One, Two, Three
ART BY AUDREY NJO
We are sitting tightly packed, regardless of the expanse of the living room available to us. Kitchen chairs are jumbled around the aging television set, limbs pressed against the chairs’ hardwood, brown against brown, feet splayed like they’re ready to launch you up at any moment. I am kneeling between my grandmother’s legs, head tilted partially so she can access my scalp, partially so I can watch the TV. My toes take turns digging into the carpet’s fibers out of both boredom and a muted pain radiating from just above my forehead. My body continues to twist itself in other ways: sometimes I hold my breath, sometimes I wring my fingers. My mother sits beside us, a comb in her mouth, separating long bundles of hair. She is ready to hand us whatever we need, sometimes craning her own neck to see the state of my grandmother’s handiwork.
It is here that I am vaguely aware of my mother’s own girlishness. I am familiar with following her around the house in the manner of an overeager puppy, and it is that same eagerness that I see in her quiet deference to my grandmother. We are contorted like puzzle pieces around each other, coming together in a medley of efficiency and care. There lives a sort of muted divinity in our tired trio, and my still-forming body believes it knows true completeness and harmony. By the time the sun rises , my hair will be fully braided, regardless of the few times we stop for a break for the sake of my still-tender scalp. When I nod off at various points throughout the night, it is because I am lulled to sleep by the subtle thwacking sounds the hair makes as it transfers through her fingers and against itself. One, two, three–, a whispered and consistent lullaby.
And everything is so warm. The floral couches are a faded, lived-in yellow. The walls are a deep red, the result of one of my grandmother’s other creative, domestic escapades. And while the rest of the house is dark, the room, the television, and the women inside of it emit a lone light. We are in the heart of the house, of the street, and of the entire universe to the extent that I can tell. The only insight that the outside world exists at all is the flashes of content on that glowing box before us. It has passed midnight, the time when only the degenerate and especially perverse are supposed to be awake. We watch four episodes of Unsolved Mysteries and my soft, underdeveloped brain is rocked with images of spousal disappearances, drownings, and darkness. I do not yet believe that death can occur in people that I know. It seems surprising that bad things can exist at all in that too-warm, too-bright room.
When I finally twist my head away, squirming at one too many probable deaths, I am greeted by a swift tug. Keep your head this way, she says. Bad things don’t happen in this family, she says. And I am inclined to believe her, for the only badness I can perceive at this point in my life are stiff limbs, fatigue, and an aching scalp.
As years go by, the stiffness in both of their hands will become permanent. I have since learned to braid my own hair but do so only on certain occasions, as it takes much longer alone. My body is longer now, and it knows stiffness mostly in the context of growth. I am still getting used to all the ways it can move itself and spend most of my time trying to hide it from all those who knew it when it was smaller.
When I do braid my own hair, I am careful to keep my head at a certain angle so I can get the parts just right like she did. I hold the three strands in my hand and interlock them. The hair comes apart and back together, over and over, until I reach the end. The process repeats until the sun comes up, or sometimes it goes down, but it always ceases by the time my wrists feel as though they could give up. And although I find peace in this ritual, it often seems that with every moment I am weaving a sort of lie into myself. For not only are my parts perpetually crooked, but at this point, I have learned that bad things do happen in our family, and I am learning what badness means outside of discomfort.
Seven years later, as I am teetering on the edge of teenagehood, the trio is broken. It is a reality that greets me when I find my mother on the floor. Again her body has twisted itself into a seemingly unnatural shape, yet grief lines the contours of her limbs. I don’t know what to do, she says. I am all alone, she says. And I feel as though we are not enough just the two of us. Apparently, not all deaths can be sensationalized, and most are too ordinary to end up on the TV. I am not sure how my body interlocks with just my mother’s. I am hyperconscious of all this newness, and we sit on opposite ends of the wall. She holds herself and I am painfully aware of all the ways I can and cannot move. One, two, three. I say to myself to calm down. One, two, three.