The Zelda Cut
When I was in high school and needed my hair done, my mom took me to the Gene Juarez Beauty Academy, where I could get cut and dried into any shade of bad idea for less than thirty dollars. The academy students all had “stylist” names they got to choose during orientation, and they were read off in the morning at role call: Hope, Eternity, Esmeralda, Argentina, Belle, Ariel, Indonesia. I was 13 and didn’t realize that the names were made up. I thought these gorgeous sirens, with their black aprons and Marlboros, were destined for the beauty world from birth and named accordingly, the letters weaving DNA. I couldn’t put my hair into a ponytail or paint a smudgeless nail or get a pencil within an inch of my eyeball. Tabithas had no such destiny.
“Aurora,” the headmistress bellowed for a second time. My student stylists tended to be the late ones, apologizing a streak about shit-heel boyfriends and cancelled bus lines and radiator fluid. A Homecoming queen sauntered into the lobby. I stood up from the vinyl couch and sea of Lucky magazines, clutching my folded printout inspiration picture like a ticket.
“Are you Tabitha?” she asked, and then, “it’s so nice to meet you!” It was a Saturday morning and each mirror was taken by a woman trying to convey her vision to a trainee. Disembodied plastic heads stood at the ready for clarification. Instructors hovered on each row, correcting color mixes and scissor swipes. They came by to approve each plan of action before a student touched our heads—they played with my locks a bit, commented on the evidence of my cheap Kirkland Signature shampoo.
Aurora offered me a seat at her station and twirled the ends of my hair as she asked, “So what are we thinking today?” It had been six months since my last appointment, and my hair had grown past my shoulder blades and faded to a shadeless brown. At that appointment I’d brought a picture of Nicole Kidman from Moulin Rouge! cinched into a shimmering silver corset, snappably slight. I was built like a phone book. It would take a Guinness World Book record-holder to break me apart. I glanced away from my reflection, all stray hairs and frizz, my chin doubled up by the tissue paper they tie around your neck. I unfolded the printed page and passed it over.
“What is this?” asked Aurora, twisting the picture as if interpreting a Mondrian.
“It’s Princess Zelda,” I said.
“Is that a cartoon or something?”
“It’s a video game.” I’d found the Nintendo artist concept art online, the same picture they print in the strategy guides with the rounded edges and details that a Nintendo 64 merely suggested. Looking at the game now, in screenshots or Tumblr gifs, the discrepancy is insurmountable. Ocarina of Time’s Zelda is a hot mess of triangles and bad lipstick. But in 1999, there was little difference to me between illustrated Zelda and the Zelda I raced down Ganondorf’s crumbling spire with. The one I doodled into my geometry notebook. The one I dissected in fan fiction epics with all the dimension and depth that my teenage heart could hemorrhage onto the page.
“I…I don’t understand. What is her hair doing?”
I took the picture back, feeling my ears flush beneath my overgrown, ratty mane. “It’s long here in the back, see? And she has two strands in the front that curl.”
“What’s this?” She asked, tapping a French tip nail on Zelda’s forehead.
“That’s her crown.”
“So I guess we need to make it blonde and then these front pieces curly,” I explained.
“Yeah.” Why had I even bothered to comb a bunch of Angelfire fan shrines for this picture at all, I wondered.
“I don’t think we can do that.”
She opened the bureau drawer, a piñata of butterfly claw clips and bobby pins. In the drawer’s depths was a L’Oreal color palette, categorizing the spectrum of natural human hair. “You see how you’re here, at Medium Ash? You’re wanting to change to blonde.” Her finger flew from the right side to the left. “Maybe even platinum. That’s, like, ten shades lighter.”
“You can go a shade lighter, maybe two in a visit,” she said. “But you can’t just dump peroxide all over your head.” I offered no crumb of comprehension, so she continued. “It would be essentially like lighting your hair on fire.”
She caught my heartbreak in the mirror and took in a quick breath. “We could do highlights though, maybe? Then if you still want to go this blonde, you could do it slowly.” I nodded. “And you want, uh, layers in the front?”
“Pieces that can curl.” Zelda’s front curls were my favorite feature, the way they tossed in the wind whenever she was surprised, from that first fateful encounter in the Hyrule Castle gardens to Ganon’s final gauntlet. “My hair doesn’t curl very well, so maybe you could perm these two little pieces?”
“That…won’t work,” she said. “I promise, you won’t like that.”
Three hours later I was marginally blonder with Jennifer Aniston wisps framing my face. Aurora coiled the first few pieces with an iron to appease me, then handed me back the folded piece of printer paper. While my mom wrote a check at the front counter, I stared at myself in the front door reflection. The weak curl would melt in the rain like spun sugar. I’d go home and burn myself trying to recreate it and leave a strange scorched kink in its place. In a week of showers, the honey frosting dulled and sunk back into the medium ash. I tucked the printout into the garbage can next to the front doors. Even with a blueprint, I couldn’t become what I wanted to be.
When I returned to school on Monday, my best friend Emily met me at the bus. It was her new hair weekend, too. Emily’s mom took her to a salon in Puyallup, one with a lobby water sculpture and a wooden treasure chest of Stash teas. Emily was sold honey highlights too, but she fell naturally into a Golden Blonde swatch. She was tall and willowy and could twist her thick, wavy hair around her fingers and be alluring, instead of looking like she had some kind of compulsive twitching problem.
“I like it,” I said, and I did, but it was hard to notice that anything had happened. The graduated stylist had simply amped up Emily’s glory. She didn’t bother bringing pictures, and even if she did, they wouldn’t be of Zelda.
“Nintendo doesn’t have a single sexy character,” Emily declared when I confessed my hopeless crush on Link. How I’d corner him in the Kakariko Village windmill so the camera would glitch super-close to his dreamy eyes, and I’d drink up every drop. Emily had a PlayStation that cycled through Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy discs. Her heroines were rendered in shadows and grudges, secrets rather than legends. If she stooped to pining over someone on-screen, he would have to have a leather jacket. Tunics were gross.
“Princess Zelda is gorgeous,” I tried to point out.
“She’s an elf!”
“No she’s not!”
“She has pointy ears.”
“That’s not an elf thing. That’s a Hylian thing.”
Emily stopped talking and the argument was over. She’d won, because Emily always won. I was the smart one, and I might even be the funny one. But beauty was her sacred turf, and I knew I didn’t have a leg to stand on.
That night I got home from school and tossed my Jansport onto the bed. I stood in front of my dresser mirror, my hair frizzy from the day. I didn’t dry or style it right, and by afternoon it went feral. A plastic Princess Zelda perched next to the drawers, her features frozen in carved China plastic. I pressed her sharp little curls into my thumb until they left divets. From my desk, amidst a hoard of Lisa Frank stickers, I found a Sharpie and a yellow highlighter. Carefully, as Zelda’s dead eyes stared on, I drew a Triforce on my right hand, and shaded the right segment gold. Wisdom.
When I wasn’t looping around Hyrule Field on Epona trying to bottle Poes, I was hogging our family desktop computer to write her story. The one I swore was in the game, subtext I effused into every trite text box word. How did you get past the guards? became “I’m a prisoner of my own privilege. There’s no tree in this garden high enough to climb, not a moment I’m not being tracked and inventoried.” I told my father about the dream…He didn’t believe it was a prophecy was a lifetime of being trained to stifle her intuition and intelligence, of watching men recklessly shift the world and deny her power. In Link she found her muscle, the means to her revolution. It was all there, but the cartridge was just short on memory. I transcribed it myself. Badly and unoriginally and cliché-ridden but sincerely, the first tremors of a writer zygote.
Zelda wasn’t just gorgeous, and she didn’t have to be sexy. She was smart.
It’s hard to remember, sixteen years later, what I found so mesmerizing about a graphically obsolete princess. I replayed Ocarina of Time last year on a Nintendo 64 that liked to randomly turn off, possessed by a Y2K poltergeist. When the drab, pixelated Kokiri Forest stretched across my 55-inch TV, I remembered declaring that “graphics won’t get better than this! They can’t. It’s, like, literally impossible.” Back then I could smell the moss and the dirt of the forest, the damp breeze rolling in from the banks of Lake Hylia. The jerky, jagged game was unrecognizable to the world I remembered spending dozens of hours in.
My recollections of Hyrule feel as unreliable as all of my high school memories. I’ve rewritten the narrative like a cassette tape, re-recorded with a hundred favorite songs. The tape’s unfurling as my fingers wind the wheels, trying to dial back to some truth on who I was back then.
Last weekend I was up at my parent’s house for a graduation. The gravitational pull of my high school was strong; I couldn’t stop looking around the corner, cracking open stories. “Did you know I tried to get my hair cut like Zelda once?”
“Oh god, you didn’t,” Mom groaned.
“Yep. I had a picture and everything.”
“That poor beauty school girl. I’m sure that was the talk of the break room that day.”
As I laughed off the past, Mom mentioned her massive crate of my drawings, craft projects and writings she’d held onto for 30 years. “Maybe you could take some of it with you,” she suggested. “I’d love to have my closet back.”
Armed with half a bottle of wine I tucked into her closet and pulled out my life’s work piece by piece. There were bunches of books made with stapled construction paper, an A- spelling test, tooth fairy correspondence. By the time I glimpsed the bottom of the Rubbermaid tote, my high school life began to appear. “Art class!” I said, lifting up a handful of sketches. “I forgot I was even in art class.” I enrolled senior year, after I’d moved on from asking for Zelda’s hair to Juliette Binoche’s French coif in Chocolat. On each sketch I checked the signature—is this my sister’s, or my brother’s? Memories tossed in the wrong box? They were actually good. Not run-off-and-sign-up-for-art-school good. But not embarrassing.
“See?” said Mom. “You weren’t as bad at life as you think.”
I unrolled a thick canvas scroll and found an oil painting of the Moulin Rouge, home of tiny Nicole Kidman. Beneath it, a thin piece of paper, already hamburgered in the corners. The rumpled page held Princess Zelda drawn with incredible care. Her dress was shaded in with colored pencils, much neater than I’d have the patience for nowadays. She stood with her hands on her hips and her head cocked to the left, that lovely mess of hair shaded to catch imagined light. A Zelda I’d only seen in my mind, frustrated at some unseen obstacle. She stared the mess down, straight and singular, a girl who was sick of this shit.
I didn’t want to look like the Nintendo artist rendering, I suddenly realized. I wanted to be this. The Zelda I had to make up because the game was too lazy to flesh her out. Strong and unflinching. Unafraid. My version of Zelda wasn’t the most perfect I’d ever seen, but it was the most beautiful. The smartest. She’s what I dreamed of becoming, a woman who could tackle her life with grace.
I tucked the portrait into my recovered Lisa Frank binder to pack safely in my suitcase. I may not have known how to look or what to do with my life, but I knew the direction I wanted to head, toward standing up and staring down. That girl had more wisdom than I bothered giving her credit for.
On the way out of the closet I caught myself in the mirror, my platinum bob almost fluorescent in the sliver of skylight. Two years of blonde baby steps into the shade I’d always dreamed of.
What the hell, I thought, and flicked on the bathroom light switch. I waited until my mom’s curling iron glowed orange, then wrapped my front tendril around the barrel. One, two, three. I let the strands free, and they sagged like a day-old balloon. At the end, my signature singed kink.
We grow into our legends, and we never change. Both stories are true.