My mother, who, when she was young, had long, straight hair, which she often wore in two low ponytails on either side of her face, yet who, the entire time I’ve known her, has had hair cropped short and close, and is now entirely gray.
Rapunzel, Cinderella, and the miller’s daughter who weaves straw into gold, although even as I write this, I am questioning myself, for it may be that it was only the straw and the gold, and not the miller’s daughter’s hair at all. I am realizing that I do not remember her name, if she ever had one. It is ironic that in giving name to Rumpelstiltskin himself, she relinquished her own and will now forever be known only because of her relationship to the strange, magical man who stomped so hard the earth swallowed him up (or who tore himself in two, or who ran off in a fit of rage, or who flew out the window on a ladle, depending on which version you believe).
My friend Maddy, my best friend since infancy, whose hair was so light it was almost white, despite the deep brunette tresses of her older sister, and whose long locks were a source of envy for me when we were growing up.
Tib Muller, whose short yellow curls and petite stature made her the perfect literary counterpart for me, a role that I refused out of principle, for I was Betsy, despite her dark hair and lanky legs. Betsy the writer, Betsy the storyteller, Betsy who had a pencil box nailed to a branch of a tree, where she would sit and write her tales. (Me: “Dad, can I nail a box to the pine tree and keep stories in there?” Him: “Sure, but it’s just going to get ruined the first time it rains.”) (And it occurs to me now that there are likely many, particularly those not from Minnesota, not from the Midwest, who have never heard of this series that, along with the Little House books, taught me who I was.)
Brownies, when the cocoa powder is left out.
Rachel, or rather, Jennifer Aniston, who, in her Rachel days, became a paragon for women, but also for young girls, like myself, all of whom wanted to be Rachel, look like Rachel, talk like Rachel, though on returning to the series as an adult, I found the character to be unbearable.
Buffy Summers, my hero, killer of vampires and demons, whom I didn’t discover until 2013. (Me: “You guys will NEVER BELIEVE what happened on Buffy last night.” All of my friends: “You mean what happened on Buffy 15 years ago?”)
The titular comic strip character, who, in her 88-year existence has managed to maintain her hair color, has scarcely aged a day, though she’s grown in other ways, having gone from being a flapper to a caterer, and even relinquishing her comical antics, allowing her husband to take them on instead while she maintains order in the household. Did you know her maiden name was Boopadoop? Did you know Dagwood staged a hunger strike in order to marry her? Maybe that’s why she became his straight (wo)man: after a month and a half of watching her fiancé forego food, only to be disinherited by his parents anyway, maybe she felt the suffocating weight of responsibility, knowing that he gave up everything for her, knowing that she could never live up to the demands of such an act. (And maybe that also explains the sandwiches.)
The protagonist, and punchline, of many a joke.
Debbie Harry, who, contrary to common misconception, was not a solo act but rather the lead singer of a band, and, in fact, when we say “Blondie,” it is the entire band we are referencing, not Harry alone. Raise your hand if you knew that. (My hand is not raised.) When I was young, I thought Debbie Harry’s name truly was Blondie. It wasn’t until much later that I learned it was a moniker, and it wasn’t until even later (last week) that I learned she suggested Blondie as a band name because it was what truck drivers shouted to her. (What I like to shout back when someone catcalls me: “We thought you was a toad!”)
In its 1982 review, Rolling Stone wrote of Blondie’s Parallel Lines, “Harry’s no longer the sexy zombie, and she won’t take any more abuse without showing contempt for her abusers.” Scroll up. Look at the album cover. Do you feel it? Her rage is palpable, it emanates from her as she stands among her bandmates. She’s done. (And maybe it’s the headlines that we wake up to every day, or maybe it’s the weariness I feel at every breaking story, or maybe it’s that I recently stood at the state capitol building, alone in a crowd of 20,000 people, and listened to high school and college students raise their voices together, but when I listen to the album, when I read this review, I think: yes.)
We’re in the car, driving through the endless Midwest plains, and there’s a storm coming, you can see the wall of rain approaching the windshield, lightning splitting the sky up ahead, and when it breaks, we will lower the windows, and raise our voices, and we will howl into the wind.
My cousin Alice, who, when she was three years old, had long curls, and when she took a bath, she tilted her head back so her hair floated in the shallow water, and she shook her head back and forth, back and forth, so the strands danced and swung around her face, and she called herself a mermaid.
My sisters, because it runs in the family, all three of us growing up with blonde hair trimmed short, so that people often asked my mother, upon seeing the photograph on her desk at work, “Are those your sons?”
I used to arch my back and stretch my neck, gazing at the clouds, the telephone wires, the airplanes passing overhead, and reach my hand behind me to feel the way my hair brushed the small of my back. When I straightened myself, it would be short again, but for a moment, it was long, and golden, and I was beautiful.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, I whispered to myself. Let down your hair.
In my version, she lops her braid off, ties one end to the bedpost, throws the other end out the window, and lowers herself down.
I’m searching for the thread that connects the disparate elements of this piece, something beyond the obvious, beyond the hair color, to say something meaningful, something profound. But sometimes there’s no greater meaning to conjure. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of one thing, and another, and there’s no line in between, no overarching equation, no resolution.
Here there is a band. Here there is a woman. Here there is another woman. Here there is another, and another, and another, and another.
Maybe we’re leaving the Midwest now. Maybe the fields are giving way to forests, or maybe we’ve followed them all the way to the mountains, and beyond that, to the ocean, and the sky and water are the same color so you can’t tell them apart. And maybe now that we’re here, you’ve realized this is no destination at all, merely a bleak, gray landscape that stretches in front of you, behind you, all around, like ice or glass, achingly fragile.
Reach out. Scratch it with your fingernail. Do you feel it?
“Harry’s no longer the sexy zombie, and she won’t take any more abuse without showing contempt for her abusers.”
Picture this, a sky full of thunder.
It’s 11:59, and I want to stay alive.
—Emma Riehle Bohmann