Another Terrible Haircut

In the end my mother relented and drove me to the Regis Hair Salon in the Orange Mall, one of the worst malls in Southern California where everyone is obese and has a cousin/brother/uncle in jail and where the best department store is JC Penney (I had turned my nose down on JC Penney for the longest time until my dad said, “That’s where I get all my pants.”)

I was still at the age where I associated price with quality and shunned the thought of going to a cheaper Asian salon (now I only go to Korean salons where they know how to layer Asian hair, as opposed to “white” salons where, in my experience, the stylists are so enamored by thick Asian hair that they’re almost always reluctant to thin it out, which is usually what Asian girls want so we don’t look like we’re walking around with cloaks on our heads. Anyway.) My secret hope was if I paid more than $60 for a haircut I would walk out of the salon NOT looking like Jackie Chan. Anyone but Jackie Chan. Well, anyone female.

The salon was about to close but I begged the bored-looking girl at reception (has anyone ever encountered an enthusiastic salon receptionist?) to squeeze me in.

“Louis,” she called towards the back of the salon. A tall, barrel-chested gay man squeezed into a too-tight black t-shirt and sporting a finely trimmed goatee looked up from chatting with his colleague, a shorter but equally sassy-looking gay man. Louis gave the receptionist a look, “This had better be good. Mikey here was just about to tell me how big so-and-so’s cock was.”

“Can you take one more?”

He sighed and uncrossed his arms. He shrugged at Mikey and languidly waved me over.

I did so and stood awkwardly by the chair.

He arched his eyebrow and nodded for me to take a seat. 
I sat down. 
With the heel of his expensive looking boots, he swiveled the chair, turning me this way and that. 
“What. Did. You. Do.”

I looked at his reflection in the mirror and shook my head. What did I do?

“I cut my own hair.”

His eyes widened and then he shook his head again. He sighed heavily. Then, as though he were touching something he wasn’t sure was dirty or clean, he flipped the sawed off edges of my hair.

“Cut it or hacked it off? Were you angry?”

“I was tired of my hair.”

“My dear, my dear. You don’t do it yourself. You don’t ever do it yourself. You come to a professional.” He placed his fleshy hands on his chest, referring to himself, and stared hard at my hair.

I looked at him in the mirror and we could both sense my desperation. It was perhaps the most feminine feeling I’d felt in a long while: the fear of not just a bad hair day, but a bad hair year.

Please. Help.

He nodded sagely, like an old master who was retired but agreed to help out a struggling student one last time. Like Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black III.

“You’re in good hands,” he said. I nearly cried in relief. I straightened up in the chair and took a deep breath.  I was ready for a miracle.

“But first,” he sighed again and looked at his watch, “I’m gonna need a cigarette.”


An hour and a half later, I emerged from the salon looking not like Jackie Chan, but Rosie O’Donnell. After she came out of the closet.

Louis had, out of necessity because there wasn’t too much length to work with, given me “a bob,” taking the liberty of buzzing the hair off the back of my neck to perfect the bob’s dramatic shape. I could have stopped him, but I trusted him, and by the time he was done so was the damage.

It wasn’t a chic bob – or perhaps on some slender, sylph-like girl with a swan’s neck it might have been – but on my rather thick neck, broad shoulders and round face it was, as a classmate would inform me the next day, “a butch cut,” not much better than the Jackie Chan haircut I’d given myself.

“But,” my friends told me soothingly, “you can tell the guy had skills. It’ll grow out really well.”

I never cried about it. I took deep breaths and repeated my father’s (and soon, everyone else’s wise words): hair grew. It does and it did. I spent the rest of the year wearing headbands and tried to see the silver lining: shorter showers and practically no hair drying time. 

An Infrequent Occurrence

Two weeks after David asked me to prom I was leaving school early for badminton practice. My car was stuck waiting behind a line of senior cars to exit the school parking lot. In those days I drove a Toyota Land Cruiser, a massive SUV that could seat seven which often made me the designated driver to many badminton tournaments. I hated the car, but my father loved and refused to part with it (except that when I started driving he bought himself a new car and passed the Land Cruiser down to me). It was a boxy, unwieldy thing, raised considerably higher than a sedan. My father said he liked to drive with the view above other cars, though when I heard a loud rapping on my side of the car I turned but didn’t see anyone.

“Hi Betty.”

I looked down and saw David looking up at me. He had come to my window and was motioning for me to roll the window down. I looked ahead – there were still a few cars ahead of me that did not appear to be leaving the parking lot anytime soon because of the busy street traffic.

I rolled the window down and gave him a surprised look.

“Hey David, what’s up.”

“You leaving school right now?”

I thought it was obvious, but decided to be nice. I nodded, “Yup.”

“Cool, I thought so. Me too.”

“Great.” I looked at the cars ahead of me, willing them to roll off the driveway. One car pulled out and the one behind it was about to as well, but the light ahead turned red. He was leaning on my door now, alternating between gripping it and tapping idly, which would have made it dangerous and a bit rude for me to pull forward. I gave him a questioning look tinged with what I hoped was visible impatience.

“Well,” he said, “I was thinking we could go get a cup of coffee?”

In movies, which informed most of my ideas about romance, this is usually the point when the girl who is also attracted to the guy asks coyly, “Are you asking me out?” But I was not in the movies. I was in high school and in love with many people in the movies (this was the heyday of my infatuation with Edward Norton) and did not drink coffee because I read somewhere that it stunted your growth and made your bones weak (though I’d already hit puberty I was still hoping to grow another inch or two, much to my mother’s bewilderment. At 5’7” she was tall for an Asian woman and during her girlhood back in Taipei, had been teased and called an elephant. “Why not a giraffe?” I’d asked. My mother replied, “Giraffes are thin. I was not.” She seemed to believe, from empirical observations that tall girls stayed single much longer than short girls).

The cars ahead began to pull off the parking lot. I summoned the most regretful look I could muster.

“Ah, I can’t David, sorry. I’m going home to nap before I head to badminton practice.”

In the history of terribly transparent excuses, that one doesn’t quite take first place, but it was transparent enough. David tried again to summon the sad smile he’d given me two weeks before and backed away slowly before turning. He shoved his hands in his pockets, looking left and right though all around us were the gleaming cars of other students. 

He never talked to me again after that. Occasionally, when we passed each other in the hallway, he would give me a forced half-smile, the kind where the eyes assumed a certain dullness to glaze over past hurt. He graduated and I became a junior. I never thought of him again until about five or six years later, when I was in college it seemed everyone around me was going out in earnest, if not on actual dates at least to random, poorly-defined invitations from the opposite sex. I floated from school to school, country to country, never once kissing or even holding hands with male peers. I began to feel something was amiss. It occurred to me that David the short Vietnamese guy was the first and might possibly be the last person ever to ask me out.

The Prom Date that Wasn’t: an Awkward High School Story

Before I turned twenty-five, only one person had ever asked me out. This was sophomore year of high school – hardly a recent event. He was a junior named David, a short Vietnamese guy who had come to our badminton club one afternoon with a mutual friend and played a game of mixed doubles with me. I guess because I was friendly and liked to laugh, he thought I’d be a good prom date. Also he was not so good at badminton and I went easy on him. Looking back, I probably moved more gracefully (slowly) than usual to keep the rally going. My partner and I beat him anyway and I went up to the net at the end of the game to shake his hand. I smiled extra big to mean, “Hey, no hard feelings, good match.”

A week later he wrote me a poem in a handmade card and shyly gave it to me at the end of lunch in the AP Biology classroom, where all the nerdy Asians ate. I wasn’t good enough at math or bio to eat there, but I had a few friends who did. Anyway, I think he heard from someone that I would stop by the AP bio room on my way to Honors Chem (another class I was not good at) and waited around that day to give me the card. His friends all stood not-so-furtively aside, not even attempting to hide between their bags of chips and sodas. They stared as I read it.

The poem rhymed. In it, he matter-of-factly pointed out that even though I was “several inches taller” he’d still make sure to stand on a book or something for the photos. I think something rhymed with “taller” but I don’t remember what. I was impressed that it rhymed at all, and that he’d taken the time to do it. It’s the kind of thing you look back on and go, “Aww, that guy was so brave,” and then consider the last time someone did something similar at the age you’re at now and think, “Where the hell have all the brave men gone?” 

But in the moment, when you’re an awkward sixteen year-old girl with your own issues with femininity but also strong opinions about what a prom date should look like (several inches taller than me; not the other way around), you can only fold the card up quickly, stash it in your backpack and start brainstorming all the reasons why you can’t go to prom.

What didn’t help his case was that I don’t lie well under pressure. When I need to come up with a lie fast, the lie ends up being obviously a lie. He had stood off to the side while I read the card and was pretty much expecting an immediate answer. But I wasn’t one to play games or revel in attention I didn’t want, and told him in what I considered a nice manner that the timing just wouldn’t work out. I hadn’t planned to go to prom – what sophomore plans to go to prom?? – and now…my mind drew a blank – again, the pressure. Well, I said lamely, I hadn’t planned to go to prom.

“It’s two weeks away,” he said.

Exactly, I said, definitely not enough time to get a dress and make all the necessary arrangements.

I was afraid he would ask, “Like what?” because he would have, I’m certain, been a gentleman and arranged the limo, tickets and dinner reservations – he seemed to be that kind of guy – and all I’d have to do was find a dress – but he just asked, “Are you sure? I think you’d find a dress pretty easily.”

I shook my head, and couldn’t say anything else. We were only teenagers but old enough to be adult about it.

“Aww man,” he said, “Okay,” and left the room, head bent low.

His friends, watching from another table, shook their heads at me.

“Why you gotta be such a bitch, Betty?”

I shrugged, and tried to look apologetic. I didn’t think I was rude about it, but there is such a thing as Prom karma: Unbeknownst to me, a year later as a junior I would again be asked to prom, but as a backup date for my friend Tom, whose first choice dumped him for a guy she really wanted to go with. Tom, who spoke strictly in a low, monotone, would come up to me after lunch without nary a drugstore carnation never mind a poem.

“Hey Betty. Want to go to prom. I was gonna go with Kristy but she decided to go with someone else.” All one note.

I said yes!

Anyway, as a sophomore being asked out was new and so was being called a bitch. Well tough. I wasn’t interested. David was nice; I could like him as a friend. But for us there would be no dancing.

Monday Musing

In high school, our lesbian (? no one ever really knew for sure) English teacher had us write short, freestyle essays over the weekend to turn in on Monday. She called them “Monday Musings,” though a good handful of us thought “The Late Sunday Night Pain in the Ass” would have been a more fitting name. I liked the idea of them (even though I waffled in and out of the Pain in the Ass group), because it was a guaranteed page and a half that I had to write. I did it for the grade, the same reason for which I did most things in high school, but sometimes I’d stand by the printer and realize that what was coming out was something I was quite anxious to turn in.

The questionable lesbian wasn’t the best teacher, but she liked me (the first in a longer-than-it-should-be line of questionable lesbians) and wrote encouraging remarks on my papers with her blue felt-tipped pens. She had the loopy, elegant script of female English teachers and if one were to judge her by her penmanship alone, would never question her femininity. She enjoyed reading our work and wrote at a slant in the margins her thoughts on a particular line or paragraph and at our papers’ end, would suggest how we might further develop our ideas thought. Most student’s musings were half or quarter-assed, but for those who showed promise and who were unwittingly carried away by the writing itself, Ms. M’s slanted lines were some of the earliest encouragement us budding writers would receive. Sometimes she could be harsh if it was too obvious the student had written the Monday Musing during Monday lunch (which was at least an hour) or worse, during Morning Nutrition, which was just ten minutes.

“Please turn in something of better quality or nothing at all,” she’d write.

In her AP English class, I was the student who was always tired in a sad, mysterious way. I was an exhausted senior who had realized a little too early on that perhaps college wasn’t the answer to all of high school’s trivialities. That trivialities (pointless assignments, projects, etc.) continued in college and often, depending on the sort of job you landed, well into one’s career. Sometimes, trivialities followed people to their graves and were, just short of being engraved on one’s tombstone, worked into one’s eulogy. “So and so was a great colleague. Did great work, etc. Etc.”

Alright, perhaps I hadn’t thought so far…but I was dreading the murkiness I saw in front of me. This dread tired my young face and it showed. In the way unhappiness attracts nosy wonderment, I bathed in the Ms. M’s pity and concern whereas other exhausted students (such as my cheerleader friend Grace) only incurred her wrath. When it came time to turn in our senior projects, I had nothing despite that we had the entire year to work on it. The night before our projects were due, I sat in front of my computer and a blank poster board with a glum look on my face, a muted worry churning in my chest. I cared about my grades. But I didn’t really care. I had spent five dollars on that blank poster board, gone through the motions at Staples, stood in line and paid for it and drove it home, wondering how something so thin and light could feel so heavy. The intent, I suppose, was to fill it with lies. Back in September I had proposed to a small committee of over-enthusiastic teachers that I would learn the basics of Japanese. I would keep a weekly log, charting my progress and have knowledgeable adults (my father’s friend Greg Takino) sign off on my reports.

I did none of it. I knew the first five letters of the Japanese “alphabet,” and to whip up a log of all the rest that I hadn’t learned at 10PM sounded downright exhausting.

The poster board was a blinding white, yet I had never seen anything so abysmal. At eleven PM I decided that staring at the poster board for an hour was a good indicator that staring an hour more was useless. I shut my computer off and, if memory serves me right, went to bed or watched a movie or, as I often do in the summers, went swimming. I could have done it, created the project out of thin air, but there were some other things I wanted to do instead. It wasn’t nihilism per se, but in high school, on the edge of college enrollment, it was very very close. Maybe I swam. Maybe I didn’t. But it went quiet in my head and something had been cleared. I heard the faint buzz of the rest of my classmates pounding and pasting and lying away (because really, no one does the senior project) on their own blinding white poster boards, but in my room, there was no such noise. Just the silence of truth about to be delivered.

The next day I seemed strangely alert compared to the rest of my classmates, all of them bleary eyed from having stayed up late to “finish” their projects. A wall of poorly constructed poster boards lined the back of the classroom and sitting in the front of the classroom, I felt almost glad that mine was not there to join their shoddy ranks.

Class ended. I waited until all the other students filed out and approached Ms. M, who sat leaning on her podium. She looked up.

“Betty, I can’t wait to review all these senior projects,” her steely blue eyes stared past me and swept across the back wall. “Remind me again, what was your project on?”

I cleared my throat, “I proposed to learn Japanese. Well, the basics.”

“Oh wonderful! How did that go?”

“I wanted to talk to you about that.”

“Uh-oh.” She put her pen down, and put on her “I’m concerned about you” face, with widened eyes to match. “Are you doing okay? Do you need more time?”

“Ms. M, I don’t have my project.” 

“Okay, do you need more time? All you had to do was ask for an extension.”

“No. I just don’t have it. I didn’t do it.”

“Oh.” She looked crestfallen, as though she would have been the sole beneficiary of my senior project. “Why?”

I twisted my hands. It would have been too easy to cry then. And truly, I did ponder her question. Why? Why didn’t I do it? Why didn’t I feel the urgency or the weight of these final grades? Hadn’t I, at the beginning of the year, planned to finish strong? Hadn’t I promised myself and my parents that senior year was an important gateway to college – and that whatever bad habits I had were to be trampled until dead so I could fly away for college a sleek and disciplined bird? I didn’t know why I did not do the senior project. Or I did. I did not care.  

What I said was almost that. “I don’t know Ms. M. I don’t know. I just didn’t and I didn’t want to lie about it. I’m sorry.”

She stared at me long and hard. I watched her irises contract and widen, doing a quick calculation – what was wrong with this Betty? Was she depressed? Most likely. I had her for ninth grade English and she was a good student then, and still is, despite this senior project snafu and her occasional falling alseep, a good student now. It must be trouble at home. She wrote that one Monday Musing at the beginning of the year about being tired because she was arguing with her parents about her SATs.

It wasn’t that I had a particularly tough year. I went through the college admissions wringer along with the rest of my class, though “escaped” four months early by applying early decision to NYU and was accepted in December. Naturally, I mentally checked out of senior year as soon as I opened the mailbox and saw the big envelope.

“Now I can dick around,” I think, was my exact thought as I opened said envelope.

But Ms. M didn’t need to know that. What she saw wasn’t a student who no longer wanted to invest herself in her studies, but a student who couldn’t invest herself anymore because of unsaid troubles at home.

“Betty,” she said finally, “I’ve been watching you struggle for this whole past semester. I don’t know what is going on, but you can certainly, certainly talk to me any time about it.”

I nodded gravely, though really, there wasn’t much to say. I was staying up late most nights watching movies. My parents had stopped giving me shit about my grades and the SATs a few months back since I turned in my college applications and aside from the occasional warning about wasting their money at an expensive private school and studying something useless like Art or English, had pretty much checked out as well, tucking away their tiger tails.

“I appreciate your honesty.” Ms. M said, “It takes guts to tell the truth like that. I won’t penalize your final grade.”

The senior project was worth ten percent of our grade. had it been counted, it would have given me a B-plus in English, which for a socially awkward, video-game addicted Asian boy would be almost acceptable, but not for me, even in my academically apathetic state. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief and put my hands together in prayer, holding them up to my lips to hide my maniacal grin.

“Thank you so much, Ms. M. I know I don’t deserve this, but I’m really grateful you understand.”

“Remember Betty. You can talk to me anytime. I know this is a strange time for all you seniors.”

“It is,” I said,  already turning towards the door. Perhaps my next Monday Musing would be an ode to honesty.