This essay is from a class I took a couple months ago with Brooklyn Writers Collective. The assignment was to “write a hot letter to a complicated person from your past.”
You’re dead now, and I live in your house. I smell cigars sometimes and picture you in your brown leather recliner, tobacco juice dripping down your chin — you couldn’t smoke anymore because of the emphysema, and so you chewed your cigars instead — and I wonder if you’re haunting the place.
Can you see me? Are you happy I grew my hair out?
Your accent was so thick I barely understood a word you said, but I do know you loved my long Italian hair. It’s great hair: dark, full, falls in cascading waves. Grandma’s hair. Your hair, passed down from a small town on the southern coast called Molfetta. “DeFino,” you’d yell, pinching your fingertips together and shaking your fist. “We are The Finest!”
When I was a kid, I took to piling my curls on top of my head and twisting a rubber band around the whole thing, errant strands sticking out from the tangled mass like twigs. You called the style “the bird’s nest,” and not in a nice way. It was messy, wild — a waste of beauty, everyone thought (plus, too harsh a look for a little girl with ears as big as mine). I learned to wear my hair down. I grew it till it touched my tailbone.
Remember when I cut it short in seventh grade and Grandma said I was a disgrace to the family? That my shoulder-length bob was an insult to her, to you, to the people who gave me all that gorgeous hair in the first place? I knew you’d be upset, so I scooped handfuls from the salon floor and put them in a picture frame. “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow” I wrote on the pale blue matboard. Just a joke. I was hoping you’d see how stupid it was, I guess, to care about something as useless and uninteresting as old, dead hair. But you didn’t.
Instead, I started caring about useless, uninteresting things too. Curl gel. Lip gloss. Low-rise jeans. So much of myself lost to the boring pursuit of beauty! So much time spent aestheticizing life instead of experiencing it! I’m emptier for it, hollow and shallow, and I blame you, a little bit.
I came to see you in the hospital near the end. You were emaciated, you had trouble talking; you’d had tubes shoved down your throat and pulled back out over and over again in those final few days. Still, you managed a greeting for me, gravelly and gasping: “Why you look-a so ugly?” Those were the last words between us and I don’t even know what you meant. Was it my hair (frizzy)? My hips (fat)? My outfit? My attitude? I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t care about you, I still don’t, although I wish I did. I wish one man in my life had seen me as a human being and not a series of disappointing body parts.
Birds keep killing themselves in front of me. A great blue heron fell from the sky and shattered its skull on Green Island Road. A seagull flew straight into a speeding car while I watched. A cardinal drowned in the lagoon last week and a hawk washed up on the beach, headless. I feel like it all means something. Maybe they’re you. Maybe you’re trying to come home. Nest in my hair. Tell me you’re sorry.
“DeFino’s [work] is a reminder to question our relationship with beauty.” - Dua Lipa. Subscribe to The Unpublishable today for free.
Don't grownups understand that everything you say to a child goes straight to their hearts? They have no defenses yet.
I'm so sorry for your loss Jessica.