Split Ends

By the time a piece of hair is long enough to poke through your scalp, it is dead. It has been raised on blood vessels for every meal, bathed in oils that $14 shampoo claims to remove, and entangled in multiple protein bundle love affairs. But now, it’s a lost cause, that’s all scrapbook material. I have always been partial to endings: New Year’s Eve, montages at graduations or funerals, breakups, 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 decided a chapter of my life is over. I get to pull out my chair, close the back cover, and become someone who will undoubtedly have better things to say once the next journal is cracked open. When things end suddenly, there is no time to admit I’m wrong. I can name a version of myself history, discard it from my body, and dwell on it in the past tense, rearranging things endlessly with no risk or pain involved. Haircuts don’t hurt for the same reason.
Looking back, 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 color dyes started leaking out of their bottles and blending into a sickly green that pushed through the white plastic, so I took it to the dumpster down the street and did away with high school in one swift, ceremonial motion.
After each of these episodes, cycles of hair grief began to spin. The first, regret: a night of tears and a few days of reclusiveness. Eventually, acceptance: looking in the mirror and saying, out loud, that this change is the best decision I’ve ever made. I try to convince myself that it’ll spark some huge shift in my life and that it’ll all make sense sooner than later. Then, soon thereafter, despair: I’m still the person in the before picture. I start craving an ending, and pick up my scissors one “last” time.
The week before I left for college, I reached the despair stage, 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 decided to find 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, obsession over the past, and fear of the future. A drop of shaving cream slid down my neck and I took a deep breath, thinking things would be different from now on. And when I saw my scalp peek back at me in the foggy mirror, crowded with pin-up cut outs, I was giddy with removal’s high. But as soon as hair is cut, it starts to creep back.
For the next week, I found my hands running 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 dark 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.
Patti Smith walked into a bathroom with a pair of scissors and a picture of Keith Richards and emerged the badass visionary everyone wanted to know. InRoman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn had a barber move his scissors higher and higher until she stumbled into a love affair. When I left my dorm room with crooked micro-bangs, I still had an essay to write, an overflowing bag of laundry to deal with, and nerves shoved awkwardly into Bed Bath & Beyond stackable bins. I kept going to the bathroom with handfuls of bobby pins and hair gel, trying to get my new creation to lie flat. It would start to obey me, and then as I would turn to leave for the class I was already late for, some obnoxious piece would spring out of captivity and try to give me radio signal. Spending the day wishing it were cold enough to hide it under a beanie, I remembered the sage advice of that barbershop priestess: “You can’t change the direction that your hair grows all at once. You have to do it in stages.” Patience is the hardest part.
Like most people, I lose about 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—we are born with all of the hair follicles we will ever have, the casualties and replacement are just part of the assembly line. Really, 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.
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 must have fallen out 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 throughout all of this change: 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 green 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, just carried themselves into the next color’s territory, fading a little more each day.
I am the sum total of every one of my good decisions, mistakes, and lost eyelashes. In each piece of hair is information about everything that has ever been in my bloodstream, all bound up in light brown, so teeming with information that it sends a camera’s flash hurdling back into its face. And if things get so heavy that the only option is cutting something off, I think I’ll close my eyes and return to that barber’s stool, a drip of shaving cream frozen in its journey down my neck. When I saw my scalp for the first time, the hairdresser must have picked up on the shock in my eyes because she said, gum smacking, eyelashes batting, “Sweetie, it’s just hair. It always grows back.”

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