Giant Girl Made of Hair

The following extract is from my work in progress: a YA novel entitled Some Kind of Something which is inspired by my best friend’s first love.   Chapter Three reminds me a lot of how said best friend and I first met.  Happy Birthday to my Len-spiration!

Chapter Three: Giant Girl Made of Hair

Bench near the parking lot of Pioneer Hall. March 25th, 1986

If someone wears headphones—big headphones, proper headphones, the ones that look like cybernetic earmuffs slurping at your skull with spongy musical love, and an insulated cord so long it reaches all the way back to the womb.  If someone sits on their own in the middle of a bench wearing headphones like that, it’s a clear signal that someone wants to be left alone.  Most people understand this.

Althea Ray does not understand.

I have temporarily escaped from the Illinois Youth Orchestra.  The last straw was watching my brother flirt with First Chair Violist Megan who, I think, was flirting with Glowing Jordan of the Flutes.  I’m not sure if Glowing Jordan was flirting with anyone, but it didn’t seem like he was going to be ascending or transforming anytime soon either.

Hate to miss that.   

But I need fresh air and I don’t care if it’s allowed or not.  I’m sitting on a bench outside Pioneer Hall, watching the security lights in the parking lot tremble to life as the sun sinks below the horizon.  I’ve got my headphones on, there’s no one else around and there’s a fresh, crisp spring breeze blowing through my hair.  If anyone asks, I’m waiting to meet my parents before the concert.

The idea of the concert and my parents spoils the peaceful moment.  My pulse starts to race and my everything clenches in anticipation.  I’m not sure which looming crisis scares me more: performing as one of the youngest members of the Illinois Youth Orchestra or performing with my brother for our parents as one of the youngest members of the Illinois Youth Orchestra.

The security lights in the parking lot flick on and off like they can’t decide whether they’re meant to be up yet.  Or they’ve woken up ready to party.  A disco strobe parking lot.

Their indecision is not helpful.  My breathing becomes quick and shallow, my throat constricts and I’m about to launch myself off this bench and onto the disco parking lot, when the sound of heavy panting followed by a solid thump makes me jump.  Huge quantities of black hair greet me from an impossible height.


Talking black hair.  Flickering security lights silhouette the sleek head in lightening bursts like something out of a horror film.  I shrink into the collar of my black turtleneck. One hand emerges from the shadow and gives a little wave.  A second hand rests on the shoulder of an enormous purple case which contains either a giant guitar or a small child.

The giant’s hair is everywhere.  Black sheets of it slide from a neatly parted scalp, down the sides of a heart-shaped face, over narrow shoulders, across the purple case/coffin.  She—I assume it’s a she beneath all that hair—realises it’s in her way because one hand pushes it back, revealing a person.  In the dark, with the flashing light behind her, I can’t make out her features, but I think they’re mostly female and human.

‘Hi,’ she repeats.

She smiles tightly down at the part of the bench occupied by Chordelia then raises her black eyebrows as if asking my viola for permission to sit down.  Her full lips widen into a manic, sunbeam smile, all white teeth and infectious cheer.  The sort of smile beauty queens and talk show hosts practice in the mirror.   It’s a: “You’re going to like me and I won’t give up until you do so you might as well face it and make room for me because I can charm you under the table with my teeth tied behind my back” smile.

Fingers still trembling, I pull Chordelia, safe in her case, onto my lap, making room for the hairy giant with the monstrous purple coffin to sit down next to me.

‘Thanks,’ she mouths.  Her long legs vanish beneath the bench.  ‘I felt a bit stupid just standing out here by myself,’ she shouts into my ear.  ‘With this thing,’ she slaps the side of the purple case, possibly as a signal to silence the poor creature trapped inside it.

Why is she out here at all?  And why is she shouting?

‘What are your listening to?’ the giant girl of hair bellows.

Oh.  That’s why.

I forgot about my headphones.  Easy to forget because they aren’t plugged into anything.  The jack is stuffed into the back pocket of my pants.  I don’t wear headphones for entertainment, I wear them for protection. Like armour.  When I wear my headphones, no one tries to talk to me.  (Usually.)  I can pretend not to hear the nasty things people say behind my back and to my face.  My headphones defend me.

Beside me, the girl made of black hair stretches caramel-coloured hands and shakes out long, slim fingers.  Pianist hands, I think, though it’s probably not a piano inside that purple beast.  Now that my head isn’t picturing horror films, I recognise it as a cello case.  Like Hector’s.  Only purple.

Great.  She’s a giant hairy cellist. 

‘What are you listening to?’ she repeats, louder, closer and slower, tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears.   That hair has a mind of its own.  It wants to be free.

‘What?’ I ask breathlessly.  I slide half a headphone to one side, pretend I haven’t heard her, try desperately to think of how to answer, wish she hadn’t asked and wonder if she can tell I’m breathing like a marathon runner on mile twenty.

‘What are you listening to?’ she asks for a third time.

‘Umm…’  My face heats.  I suck at lying.

‘Is it shocking?’ she grins in a voice borrowed from some English Victorian parlour drama.  ‘Or just embarrassing and ridiculous?’  She rolls her the “r” of ridiculous.

‘Both,’ I puff, kind of truthfully.

‘I think I’ve seen you around the practise rooms at school.’

‘Probably,’ I nod, grateful to move on from the topic of what I’m not listening to on my headphones.  ‘I spend a lot of time there.’

‘I’m Althea.’

A caramel hand stretches out from behind the ebony curtain of hair and takes mine. Despite the early spring chill, her hand feels warm.  My cold, shaking fingers hold her too tightly for too long.

Althea doesn’t seem to mind.  She smiles.  Not the beaming beauty queen smile she flashed because she wanted something, but a real smile.  An awkward smile that doesn’t look forced exactly, just off.  Like her smile is still trying to figure out its purpose in the world.

‘Len,’ I mumble.

I try to take my hand back, but she holds onto it for another minute before letting go.  A familiar routine plays out on Althea’s face.  One I’m used to.  If she has noticed me before, hanging around the practise rooms, it’s probably not the first time she’s played this game.

I can almost hear her brain wonder: What are you?

Her eyebrows, black and thick as her hair, knit together.  Her eyes, big, black and almond-shaped, with almost no fold at the lids, study my face.  I wonder if she’s Asian or Indian.  I wonder if it’s OK to ask.  Her eyes drop from my face down to my chest then up to my neck.

Smart girlToo bad.  I’m wearing a turtleneck.

I wait for her to make up her mind.  To take in my square jaw and peachy skin; my long lashes and chiselled cheek bones; my short hair and gentle curls.  I wait for her to put this together with my alto/tenor voice, my long, lanky body, softened by puppy fat but still unformed, and my unhelpful name.  I wait for her to ask.  Like everyone else.

She never does.

‘What you listening to, Lenny?’  Althea doesn’t change her body language one bit.  Not to slide in closer or shift to make room.  Not that she could have.  Most of the available space belongs to her.  ‘Before I interrupted you,’ she adds apologetically.

‘Nothing,’ I confess, but she talks over me.

‘The Vivaldi piece?  That’s a tough one for the violists.’

‘Yeah,’ I respond, answering the second question, avoiding the first.

‘The third movement is kicking my ass,’ she sighs.

‘The embellishments on the first are a bitch,’ I agree, matching her swearing.

‘Don’t you think Vivaldi’s like the angry gym teacher of the string section?’

‘The one who makes us run in place and calls it a rest period?’

‘Yeah,’ laughs Althea.  ‘That one.’  I made her laugh.  Encouraged, I stretch the joke even further.

‘He’s like the bitter coach who thinks he’s pushing us to make us stronger.’

‘Totally,’ she giggles.

‘I hate that guy.’

‘Vivaldi’s a bully.’

‘He was a violinist,’ I shrug.

‘The diva sopranos of the string section,’ she replies.

‘Totally,’ I chuckle.

‘Maybe he wanted revenge for all the hours spent practicing.’

‘Probably,’ I agree.

A dark cloud settles over the conversation.  I wonder how many years she has sacrificed to the gods of music.  As many as I have?  I wonder how good she is.  Better than me?  Better than Hector?

If she turns out to be better than Hector, that would be awesome!

‘Sounds like we have a lot in common, Lenny.’  She places one hand on her purple case and one hand on Chordelia’s, patting them with a grim kind of fondness.

‘Len,’ I correct her.

Then, before I can stop myself, I give away the punchline to my favourite joke.  Just blurt it out.  Like it means nothing.  Like it isn’t my weapon and shield.

‘It’s short for Helen.’

I wait, breath held, for her reaction.  She shrugs.  Like it doesn’t matter.  Boy?  Girl? Vegetable?  Mineral?  It’s almost always the first thing people want to know about me.  But Althea doesn’t seem to care.

Well, this is different…

‘J Althea Ray,’ she proclaims formally, holding her hand out again, this time waiting for me to take it.

I worry my hand will be too clammy or slightly shaky but, to my surprise, it feels steady.  The pulsing terror at my throat is gone.  Like magic.

‘Helen R Timothy.’   Her hand feels deliciously warm.

‘Timothy?’ she repeats, incredulous.  ‘As in Hector Timothy?’

‘Yeah.’  I take my hand away and pull Chordelia to my chest.  The spell is broken.  She’s going to be another Hector fan, I just—

‘But he’s such an asshole.’

The world stops spinning for a moment.  Did she really just call my brother an asshole?  Wonderful Hector?  Genius Hector?  Hector that everyone loves?

‘Umm…’ I mumble, completely wrong-footed in the best way.  Like stepping off a high dive and falling into a pool of cotton candy rainbow clouds.

‘Sorry,’ she backtracks, ‘no offense, but your brother is kind of a—

‘Dick,’ I finish for her enthusiastically.  ‘Yeah.  He totally is.’

And in that moment, I know.  The instant she calls my golden brother an asshole, I know this is someone special and magical and important.

‘What’s the J stand for?’ I ask, struggling to tone down my sense of wonder.

‘If we’re still friends a year from now,’ she grins mischievously, ‘I’ll tell you.’

One year later, she will.


A Little Respect

I think I needed it more than they did.  Not for me exactly, but for the ones who came before: the friends who struggled and suffered in so many ways; the heroes who made it possible; the haters who finally, reluctantly, dragged their asses to the band wagon.  Of course, it didn’t go as planned.  Does it ever?

It’s Pride Month and I didn’t want Pride Month to go by without marking it with the ones who matter: my students.  Because I remember how it was and, as much as things have changed, I’m not so naïve to think the battle has been won.

When my daughter came out to me, I was gutted.  Not in an “Oh my god my kid is queer,” hand wringing sort of way, but because she was so blasé about it.  There was no tearful conversation over hot chocolate that went late into the night.  It was just: ‘You know, mum.  Most of my friends are pan.’  Later, I had to look up what that means.

Obviously, I am delighted that she and her friends have that freedom.  Even more delighted that my friends—the parents of her friends—have barely batted an eyelash.  I’m still a little bitter at being denied the opportunity to bake rainbow cupcakes for an official Coming Out Party, but I’ll get over it.

One girl in my form came out as Pan over the summer and another has spoken openly about her girlfriend to me and others.  And they are not alone.  There’s at least one lad in Year 10 who is out and a trans kid in Year 9 who was the topic of a Staff Meeting.  The Deputy Head wanted to make sure we call him by his new name and informed us of the arrangements in place for him.

All this fills me with a kind of joy that, as their teacher/colleague, I can’t express properly because it might get me fired.  I want to hug them and kiss them through tears and tell them how proud I am and overwhelmed by the world they are shaping for us all.  I want to dance with them to Erasure.

On the other hand, I had a stern conversation early this year with two others in my form for queer bullying.  The battle is far from over.  Which brings me to Pride Month.

Last week, I decided to mark Pride with the students in my form.  I wanted them to understand the origins of Pride and to appreciate the monumental progress which has taken place in a relatively short period of time.  After a lunchtime spent sifting through options, I showed them Tyler Oakley’s Chosen Family: Stories of Queen Resilience.  The queer girls cheered when they saw the rainbow and the word “queer” in the title, though their attention drifted as Tyler Oakley investigated the history of The Stonewall Riots and interviewed a bunch of old queers.

I wanted to scream.  Don’t you get it?  Two generation ago, you would’ve been arrested for partying with your friends!  A generation ago, you wouldn’t have dared come out.  A generation ago, you would’ve had the shit beat out of you.  Your parents would have disowned you and their friends would have sympathised with them.  My friend’s mother brought a priest to their house to perform an exorcism when he came out.  People died.  So many people died.  And your attention is drifting!

How dare you?

‘It wasn’t that long ago,’ I explained, ‘that police raided gay bars—

‘That were ages ago,’ interrupted Girl Who Talks Openly About Her Girlfriend.

‘—for no other reason than they were gay,’ I finished.

‘Half a lifetime ago,’ added Pan Girl.

‘That’s not that long,’ I protested.  ‘It took women two thousand years to get the vote.  It took blacks in American three hundred years to get from enslavement to the presidency.  Never take your liberty for granted.’

‘And anyway, if the Stonewall Riots were in June,’ continued Girl Who Talks Openly About Her Girlfriend.  ‘So why do we celebrate Pride in August?’

‘We don’t.  York Pride was last week and Harrogate Pride is this weekend.’

‘Yeah, but London Pride—

‘Is in the first week of July so it doesn’t clash with Wimbledon,’ I argued, guessing wildly.

Girl Who Talks Openly About Her Girlfriend shrugged and the bell rang and the moment I invested so much in died.  This is how it is to teach teenagers.  I want to grab her and shake her until she gets it.  Again, this would get me fired.  I also want to hug her, cry on her shoulder and tell her how grateful I am that she lives in a better world.  Not a perfect one, but better.

Because I remember how hard it was for people I loved to live life in the closet.  I remember how painful it was for them to come out and how terrible it is when they decide not to—to permanently live the lie.  I remember families rejecting them.  I remember beautiful people dying of a disease that became the butt of every joke for a decade.

I worry that everyone else has forgotten.  There has been so much progress so quickly: gay marriage legislation; more adoption equality; a community that has exploded as one famous person after another comes out and new ones step forward in a rainbow spotlight.  It’s easy to forget and grow complacent.  Until the Supreme Court rules in favour of a baking bigot.

As the various people in the video say, we must do what we can to honour those who came before.  The ones who put their bodies on the line so that we can have the freedoms we have today.  They risked their lives—many lost their lives.  To forget would be a true tragedy.

My students might not get it yet, but I do.  Bless those drag queens of yesterday.  May their heels not break on rough roads tomorrow.