Tradition makes life easier because you don’t have to think. You just do what others before you would have done.
But when your kid is a music student in Miami and you are visiting from California and he wants to go to his Russian girlfriend’s poetry reading, what do you do?
“Can I come?” I ask.
I am thrilled when mom is approved.
I had installed Uber on my phone but hadn’t used it. I needed someone to hold my hand. So my 20-year-old known here as “Seth,” shows up at my hotel room on his bicycle, and he does just that.
Pretty soon the white Ford explorer will pull up, Seth says, looking upstream at the river of headlights pouring down Ponce de Leon Boulevard.
“Hello, Victor,” I say as we climb aboard. This is an Uber, my son stares into me. You don’t actually have to talk to the driver. But I am a middle-aged woman and my type just apparently can’t shut up, even if Victor’s dashboard is rapping as loud as my headache. But I try, for both the kids’ sake. Wait. Neither Seth nor Victor are kids. I pretty much abandon talk with the driver and instead chatter at Seth, who is an amiable and patient adult.
Kendrick Lamar comes on. Seth is shocked – and thrilled I suspect—that I recognize him. Then I mention that he won a Pulitzer this week. This is what it takes to unembarrass my music-student son. “The first non-jazz or -classical musician to win it,” he adds. I don’t mention that if I hadn’t heard about it on NPR I wouldn’t have recognized him…and probably I would have identified ANY rapper as Kendrick Lamar …
Victor is polite and says nothing—it’s not HIS mom. When we arrive at coffeehouse in strip mall several miles from campus just $12.59 later, I want to hand Victor two crimped sweaty dollar bills. I don’t know the etiquette –am chastised by Victor when I try to hand him the cash. And by Seth who says quietly that tips can be done online. But I know neither can do much if I leave a couple bucks on the seat.
Victor asks if we’d like him to pull forward 30 feet where another car is pulling out right in front of our destination.
“No, no, no, of course not.” I’m not that old.
I expected rows of chairs and a podium with a microphone.
But no, it is three tables pushed together with 12 neat white folding chairs around it … two of which are empty. As though we were expected. A tall rosy-cheeked young man is reading a rap with clever rhymes and alliteration. I don’t think he notices us as we struggle to not scrape our chairs out.
Then it becomes clear that a woman my age is in some way conducting this, what appears to be a class. She tries to get the woman we will call “Lina” to read. But Lina, hiding a little behind her brilliant turquoise hair and a light, lilting Russian accent, is not ready and demurs.
Another young woman is very ready to share so we listen as she confidently reads from her phone. I don’t actually remember much of it. But it is lovely and touching. I slowly realize just how confident my kid must be to allow his mom to go to his girlfriend’s poetry reading.
Then Lina shakes her hair out of the way and pokes her chin forward. This is what she says:
I Dyed My Hair Blue
I dyed my hair blue.
Since then, people always ask me one question:
“Why did you dye your hair blue?”
I always give everyone the same response: “Because I wanted to.”
But for some reason my answer doesn’t satisfy them.
For some reason they don’t think
that my own desire is powerful enough to make such a change.
They silence my voice with their laughter,
their smile penetrates into my identity,
ruining what I love,
what I preserve,
with their disbelief.
And sometimes they don’t even say the word ‘blue’,
they just ask: “Why did you dye your hair this color?”
I mean… Man, is your sky also “this color”?
How about water? How about your mom’s eyes?
What the fuck is wrong with the word “blue”?
Nothing, apparently. People are just not used to seeing it on my head.
They are still not used to this and blame me for being blue.
People say I dyed my hair blue
because I wanted attention, because I wanted to stand out.
I stand out because I’m smart, I stand out because I don’t draw my eyebrows,
I stand out because I’m Russian, I stand out because I’m a woman.
I don’t stand out because I have blue hair.
Well… maybe a little – my friends don’t lose me in the crowd anymore, which is nice, I guess.
I’m accused of being different by attention-seekers.
They live in their square boxes of stereotypes,
crunch cardboard cookies of jealousy
and drink soda, as all expired people do.
They don’t see my face behind my blue hair,
they don’t realize that I’m still the same me.
My own self is like an iPhone – you need to back it up or you’re screwed if you lose it.
So I backed up myself because I wanted to be safe,
because I finally
finally finally finally
wanted to do what I want.
So, I think, today is the day when I finally get up
and tell them that I’m not responsible for their narrow-mindedness,
I’m not responsible if they divide the world into brunettes and blondes
because MY world is blue, my world is red, pink, green, purple,
my world is goddamn rainbow.
I wear blue color like a crown, I’m proud of it, it’s a part of who I am,
and my reflection in the mirror has never,
I dyed my hair blue because I wanted to.
You should try it.
Lina moves her head in a final motion signifying the end of her poem in a gesture I decide is distinctly European.
My tongue is dry. I exchange a look with my son.
“Right??” his eyebrows seemed to agree.
This blue-haired woman is a gift to us. Just a huge gift.
Soon we are on the sidewalk, the young rosy-cheeked man having bagged and backpacked the remaining pastries, the chairs and tables restored to café-configuration by many hands.
My son calls the Uber this time. We stand on the sidewalk, the teacher and I united by our age – and possibly our pride and glee at Lina’s words, her smile.
Seth watches a tiny red car on his screen go by the dot that is us. We both look up and down the street. “Julio” is nowhere in sight. Then we watch the little red car on the screen turn right and go around the block. Julio is coming our way, it is time to say good-bye.
Soon I am climbing in but this time I will talk to Julio as much as I want, I decide. If Lina can dye her hair blue, I too can do what I want. And besides, I need to practice my Spanish.
“De donde es?” I begin.
Julio answers quickly. He is from Cuba.
I learn that Julio has lived in Miami 24 years. He goes home to Cuba every month. Does he miss it? Terribly. He has an 8-year-old son and a new wife; he was just married two months ago. I congratulate him.
But six years ago, after 11 years of marriage, the mother of his son left him. I can see Julio’s eyes in the rear view mirror. He is not crying. He is not crying, he is not crying.
These are bad times, he says repeatedly, knowing not to cross the line into politics. He is trying to bring his new wife to America, I deduce.
Emboldened by the blue-haired woman, I feel I must pass on the gift she has given me.
I try to cheer him up. Our president, is not our president, I say, only about 20 percent of this country voted for him.
Julio’s tentative words emancipated, become a river of passion. He says repeatedly that he loves this country. He talks about Cuba. The music, the old cars, the buildings, the honesty, the people. I don’t understand all he says because he speaks rapidly and my Spanish was learned long ago and far away.
He says Raoul improved things a little since Fidel. Many tourists now.
And today, the new leader, I ask? Julio doesn’t know. I can tell he has learned to temper his dreams. But I can tell by his eyebrows in the rearview mirror that he has some hope.
Tomorrow, I say, my son is playing with a Latin Jazz group—a concert. You should go.
“I work seven days,” Julio says. I only relax (he uses the word “descanso,” which I cannot fairly translate,) when I go home. To Cuba.
Well, I say, if you want to, you could go. The band director is from Cuba. The music is from Cuba.
I leave it up to him as we get out of the car.
I point how to get out of the parking lot the back way.
This time my son doesn’t act embarrassed. I don’t know how much of our conversation he understood, but Seth too has learned to enjoy things. He fills me with glee when he tells me that Julio seemed happier than he had when we first got into the car.
Thanks, woman with blue hair.