BY JANE WONG
Excerpted from Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City by Jane Wong, forthcoming from Tin House. Used with permission from Tin House. Copyright (c) 2023 by Jane Wong.
When I ended my engagement, my mother flew out to see me. We went over to my aunt’s house in Renton, near Seattle. My family fed me avocados like a baby, scooping the ripe green middles like soft serve ice cream. Pau Pau gets free groceries from a local non-profit supporting Asian elders. That week, there were fifteen avocados to eat, little dinosaur eggs piled high in a brown paper bag. Pau Pau had never seen this fruit before and gave them to us. They also gave her ten bags of pasta she doesn’t know how to cook, so I signed up to eat miniature elbow macaroni exclusively for the next year.
To say I was a mess would be putting it lightly. I gummed at the fruit, overripe, and smeared it on the roof of my mouth. Half crying, half eating, I was convinced I was fully cursed. I hadn’t washed my hair in over a week. The strands hung around me like tangled cords. My mother, aunt, and cousin Angela surrounded me at the kitchen counter, taking turns touching my shoulder with electric care. My mother and aunt in their 50s, Angela in her teens, and me at 37. Their words swirled around me: I’m worried about you and We are here for you and What do you want.
“I want to dye my hair.”
There’s a cat meme I recently saw on softcore_trauma’s Instagram: “the traumatized urge to change your aesthetic instead of feeling your feelings.” The cat wore round yellow sunglasses and had a sheet mask on. That. I wanted that.
In the bathroom, my mother sat me down and clipped my hair into four equal parts. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t have any white hair,” she shrugged. But then she lifted a chunk and declared with an archeologist’s glee: “Oh, I found them!” She started to paint my hair with the dark brown dye, rubbing it in until my nose stung with a chemical reminder that I was indeed, awake.
“I’m gonna get you,” she laughed, massaging the dye into my whites. My mother dyed my hair with such slow tenderness, section by section, that it calmed my entire nervous system down. I felt my wires flop over, flattening soda. Somehow (I didn’t know how), it was going to be okay.
When I was a child, my mother would wash my hair on Friday nights around 11:30 p.m., after closing up the restaurant. She’d lather roughly, her red nails digging into my scalp with a rage I wouldn’t understand until I’d also experience toxic men and their chemical needs. Pure Pantene fury, the suds thrashed around my bony shoulders. As she dipped my head back under the faucet, I couldn’t see a thing. Just the hot sting of shampoo, my father with his smoker’s cough hacking something up nearby, and her hands softening, slowly, along my scalp. After she rinsed me clean, she whirled a soft towel around my head. It was then that she hugged me on the bathroom floor. She cooed to me: My Bao Bao, my Red Rabbit, my Rat Baby. She squeezed me so close to her breast, I felt her organs link with mine.
At my aunt’s house, after I’d let the dye sit for an hour and washed it out, they all came over. The women moved into the light, inspecting my new hair.
“Huh, weird,” Angela said, her head tilted. “It didn’t work.” She was right. Nothing had happened at all. The whites remained, peeking through the black like silkworms. My white hair had refused the dye.
“It’s a sign,” my mother said, holding a single white strand out like a tightrope. “Don’t pull them out. Something in you is stronger than you are.” And with that, she let the strand go.