TW: Suicide, self-harm, sexual assault, language
I’m six years old when I’m propped up on a stool and covered in a barber’s cape in front of my entire elementary school for my first haircut. Volunteers for a charity carry large bristol boards into the gymnasium, all wearing matching white tee shirts with logos involving scissors and hair and hearts. The gym fills with rows of kids, and a choice few are taken to sit in a row near the front: two girls from kindergarten, one other from grade one, another in grade three, a boy from grade eight. I offer my permission slip, and a volunteer—herself with short hair and bangs—pumps the chair up with a lever, raising me high enough so the kids in the back can see. Like a magic trick, two other volunteers turn me, show the audience with their hands wide open—nothing between their fingers, nothing up their sleeves—as they divide my hair into five sections, tying them off with tiny elastics. They slice my ponytails off one by one and soon after, they spin me around for the final reveal; the hair that’s left on my head swishes around and hits my bottom lip. The woman with bangs takes my hand in hers with one of the ponytails flopping about; flashes snap in my eyes as I’m photographed with my hair like it’s a fish I caught.
“Smile, honey,” bangs lady says, and I show teeth like we’re taught before picture day.
“Wave goodbye to your hair, now!” she says, and I do. I wave to the five ponytails sliced from my head, imagining my hair as an enormous weight off of me like the commercials on late night TV where people hold novelty pairs of pants at least ten times the size of their waists. The next girl being brought up to the chair starts crying. Bangs lady shakes my hair at me, as parents often do, forcing their newborn baby or chihuahua to wave goodbye to visitors; she places it cautiously in a plastic baggie and, with a sharpie, writes: chestnut, virgin.
At first, I don’t miss my hair—its long bunches hitting my lower back or yanking on my head when someone sits on it accidentally—but the teachers from other classes comfort me when they see me stroking the thick edge where all the hair was sliced away.
“Hair grows back,” they tell me, rubbing my shoulder. A loss I’d yet to recognise; perhaps another thing I’ll understand when I’m older.
Some, less sympathetic, reassure me I did the right thing: “People with cancer lose all their hair,” and “you wouldn’t like it if you lost all your hair, either.”
My classmates, too, are very supportive. They say I’m a good person, and I tally the votes, for and against, the majority agreeing yes, the haircut is a good thing. But when my grandmother comes to visit us a week later, she sucks in all the air from the room and says I look like a boy.
“Mama,” my mom shakes her head. “She donated it for cancer. Didn’t you, Nina?”
“Your beautiful hair,” Baba moans. “You look like a little boy! You know that, baby? A little boy with a bowl cut.”
I think this is maybe a good thing; an idea I didn’t think was possible for me, but then her face sinks into a frown, her eyebrows press together. She covers my ears, though I can still hear her explain to my sister what happened.
“Why did you let them cut your hair?” she asks me, rubbing my back as I weep on her lap. I pull at the buzzed ends of my hair, thinking surely it will lengthen if I tug at it enough. She turns to my mom and says it again: “Why did you let them cut her hair?”
My sister, too, cried over a haircut once, and swore she’d never let anyone touch her hair again. It grew long and unruly, and often things got stuck in it. Once, a bee managed to tangle itself under the layers of hair, another time, a piece of glass from the dirty sand on Lake Huron, another time, a wad of gum I’d stuck to my bunk bed frame. Others touched it without permission, soliciting her to slap them across the face; boys at school pulled at her long braid, jerking her head back suddenly; sometimes even strangers in the grocery store would tell her they admired it and reached out to stroke it before she could move away. So naturally, when Sonja was hit at 130 kilometers per hour on a freeway, clumps of her hair got tangled and ripped out of her head, exposing her skull to the concrete. Her hair will continue on without her, perhaps still inside the engine of the Nissan Versa from Texas who hit her first.
“It must be,” my dad insists. “God knows how difficult it was pulling that hair from the drain let alone a grille.”
“Birds like to take hair and use it for their nests,” I suggest instead.
“Would you two stop it?” My mom spits under her breath.
“What? She liked birds,” my dad says, nudging her shoulder with his. “It’d be nice if it was somewhere out there in a nest.”
“God, Milos,” my mother says, her Serbian /s/ dragged out, as though mimicking the hydraulic systems, the air releasing from tires behind us. She smacks him on the arm and I think for a while about the dense thunk the bone gives, wondering if Sonja’s body made the same sound when it first hit the ground. I wonder if my parents think about it, too. They got details from a truck driver—one of the many vehicles who slowed down in the westbound lanes of the 401, looking at the collisions collecting in the eastbound lanes near London, Ontario—but the sound she made was not one they thought appropriate to ask about.
“If her hair’s still out there, it’d probably have turned to a plant by now, or something,” I offer.
“Can you not do this here?” My mom gets up from the cracked vinyl couch in the Speedy Glass lounge and pours herself another coffee from the Tassimo machine put out for those waiting for a cracked windshield to be fixed, snow tires to be replaced with regular ones. I’m grateful we’re here for the latter rather than the former, that we don’t have to think about those windshields my sister hit after the first one flung her like a brazillian shoulder throw.
“Think about it: birds grow up in that nest, they leave it, it knocks over in the wind, it scatters on the ground and mixes with soil, gets covered by snow and ice, then when it all thaws, regrows in the spring as grass, or a fucking dandelion or something.”
“Language,” my father adds. Another man sits on the same sofa as the rest of my family while his white caravan is being repaired. He mows into a powdered doughnut.
“So, Sonja could one day be a tree.”
The man stops chewing and ponders this for a moment.
I wonder if she’s happy now as traces of her perhaps still wander the Earth. I leave traces of myself, too—a tactic Sonja taught me to prepare for if I’m ever kidnapped: leaving dead skin peelings and threads of loose hairs onto the floors of taxis, the ground inside the bus shelter, especially when it’s dark out. I get into the habit of pulling at my hair until it becomes second nature, doing so mindlessly even in my own bedroom, in the kitchen, near the front door, leaving my long brown hair to nest over the carpet until I’m forced to vacuum. Because Sonja’s dead by the time I become a finalist in a series of dance competitions, I have to take a taxi by myself from the Winnipeg airport to the local university theatre and back. Both times, the driver is quiet; both times, they turn the radio off as I get in, and look back at me frequently in the rear-view mirror. Both times, I pick nervously at the underside of my scalp, letting the loose hairs fall to the floor. The first driver says nothing. The second catches me after a few handfuls and asks me to put it out the window for the birds.
I turn to my dad, now playing with the greying scruff on his chin, looking down at the concrete floor, perhaps also imagining Sonja being reincarnated as a patch of grass, a tomato vine, a thick douglas fir.
“I could be one, too.”
Until she turns sixteen and gets her first level driver’s licence, Sonja is a selfish bitch. For years she claims to be ill every time our church runs a blood drive. She keeps her long, thick braid which would feed many wigs. She refuses to tick the box that allows doctors to harvest her organs for those in need of transplants should she become brain dead.
“Okay, then Mom, how’d you like to see your daughter sliced apart like a Christmas ham?”
She passes the written test, and becomes temporarily possessed by a force that encourages her to finally tick off each little box, indicating her choice to donate her:
“Hey, what about skin?”
“Nina,” she starts.
“You’re not gonna use it if you’re dead.”
“You can take my organs, you can take my bones, but for christsake can you at least leave my face alone?”
Though the majority of her is divided among people throughout Ontario, the rest of Sonja’s body stays in London. We find out from our neighbour Tom, who is a professor at the med school here, and he recognises her from when she used to dogsit for him and his partner on their weekends away. He rushes out to meet my dad as he pulls into our driveway after a long commute from Toronto, and he tells my dad she’s in a student lab at the university’s teaching hospital. He says the first years use bodies like hers to learn how to handle live patients and become familiar with dead ones, especially young ones, so they don’t cry the day they lose their first patients.
Because we don’t have her body, we don’t have a funeral service for Sonja. We host a small party in our home for her classmates and our extended family members. Some teenage girls introduce themselves to us, their eyes bloodshot and puffy, and we wait for a name that even rings a bell. Some of Sonja’s classmates spread throughout the lower level of our house, they crack open cans of diet Dr. Pepper and eat our cheese. They check out the photos spread across our house reminding everyone of who Sonja was and what she did in her sixteen years. They pick up and study the photos we printed from our family vacations.
When the kids start complimenting my dad’s photography—knowing he takes them since he appears in none of them—he hands out books full of our vacations. I watch girls flip through the plastic pages, sniffing as they comment on my mother holding us both in her arms, on Sonja’s hair in the humidity of Jamaica, on the incredible tan she builds after a week in the sun. In one photo, she’s draping herself over my shoulders, her arms wrapped around my neck. In another, she’s wearing her bathing suit, posing her lean body with her legs crossed and stretched across the sand so they look miles long. Another photo beside it is a near duplicate, but in this one, she’s smiling. Most of the girls say how beautiful she was, and one boy says she should have smiled more. The evening is long. I want them all to go home a lot sooner than they do and when they do finally leave, there aren’t any breadsticks or canned sodas left and two pictures are missing from the vacation albums. The two of her in her swimsuit, laid out in the sun.
Sonja models her whole life. She poses for children’s clothing catalogues from the time she’s old enough to fit into clothes. She quits in small bursts to pursue other passions, but returns to modelling every time because it gives her a confidence she could never find in horseback riding or ringette. She models for Sears, Osh Kosh B’Gosh, Gap Kids, each time, hired because of her olive complexion, dark brown hair and green eyes–features her agent deems “exotic”. Her agent, the photographers she works with, makeup artists, stylists say she’s beautiful so often she begins to believe it, though she eventually transitions to hand modelling in seventh grade as she stumbles through an awkward phase of refusing to brush her hair and wearing our dad’s work shirts to school. Still, her frame, long and boney, makes for a perfect representation of a woman whose hand has been proposed to. Her fingers grace the inside pages of Vogue and Chatelaine for Spence Diamonds and Peoples until she finds modelling mundane and superficial. She switches to oil painting and burning herself—that is, using her artistic abilities to express herself emotionally, and using hot glue to peel the skin off the insides of her wrists. Mom finds out, and takes away her craft supplies, but her skin’s already scarred. Eventually, no matter how striking she is otherwise, her agent has to give her up, seeing as no one wants to pay the extra fee to photoshop the red scarring that runs up and down her forearms.
She poses for her last scheduled shoot for Claire’s accessories in downtown Toronto the week before she’s found under a car on the highway. When they finally pull her out after having been pinned down for over an hour, she’s still wearing the earrings from the shoot—tiny pink studs with plastic nubs on the back to hold them on. She’s pronounced dead a few minutes after she gets to the hospital, around four in the morning, but we don’t realise she’s missing until my mom calls Sonja’s friend’s parents the next morning asking what time to pick her up. The police call us back an hour after we file a missing persons report. They tell us they found her body, and matched her fingerprints and dental records to her name. Her fingers are still blue from the dye when we’re asked to confirm it is indeed her. Her ears, still green from the gold-plated studs.
When I’m twenty-two, I’m grabbed at a bar by a stranger. Though we live in the supposed bad part of town, we don’t let this limit our evening outings, nor our bar attire—even in late January—so as a precaution, we travel with our friends in a tight flock, mimicking each others’ lead to head this way and that. We lead ourselves one after the other through tight spaces, and where space permits, travel in a sidelong cluster. Early on that night, a man near the bar grabs a handful of my chest, looks me in the eye, and says, “honk honk.”
“Fuck you, buddy,” My roommate takes a swing at him and knocks him in the chin. Others around us who see his hand fall from my chest join in, whacking his arm, back and head with open palms, fists, backs of hands.
“Fucking prick,” I exhale, but a crowd begins to form a barrier between us, shoving him towards the exit. My arms are crossed over my chest and I hold them there for a bit longer, reestablishing it as my own.
“Don’t let him ruin your night,” a stranger tells me. She looks sleepy, but her voice is firm. I exhale sharply, hoping to remove the feeling, the memory through my nostrils.
“Emma,” I hold my roommate’s arm. I can feel the blood in my head pulsing, I hold onto her in case I keel over.
“I want to leave,” I tell her. She nods and wipes the sweat from her forehead, under her eyes and at the sides of her hairline, so it doesn’t freeze when we hit the cold air.
We’re mere feet from the door when we’re jerked back into the room, our ears now insensitive to the loud rumbling bass. I’m pulled in by a different man from that night—one who’d bought me a Sex On The Beach, probably just for the ability to turn to me and wink as he offers the drink, saying
“Sex On The Beach?”
“Where are you going?”
“Just for a smoke,” I tell him. He grabs my other arm too, holding me square to him. His grip irritates the eczema on my arm as I squirm to free myself, I grab his arms back and dig my nails into his skin.
“Let’s go,” Emma calls over the music. His grip tightens to pull me up against his front, my chin tucked under his arm, and he whispers something into my ear. Feedback from the speaker wails and I lose sense of what’s happening behind me, entirely deafened by the noise. I lunge for his arm and taste the sweat on his skin. His grip releases suddenly, but I only understand what happens when I fall onto Emma’s shoulder. She’s hugging me tightly, the music now faint behind the heavy door. It’s snowing and neither of us are wearing our jackets, we just hold them to each others’ backs as we embrace. I’m crying and she’s rubbing my back, breathing deeply in and out, guiding my breath as it jerks between sobs.
“You’re okay, Nina,” she tells me. “You’re okay.”
I hold my chest to ease the lurching of my diaphragm. In and out. She sounds like she’s smiling, now. “I think you made him bleed.”
Cars slide past us, throwing slush onto the sidewalk. One honks at us from a corner intersection, and we walk in the opposite direction to head towards a different subway station, just in case. I imagine the guy’s forearm carved with the rounded mould of my teeth, and can’t help but think he has a trace of me that may last.
When Sonja and I are twelve and eight respectively, our mother takes us to a woman who works out of her home doing orthodontics. The woman recognises the gaping between Sonja’s and my accumulating adult teeth, and fits us for mouthguards to correct our bites over time. The woman takes moulds of our mouths and shows my mother diagrams of how, over time, she’s going to shift our teeth into the correct position, as though she’ll be keeping her fingers in our mouths as they widen, shift, lose old teeth and grow new ones, guiding them in the right direction. The woman gives us rules, too.
“No more jawbreaker candies, no more holding things between your teeth, no more using your teeth to tear open packets or cut off bits of tape.”
She places a clear tray in Sonja’s mouth and presses on her jaw and the top of her head to get her to bite down into it. She flips open Sonja’s lips to show how her teeth sit neatly in each slot, and tells us we have to bite down on it at night or it won’t work. She shows our mother a collection of her previous clients, proving the results of her work, and perhaps demonstrating what our teeth will look like before and after. The before photos depict mangled, yellow, scraggly teeth jutting out with sharp edges. In the after, they’re shiny and white, neatly lined up and squared off at the top.
“Hey?” She says, nudging Sonja, as though to get her on her business’s side. “Your teeth are gonna look like that.”
“What about mine?” I ask and she reassures me that mine too will look straight and tidy. She finishes Sonja’s moulds and takes the photo album from her, so I can flip through it as she prepares my files and a moulding paste. She asks me which flavour I want and I ask for bubblegum, please. Though their faces are cut off at the lips, I wonder about these smiles and imagine being able to pick one I would like for myself.
“Bite,” she says. I do and my tongue flicks against the paste. It tastes nothing like bubblegum.
After a few years of wearing our mouthguards, Sonja is allowed to give hers back, and has graduated with perfect teeth. I wear mine upside down for a few months and have to start all over, readjusting my bite the right way around. Eventually, we stop going to the orthodontist because her prices are getting out of hand, but I feel like my teeth are good enough. I think of Sonja’s teeth pictures, the x-rays of the insides of her jaw showing her wisdom teeth far below the gumline—a concern to worry about later on down the road.