I have tried to shove versions of myself into the past tense with do-it-yourself hair transformations more times than I can count. There were the cringe-worthy bowl cut bangs the morning after the drivers’ permit fence collision. There was the purple incident the night before junior year school pictures, immortalized by hickey-esque stains covering my neck in each wallet-sized print. There was the not-quite pixie cut complete with unintended sideburns that I adopted in hopes that it would come out to my boyfriend for me (it didn’t). There was the pre-graduation partial head shave that gave my grandma’s hugs a rigor mortis quality. There was the post-breakup escapade in which I spent four hours on my bathroom floor bleaching parts of what little hair I had left and coloring it with every single bottle of discarded “Splat” brand dye under my sink. Afterwards, I piled the better part of my bathroom’s contents into a garbage bag. The different colored dyes leaked out of their bottles and mixed into a murky green that pushed through the white plastic. I took it to the dumpster down the street and did away with high school romance in one swift, ceremonial motion.
I am partial to endings: New Year’s Eve, montages at graduations or funerals, dramatic goodbyes, and the hum of movie credits when everyone leaves the theater steeped in butter and self-reflection. There is nothing safer than getting to the last page of a journal. It means that some external force has declared a chapter of my life over. I get to pull out my chair, close the back cover, and become someone who will probably have better things to say once the next one is opened. Haircuts don’t hurt because by the time a piece of hair pokes through your scalp, it is already dead. If I name a version of myself history and discard it from my body, there is no time to admit that I was wrong. Risk and pain are snipped out of the equation.
The week before I left for college, I was craving an ending, so I bit the bullet and went to the old-timey men’s barbershop that I had dreamt of barging into as the most confident version of myself. However, some combination of anxiety and aftershave left me too scared to ask what a “classic fade trim” was, so I obediently mounted the red, pleather stool and found out. A woman with false eyelashes that brushed her cheeks each time she blinked smeared warm shaving cream on the sides of my head and shaved them in long, smooth motions, smacking her gum every few seconds. I closed my eyes and heard the scrape of metal slicing through months of scraggly growth, bathed in black die and fear of the future. A drop of shaving cream slid down my neck and I took a deep breath, reveling in the feeling of someone else deciding which parts of me would stay and which would go. And when I saw my scalp peek back at me in the foggy, pin-up crowded mirror, I was overcome with removal’s high. But as soon as hair is cut, it starts to creep back.
For the next week, my hands ran over my sandpaper scalp at every idle moment. The hair that grew in was prickly, and a mousy brown color that I hadn’t left unchanged since the time my hair fell halfway down my torso, curtains I was too nervous to draw. This hair lacked the bite of the blacks and purples I had grown accustomed to. It caught the sun in pictures, translucent against my suddenly vulnerable face. I hated it. I knew hair was going to grow back in, I just hoped it wouldn’t be my own.
Like most people, I lose about a hundred pieces of hair a day without noticing, one hundred little endings scattered on couches, bus seats, and other people’s sweaters. As soon as a piece falls out, a new strand starts growing in its place. As with life, there is no such thing as an ending, just a present tense that ebbs and flows, old parts of our selves making room for new ones. But that takes patience, and cutting off a year’s worth of wisdom in hair, like ripping the last ten pages out of a journal you want to be done with, is a lot less painful than waiting for change to happen on its own time.
The other day, I was writing in a journal without paying much attention to the thinning stack of right hand pages. I was in the middle of a sentence when I realized that I had reached the back cover. My habit of using one hand to feel for an ending had fallen out of my scalp without me noticing. Growth starts at the roots and isn’t visible until it pokes through the surface. This morning, I brushed my wet hair forward over my nose and watched it shift from color to color. There is a small section that has remained untouched: roots naked in all of their unremarkable glory. Just below that, a smudge of pink from the morning after a panic attack. I had used purple dye to cover up the sickly yellow a section had faded to, but it didn’t stick to the right places and stained my fingernails for the next week. Below that, the first week of college’s teal, loud enough to make my first impressions for me. And finally, hanging long enough to tuck behind my ear, a strip of black, harsh and artificial– a relic of the self I tried to leave at home. But as I brushed it to the side, they weren’t separate from each other. They mixed like dye in the bottom of that trash bag. None of the colors ended, they just carried themselves into the next color’s territory.
Whether I like it or not, I am the sum total of every one of my good decisions, exposed roots, mistakes, and lost eyelashes. The memory of this web seeing my scalp for the first time is buried under a back cover, classified as relief. But the hairdresser must have seen shock in my eyes because she laughed, gum smacking, eyelashes batting, and uttering the truth that’s tangled with me for better or for worse: “Sweetie, it’s just hair. It grows back.”