I’ve missed this. It’s been 15 years since I’ve sat on a makeshift salon chair, watching hands move to their own rhythm, exchanging stories about this one and that one from back home. For home is always elsewhere.
A woman named Faith is braiding my hair. With the flat of her hand she holds a section of unruly mass. You have beautiful hair, she says – and I cry. No one has ever said that to me, not with my curls looking like a hot mess. We must all learn and unlearn, she replies – look how beautiful we are.
The notion of beauty has been a struggle. I have spent my life looking at myself through the lens of what my fellow Puerto Ricans deemed too much or not enough of. Too much kink in your hair. Big-ass feet. Football shoulders. Not enough flirt in your eyes. Too quiet. Too ghetto. Why won’t you dance? Watch how you act in company. Do you even know how to speak Spanish?
I learned early on the language of Not Enough, which quickly morphed into Not White Enough. It echoed in the homes of my relatives, in the streets, in my schoolbooks. My struggle was less from the sting of those judgments and more from something primeval within me. A refusal to swallow whole the notion that beauty is in the eye of the white beholder.
Through the mirror I am looking at Faith. It would be easy to close my eyes, and sink into the deliciously small sounds happening around me. But I want to look at her hands. They are both tender and deft. I want to see what happens to her mouth when she leans in with her comb to make a straight part. This is home, I whisper, and it feels like an invitation to remember who I am.
But the word home sparks a familiar, unsaid despair. It’s what you see in my eyes when you first meet me. Home is not the crumbling South Bronx of my childhood, not Toronto or Tulum of my youth, not the West Village of my late 20’s, and neither my present day address in Berlin. I can tell you everything home is not. At night when sleep eludes me, I can tell you what its lack feels like in my chest, but to have the fullness of home? I cannot say.
Two days ago at the Elisabethkirch cemetery, I watched a young couple having a picnic. With my fingers I counted the headstones of soldiers who died between ‘39 & ‘45. The marble slabs lay flat on their backs, deep in the dirt-grass. I want to live above this kind of quiet, I said aloud, birds are happy here.
The couple’s picnic wasn’t much. Cheese-on-rye sandwiches, a bowl of cherries between them. What I was really thinking was: what’s it like to know where you come from? What’s it like to let breadcrumbs fall on your ancestors’ bones?
Are you ok, my dear? Faith asks, placing both hands gently on my shoulders. I smile.
Do you live in the neighborhood, Faith? Everyone seems to know you. People keep walking by wanting to say hi.
Yes, I know. They are sweet, heh heh. I don’t live around here but I’m the only one who does braids around here.
Let me guess, for bi-racial kids?
Yes exactly. We Africans don’t need to go to a shop. We can do our own hair. When I go home to Swasiland, then I go to a shop. And then I am there all day, oh my goodness, listening to women talk and talk. After a while they forget I am there and then I get to hear the real stuff.
That’s when it gets good.
Heh heh. And what about you? Where you from with this beautiful hair?
I grew up in New York, but my family is from Puerto Rico. My papa was from Honduras. My ancestors come in all shades.
The phone rings. Faith excuses herself, hurrying behind the counter to answer. The shop is small and neat, a one-stop shop for African wax fabrics, spicy plantain chips, money transfers, and hair products – bottles of conditioner, relaxers and gel, with every product featuring a Black person on the cover.
Ok, sorry about that, my dear. One more braid to do.
I smile shyly. There’s nothing to be sorry about. For even in her brief exit I feel full. While Faith has combed, parted and wove, the beauty of the moment has been in its ordinariness. I feel safe and protected from the outside world for now.