[CREATIVE NONFICTION] Uproot
There is an apricot tree in my neighbor’s backyard that hangs like tired limbs, like your legs did when you were small, after a wedding. Like when you sprawled out on the carpet of a banquet hall and let your mouth get slack.
I live in Chicago and the backyards are big enough for a patch of grass to spread a body out in, but just barely. The tree grew and the fruit had nowhere to go, I could see how it buckled. It waned in the weight of it all. No one welcomed it but it crouched into my yard. It hung its limbs over my fence. It was so tired.
And then the fruit, it gave in. It gave in all over our grass.
My dogs ate the apricots down to the pits. They ate them until they were sick and vomited them back onto the floor of my bedroom.
Every day I considered knocking on the neighbor’s front door and telling them to cut it down.
But there are some things we just need to let grow.
Cutting your hair doesn’t hurt but so many children think it does. It has something to do with the scissors. With something so sharp getting close to your head.
I do not remember my first haircut but I remember my first up-do. My mother pulled my hair back tight and I did not scream. My sister was the one who screamed while getting her hair done. I would hold my neck steady. I would close my eyes.
I do not know how to unfold in public.
My hair is only getting shorter with age.
The first time my parents noticed that I had been pulling my hair out I was in third grade. My part started to become less like a definitive line and more like a rounded suggestion. There were so many bald spots.
My father called me into the basement, then into his office where he had me sit on his lap so I could see the computer screen better. And then I could see the pictures of all the bald girls. The girls who had what I had. What I didn’t yet have a name for.
I would start to make small marks in pen on my wrists in class. One for every time I had wanted to pull a piece of hair out but didn’t. A mark for every one that was saved.
Trichotillomania always comes up in my spelling errors on my computer because it is not well known. It is hard to recognize.
I never went to a school dance. In middle school, I had been put on social probation. This means I had taken too many days off school. I had relinquished my rights to have fun. I had already bought a dress. It was red and short and it had a bow in the center where some of my cleavage would show.
I did not go to prom. No one asked me, except for one boy by default. We both didn’t have dates. We sat next to each other in English. I said yes until I didn’t.
He had already rented a tux.
He stopped speaking to me until we were placed next to each other in line at graduation. My hair was spilling down my back, almost reaching the top of where my spine ended and my ass began, right at the place my sister called, “back dimples”. He asked me if I had ever read Naked Lunch. I tossed my cap into the air and shook my curls out in his direction. “I haven’t.” I could see my mother in the bleachers with her camera. I nodded in her direction. She motioned for me to pull the hem of my dress down. I bought it with her credit card because that was her gift to me. The day I brought it home she mentioned the way it showed the curve of fat on my back. She suggested I wear my long long long hair down, it will be pretty.
It will cover you up.
I am twenty-two years old and I go apple picking for my birthday with my partner, Lucy. We are unsure of which line to enter to get our bags for apples. It seems expensive but we know that we are paying for the experience. To be taken on the back of an open truck bed to acres and acres of fruit. I point out leaves that look different from the others and recognize them as peach trees. Lucy asks me how I know that and I mention the one that grew in my grandparents’ backyard. I mimic their softness with my own skin, a light layer of hair surrounding my whole body.
I don’t mention the grape vines that curled around the old pipe that eventually became part of the plant. How I spent years watching it warp and curl itself around metal. Picked the grapes before they were ripe and felt them suck the moisture from my tongue, tart and snapping at the soft skin inside of my cheeks.
At dinner my mother passes her hand over her face and muddles her features as she says, “Well Nonna has always been this way,” pressing her hand to the table now, to steady herself, “she would fly off the handle, don’t you remember? She would hit herself.” And then again but softer, “hit herself.” My aunts are nodding over their glasses, over their plates. I am feeling the short edges at the base of my neck.
My therapist asks me about my sharpest memories. I conjure up the worst of them and lay them out next to each other. The first is from when I was seven.
When I am seven school is less like a place and more like a concept. But I know what time I have to get there. I know that we are running late. I am standing in the kitchen looking out into the dining room where my mother is taking her hands to her knees, again again again. I know what this looks like and it is punishment. I’ve felt a slap but never from myself. I’ve been hit before but never by choice. My therapist says that must have been hard to see. I think that it may have been, but I don’t remember feeling it at the time.
I remember pressing my barrette farther back into my bangs and thinking that my mother would be so sad if I missed picture day. I did not know how to fill out the form on my own. I did not know what size photos to get. There were so many choices. What would she hang on the walls?
My therapist tells me that she is starting to write down when I pull at my hair during sessions. It is always when I talk about my family. It is only when I talk about my family.
This is how I do it: I swirl my hand into the crown of my head. I turn and turn and turn my finger until I find a piece that is thick. Then I pull pull pull.
Recovery is a word that can be stretched out. Everyone puts it on differently. I am 18 years old and I have consistently not purged for six months which just means that every time I overeat, I let it sit.
I have never understood the term: comfort food.
The saleswoman was knocking on the door because she could hear panting in the dressing room.
I was sweating because it was August or because I was crying or because I had just gotten into and out of 8 dresses and they all clung to my dead parts. Or I don’t remember, but it is important to know that I was sweating. I was pressing down hard on my thighs with my forefinger and thumb and this is what it felt like: a thick layer of something that was not mine. I had to push hard to get to the hurting parts. The alive parts.
I was certain that all of me was dying.
And the dead things were ugly.
The saleswoman was knocking on the door because she could hear panting in the dressing room.
If you press your knuckles into your skin and twist rhythmically, to counts of eight, it will cause flowers to bloom. And the blooming things will be purple. And they will last longer if you keep them up. If you take the proper precautions.
My hair fell around my body, but it was not what I wanted to cut off.
My sister is standing in the shower as she cuts my bangs in an upward motion. I lean my head over the edge of the bathtub with my back pressed against the ceramic. I lean my head over and shake the edges off.
This is our ritual.
We both knew I was never going to have his baby.
The first time he put his hands in my hair I was 19 and on his couch. He said I should not be so hard on myself, he said, “Why do you say you are incompetent?” He looked at me like everything was god, like he wanted to marry everything.
He thinks it’s funny that I tried to tattoo my hip in high school, so he rests his head in between them and I cross my arms behind my head like I imagine someone who had a hammock would do.
My backyard is big enough for a body, but just barely.
I put my teeth on him but it is an accident and I stop using my mouth in a different way than usual to say that I am sorry. He says that It’s Okay and then uses my full name. I never knew that a name could be so vulgar in its syllables. The way he grabs at my hair doesn’t feel like it used to. It doesn’t feel like being quilted into, but like coming apart.
He knows I am not enjoying this, him being in my mouth, and he tells me, “Kaitlin, you don’t have to,” he has his hand around my neck, his fingers full of my length.
I fill several pots with water and watch them boil out into steam and it wakes him up. It is not that I was making noise, it’s just that he can tell when I am about to burn something. He picks up the egg I felt like boiling and it bursts and when it does we look down at it together. We watch the shell run circles in his hands.
We both know I was never pregnant but I took the test anyways. I think: if something has imbedded itself, I would have to call him.
I think: I am grown. I can touch so many things that aren’t mine.
I used to be forgiven but now I am not.
I light candles for my friends and set intentions. I have forgotten how to pray formally. But really, I know that I could remember if I tried. How long does it take a spider to spin a web? And why do we assume things are dirty or old when they are full of them. Doesn’t it only take a matter of minutes to build a home?
Have I ever grown at all?
Before I cut the inches off my hair I sit in my backyard and let the apricot tree shadow play across my bare thighs.
As the scissors cut across my hair, some of it falls into my lap and it holds a familiar warmth.
I know now that I will never stop brushing the phantom hairs off my back.
Lucy has asked me to trim the back of their hair, the parts they can’t get to with their own hands. There is only so much flexibility in a body.
They sit with their knees tucked beneath them and I fumble, finding uneven edges with my fingers and stretching them out until they are stiff enough to cut.
They adjust their posture, turning spine into street lamp, as the floor collects hair. Lucy turns to see if the cut is even, if the overgrown pixie cut has started to sit straight.
How quickly does the image of your face fade once you’ve turned away from a mirror?
I look down at my hands and see scissors.
Katie Burke is a queer writer living in Chicago and she is trying her best. Her work can be found in The Fanzine, Alien Mouth, Hooligan, Witch Craft Magazine, and others.