Perito Prize 2020 image

 Every/Other

Keshuan Chow

 

I can’t remember where I first heard it, or when. All I remember is that the girl who said it was an Every. Long, silvery blonde hair, straight as corn silk, shiny with the echoes of a million others like her.

I brush my hair one hundred times, she said, as she pulled the brush along those long, long strands.

So I adopted the habit, in an effort to be more Every. Each night, I sat at my mirror, looking into my Other face. Looking into my Other eyes, dark like obsidian or black holes or voids. I would brush and brush, counting carefully. Always precisely to one hundred, so that I may become more like an Every. More like her.

Brushing my hair was soothing. So soothing that I never saw it as a chore. The sound evokes such calm that people trawl the internet for videos of women brushing their hair. What these people do with the videos I do not know. I imagine them leaning forwards, ear buds in, staring at the screen with a sort of manic grin.

The sound of brushing hair is otherworldly. (You can approximate the sound by putting the flat of your tongue against the back of your front teeth and repeatedly exhaling. It’s not an exact replica, but it comes close).

As a child, I was like a Bowerbird, eagerly picking up tips on how to be more Every. The Everys seemed to be of peak human stock: often blonde, or at least light-haired. Their noses were small and neat, their skin freckled adorably in the hot summer sun. They had eye creases which didn’t puff up and change location when they cried. They didn’t have epicanthal folds.

I remember attending auditions for school plays, year after year. Being an Other meant that I was consistently relegated to minor roles. It didn’t matter how hard I tried; the main part would go to an Every.

I, like the other Others, would be in the chorus, or cast as a Token. Once, I played a Japanese schoolgirl. Another time, a dirty Vietnamese street child. It was as though all of us who were Others were one and the same. It did not matter if I was Chinese, or Malaysian, or Japanese, or Viet. All that mattered was that I was Other.

The night before my Grade Six play, I scratched my face. There was a mole there, a blemish in my Other skin. It wasn’t like the light smattering of freckles I so coveted. It was dark, almost black, the same colour as my hair and eyes. I thought if I removed it, I would somehow be more Every. So I scratched and scratched, until I felt wetness. When I looked at my fingernails, they were caked in blood.

I did my chorus the next day with a plaster on my face.

I distanced myself from other Others. Picked a football team that sounded very Every. I surrounded myself with Every friends, friends whose parents didn’t carry their belongings around in plastic bags, or make them attend Chinese school. I read Every books, I watched Every television. When I flicked through magazines, the faces were all Every.

As I grew, and traversed the rollercoaster that was puberty, I would sometimes be noticed for my Otherness. Boys would actually say they liked me for being Other.

But I don’t want to be Other, I would say. I want to be like you.

They would say, We wouldn’t like you if you were Us.

No matter what I did, I was distinguished as an Other.

I tried my hardest to get part-time work, but suspected my résumé was often thrown out. My name broadcast me as an Other, and it was almost too hard to say. The Everys in charge of hiring probably didn’t want to bumble through an attempt to pronounce it. So it was easier to just not try.

Years later, I read research that confirmed my suspicion. Some Others had found that changing their name to something more Every-like landed them better jobs. It’s a strategy as old as time, really. People who were Others — women, the enslaved, the persecuted —  changed their names to become more acceptable, more appealing. Apparently, the onus is on the Other, not the other way around.

Eventually, I won a place at med school, where I painstakingly sweated out the letters that would follow my name. Afterwards, I would write out my complicated, unpronounceable Other name, then write those two letters: M.D. It is such a common mark of Others like me, that it could almost be a trademark.

Not OtherTM, but OtherMD. In fact, there were so many Others in my graduating class, that I almost felt more Every.

Almost. But not quite.

My habit of brushing my hair never stopped. Every night, one hundred strokes. It didn’t matter if I was up late, studying the bones of the hand (tip: use this mnemonic. So Long To Pinky, Here Comes The Thumb. Straight Line To Pinky, Here Comes The Thumb). It didn’t matter if I was passed out drunk on my friend’s bedroom floor. Whenever I remembered, I would swipe my brush through my hair one hundred times.

It was shortly after starting work as an OtherMD that I started to inspect the brush. For so long, the brush had just been an object, a prop. But as I rode the cresting waves into adulthood, it became an extension of my arm. A totem, or talisman, something that represented myself, my diligence. The parts of my personality I carefully crafted, just like my now-hidden yearning to be more Every.

I looked at my brush, after my one hundred strokes, and saw long black strands of hair tangled through the bristles. The dust collecting amongst the hair was abundant, and unsettling.

One morning, I put my hands on the back of my head, and felt it.

Maybe I’m imagining it, I said to myself, but my head feels smaller.

Don’t be stupid, said my reflection. Your head can’t get smaller from brushing your hair.

Every night, though, there would be more hair snarled into the brush’s bristles. And every night, more dust was caught up in the hair, grey and fluffy, like a cat.

It soon became clear I would always be an Other. Some of my patients insisted I had seen them before (Remember? In June last year?) and I would shake my head and tell them, No, I’m afraid you’re mixing me up with another Other.

They still could never pronounce my name.

So I shortened it.

When I met my now-husband, it was in a bar. He had the blonde hair and the blue eyes of an Every, and a devastating smile that made my stomach fizz. That night, I imagined my gastric bile, yellow and pungent, bubbles popping on the surface. (You can approximate this sound by bringing your lips together and then rapidly pulling them apart).

He took my hand, his white hand clasping my dark one. I forced myself to forget the names of the bones (do not, I repeat, do not mention the mnemonic). We danced. We kissed. His hand caressed the small of my back.

Later, he pushed his Everyness into my Otherness, over and over again, while he whispered my shortened name into my ear.

We married quickly. Everyone thought too quickly. Except my Mother, who told me I was lucky.

He’s a good man, she said. Rich. He will support you.

I didn’t want to tell her that all his ex-girlfriends were Others. That my Otherness seemed, to him, exotic. Something to be cradled and cherished, like a flower.

But not unique. Never unique.

I brushed my hair on our wedding night, while he was sleeping. This time, the hair didn’t just snarl in the brush. It started falling out, drifting down in a dark mist, collecting in a puddle at my feet. When the hair hit the ground, a cloud of dust puffed upwards, rising into the air like curling fog. I breathed in that dust, the dust that came from me.

I turned my head. The back of it looked flat. My head was shrinking, my features disintegrating. In my quest to become more Every, I was losing myself.

Slowly, each day, my skin cells were dying. And dead cells turn into dust.

When my daughter started growing, I felt her Everyness inside of me. Twisting and stretching, she would kick me from the inside, angry at the fleshy prison of my womb. She kicked so hard she cracked a rib.

It’s a known complication, said the doctor. You Others are built to have small babies. But this baby is half Every, and this baby is Big.

What should I do? I panted, breathing through the pain.

The doctor looked at me squarely, over his glasses. Try not to laugh. He wasn’t even joking.

The first glimpse of my daughter was a thatch of black hair, peeking through the lips of my labia. The midwife asked if I wanted to see, with a mirror. At first I said no, but then I said yes.

Black hair. Black, sticky hair. How very Other.

Four months after she was born, the last of my hair fell out. Nature’s cruel trick means that a Mother at her lowest — sleep-deprived, hormonal, with stretch marks and sagging breasts — is also destined to lose her hair. Of course, I was already losing my hair, but the hormones sped up the process. Each time I had a shower, I saw strands getting caught in the drain. And swirling in the water was the dust that came from me, slowly but surely washing away.

My daughter was born looking Other, but over time began to look more Every. And shamefully, I was relieved. They say girls are born with every egg they will ever produce already in their ovaries. I marveled at this fact, and thought about the grandchildren that resided in her belly. Mendelian genetics means that she might have blue-eyed babies. Just think — in only two generations, my Otherness could fade, and end up as nothing more than an interesting anecdote, or something that results in an almond-shaped eye.

I still brushed my head once my hair fell out. It had become such a ritual; a ritual I couldn’t break. It didn’t matter that my scalp was scratched and bleeding, that dust fell from it like the crumbling wings of dead moths.

It didn’t matter that I was shrinking, slowly fading from existence, becoming Invisible like I’d simultaneously wanted, and not wanted, to be.

The last day I brushed my head was when the last scrap of skin dissolved and fell away. I sat staring into my mirror, now no longer flesh-and-blood. All I saw was a gaunt skull, empty-eyed and grinning, staring back at me.

Finally White.

With no connective tissue to hold me together, I collapsed onto the ground in a clattering pile of bones. (You can approximate the sound of clicking bones by putting the tongue on the roof of your mouth, and drawing it downwards quickly to break the vacuum).

It was then that He approached, all black cowl and shroud and large, curving scythe. Just like I had dreamt last night, and every night before that.

He stroked my head with a skeletal hand, bone on bone. It hurt in a way that was both tangible and sweet.

Come with me, Child, said Death.

Yes, I replied. I will come.

Death gathered me into the folds of his cloak, and made me look in the mirror one last time.

Congratulations, he said.

I stared, entranced, at the sight of my bones. The same bones that are inside every other human. (Remember the mnemonic?)

Congratulations, Death repeated, as he brought down the scythe.

You have what you wanted. You have now become an Every.

 

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