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  April 2017
volume 14 number 1
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Toti O'Brien
April 2017



art by dl warner

    Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has recently appeared in Gyroscope, Mizmor Anthology, Parentheses, and Crossways.
Toti O'Brien



My Hair

    I first cut it when I was about six, by my own initiative. I went down the stairs of the building, passed the front door, boldly ventured on the sidewalk... All forbidden of course, but I disobeyed, knowing I only had to cross a few alleys. I could make it to the barber unscathed.
    Once arrived I said I was Mrs. So-and-so's daughter and I wanted a haircut. I admit I hadn't planned on paying, it had not come to mind. But the salon owners knew mom. They took care of the entire family's heads on a regular basis, and we were a large family. They were kind. They must have called her immediately on the phone. In the main while I was comfortably sat, a white towel around my neck.
    I asked for a clean shave. Yes, I wanted to walk out with a round head, feeling like a soft brush, as my brothers. Just the same, and here is why: I wanted to fool my dad, who used to grab my long mane and carry me through the corridor. All the way to its end: either the kitchen or his studio, depending on which direction he chose. There he would depose me, to finally give me the punishment I certainly deserved.
    I don't know why the punishment couldn't be administered in place, on the very spot where my mischief was discovered. That would have been more acceptable, understandable. But the long run, suspended in mid air, my scalp so stretched it seemed about to detach. I couldn't bear, truly. Slowly it wore my remarkable patience. I decided it should stop. That is why I returned, tall and proud, my head smooth like an orange, a convicted head almost, offering no grasp to dad's mighty fingers.
    Silly me. How little did I know. At the next occasion (which I had just provided, running out to the barber without a grown-up), dad lifted me by the ear. It hurt like hell. Such treatment was usually reserved to my brothers. Did I think it was gender related, thus I would escape? Did I think girls' ears were immune? Like my siblings, I now had a permanent purple mark behind my lobes. And I taped my ears to my skull, at night, in fear they would forever stick out.

    Then I let my hair grow until I turned eighteen. It resumed considerable length. Father didn't like it. He often punished me just for having it. Sometimes he gave it a brisk pull for no reason, and he called it names: straw, ropes, jungle. I didn't know why mother, aunts, uncles, even my dear grandparents didn't comment about dad's disgust. They said nothing. They gave me no clue as to how avoid incidents. Too bad.
    From the pictures of my teenage years my hair was luxurious: brown, with red and gold streaks. Thus the nuns accused me in the fall of having dyed it in summer. False, of course: the streaks were the sun's work. My hair fell in elegant waves, curling into corkscrews at the tips. Yes: those taking hours and hot irons to other girls, to me came on their own... but I wasn't proud. I was never proud of my appearance; no one taught me how, and I didn't know where to start. I did not especially like my hair; still, how it could be a reason of shame remained mysterious.
    Although also my piano teacher didn't seem appreciative. She kept pointing at a black and white portrait of herself dominating the room. "That is how you should wear them," she said. Even at my young age, and with scarce authority, I reckoned it was nonsense. That hair was artificially bent in a quite old fashion, perfectly matching her features, her equally dated makeup, pearls and cleavage. A whole package, a still life pinned against the background of a particular era, now revolved. No: I couldn't have possibly walked around with a fifties hairdo topping my small, angular, and naive looks. I couldn't have, thus I simply shut up.
    During my senior year a schoolmate criticized my excessive simplicity. My long mane, she said, kept from falling over my eyes by two bobby pins, looked old-maidish and sloppy. I confess peer pressure caused me to vacillate. Not enough: what really made it was something, indeed, tilting inside myself. The end of school felt like departing for unknown destination; like the end of the world - a void opening up straight ahead. Such fracture, such fission, got rid of my adolescence. Once again I stepped into the hairdresser shop by impulse, and without much pondering. I got a mid cheek cut and a perm. I still looked natural and quite beautiful. But I hated it. I wanted my hair long, again.

    I got bangs. They upset dad in a different way. Of course he didn't pull: I was a grown up, only visiting. But, each time I sat at his table, he had some venomous comment about my forehead, so inconspicuous that covering it was a mortal error. Maybe a question of cleverness? Did he think my bangs hid my modest brains? Would pulling them back free my narrow mind? Perhaps. Quietly I let his comments go by, while munching and swallowing mom's unsavory dishes.
    In spite of dad's theories, my bangs stayed with me for decades. I barely trimmed them now and then. Besides one night when, towel wrapped around my head, I applied henna to get a light copper shade, I did nothing to my hair. What for? I liked myself in my twenties; I had come to terms with my appearance. I used barrettes instead of bobby pins. I enjoyed buying, assorting and matching them with my clothing. It was a peaceful time.

    Then it happened, at thirty, once more. Unexpectedly, I must say. Neither survival strategies, nor aesthetic concerns pushed me on the barber seat... Just divorced, I returned to my country after ten years abroad. And I run into someone I had loved before; a young, hopeless thing. When I met him, passion rekindled as strong,maybe stronger. Now, though, he seemed to notice me. He seemed to be available. Had I grown any more interesting?
    We spent some time together. Sweet days; I started anticipating the taste of happiness. Vaguely, I wasn't used to such taste, but who is, truly? That is why I was tentative, slow. Then he told me he wanted a child with me. Really? It would be a girl, he said. Well, the father determines the sex of the child as we know. He also was the omnipotent kind... I believed him. Something started to melt inside me like ice after winter: soil coming alive underneath, seeds frantically germinating, like that. The next thing I knew he was married, bound abroad with his brand new wife. Like I zombie I walked to the nearest barbershop, asking for a clean cut. Mid cheek, and a light perm. I looked natural, and I still looked beautiful.
    It grew up again while I changed boyfriend after boyfriend. It spread wildly over pillows... It was once more on my back when I married for the second time. It was there when I breastfed my son.

    The next time I didn't go to the shop. I cut my hair slowly. I know it sounds weird; what I mean is I clipped and snipped it a bit at a time. No one noticed, and I pretended to myself I wasn't doing it. I pretended I only trimmed the ends when they needed it. In fact almost all went. I did not wear it loose by then: I made one large braid that I curved around, pinning it on my nape with a bow. I had fun buying, assorting, and matching my bows with my clothing. On my forehead bangs were light and short. And my hair was getting thinner and thinner. No more curls. Also the red and gold were gone. My hair now was darker and uniform.
    Uniform is the right word. My hair looked like a nun's hair; at least I felt so. That is why I didn't show it in public, though I wasn't ashamed or self-conscious. But it didn't fit the picture while loose. It didn't call for display; I liked it hidden and orderly, modest. Secretly shorter and shorter. I weighed less than seventy pounds; I was dying of anorexia and my marriage was already dead.
    Hair revived after the divorce, on its own, while I didn't pay attention. But I still did not want it loose. Freeing it around my face, on my shoulders, seemed sacrilegious for years to come; healing is laborious for all body parts. It grew slowly because I was older; illness left me weak and consumed. I allowed it to take its time, I was in no hurry. I cared little about how long my hair was.
    One day I pulled back my bangs. First my forehead surprised me. Then I welcomed it, after all. I could presently show my oh-so-little brain. It had not improved since my youth, but I didn't mind it being visible, just that slice I had. Sometimes I wore a ponytail; it didn't flatter my features, yet I liked the feeling; that lightness. When white hair started to appear I contemplated dying it, to keep jobs where looks counted. I bought a box of red brown, the same shade I had in my teen years. Then I left it aside: no need, truly.
    Living a long life was never my wish. Give me reasons, can you? But sometimes I'd like to get ninety, to have my hair down my waist, down my hips. Just before I die I'd like to be so darn proud of my hair,sweep it all around like a gypsy dancer on stage, could I still shake my neck that way. I'd love to feel its weight. I'd love for it to keep me warm during winter. Or to cool me during summer nights, drenched in water. I would braid it real tight then, with flowers. Daisies, jasmine-white on white when I'll descend to the grave, with my very long hair.

copyright 2017 Toti O'Brien