; she held her elbows out from her body in right-angled caution.
"What's in your hair?"
she asked from several yards off.
"Everything," I said.
"It's an experiment."
She scratched the back of her left
leg with her right foot, cocked her head gullishly to one side.
She lingered a moment, turned, reported back to the others who
stood clumped together. She told them that the lady with the shells
in her hair is crazy, a mad scientist. I think this is what the
intrepid one must have told them. I pictured them in silent congress,
all sticky legs and searching eyes; I drifted over and away from
this thought in an instant. It wasn’t the children who interested
me really, it was their mothers. And some were awkward swans and
some were hard and gullish and some swooped and soared and I would
never know their names. And all of them, the diffident, the emeraldlike,
the brazen, would be my audience that evening.
at sundown the town gathered for its main and only social event,
sixish. Sixish because of when it began: around six. The rules
were strict in town, unvarying. Wear something more than what
you wore for the rest of the day. Stroll to the dock carrying
a drink in one hand, something summery and buoyant in chalky pastel
tones. Stop to greet one or two people and become immensely interested
in what they have to say. Lean out over the wooden railings protecting
you from the bay and appear absorbed in any small panorama. Invite
people for drinks or dinner and receive invitations back; decline
them all, explain you already have plans. Extol at great lengths
the glory of the particular piece of fish you will grill that
evening. When the sun has set, go home tipsy. I waited patiently
for sunset and sixish, for the hordes of cottony women to converge
on the graying pier. I waited for their husbands, nephews, lovers.
I waited for passion. I waited for abandon, for scorn. I sweat
and I stank and I waited.
Before this: I walked in the rain.
And waited. The rain runneled glasslike down my hair and face;
it screeched, glass on glass. I hummed, perhaps, tunelessly. I
sang in the rain.
Light shaded into dark wheat gold
and the day began to wilt. A batch of teenaged girls and boys
sprawled around a corner. They leaned into each other, close but
separated, like magnets. I wondered what they would ever find
to talk about. I noted and coddled the girls' aloof beauty--one
with torn jeans and brass bracelets caught my attention. She glowed
and jangled. I thought she held herself apart from the others,
stood straight up and down, willed it to be so. Thought that perhaps
my snakes and stones and silvery scales would enchant her. Knew
I was delirious. I reveled in my brackish smell, my scent that
a mild evening wind lifted and swirled about my shoulders. Prayed
that it would portend. The smell that will mean: an end to waiting.
A return to life. I realized that I had a chill, a definite chill.
Evening. Six, ish. Yellowed orange
street lamps, the three or four that littered the dock and the
walk leading to it, burned low. The first few people spilled out
of the tiny bar that abutted the liquor store, sloshed kirs and
vermouth cassis over the rims of plastic cups. They gathered together
in small perfect circles as if they were conjuring weather or
signaling aliens. Ripples of talk, indolent, insistent. I waited.
The early jogger hove around a bend in the boardwalk, transformed:
jeans instead of acetate short shorts, wire rimmed spectacles
perched in his hair instead of sunglasses. A Dos Equis swinging
idly. Beer, unofficially frowned upon in town: okay for dinner
at home but not for public appearances. The early jogger likes
to flout convention, I decided. My decision made me fond of him
the way one is fond of fellow travelers on trains, promptly forgotten.
Or trysted with.
Women began to gather. Among them
I recognized one of my morning swans, molten now in a shimmery
amber thing and sandals. Another one minerallike, hard, light
refracted off her steely skin and glass green sweater. A redhead
with paperthin skin, so thin that her veins underneath pulsed
in purple, in artificial sky blue--the mother of my morning interlocutor.
Sweat pooled and sank under my gray dress which I felt tightening
about my legs; the smell of salt rose sour, bitter, and acrid
from my scalp. I turned my head to face the garish sun-set bay,
hid in shame from my want. Color dropped like a curtain. Voices
lifted, carried, rasped drunkenly. A grating tenor--I imagined
it to be that of the early jogger--detached itself, strode in
arrogance, expounded something. Before its weight alto, mezzo,
soprano subsided to a mechanical hum. My fondness for the jogger
dissolved in a rush. Again I turned to face the town, my hands
clenched to still their tremor.
I waited for what would come. My
heart did a little nervy dance, leapt and flipped and choked me
and I took this as the start of tumult. I made of myself a vessel
through which the raggiest ragings, the most abundant joy could
course, tried to hold myself still and anticipatory. Sweat ran
behind my knees and I shifted, disgust at my wrought squalor roiled
my stomach. I sat, sat and waited, waited and felt nothing. For
a second I closed my eyes. Blanketed the snowy, amber, emerald
brilliance before me in nondescript beige. These people were not
my people, especially these flighty squawky women were not mine.
My experiment would fail for the oldest of reasons, inadequate
control of the test environment. I had arrived glass and I would
leave glass and I would go on singing mindlessly in the rain.
I would rinse and lather my head until the fresh city water ran
clear and squeaky. I would catch up my hair in a plain barrette.
The stones, the shell, the skin that had shone silver I would
stuff in the trash incinerator and burn. I would walk without
an umbrella and one day I would bump against a lamppost and break,
but then, being glass, it would be the cleanest of fractures.
"I know your mother, don't
I opened my eyes on luminescence,
transparence. Shining clear tones and the welcome stench of human
skin. I was dehydrated and thought I was seeing things, knew that
you cannot see through flesh to such an extent. Cannot see indigo,
false blue, russet veins and arteries; cannot see the bluish redness
of blood, water, lymph running. It was the redhead, mother of
the translucent girl.
"Don't I know your mother?"
Sea glass green eyes prodded me,
not unkind. They took shape and turned into eyes I knew. Dropped
exquisitely half shut, making me lament my outlandish hair, my
bare feet, my anguished look, her hovering husband.
I said, thinking: you know my mother. You know my father. You
know my grandparents and my cousins. You know by heart the train
I took to get here and the blinding white of the boat. While I
know other things, how you wore two thick braids and smelled clean
of salt water for a long long time.
And I crumpled with laughter, laughter
that pinioned me flat on the wooden bench in convulsions, raked
through me until tears and spit and sweat and the glue of my slowly
unraveling hair glazed together and fell into the bay.