BLONDE: dark yellow, gaudy as margarine; deep like a buttercup held to the chin; soft, the silky-headed down of chicks; the color of cold, precious metals like the shining luster of gold or platinum, silver-foiled and heavy; garish like an albino rock star’s hair, not white out of age, but obliterating, like the sun that no one can look into because it is too hot.
We are a dark race, unified by a strict genetic conformity. Our great, great ancestors were Mongol horsemen who rode the desert plains of Asia in wild pursuits and conquest. The eyes, they say, are an evolutionary adaptation— hooded, small, angled slightly upward to thwart the spraying sand. Dark hair and skin to sustain the onslaught of unwavering sun.
The stories my father told me about ourselves. That God burned the first loaf, undercooked the second, baked the third golden brown; that we were superior people, smarter— civilization predating Egypt, five thousand years old, inventors of a printing press two hundred years before Gutenberg, of iron-clad battleships before the Spanish Armada.
I would have given it all to look like Lisa Ogleby. Graceful Lisa in her tartan skirts, with hair the color of gold, cut straight across and down, hanging in the collar of her soft cotton blouses. Her eyes were like quartz geodes, the blue in them too pale, seeming to give off light. She and I played with Barbies, also blonde, with nub-like breasts that had no nipples. We dressed them in go-go dresses with white plastic boots and made them fall off furniture summits to meet strange, mangled deaths on the hardwood floor. Occasionally, we’d have invisible, vaguely imagined Ken men stage rescues, leading to embarrassing displays of gratitude on Barbie’s part, stripped bare and rocking back and forth inside the dust ruffle of the living-room ottoman.
Once, Lisa’s cat pounced on a Barbie, dragging it in her mouth as though it were one of her young. We chased her around the house, finally wrenching it free. Its left breast had been disfigured, the nub chewed almost clearly away, and there were sharp points embedded in her side like Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom.
When we played together, I would hold Lisa in my sight like an assassin. I studied her movements, her laughter like low sneezing, the way her part was etched down the middle, revealing a reddish scalp. “Studying to be blonde,” I called it to myself, should the occasion present itself. A story I told to others, that I believed myself sometimes—that I was adopted, my mother English or a Swede, beautiful, perhaps noble, blonde and blue-eyed and fair. I saw her in a tower window, memory from a picture-book, vision from a fairy story. My father was a marauding Asian prince, descendent of the Mongol hordes, who swept her up in a conqueror’s embrace, forcing her love with his proven courage.
Something strange, dimly understood, something to do with high tech, with science and the miracle of modern medicine, made it possible that my true identity was being hidden beneath the surface. That the dazzling blonde I was could be uncovered by a surgeon’s blade, that underneath the black hair, the keenly adapted dark skin, was a girl of pure gold, Goldilocks or Shirley Temple, even, one day perhaps, Marilyn Monroe.
No one really believed me, of course, except stupid Doris Filcher, with whom I sat on the schoolbus. Her dry mouth opened, dull eyes widening to half-dollars. She received my story as gospel, as the truest word ever spoken, and went home to tell her parents.
“My mom says you’re making up stories,” she said to me the next day. “She’s gonna call your mom and tell her you’re telling lies to people.” She settled her hands primly in her lap and stared straight ahead.
“Don’t lie to people,” my mother said when I got home. “It’s embarrassing.”
“That’s not the issue,” my father said, impatiently. “The Filchers are unimaginative idiots. There’s nothing wrong with making up stories. But you’ve got to be proud of yourself, Jean.” He looked at me carefully. “You’ve got to like who you are.”
Another ethnic feature—a flat nose. More adaptation to sand. Keep it close to the face and not a lot can fly in. It must have been very useful to my Mongolian forefathers. But we live in a fertile country with clearly delineated seasons and a rich, loamy soil. I lie in bed at night with a clothespin straddling my nose bridge. “Please God, make me a new nose, make me a new nose …” a whining, nasal prayer punctuated by gasping mouthbreaths.
Lisa Ogleby and I fought over the Barbie doll with the retractable hair, breaking the mechanism in her belly that made it work. She shoved me into the wall and stamped off to tell her mother. I held the broken Barbie in both hands. Its tangled hair would neither shrink nor grow no matter how I tugged and pushed, and I knew somehow it was hopeless, that whatever was wrong could never be fixed.
My father bought me a wig. It was lying on my bed one day when I got home from school, a cheap yellow thing that I mistook from a distance for a puppy, one of those low-to-the-ground rug rats favored by aging movie stars.
“You want to be blonde,” my father said, “be blonde. Let’s see.”
I put it on with uncertain fingers—the hollow for the head was made of rigid burlap—and adjusted it awkwardly in the mirror, unable to discover the proper front of it. Shyly, I looked out into the image that was myself. My head gleamed; it sparkled; it reflected light like tiny strands of glass. The hairs were stiff and thick, golden wires of electric current that floated above my head. I stared at myself, tilted my chin, and smiled in Lisa Ogleby’s sleepy way, as though her sunlit secrets had suddenly flashed into my brain.
My mother and father came in. They tried not to show it, but laughter welled up in them until they burst. They collapsed on the bed. They laughed and laughed until their eyes filled with tears.
I stared into the mirror, at my dark, centerless eyes, searching for Lisa’s face, the blonde wig on my head like the usurper’s uneasy crown.
Blonde was published in the Beloit Fiction Journal in Spring 1992.