I took the few hours’ bus drive from Montreal up to Chicoutimi, a Québécois town, to learn French. Before I left I haggled with myself about what to do with my hair. Chicoutimi was not known for being a cosmopolitan place, and I had heard a lot more about it being the heart of separatist politics, than a hot spot for good black beauty shops. The last thing I was going to do was let some white hairdresser who had never even touched black hair before do anything to my head. Wearing braids seemed to be the obvious choice, but I had worn them for years, and frankly, I was sick of the time it took to put them in, the time it took to take them out, and the scratching of my scalp in between.
My decision was clear as I sat on the Greyhound, walkman dressing my ears, bopping my head to Arrested Development’s “Natural.” There were two other black women in the group of Anglophones; I noticed them when I got off the bus. The first thing I did was check out their hair. One of them had a relaxer, looked freshly done. The other one was wearing a weave, quite badly done. They were friends and ended up rooming together. They were lucky; they could do each other’s hair if needed.
With a pat to my head of twists that looked like they had been done with hands full of thumbs, I met my roommate from Labrador and Québécois mere I would be spending three weeks with. Once we got to the Maison we would be staying at for a few weeks, the Quebecois mere showed us around and gave us the rules of the house. I was cool with all the rules, except for one: we weren’t allowed to wash our hair in the shower because it clogs the drain; we had to use a bucket and a basin in the basement.
I tried not to show the horror on my face as I wondered how I would be able to get my hair clean with a bucket and a basin. I needed running water coursing through my tresses, water shooting out of a showerhead massaging my scalp. And at the time, I really couldn’t care less about the world’s water shortage – my hair needed to be washed.
The next day was the start of the French classes at the Université du Quebec à Chicoutimi. We got a tour of the town and I saw what I expected to see, no black beauty shops in sight. I passed the days struggling with my hair, trying to make it look like it was done with fine fingers instead of thick thumbs. I listened to Erykah Badu’s freestyle “Afro” skit for inspiration. Just as I was cursing myself for not sitting through the 10 hours of a braiding session so I could have three weeks of style, and just as I received my 50th queer look from a passerby to my head, I saw an angel.
I was in one of Chicoutimi’s malls, walking by a Le Chateau, and I saw a black woman sales clerk (the first one I had really seen from Chicoutimi) wearing beautiful and colourful extensions. I almost knocked over a sales rack racing up to her.
“I love your hair,” I said in accented French.
“Thank you,” she said in accented English.
“Where did you get it done?” There was such hope on my face as I looked at her, maybe the black beauty shop of my dreams did exist in Chicoutimi and I just didn’t know – a little place, just waiting for my business, a place that would give me the freedom to bite my nails again. I had stopped because I needed the length to scratch my dirty scalp. Week two and I was not about to brave the bucket and a basin in the basement.
“I got it done in Jonquière,” she said.
Jonquière! At first I thought it was the name of a shop, but I found out that it was a town outside Chicoutimi. I asked the woman if there were any black beauty salons in town, and she answered what I already knew. I didn’t have the time to go all the way to Jonquière with the busy schedule I had with the French immersion course. She gave me the number for the hairdresser and I contemplated canceling a weekend of whitewater rafting so I could travel to Jonquière to get my hair done.
Sitting down and listening to Nina Simone sing “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” changed my mind. It reminded me of a fortune cookie I once got and that I keep posted on my bathroom wall, “the first and last love – self-love.” For too long in the relationship with my hair, I had made my hair the boss, but it was time to take charge of the relationship. Having fun was more important than getting some fancy hairstyle so I could impress other people. I started to realize how fortunate I was to even be able to go whitewater rafting with my relaxer-free hair, never having to worry about ruining the perm. On my bus ride up to rafting, I listened to “Natural” again.
The program at the university was intensive, and I had seen my psychiatrist at Concordia before I left. Now I was down to one milligram of Risperdal. I was feeling good. I was playing sports in the afternoon in French, but not being able to hit a ball with a bat. As I had done so many times in the past, I decided to decrease my medication down to half a milligram without consulting my doctor. I had another episode.
My Québécois mere and the other girl I was staying with went off for the weekend to visit some of her relatives. I was in the house basically alone, with one of the teachers from the school staying downstairs in the basement. I had a TV in my room and started watching MuchMusic. There was a video that came on that got me dancing. I was as high as a kite.
“If I could turn back the hands of time” were the words of the song. It got me thinking about everything I’d been through in my life and I decided that if I could turn back the hands of time, I would not change a thing.
I started wandering throughout the house. I opened the medicine cabinet of my Québécois mere, contemplating taking all the medication and committing suicide. I had great paranoia that my Dad was hunting me down. That he had come to Chicoutimi and was in the house. I went downstairs to the basement where I thought he was hiding and found no one there. The teacher who lived down there left me a note in my Roberts-Collin French-English Dictionary that he was going to be out for the night. So I really was all by myself in the house.
The daughter of the Québécois mere lived next door, so I went over to her house, only having met her once. Her children were at home, and they liked me even in my maniac and depressed state. The daughter had to go grocery shopping, so I went with her. While I was in the grocery store, I thought about this show I saw on television once where old people were stealing the lives of the young people who worked in the grocery store. I thought that was happening to me. And I stuck by the daughter, pushing the cart, with her children in tow to stay away from the danger.
By time we got back from the grocery store, I gave my mother a call from the daughter’s house where I screamed into the phone about why she married my father and put me through such an abusive childhood. I was hurting deep inside. And there was no medication to mask the pain.
The daughter called an ambulance and I went to the hospital in Chicoutimi where I roamed around in the emergency room trying to hide because I thought CBC journalists were after me to get the story of my breakdown. The head of the French program at Chicoutimi University came to the hospital and admitted me out and took me back to the school and tried to feed me good food. I had baked chicken.
They didn’t know what to do with me. The police came, which I felt safe with because I still thought my father was trying to hunt me down and kill me and didn’t feel safe in the Québécois mere’s house. The police took me to the police station while they tried to get in contact with my mother in Chicoutimi.
Once my Quebecois mere came back, I was admitted into hospital were I was frightened and scared. My French wasn’t good enough to speak to the doctors who knew little English. They put a needle in my bum, which I thought they were trying to puncture my African bum flat like a white person’s. I finally went to sleep, because I hadn’t slept in days.
My roommates from Montreal got money from my dad to rent a van and come and pick me up in Chicoutimi. I was supposed to stay there for five weeks, but only lasted three. I still got an ‘A’ in my French class and accreditation for taking the three week course they also offered.
I finished off the summer deciding to move out from Diane and Alex’s place. I found a small apartment in Notre-Dame de Grace.