Luther Hughes’ You Smell Like Outside: On Hair Part 3
“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 May, Lue is finishing up his musing about hair. This YSLO is the finale of a multi-parter. Read On Hair: Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.
On Hair. Part 3
When I first met him, his twin brother was a dancer on Kutt ‘N’ Up. He was one of the singes in my first performance. On stage, his skin gleamed and his freckles glittered. If you didn’t know him, you’d might think he was a white man. Especially with his reddish-brown hair. But it was the texture of his hair that told his story of blackness. Like my Puyallup-love, he was biracial. His singing really turned me on and that made him different than my Puyallup-love. Puyallup-Love couldn’t sing as well. On the phone, I beg him to sing to me. His voice was honey, smooth and thick, that clung to my body.
I bragged to him about Puyallup-Love. Often, it was to remind him how deeply I once felt for someone. It was also to caution him to take things slow. But I admit, I was tossing Puyallup-Love in his fact to “test” him. I do like testing the boys that I like. The greatest test, and the old saying: “If you love something, let it go.” In “White Dog” by Carl Phillips:
First snow—I release her into it—
I know, released, she won’t come back.
This is different from letting what,
already, we count as lost go. It is nothing
like that. Also, it is not like wanting to learn what
losing a thing we love feels like. Oh yes:
I love her.
Released, she seems for a moment as if
some part of me that, almost,
I wouldn’t mind
understanding better, is that
Phillips ruminates on the old saying; the speaker starts off confidently, knowing that the dog won’t come back, and this immediately challenges the old saying—especially because dogs are known to always find their way back home. But as the poem continues, the speaker then questions their own ideas on love and release: “Released, she seems for a moment as if / some part of me that, almost, / I wouldn’t mind / understanding better, is that / not love?” At the end of the poem, the speaker settles with releasing the dog simply because they know the dog won’t come back:
a white dog,
less white suddenly, against the snow,
who won’t come back. I know that; and, knowing it,
I release her. It’s as if I release her
because I know.
What does this say about love and our expectations of love? Was I truly testing him because I had fell out of love with Puyallup-Love or was I testing myself?
On the phone one night, he said something like, “What would you say if I had a discharge from my penis?”
“Okay,” I shrugged. I rolled across my bed and assured him that I wouldn’t dump him because of it.
“Wow, really? Well, I don’t. I was just testing you.”
I didn’t laugh. I don’t like being tested. I didn’t know what it meant to “discharge” or how else he expected me to respond. I Googled it a few days later.
After a few months of being boyfriends, I cheated on him with a boy who fell madly in love with me. I hadn’t heard from him for five straight days and on day six, I told Madly-In-Love-With-Me that I wanted to be with him. He didn’t know I was already in a relationship. He didn’t need to know. On the seventh day, my boyfriend called and apologized. I took him back, dumped Madly-In-Love, and had sex with him that weekend. In the background, Alvin and the Chipmunks played as I slid in and out of him. I never told him about cheating. When he broke up with me—I can’t remember why—I went back to Madly-In-Love. We dated until the end of the school year. We never had sex, although I did blow him a few times in the school bathroom while he ran his fingers through my mini-fro. I needed a haircut. I needed a haircut bad.
Barbershops are supposed to be a sanctuary for black men. It’s a place where we could feel comfortable, shoot the breeze, nag about women or our jobs or our favorite sports team, and get cleaned up all within one visit. This feeling is so known across black culture it’s even portrayed in TV shows like Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, black-ish, and others. There’s even a movie franchise dedicated specifically to barbershops called, Barbershop. If I wanted to stay clean, I needed to get my hair cut every other week. And I did. Every other Friday, I would get a haircut and shoot the shit with my barber while those who waited chimed in, music playing in the background.
I’m not entirely sure how much of myself I owe to those visits, but I do remember how much I enjoyed listening to all the men and boys laugh and read each other. I enjoyed how my barber would ask how I was doing in school and, “How man girl you don’ fought off this week?” I enjoyed the smell of black hair products and cologne. I enjoyed my barber’s hand guiding my head this way and that. I enjoyed their commitment to the politics of sports, a pastime I gave up years before. I enjoyed the artwork of barbers cutting hair and the posters of types of haircuts. I enjoyed, weirdly, the bee-sting of alcohol my barber rubbed on my face when he finished. Every so often he’d say, “Boy, you lookin’ good. Look, looky-here at this by, y’all. Ain’t he fresh?” And the whole shop would gas me up.
I never once thought I would begin feeling uncomfortable in barbershops. The year of my twenty-fourth birthday, I started noticing how dangerous that space was for me. By then I had realized I wasn’t bisexual, but gay. I had moved to Chicago to pursue my undergraduate degree in poetry at Columbia College Chicago.
During my first year at Columbia, my closest friends all wore their natural hair: locks, large afro, red curly mohawk, purple, streaks of blonde on either side, just bangs. Attending an art college, I thought having locks would be the perfect way to show off my artsyness and my blackness, so I grew out my hair. I used natural products like coconut oil and Jamaican Mango & Lime locking wax. I stopped combing through my hair for weeks at a time, only washing it everything few weeks. I was committed.
Until I wasn’t. The process proved much harder than I had ever imagined. Eventually, I lost the battle, cut it off, and rocked a curly high-top fade. During the beginning of my curly-high-top-fade days, I started going back to barbershops. During my first few visits, I was excited. My excitement died when I began overhearing thins like, “I don’t wanna cut no faggots hair” or “I’d fuck a faggot up if he ever tried to get at me.” Phillip B. Williams’ poem, “Barbershop,” perfectly describes what happens next:
And the hot-toothed clippers stay
hacking hair like field hands.
everybody quiet for a moment, a few
awkward stares, a few heads
nodding in what seems like agreement
It wasn’t like I’ve never heard these things in barbershops before. So why was I so taken aback by it those moments? I couldn’t say. I couldn’t even fathom having ever been comfortable with it in the first place. But in those last visits, I was very uncomfortable. I began trying to make myself seem less gay. I wore baggy clothes and talked very little. When I was asked a question, I made my voice deep. I was careful with my words. I only knew how to be straight through stereotypes I was seeing on TV. I wasn’t sure how much of it worked. I stopped going.
I found a new barber who cut hair in her and her girlfriend’s apartment for $10. I started dating a bald man who shaved his own hair like my father did before nesting on the couch with a freshly opened can of beer. I’d watch Bald-Man’s sharp-edge razor glide over his head, the metal shimmering. His hand moved like an ice skater.
Bald-Man was beautiful. He had very long eyelashes that curled seamlessly, full-mahogany lips, light wooden eyes that I often found myself lost in when he’d ask me a question or offer me some of his food. Steak, usually.
He lived up the street from my apartment in Hyde Park and I began staying at his place more than my own. When we had sex, he would run his hands through my hair and look me in my eyes. One time, when I felt his body was close to coming, I whispered in his ear to come inside me. He did. And did every time after. When finished, I’d rub his bald head and kiss his cheeks. At night, he turned on the fan to keep us balanced with the room.
The first few lines of the poem, “Poem for My Love” by June Jordan, comes to mind: “How do we come to be here next to each other / in the night / Where are the stars that show us our love / inevitable”
I loved him, I did.
When we weren’t having sex or watching The 70s Show or writing—me, poems; him, a screenplay or novel or short story—we’d cuddle on the couch in the living room. He would often take pictures of my hair saying, “How do you like this one” or “Your hair looks so fucking great in this one, don’t you think?”
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, Executive Editor for The Offing, and Editor-at-Large of Frontier Poetry. A Cave Canem fellow, 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.