Luther Hughes’ You Smell Like Outside: Hair Part 2

“You Smell Like Outside” is Luther Hughes’ wonderful column for Frontier where he seeks to answer the question every month: can poetry help us with our real, day-to-day life? For April, Lue is thinking about hair, and he’s got a lot to say. This YSLO is going to be a multi-parter. Read On Hair: Part 1 here.


On Hair. Part 2

The day I tell my mother about my play-brother molesting me, my braids were a hot mess. I’m sixteen. It’s the third time I’ve grown my hair long enough for braids. It’s the summer and there weren’t any motherly reasons for keeping my hair done. So, a mess I was.

I had just come back from Spanaway with my best friend. His boyfriend lived in Spanaway. It’s safe to say we spent more time away from home than at home that summer. Most times, while there, we’d listen to music and dance, walk around the neighborhood, play video games with his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s brothers, or watch TV.

It wasn’t anything different from what we did at our own homes. The only difference was there were boys. We loved boys. The boy I loved lived in Puyallup. Whenever we weren’t in Spanaway or the rare times we were at home, that’s where we would be.

“I’m bisexual,” I told her over the phone. A small silence.
“We’ll talk about it when you get home.”

There wasn’t much to say. She asked how I knew I was and if I had ever had sex with a boy or girl. I had with both but told her I hadn’t. Eventually, I told her about my play-brother. It’s been years since either of us had seen him.

She started to weep. I didn’t know what to do. I watched her choke back heavy sobs, grand rivers of tears. She pleaded to God. I wanted to plead. I wanted to cry. Nothing ever came. In Ross Gay’s poem, “Ending the Estrangement,” the speaker meditates on what it feels like to be in the presence of his mother’s sadness:

from my mother’s sadness, which was,
to me, unbearable, until,
it felt to me
not like what I thought it felt like
to her, and so felt inside myself—like death,
like dying

—it did feel like dying, sitting there watching my mother. I felt so deeply helpless and like I was the one who caused her pain. But nothing ever came, and I wasn’t sorry. She was sorry for not knowing. She was sorry she didn’t catch on. She was sorry for something she couldn’t have avoided, even fathomed.

In the same poem:

but by sitting still, like what, in fact, it was—
a form of gratitude

—is that what it was?

As we sat briefly in silence, I noticed my room was messy. On my bed were two piles of dirty clothes. An empty Arizona Tea can sat, crushed at the head. It was quite some time since I had sat where she was sitting. When I had sat there, I browsed Myspace for cute boys.

There wasn’t anything else to say. She eventually got up and kissed my forehead. I don’t remember if she said, “I love you no matter what,” or if I’m collapsing what I saw on TV. It was implied, I guess.

That winter, I cut my hair. For months my mother had been telling me that if I wanted a job, I had to cut it because if I didn’t, employers would think I was a “thug.” She got to me. I cut my hair and wore a clean fade.

Everyone liked it, said, “You look so much older,” and “Damn, you look good.” The fade, or the compliments, grew on me and I began loving the new me. I uploaded a few selfies to my Myspace page to flex. I even changed my profile layout to something sleeker, more “adult.” When boys began messaging me, I responded with a modest, “thx” or “preciate it.” I never gave them too much. I was still “in love”—as my best friend would tease—with the boy in Puyallup.

I loved him for sure. He went to school in Puyallup and I went to school in Renton. By bus, we were over two hours apart. By car, a little less than forty-five minutes. I didn’t have a car and since I had joined a dance company in South Seattle—Kutt ‘N’ Up Entertainment—I had very little time to travel. In hindsight, it was fine. I guess. I mean, what we had—whatever we “had”—was perfect. I loved him, yes. He said he loved me. I never asked what love meant to him and it rarely matters now.

Distance made our connection sour; we stopped talking altogether. I don’t remember who stopped talking first. I’m not even sure if that matters. I loved him and only him for years. I couldn’t get over him no matter how hard I tried. And I definitely tried. I dated. I had sex. But at the end of the day, I always compared them to him.

The summer before I joined Kutt ‘N’ Up, we were lying in his bed talking about nothing and everything. The room was dark, the night sky spilled in through his window. I asked if I should turn on the light. “No, it’s okay. I like when they’re off.”

The room was so warm. He was so warm. We were looking into each other’s eyes while talking, something I later found difficult to do with others I liked, even loved. His eyes were a bright hazel that sang, and complimented his caramel skin, his dove-white teeth, carnation lips. I ran my fingers through his hair when it was silent enough to hear him breathe.

Phillip B. Williams writes—from his poem, “Hunter”: “Love, small // creature it was // crying in the night beneath me.”





Luther Hughes

Luther Hughes is a Seattle native and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founding Editor in Chief of The Shade Journal and Executive Editor for The Offing. A Cave Canem fellow and a columnist for Frontier Poetry, his work has been published or is forthcoming in various journals including, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, TriQuartlery, Four Way Review, and others.  Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.

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