“When It Starts to Burn”

Ada Mae
  • Shante knows what it's like to suffer through the pain. As she reflects on the lessons that taught her how to smile while on fire, she finds a new appreciation for the cooling relief of water.
18 min read

“Let me know when it starts to burn,” Aunt Mimi would say, pressing down on the silver release of the styling chair, lowering me to where I wouldn’t have to jump down to go pee. Then she would move on to another customer, or “head” as she referred to them. 

“Bridget, I got about three heads this morning,” I would hear Aunt Mimi yelling, voice high-pitched and exasperated. The sound of frustration making its way through the telephone without me having to eavesdrop. 

My mother would sigh, long and hard enough for me to feel her breathe from across the room—a gesture that always got me popped upside the head—then pause to see if Aunt Mimi was ready to give in. 

If there was silence on the other end of the telephone, Momma would suck her teeth before spouting off excuses about why she hadn’t called sooner, or worse; she would appeal to Aunt Mimi’s relentless disapproval of me “looking any kind of way.” That usually broke her down. 

Aunt Mimi knew Momma didn’t have the money to pay for my hair appointment and that most of the time Momma wasn’t asking her to do my hair, so much as she was asking Aunt Mimi to watch me for a while—so that she could go do whatever she did when I wasn’t around. 

“Fine, Bring her on to the shop, but next time you better call me at least two days before, Bridge. I ain’t playin,” she would say, believing each time that she was putting her foot down, when really she was just picking it up. 

My mother never stayed at the shop with me. She would leave me there. All day. Despite Aunt Mimi yelling at her from the shop’s door. 

“Bridge, you better be back here to get her in a couple hours. I mean it!” Aunt Mimi would usher me inside, away from the relentless Atlanta heat. 

Momma would reply with a wave. “I will. I’m just going down the street to the store. I’ll be back.” She would turn the music up, bumping some old school track like The Isley Brothers’, “Between the Sheets” causing the old Buick to rattle. 

Then she would pull off so quickly the tires would screech.

 

Once my hair was relaxed, rinsed, washed, styled, then dried, I could look in the mirror. The mirror was where I could go to discover myself, to revel in the transformation, to see if I had been made new. 

The ladies around the shop would say, “Gon’ girl with ya bad self,” causing my cheeks to flush with excitement, and I would go on. I’d go on sweeping up hair off the faded black and white tiles, I’d go on getting snacks out of the vending machines for customers who were stuck under the dryers. And once it was dark outside (and all the heads had gone), I’d go on playing Uno in the back with Anthony—Aunt Mimi’s son (a.k.a my play cousin)—until she was ready to lock up.

 

Aunt Mimi was not my real aunt, but she was the only family I knew outside of my mother, and Momma always said that her best friend of twenty years was more blood than anyone she had ever known. 

I learned Aunt Mimi’s real name wasn’t “Aunt Mimi” when a short, old white man in a tan suit walked through the front door of the shop one day. He looked like the kind of guy that would attempt to sell you insurance for a zombie apocalypse. 

Every head turned and stared at him, waiting for him to speak. I remember his face going bright red. It was full and robust. My immature brain pictured him as a professional Kool-Aid man. I got Anthony’s attention from across the room and mouthed, “OH YEAH,” and to my surprise, he got the joke. We snickered in tandem. 

The man wasn’t selling insurance. Instead, he said, “Good Morning, ladies. Which one of you is Miranda Alfreeda Simpson?”

I should have known that if a white man calls you by your government name, whatever he says next might mean you’re about to lose something. But I didn’t know who Miranda was and I didn’t know to be sad. 

He handed her a paper and, without saying anything else, walked out of the shop. Once the door closed behind him, whispers took up his space. Anthony ran across to where Aunt Mimi was and caught her before she fell. 

Turns out Anthony’s father had stopped keeping up with the mortgage on the shop. Aunt Mimi had to close the doors for good. However, the eviction wouldn’t keep her from giving me relaxers in her kitchen every three weeks or so, when Momma would leave me outside her apartment with enough clothes for a weekend stay. 

Aunt Mimi’s home felt more like home than mine. There were no broken beer bottles or the odor of spoiled food permeating from the dumpster beside the building. Plus, there was Anthony. 

As my preteen hormones moved in to stay, I started noticing new things about Anthony. Like the way he ate Oreos before drinking his milk because he didn’t like his food to touch. Or the million times he sang the words to the “Wayans Bros” theme out loud no matter how many reruns he watched in a row. “Alright…cut and print…beautiful guys, Dynomite…” 

I wanted him to notice me too. 

 

“Let me know when it starts to burn,” she would say, and I would shift in my seat. 

“I’m okay,” I would reply through gritted teeth. But what I really wanted to say was it had started to burn as soon as she began working the brush through my hair and painting away at my edges like she was following a Bob Ross tutorial. 

I would try to keep my mind focused on the mirror, thinking about how pretty and straight my hair would be if I just lasted a few minutes longer.

The night before my mother’s funeral, Aunt Mimi’s apartment smelled like a mix between a soul food restaurant and a chemistry lab—the fumes burning the vibrissae in my nose and making their way to my hippocampus. That chemical smell is so ingrained in my long-term memory that smelling it now transports me back. 

My emotions were a mixture of sorrow but relief. Sorrow for the love I had for my mother despite her flaws, and relief that I would be able to stay in the comfort of the people who loved me the most. 

I remember Anthony holding his hand over his mouth when he walked into the bathroom, pretending to choke on the smell of the relaxer that was slowly burning my kinks away. “Damn, Shanté yo hair must be really nappy if it takes this much to get it straight. Who was yo daddy…Kunta Kinte?” He doubled over in amusement from his own sly insult. But then he recognized from my silence that I wasn’t ready to start laughing again. That it was too soon. 

He didn’t apologize for joking around, instead, he bent down, smiled, and then grabbed my hand. 

“Everything is going to be okay, Shanté ,” he said. 

He pulled me from the seat I had made on the commode, turned my body toward the mirror and we stared into it together, looking at our reflections. “See that? That’s us. If don’t nobody else got you, I got you! And I mean that for real for real.” Then he smiled, his dimples peeking through. 

His words had distracted me from the relaxer burning, because there was a new fire that ignited—one between Anthony and me.

 

“Let me know when it starts to burn,” she said, then we both turned our attention to Anthony as he walked in after spending the weekend with his dad. He had that goofy look on his face that he always came home with, one that said he had an amazing time but didn’t want Aunt Mimi to feel bad about it. 

His dad is a former NFL running back and Anthony is the fourth of his seven children, so although he didn’t spend much time with any of them, he sure bought them whatever they liked. The opulence pained Aunt Mimi because she couldn’t give Anthony that same feeling on a Beauty School teacher’s salary. 

“Y’all wanna see my tux?” he asked. 

We both said yes with intensity before he ran to his room, put on his prom tux, and came back out strutting. 

He looked so good in that suit, tall and handsome, it almost made me sad. I knew he saw me as a sister, and there was always a girl around, clambering to get close to him. It pained me to know that I would be home with Aunt Mimi while he would be out with another girl, dancing the night away.  

My scalp was burning, but Aunt Mimi and I were so wrapped up in the excitement of the prom tux that I barely heard Anthony when he said, “So Shanté , my date had to cancel. You think you could find a dress to match my tux?”

 

Let me know when it starts to burn.” The statement sounded different when my roommate Aria said it. It sounded distant. It didn’t have the same meaning as it did when Aunt Mimi said it all those years, but nothing about college was like it had been back home in Atlanta. 

For one, the people in my neighborhood took the time to learn my name, but on campus, I had become “Ant’s Girl.” Outside of Aria, I knew very few people who wanted to be around me unless Anthony was making an appearance. 

We thought it was a good idea to go to the same university, but dating the school’s star running back was beginning to weigh on me. I had to fight off nasty stares from women who would whisper, “She ain’t all that,” under their breath as Tony walked me to class, and when I voiced my concern to Tony he would shrug it off with his signature, “Bitches be crazy,” motto before melting me with his smile. 

The relationship, my school work, my loneliness, and definitely the relaxers were thinning me. My hair was burnt out and so was I. Frail, thin, unhealthy, and falling apart. 

One night in my dorm—the chemicals eating away at any new growth I had made—I decided that this was it, this would be the last time I let myself burn. 

But then my phone buzzed with notification after notification, folks from back home saying, “You did good girl,” and, “Oh shit you bet not let him go,” some even quoting Kanye: “I see you got you a baller man and you ain’t gotta work at the mall again.” 

Then a lone text came through from Tony that read, “I’m entering the draft, Babe. We’re about to blow up.” 

It was true, we were. 

 

My first indication that things would not last was our wedding. It was rushed despite my protest.

“We have known each other all our lives and will be together for the rest of our lives, Tony. What’s one more day?” I asked. 

We were too young to get married. Looking back, I wish that my hesitation had been from fear of losing myself or the desire to love myself more than the relationship, but it wasn’t. I think I was just afraid that getting married would tip the invisible scale I had created in my mind. 

A scale where growing up fatherless and losing my mother was on one side, and gaining a family and earning my degree was on the other. I was afraid that marriage would make the positives too heavy, which meant something bad would soon follow. Because that had been the pattern. Things needed to burn first. 

Then itch. 

Then heal. 

I had just begun to heal. 

He looked into my eyes and said, “Shanté , I can’t wait another day. I want to call you Mrs. Simpson. We ain’t getting no younger!” He offered a knowing smile, quoting Jagged Edge with conviction.

It was the smile that always got me, pearly white teeth against ebony skin, soft full lips, the dimples—everything he said sounded the way sugar tastes. 

To appease him, I returned his smile and screamed, “Let’s Get Married!”

He held me in his arms real tight, we rocked back and forth in a euphoric haze. All the questions I had were soothed by our connection when he whispered, “OH YEAH” into my ear, before breathing me in. We laughed together at our inside joke as we always had. 

With my head on his chest, I peered into the extra-large mirror in the grand foyer of what would become our brand new mansion. I could see the beads of sweat on my forehead.

 

I planned the wedding in less than two months, an open ceremony—at the behest of Tony’s PR team— held in the largest church in Atlanta. It was packed from door to door with people and flashing cameras. 

I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach; I felt like I was being engulfed, consumed by a world I would never really belong to. I had stood in the dressing room mirror, just looking at myself and thinking about the articles. 

There had been articles leading up to the wedding in Black publications, with stories about an NFL legacy and the childhood friend he grew up loving and couldn’t leave behind. One article had even mentioned how Mimi “saved me from my drug-addicted home.” I didn’t want to think about who had given them the words, who had told them the stories. 

On that beautiful day in June, I knew that the wedding wasn’t for me or our love. The wedding was for people like Tony and his father. The crowd showed up for the people who leave Atlanta to become icons, not for people who leave Atlanta to get away from the heat—to survive. I walked down the aisle to marry Tony, surrounded by whispers about my dress and my hair.  

There were so many young women in the church, I kept thinking maybe Mimi had talked about the wedding at the beauty school so much that all of these young women thought it would get them extra credit to fill the pews. 

But there was one young girl whose glare burned through me that gave me pause. I shrugged it off because I remembered seeing her on campus, and she was one of the only familiar faces in a sea of fans. 

I didn’t think about that woman’s face again until five months ago.

 

I received the message from Deja two days after our fourth wedding anniversary. Tony had tagged me in our favorite wedding photo, one where my head is nestled in the space between his chin and his chest, his arms wrapped around my waist, me gazing at the camera and him placing a kiss on the crown of my head. It took us a long time to get the shot; we kept laughing because the hair fibers from my wig were tickling his lips. 

The message read:

Shanté,

You may not remember me, but could we please talk? Anthony and I are in love, and I’m pregnant again. I know this may come as a shock to you, but we have been seeing each other for over five years now and it has been eating me up inside. Could we please meet and talk about this?

Call me 002-457-9911  

Deja

 

Over the years, many women had messaged me, sent letters, and trolled my social media, but I had dismissed them all. I did remember her though. I remembered her face from campus and from our wedding. 

I took a screenshot of the message, sent the picture to Tony, and hit block on my Instagram account. I told myself that I didn’t need to hear any more of this random woman’s lies, but I did need to hear Tony’s response. 

As soon as the message read Delivered, the typing dots appeared, then disappeared. Two minutes later, Tony responded with three simple words.

Hubby: “Bitches Be Crazy”

Me: *thinking face emoji*

Hubby: Shanté, you can’t actually believe this do you? Babe, who knows me better than you. You can’t let some troll on the internet make you doubt what you know.

Me: Let’s just talk about it when you get home

Hubby: Okay, but there is nothing to talk about.

We didn’t talk about it that night or any night following. He traveled for games and was gone for weeks at a time. When he was home, he was still gone. The screeching tires from his sports cars leaving marks in the garage. 

I should have known then, I did know then, that the burn had already begun. The wounds were just easier to endure since I had felt them before—scar tissue.

 

Perhaps each of these moments was conditioning me. Conditioning me not to look for cooling relief, not to speak up when I needed a rinse.

No one told me that maybe love was more like water—vast like an ocean with waves that may crash against the shores, with motion that felt uneasy but never stopped flowing. That water, unlike fire, never stopped reinventing itself and never died.

Instead, I was taught to nurse my sores until they crusted and scabbed over, all the while believing that the fire brought beauty. No one said the beauty was already there. No one said that fire really only destroys.

I had endured the arguments and the distance that came with Tony’s injury. How defeated he felt when he got cut from team after team, a year after recovering from his foot surgery. I had been there when he cried about selling some of his cars to make mortgage payments on properties we had never vacationed in. I had become familiar with the licks of the flames surrounding me. Until today.

I came home from the salon tonight, and Deja was parked outside the gate to my home.

“I’m calling the police,” I announced, with one hand on my phone and one jutted out in front of me as protection. She was physically smaller than me, petite with large hips, but not much of a physical threat. Maybe I had my hand up to protect myself from anything that sounded like the truth.

“Please don’t, please give me a minute. Let me explain,” she said, stepping closer to me with each word.

“There is nothing to explain, you need to leave my property NOW!” I screamed. I was furious, my mind was running laps through my thoughts, trying to remember the passcode to the gate. 

“P-please,” she began to cry. “Please, he has stopped sending money for the kids and I don’t know what to do.” She spoke between hiccupped sobs.

“What the hell are you talking about?” My curiosity took the place of my anger.

“Shante, you must know! He has four houses, but you have only seen this one! Listen, he has stopped making the payments on the mortgage and Elijah’s school and…”. She continued talking while pressing a phone up to the gate. A picture of a beautiful little boy was on the screen, smiling his smile—dimples and all. 

Everything ceased to exist, and I felt my knees wobble.

I finally looked at her, really looked at her, and noticed the curve of her belly and the car in the driveway with the “Baby on Board” sign in the window. 

“How long?” I asked.

She stopped crying long enough to get the words out. “Since college.” 

I pressed the release button on the gate, and it began to close behind me. “You should leave,” I said, as I opened the door to our home and screamed. 

 

My face in the mirror looks different. No one says, “Go on with ya bad self,” anymore. I look aged and worn. I look tired. 

I pick up the scissors that Tony rarely uses to trim strays from his beard. With a steady hand, I begin to cut.

Leaving nothing but the new growth that formed, I stare down at the stringy strands now decorating the marble counter.

I splash water around the sink, running some of the hairs down the drain and leaving the rest for him to find. 

Lifting one last handful of water to my face, it’s cooling glory waking me up to myself, I smile one last time in the mirror at a crown adorned with damp curls.

I send a text to Mimi as I pass through the bedroom, 

“Hey, I need to cancel my appointment for tomorrow. Sorry for the short notice.” 

Tony is in bed sleeping as soundly as the seed in Deja’s womb. I don’t leave a note or whisper goodbye. 

With my hand on the doorknob, I begin to walk out when I notice the sound of dripping water coming from the bathroom. I didn’t turn the faucet off completely. 

I leave it running. 

 

************

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