Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Off the Top of My Head

The roots of my hair are white. The ends are red, especially when they catch the rays of the sun, or the unforgiving glow of fluorescent light in an airplane lavatory. Somewhere between the roots and the ends lies the real color of my hair, the color I was born with. All black and cowlicked, my hair sprung out of my head in every direction. My head was full of that hair, after the three extra weeks of incubation I’d had in my mother’s womb, and that hair grew too quickly for the strength of its roots. It weighed down on them so hard that it fell out, in comb, on pillow, in bathroom sink, and down drain. It fell out when I slept. It fell out when I walked, or ate, or talked, or breathed.

But somehow, I’ve always managed to maintain a full head of hair.

My mother couldn’t stand the shedding. She’d refused to let us have any pets for fear of the fur, the rampant molting, dust, dander associated with a dog or a cat. At first, my sister and I managed to keep our hair long, as evidenced by early Sears Portrait Studio poses. I remember setting my hair in curlers and, once taken out, leaning my head against the wall behind me – much to my mother’s horror – while we waited for my turn at the camera. I don’t remember having long hair much after that. A punishment befitting the crime, I suffered a childhood of short hair, cowlicks blazing, gender baffling.

Even short, my hair still fell out.

I started to notice my black hairs turning white around seventh grade. Maybe whoever sat behind me in English class pointed it out. Or maybe the shocking stark sprouts revealed themselves to me during agonizing bathroom mirror sessions of squeezing pimples and brushing teeth. My classmates debated whether or not I should pull them out, whether one pulled white hair would beget fifty more, or whether I should just wait for the fifty more to sprout on their own, as they inevitably would.

I chose not to pull them out, knowing that I’d eventually see their rotten little carcasses somewhere around the house, after they’d joined their fellow black-colored soldiers in kamikaze missions off my scalp. I got a gruesome pleasure out of discovering those white wires glistening in the sinkwater, until I discovered a new, terrifying breed: a stark white tip shining from the end of a once-black strand. The white was spreading, and behind it, this hair had left a new, white root, ready to grow back entirely absent of pigment, likely to stick straight out of the top of my head.

Sometime in high school, when it was the thing to do amongst all foolish youths, I convinced my mother to let me grow my hair out a bit and get a perm. It was a genius solution, because although it forever changed the texture of my hair and exposed my scalp to searing, eye-stinging chemicals, the curls not only masked the ever-increasing whiteness, but they held onto the hairs on my head, refusing to let go of the ones that had let go of their roots. With a perm, my hairs came out in great big clumps all at one time, released from the curls only when I washed or combed, and not during meals or a healthy sneeze.

In college, the contrast of my two colonies of hairs had become stark enough that I allowed Maria to dye my hair with a drug store bottle, which cast a burgundy glow on my entire head and rendered my white hairs almost…purple. I quite liked it and continued the practice on and off, but in my final years at Colgate, working three jobs and still not saving up enough money to move to New York, I sacrificed vanity and beauty and let all my white hairs grow out, all the way.

And then I dyed them blue.

I remember standing in the shared bathroom of my senior year suite, a bathroom which always oddly smelled like cat pee, staring at the newly-washed roots of my hair. The legion of white had certainly turned blue, but the blacks looked paler, stripped of their inky pallor. Had my hair experienced its final straw and finally succumbed to the multiple chemical treatments I’d subjected it to?

In panic, I washed my hair again, and upon reexamination, decided the second wash had redistributed the dye enough to render my head an appropriately blue tint, with raging streaks of a bright, digital, electric, gas flame blue where the white once was.

At the time, coloring my hair was still a novelty, an elective procedure that allowed for experimentation with tone and style.

Years later, and for years now, it is very much of a necessity.

But even some necessities have been necessarily sacrificed in the two years since I left my last job. So, I have made do. I have let my white roots advance inches from my scalp, waiting as many as six to eight weeks for a retouch and refresh (as opposed to the normal three to four). Lured by cost-free services, I have subjected my head to the hands of beauty school students. I have even returned to the drug store bottle, touching up the roots myself, a practice for which I seem to have lost all skill and finesse, repeatedly dyeing my forehead and missing obvious white outcroppings at the front of my widow’s peak. And I have allowed the white to peek out of the once-dyed ends of my hair, giving the appearance of red but, upon closer examination, revealing a shade that’s closer to orange, blonde, or even…beige, a close cousin to off-white, which is dangerously closely related to white.

Sadly, when I got my new job, negotiated my new salary, and withdrew some funds from my retirement plan to help me relocate, one of my first thoughts was, “Oh thank God, I can start getting my hair done again.”

So in these last few days in New York, as I tie up loose ends and get my affairs in order, I look forward to enacting my revenge on the red and white invasion on my still-full head of hair, which still sheds if I think too hard. Whether it’s still in New York or immediately upon arriving in LA, I will march into a hair salon, and I will announce, “Single process please. And this time, pull it through.”

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