This semester I have a creative writing class I am helping with as a teacher’s assistant. I’ve never taken a creative writing class personally, but I gave a stab at the Creative Non-Fiction project as part of a tutoring project. This is what I came up with:
I can smell the heating curling iron; a mix of burnt hair, old curl enhancer and that electrical smell that defies description but is so familiar with hot wiring. The curling iron is ready. I look at the clock. 6:45 am, I better get moving or I’ll be late.
I flick on the radio. “Coming up next: La Isla Bonita, by Madonna,” the DJ’s silky voice announces.
I smile. I hate school. I hate getting up early and fighting for the bathroom. I hate having to walk to school, and on cold and wet days my hair style gets ruined and all my hard work on my hair will be for nothing. But this song is catchy. It’s… it has a… a certain quality. What is it about this song? I don’t even like Madonna. But I’m not thinking about this right now. I’m in the moment. I sing along. It feels good.
The air coming through the open window is cool and damp. Late last night someone in the neighborhood mowed and the fresh cut grass scent is aerosolized on the moist, dewy air. It clings to my skin, it seeps into the pores. I feel my skin pucker, the hairs on my arm rise into goosebumps. It doesn’t make me cold though, despite the chill, despite the fact that I’m holding back a shiver. I want this feeling. I deliberately dressed light today.
I breathe in deep between bars. Filling my lungs with the fragrant dew I reach for the curl enhancer and cut back in on time. I’m in tune, and it gives me a thrill to my core.
“All of nature wild and free this is where I long to be…”
The dew, mixed with the smell of grass seems fresh, it is full of spring on the cusp of summer, newness, promise, rebirth. It is the smell of a gentle rain shower, heady with newly turned earth; rich, heavy, real. It is filled with heady notes of brilliant flowers. A visual and olfactory assault of shocking yellow and fuchsia alongside a delicate whisper of lavender, rose and white, as burgeoning buds fight to thrust their expectant faces to the sun. The smell, the color, the tingling on my skin, as I sing to the hauntingly beautiful tune is somehow exhilarating, refreshing. I know it is the harbinger of a beautiful day to come. The sun will rise and the humid, clammy air will blow off on the morning breeze. I’ll be left feeling clean, awake and energized, stretching for the sun like those flowers. As the sun heads toward the zenith, I will drink in its golden promise: My future is just a few weeks away. I can graduate and shake off childhood.
I start to curl my hair. The sensation of more cold and wet; I spritz curl enhancer on the ends of my long hair. The smell of the curl enhancer combines with the fresh scent wafting in the window. My nose tingles and twitches as the curl enhancer’s potent blend of perfume attempts to mask the alcohol and chemicals, but all it masks is the realness of nature’s fragrance drifting in on the breeze from the open window. The curl enhancer’s obnoxious odor screams fake, contrived, artifice. I feel a vague sense of surprise to discover the contrast is jarring to my nerves. The goosebumps tingle on my skin. I feel anxious, I want to be done with this arduous chore. I want to sing unfettered.
“Ring through my ears and sting my eyes…”
My hair sizzles as I roll it up in the curling iron. The lingering presence of goose bumps rise up my neck in response to the cold air it is now exposed to, but within an instant I feel the familiar micro-climate of hot humidity as the iron vaporizes the curl enhancer. The tingling of the goose bumps change in intensity but don’t go away. I pull on the iron just a bit as the heat from the iron starts to irritate my scalp and neck. Sometimes I pull too hard and it hurts. I can feel the hair follicles straining. But I don’t slack off. Sometimes I want to feel that pull. I don’t know why.
I begin to smell that pungent, acrid smell of overheated hair just before it scorches. So, I squeeze the handle on the iron and let the hair go. It falls from the iron, brushing against the over stimulated skin on my neck. I feel a rush of sensory input as hot hair lands on my cold skin. Crispy from being cooked with the curl enhancer, the ringlet of hair hits my shoulder or the base of my neck with a surprising bit of weight. The feeling is hard to describe. It doesn’t quite tickle and yet it sort of does. Sometimes the hair is so hot it burns my skin for the merest fraction of a second. Mechanically I repeat the process. Cold then hot. Damp then dry. Pull, release. The battle of my hair mirrors the battle in my head. The turmoil between childhood and adulthood. The smells of frustration: harsh, hot, choking, painful, versus the smells of hope; cool, clean, gentle, cloying.
I’ve done this every day for years, but today as that stupid song plays in the background I feel like I’m in a daze as I work the hair brush to coax and tease the curls into the latest fashion.
“Beautiful faces, no cares in this world…”
I hum along, dousing my coiffure with yet more masking, offensive smells. Aqua-net. Sharp, chemically pungent, fake. It glues my fluffy, big-hair curls. Who is that girl in the mirror? She doesn’t smell real. She doesn’t look real. I suddenly realize I feel uncomfortable. The goosebumps thrill my body in a way that is frightening and yet leaves me both exhilarated and nervous all at the same time. At home in my own room I feel a like stranger, I don’t belong here. I feel anxious to get through this ritual, to start something new, to find where I belong. I put the iron and the brush away. My heart races, just a few more weeks and summer will be here. I put the sticky bottles of stinky hair product away. I need to get outside. It will undo all the curls in my hair, and the dampness will intensify that horrible Aqua-net stench but still I feel the need to get out right away, even if it means walking to school, to get more of that fresh air and envelope me in what is real. I long to wash those artificial smells of hairspray and burning hair from my nose, from my life, and from my memory. Today I need that foggy morning air in me as well as all around me.
“La Isla Bonita.”
The song has long since ended on the radio, but the melody haunts me. I cling to it as I leave the house and walk through the fog. I store that cool clean feeling of damp, spring air and flowers and cut grass deep in my soul.
“I want to be where the sun warms the sky…”
Some 25 years later La Isla Bonita no longer plays much on the radio. If anyone had asked I doubt I’d even remember the lyrics or much of the melody much less the last time I heard it play. But a whiff of damp spring air brought it all crashing back.
“A young girl with eyes like the desert
It all seems like yesterday, not far away…”
Thinking of that song just now I still get goosebumps, and feel that mixture of excitement and renewal slowly replacing the oppression of an unhappiness. I remember that stupid hair curling ritual and how it was the one problem in my life I could control. I couldn’t fix my problems between me and my parents. I couldn’t suddenly become the girl everyone liked. I couldn’t be the smartest kid or get the lead role in the play. I couldn’t go to prom with the suave drum major, or even that funny guy in my art class. But I could make my lanky, dull, stick straight hair curly. And with my job and my own money no one could deny me the gallons of hairspray to do it no matter how much my parents complained about the wastefulness or the smell.
“Hey,” I would say tartly, “At least I don’t waste my money on cigarettes, alcohol or drugs.”
I remember the softball fields I passed on the way to school, covered in freshly mown grass, dripping with dew. Some mornings near the end of that spring I would tromp through, the grass and it’s scent sticking to my sopping shoes. Despite the grass stains on my white Keds, which I had to buy for myself and the discomfort of wet shoes, I marched through desperate for the simple elation of the smell of wet dewy grass. And there was the satisfaction of knowing that they were my shoes. Shoes that I earned the money for and paid for myself, there was a deep sense of satisfaction in that. It was my prerogative to ruin them with no one to reprimand me for being wasteful or irresponsible.
It was a strange year, that year “La Isla Bonita” hit it big on the radio. I threw out my curling iron after graduation, I didn’t need it anymore. I had control of my whole life now. Early that spring I got suckered into buying sleek looking, steel bodied, black bucket of bolts called a Ford Thunderbird, which died on the way home from the used car dealership and caused a family row that lasted until I graduated high school. You would have thought I wasted someone else’s money and not my own. But I managed to get that car to limp me through my first year of college before wrapping it around a fire hydrant. It taught me a valuable lesson about the value of comprehensive auto insurance. I managed to get a big enough cash payout to buy a real, albeit economy, brand-new car. I remember the freedom those cars gave me, the sense of opportunity within my grasp. I remember playing the radio and listening to this song. I went to community college. My parents laughed but I became mistress of my own destiny.
After all these years the memory of this stupid song still reminds me of that first thrill of facing the future, of the first time I realized I had hope that I could find something better. Ironically, perhaps, but I don’t think that’s really what Madonna’s song is about. It seems more of longing for the past, which I don’t do at all. But still it is somehow indelibly linked to that beautiful island of hope for a better future that I created for myself. That island of hope still keeps me going after all these years.