The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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A couple of months before his twelfth birthday, I forced my son to cut his hair.
As a little kid he liked color and ornament and would wear stacks of thick, iridescent hair bands on his wrists or hang cherries over his ears. When I painted my nails, he wanted his done, too, until he went to kindergarten, where another boy said he couldn’t be friends with someone who painted his nails. Ashamed to tell me, my son scraped off the red polish with his teeth.
In the first grade, my son grew his hair long and got an earring before earrings on boys were the trend. “You’re a girl!” he heard over and over. He shrugged it off at first, but eventually his desire for acceptance grew strong. He cut his hair, removed the earring, and for a few years blended into the crowd — at least, as well as a kid who had a pet rooster and liked origami could. Then, when he got a little older, he said he no longer cared what kids thought of him at school, and let his hair grow long again.
My son is good-looking, slender, and graceful, with brown eyes, golden hair, peachy skin, and a killer smile. But his long, wavy hair made his sweet face look undeniably feminine.
“Why, you must be sisters!” exclaimed a homeless woman as I handed her a dollar.
“Actually, this is my son,” I said.
“She is not!” the woman insisted. After she was reluctantly persuaded, she said to him, “You look just like a girl. You should cut your hair.”
As we drove away, I asked my son, “How do you feel about what just happened?”
“She sure was cheerful for a homeless person,” he replied.
One day at the beach, he was taunted by two older boys. When he tried to ignore them, they picked him up and threw him off a cliff into the water. I didn’t find out about it until days later, when his older brother saw that his toes were raw and infected. My son said that he just wouldn’t go to that beach anymore. Not wanting him to be intimidated, I enrolled him in a self-defense class.
He liked his hair; I liked his self-possession and dedication to principle. And then, slowly, painfully, I changed my mind.
One night, after dinner at a friend’s house, a guest asked him, “So, are you interested in boys yet?” My son felt paralyzed, unable to correct the man at this point — after all, they’d sat through dinner together.
Finally, his summer-school teacher told me that during roll call on the first day, kids had asked my son, “Are you a boy or a girl?” and he had said, “I’m a girl.”
That day, against his will, I took him to have his hair cut off.
Without his long hair, my son looks six inches taller and two years older, though his face is as winsome and shining as ever. Now he says he wants to bleach his hair white, and that he might grow it long again after he starts shaving. In the meantime, he rides his unicycle, and the other kids still think he’s weird.
Pacific Grove, California
My grandfather loved my long hair. I would stand on the front porch of his brick home and lean my thin body over until my hair fell forward and touched the floor. Then I would brush it gently from scalp down to manicured ends, until it would pop and crackle and spark with static electricity. He and I would laugh, captivated by my lively hair with its brilliant personality. “Your hair is beautiful,” he would say, “just beautiful.”
My grandfather’s love for my hair was only a small part of his love for me, his first grandchild, the crazy kid who brought laughter into his life and gave him hope for the future. Although his dreams for me included Ivy League colleges and a well-educated golden boy for a husband, I went to a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest, and enjoyed being unattached and free.
My grandfather died suddenly on the first day of my sophomore year. The day after his funeral, I drove my convertible down all my favorite country roads, my long hair whipping in the last warm air of September. All around me, the leaves were turning yellow and red and brown; everything was dying, but I’d never thought he would.
The next day, for the first time in my life, I had my hair cut short and permed into frizzy curls that barely touched my shoulders. “You have such beautiful hair,” the stylist said as her scissors snapped it to the floor. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
I nodded, too numb to answer, a greater part of me already gone.
Terre Haute, Indiana
My mother had two sisters who were hairdressers, and one of my earliest memories is of sitting on a sweaty stool in my aunts’ shop, watching them roll my mother’s thick black hair in pink curlers. My mother seemed obsessed with cutting, curling, coloring, and changing the style of her hair. She once remarked that she would “swim the Atlantic Ocean for a bottle of hair dye.” And she constantly nagged me to get my hair out of my eyes, and to cut it short so I’d look “young and fresh.”
Even after I became a mother, then a grandmother, my mother’s comments about my hair continued. Now she thought it was too long for a woman my age. One year, on her annual Christmas visit, we scheduled a consultation with a hair designer. I was secretly delighted when he said my hairstyle was perfect for my facial structure, but told my mother she should change hers and go back to her original color.
Several years later, my mother and I were shopping together. She was now close to seventy and her hair was dry and pale, the color of potato chips. I tried to ignore her as I drove, but she couldn’t keep from nagging me about my hair being “too long for a woman your age.” Finally, I stopped the car, turned to her, and said in an even, precise voice, “I don’t want you ever to speak to me about my hair again.”
She sat there for a minute, stunned, as if she didn’t know where she was. Then she screamed back at me, “I don’t care what you do about your hair! I don’t care if you let it grow so long it becomes a rope and you hang yourself with it!”
She has never said another word about my hair.
While we are making love, you touch my hair, and I begin to travel in my mind. . . .
I’m standing on the sidewalk in front of the house where I grew up, the big white house with the black shutters and the little white fence around the yard. My dark hair is cut in the cute pixie style I wore in first grade. The trees seem much taller than I remember. The sun is beating down on my head, and I can feel my hair getting hot. I hear the neighborhood kids laughing and playing in the street, their feet pounding the asphalt. My hair is getting hotter. . . .
You touch my hair again and bring me back to the present. I wonder why your touch sent me back there, to that childhood moment of joy.
Some artists have coped with breast cancer through self-portraiture, inviting the world to see their bodies’ changes as they do. I cannot paint, draw, or take photographs, but I, too, would like to memorialize my experience on a museum wall. My exhibit would consist of a gallon-size zip-lock bag filled with hair, the product of a shower one Wednesday morning. I did not shampoo, but simply put my head under the nozzle, and the cascade began. I had been warned that the chemotherapy would cause complete hair loss, but the knowledge hadn’t prepared me for the reality of having my face, shoulders, arms, and chest — my damaged chest — drowning in hair. It seemed no amount of rinsing and rubbing would get it off me. Finally, it collected and clung like seaweed around my ankles.
The hair that once was but is no longer mine now sits in my basement next to some empty flowerpots, waiting to feed the next plant I repot: I am recycling myself. But I’d prefer a museum, where others might gather, if only for a moment, to pay their respects to the contents of a plastic zip-lock bag labeled simply, Shower: September 27, 1995.
We sit on the gym floor with our legs crossed. Mrs. Gray from Macy’s clicks her tongue as she walks among us. I can see a price tag on the bottom of her shoe and a thread hanging from her skirt.
“Who wants to be a model?” she asks. “Who wants to model clothes in a school show?” Mrs. Gray’s shoes are the color red you see on candy canes. Her glasses are shaped like cats’ eyes. She balances a book on her head and glides as if skating on ice. “Hands like delicate fans. Feet like swishing fish. Now you try it.”
My math book wobbles on my head. I walk as if my underwear is sliding down my legs. Mrs. Gray comes up to me, breathes in my face. “An ethnic, aren’t you? I’ve got just the outfit: something frilly, lacy, with heels and stockings — clear nylons, like mine.”
During lunch, Margie, June, and I meet with Mrs. Gray to try on our outfits. My dress is white and satiny. When I spin around I feel like a snowflake. I have never felt so pretty, like a doll atop a cake. I am afraid to breathe.
Mrs. Gray kneels to pin up my hem. “Your legs!” She spits the pins from her mouth. “How can you wear nylons with those legs?” Everyone gathers around me. I feel like a snow cone squished by a boot.
“I’ve never seen . . . my goodness!” Mrs. Gray says. “Surely you can fix them before the show.”
“Monkey legs!” Margie cries, and scratches under her armpits. June screeches.
My mother says I am too young to shave. “Such soft baby skin you have — why rip it up?” She moves my hand against her leg; her skin feels like sandpaper. “You want to be like me?”
“But how can I be a model?” I ask.
My mother shrugs. She says I am too short to be noticed anyway, but that I’d almost be pretty if I would just smile once in a while.
The day of the fashion show, I sneak three pairs of nylon stockings from my mother’s drawer, roll their tops at my waist, and tie them there with a belt. They sag at the ankles, and I scratch a run in the back, but my legs are smooth, the color of tan paint.
At the show, Margie gets mascara in her eye and loses a contact lens. June breaks out in hives that make her nose look like a tomato. Nobody says anything about my legs, not even Mrs. Gray, who, as she introduces us, trips over the microphone cord and breaks her nose.
Merrick, New York
The old woman lay in her hospital bed with tubes and IV lines running into and out of her. It was obvious she didn’t have much time left. She’d been unable to eat for days, and was being fed through a tube in her stomach. As the clinician responsible for helping people with swallowing problems, I probed and prodded her, both physically and verbally. Throughout the session, she stared penetratingly at me, answering me curtly at times, but often just nodding or shaking her head. Her hair, grown unruly, was splayed wildly about on her pillow. As I prepared to go, her hand grabbed my arm. “May I ask you a question?” she said weakly.
“Of course,” I said, assuming she wanted to know whether she would ever be able to eat again.
“Where do you get your hair cut?”
Ruth S. Kearney
Manasquan, New Jersey
Hair is supposed to be a woman’s glory, a sign of womanhood, of beauty. Not mine.
My Italian aunts would tell me, “Your hair is OK, but your sister’s hair is beautiful.” They felt my sister looked more like their side — the Sicilians — and that I looked more like the Puerto Rican side. They called me a spic. I was six.
When I was in my teens, my mother would sometimes twist my long hair around my neck or pull it while slapping me in the face. My scalp became sensitive, and large clumps of hair would come out when I combed it.
After I married at seventeen, my husband always made derogatory remarks about my hair; it seemed never to be cut exactly the way he wanted. Once, he, too, used my long hair to choke me. After that, I cut it short, so that no one could ever swing me by it again.
I met Estar in the Magic Meadow, about three miles above Woodstock, New York, where a crowd had gathered for a triple celebration: the August full moon, a total lunar eclipse, and the twentieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival.
Estar’s long, wavy gray hair fell halfway down her back, and two narrow braids framed her pale, wrinkled face. Barefoot, she wore a gossamer-thin white cotton dress, and a wreath of daisies crowned her grizzled head. But what I noticed first about her was her sparse gray beard, like those often worn by old Chinese men.
Estar and I chatted for a while before I gathered the courage to ask, “When did you start letting your chin hairs grow?”
She smiled and said, “I used to pluck them the minute they grew in. Then, when I was away in the country for a few days, alone in a cabin miles from the nearest town, I realized I had forgotten my tweezers. I figured, When I can’t stand it anymore, I’ll make the trip into town and buy a new pair.
“But I didn’t buy those tweezers for years — and now I use them only to get rid of ticks! This is me; this is who I am. I don’t cut the hair on my head, and I don’t cut these hairs, either.”
I admire Estar’s courage. I would look like her if I didn’t examine myself in a magnifying mirror and tweeze and pluck my lip, chin, and eyebrows until every offending hair is gone. Once, someone asked me what single cosmetic item I would most want to have with me on a desert island; it didn’t take me a second to answer, “My tweezers.” I can’t imagine letting those hairs grow.
As my mother, at seventy-nine, lay dying in a hospital bed, she asked me in a thin, weak voice to pluck out the half dozen or so hairs that had sprouted on her chin. I did so gladly, happy to be able to help with something that mattered to her when so little else did.
Sally Wendkos Olds
Port Washington, New York
Aiee! My hair is gone! Actually, it’s been gone about three years now, but I still don’t recognize the geeky middle-aged guy I see in the mirror each morning. In the early seventies, I had nearly waist-length blond hair that lay draped around my shoulders like a flag, the glorious embodiment of my vanity. Bob, my hairdresser back then, was perpetually stoned out of his mind, but, man, could that guy cut hair! I never looked so good, before or since. I felt, well . . . beautiful.
I was working at the time as a doorman in the biggest hotel in Milwaukee, and was required to wear a short-haired wig over my own hair, and a hat on top of that. Through my job, I got to meet many famous people: Henry Kissinger, Mick Jagger, Joan Baez. Whenever I met some shaggy rock star, I felt compelled to let him or her know I was wearing a wig, and actually had long hair underneath. I couldn’t stand the thought that one of them might mistake me for a clean-cut working stooge.
The wig and hat became stifling at times, particularly in summer. When it got unbearable, I’d sneak out to the roof of the parking garage, remove the wig, and let my head air out. At the end of my shift, my pockets bulging with tips, I’d change into civilian duds and whip through the lobby with my hair flying. We were supposed to leave by the employee entrance, but the lobby staff never tried to stop me, and the higher-ups didn’t recognize me out of uniform and sans wig. For all they knew, I was just another rock star.
Now I mourn the loss of my hair much the way I mourn the loss of old friends, innocence, and youth. I tell myself that people who care for me will feel the same regardless of how much hair I have on my head, and this certainly seems to be true. But, oh, my hair! Gone. I miss it every day. I am sometimes ashamed of the shallowness and vanity of such thoughts, yet there it is: I miss my hair. I mourn its loss. I feel older and homelier, less lovable and less whole without it.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
Trichotillomania is defined as the compulsive pulling of one’s own hair. This is how it works for me:
First, I have to moisten my left thumb and forefinger just the right amount; if they are too dry or too wet, they will not be able to twist the hair properly. In the case of dryness, I wet my forefinger with my tongue and rub it against my thumb until it is sufficiently moist. If my fingers are too wet, I rub off the excess moisture on a rough fabric. (Too smooth a fabric removes too much moisture.)
The next thing is to find a good, thick hair, the more wiry, the better. My favorite place to search is the crown of my head, on the left. I have been pulling hairs at that spot for thirty years. If the growth there is sparse, I move to the right of the crown. If things have been hectic and I have pulled out hair all over the crown, I move forward to the top of my head. In addition to being thick, a hair must also be long enough: at least two inches. If it is too short, I throw it out. When I find a good one, I pull it slowly until it comes out of my head.
Next, I inspect the hair visually for thickness and shape, and to see if the root is attached. If it is, I am careful not to lose it, for a hair with a root will almost always work well. I then insert the hair into my left ear and begin to twist it around by rolling it back and forth between my fingers. While twisting, I gradually insert it farther into the ear. If it’s a good hair and the moisture on my fingers is just right, I will hit the eardrum on the first try. If not, I have to keep on trying, sometimes for hours. On rare occasions, I can find that certain elusive place which produces enormous amounts of pain.
Once I’ve hit the eardrum, I keep twisting, producing a sound others hear as something like a continuous fart. To me it sounds as if I’m listening with earphones to someone crackling cellophane. The sound is so loud it hurts. It is so loud I cannot hear or think about anything else. There is physical sensation as well: a dull ache that begins just behind my earlobe and penetrates about a third of the way through my head. The ache continues long after I cease to twirl the hair in my ear.
I repeat this practice at least hourly. The purpose? To drown out the noise of the world and the screams of my soul.
Michael always wore a few drops of patchouli in his dreadlocks; I could smell him a mile away. He ran deliveries as a bicycle messenger in the city. Sometimes he’d come home hours after I’d gone to bed, and slide in next to me, the city all over him, his muscles tight from all those trips between the White House and Georgetown. After work, we’d meet at the couriers’ hangout in the park, where they traded horror stories about near misses and rude clients as they passed around beers and joints to take the edge off. After forty runs, Michael would still be raring to go.
We’d ride through the park under the full moon, holding hands, no cars to dodge. Up ahead, Michael would bellow, above the wind, “Do you trust me?” Straining to keep up, I’d shout, “Yes!” “Then draft off me,” he’d say, and I’d get there somehow, my front wheel only inches from his rear wheel, and soon we’d be perfectly in synch.
At home, he’d make me teas with names I couldn’t pronounce, fill our room with candles and incense, and lead me through centering prayers and meditations. He was teaching me to know peace, even though the world offered him little of it. The city was running him down; he preferred to sleep in the forest, without camping gear, just moss under his head. In summer, grimy from riding, we’d sneak into the zoo at night, strip down, and swim in the seal tank. Michael wanted to live like that forever: with animals, outdoors, close to the earth. He’d talk about maybe living on a farm, and I’d know the city could not hold him much longer.
Finally, one day, Michael stood at my front door and handed me back my house key; he was leaving on an extended cycling trip. “Wear your helmet,” I reminded him. “I always do,” he said, and, grinning, he was gone.
In Florida, he found what he was looking for — a farm managed by a community of Hare Krishnas, who welcomed him. There, he cleared trails to ride on and made the greenhouses flourish. And every day he was chanting, singing, making music, celebrating. He was the happiest I’d ever known him to be. I tried to imagine what he would look like after the Krishnas shaved his head.
How could he have come home in a box, cold and motionless? How could he not have been wearing his helmet? The drunk driver hit him so hard, it might not have saved him, but still . . . As I placed my fingers on Michael’s still lips, I noticed the tuft of hair left by the Krishnas: “When we die,” Michael had told me, “Krishna pulls us into the next world by the top of our head.” I remembered back to when we were shopping for Michael’s helmet: he’d needed an extra large to accommodate his dreadlocks, and we’d joked about the extra padding they provided.
He died from massive trauma to his head, I was told. Without his hair, that helmet didn’t fit him anymore.
Muir Beach, California
Since an early age, I have been stimulated by watching people get their hair cut. In elementary school, I often daydreamed about trimming someone’s hair. In high school, I convinced friends to let me cut their hair. I can’t say that I got off on it, but I usually did feel a thrill holding the scissors in my hand. Frankly, I did a pretty good job and fixed more than one bad haircut. I was too much of an achiever, however, to consider becoming a beautician.
It wasn’t until after college that imagining people getting their hair cut — especially women — really began to arouse me. In my fantasies, the change in the subject’s appearance is always extreme. Sometimes the scenario is dignified, such as female military cadets, or Buddhist and Christian nuns, getting their hair shorn. Other times, the situation is fraught with terror, such as Jewish women having their hair lopped off in concentration camps. Another fantasy involves a woman who takes control over her life by removing the “burden” of her long hair.
I wonder whether my fantasies are an expression of the need to control my own life, or the desire to control other people’s lives. I wonder whether I should have been a hairdresser, after all.
It’s a school day, and I come downstairs to find my son is wearing one of his skirts. “It’s one thing to wear it out dancing,” I yell, “another to wear it to school! What are you trying to do?” To my mind, he is only alienating himself further, but he thinks he is forcing people to think about their stereotypes and projections.
A few months later, he dyes his long dirty blond hair an electric, neon blue. I am outraged. I don’t see him, only what others might see, and the harm he is inflicting upon himself. One day he’ll go to school with his blue hair flowing, wearing a yellow skirt with black polka dots. The next he’ll twist his hair in a tidy little bun and put on khakis, a blue oxford shirt, tweed jacket, bow tie, and horn-rimmed glasses. Other times, it’s just plain old jeans and a T-shirt.
Within a couple of months of dyeing his hair, my son is diagnosed with cancer. Eleven months later, he dies, at the age of twenty.
My youngest son has had a mohawk for about ten months now. Sometimes he puts Elmer’s Glue in it, to help his otherwise unruly auburn hair stand straight up. Then he puts on a black silk shirt buttoned to the top, his plaid suit with the bell-bottom trousers, and his red high-tops, and prepares to go down to the truck stop with his sister for a cup of coffee. “You look great!” I say.
Hanover, New Hampshire
Long, curly, thick, soft black hair covers my lower body, from my big toes to the tops of my thighs. It dusts my buttocks and the small of my back. It makes a straight line up to my bellybutton and circles my nipples. In despair once at sixteen, I measured one of the hairs from my labia: four and a half inches long.
Over the years, I have heard (and overheard) many hair comments directed at me: “Can you imagine sucking a tit and getting a mouthful of hair?”; “That woman has hair on her stomach”; “Are you a man or a woman?” Once, patting the long hair on my arms, my four-year-old niece said with apparent seriousness, “You’re a man.” I became a sexuality educator in part, I’m sure, to understand about hair, to be able to tell my niece, “You know I’m not a man — I’m a woman who is hairy. I’m a woman because I have breasts and a vulva, just like all women. Lots of women are hairy, not only men.”
Now approaching fifty, I have lots of facial hair: on my chin, my upper lip, all over my cheeks. I can’t define where my hairline ends and my eyebrows begin. I’ve tried everything to deal with it, bravely facing the great fear of all hairy women: that, whatever you do, the hair will come back thicker. I’ve tweezed, bleached, waxed, and shaved. Lately, I’ve been tweezing some, bleaching sometimes, and, more and more, learning to let it be.
As for my legs, the summers I don’t shave them, I end up covering them with long pants. One time, I forgot I was wearing shorts and got out of the car to talk to the guys at the local garage; they were polite and didn’t say a word, but their surprised eyes said it all. Not so with young teenagers: to see hair on a female body disturbs their thinking processes. Never go sleeveless with hairy armpits to middle or high schools if you want to be heard.
I have teenage sons now. Some summers, they’ve not gone with me to the lake for fear one of their friends might see us together. My hairiness is a cross they bear, along with my weird politics and odd musical tastes.
With male lovers, it’s always been a risk to be myself — so many are brainwashed by media images. But I’ve done OK finding appreciative and worthy men. With women, it’s easier, especially since the feminist and lesbian community for the most part celebrates all women’s body types. I once loved a woman: she was so smooth, so like yet unlike myself. My current partner of twenty years likes the way my legs look shaved, I know, but he is wise enough not to say so out loud.
When I was a teenager, one of my fantasies was about being stranded on an island and then getting rescued. All my hair would be grown out, and I would look like my real self. Now beyond menopause, I have come to know that real self better. Stirred by the wind, my hairs are swishing tall grasses in a breeze. Floating in cool water, they are seaweed dancing in the tide. The fringe in the cleft of my ass is moss stuffed between the cracks of boulders. A silky armpit — milkweed pods in late fall. My real self is of the earth.
Three weeks before my wedding, my mother began chemotherapy to combat an aggressive case of breast cancer. To her horror, the doctor informed her that she would lose most or all of her hair within a week, maybe two. She bought an Elizabeth Taylor–style wig to wear to the wedding, should the hair loss occur before then. “It looks just like your real hair,” I assured her. “No one will ever know.” Still, she wanted very much to attend my wedding with her own hair. A devout Catholic, she prayed to her patron saint to spare her hair until after I was married.
The day of my wedding, my mother descended the stairs of her house in a black-and-green sequined dress and — to my surprise — a subdued, thinner version of her natural hair. All she’d done was wash it, she said, fearing the rigors of a salon styling would only encourage the loss. I liked her hair that day; it was practical and forthright.
The next morning, as I boarded the plane to Jamaica with my new husband, my mother awoke to find her pillow covered with clumps of hair. She was completely bald.
“Mom, look,” my daughter says. “I need to shave my legs.” She is stretched across the foot of my bed, looking at her shins.
I sit down and look where she is looking, then take one of her long, skinny legs in my hands and hold it up to study the hair more closely. “Yes, I see what you mean,” I say. The hair is slightly darker and thicker than before, but still soft. I think it is luscious, but I can’t say that to my daughter. If I were to tell her how precious this hair is to me, she would protest and take her leg away. I linger a moment longer, then let her leg go.
“Most of the other girls in my class are already shaving,” she says.
“Well, I guess it’s time for us to buy you a razor.”
She smiles at this, having achieved victory without parental resistance.
I don’t want my daughter to shave her legs, but I have decided not to struggle against her. The thin, beautiful body that has been growing and growing is about to turn a corner. I won’t be seeing this girl for long.
Some years back, a black male co-worker asked me, with open disgust, why I wore my hair the way I did. At the time, I sported a pretty damn fabulous weave made of real human hair, luxurious, jet black, and wavy — no doubt the tresses of a now-bald Hispanic woman. My co-worker had intended to put me on the defensive, but I caught him off guard when I told him, “A black woman gets nowhere in this country with short, nappy hair.” The interrogation stopped right there.
Hair is so political in my life it makes me want to cry. Society wants me to be ashamed of my natural hair, and insists that I chemically straighten it to poorly approximate white hair. I have only so many alternatives, none of them completely satisfying.
I’ve since lost the weave, as it was too expensive to maintain, and have settled on more economical braids of synthetic fiber. They don’t elicit as many nasty comments, but I still have to deal with white women who corner me in elevators and ask, “How long does it take?” Taking the liberty of touching a couple, they wonder, “How much does it cost?” And then, the kicker: “Do you wash them?”
San Francisco, California
I have perfect hair — thick and full of body, with no split ends, ugly roots, or permanent frizz. It is dark brown, and streaked in front by strands of silver. I casually comb it in the morning, never blow it dry, and mostly take it for granted. Yes, I have perfect hair.
What I don’t have is a lock of my baby’s hair. On one of the first pages of her baby book is an empty spot with the words paste envelope with lock of hair printed in pink. There is a place for the hospital bracelets — mother’s and baby’s — the birth announcement from the newspaper, and baby’s first picture in the hospital. The place for the photograph is empty, too. Her cleft lip made people cringe, so all the pictures of her at birth were taken when she was nursing, or bundled up against me, face hidden.
Olivia’s hair was brown at first, like mine, then turned to strawberry fuzz, which fell out, and grew back blond. One long strand grew faster than the rest and curled around the side of her head like a tail. She had dimpled cheeks, blue eyes, and wisps of spun gold on top.
She also had only one lung, a backward heart, and a trachea bent in the shape of a C from the weight of the aorta falling against it. She spent much of her sixteen months of life on machines that tried to correct her multiple birth defects. The nurses did her hair. They put the long strand in curlers, or smoothed it over and around her IV, or fastened a pink bow to it with Vaseline. I brought herbal baths from home and bathed her in sections — first an arm, then a leg. I washed her matted hair, telling her not to be afraid. I stroked her head and read her stories, never knowing if she heard.
When Olivia died, I didn’t think to snip off her one long lock of hair. I was too busy trying to get her to breathe. In the ambulance, on the way to the hospital, I kept telling the paramedics about what was wrong with her heart, her lung, her trachea. I forgot about her hair. When the nurse came to carry her away for the last time, I wasn’t thinking about that empty spot in her baby book.
My friends tell me to dye my silver away. They say I’m too young, my face too wrinkle-free. But I don’t think I’ll dye my hair yet. Maybe when I turn thirty, or if I get married again. For now I’ll have a streak of gray where Death ran his fingers through it.
Salt Lake City, Utah
I’m on the elevator at work, bringing the daily mail down to the curbside box, when this kid gets on one floor below mine. I smile. He doesn’t, but points to his head and asks, “Does my haircut look all right?”
He’s a gangly Anglo, no older than fifteen, his head shaved like a boot-camp recruit’s. There are no salons in this building. I don’t know what kind of response he wants. I have the urge to say something sarcastic like “What hair?” but his skittish eyes scare me, and we have six floors to go. Finally, I stammer, “Yeah, I guess. I mean, what do you think?”
“No!” he shouts. “I mean really, does it look all right?”
Now he’s in my face, so I snap, “I really can’t say; I didn’t know you before.”
At this, his temples flex like caterpillars and he slugs the marble wall with the meat of his fist, then grumbles until we reach the lobby, where he pushes the OPEN DOOR button repeatedly and darts out at the first crack.
Back at the office, I tell my co-workers about my encounter, and they laugh and blame the kid’s instability, his parents’ instability, the world’s instability. I begin to feel as if I’m making something out of nothing. Still, I can’t shake the anger, the fright, the dread that gripped me in that elevator. On my way home I replay the scene over and over in my head, imagining alternative scenarios. Then it hits me: Why didn’t I just say yes? And I begin to cry.