2022 Fiction Honorable Mention
Nebulous is My True Love’s Hair
by Buenacosa Cruz-Doritty
In 1955 scientists discovered the anti-proton. It had the same mass as a proton, yet it was negatively charged. The birth of this antiparticle revealed that what we know about nature continues to evolve.
Gupít (to cut). The parlor was empty that day except for one male client. That was expected because today was the live televised broadcast of the Ms. Universe Beauty Pageant. Even some of the parloristá were off that day. Those who showed up were gathered around a small television in the corner. “Top 21 baklá (gay)!” said one of the older parloristá. “Push through Até (sister)! she continued, as everyone else screamed when they heard the name of Ms. Philippines called. The obsession of the Filipinos for winning the Ms. Universe crown reached critical mass in 1999, the perihelion, until a young Ms. Miriam Quiambao slipped on stage and had to settle for the first runner-up title. It would take another 10 years before the Philippines would place Top 10 in the competition and, in a series of cosmic taunts, would come so close to the orbit of winning, placing in the Top 5 for four years in a row, but never winning the crown. The force of the people’s frustration had been at the boiling point when yet again, in 2014, a vibrant future engineer Ms. Mary Jean Lastimosa, would fail to even place in the Top 5. “Award Até!” a gay expression used for something embarrassing. “Kakainís (upsetting)!” screamed Cecil the year before as they were watching the 2014 broadcast. “I can feel it. I can feel it. This year will be the year.” Cecil said earlier as they saw the luminous form of Pia Wurtzbach paraded down in her national costume.
“You say that every year,” Tibby said, a younger parloristá in training. “Please don’t jinx it,” she eyed her with a threat.
“Tse!” responded Cecil, producing a sound Filipinos make to signify contempt.
Art was cutting hair, running his client’s rough hair between his index and middle fingers when he heard the loudest commotion yet as Ms. Wurtzbach placed top 5. “I don’t understand the fascination for this,” said his male client. “I mean, there is so much to object about beauty contests. I just don’t get it,” he continued.
Art didn’t get it either. He didn’t think beauty should not be celebrated, but why spend so much time and energy on something so shallow? But then he gets some of it, he thought. We spend so much time and energy writing and then listening to great music for our hearing, cooking decadent and delicious foods for our taste buds, buying perfumes and aroma candles for our noses, and expensive sheets for sleep. Why not celebrate beauty? The thing is, he argued to himself, time and energy are limited resources, and there are bigger things in the world. “It’s a form of escapism. Our underprivileged living vicariously through these women.” Art responded as he snipped the moist hair. “Beautiful people have privilege, you know.” Art continued as he cut the last piece of hair and prepared his client for shampooing. “Let’s get you cleaned up Kuyá (brother). Follow me,” Art said.
“I guess it would be nice to have a pointed mestizo nose,” his client said. “Fortunately for me, my wife loves me the way I am,” he continued. Art paused as he was shampooing his client’s hair.
“Nothing like married life to validate our personness.” Art replied, then grimaced.
“What is it?” his client asked as his hair was getting rinsed.
“I just realized that since I don’t have mestizo features, that I don’t have privilege, and since this country deprives gay people of marriage, that I am doomed.” They both paused.
“Well, now I’m sorry that I said that.” his client responded.
“Not your fault,” Art said as he ran his fingers into his client’s scalp and neck and finished rinsing the foam from his hair. “Back to the chair, Kuyá pleazee,” Art said flirtatiously to lighten the mood again.
“Top 5! Shit! Push Through!” They both heard everyone screaming at this point.
“Here we go again.” Art said. “The drama!”
“I’m sorry I’m keeping you from this,” his client said.
“Oh, no. It’s ok. I’m not a fan. The only universe I care about is the one out there,” Art pointed up to the sky with his scissors. His client gave him a perplexed look. Art pointed with his pouted lips to the stack of books on the desk in front of them.
“Astronomy?” his client asked.
“Yes,” Art replied. “I have always been fascinated by the stars, ever since my Lolo (grandfather) taught me how to make a wish upon a shooting star. Which was ironic.”
“Ironic, how so?” his client replied.
“Just like a starfish is not a fish, nor a star, a shooting star is just a piece of rock entering our atmosphere,” Art said.
“I like starfish, and I knew they were not stars.” His client said, and they both laughed. “What did you wish for?” he asked. Art looked closely at himself in the mirror and examined his features as he dried his client’s hair. Art noticed his own black wavy hair, dark brown complexion, the not so prominent nose, and thick eyebrows.
“I don’t know if I can tell you,” Art responded to his client, who was about the same age as his father.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” responded his client.
“Don’t worry. It’s just really personal. The last time I spoke about my wish, I got terribly beaten up,” Art replied.
“What kind of a wish can lead to that? Sounds terrible,” his client replied. As Art styled his client’s hair, he remembered how estranged he immediately became from his dad after that day, after he revealed his wish to become a woman. The concept of a transwoman in the 1990s was still very much taboo. Society had somewhat tolerated gay children through a combination of love and mercy. However, the outness of being trans was still a blinding sight for many.
The tension was now palpable in the parlor. Binibining Pilipinas Universe, the official title of the Philippine representative to the Ms. Universe contest, was wearing a figure-hugging strapless serpentina gown when she was asked by the host Steve Harvey the Top 3 qualifying question. This moment made Art and his client pause and turn their heads toward the screen. Steve Harvey asked Ms. Wurtzbach if the United States should have a military presence in the Philippines. Her answer was well received by the screaming audience near the TV. Meanwhile, Art was stunned. Independence, does that not matter anymore? He was thinking. How many generations will it take to wash the stain of colonization? He thought. While Art liked his friends, he knew he did not share their values and politics. However, with the realigning of global forces and the increasing threat of an imperial China, Art thought that maybe this was just the old normal in new times. He felt he should not be so hard on his friends. He forced a smile when he noticed his client was looking at him.
“I did not like her answer,” Art’s client said out loud.
“It is a non-answer, I believe,” Art said. “But what do I know?” he continued.
“For one, let me remind you of the time those military forces raped our women. Women have always been the casualty of the militarization and colonization of this country.”
The band of gay men stuck to the TV turned around and collectively gave them the sound, “shhhhhhh!” Art lowered his eyes and sighed. “Priorities,” he said. This made them both laugh.
“Being a woman is not easy.” His client said. “It is surprising that not more women want to be men. But I suppose one cannot choose in that department.”
Art briefly choked with those words, and he let out a sudden cough. “Excuse me,” he let out. Art tapped his client on both shoulders and said, “Kuya can I request that we lighten the mood? I still have a long day. I’m going out of town.” In the sum of his awareness of desiring to become a woman, this has been the perigree of Art’s yearning. That night, the occultation of Pia Wurtzbach’s advancing to the Top 3 over Art’s desire to become a woman has catalyzed him to be authentic to himself. He mused this as he continued to shape his client’s sideburns.
“Where are you going?” his client said as Art shifted to rub his client’s back, a part of their standard service.
“Heading north, to the town of Sagada,” Art said.
“Vacation?” his client asked.
“No,” Art replied. “I’m getting out of Manila’s smoke and light pollution to see the universe from Sagada.” He pointed to his telescope under the table.
“Wow?” his client quipped once more. “Are you a scientist?” he asked.
“I’m too poor to be anything,” Art said, “but I’m self-taught. I save a lot of what I make to see Mother Universe. I have always been interested in what’s out there. There is more to us than what we have in our planet, this country, and our brains. One day we will all realize that none of these matter, not even who wins Ms. Universe today.”
“I agree with you. It’s all stardust. We are all stardust. I hope you get to see what you want to see. What is it you want to see up there?” he asked Art.
“I might be able to see Jupiter and Saturn at some point. But I am hoping to see the Andromeda Galaxy and M31, our closest large galactic neighbor,” Art continued.
“You lost me,” his client said. They were quiet for a second as they heard Steve Harvey ask the final three candidates the same question. “Listen, you should know that whatever it is you wished for with that shooting star, you can make that happen. Let no one else tell you differently.” His client said. “Progress does not happen in a day. We all must work hard for it. Remember, some sacrifices had already been made for you by your ancestors so that you would be free. Let their heroism live in you. Happiness is paramount in life. Take a bold step.”
Those words did not just resonate with Art. It was an unexpected tidal acceleration. It made him pause for the longest second. Like a ship escaping the Earth’s gravitational pull to enter outer space, Art realized that he needed to achieve escape velocity soon. She needed to increase her speed. She needed to gain distance.
The longest commercial on TV ran just before the announcement of the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant winner. “Salámat (Thank you),” her client said as he handed her the payment.
“You are not going to wait to see who wins?” Art inquired.
“I think I already see the winner,” her client responded cryptically. “By the way, my name is Joma Sison. I never got yours.” Her client extended out his hand.
Art reached back and said, “Lualhati. Hati for short.” Shaking the hand of the person she now recognized as the progressive political guerilla.
Later, as she swept the hair from the floor, Hati reflected on how she had long wanted to be this persona, named after her inspiration and poet, Lualhati Bautista. Standing in front of the mirror, Hati let out the fuzzy edges of her hair. She grabbed the scissor and shagged up her bangs. She let her hair loose to give it volume, and she gave herself a good look in the mirror. As she smiled at herself and as tears welled in her eyes with her realization, she did not hear Steve Harvey announce the winner of the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant, nor the fireworks in the street.
Conjunctions occur when two celestial bodies appear close together in the sky. Earlier that year, on June 30th NASA recorded the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter. This second conjunction is documented here.
- 3/31/22 -was when the honor was announced for this competition. It was also the International Transgender Day of Visibility.
- Pronouns- In the Philippine culture, the pronouns are gender-neutral, and the way this story would have been told in that language would have been different. I appreciate that the pronoun transition may have conveyed a dramatic effect.
- The word gupit or cut relates to both the act of cutting hair and transitions, as in dissociating from the past.
- The use of hair as a story instrument is centered on our anthropological belief that hair crowns our beauty. I recognize that being a bald man, this is not necessarily true.
- Dead name. I selected the name Art because I wanted to juxtapose this with the scientific references.
- The names Cecil and Tibby were based on effeminate male characters in E.M. Forster’s work: A Room with the View and Howards Ends.
- The name of our protagonist transforms to a name referencing a great Filipina writer and poet, Lualhati Bautista but its contraction, Hati in the Philippines, also refers to splitting, as in to share.
- The Miss Universe references are based on actual events.
- The issue of the military bases in the Philippines is one of colonization. I invite readers to examine the false narratives of colonization and reflect on the ill effects of such on the colonies, particularly among women. I invite an examination of the stories of the so-called Comfort women as a reference to the brutalities of WW2 to the Filipinas. The discussion in the story was a reflection on this and a foreshadowing of the identity of the client, see #11.
- Nebulous is defined as fuzzy edges, and as Hati looks in the mirror, she lets out her hair. Like a crown, she wears this new do. In astronomy, a nebula is also the birthplace of the stars.
- Joma Sison is an activist and founder of the Philippine communist party, exiled in the Netherlands. While I do not condone the violence inflicted by the left-wing organizations in the Philippines, they allow us to examine our historical narrative and reliance on colonial power. In addition, I picked this group for the short story because, in a country where gay marriages are still not allowed, this left-wing organization has reportedly performed the first same-sex marriage in the country between 2 women.
- The final question that Steve Harvey asked of the top 3 candidates is, “Why should you be the next Miss Universe?” Wikipedia has an entry of Ms. Wurtzbach’s answer. I think Hati would have said, “the universe cannot be represented, but if we continue to support science and science education, we can learn more from it.”
- I was indeed inspired by the Nina Simon song, although I recognize the song’s colonial roots.