For Jackie Summers, losing hair means a lot more than a bald head.
It’s one month after the most romantic night of my life, of our lives up to this point. One month after my grand dramatic gesture and climatic speech, our movie moment. We’re madly in love (again) and on our way to a costume party. I’m in full gladiator gear: kilt and body armor, feeling powerful in mind and form. I watch you transform into your darker twin: leather, metal studs, stilettos, and a black wig. I see all of the parts of you that you hide, and realize as I look at you that I don’t recognize you. I think I like it. The love we make that night is sinister and scandalous. I take you greedily, like a prize won in combat. I don’t notice a few stray hairs on the pillows.
You’re a goddess in an evening gown. We’re getting ready to go to the New York City Ballet, to see The Nutcracker Suite. It’s taking extra long for you to get ready, as I watch you carefully arrange your hair to cover patches that have begun to fall out. Your body is rebelling, refusing to grow those long curly golden tresses that have been your trademark forever. I can feel you squashing your disquiet into a ball and pushing it down into the pit of your stomach. I wait for you to talk to me about it, but it never happens. It doesn’t interfere with the magic of the evening. The love we make that night is gentle like falling snow.
We’re in your shower. I’m standing behind you in awe, watching water trickle and bead on your back like some Greek statue caught in a rainstorm. You’re glorious, divine—my Amazon, my own personal Aphrodite. There are whole patches of hair now missing from your once grand mane, and your unstated pain is palpable. I’m impotent to help as I see you struggle to maintain your pride, as you adjust a wig you now wear for a totally different reason than at Halloween.
It breaks my heart.
As a Valentine’s Day present, I shave my head completely; my symbolic show of support. I get razor bumps on my scalp, I itch like crazy, but I don’t care. We’re in this together. That night, you ask for something less genteel than making love, and I oblige. We vent our frustrations physically; it doesn’t make either of us feel better. You’re six inches from me and a million miles away.
Half of your hair and all of your love for me has vanished. Tears scald my face as I listen to you tell me I’m not the one, that you’re not sure, that you’re not sure why you’re not sure. My decision to relocate is now moot; my plans are invalid. My future erodes before my eyes, like sandcastles in the evening tide. Everything inside me breaks and the shards shred my insides. Nothing I did could stop the growing disconnect between us, and now the fissure has become a chasm. We don’t make love this night.
We make hate.
The big four-oh. The first birthday party I’ve ever thrown for myself. All of my best friends and favorite family are coming over, to help celebrate. I notice a small patch of hair on the back of my head missing, and chalk it up to a bad haircut; I need new clippers anyway.
I’ve let go. I’ve let it all go—past pain, future hope, ego, pride, accomplishment, and failure—and I’ve never been happier. I am insanely, inexplicably happy, as I exist purely in the present, allowing the immediate moment to dictate who I become. I’m in love with life and life is loving me back; I’m captain of the football team and life is the head cheerleader and we’re in the back seat of my dad’s pick up on prom night.
I’ve spent a few days at my mom’s house, having packed nothing, save clean t-shirts, underwear, toothbrush, and razor. I didn’t bother packing my clippers and my normally well trimmed coif has grown in. It’s then that I notice a patch of hair missing, then two, three. I sit down and have my niece check places I can’t see. She counts twelve circular patches—varying from 1/4″ to 1″ in diameter—where hair has stopped growing on my head. Having let go back on my birthday, I have no qualms about calling you, telling you about what’s happening, asking your advice. You repeat back to me all the research I did back when you first started losing your hair. Alopecia: an auto immune disorder. No one knows what causes it, there’s no cure, no treatment. It may or may not spontaneously grow back. Coincidentally I’ll be in town next week to help celebrate a mutual friend’s birthday; we agree to meet. I lie to myself about my hair loss and seeing you again. In my heart I know neither of you are coming back.
I’ve stopped shaving my head to cover missing patches of hair, because I’m not growing hair anymore. For that matter, I’m not shaving my face either, as my beard’s stopped growing, as have my eyebrows, eyelashes, and every other hair on my body. I’ve got the butter smooth chin of a child and the nutsack of a porn star. Friends who haven’t seen me in a while wonder; some come out and ask, others just whisper. No I don’t have cancer, no I haven’t joined a swim team and no, I didn’t join a gang. Did you just say freakshow? Wow, that really makes me feel good about myself. Thank you Michael Jordan for making being black and bald beautiful, but I swear I’m going to punch the next person that tells me how lucky I am to have such an evenly shaped skull right in the gut. I wear sunglasses as often as I can, and I avoid looking in mirrors, as without those perfectly formed caterpillars that used to sit over my eyes (thank you Mom), I don’t really recognize my face anymore.
I’m learning to adjust my mental picture of myself to something more accurate with great difficulty; I’m far better at changing things I can’t accept than the reverse. Every night I take all of who I think I am on a pyre and set it ablaze, and recreate myself each morning from the ashes. I go to sleep every night with my mantra: just let go. I wake every morning with laughter and defiance, my favorite ménage-a-trois, and attack life with playful ferocity. My life and my immune system got an involuntary reboot; most things came back online, some didn’t. Every day is a holiday, a holy day: another chance to embrace life and give it the finger at the same time. I’m trying to be aware of what’s present in my life, not what (and who) isn’t.
And then it happens.
I wake, shower, towel myself dry, and notice a single, black, curly hair protruding awkwardly from my chest. I’m momentarily giddy; it’s ridiculous. A 40-year-old man naked in his bathroom, giggling over a single chest-hair. A rose in the desert; clearly it wants brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. I think to myself: presently, he and I are alone.
Maybe, possibly, it’s a temporary condition.