Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched
Cheyenne’s mother, Rebekah, had long, blond hair, smooth as silk. Whenever she stepped outside, it turned white as her eyebrows, absorbing the sun’s rays, a natural bleach. When wet, it was yellow and clumped together like sunflower petals. She would comb her fingers through the strands, lifting her roots at the crown, raking her hair over her shoulders, the ends dropping from her French manicured nails, brushing across her elbows and settling at the small of her back. It dried into wind-swept beach waves. She often styled her hair in a French braid down her spine, weaving the sections together until she reached the base of her neck. Then Cheyenne would crawl behind her, rise on her knees and twist her stubby fingers back and forth, in and out down the braid until she couldn’t go any further and swung the end of the tail over her mother’s shoulder, and Rebekah loosely tied it with a rubber band.
Cheyenne was her mother’s twin, just a few shades tanner. Her green eyes matched Rebekah’s, their noses a pair of acute triangles, lips full only when puckered, pink as the distant horizon at sunset. “We are gorgeous women,” Rebekah would say as she tousled her hair in the bathroom mirror, bent down toward Cheyenne, who could barely reach the sink, and pinched her cheek, creating a natural blush. “Save the makeup for the people who need it.”
Cheyenne’s hair was as long as her mother’s, though not as elegant. It was a brownish blond with copper undertones, thick, especially at the crown and the nape of the neck. After she broke four teeth in her comb and snapped that handle on her favorite brush, Rebekah opted to style Cheyenne’s hair only when wet. It shrank into tiny curls when she lathered it with shampoo, suds filling the bottom of the sink. She rinsed it out and scooped a heaping of conditioner into her palm, spread it over Cheyenne’s hair like butter on pancakes, wrapped a plastic grocery bag around her head and had her sit on the edge of the kitchen sink in front of the window—where the sun bared directly through at exactly eleven o’ clock—and played Cat’s Cradle with her for half an hour. “Your hair is beautiful, sweetheart,” she said in her cool voice, breath like mint, “but I gotta soften out those curls. Make them easy to work with.”
When she rinsed out the conditioner, she split the hair down the middle, tied one half in a side ponytail and out of the way so she could blow dry the other half. She stuffed Cheyenne’s ears with cotton balls to muffle the harsh sound of the blow dryer’s motor, and using the pick attachment, combed out the curls. The first half was always easiest, the curls still wet and loose. The pick glided down the length of it as if her hair had been freshly pressed. Dried, Cheyenne’s combed out, wavy tresses extended just past her shoulder blades, and Rebekah French braided it, like her own hair, into a pigtail.
The second half was partially dry when she started on it—the ends were still damp, but the roots had begun to frizz. Flyaway strands had curled around each other into knots, and she plucked them out, yanking Cheyenne’s head back, Cheyenne screaming for her mother to be gentle. Rebekah pressed her hand down on Cheyenne’s crown to stabilize her head and ripped the blow dryer through her hair, clumped shed hairs floating to the floor, Cheyenne lightly whimpering as the pick scraped across her scalp like claws.
Often, Cheyenne’s grandmother, Gayle, would visit while Rebekah was attacking the stubborn second half of Cheyenne’s head. Gayle wasn’t as pretty has her daughter, her hair, a dirtier blond than Rebekah’s, always tied in a low ponytail underneath a visor hat, her face and shoulders rusted red under the sun after playing tennis all morning at the country club.
She brought saltine crackers and peanut butter, sat at the kitchen table where Rebekah styled Cheyenne’s hair, and scooped dollops of peanut butter onto the crackers, pressed them together to make sandwiches. As Rebekah’s yanks became more forceful— Cheyenne’s hair quickly drying into a tight, frizzy puff before Rebekah could smooth it out with the blow dryer—Gayle placed a cracker sandwich into Cheyenne’s mouth, the thick peanut butter gluing her tongue to the roof so that she couldn’t open it wide to yell. She made faces, smacking her lips, to distract Cheyenne from the pain in her head.
While Cheyenne giggled and laughed, tracing the lines around Gayle’s tight, thin lips, Gayle leaned over the plate of saltine crackers and peanut butter on the table, sucking her front teeth and flicking crumbs from her fingers, staring at Rebekah struggle to tame the child’s hair.
“Why don’t you just perm it? Save yourself the trouble,” she said, the tight skin on her forehead pulling into shallow wrinkles as she frowned.
“I can’t, Mom. It’s part of her heritage.”
“A nappy head? I would think there are better things you’d want to cherish.”
“You would, wouldn’t you? You never liked Edmond to begin with,” Rebekah said, tugging Cheyenne’s head back as the pick attachment snagged a knot.
“I’m sorry, honey. Almost done.” She lifted the last section of hair at Cheyenne’s temples and gently racked the dryer through, using her other hand to cover the tender edges.
“Be careful that you don’t call your mother a name you’ll regret,” Gayle said, wagging her finger.
Rebekah switched the dryer off and slammed it on the kitchen table. “After a while, one arm will be buffer than the other!” she said winding her arm and rolling her shoulders. She took the cotton balls from Cheyenne’s ears and kissed both earlobes. “All done, sweetie. Now I’ll just braid it like we always to Mommy’s.”
Cheyenne nodded, sucking the peanut butter from her tongue, crumbs surrounding her mouth.
“Way to change the subject.” Gayle said and pinched the wiggly Cheyenne who was ready to plant her feet firmly in the grass and stretch her body up towards the sky after sitting nearly two hours on her bottom.
© Nortina Simmons