The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue

Three Asian Hair Stories

Other Woman

The first hair I found was between the pages of a magazine ruelled between the mattress and the wall. It had to be hers; my own hair stops at the shoulders.

The next hair was flossed in a hedge of dust and dirt that I loosened from a broom.

Like most men, he prefers women with long hair. The most erotic passage in all of literature, he claims, appears in Kawabata’s Snow Country. In that novel, a wealthy dilettante from Tokyo makes seasonal visits to a hot springs inn in the mountains of Niigata, where he dallies with the heart of a provincial geisha.

In winter the scalawag sinks his fingers through the geisha’s long black hair and marvels, “Cold ! I don’t think I’ve ever touched such cold hair.”

Two weeks ago I plucked from the bathroom floor a pubic hair about three-quarters of an inch long. I set the hair on a dish to examine it more closely. The hair was slightly curled, whitened at one tip from the point of extraction. Unlike most men, he does not like his women to shave, a corollary to his distaste for cosmetics and nail polish. I stretched the hair straight between my fingers and watched it spring back on itself as though anxious to recover its shape.

Facts about the woman who came before me loiter in the skiffs and pivots of idle conversation. Once, as a girl working the register at her family’s mini-mart, she was robbed by a junkie waving a 12-liter bottle of cola over his head. She abhorred the word “panties.” Hypnosis and acupuncture had failed to curb her smoking habit, which gave her chronic cough. She tended to the cough with a steady intake of lozenges. She spent extravagantly on designer bras but resented the markup on beverages at restaurants.

Once, this woman got very angry and threw a plate of spaghetti at him from across the room. He shook his head, laughing, as he told this story. There was something practiced about his choice of words and delivery that made me certain he had told this story many times before. The rue and affection in his tone tore at me.

Really, I didn’t need to know any of this, but of course I could not know enough. I wanted to know what it was about her. I imagined tipping that plate back slightly in my hand for ballast, and the weight of it leaving my hand.

Someone once told me the best way to write an online dating profile is to write your own elegy: Think about how the qualities you’d want to be remembered for. Which is entirely wrong. Your profile should be written to attract people you want to have sex with. And if they are honest with themselves, most people want to fuck plate throwers. They most certainly don’t want to do it with someone who delivers her rage like a stone at the bottom of a sack, which, I’m afraid, is my preferred form of vindication when I’ve been wronged.

I don’t want you to think that he spoke of her often—quite the contrary. Most of the time he’s mindful not to mention her at all. But we live through the things we live through and know the people we know, all of it a continent of information and impressions that can’t be broken off from easily. And yet he has carefully stripped away all photographs evidence of this woman from his apartment, and even scrubbed his social media. I searched for her even as I wanted to obliterate her. My online investigation proved disappointing, yielding a single digital image the size of a postage stamp on a professional networking site, her dark hair melting into a dark shirt.

What part of me, or you, will linger after we’re gone? I admit this question was of more interest to me than who I would be if I stayed. Some months ago, I began growing my hair long. I want to grow it longer than hers. Then I will grow it even longer, past the small of my back, so when the time comes that my successor takes my place, there will be no mistaking what is mine.


Like most accidents, hers was stupid. But don’t ever say that out loud. She clambered onto the hood of a car, stretched her arms out and cried, Look, Blue Crush!—a popular surfing movie at the time. The car jerked. Sixteen years old. She’s been in a coma ever since.

Her mother, Chang tai-tai, was a friend of the family. I didn’t know her daughter well; just saw her at Chinese things. We were on friendly, if cool, terms. Cecilia gave off the languid, superior air of a long-distance runner. The type of girl who would, with grace, decline to give you her number to save you the trouble of the full measure of her disregard. We didn’t resent her; she was a little too wild, a little too B+ to be singled out by our parents as the high achiever we could become if only we watched less television.

In the first few months after the accident, we took shifts by Cecilia’s bedside. The idea was, if she opened her eyes, the first person she saw should be someone she knew, as though seeing a stranger might make her think she was in the wrong place and send her spiraling back to her coma.

She was in there somewhere, we assured each other. Her consciousness was wandering through some kind of thick, clottal tunnel, like the on-air colonoscopy of a famous TV personality we’d all watched years ago. At least that’s what we imagined whenever we caught the outline of her eyeballs racing beneath her eyelids. The doctor warned us not to read too much into these movements: they were not necessarily signs of brain function. The body has a mind of its own.

Once when we were in her hospital room, she startled us with a fart, as though punctuating an unspoken sentence.

Her high school boyfriend, who was, by all accounts, sweet if a bit dim, went on to attend a small liberal arts college, where he met the woman he would marry at a freshman mixer. We thought dolefully: Cecilia will never go to any mixers. Her worldview has been frozen in time. If she ever woke up, she’d be like a person exonerated after decades in prison who has to have self-checkout machines explained to them. Sometimes when I think of my father who died of a heart attack some years ago, I imagine myself describing to him the things he’s missed here on earth that I know he would have found interesting or amusing (mind-controlled robotic arms; the discovery of water on Mars; the Impossible burger). Until my father died, I didn’t realize that a central task of mourning involves catching the dead up on current events.

Chang tai-tai visited Cecilia every day without fail. She rotated her daughter’s limbs, cut and filed her fingernails and toenails, sponged her armpits and between her legs. On Cecilia’s birthday, she took special care to rouge her cheeks and paint her lips. But Chang tai-tai’s greatest pride was cutting and styling Cecilia’s hair, a curtain wall of uncommon strength descended from her side of the family. In ancestral times, she claimed, locks of this hair were twirled into calligraphy brushes, the stroke of which was capable of raising the caliber of a person’s writing. Poetry on love, courage, and sacrifice rose from the paper, monumental as ships. We smiled and nodded. It sounded like bullshit. But we understood this talk was her way of keeping her daughter’s foot in this world.

But we did not keep our foot in hers. Over time, in the rare event that Cecilia came up in conversation, the talk usually dissolved into half-hearted pledges. We really must visit soon, we told each other, empty promises that were, thankfully, accountable to no one. A decade passed. When one of us heard that the Changs had finally consented to remove Cecilia’s tubes, we were surprised to learn that Cecilia had been alive this whole time, a phrase we turned over in our mouths, marveling at the measure of our own lives, the arc of which was not yet visible.

Chang tai-tai was seen pushing a cart at Ranch 99, her gray bob replaced by a head of thick, shiny hair, fulgent as India ink. A rumor began circulating that this was no salon perm and dye job but a wig made from her daughter’s hair. Was this some kind of twisted tribute? No one dared ask. We all agreed the effect was unflattering, the hair of a young woman framing an old, wrinkled face. Even worse, this shriveled face looked out at us reproachfully, like a peevish monkey, no matter what we said or did. It was as though the hair were leeching away the old woman’s vitality—just as Cecilia had done when she was alive—a connection we couldn’t resist making even though we knew it was repugnant. Probably we deserved the monkey face. Every time she turned it on us, we felt both lashing and relief, like penitents.

Some time later, I received a package in the mail from Chang tai-tai. I was not the only one. Inside a small lacquer box brushed with gold filigree was a three-coin lucky knot interlaced with what looked to be Cecilia’s hair. When I took the knot out of the box and held it to the light, my daughters giggled and shrieked the way that children do to escalate the thrill of their own terror.

I scolded them. You know, people in olden times used to keep the hair of loved ones as keepsakes, I said. It was called mourning hair.

I explained how the hair was plaited into wreathes, or woven for use as watch fobs and brooches to be worn over the heart. This was before people had photographs. Before photography was even invented!

The girls listened with faraway eyes. They had no idea what a fob was and cared even less to ask. I had entered into the dead zone of history where the signals were chronically enfeebled. When and how did mourning hair fall out of favor or turn ghastly? Someday, I thought, our dead selves will be turned into microchips, set to an infinite loop of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, and shot into outer space.

The littler one, the kinder one, asked, Mama, are you sad?

Of course I am, I said cruelly, and looked away. I’m often sad.

I placed the knot back in its rice paper wrapping and slid the box away in a drawer.

Treatment for a Taiwanese Horror Movie

Every morning, a middle-aged woman who lives alone in a high-rise apartment, wakes up, and stares at her reflection in the mirror. She turns her face slowly from side to side. Touches the skin along her jawline with her fingertips, and presses down lightly on her cheeks, as one might tender a new bruise. Every day she goes to her office job, takes the train to look in on her elderly parents, and suffers the usual humiliations. With each new day, she more and more resembles Michael Jackson, post-Invincible, fragile, forsaken. When the transformation is complete, a skein of long black hair shoots out of her mouth, ears, eyes, etc.


Lisa Chen

Lisa Chen was born in Taipei, wrote Mouth (Kaya Press), received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues