It glinted—such an unnecessary, poetic word—but it did, glint in the sun as it went over the guardrail and down thirty feet into the drainage ditch, landing, fanned out like a fainted lady, in a turbid puddle.
Nobody moved. Then Diane heard someone’s phone camera click and everyone scattered, running back toward the main road. Only Steffi stayed, her mouth slightly open, as it usually was, her crayon blue eyes starting to scribble over with some to-be-determined emotion.
Diane spread her hands across her bare head. A breeze brushed over her. She thought about Adam and Eve in their brief time of timelessness, trying to cover themselves with leaves after they had been so contentedly naked, after they had been made to learn not just about shame, but more tragically, about befores and afters. Diane wanted to be contentedly naked too. She wanted that sense of before, of belonging in the world wearing only her skin. She looked at her wig down there, leaves tangling into its strands, and felt a growing excitement.
What do you want to do? Steffi asked. Steffi was generally afraid. She was trying hard not to stare at Diane’s head.
Nothing, Diane said.
Should we call the police, Steffi asked. Or, like the fire department? They rescue cats and stuff.
Diane looked at her friend, her only friend, a fact that before this moment had made Diane angry at herself, and somehow angry at Steffi too. But right now Diane felt emptied of all anger. She felt infinitely patient and capable and strong.
Steffi, Diane said, imagine right now if there was a murder about to take place, but the police couldn’t get there in time because they were here, trying to save my wig. She started laughing.
Steffi laughed nervously, her face reddening. That’d be awful.
I mean, yeah, Diane said. It’s awful when people get murdered. But the wig is a good twist.
Steffi fidgeted with her phone case, which was twice the size of her phone. You look cool bald, she said.
Thanks, Diane said. I feel cool.
It had been the most expensive thing in the house. Every other Sunday, Diane would wash it in the bathtub with a thimbleful of Woolite, running her hands down the length of it, then back up to the top, her fingers gently pulsing the underside, the porous bumps where a scalp would be. She imagined, as she performed this ritual, that it was her own real hair, grown by her own follicles, and that by some magic, she could take it off. Like a superhero with a cape, after the toil of the day was over. Every day’s fight was the same, and yet new, since every day was new, and yet the same.
She wondered how it was for people whose days were different.
Les Beaux Cheveux 100% Human, Hair Piece, it said, as though Diane had no feelings at all.
Was it, she wondered, a one hundred per cent human hairpiece (inarguably it was), or was it a piece made of one hundred per cent human hair? She did not like prevarications. But the wig was so expensive, and so soft, softer than her own hair had been, with bangs she’d never been able to grow because of her cowlick, and an attractive wave that made her feel taller and more slender than she was—for these reasons, she forgave it its label. She forgave herself for needing it. She forgave it for being the thing she needed.
She wasn’t always bald. In fact, according to her mother, Diane exited the womb with so much hair that the doctor thought she was facedown. Rare, he’d said, for a newborn’s hair to cover its entire face. Diane less than half believed this story. Its telling got more frequent after the baldness settled in such that Diane felt acutely her mother’s need to exculpate herself, to distance herself from any hint of blame, which felt to Diane not entirely unlike a rejection.
It started after her father died, first in stringy bits in the shower, then in big brown clumps. Diane would run her fingers through her hair and be left with a palmful, which she would stare at dumbfounded every time, because this was not a sensation a person ever has the chance to get used to. Your hair will be gone before you can make peace with its falling, was how she thought about it, which seemed like a metaphor for something bigger, but was just the actual plain literal truth about losing hair. In the shower, Diane worried about the drain, about taxing it with so much at one time. Her solution was to gather all the loose hair in her hands before it could travel down her body and onto the floor, and to stick it to the wet tile wall. After turning off the water, she rubbed it off the wall—it worked as its own kind of magnet, hair apparently only ever wanting to attach to more hair—and balled it up. Over the weeks, her hair covered more and more tiles, and the ball grew from golf to baseball-sized.
The doctor said it was alopecia areata, a condition that would ultimately result in complete baldness. She said the causes were unknown, but she drew Diane’s blood anyway and submitted it to an array of tests, all of which turned out inconclusive. Could be stress, the doctor said. Have there been any big changes lately? Diane’s eyes filled with tears. My dad died, she mumbled. Her mother’s mouth was a straight line as she nodded with the least possible movement. How much more could she, Diane’s mother, be expected to bear.
The doctor wrote something in Diane’s folder. I’m so sorry, she said crisply. Grief is—here she paused, sucked air into her nose, breathed it out slowly—absolutely a form of stress. She handed Diane’s mother two pieces of paper from her pad. One was a prescription for steroids. The other was the name of a wig shop.
The rest of Diane’s hair fell out that week. Diane’s mother recoiled at every sight of it—in the trash, on Diane’s pillowcase, all over the bathroom floor, everywhere. It was like a trail of blood, but instead of blood, it was hair, and instead of a murder scene, it was Diane, calmly, baldly eating chips and reading a book on the couch.
Diane. I’m sorry. I know this is hard on you. But I must ask you to vacuum up after yourself.
Diane did as she was told. It’s not that hard on me, Mom. It’s just hair.
That’s a good attitude. And you’re right, on one hand, it’s not the end of the world. But hair—well, it is a big deal. It’s part of who you are. I’m sorry this is happening, honey. You’re still so young. Maybe the steroid cream will start to work soon.
Diane returned the vacuum to the hall closet. Maybe, she said.
I made an appointment for us at the wig shop tomorrow. I’ll be coming home from work a little early. We’ll pick out something pretty.
Summertime, and Diane had nowhere to be. She would start ninth grade in the fall, too old for camp, too young for a real job. Her father’s death—sudden and senseless, like so much death can be—hit her anew every morning when she awoke, and its force was surprising because she had always been a person who believed the good words of other people, things like “it will get easier” and “time will heal.” Instead, her grief became sharper and sharper, a kind of torture device, boring into her until she was sure she could no longer stand it. Why did they lie, she would think to herself. Why did they tell me the opposite of what is true.
Finally she woke up one day, the day her hair started falling, feeling drained of her own blood, beset by such a profound stillness that she wondered for a second if she were actually dead. Her thoughts drifted out singly, disconnectedly, a tic here, a twinge there, and she realized a change had come, and she got out of bed feeling no less sad but somehow different, hollowed out, and as she twisted her hair into its regular bun, a large section came out in her hand, while several other pieces floated gracefully down to the sun-dappled carpet. Congratulations, she thought to herself in video game font, you have made it past Whatever-That-Was and are now in Whatever-This-Is.
Her hair seemed a small price to pay for not being dead, and for no longer feeling deadened by sadness.
Although Diane’s mother did not like to look at her too much, Diane herself didn’t mind looking in the mirror. Bald, she looked even more like her dad, which offered a terrible sort of comfort. At night she rubbed her head as if it were someone else’s head, surprised by the intimacy offered by the once-taboo contours of her skull. Before long, she was rubbing during the day, too, rubbing and rubbing as though to erase it, or to be assured of its presence. She tried thinking of her bald head as a rabbit’s foot. She tried thinking of it as a magic lamp from which a genie might emerge.
At the wig shop, a woman dressed entirely in purple used a long grabber to tap at wigs hanging high on the wall.
Some girls want to go blonde, she said, tapping a Rapunzel-like wig. That could be fun. Sort of a silver lining.
What do you think, Diane’s mother asked, smiling encouragingly. Should we try it on?
Diane shook her head. I want to look like me, she said.
Both the woman and Diane’s mother looked disappointed. People, thought Diane, really do prefer not-me’s, or at the very least, blondes.
Well, let’s see. This, this, and this are our best-selling brunette wigs, she said, tapping. Which looks most like you?
I like that first one, Diane’s mother said, about a long, pin-straight wig.
The second one, Diane said.
The lady took down both wigs. Why don’t you try them on?
Diane stood in front of the mirror, her mother behind her like some figure in a portrait. The lady helped her put on the first wig, which Diane immediately took off. Diane put the second one on. She touched the ends with her fingers, shook her head a little and felt its soft sway. She looked different without looking different.
I like it, she said.
Diane’s mother’s face struggled against a tiny frown. Whatever you want, dear. It’s your decision. She looked longingly at the blonde wig for a moment, but didn’t say anything more.
They paid for it across three credit cards and left, Diane still wearing the wig. She stared at her reflection in the car door while she waited for her mother to unlock it—my next car will have automatic everything, her mother was fond of saying—and was fascinated, as she’d been since childhood, with the distortions: her body squat, bulging in the middle, her arms and legs short like those pictures of carnies. But her hair—her wig, she corrected herself—was spared any disfigurement. It seemed immune to ugliness. There could be no bad hair days, even if there were bad everything-else days. It would always look the same. It would always look perfect.
Thank you, Mom, Diane said, as they drove home. She was looking at herself in the pull-down mirror.
Her mother glanced over and gave her a tight smile. So much better, she said. You look pretty again.
I feel like we maybe spent too much money on it. There were probably cheaper ones that would’ve been fine.
Diane’s mother shook her head. The cheaper ones looked like wigs, she said. Yours looks real. Better than real.
Diane thought fleetingly of her father, pictured him with his eyes closed singing along to Neil Diamond’s I AM, I SAID, and tried to imagine what could be better than real.
On her first morning of high school, Diane chose a dress that was nearly two inches shorter than it had been the last time she’d worn it, in late spring. She dabbed over a zit with some concealer. She carefully put on her wig and then stepped back to see her whole self in the full-length mirror. For a brief moment she considered stuffing her bra, but thought better of it. One illusion, she decided, swinging her perfect hair over one shoulder, was enough.
The boys paid attention. The girls paid attention to the boys paying attention. Three weeks in, and Diane was still eating lunch with Steffi and only Steffi, who was the only person Diane had told about the wig. The friends she’d had in grade school had mostly gone to the other high school, and the few that were here had used their summer vacations, it seemed, to become other girls. They said hey and what’s up but their eyes were always sideways.
They’re probably jealous of your hair, Diane’s mother said one night as they ate from individual trays of microwaved lasagna.
Diane tried to chew a still partially-frozen noodle. But it’s not even my hair, Diane said. I think they feel weird about Dad and they don’t know what to say.
Trust me, Diane’s mother said. Girls your age don’t care about death. They care about hair.
Diane stared at her mother, who was using the side of her fork to get every last bit of sauce from the tray into her mouth. She wondered if her mother liked her, if liking was even a consideration between parents and their children. Everyone talked about a mother’s love, but she couldn’t recall any Hallmark instances of a mother’s like. Funny how love got all the glory, Diane thought now, while like did all the work.
It was between biology and her study period that Diane first heard a rumor about herself; specifically, that her hair was actually a wig. She was straightening up after drinking from the water fountain when a girl named Jennifer brushed past her and whispered loudly to her friend, FAKE. The friend blushed and giggled into her hand and when they turned the corner, Diane heard the two of them laughing loudly.
Diane ducked into the bathroom as the bell rang signaling the start of her study period. Her perfect hair looked the same as it did that morning—perfect. She tried tousling it, frizzing it out a little, but it landed with the same beautiful swoosh it always did. She dabbed at her bangs with some water, hoping they would maybe dry funny. She hurried to study hall, where a popular boy named Jarrod openly stared at her for the better part of fifty minutes as she tried to read her history chapter. When the bell rang and everyone shuffled out, Jarrod lingered.
Yes, she said.
You going to your locker?
Mind if I walk with you?
No, she said. He’s not introducing himself, she thought, because he knows that I know his name.
A bunch of us are hanging out at the Hill on Friday night, he said. You know the Hill?
Yes, she said. Doesn’t everyone?
Cool, he said. I’ll see you then.
Actually I don’t know if I’ll be there. I might go. But I might not.
Jarrod grinned. Aw, he said, lingering, his eyes darting like he was trying to decide if he wanted to tell a dirty joke.
Diane didn’t say anything. She took some books out of her locker and put some other books in.
OK well peace, Diane. I’ll see you Friday—right?
Maybe she was imagining it, but it felt like he was looking at bit too intently at her hair. I’ll see how it goes, she said. See ya.
Jarrod’s casual invitation—to a public place where invitations were unnecessary—circulated quickly through the freshman class. Diane felt a mounting, seismic unrest aiming toward her from Jennifer and her friends. Jarrod and his friends, meanwhile, had all requested Diane’s friendship on Facebook.
Jarrod’s texting people about bringing lots of ‘juice boxes’ to the Hill on Friday, Steffi said, as they walked home from school on Wednesday. I’m pretty sure that means beer.
Yeah, probably, said Diane. She had lost interest in the internet, which even one month before would have seemed preposterous to her. Steffi lived off of it, lived on it, in it. Steffi would text Diane to tell her about someone’s status update or new profile pic. It was fast becoming the dominant feature of their relationship. Instead of logging on, Diane just had Steffi.
You’re gonna go, right?
I’m still not sure, Diane said.
That evening, Steffi texted her a screenshot of a post from Jennifer, which showed Jennifer in a tight tank top with her hair tossed all over her face and enviable cleavage. ALL NATURAL, was her caption.
Friday was one of those days, weather-wise, that no filter could improve. Clear and bright and azure sky, and finally cool enough for Diane to wear her favorite sweater, the one with the big buttons on the right shoulder. She had made up her mind while eating cereal that she would not go to the Hill. She didn’t like what going to the Hill might insinuate—that she was interested in Jarrod, which she wasn’t really, that she would be there solely for him, as something he could claim, and at some point, touch and rub against. What if he made out like guys in the movies, hands buried in her hair? What if—and this is what it came down to, really— her wig came off?
But also, she thought to herself, as she and Steffi walked to school and Steffi read tweets aloud from her phone, it wasn’t just about the wig. She did not want the wig to dictate what she did and didn’t do. She did not want to resent the wig. Resenting the wig would lead to resenting her baldness, and resenting her baldness might ultimately result in resenting her father, first for dying and then for who knows. Resentment was a slippery slope.
Steffi held her phone up to Diane’s face. Jarrod’s best friend Kyle just commented, 20 bucks says u get stood up tonite haha, she said. Looks like Kyle’s getting 20 bucks. But I still think you should come.
It’s not a bet if both people don’t agree on it, Diane said. It’s just one person calling out a dollar amount.
Steffi moved her phone in front of Diane’s face. Boom, she said. Jarrod just replied game on.
Diane pushed Steffi’s phone away. I can’t believe Facebook is still a thing.
All day, Diane felt Jarrod’s presence like a psychic cobweb, hemming her in even from different parts of the building with a sort of sticky insubstantiality. And predictably, the more she ignored him, the more he seemed to hone in. At lunch, he and two of his friends sat at the same otherwise empty table as her and Steffi.
Gonna be fun tonight, one of them said.
Yep, Jarrod said, briefly putting his arm around Diane, right Diane?
Diane winced at the curl of his hand on her shoulder, on her hair. I’m sure it will be, she said. Maybe you can tell me about it on Monday. She got up, Steffi hastily following her, and bussed her tray. She heard the boy-sounds behind her, a mix of booing and cackling, and felt uneasy. She wasn’t trying to be dramatic. But she felt she had no choice.
Steffi’s face was a mix of embarrassment and admiration, which annoyed Diane. Steffi and her need for likes.
During her study period, Diane waited until the bell rang before slipping into the room and sitting as far away from Jarrod as possible. He sat with his body angled toward hers and she felt his stare through the contact paper cover of her biology book. She asked to be excused five minutes before the next bell and then stayed in the bathroom until right before the following period, which he mercifully was not in. This is getting ridiculous, she thought, hurrying to class, late. As she often did, she thought of video games—not a particular one, but all of them, how the goal of all of them was the same: to get from one level to the next. What was winning, really, but running out of levels.
I want out, she thought, of the Jarrod level. She pictured Jarrod as a Pacman ghost, moving from one end of the screen to the next, invisible for two seconds as though traveling through the machine, then reappearing on the other side.
Walking home with Steffi, Diane thought maybe she would make it, to the safety of her home, where she planned on staying for the better part of the weekend. She looked forward to Saturdays, when her wig stayed hanging on its hook behind her door while she lay on the couch with a book or puttered around the backyard, the air on her head more invigorating than a shower. Her father’s garden had bolted and then withered, Diane and her mother having apparently no talent for keeping things alive, but Diane still liked to muck around the sites where green beans used to climb and swathes of herbs once sprawled fragrantly. She could lose herself there, and Jarrod could lose himself in someone else (someone else’s hair, someone else’s pants), and by Monday, it would surely be game over.
But as she and Steffi crossed the school yard, which backed up onto an abandoned parking lot through which they cut to get home, she became aware of a small crowd following them. She could hear the voices of Jennifer and her friends, and she could sense, like an allergen, Jarrod somewhere in her midst.
Hey, he spoke now. Hold up, Diane.
Diane took a deep breath and let it out slowly before turning around. What, she said.
This is my last try to convince you to hang out tonight. All my friends want you to come too. What’s the deal?
No deal, she said. I just don’t feel like going.
But like, he said, that hurts my feelings. I mean, you know I’m gonna be there, so it’s hard not to take it personally.
How else are you supposed to take it, Diane wanted to say, but didn’t.
Jarrod jogged a few paces ahead of his friends, who had broken off into twos and threes to stare at their phones.
Steffi moved away from Diane, ostensibly to let her be alone with Jarrod. Diane’s scalp tingled, felt hot.
Are you just shy, is that it? Jarrod’s eyes were the same brown, Diane thought, as the molten chocolate cake served at every restaurant. Standing close to him, Diane realized they were the same height, which seemed to further decide something for her.
Come here, she said. She grabbed his hand and he squeezed hers eagerly. She led him to the edge of the lot and leaned against the guardrail covered in uninspired graffiti in order to face him. She took both of his hands this time and pulled him closer to her
Well hey, Jarrod grinned, you gonna tell me a secret? That you actually do kinda like me?
Diane reached behind her neck and popped off her wig in one motion. She dangled it between them, a gorgeous brunette curtain. Then she ran it slowly up over his face.
He lurched backward as if bitten. Dude what the hell?
Diane heard murmurs from across the way. She smiled, squinting from the sudden sun that engulfed the lot, and held her wig aloft so that it shone extravagantly. Jarrod still looked upset, like a child lost in a mall. Diane wasn’t used to ruining people’s nights or general expectations. She reached her arm up, up, and back, and let go.