retiring at the age of 23 to the salton sea and how britney spears is representation to brown girls/femmes everywhere
sorry can't talk right now, i'm shaving my head, going insane, and listening to mitski
“I will retire to the Salton Sea
At the age of 23
For I'm starting to learn I may never be free.”
It’s morning. These lyrics echo in my mind as I stare into my phone screen, “Drunk Walk Home” by Mitski blaring through my headphones. I imagine myself, rotting away amongst the corpses of decaying fish in the Californian sea. On the brink of death, I swallow the saline and the runoff of sludge, asking myself how the fuck did I get here.
Hours later I stared at my bed, a pool of tears, sweat, and wrinkled bedsheets imprinted by where I was earlier today, and laugh at myself. How this morning, I curled up under my blankets, silently crying while singing along to “Drunk Walk Home”, the coconut oil in my hair staining my hoodie and pillow (a failed attempt at “self-care” as I tried to whisk my depression away but hey! At least my hair will be shiny and healthy).
In two months, I will be turning 23, and I can’t help but think of how tired I already am. A few days ago I read my journals from when I was 18-years-old. She was so full of exuberance and drive and passion. A spark of fire once lived inside of me, a fire that was ready to take the world by force. But ultimately, the fire burnt me from the insides out. As if my entire body ignited, and all that’s left are ashes and soot.
But then I remind myself of how young I still am and how I have the rest of my life still waiting for me. But why am I so tired?
Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night after having a nightmare (actually I’m not exactly sure whether to call it a dream or a nightmare). In the dream, I opened my laptop screen and started recording myself. Suddenly, I took out a hair clipper and started shaving my head. Then I looked at the screen and noticed I was on facetime with my parents, watching them gasp in horror at what I’d done. I closed the laptop, walked up to my mirror, feeling the short bristles of my hair. I felt stuck between wanting to sob as I desperately wanted my long hair back, regretting what I’ve done, and laughing in celebration. But before I made up my mind about what to feel, I woke up.
I quickly touched my head and sighed in relief that there was still hair on my scalp. I lay in my bed, processing the nightmare/dream, feeling warmth underneath my bum. My eyes widened, jumping up and investigating the wet spot. Did I pee myself?? Nope. False alarm. It was just a pool of my own sweat. Great.
I thought about the dream for the rest of the morning and wondered what it meant. Was this a sign to get a buzz cut? I thought to myself. No, dreams can’t be that superficial…right?
Throughout the remaining of the day, I tried to focus on the emails I needed to respond to but couldn’t shake off the dream I had. Naturally, I went on Twitter to distract myself from my own thoughts (because that’s the point of social media, to run away from our feelings out of fear) and saw a cesspool of angry tweets about Britney Spears about her recent post of her naked at the beach. I rolled my eyes and muttered, “Man, leave Britney alone!” (*cue iconic video of Cara Cunningham crying LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE*)
My thoughts shifted back to when a friend of mine and I had dinner together a few months ago. It was during the time when the #freebritney frenzy and her fight against her conservatorship were all anyone could talk about.
“I just don’t get the big deal. She’s another multi-millionaire white woman and people are so concerned with this. What about the other horrible things going on in the world?”
I nodded in agreement while hiding the fact that I was secretly one of the people that rooted for Britney and religiously followed every move of her legal case. I wanted to find the words to express my true feelings but couldn’t. I mean…she was right. Britney was just another rich privileged white woman. Why should I be so distressed about this? But for some strange reason, I couldn’t help but have an immense amount of sympathy for her. Or perhaps empathy.
A few months later, Britney finally won and was free from the conservatorship. I secretly applauded for her in celebration while my friends moaned about how people need to put their energy elsewhere.
I haven’t thought about Britney since then until today. As I read the tweets about how people are upset with her newfound freedom, I felt enraged. “Leave the woman alone! Let her use her freedom anyway she wants!” I wanted to tweet back. But decided to quickly exit the tab before I sink into the cesspool that is Twitter.
Before I knew it, it was my lunch break so I sat on my bed, the coconut oil stain still on my pillow, my bedsheets still damp from sweat. But I couldn’t be bothered. My thoughts shifted back to the dream I had last night and the buzzcut. I looked at the corner of my room, staring at my own reflection in the mirror, wondering if I could someday rock a buzzcut. I laugh to myself, thinking about how upset my parents would be and that maybe I don’t have the head shape for it.
My phone vibrates and see I got a text from Fyzah. I suddenly remember our plans and how after work, I was going to sleep over at their house for two days. I groaned, thinking about how I had to break the news that I can’t sleep over today even though I really wanted to.
"Sorry, I can’t :( my mom won’t allow me. Plus things are pretty tense at home right now. I don’t think the timing is right.”
I groaned again, thinking about how in just 2 months I’m turning 23, and yet the reason I have to cancel plans was because “my mom won’t allow me”.
I quickly looked at my google calendar, looking at when I’ll be free next. I wondered if things will be okay at home but not too good that my parents would want me to go out with them but not bad either where I have to stay home, not that I can actually change anything, but just my presence is needed even though I would just be rotting away in my computer chair as usual.
I thought back to the journals I read from when I was 18 and an entry I read talking about this exact scenario. When I had to use my cards close to me and see if the timing was right whenever I desired to do something for myself, feeling guilty and selfish when it was to simply stay past curfew. Feeling an overwhelming wave of déjà vu, I felt sheepish, pathetic, and annoyed that I was experiencing this same exact thing 5 years later at my grown age.
“I will retire to the Salton Sea/ At the age of 23/ For I'm starting to learn I may never be free” echoed from afar as I sat in the spot of the puddle of sweat from last night’s nightmare and the wetness from my tears of my morning cry.
I remember being 18 and the excitement I had for my early 20s. Although I couldn’t imagine myself beyond the age of 18 (depression lol), I also couldn’t wait for the sense of control I would have over myself when I entered my 20s.
When I whined to my parents why I couldn’t do something like stay out late or attend a slumber party, their argument was that “I was too young would understand when I’m older”.
I thought about how this excuse would expire the moment I became a working woman. I imagined myself taking the world by storm and having my life put together. That I wouldn’t need permission over how I would live my life because the control was finally mine.
But I have quickly come to realize that the autonomy that I thought I would obtain over myself once I reached my 20s was a mere illusion. And this narrative of having control that had been fed for as long as I can remember was not only to give me false hope, but to keep me quiet. At least for a moment. A moment being my entire teenagehood and my early 20s.
The illusion had been broken back in January when my cousin snitched on me for posting pictures of myself in my bathing suit and I started to take notice of so much more since then.
I look down at my pillow and traced the stains of my tears with my fingers My bun came unloose, the sticky coconut oil touching my face. I sigh and decide to take a shower. I wash my hair, thinking about how my dad wants me to dye my hair back to black, and how my mom sometimes talks about how much she misses how long my hair once was, but also that I should highlight it a caramel brown.
As I stand under the warm water comforting my body like a hug, I cried. I cry about the once fire in 18-year-old me before burning up inside out, I cry about the dead fish at the Salton Sea, I cry thinking how tired I feel, I cry about how powerless I feel, I cry about turning 23, I cry and cry and cry and didn’t stop.
I feel like going ballistic, shave my head like Britney, and fucking breaking everything, I think to myself as I sob. Maybe then someone would pay attention to how I feel and listen.
I stop crying, making sense of what I just thought. The dream I had last night suddenly makes sense and it no longer feels like a nightmare but a sense of clarity.
I was 8 years old when Britney had her infamous breakdown of shaving her own head in front of the paparazzi before attacking them with her umbrella, banging it like an ax. I remember watching it on the news, hearing my older siblings talking about how crazy Britney was, and agreeing with them because, at the tender age of 8, everyone that was older than me seemed like they were always right. They’re adults so naturally, that means they knew everything and should be listened to. Right?
I get out of the shower, strip my sweaty bedsheets, and replace them with a fresh one. I lay down, my wet hair now soaking the sheets, and scroll through Britney’s Instagram. I watch the video she posted of herself naked at the beach which seemed to anger people. I smile watching her roll around the sand, nude as Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing” plays in the background. I think back to when I wore a bathing suit for the first time in my life at the beach with my friends which eventually were the photos that got me in trouble.
I read the angry comments, saying she was crazy and her father was right to control her. I quickly look up her age, seeing that she is 40 years old. A wave of anger overwhelms me as I read the comments, a similar feeling when my mother told me I couldn’t sleep over.
Two months ago, Britney turned 40 years old. Yet she only recently found her autonomy. I turn 23 in two months and I’m still searching for it, wondering when I will find mine.
I think back to the conversation I had with my friend and how she was confused why people care so much about Britney’s conservatorship. I imagine her father on a chair with a team of lawyers in black suits behind him and Britney’s own sister, stacks of legal papers stating his total control over Britney on a white long table in a room with glass windows overseeing California where you can spot the Salton Sea from afar. Then I thought about my own elders and elders of brown daughters everywhere. While we don’t have a conservatorship signed away by a judge with fancy legal terminology, ours is intangible. Invisible. But forever binded to us with shame and guilt. The fight does not happen with a team of powerful lawyers but in solitude. It’s just us standing alone.
I wish I can go back and tell my friend that night my true feelings about why I feel so deeply connected to Britney and that I was rooting for her freedom. Because perhaps I was rooting for mine too.
As I am trying to search for this autonomy which now feels like a myth, I will stand over the Salton Sea, surrounded by the corpse of fish in the toxic acidic Californian water, with a hair clipper in one hand and a shred of remaining hope burning up inside, waiting.
(Note for the readers: I love my parents, I’m just tired.)