Breakfast at Tiffany's
By Abigail George (South Africa)
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Breakfast at Tiffany’s
A short story by Abigail George (S. Africa)
My mother puts henna on her hair and massages potions and lotions into her skin, the fine lines around her mouth and her eyes. She looks young for her age. She’s not just attractive; she’s beautiful. Then she takes curlers and rolls her hair in until she looks like someone alien, a being from another planet, outer space. I found solace in empty rooms with books, other spaces, mostly internal and private like my journal or acting on the stage. I was a child actor. I replaced the rage that reached fever pitch in my household with elegant words; mouthing my way through monologues and Shakespeare that was my game.
My mother’s head is covered with orange, blue, green bullets with sharp, pointy edges. Doing your hair if it is not matchstick straight is a painful process. It is one where you either have to go to a salon, sit and wait your turn with other women, read women’s magazines that have advice on everything from health to sex and grin and bear it when they put the relaxer or straightener on your head. The days of Angela Davis are not yet gone. Afro’s are back in fashion. Big, fluffy, braided hair, weaves. Having beautiful hair these days is making somebody who owns factories where they produce large volumes of these chemicals very rich.
First they take a comb and make pathways being very careful not to apply the solution to your scalp otherwise it will become itchy and irritable. So you sit there as long as you can possible bear it until your whole head is covered with this pink stuff that smells of chemicals. If it begins to itch or burn, you tell yourself it will be worth it when I walk out here with smooth, shiny, glossy hair that moves when you shake your head. It doesn’t last long though. Three months at the most and then you’re back like all the other women who think of their hair as their crowning glory.
The crowning glory that men thirst to run their fingers through without catching their fingers in tufts that cease to move or ruffle. The women at the salon know about hair. Often mothers don’t. So you have to be patient as a child, an aloof and distant teenager, adolescent and grown up when your mother does your hair. She has the best intentions and only your interests at heart but she pulls at your hair when the comb doesn’t go through, so it’s better rather to endure the hours you spend at the salon. At least it’s quiet there. The radio is soothing. You can get a soft drink out of the vending machine or one of the ladies will send one of the girl’s who sweeps up the hair that was cut off a client’s mane, or who washes and rinses the conditioner off the hair, to buy you fish and chips which you can sit and eat while your hair gets dry.
At home my mother sits on a comfortable chair under the hair dryer for an hour or so before she emerges like a butterfly under curls that she blow dries straight before repeating the whole process again of rolling her hair in her hair again before she goes to sleep.
Expensive perfume wafts into the air as she enters the room; part and parcel of my sister’s cast offs. My sister when she’s bored, she shops maniacally for clothes, shoes, accessories and perfumes in boutiques. She’s cute, young, feminine, twenty-something who has just discovered men; tall men, angry men, men in corporate suits and ties given to them for their birthdays, Christmas or from their mothers, wives or children. My sister is a glamour girl while I stay at home now to cook and clean and be a companion to my father, nurse him through his spells of ill health and depression.
Once I aspired to so much more, to feeding the beasts of my imagination, seeking thrills conspiratorially with fellow students at a college for film and television production but I had put all of that behind me for a lifetime of honing words into gravid entities that would spell out for anyone that would listen that the world was their oyster. Simply said but I did not realise that a brutal and exhausting exercise lay ahead of me.
What I’ve learnt from the women in my life; my aunties with their bouncing bosoms and sturdy bodies built to conserve energy, soft bellies sticking out with comforting rolls like jelly, female cousins who bring life into the world, my sister and my mother, women who are strangers, other family members that we’re estranged from is this, not to shrink back from this world, to face it head on with all its peculiarities, its false innuendos, not to live a half-life but to be formed and informed by the world around you, to blaze trails, journey gently and even when we come within a width of a thread of what I fear the most is to always have faith, believe in God and pray.
These men ask my sister to go out and have coffee with them but she finds their conversation boring. She’s glowing. She’s radiant. She’s even beginning to show off a little but she sounds happy and I’m finally happy that she is and that it even sounds as if she’s found her niche in life, even if it is working in a bank and not an NGO or with children that come from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Hair is a very personal thing for a lady. There is nothing funny about that only that a lot of men have to be educated about it. My sister and my mother taught me that.
I drink in ‘Funny Girl’, ‘Yentl’, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, the gorgeous and fabulous Audrey Hepburn, ‘Gone with the wind’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’, ‘The way we were’, ‘Twilight’, ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’, ‘Some like it hot’, ‘The night of the Iguana’, ‘All about Eve’, ‘Now Voyager’, ‘All the fine young cannibals’, ‘Rebel without a cause’, musicals, books turned into films, the daily drama in our house, the family movie on a Saturday night. My head swirls in the colour images; sometimes they are black and white.
Marilyn Monroe grew on me in fragments; her laugh, her acting ability, her roles, her love life and her body of work. Documentaries grew on me like bloodlines. Not the ones with the cuddly animals like the pandas but the ones on human beings, Ang San Suu Kyi, brutal assassinations and so I thought I was well on my way to being an investigative journalist working in Johannesburg, toughened up on the meat of war, genocide, crime, urban decay, Dafur and poverty that sliced my heart into a bleeding mass. But that was not to become of me.
When I was younger I lusted after the limelight, the spotlight and the lights on the stage and television but as I grew older their lustre, that glow faded completely away. I was left to translate blue skies, the night air, constellations, a blanket of stars, dim and disfigured pictures in my mind from memory, bullies on the school playground that were philistines, self-awareness into working into all into details at a snail’s pace that left me blind to what I was sacrificing; how self-conscious I still felt at what I was lacking to be the perfect daughter, student, sister, learner, pupil, writer, poet.
I was given the basics of happiness from infancy. All the toys I could play with, all the attention I could garner with making silly faces and putting proud smiles on my parents’ faces, how I communicated when I was sad or happy, I was growing up in years, grasped closure when nannies who picked me up, planted kisses on my cheeks, hair and head babied me, fed and looked after me when my parents’ were at work left for greener pastures, to look after other people’s children. I never felt unnerved, unhappy, sad, alternated between moods of giddiness and feeling low or unloved as a child. No, that only came later; like my limbs, they came with a life of their own.
I was advanced for my age. My mother saw to that. My father was busy, locked away in his study, struggling, battling with his promoter at the university with his Ph.D in education. When I first started school it was as if there was a fog on my brain. Nothing seemed to connect. I drew letters upside down. I couldn’t do sums fast enough in my head like the other kids could. I couldn’t count. The teacher thought I was slow but I was brilliant at reading. So I joined the smart kids on the mat when it was reading time and they all looked at me as I sometimes look at my mother now; as if I was an alien, from outer space.
Now my sister makes me laugh. She’s funny, super smart and good at her job and I adore and love her. It is no longer a forceful, gagging kind of love and of course she does my hair when she comes home from where she lives now in Johannesburg. My mother doesn’t have the patience anymore. I have thick, dark, longish hair but I do not want to cut it. Short hair does not suit me. My father used to love my hair when I was little. He called me his little ‘Angela Davis’.
‘How do I look?’ I always ask him after I come back from being worked over magically by Marina or Jacintha or Maxie; that’s Audrey Hepburn’s line that she says to George Peppard before she goes to Sing Sing; the prison on her own personal mission. He always compliments me. You wouldn’t stop to think how important hair is to a woman unless you’ve walked a mile in her shoes. It’s something to remember in future for a date, your girlfriend or your wife or your daughter no matter how old she is.
Women become acutely aware of their hair at an early age. So men, compliment your women on her hairstyle. I promise you, it will be a welcome boost to her ego in any language or country.
It reminds me of movie stars captured for eternity on celluloid like a slide-show. Leaving you wishing the lens of the camera was focussed on you instead of the beautiful actress fixed up with hair and make-up; transformed into an angelic goddess.
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