Cutting Locks

It’s such a pleasure to bring you an essay about teen friendship written from the trenches, by a teen.  This moving #ownvoices piece will change the way you feel about “essays” – they’re not just for English class!

By Tina Sang

Jenna wasn’t your conventionally pretty person. Her personality blared out of a megaphone, words spilling out freely, and she had a raucous laugh that was both jarring and infectious. Her crooked smile fit into her lopsided face, and she wore simple clothes that exuded a careless attitude. But the one thing that was extraordinarily beautiful about her was her hair. It was black and sleek and she tossed it around when she laughed, and when she combed it back with her slender fingers, it cascaded down her back in a black waterfall.

“Are you sure?” I stand next to her, at the door of the hair salon, as she studies the pictures on the walls with intensity.

“Salon” © Darwin Bell (https://www.flickr.com/photos/darwinbell/3880758986/)

“Heck yeah,” she says without hesitation. “Let’s do this.”

Busting through the doorway, she strides up to the front desk.

“That one.” She points at the short bob pasted on the wall.

“Okay, we’ll be with you shortly. Please take a seat.”

This is the first time we’ve been here together in a year. As eighth graders, we entered this place laughing and making snide comments, acting like we were the most righteous teenagers in the world. Her loud opinions enveloped me, and I felt like I could do anything with her by my side. We came out of the salon that day with bright pink and blue streaks in our hair, the dye surging through our veins.

But it isn’t like that this time.

Sitting in the waiting area, all the words that exit her mouth strike nerves that didn’t exist before, discordant keys on a piano.

“Sydney’s just the worst, isn’t she? She keeps texting me, god she’s so clingy. Almost as bad as those girls from our old school, right?”

“Yeah.”

My energy leaks from my body and puddles on the hair-littered floor. What am I doing here? The question pounds through my head until it’s all I can hear. She asked to hang out with me, slipped me a note during English, how could I have rejected her? Just like old times, the note read. We thought we could preserve our friendship by moving to a new school together. Escaping hell together. But turns out, we have different images of heaven.

“And don’t even get me started on Bridget, she’s so—”

“Do you think we’ve changed?” My voice is monotone, slicing through the façade of enthusiasm we try to recreate.

“Not really,” she says. Maybe she doesn’t realize it. She never thought as much as I did.

“I think we have.”

“Okay…?”

“You’re always hanging out with them…Or maybe it’s me. I think I’m different now.”

“Okay…”

“Or, I don’t know. I feel like this isn’t like all the times we used to hang out before, it just doesn’t feel the same.” The words tumble out of my mouth, products of pent-up discomfort.

“Stop thinking so much.”

Even if I don’t feel the connection between us anymore, it’s clear that she still knows all too well how the gears turn inside my head. It bugs me.

“Why are you being like this?” She turns away, pulling out her phone, and my mind begins to whirl.

Whenever Jenna puts her hair into a ponytail, the typical Asian hair problem arises. Tufts of stray hair won’t stay tucked in, won’t cooperate.

In seventh grade, when most of our friends left for better schools, we sought each other out in the place we’d been abandoned. What brought us together, ultimately, was our hatred for that school. We banded together to face the demons, absolutely loathing every minute we spent in it. From the crumb-littered, cramped buses to the pollution-choked classrooms with offhand teachers and dilapidated curriculum. It did horrible things to us. Jenna stopped doing homework, copied work, and cheated on tests. I, in turn, lost control of myself.

In eighth grade, she went to the school counselor to complain about me. How I batted her around like a tennis ball, forcing her to comply with my every shift in mood; some days giving her a cold shoulder, other days demanding attention. Any time she tried to change the subject from something I said, I snapped at her, “Are you even my friend?” I knew I was acting ridiculous, but I didn’t know why. All I knew was that I had to get out.
 


 

“L’appart des Coiffeurs” © Nona Wank (https://www.flickr.com/photos/99440369@N06/15269375914/)

One of the difficulties in dealing with Asian hair is that it’s so darn straight. Stubborn, doesn’t want to be changed, requires an insane amount of hairspray to stay up.

It’s no secret Jenna and I have had a rocky relationship. She’s told it loudly to my new friends several times. It’s her way of bonding with them. Laughing at certain quirks I have, telling them about my misguided past, how I followed my crush around like a lost puppy. I’m choking on her hairspray.

Dying black hair doesn’t work well. It doesn’t reason with you. It doesn’t like extravagant change. You have to bleach it first before attempting to change its color.

Jenna didn’t understand why I wouldn’t sit with her at lunch during the first few days at our new school. She lurked in the corner, like a predator waiting to pounce. On the fifth day, she plopped down at our table casually, as if she’d been with us all along, and as the words flowed from her mouth, the regret roared in my head. No amount of bleach could make her change her color.

Over and over again, I told Jenna to stop bringing up things of the past. But her memory was always short-term, and as my freshmen year started, old memories began to haunt me in the form of my best friend’s voice. She was closer than I had intended for her to be; her friends were friends with my friends, and I grimace to think how it came to be this way.
 


 
“I got accepted!” She announces the minute she steps into our eighth grade homeroom.

To my school. The one I am to attend in the fall.

I feign enthusiasm. “That’s great.”

I was the one who told her first that I was transferring. I was the one who squealed as she told me she wanted to come with me. I was the one who taught her how to access the application portal. I led her through the steps one at a time, helped her write her resume. So why did I feel my heart sinking at news that should’ve been joyous? Truth was, I wanted something for myself. I wanted to go there and create a new life, without the past plaguing me. But she brought it anyway. She unceremoniously dumped the rotting corpse of my past into my present, and I knew, with bitter realization, that I had played a part in putting it there.

 


 

Whenever I see her, I remember countless nights crying myself to sleep, groups that were more cults than cliques, where airheaded girls I couldn’t relate to dominated the school. Weeks when I was miserable, when I hated who I was, when I thought I was ugly and gross and stuck in a garbage dump. It wasn’t Jenna’s fault; it was simply what she represented.

She remembers it all, too. But the memories don’t affect her as much. She is strong; I am not. She doesn’t dwell; I do. Once upon a time, I relied on her to get through tough times. But now that the tough times don’t exist anymore, do I still need her?
 


 
It’s our turn for the haircuts. She stands up without saying a word, doesn’t even argue with me. What she doesn’t say, but what we both know, is that our friendship has been eroding ever since we left our old school. It seemed fine on the surface, until I prodded it and everything collapsed. Why did I have to bring it up? Jenna runs her hand through her long, black hair. I watch it softly fall down, a screen between us. Is this it?

Somewhere behind that dark veil of hair is the face I shared gut-busting laughs with, conversations about future dreams and plans, and times where we were so furious at the world all we could do was rant our hearts out to each other.

“Jenna.” My voice sounds weak to my own ears. Conflicted. My thoughts are a blender on high, shredding all logic and coherent reasoning into a pitcher of turmoil. She settles in her chair and stares dully into the mirror.

Image © Ole C Eid (https://www.flickr.com/photos/skorpionen/85024345/)

Our friendship begins to fray, as we set down different paths and become different people. We are not the same selves we once were. Once hair begins to become dry, or brittle, or fray and split, what do you do? You cut it off.

Snip. Snip.

Locks of ink-black hair drift to the ground. I don’t look at my reflection. Hair salons are a place for transformation; go in and come out a completely different person. I whisper a silent goodbye, not completely sure who it’s for.

 
 


Tina Sang is a sophomore attending school in Beijing. She was born in Michigan and moved to China in middle school, and loves writing, particularly short fiction, and creative nonfiction when her life is interesting enough.

 

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