The year I was thirteen, for Christmas—the holiday we celebrate but don’t celebrate—Baba gave me an alarm clock. I opened it and was immediately underwhelmed, a feeling that generally described my attitude about the holiday season.
“A gift you’ll actually use,” he said, satisfied.
“Now you can scream and kick at the alarm clock when it wakes you up in the morning, not me,” Ma said.
“I never scream or kick,” I said, which is what I always said, and Ma told me I don’t have to be so defensive, which is what she always said, to which I said, “I’m not being defensive,” and so on.
It was just the three of us then. We lived in Scottsdale, in a big house with high ceilings and a swimming pool we hardly used but liked to look at. Ma and Baba worked every day, and I rode my bike to school, which I didn’t have to do but liked to do. Sometimes I would walk into class exactly one minute late on purpose, holding my helmet and feigning breathlessness. I could have easily stuck the helmet in my locker.
After school, I played whatever sport was in season and rode home after practice, tired and smelling like shin-guard or gym floor. My friends’ mothers in their black SUVs would say, “Are you sure you don’t want a ride?” and I would shake my head and smile, pointing to my helmet like a martyr. When I got home, I finished my homework while watching the TV shows I wouldn’t have dared to watch if my parents were around, and this was a kind of education too. They would each come home from work at around the same time every day, my dad before my mom. When I heard the rumble of the garage door, I would switch the channel to CNN and then switch it again to PBS so I couldn’t be traced.
The alarm clock sat on my bedside table. It doubled as a radio and sometimes, after Ma and Baba had gone to bed, I would turn the volume down real low and listen to a radio show by a man who called himself The Love Doctor. He advised people on their various love and sex problems, like the girl whose man’s penis failed to ever rise to the occasion or the non-violent boyfriend who cried after sex because his girlfriend demanded to be choked. I liked to listen to all of these problems and ask myself how I’d solve them once I was old enough to have them.
That year, in the mornings, I woke up to 104.7 FM at exactly 6:55 a.m. At 7:00 a.m., a particularly dramatic segment of programming would begin, during which the radio host would call a boyfriend suspected of cheating and tell him he’d won a dozen red roses to send to a person of his choice, and often the person he chose was not the girlfriend, who was secretly waiting on the line, ready to cry loudly and dramatically break up with him, and then the radio hosts would say, “This is 104.7’s Dozen Red Roses and you’ve been CAUGHT!” After the catching, I would get out of bed and put on the outfit I had picked and laid out the night before. Ma always made me boiled eggs in the morning, and Baba always peeled them for me, took out the yolks, and sprinkled them with the right amount of pepper and a little too much salt.
When Dadi got cancer that April, Ma took time off of work and went to India to help her for a few months. Dadi never liked Ma, always somehow thought her son—my dad—could do better, so I imagined these months as tense and depressing. Ma called me on the phone every night and talked to me in the slow, even voice I imagine she used to talk to her patients. She told me that Dadi was going to be fine, that they had caught it so early that it wasn’t even truly cancer yet. There was to be a hysterectomy, and after Dadi was healed, Ma could come home. I used the big clunky desktop in my room to look up the word hysterectomy on dictionary.com and got lost in etymology for an hour or so. Hysteria. Hysterical. Hysteroid.
One night in early July, I was reading in the living room when Ma called us. She told me she would be coming home soon, and that Dadi would come to live with us. She used that same voice even though she wasn’t talking about surgeries or anything doctorly. “For how long is Dadi going to stay with us this time?” I asked her.
“This isn’t a visit like normal,” Ma said. “Dadi is going to live with us now.”
“But you hate her,” I wanted to say.
“Okay,” I said.
Baba told me later that night, without looking at me, that I was to pack up all my things and move them to what had once been the guest room. He told me that my room was bigger, and Dadi needed space, and that my bathroom had a walk-in shower instead of a tub, and that Dadi needed that too. He took me to Schlotzsky’s and let me have an entire chipotle chicken sandwich by myself instead of making me share it with him. Then we stopped at Home Depot and I stood next to him as he chose the right shade of off-white paint with which to cover the green-and-yellow-striped walls of my room. I wanted to paint over it myself but he asked our handyman to do it.
In August, I started eighth grade. Baba made me give Dadi the alarm clock, which she used to wake up every day at 6:00 a.m. In exchange, he gave me a cell phone, which still woke me up every morning at the usual time. At 7:00 a.m., Dadi would call my name with a question that was more a command, and I would sit at her gnarled feet.
I would become the deadest part of me, my hair, and she would become the meanest part of her, her hands. Small, wrinkled, vicious. Those days, my hair ran thick all the way down my back. It was easy to spot me on the soccer field because my hair would stream behind me when I ran, like a flag. It was my favorite thing about myself, and so, of course, I never let my mother touch it. It was Dadi’s favorite thing about me too, and so, of course, I had to let her touch it.
And every morning, she would drag her weapon through it, a small black comb, turning the curls I loved so much into staticky tufts. It hurt. She combed so hard that sometimes she ripped hairs right out. She rubbed coconut oil into my scalp to make my hair grow thicker and faster, and Bailey, the best girl on my team, asked me why my hair was so greasy and didn’t I wash it anymore. Dadi would use the comb to slice a part straight down the middle, and then she would braid it, sometimes two braids, usually one. She slapped the back of my neck when I wouldn’t stay still and held my head so she could draw a perfect line with the comb. If the braid wasn’t just right, she would start over again, even if it meant I’d be late.
I stopped biking to school. I didn’t have time. My eggs would get cold on the counter. My mom stopped making them for me. Instead, she stuck granola bars into my backpack.
As soon as I got to school, I’d go to the bathroom and loosen my hair from the braid. I would wet my hands and run them through the strands, willing them to curl again, but they just poofed out around my face, a fluffy triangle. I wore headbands to hide the oil. I tied my hair in a knotted bun on the top of my head. In my journal, I kept a list of the things Dadii said to me.
Never cut your hair. It is the most beautiful part of you. You do not take care of it. Brush your hair in the morning. Rub coconut oil into your scalp at night. Do you want your hair to fall out? It’s falling out. You’ll end up like your mother. With a boy-cut. You have your father’s hair. The hair I used to have. Before. So long, so thick, so nice. Loose hair is a sign of ill grooming. Braid your hair. It’s looking thinner these days. Beauty is a thing to be maintained. You look wild. Cross your legs when you sit. Have you been spending time with the boys outside? Your skin is turning black. Stay out of the sun. You won’t cut your hair again, right? There. You look ready now. Stay this way. You look just like me.
The year I was sixteen, I had a best friend named Sammy. I’m not sure if we were actually the best of friends, but at that age, it’s helpful to have someone you can label as your best friend, so that’s what we called each other. I thought she was the prettiest girl in our entire school, and I wanted to be her almost as much as I wanted to be near her. Every time she asked me to sleep over, I felt a certain surprise, a “who, me?” feeling, even though we were best friends; every time I woke up next to her in her turquoise canopy bed, her long, blonde hair in my mouth and her limbs splayed out so they poked into mine, I couldn’t believe my luck.
Sammy had a plastic surgeon dad and a mom who got plastic surgery every year as a birthday gift from him. It wasn’t my birthday, but one day in September, before a party, Sammy gave me a present. A hair straightener. We stood in the huge master bathroom of her house, which was a thirty-minute drive away from mine. Her town was called Fountain Hills but known colloquially as Fountain Bills on account of how expensive it was. Her parents weren’t home, which was normal. When we spoke, our words echoed, and there was something exciting about filling the art-covered walls of her grand home with my thin voice and her careless one. I remember looking at the drawers of the bathroom. The boys talked about Sammy’s mom because once, at her last party, they’d snuck into this bathroom, opened a drawer, and found fuzzy pink handcuffs and a whip and something that buzzed. “To infinity and beyond” was the code phrase they used to talk about jacking off. Sammy didn’t know why and I wasn’t going to tell her.
“I’ve never straightened my hair before,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “That’s why I got you this. Let me do your hair tonight before the party.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You should take off all your clothes,” she said, businesslike.
“What?” I said. “Why?”
“We have to wash your hair. And then I’m going to blow dry it and straighten it.”
I didn’t move.
“Oh, come on, it’s nothing I haven’t seen in the locker room.”
I could see the logic here. Sammy stepped out of her clothes, too. “So I don’t get them all wet,” she explained. I tried not to look at her, then wondered if she was noticing how hard I was trying not to look at her, if then maybe it was weirder that I wasn’t looking at her, so I looked at her. She wore an underwire bra that was black with pink lace; I wore a blue Champion sports bra my dad had bought me in a six-pack from Target.
We were naked. I sat on the tile floor of her parents’ shower. She stood behind me and used the hand shower to wet all of my hair with hot water. She washed it with her mother’s expensive salon shampoo. Her fingers were soft on my scalp. “Is the water not hot enough?” she asked, when I shivered.
“It’s hot enough,” I said.
When she was done, I stood up. She was much taller than me. Looking at her body was nothing like looking at my own, everything about her so narrow and graceful. She looked at my body. We were both covered in beads of water, blinking at each other through steam. I could hear the sound of my hair dripping onto the tile. Without saying anything, she placed her hand on my breast. My nipple reacted, the skin around it growing ridges. She grazed her thumb against it so lightly that I wondered if any of this was real.
“What are you doing?” I said, after a few moments of this.
She stepped back. “Nothing,” she said.
We put our clothes back on fast. She began to talk to me as if it had been nothing, telling me a story about something that happened to her that day at school, I don’t remember what. I wanted to talk to her too, but I couldn’t find any words I felt good about saying, so I stayed quiet and listened.
She brushed my hair and blew it dry. She straightened it in sections. It took a long time. The bathroom began to smell like burning. When she was done, my hair fell below my hips. I couldn’t keep my hands off of it. She put makeup on me too, black mascara on my lashes, gold glitter on my eyelids, and thick liquid eyeliner. I hadn’t worn makeup before. Every time I had tried, I’d ended up with ink in my eyes. Makeup seemed like something meant for other girls, girls like Sammy, slender girls with thin wrists, girls for whom being a girl comes easy and unthinkingly, girls who act like they don’t know what heavy feels like. Afterward, she gave me some of her clothes to wear and looked at me. “You look great,” she said.
When everyone came over for the party, people looked at me differently. Even I looked at me differently. I kept catching my reflection in the big bay windows of her house and staring, tilting my head to see if my reflection would also tilt her head. That night, I got drunk for the first time on Sammy’s parents’ expensive hazelnut-flavored liquor. I had planned to stay over but asked my friend Emily, who still thought drinking was bad, to drive me home instead. I wasn’t scared of what would happen if Sammy and I were alone again together. I think I was more scared of how I wanted us to be alone again together.
I came into the house, unlocking the back door slowly so I wouldn’t be heard. Still, the light came on in my grandmother’s bedroom, the bedroom that used to be mine. Before I could run to my room and shut the door, she shuffled out in her floral nightgown. I could see the skin lightening cream she used at night sitting thickly on her face, not fully rubbed in. I could smell the Vicks VapoRub and coconut oil. I folded my arms over my chest.
“What are you doing, coming home so late?” she asked. Her voice was too loud in the dark quiet of the house. Then: “What are you wearing? What have you put on your face? What did you do to your hair?”
“Nothing,” I said. I went to my room and shut the door. I sat on the floor for a long time before washing all the makeup off and falling asleep.
The year I was nineteen, a man fell in love with me. I knew this because he told me so constantly. We would have grand and dumb conversations until 6:00 a.m., and then, when the sun came up, we would swing on the swing sets at the park by our college campus, buy donuts at the local shop, and fall asleep in my bed until it was time to make our halfhearted way to afternoon lectures. His name was Clark.
It was late spring when we first met, the air outside starting to heat up. I remember waking up stuck to him each morning, unsure whether I was covered in my sweat or his. He would sleep on his stomach and the skin on his back was impressionable, like snow. I liked to press my hand against it and leave a mark, the skin flushing red around my white handprint. I would write my name there on his back and watch each letter appear then disappear as I wrote the next one. I tried once to do the same on my own bare stomach, but my skin was too dark, too stubborn.
When school let out for summer, I went home and he went home, and his home was much further away than my home, so we didn’t see each other. I felt a sense of relief: to be able to sleep in a bed on my own for once, to be able to sprawl. I loved soaking up his love for me, loved the methodical way he took on all my problems like they were his personal projects, tinkering with my kitchen sink to stop it from leaking, listening to me at the foot of my bed as I cried and blubbered nonsense at him whenever I was sad, then advising me on how I should deal with whatever minor inconvenience had reduced me to tears. I loved how he towered over me, how holding his large hand felt like wearing a warm glove. He was an athlete and walked like one, his stride long, with his feet angled out. His skin and hair always smelled of chlorine. He was graceful in a way that reminded me of Sammy, both of them built long and lean, both of them All-American in a way I recognized as both attractive and unachievable. When I was feeling cruel, his loyalty reminded me of a dog’s. When I was feeling kind, I thought my feelings towards him resembled a type of love, and I told him I loved him too.
At home that summer, I touched myself at night after my parents had gone to sleep. I tried to think about Clark and his statuesque body, his easy masculinity and how his hand felt on my neck when we fucked. Sometimes, I thought about Sammy, who’d gone to college out of state. I looked at photos of her on the Internet. She had become a girl who wore tailored black suits with colorful bowties to her sorority formals. She had cut her hair short. Sometimes when I looked at these photos of her, I could feel my pulse between my legs.
Sammy and I stayed friends through our first year of college, the type of friends who would get together over winter break and summer break, but this year, she was off interning in a big city, I forget which. We texted sometimes. Once I asked her how she was and she said she was good, that she was experimenting with her gender. I wanted to know more; instead I just said something like “That’s great.” I called Clark every night, more out of a sense of duty rather than the pleasure of his conversation. Once I texted Sammy that I had a boyfriend. All she said was, “Really?”
My parents asked me about him, wanted to know what he was studying and what his parents’ names were and if I actually liked him. Dadi was silent and stony during these conversations, her disapproval so apparent she didn’t even need to voice it.
Days, I had an unpaid internship at a local newspaper working for a bored boss who had to actively think of tasks for me to complete; nights, I worked at a Japanese restaurant for a cruel boss named Katsu who hated women. When I wasn’t working, I went crazy home alone with Dadi. Dadi had ideas about how I could reduce the size of my eye bags or make my hair shinier or lose weight. So I picked up extra shifts, spent time with random people from high school I barely cared about but who provided welcome entertainment. I let myself go.
Or rather, I let myself grow. The hair under my arms long enough to curl at the ends. Seeing it reminded me of the house I grew up in, the house my parents and grandmother had since moved out of, its swimming pool, my father’s armpits wet and dripping with chlorinated water. The hair on his chest dark and curly. These glimpses of him I wasn’t supposed to see, yet saw, appalled and curious at the same time.
In the mornings on the weekends, I would eat breakfast with Dadi,, then go on a long run, a habit I had recently taken up that made my legs stronger and my body slimmer. After my runs, I would take a bath in the tub and observe myself. My heavy breasts, the hair on my legs long enough that it wiggled and swam in the bath water, the swell of my stomach. A slight swell, but enough for my fingers to pinch at. The dark shock of hair between my legs, long enough to pull at. I looked almost too woman. Too real, no makeup on my face, no razor against my body.
Clark wouldn’t like me this way, I realized, a day before I was set to go back to college. I’d have to shave it all away, give in to smoothness. I thought of how he might look at me like this and grew embarrassed by my body and the ways it liked to grow. He would never ask me to, but it was easier to tame myself, shorten myself, make myself as pale and smooth and small as possible.
But I liked my face best when it was plain like this, when I stopped seeing the Punjabi auntie who wasn’t really my aunt but who threaded my eyebrows at a discounted price, who always asked if I was sure I didn’t want my upper lip threaded too. I liked my eyes when they were plain like this, without the black lining them. I liked my legs best when they were covered with this thin, soft hair, free of the temporary smooth and the inevitable prickle.
Back in my apartment on campus, with its fickle air conditioning unit and its creaky wood floors, I shaved everywhere. I swiped concealer under my eyes and lined my eyelids with ink. I smoothed mascara over my eyelashes, made my skin lighter with foundation. I dipped my fingertips in gold powder and rubbed it over my eyelids: different shades to form a gradient. During these moments, I thought about Sammy, how her thumb had felt against my lower lip that day before her party when she spread her bubblegum-flavored lip-gloss on me.
I prepared for sex like one might prepare for an elaborate sacrifice. I gave myself a different face, one I hadn’t seen all summer, my body hairless now but for the long hair on my head, which I loosened from my ponytail and let hang around my shoulders like a veil.
In the morning, my face was clean again and I woke up pressed against his chest, his hands stroking my forehead like my mother used to with her ice-cold hands whenever I had a fever. Clark had warm hands.
“I like you best like this,” he said.
“Like what?” I said.
“First thing in the morning, wearing nothing but one of my t-shirts,” he said. “You are so beautiful.” He put his hand on my neck and squeezed a little, like he did whenever he wanted me. I rolled on top of him, my hair dangling over his smooth chest. A morning sacrifice. I imagined Sammy looking at me, there on top of him, saying “Really?”
The year I was twenty-one, Clark left me—not for anyone else, for himself, which in some ways was worse. I developed a taste for the dramatic. I began to act. Nothing legitimate, the kinds of shows that were written in one sitting by brooding recent college graduates, their half-developed characters always angry. I did other dramatic things. Dramatic drugs which I inhaled off of keys or placed on my tongue in graffiti-covered bathroom stalls. I did people dramatically. I smiled at men I didn’t know until they came over and spoke to me. I could tell they thought I was beautiful by the way they looked at me. Only during sex could I forget my self-consciousness, shedding it like a piece of clothing, picking it back up after I was finished, after my heartbeat had slowed down and the sticky feeling between my legs had gone from arousing to intolerable. Only during sex did I feel remotely desirable. I liked to memorize the way men looked at me as I knelt over them—open-mouthed, their eyes dull and stupid with desire.
If the doing was particularly memorable, I would write about it in my journal preserving the details, all the dirty things they murmured to me and what I said back.
I stopped calling my parents. They began to call me instead. One day, my mom called to say, “Dadi is sick again.”
“Oh,” I said.
“‘Oh’ is all you have to say?”
I still looked at pictures of Sammy sometimes. No, often. Almost every day. I would check in on her just to check in. There was no real significance to it.
The year I was twenty-two, my mother called me and told me my grandmother had died in her sleep. I walked to the nearest salon and I asked to have all of my hair cut off, everything below the chin, gone. I watched it fall onto the floor in ropes, and the woman who cut it, whose name was Corinne, chewed her minty gum and smiled at me. “You’re going to feel so much lighter now, I promise,” she said. I observed myself in the mirror.
“Well!” she said later, sweeping my hair into a pile. “You look beautiful. How does it feel?”
I looked down at the pile of hair and ignored the urge to pick up a thick handful, to hold it in my hand.