By the time I got to college, my hair had begun to shrink. It had been, for as long as I could remember, an extension of myself, those long, light tresses that would turn up in clumps in the bottom of the shower, static electric bundles in the armpits of my sweaters, strands in my mouth when I kissed someone. My anxiety worked its way up worked in a steady, direct correlation with the decline of my hair—or maybe it was the other way around. I pulled off the dead ends, constantly plucking, splitting the dead ends, embarrassedly dropping them on the floor, in the trash, anywhere.
I sat on the stool in the middle of Angel’s cluttered basement, where she cut hair in her spare time. Angel, my mom’s friend from the film business, is the only person who has ever cut my hair. I stared at myself in the mirror, my vision tunneling in on itself until all I could see was a blurry me-shaped blob, the brown locks of my hair falling away. I sat up straight as she brandished the scissors, combed her fingers through my hair, gestured to where it would end once she was finished.
“Will it go, like, to my shoulders, or right below my chin, or…?” I asked, feeling a strange need for assurance of my own definition.
“Well, I can do whatever you want, but shoulders is wishy-washy. If you’re going to do it you might as well do it right.”
A nod of confirmation. She made the first snip. A part of my blob fell away, a stranger infringing on my mental mirror.
When my parents got married, my mom had very short, close-cropped hair. She wore a short dress with multi-colored butterflies on it, and she said her vows in the backyard of a beautiful rental house in Sagaponeck. When I think of that day, I don’t think of my parents saying ‘I do.’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actual photo of them saying their vows. I think of a photo of my mom sitting at a table on a folding chair, looking up at the camera and grinning, her hands greasy with fat from the chicken leg she is eating.
By the time I was born, her hair was long, piling around her shoulders and breasts in sweaty ringlets as she held new-born me in her arms, grinning exhaustedly and triumphantly.
My brother was born two and a half years later, with a head full of thick black hair that fell out just as fast as it appeared, mirroring my dad’s swiftly impending male-pattern baldness. My mom said his hair looked like her dad’s—Italian hair. He would have loved to have lived to see my brother, who inherited his first name for his middle—Francis.
Around this time my mom gave me bangs, snipping my light brown, feather-like hair on the toilet. She wasn’t able to trim the ends though, thus initiating my life-long aversion to cutting my own hair. She put my brother’s hair in a pony-tail, scared to even hold children’s scissors within a 5-foot radius of his head for fear of him thrashing out and gashing his scalp open (something he would go on to do to himself twice in his middle-school years—though completely by accident and never involving scissors, my mom was right to worry).
One day, a month or so after my brother was born, someone opened the door and greeted me familiarly. She was my mom, but not. Her hair was all gone. It was shorter than her shoulders, it looked different, I hated it and her. She hadn’t even given me a warning. I cried for the rest of the day.
My head felt so light as Angel snipped section after section off, dead, split strands falling to the floor without a sound. It was not so short, I thought as she made it all the way around. She began to even it out, half-inches falling away as easily as a foot had earlier. We kept up a forced, light conversation as she cut, I think, in an attempt of hers to distract me from the hugeness of what she was doing. My mom had gone to spin class, but she lent me her car to take in her place.
My mom loved my hair—she kept talking about how her hair was exactly my length when she was my age. I couldn’t stand hearing about how she had the exact same curl in the same place, right in the front framing our faces, when she was eighteen. I’d give her a tight smile and walk upstairs and straighten my hair, pulling the now flattened curl back into a ponytail. When she looked at it me, it felt like she was seeing an old photo of herself, and then she’d get emotional because I was only home for winter break and would be heading back to school in a few weeks.
She was growing her hair out—it was long and streaked with gray, two long bands of silver that stretched from her part down to the tips on either side of her face. My dad told everyone he could that this was the shortest my hair had been since I was a baby.
I went back to school after winter break, a few pounds lighter from consistent exercise, healthy food, and chin-length hair. I felt different though, like I was starting the school year afresh—an incoming student who had toured the year before but was finally enrolled. I felt older, though I was no longer carrying my eighteen years of history around with me. I let the front curl hang free, not quite able to break my habit of running my hand through it every few minutes, and tied the top back. I was more compact somehow, but also more cohesive, more confident, no longer constantly losing pieces of myself. My hair was growing quickly, this image already fleeting. It’s so easy, though, to cut hair.
I sat on the stool and shook my head, as Angel took the smock off my chest and lap. With that final release of weight, I felt so light. I rose and looked down at the dead, brown tresses that littered the floor. I picked one up and took a picture of myself next to it to send to my friends. It looked so gross—like a clump of dust that I would find in the furthest recesses under the bed after not cleaning for three years. I let it fall to the floor.