Your mother was in love with you. Enchanted—everyone was, she says, pulling the hair color box from the bag. Those cherub cheeks, Shirley Temple grins—as she sits you down, drapes your shoulders with a tattered old bath towel.
You were born with a head full of black hair. Straight and as thick as hay.
Your mother tells you this, so it must be true.
Your mother tells you: her water broke at midnight Easter Sunday, while sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for an angel to come. She tells you that you are blessed. Blessed, like an expectation, a benchmark. A when, not an if.
By three months old, your black hair is gone. In its place, a mop of golden curls as fleeting as a promise.
By eight, the blonde is dirty brown, a revolt so slow you don’t recognize it.
In the bathroom, the air smells like Grandma’s Aqua Net spray and your head is warm beneath the plastic cap. The lady on the box laughs with white teeth, red lips. Your mother stays close the whole time—rinsing your hair, blow-drying it smooth. An attention that feels like love.
After, in the mirror, your long mousy hair is a smooth blonde bob. Your mother is smiling.
In your third grade school portrait, you smile too.
In high school, you get straight As the first term—nothing less than expected. Your mother celebrates by saying nothing to you at all.
You slip into Bs, a handful of Cs. Skip classes, have sex, stay out past curfew.
Your mother’s disappointment isn’t quiet like her celebration. She finds ways to punish, wakes you early on weekends for chores per her caprice—dishes or laundry or scrubbing baseboards with an old toothbrush. She clucks her tongue and waits: for you to do it wrong. She reminds you of the promised land of your future, fertile ground you are failing to seed.
Blessed, like a trick.
Blessed, like a whim.
She begins to wake you up at night, leading you to the living room where you read Bible verses aloud from the couch, ones she has handpicked to scaffold her anger.
Obey your parents in everything. (Colossians)
Honor your father and your mother. (Exodus)
You learn how to drive and get a car. It becomes a sanctuary, a rocket ship, a bed. You sneak out most nights to drive in the dark, feel your heart swell with each acceleration. West, to the Oregon coast, where you park and walk out to the sound of the waves. North, up the smooth lights of I-5, pausing at truck stops for snacks. One night, you almost make it to Canada, but turn around, drive back down the hum of the black.
You find ways to curse yourself. They feel good, these rebellions. They are the only things you truly own.
In the day, you try on hair colors like personalities: Red stripped to pink. Mahogany veil. A new sleek jacket of onyx. As if one might fit just right and finally let you become.
But you return to blonde, again and again, to paint yourself with light.
You are blonde when your father takes his keys, disappears, and your mother shaves her head.
You are blonde when your own baby girl is born, and you vow the curse will stop with you.
You are blonde when your mother dies on the day after Christmas.
You take walks in the woods after dark.
You wash bed sheets and floors and cups and corners, find comfort in things you can hold in your hands.
You cry too, after you believe it.
You dye your hair the deepest brown. It favors your porcelain skin and green eyes. Your cherub cheeks.
Meagan Johanson writes from her lair in Oregon. She has been published in Berkeley Fiction Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Lunate Fiction, and elsewhere. She loves music, books, new obsessions, and anything with butter on it. You can find her on Twitter: @MeaganJohanson.