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I come into the world impatient and stubborn and restless, an angel hell-bent on not being a present wrapped up in a perfect bow. My tiny body is overwhelmed by the unruly dark hair I inherited from my father. My mother is sick. In every newborn picture, my mother wears a mask so that she does not breathe on me. In the moments after birth as I drink from her breast, we are close. I imagine her holding me too tightly, wanting me to remain hers forever. Yet there is distance, a barrier. My infant fingers desperately attempt to claw the mask away from my mother’s face.
At five years old, I sit at the salon with a cape around me. My dark hair is starting to fall out in places. Soft tufts of hair are coming in golden, like my mom’s. I look a bit like a baby skunk. Tsk, tsk, snip, snip—the dark hair disappears, was never there. My eyes are blue-green-gray. I am my mother’s daughter with my dad’s coal-black eyebrows and glistening long lashes. But by thirteen, I am no longer my gorgeous mother’s mini-me. I am awkward, ugly, and shy. My hair is growing in dark again. “She needs highlights–the blondest you’ve got,” my mother says matter-of-factly.
My mother is mad when I am sick. She frowns when she feels my forehead. Life—or the fairytale—is disrupted when something is wrong with me. She is aloof when I am desperate. She is suffocating when I don’t know how to communicate. She covers my depression and anxiety with fresh bright paint, paint that makes her house look beautiful and clean. I manically scratch at the walls and peel off the moldy layers of wallpaper that are stuck to this barricade surrounding me, desperately trying to get to bare plaster.
I date boys because they call, and I’m pushed to get to know people, to be “known.” And then, too young, I fall hard in love with a grown man who takes me horseback riding. With urgency and intensity, he grabs my face and knows how to kiss so deeply he hits my soul, makes me stand in the rain soaked to my core until the mask finally washes away. My mother hates Josh for his maturity and frankness, his natural firmness and authority, his ability to see through superficiality. Josh brainwashes me, my mother says. According to my dad, he isn’t good enough. He’s not the star of the football team, the cocky jock who tries to jam his fingers down the waistband of my jeans during homeroom but won’t acknowledge me in the hallway. My mother would rather see me with this “Ken” to my Barbie. My dad would rather see me go on shallow dates that mean nothing.
If Josh isn’t good enough, I fear I must not be good enough either. I escape, often, to the place that feels most real to me—his parents’ house and more specifically, their swing which feels more like mine than any memory. Their house is beautifully lived in, and no masks are hidden in the closets or drawers. Their moods don’t change and lives don’t stop if they have a guest or an audience. They hand me an always-open invitation for supper. When they are mad, they are mad. When they are happy, they are happy.
I break up with him towards the end of high school. They pull too hard; my parents win their tug-of-war. They convince me he’d put a ring on my finger and a baby in my belly. They assure me I’d be stuck forever in my hometown of no opportunities. They say I’ll never get my degree from the university I apply to that makes my future feel packed with possibility. But life doesn’t feel real or even possible when I’m not with him. I am robotic, colorless. I am overcome with strong urges to touch the earth, ride bareback, climb a mountain, skinny-dip in twilight, and feel alive with passion again. I drive to his house and cry in his swing. “Forgive me,” I sob. He looks me hard in the face. “I’m in,” he said, “all in. I’ve never questioned anything with you. This is real. Are you ready not to run? Are you ready for this to be it?” And so I finally stop fighting hands that always held me. I need his touch, his taste, his truth, his voice, his fierce loyalty, his gentleness. I need what feels like home—the highs, the lows—the swing.
My mom pretends the wedding won’t happen. So I take the three hundred-count guest list and attempt to plan a wedding myself. If I could marry him again, the wedding would be more rustic, less pink. I’d marry him at sunset in autumn. I’d marry him in my cowboy boots. I’d marry him in a field under a tree with just God attending. We’d whisper vows we wrote ourselves. We’d make love and wake up covered in leaves.
At twenty-three, I find myself as a new wife in a house my mother swears is haunted. I run my finger over the date 1920 and the words “Aint Love Grand” which are carved into the wall of the closet. Knowing Josh’s job would force me to often dwell alone, mother makes up ghost rumors. Because I leave mother and father’s house to be united with my husband, her irrational fears and loss of control conjured up an apparition living in the basement of the house.
I think I hear noises: gurgles, whispers, creaks. I lock the doors, but she still floats through the walls of our house, making me wonder in my lonely bed if love is really grand or even worth it or if I should have paid attention to her constant alerts of “red flags.” She tells me life could be convenient, more glamorous. I could go back to school, have a mother-approved house, a husband with a mother-approved job, and have anything “I” wanted. Her ghost-games taunt me, haunt me. I relive the time I told her I was going to see him and she dove into the backseat of my car, then got out, and jammed her foot under the tire like a deranged refugee shielding her child from the bullet. But the bullet is just life. The bullet is the reality of heartache and sickness and inconvenience and messiness and shattered expectations. Sometimes we bleed and scream. Sometimes we nearly die. Sometimes the bullet sticks and stays as new flesh grows over top of it because the body always knows how to repair itself.
I want our mother-daughter relationship to heal. I begin to understand that her suffocation is a twisted form of love, an attempt to fulfill all she wanted to be, a desire to lock me inside a box and remain her companion and company, a gift she doesn’t have to share. I believe she tried to control me because she could not control her own life—her parents’ divorce, her own mother’s breakdown, the fears she allows to control her, her own loneliness, and her own battle with self-doubt.
I sit in a chair draped in a cape. “Do I need to mix up your usual?” my hairstylist asks. I pause. I will never grow long nails the way my mom wants me to. I will never be perfectly polished. I will continue to take the anxiety pills that prove I have a problem but ultimately make me feel better. I will continue to write the truth instead of pretending perfection. I will never have the patience to iron my unruly curls into submission. I will always love the man who fills my soul and tears off my clothes and my masks and my fears. I believe authentic love is unconditional and grand and the hardest thing of all. I’m learning to understand the mother I love with all of her flaws. I’m learning to love my own.
“Brunette,” I blurt out of nowhere. My stylist mixes a shade of color, a liberating hue as dark as years of bleaching is able to stand. I simply was not the girl my blonde hair shouted to the world. I relax at the touch of her hands massaging the chemicals, the fakeness out of my head. A sly smile crosses my face as my eyes sparkle blue-green-gray. I think of sophistication, my favorite coffee, warmth, my own definition of confidence and demure beauty. The shade appears much darker than my mom’s, still lighter than my dad’s—a transformation that I know in my heart is much deeper than a mere cut and color. She takes off the towel, and the mask—finally—falls.
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