every hand that touches my hair doesn’t love me
most of the time, they’re just fascinated.
this is what i learn the summer before i turn 17
when the jersey heat made my head expand like
discount party city balloons.
two white girls approach me in the stairwell
and ask if i’ll let them touch.
by this age i know my lines —
yes, this is my hair
yup, i don’t really get lice
yeah, i only have to wash it once a week
i know that “no” isn’t a part of the script
but i can’t bring myself to say yes
so i nod and keep my mouth shut
as their fingers fall into my curls
like lazy flies onto rotting fruit.
i wait until they’re done
until they’re satisfied with
knowing how people who look like me
feel like in real life.
i wonder if what i let them do to me that afternoon
made their day.
i’ve been a performer in a strange circus
for a very long time.
a part of me has learned to enjoy
the glistening eyes in the seats
the hazy darkness in the theater
where i am witnessed but never seen.
on the ride back home that day
the curtains close and
they close and they close and keep closing
and i swear i will die alone
but i can still hear rapturous applause in my sleep.
the girls never speak to me again
but years later there is some boy
who looks like he can be their brother
and he looks at the top of my head
before his reflection in my eyes.
his eyes are maggot-shaped
and on the root of my scalp
i can feel them tugging at my follicles.
i know the story he is telling himself
and i know what character i play —
the role is easy enough to wear
and while i hate how my dead ends
feel brushing on my forehead
he can’t tell the difference between
what lives on my scalp
and what has died of natural causes
and what has been killed
so it really makes no difference.
we kiss goodnight and when i get home
my hair feels like an overripe orange
pried open by curiosity’s sticky fingers.
a maggot swoops down from a strand of hair
and it asks me if i’ll ever let anyone
touch me again.
by now i’m scared of bugs
and other people’s fingers
so i tell the maggot to leave me be
to decompose by myself.
but then there is the shower i take
when the jig is up.
i can tip my head back
and wash all their cuticles off of me.
sometimes i indulge —
pretend there is
a soft, sweet soul behind me
with a smile as broad
as the parking lot behind the theater —
washing the soap off my back
cupping the base of my skull
and feeling where my body begins.
in these moments i imagine my body
translucent and gaseous
with a skull that is so bare that it inspires no fascination
no awe, no surprise
no questions of where it came from
or what it looks like when i’m soaking wet.
in this fantasy
there is a hand that loves me
and in the presence of true adoration —
god, i have forgotten all my lines.
Edited by: Rachel Goulston
Issue 17 Credits
Photography: Zelle Westfall
Creative Direction: Payton Selby, Ava Emilione, Leslie Vargas, Zelle Westfall
Photography Assistants: Ruby Summer, Jewel Simpkins