For a long time, Maisie loved her long hair. In fact, Maisie couldn’t grow it long enough. As a young girl, she would sit at her vanity the color of the belly of a canary and brush her long, just slightly darker than chestnut brown hair until she had run her silver plated antique hair brush through her hair a hundred times. At least, that is what she would imagine, as she sat on the dingy taupe carpeting in her apartment that she shared with her Taiwanese father and sat in front of the broken mirror he had brought home, the unframed rectangle of beveled glass he had found abandoned on the sidewalk near where they lived one day.
Still, it didn’t stop Maisie from dreaming. She had taped an old photograph of her American mother to the bottom right corner of the mirror over the unseemly chip in the glass. As she brushed her hair with the brush her father had bought her from the drugstore, she closed her eyes and would imagine she was like her mother, young, beautiful, mysterious, and American. She would imagine a different life for herself, one where the yellow haired boys chased her down the street all summer with their long skinny tanned legs, a life where she didn’t mind being chased by boys. Being chased by boys meant that you were desired, and wasn’t that the American dream? Maisie didn’t care much for boys, though. She never had. But, this was a characteristic she hid in her jewelry box with her mother’s pearls, the only thing her father had allowed her to keep after she died.
Sometimes, when she knew there was no way that her father was coming home from work for several hours, Maisie would put the pearls around her neck oh so carefully while fingering the photograph and the tiny piece of scotch tape that adhered it to the mirror. She would imagine what a life her mother had before she met her father, what would have caused her to pick such a foreign man for her husband. Maisie would lift her long mane of dark hair like a blanket and gently place it over her shoulder so as not to inadvertently place any hair off kilter from the rest, just like her mother’s hair looked in the black and white photograph. Opening her hairs, Maisie would stare so hard at the reflection of herself in the photograph that the image of her and the image of her mother would blur together, merging into a possible world where she could look beautiful and American too.
Maisie was no longer a girl. And truth be told, she was tiring of her long hair. First off, it shed like a cat. She hated cats. She found hair on her pillow. On the floor. Stuck to the back of her shirts. In the bathroom sink. Clumped and clogging the shower drain. In between her breasts when she took her bra off to sleep at night. Pricking her eye as it fell from the front of her face. She hated shedding.
Second, she could never brush it enough so that it would stop tangling. It was always tangled. Maisie was in her late twenties now, and she didn’t have the time for the fanciful habits of her youth. She longed for the days where she got to daydream in her bedroom of her long lost mother while her father toiled away the hours working at an engineering firm. Those days were long behind her. Now she was a graduate student and she worked full time teaching kids at the local Montessori school. Just like her mother always wanted. It was hard on her, trying to fit herself into the shoes of her mother, trying to be the woman her mother hadn’t lived long enough to see manifest before her. Her head hurt from the pressure it took to become someone else. She would never be beautiful enough, elegant enough, American enough. Maisie had been so young when her mother died that it was hard to know what path she took that was actually something she remembered from her mother, or perhaps it was just her fantasies getting the best of her.
Two reasons, Maisie considered, were enough reasons to cut her hair. Enough already. But she had even a third reason she was tiring of her hair. Over the past year and a half, Maisie had started learning how to dance tango. At first, she started learning to dance because she was heartbroken. It was too much to get into. But her friend Chien, a sweet and shy Cantonese boy she met in her creative writing seminar who she trusted more than most, told her it was the best way to get over a heartbreak. Just dance yourself free, he told her over burritos at a Taco Bell one particularly melancholy night, the bright fluorescent lights casting shadows across his bony shoulders. The thought of it intrigued her.
Six months later, she was addicted, just as he had warned her. She refused to believe she could get addicted to anything, but here she was. Maisie and a group of young tango dancers in the area began traveling to festivals to dance with as many different types of bodies they could find. Montreal. Washington, D.C. Eugene, Oregon. New Orleans. New York. San Francisco. And so on. Chien had been right, though. It was the best thing for her heartbreak. You spent at most ten minutes with a stranger or a friend while he twirled you to oblivion, your leg and his leg a parallel line to the extended note of the song, the world disappearing. One could end up in a tango relationship. It had happened. But the tango embrace kept Maisie from wanting anything else but that brief connection with another person, a conduit towards responding to the music as it enveloped her. She had no interest in anything with anyone she met at tango. If anything, it was tango that she treasured, not the body that brought her to it.
Until Leonie. Leonie was from Cuba and Maisie met her when she and the rest of them decided to dance for a weekend in New York. Leonie had thick black hair that fell just at her shoulders in perfectly shaped ringlets. She wore black slacks, a button down shirt, and a fitted polka-dotted vest. And makeup. Maisie was enthralled by her, how she fluttered through gender like a butterfly tasting one flower’s nectar to another. But, Maisie knew better than to contaminate the space she escaped from love with any sight of a relationship. So, she kept her distance. At first, Maisie wasn’t too worried about it. Leonie was a girl. Girls didn’t lead, anyway.
Or, so she thought before the music started. Maisie had explicitly decided not to pay attention to Leonie’s whereabouts as the milonga started. The room was packed with dancing bodies all trying to figure out the way around the circle, the men’s feet and eyes shifting into tiny little increments of space, dependent on what their partner on the other side of the embrace did with their lead, on what structure of music followed. After a good two hours of solid dancing, Maisie decided to take a break. She went to the snacks table and picked up some cheese and grapes and settled into a sofa where she could be seen a little less for a while. She pulled her phone out so that she could look busy, so that leads wouldn’t try to cabaceo her for a bit. The shadow of a figure fell across her phone. Maisie sighed, annoyed at a man for not waiting on the other side of the room to see if she would accept his eye contact or not. She looked up.
Much to her surprise, Leonie was standing before her, her arm outstretched. Maisie looked down. Leonie was wearing men’s oxfords, black with bright orange laces. One of her feet was placed just next to Maisie’s foot, half exposed in her two-inch heel, pink and yellow to match the wide gaucho pants she wore, cut at the knee. “Well?” Leonie started, her hand still outstretched, the little black hairs on her arm standing up under the frigid vent of the air conditioning just above them. Maisie was startled. “Wait . . . you lead?” Leonie chuckled, her laugh a silver bell that had been rusted for a time, but unbroken. “Of course. Would you dance with me?”
Once Leonie had initiated the tango embrace, there was no going back. The thing that she had used to take her so far from love had now brought her to it. It wasn’t easy, but Leonie brought her out of her hiding. The tango world was not so forgiving of their relationship at first, but they gradually grew to accept it. After they had been together a year, Leonie invited Maisie to move to New York, where they would find a new apartment in the city to share together. It was too much for her father anyway, that Maisie wouldn’t, couldn’t be the kind of daughter that he had hoped for. Secretly, she knew he blamed her American mother—where else could she have gotten from but her? And with the same hush of secrecy, Maisie had hoped he was right.
It had been years since her long hair had first tired her, but she never cut it. When she and Leonie got together, she kept it so that it was clear who was the butch and who was the femme in their duo. Leonie thought this was beyond silly, but as always, Leonie let Maisie figure these things out on her own time. She wasn’t like Leonie, who had far more experience with her queerness than Maisie had ever had. She lived in New York, where you could be anything. And Maisie had lived in her tiny little world in Virginia with her Taiwanese father, whose overprotective nature had kept her from seeing what the world had to offer. Leonie, at this point, knew well enough that Maisie also kept her hair long as the one remaining tether to her mother, the one reminder of those long ago days of fantasizing about her in the mirror with each stroke.
But, it was time. Leonie had a number for a hairstylist in Brooklyn. Her name was Cruz. Cruz ran her studio out of her apartment—that’s the kind of thing you did if you were a hair stylist in New York. Cruz was one of them, queer peeps, as Leonie liked to say. The day that Leonie gave her Cruz’s business card was the anniversary of her mother’s death. They were having coffee in the kitchen bar while Maisie worked on some poems and Leonie read the paper. “You know, it’s the anniversary of my mother’s death today,” Maisie said quietly as she scrolled through her poem absent-mindedly. Leonie looked up thoughtfully at Maisie, not saying a word. Leonie walked over to the kitchen and opened a drawer. She pulled out a card. Maisie hadn’t noticed any of this. She had been too much in her own thoughts to think much of such a simple moment. But, suddenly, just as sudden as their first moment together, Leonie stood behind her, her hand silky smooth against Maisie’s shoulder, her fingers casually holding onto the little white square. “What’s this?” Maisie looked back, feeling its importance. “Mai, babe. I know why you’ve held on to this hair, even though you hate it. But, I think it’s time for you to let go of being her. It’s time to be you. Whatever that means for you. Cruz is terrific, and she’ll be careful with you. She’s one of us,” Leonie smiled a soft little smile, a smile of knowing.
Leonie was right. It was time. The hair, it just didn’t feel like her anymore. It felt like some old self of hers, a self that imagined it was somebody else, that it could be her mother. And through it, she could bring her mother back. But, it was a lie she told herself in her youthful grief. She no longer needed the myth of America to be whole. The longer her hair became, the more the men she danced with expressed their need to claim it, and with it, who they needed her to be. No more.
Maisie cut her hair on December 12. Her mother had been dead twenty years that day. She sat down in front of Cruz, a Latine hair stylist with a baby bouffant atop her head. At first, Cruz just chatted with Maisie. She told Maisie about her girlfriend Christina, joked about how white she was. This put Maisie at ease. They went back and forth for a while like a tennis match, sharing words about their girlfriends and exotic meals they’d had. They complained about the subway, the President. A natural lull in the conversation finally presented itself and Cruz asked delicately, delicately enough for Maisie to know that she knew what this meant. “So, what are we gonna do today?” Maisie pointed at Cruz’s reflection in the mirror. “That. I want exactly what you have.” Cruz giggled, grazing the bottom of her shaved neck with her fingers and fanning Maisie’s long mane between her soft hands. “Girl! But are you sure? It’s so beautiful! You really want to get rid of it?”
Maisie looked at herself in the mirror as she never had before. She thought about her mother, that black and white photo still taped to her father’s mirror in her bedroom, the fantasies she had of what it must be to be a white girl in a fancy room and with nothing but time. She thought of the kind of girl she so desperately hoped to become, the kind of girl that could become her mother. But, she wasn’t her mother. And she wasn’t a fancy girl. Maisie finally realized it was time to take off the mask. “Yes. I’m sure. Take it all off. I’m ready to show my face.”
Addie Tsai (she/her/they) is a queer, nonbinary writer and artist who teaches courses in literature, creative writing, dance, and humanities at Houston Community College. She collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a PhD in Dance from Texas Woman's University. The author of the queer Asian young adult novel Dear Twin, her writing has been published in Banango Street, Foglfiter, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, Nat. Brut., and elsewhere. She is the nonfiction editor at The Grief Diaries, associate editor at Raising Mothers, and assistant fiction editor at Anomaly. More info on Addie can be found at http://www.addietsai.com, @addiebrook (Twitter), or @bluejuniper (Instagram).