Mara had skin that was dark and rich like Madam Frida’s malted fudge brownies. She also had thick, coarse hair that required a most delicate touch to maintain in its natural state. But Mara did not have the time to baby her hair — not with Port Valley’s athletic banquet coming up so soon.
Mara was a setter on Port Valley High’s Sr. Girls Volleyball Team and an executive member of athletic council. Every year the athletic council organized a banquet in late winter where they recognized accomplished students, raised money for the teams, and everyone got to dress up for a night.
Each year a theme was chosen as inspiration for the decorations and dress code. This year’s theme was “Gods and Monsters.” Mara wasn’t too sure what colour scheme or type of outfit read Goddess — but had settled on a navy wrap dress after her mother had convinced her to buy it. She had earlier been eyeing a loose-fit marigold shaded dress, but her mother insisted that a muted colour would look better against Mara's complexion.
When it came to special occasions, Mara usually took care of her own hair, but this time she was hoping that the occasion would be more than special. She planned to ask her friend Jaymor to attend the banquet with her. He played on Port Valley’s Sr. Boys Basketball Team and was also a member of athletic council.
Mara had collected the contact information of a hair stylist from her mother, and scheduled an early morning appointment two Saturdays before the banquet.
Before leaving for the salon, Mara’s mother had caught her on the way out the door. The house was quiet, and the corridor dimly lit, it being not quite 7am. She perched on the staircase which overlooked their front entrance and peered down at Mara.
“So, you’re finally braiding that hair. Thank God. No more of that rat’s burrow you call a ‘puff’.” Her mother was still dressed in her sleeping silks, yet had already put on her bobbed wig.
Slipping into her sneakers, Mara exhaled. “My hair isn’t messy just because it isn’t blown out or flat ironed.” Or under a wig, Mara hadn’t dared to add. “As long as it’s clean — which it is — then there shouldn’t be a problem. This is how it grows naturally, after all.” She wondered how her mother never grew tired of this conversation.
Her mother looked down at her with pity. Pity for the poor child who may never know any better. “If you purchase a blouse from the store, will you wear it wrinkled just because that’s how it came?” She sucked her teeth, the universal sound of disapproval.
Well, in their culture anyway.
* * * *
Later at the salon, Mara sat in a black leather swivel chair with a nylon cape draped around her shoulders, facing a mirror. She rotated her head in the mirror, marvelling at her appearance. Mara’s hair, which usually consisted of fluffy curls and coils had been gradually transformed into what Essence Magazine called ‘goddess box braids’. Single braids that flowed free down her back, complete with the odd curled section to add body and style.
The hair stylist’s name was Idara, but seeing as the woman was even older than her parents, it was customary for someone Mara’s age to address Idara as “Auntie." Even though there was no blood relation.
Auntie operated her styling business out of a modest salon that was located at the corner of a strip mall. The place was built with wooden floor boards and cement insulation. The salon was kept tidy, although the air was laden with a scent comprised of what Mara assumed to be a mixture of dozens of hair oils, creams, and gels.
It was a wondrous task, braiding afro hair with extensions. First Auntie would take a pair of shears to a bundle of synthetic extensions and cut to the desired length. Afterwards, she would use her rattail comb to section off little tufts of Mara’s hair that would later become full braids. Auntie did this by taking a sliver of synthetic hair from the bundle, looping it, then skillfully weaving it into Mara’s hair. Auntie’s fingers were swift and nimble. When Mara tried explaining the process to her friends at school, they thought of it like a magic trick. She saw it as more akin to a miracle. To Auntie, it was just business.
Laying on the vanity’s counter amidst the hair products and tools that Auntie would periodically reach for during their session, Mara’s phone pinged. It was the athletic council group chat.
Nisha: So we reaching Frida’s or nah?
Jaymor: Yea, I’ll reach around 6.
Fran: Shoot, was that today? I’ll try and figure something out but I can’t make any
Mara: Finishing up my braids, then I’ll be there!
Cleveland: Y’all can order without me, I’ll be a bit late.
Auntie lightly tapped a corner of Mara’s temple. A signal for Mara to hold a braid in place to ease some of the tension and tugging while Auntie wove the strands together.
“So your mother tells me that you guys are leaving town soon.” Auntie mentioned in her thick Igbo accent.
“Yes, Daddy booked our flights and hotel rooms not too long ago.” Mara peered at Auntie through the mirror, setting down her phone.
“How exciting!” Auntie paused to make a part in Mara’s hair. “Where are you going?”
“We’re going to the Dominican Republic. It will be nice to escape over winter break.”
“The Dominican — wow!” Auntie exclaimed. “Just make sure you stay out of the sun.”
Mara’s phone pinged again and she glanced down at her screen. “Why?”
“You don’t want to get too dark, is all.”
Mara’s gaze snapped back to the mirror where she watched Auntie section off another part of her hair, the metal handle of the rattail comb dangling from her teeth.
* * * *
Auntie finished up the braiding soon after. Mara had never worn goddess braids before, but she couldn’t think of a better style to go with the theme of this year’s banquet.
She took the bus from the salon to meet up with her friends. Madam Frida’s was a beloved local café that sold hand-crafted hot drinks and decadent pastries. It was a hangout hotspot for students from Port Valley, since it was located only a couple blocks from the school. A large poster was stuck to the glass of the front door reading, Certified Black-Owned Business. The interior had been lined with teal cushioned booths, resembling an old-fashioned diner. The menu was on a chalkboard that hung above the baristas behind the counter, bordered by Hollywood-style LED lights. Every item on the menu had been handwritten in cursive, hot drinks in white and pastries in teal. In the corner of the board, Mara could see that the day’s special was the white macadamia nut cookie. Being the first of the group to arrive, Mara and Jaymor decided to order their food, then wait for the others.
Once they had reached the front of the queue, Jaymor playfully gestured to the counter. "Star setters first.” He insisted, winking at Mara.
Mara rolled her eyes and stifled a small smile. “One small iced caramel latte and a malted fudge brownie please.” Her usual.
The cashier rang her up. “That will be $6.28.” Mara handed her a bill. The lady turned to Jaymor. “Same for you?”
“Same drink, but I’ll take a butterscotch brownie instead.” The cashier took Jaymor’s change and told them to wait to the side, where they could pick up their items once ready.
The pair walked to the pickup corner. Mara glanced at the entrance and swallowed.
The others would probably be awhile, so now was as good a time as any.
“Jay, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” She started.
“Shoot.” Jaymor grinned, his teeth bright against his dark skin. He wore a knit toque that lay so crooked on his head, it had almost fallen off. Mara resisted the urge to snatch it and place it on her own head.
“What if … could we … would you maybe want to go to the banquet together?” Mara bit the inside of her cheek. “If you’re not already going with someone else, I mean.”
Jaymor’s eyes widened. “Oh, um…”
She must have asked too late. “You’re already going with someone else.”
“No. It’s not like that.” He swiped the toque off of his head.
It was worse than she thought. “It would be too weird then?” Mara pressed, praying he wouldn’t utter the words ‘like a sister’.
“No, it’s just,” He met her eyes, apologetic. “I’m into light skins.”
A barista announced their names and set their orders on the counter. Mara picked up her food and turned to go find somewhere to sit. The front door opened and Cleveland strolled in. Jaymor lingered to greet him.
Sat at a booth by herself, Mara stared at her pastry. She had skin that was dark and rich like her malted fudge brownie. But Jay preferred butterscotch. Apparently, everyone did.
This article is part of the Black History Month issue, in collaboration with the Western Black Students' Association and Interrobang, Fanshawe College's student newspaper. Read the full issue online now and on stands Monday.