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Eduardo Santiago

Tia Norma's Wig

"It's not natural," his mother whispered to Tia Norma, "this crazy obsession they have with hair."

"Boys will be boys." Tia Norma replied, or rather, the Spanish equivalent of that beautiful expression. And then she smiled that pink-lipstick smile he loved so much. "Los hombres son así."

When my cousin Tony and I were seven years old, we were fascinated by wigs. The idea of fake hair seemed glamorous and mysterious to us. We would watch the television together, and every time an actress appeared we'd comment on whether or not she was wearing a wig. We stared at every move she made, comparing the color of her eyebrows to the color of her hair. Was it bleached? Was it a wig? I had never actually seen a wig in real life. The women around me, my mother, my aunts, were the type who washed their hair with laundry soap. Tony claimed he had seen one once, in Havana, on an artificial head in a store called El Encanto, the charm. I had to believe him because he was two months older. It left me feeling provincial.

When we moved to Miami in 1968, it seemed everybody was wearing wigs in every imaginable style. There were full wigs of blonde, black, or red that fit tightly on the head. There were luxurious cascades of curls known as falls, and huge, round Afro wigs that made even the whitest of white people look like radical civil rights activists.

All of the television shows in America had wigs in them. My cousin and I could hardly control our excitement. We played spot the wig the way other kids counted Volkswagens on the highway.

Our favorite was when Batgirl appeared on a Batman episode. You could actually see her put her wig on! We knew we were in for a treat when the opening credit's flashed: and YVONNE CRAIG as BATGIRL.

Our hearts pounded as Yvonne pressed the secret button underneath her vanity table. This would cause the wall to revolve and reveal a gorgeous red wig on an artificial head. Tony insisted that it was the same one he had seen in Havana.

"There's the wig! There's the wig," Tony and I would scream, jumping up and down on the couch.

My little brother, Jose would look at us like we were crazy. I guess we were. But we didn't care.

That summer my mother was very excited because her favorite cousin, Norma from New Jersey was coming. Norma, I had overheard my parents say, had married an American man named O'Reilly and it hadn't gone too well, so she was coming to visit and if she liked it she was going to stay.

We all piled into my dad's turquoise Impala to pick her up at the airport. I didn't think much of it; relatives were always arriving in those days. Basically, it meant that I would have to give up my bed for a few weeks. But this relative turned out to be something special, because as she ran toward us, arms outstretched, screaming, and crying from happiness to see us in exile, my years of wig detection set off my wig alarm -- Yes! Yes! Finally, a wig in the family -- and it was coming to live with us. Tia Norma, as she wanted to be called, sat in the front seat between my mother and father. I had a clear view of the back of her neck. I could see the pulled up hair, the tell tale fuzz, the difference in texture. I knew I was right. I couldn't wait to tell Tony.

Tony didn't believe me because the next day, when he got to meet Tia Norma, she was wearing her real hair, which was sort of frizzy from too much bleaching, laundry soap and Aqua Net. I figured the wig was only for traveling and other fabulous events. In my eyes, Tia Norma had taken on qualities usually reserved for jet-set goddesses.

I spent the rest of the day trying to convince Tony of the existence of the wig. I knew there was only one way to prove it. We waited until Friday night because on Friday nights the adults gathered outside the building where we lived. There, beneath the cruel light of the street lamp, they would talk for hours, swatting away mosquitoes and drinking warm beer poured over ice cubes. These sidewalk huddles would go on all night, particularly when new relatives arrived, because they brought news that no one had heard -- who'd died, gotten married, had a baby, or had been arrested trying to escape Cuba. The escape stories were the best. I loved the one about the family who turned their dining room table up side down, tied a couple of inner tubes underneath it and, surrounded by sharks and protected by Saints, had floated ninety miles to Key West. Tony and I, unlike the other kids running around getting sweaty, liked to crouch behind the door and listen to the adults, because once they got through talking politics they would start to gossip about sex. They would talk about the women they thought were cheating on their husbands, men they thought had small dicks, and the maricones. They loved to talk and imitate the maricones, telling stories of men who had been rushed to emergency rooms with unusual objects in their butts -- bananas, cucumbers, watches, rings, even a light bulb.

Tony and I would listen intently because even though we were just kids, we knew that sometime in the not-too-distant future, they would be talking about us. To me it was terrifying. Tony was more defiant, and he loved to hear them talk about sex, any kind of sex.

But tonight we weren't interested in their conversations, which seemed to be about Tia Norma, and chemotherapy, and other things we didn't care too much about. We had a mission, to find and don that wig. We knew it had to be in my bedroom, where all of Tia Norma's things were stored.

My bedroom seemed forbidden. Tony kept daring me to go find it and I knew I wanted to get my hands on it, but I was afraid. What if it came to life, and glommed itself onto my head like an octopus? What if we got caught? My mind flooded with fantastic possibilities.

"Come on," Tony urged, "I just want to see it."

"Then, you do believe me that she has one."

"Sure I do, I just want to see it, don't you?"

"I've already seen it." I answered with feigned arrogance.

"Don't you want to see it again?"

Of course I did. I was dying to see it again.

It wasn't difficult to find it my tiny bedroom. I actually felt it before I saw it. It was inside a plastic bag, the kind they give you at the shoe store, with a drawstring at the top. We opened the bag carefully and it fell away, revealing a stiff mop of curls. It smelled of hairspray and cigarette smoke. It made me tingle as I touched it. "Why are you petting it?" Tony asked sarcastically, "it's not a dog." I ignored him and gently lifted it out of the bag as if I was handling something sacred. I allowed it to rest on my hand; it seemed fragile and precious.

Carefully, I turned it over and peered inside at the mesh netting that held the strands together, until I came across a small black label. On one side of the label the words "Made in Paris" were embroidered with gold thread using a fancy swirling script. On the other side, also in gold thread but in less fancy letters, the label boasted that the wig I held in my hand was 100% real hair. Whose hair, I wondered, a dead person's, a French person's?

"It's beautiful." I sighed.

"Yeah." Tony sighed back.

"It's so real," I continued, going deeper into my swoon.

"Put it on." Tony urged.

We both stared at each other, wide eyed. Then slowly, delicately, I slipped it over my head. "Oh, my God," Tony gasped.

"Do I look stupid?"

"No, you look...beautiful. How does it feel?"

"It's hot and it itches...want to try it?"

"Stand on the bed," Tony said.

"What for?"

"I want to see how you look grown up."

"OK," I said excitedly and jumped on the bed, shoes and all. "How do I look now?" I screamed, jumping up and down on the mattress.

"You look like your mom!" He said and fell to the floor laughing.

Suddenly, a flash of blue, like dull thunder, passed my field of vision. Tony felt it too. We froze and turned to see my father standing in the doorway, his face red, his shirt open. He looked furious. His big hairy belly came charging at me.

"Ven aca, maricón," my father said in that unmistakable voice that signaled violence. It was part mocking, part slur. He lunged at me, trying to grab hold of my neck. I saw him swat Tony out of his way. He was out to get me and wasn't going to stop until he did. I managed to run past him and into the hallway. He was yelling curses, which brought everybody running into the apartment, thinking he had encountered a burglar.

"I'll kill you, you little bastard, I'll fucking kill you." It reminded me of a time when we had cornered a rat in the dining room. It was one those Miami rats, the kind that crawl on the ceiling and fall on you while you sleep. I had stood next to my father as he approached it, his beefy arms outstretched like a wrestler, eyes fearless. The rat made quick birdlike movements, weighing it's options, knowing it was doomed. My father stepped forward and smashed it with his work boot. We watched the rat twitch in agony until we were sure it was dead. That was a good day. I had been proud of him that day. Tonight was something else. I knew that if he caught me he'd kill me. In his eyes I had the value of a rat, maybe less. He didn't feel responsible for the behavior of the rat.

"Mami, Maaaami," I yelled, trying to squeeze between her and the wall.

"Don't hide him or I'll kick your ass too," he warned her.

My mothers eyes met mine; there was nothing she could do. Then I remembered I still had the wig on. I turned to face him, and with a grand gesture, took it off. He looked confused for a split second, and as I threw the wig at him, his beefy arm swung through the air, his hand caught my face and sent me flying into the wall. I dropped to the floor and turned myself into a ball. I could feel heat coming from my cheek where he slapped me. Sweat pouring from my head. I could hear men's voices as they dragged him away.

"Leave him alone, he's only a little boy." They told him.

"I don't care, I won't have a fucking queer in my house."

The masculine voices faded away, and then the females descended upon me like a shroud. They stroked me as I sobbed, making shhh... sounds trying to calm me down. I couldn't look at them. I just wanted to die right where I was.

Later that night, when our apartment was quiet and everyone had gone to bed, I lay wide-awake, tucked into the couch, planning my escape. If only I could turn our dining room table into a boat! I'd sail to Paris...and get a job at a wig factory. I would make wigs of every size and every color in the rainbow. Rainbow wigs and candy colored wigs, wigs like ice cream sundaes and flower covered, it would always be like the first day of spring on top of your head. Wigs like fountains and wigs like clouds, wigs like birds nests and bird baths. Wigs that made short people look tall and fat people look thin. My wigs would be the great equalizer, everyone would look like a famous television star, everyone in the world would look rich and cultured. No one would ever look down in the mouth, for there would always be a reason to look up and smile.

Making friends would be easy, for what could be a better ice breaker than the swan, or penguin or chandelier shaped wig on your or your neighbor's head?

I would make a special line of wigs for children, little ones for kids and tiny ones for babies. After school wigs and picture day wigs, weekend wigs and Christmas vacation wigs. No one would be expected to walk around with just the boring old hair they were born with. Some wigs would be useful, like the reflector wigs for bike riding and street skating and glow in the dark wigs for those who liked to explore caves, basements and attics. I could maybe earn a medal from the Children's Safety Commission!

And a wig museum full of famous wigs, like George Washington's, Marie Antoinette's, and Bozo the Clown's. People from all over the world would come to gawk at the wigs and they would really have a good time, because unlike other museums not only could you touch the wigs, you could try them on and even buy one at the gift shop for a special friend who wasn't fortunate enough to come. Maybe the friend was paralyzed with polio or had been in a really bad fire. The wig would be like a new lease on life. Tony would be there too, together we would walk all over Paris getting more ideas for wigs, wigs like the Eiffel Tower, wigs like the turrets of Versailles, wigs like Paris in the snow or Paris in the rain. We would have so much fun on our excursions that just looking at each other would make us laugh and laugh.

The King and Queen of Paris would be our friends and when we walked into the court for a party or just a casual visit, everyone would applaud when they announced our names. No one would ever be mean to us, not even our parents, and if for some stupid reason they dared, the King and Queen of Paris would send them to the guillotine. Bewigged crowds of sophisticated Parisians would gather to witness the gory but fascinating spectacle.

"Off with their heads!" The King would roar to the muscular man in the leather mask and no shirt.

The executioner would obey the King's command with cold-blooded efficiency.

The sharp, silvery blade would drop with a dizzying, nauseating swiftness.

Gentlemen would gasp. Ladies would faint. Tony and I would watch with a mixture of sorrow and glee, but mostly glee.

Wigs would roll!

I must have fallen asleep, because I was awakened by someone sitting on the edge of the couch. It was Tia Norma. I opened my eyes a little and she took my hands and held them firmly, leaned forward, and whispered into my ear.

"Sweetie, you look better in my wig than I do."

She kissed me and returned to her room. There was a complicity in her voice. I knew what it meant then, and I know what it means now. I continue to follow that voice and hope I have become that voice for other frightened little boys. But that night, after her shadowy visit, I had a hard time falling asleep. An exciting thought kept bouncing around inside my head. Yes! Finally, a wig in our house!

©2002 by Eduardo Santiago

"Tia Norma's Wig" is one of eleven short stories that comprise a book about Cubans in America, called The Sex Lives of the Saints. Stories from this collection can be found in the award winning journals Zyzzyva and The Caribbean Writer. Currently, Eduardo is putting the final touches on his first novel, Intermission.

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