Sense skates over the damp oil of detangling spray. The film coats my son’s raveled mat. His head is a summer hayfield bleached gold and heavy with dew. At the tips, tendrils going to seed thin and fall away.
Down under all that flower and dust, the stalks twist into themselves. Pile up. Snarl. My fingers burrow to the base of his skull and find the nest there. I begin to brush. Starting at the ends, the gesture is one short stroke. Then another. The brush barks over the ragged rope. Its plastic bristles chatter as if scraped across a guiro’s ridged wooden belly. The boy tolerates this, gripping his nerf gun and re-reading Sunday’s comics.
Sense recognizes resistance or the absence of it. My hands decipher his first flash of pain without any pause for translation. A slight tension in his muscles tells me. Too much. I back off to a more hospitable starting point. All this happens at the level of nerve and synapse. The fine work relies on a three-way call-and-response between skin and sight and sound.
When the rhythm slips, sense notices my boy’s posture shift. Impatience? Frustration? A slump, a bend. I offer to pause and let his father finish it tonight in the bath but he says, “Why?” Maybe I misread his bearing. This could just as easily be boredom or resignation. Only once does he grunt out loud and I apologize for how I have to keep pulling at his head. “No, it’s not that. You’re hurting my neck.” I see now that my concentrated intensity has overlooked the underneath. Below his matted hair, the bristles have been grating at skin and collar as I yank down again and again. I re-position my left hand like a guard, moving it further in and holding the base of the slippery mass. My right attends to working even smaller sections, separating just four, five, six strands at a time.
Sense remembers the way his father used to draw a brush through my hair back when the man’s pace mesmerized me. Back when I noticed him always folding bits of paper into intricate ladders. Braiding candy wrappers into tiny filigree blooms.
Sense lives in the sharp metallic scent of his hands, a smell eight years gone yet still acute, still lingering near my jaw. Early on, he was baffled by the violence of my grooming. Hair didn’t need to be beaten into submission, did it? I was in a hurry, always, still am. My scalp had long since stopped resisting. Stopped noticing, even.
Sense tumbles further backward. On Saturday summer nights when I was little, I’d sit cross-legged in front of my grandmother’s powder blue recliner. She’d wrap my damp locks around pink foam curlers and snap the plastic clasps closed. One after the other. A comb’s pointed tip cut across my scalp demarcating the next square on the grid. Lift, brush, twist, snap. Dozens of these motions, or so it seemed. Hundreds. When she was done, she wrapped it all in a mesh night cap and sent me to bed. I somehow managed to sleep on this pillow of toothpicks and teeth. All for Sunday morning, all for church. For golden curls topping off a dress of ivory lace.
All those years later, that boyfriend of mine, the one who became lover then husband then ex and now friend, he offered to brush my hair. I shrugged and sat down on the floor at his feet. With deliberate strokes, lifting only a few strands at a time, he navigated the wild frizz. Slowed at every intersection. Undid every microscopic twist, unthreaded every snarl. It took forever. Dozens of hours. Hundreds. I sat in dumb astonishment – a state sometimes indistinguishable from bliss – and let this man transport me across the time-space continuum. A sort of new age caveman, he dragged me by the hair to his improbable quarters, that parallel universe of luxurious promise.
The clock came unglued. Familiar standards of measurement melted to irrelevance. I caught a glimpse of a different way. Or rather, the deliciously soothed nerves of my long-suffering scalp tasted a strange and intoxicating sensation. Ease. Not a familiar rhythm for certain, but one I wanted to believe I could adopt as my own.
The story takes its inevitable, sobering turn, but that’s another chapter for another day.
Sense detects a trace of that long-ago man still firing somewhere low and deep. Sense glimpses his shape in profile as my son bends over yesterday’s newspaper.
I’ve now managed to work though the tangles. The boy lets me smooth his whole head of hair exactly once before he pulls away and turns back to his breakfast. I leave him to it. In the kitchen, the whang of bacon, the char of toast. Pink-orange bits of flesh from the last of summer’s nectarines fleck the counter top. The water runs lukewarm from the tap as I wash all this away.
Sense lets that warmth seep through and soften hands rough from dishes, calloused too and stained with years. When the boy is done eating, he hefts his backpack and brings his teetering pile of dishes over to the sink. He lets me give him a half-hug, which is really just me sort of touching his back as he’s already walking away. I drink him in small sips. In whatever measure happens to grace my skin.
Sense burrows into the nest of him tucked down at the root. Down under everything. Or almost everything. Sense slips beneath even that to cushion the most tender part, to hold a narrow band of breathing room between the scrape of his feet as they clatter down the stairs and my staggering heart.
Image: Akşam Gunesi, Mushroom Nest at Deviant Art
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