On the eve of July 19th in the good year 2018, I stood in the bathroom of my partner’s 3rd-floor corner apartment on the brink of a breakdown. My hands were cramped, my face was damp, and I had ravaged a restroom that didn’t even belong to me.
There was neon coral nail polish staining the counter from a spill, discarded pieces from rejected outfit selections piled high on the seat of the toilet, and packs upon packs of synthetic Marley braiding hair strewn about the entirety of the small space. I had become the lead in a dramatic infomercial where everyday chores had become far too complex, and I was in need of a savior solution to solve my problems for just three easy payments of $19.99 plus shipping. I was a parody, laughable in my sagging shorts and wrinkled tee. Although I could see the amusement in it even then, I was too frustrated in the moment to muster up a laugh. Had I even bothered to attempt one, I’m sure I would have sounded something like an old sitting Buick refusing to start.
My frustration caused me to sniffle. My sniffles became streams, my streams then became sobs. I tiptoed over the linoleum to turn over the lock on the knob, as though the barrier could also mute sound. I wanted to host my pity party against the backdrop of silence, although the noise from the 60-second video clip rolling on the other side of the wall was a welcomed distraction.
Photo: Femin Essay
As I continued on in my release of infantile tears, I placed my worn and fragile fingers on the edge of the sink, steadied my stance, and directly centered my gaze upon my own reflection. As unsure of who I was in that moment, I was about to force myself to take notice of her, whoever she was. The woman who stood before me was an unknown familiar. We shared certain features as far as face shape and structure, height, body mass, proportion, tone and texture, but my God… who was this caricature?
There were delicate dents forming beneath her eyes curving slightly like crescent moons, and side standing moons forming around her mouth. There was an identifiable stoop to her shoulders. There were markings from faded blemishes along her jawline. And as I lifted my shirt slowly, on display all throughout her stomach, hips, and ass were light streaks, some two to three shades brighter, and others much darker than her natural skin tone. The streaks dragged north to south, some east to west, crisscrossing over each other like a roadmap to someplace sacred. Near her, (our) navel, there were so many streaks that like a zipper, they seemed to pull the stomach further down, loosening folds of brown into an unorganized heap of the dermis.
A baby had been given to this body, or rather a baby was given unto us by this body. No matter to whom the debt belonged, whoever owed whom also owed a full tummy tuck consultation. Ironically, throughout the remainder of that body, there was no further evidence that a birth had actually taken place at all. Nearly prepubescent, I stood at 5’3, with bone-thin limbs and A-cup breasts that I was sure in my (then) 18-year-old mom brain, would surely have left my son malnourished.
Standing before this carbon copy of myself and reflecting on all of the years, months and days prior to the present, I grappled with guilt over a myriad of things. I found myself slipping into the quicksand of self-degradation. In the mirror that day, I faced more than my reflection. I also faced every struggle, every failure, every anxiety, every disappointment I’d ever encountered, including the latest. I shifted my gaze upward, moving my eyes from my frame (where there is always so much misplaced focus), up toward my throat where words are sometimes swallowed, beyond my face where no feelings are hidden, and landed upon my crown.
PHOTO: Alexandra Jane
There were no “baby hairs,” only unruly tufts of black cotton refusing to be tamed by any amount of Eco Styler. The ends of my now gel matted strands were tucked into a miniature bun with a double wide elastic after popping three of its thinner predecessors. Constructed around this tiny bun was a mound of fake textured hair made to mimic my own, a mess of a nest large enough to house a mama bird and all of her chicks.
I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. I followed the tutorial step by step: wash, condition, gel mold, wrap. I tied the Marley hair to the doorknob as I untangled the ponytail, raking it through with a wide tooth comb as shown in the video, sending synthetic strands flying into the atmosphere. I untied the scarf, and attached the hair, securing it with pins that stabbed my scalp in the name of beauty. I re-tied the scarf while I attempted to set my nails afire to a bright orange blaze, then untied it ever so carefully a final time for the grand reveal. But instead of magic, I was met with misery. “Fuck this,” I thought. I needed a second opinion.
I unlocked the door and flung it open with all the drama of an eighties drag ball.
“Do you like this?!” I shouted at my partner with more rage than enthusiasm. As she briefly paused in her social scrolling, her eyes grew wide at the style I was in the middle of creating.
“Well, baby…” And BOOM! Before she had the chance to issue another word from her lips, I slammed the door closed once again and bolted myself back into the bathroom. Me, myself and Marley. I faced the mirror once more, my faux bun now tilting to the right and bobbing a bit from the impact.
As I allowed complete exhaustion and craze to take over me, I yanked the hair directly from my head, pins and all, and threw the entire piece away like a class assignment cursed with all the wrong answers. I’d had it! My failed attempt at a YouTube tutorial had left me heavy hearted. Only now I couldn’t cry anymore. I believe I stopped crying because I was met with the realization that all my current frustrations were not solely attributed to cheap pack hair. Instead, I was angry that fewer than 12 hours before my 30th birthday, I couldn’t afford to have this handled for me.
I was supposed to be sitting in somebody’s leather salon chair, mimosa in hand, being spun around a la Carrie Bradshaw ready to debut my new look. Meanwhile, the water would be warming for my pedicure as the order was placed for my lunch that would be charged to my account along with the service. I would “ooh” and “ahh” over my perfectly painted fingernails while every stylist and patron walking by would say, “Wow! You look incredible for 30! Not to mention educated and wealthy. What a success! Good for you, girl!” But there was no champagne, no prepaid pampering, no padded and undeserved compliments.
I remembered being 24, sitting with a group of co-workers on lunch hour one weekday. We were gathered at Chipotle on West Third. Since it was so close to work, we were often there at the Grove location near the CBS studios where all of the brightly colored Price is Right hopefuls and costumed Let’s Make a Deal contestants convened over overstuffed burritos and guac.
We were a multicultural group of young women huddled at one of the center tables, and I was excited to be in their company. I was the youngest of the bunch with everyone else present ranging in age between their mid- to late-thirties. I could recall being in complete awe of all their put-togetherness.
PHOTO: Alexandra Jane
Most of these ladies were married with children, owned homes, and seemed to swipe their debit cards for their meals without having to add up the last five transactions in the hopes that there was enough cash left to eat. I often ordered kids meals and would ask for free cups of water while pretending to watch my figure. Even though most times the flattened Sprite would somehow find its way into my drink cup, I sipped sweetly, grinning as they talked, convincing them I liked it that way. They would collectively roll their eyes and laugh, and sometimes one of the women would offer to pay my bill in secret.
“Don’t stress so much!” one would say.
“Your twenties are for living, so live girl!” another would chime in.
“Yes, your twenties are for making all the mistakes child,” said a third. And they laughed their Member's Only laugh that I had not yet paid the dues to share in. And although their laughter was at my own expense, I found solace in the words they spoke.
“I can’t wait to be thirty!” I blurted out, sounding much less mature than I felt. “I’m damn sure tired of making mistakes.”
As the table quieted, I caught the sympathy in their eyes. The sympathy and the hushed pity. The sympathy they offered because they knew there would be more mistakes to come, the pity because they knew I was not yet equipped with the required tools to avoid or prevent them. And yes, the mistakes did indeed come. Plenty of mistakes came between twenty-five and twenty-seven, and plenty more mistakes came between then and 29.
PHOTO: Alexandra Jane
Each year, though the clock continued to wind down, my faith in a quick-fix come 30 only grew in strength. As debt surmounted and credit plummeted, as I tried on job after job, hopped from city to city, house to house, as cars would get repossessed and as my baby boy found himself in the arms of his grandparents yet another year, I still remained steadfast in the belief that by the date of my 30th birthday all loose threads would be magically mended.
But as I looked around at the chaos I’d created, I thought about just how many strings were still left unraveled.
I thought about my friends and other women the same age – many of us carrying the same burdens of the past and the same anxieties for the future. I thought of the shows and movies we watched as young girls where the main characters seemed to have reached their personal and professional peaks by age 26.
I thought about other women in the "nearly and newly thirty” tribe that we associate with in real life and via social media that do have the lives we dreamt of having, causing us to feel broken or faulted for not having achieved that standard of perfection.
I thought of the generations before us, which at our age had already been married for several years with 2.5 children and a mortgage. I thought about how our own daughters could wake up at the end of their supposed “defining decade” with tear stained eyes and depression from not following the trajectory of this fantasy timeline, should we continue to push this tired agenda. I thought of every version of the same fairytale that we had all somehow been fed, and still consume, of how we all now stand under one sky waiting for houses and husbands to fall from the stars. I was determined to shake this disturbance.
Photo: Alexandra Jane
I began to move my tiger striped hips from side to side in my baggy briefs, unashamedly awkward and without rhythm. I pushed my flat chest forward and backward, and backward and forward popping my shoulders like every tribal dance I’d ever seen. I made fists of my fingers and raised them to the ceiling pumping with force and fury. I shook my head with enough fervor to loosen dried gel and make escaped strands reach for the heavens. I stomped my feet on the ground beating down the grasp of the devil.
I shook it all off like that red-headed Florence and her Machine, like when Mimi was emancipated, like Peaches and Herb did with their groove thangs, and like Taylor did her haters. I shook until I no longer could feel myself bound by fantasies, social norms or social timeclocks. I shook myself free. And when I slowed down I reflected upon myself in the mirror for a final time. My skin glowed with sweat, my cheeks were stained with salt and my hair without direction atop my head. And you know what I found this to be? F*cking hilarious! And so I laughed. I laughed a kind of rare, full deep belly laugh only present in cases of extreme humor or delirium, and I was smack dab in the middle between the two.
The doorknob rattled, as my partner attempted to allow herself entry, probably wondering what sort of nut job she’d saddled herself up to. But I pretended not to notice. Instead, I heard the voices of my ancestral spirits saying “Lest us try again and do this here right dis time. It be mo’ better t’morrow.” And so I did. I repeated each step with the precision of a surgeon. I tied that scarf back down so tight I thought I may end up with fewer brain cells than required in order to not screw up this upcoming decade. But it was a chance I was willing to take.
The next morning, I woke up on my birthday full of zest and gratitude. I stepped out into the world 30 years young debuting my own “DIY pretty,” courtesy of the internet. Unassisted by any salon, unparalleled to any other, and eager to see what lay before me.
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