Oh hair!

By all appearances I am Indian. But my head tells a different story. Perhaps Japanese. Definitely South Asian, but not the type of South Asian I was supposed to have descended from. Or perhaps I was a mix. I had heard that my great grandparents had come off the outskirts of the Nepalese border. The Nepalese after all seemed a lot more Chinese than Indian. The borders are not very far from each other. One imagined a mass migration bringing people over the mountains, through ice and snow at one point in our lives. And by mere occupation of land, we became naturalized citizens of India.

“What the heck did you do!” my sister Anjali asked.

It wasn’t so much a question as it was a statement of fact. A fact that didn’t need to be explained.

“Haven’t I been saying that I was going to shave it all off?” I replied.

Up to the point of getting into the car and coming home, I’d been confident, wearing my head proudly. It didn’t feel much different. Lighter perhaps. Until she exclaimed.

My mother walked in on key. There was a deafening silence.

One look at me and she remarked,

“All I can say is, hair grows back.”

She walked off without another word.

I passed my hand through my buzzed hair again. The head confidence had worn off.

From the left, everything looked well in proportion. It was the right side of my head that I had a problem with. Always looked so elongated, so unnatural. Not at all flattering, hair or hairless.

I was sure that I would look grand, powerful.

“It’s not going to look good,” my hair stylist, Judy had said.

“I’ve thought about this for over three weeks and now that I have made a decision you decide no?”

“It is not going to look good,” she repeated.

“You have a Chinese head, flat at the back!”

“In some evolved circles, that would be a racist comment,” I noted.

“Well fortunately for me this isn’t one of them,” she retorted.

Now, I was beginning to believe that maybe she was on to something.

Perhaps I needed to think powerfully. Most of the Buddhist monks looked fine. Perhaps I needed a robe, something that wrapped around my shoulders and highlighted my neck.

“Your forehead is too large for that style,” Anjali remarked thoughtfully.

I knew she was being helpful in her own direct way.

“I know. I didn’t realize it was going to be that short.”

My voice was beginning to retreat. My confidence was dwindling. I could feel it in my bones.

I decided that this was going to be a test of my vanity. Pass by the mirror for at least three weeks without looking at it. There wasn’t much that I could do with the style. It simply existed on top of my skull. Pieces jutting out on the crown because the stylist had decided that she wasn’t going to shave it.
“We could come to a compromise,” she had said.

There are times when some things can’t be compromised. This was one of them. It was either the monk look or the worldly one. But there was no in between. Not with the shape of my head. The flathead as Judy called it.

A haircut that does not flatter and that cannot be mended is a helpless feeling. There was nothing to be done. Hands were tied. No amount of blow drying or gelling could help now. The shape was here to stay, at least for six weeks. Six excruciating weeks.

2 Likes

The pause that resounded through the silence as Lin stepped into our rundown office was really started to freak me out, but I could only stare at her staring at me with this slightly shell shocked, somewhat suspicious expression. What the hell did she have to be suspicious of? She was the one always up to some sort of mischief and in any case, if there were any foul trick afoot, it had clearly befallen my head.

Finally, she said, “You cut your hair,” which was so utterly banal and unnecessary that I flung the file I was working on at her. At once, the file exploded and showered us with newspaper clippings, old receipts, candid photos of the dashing vagabond who seemed to live in the laundromat downstairs. She shrieked and tackled me through the fluttering papers.

As I wrestled her across the dusty floor, papers crinkling beneath us, I couldn’t help but let out a huff of breathless laughter. Lin for all that I hated her, loved her, always knew how to break the tension in me and knock me out of my misshapen head. I laughed again when I felt her fingers scrape across my fresh-buzzed scalp. No more hair for the brat to yank at whenever we got into one of our tizzies.

Eventually we collapsed in a pile in the middle of the room. Her fingers found my head again. They rubbed inquisitive circles into my skull as I told her my theories of Japanese heads and Buddhist monks.

“My ma’s Chinese,” said Lin, who was Chinese, and also reigning champion of pointing out the painfully obvious. “But she was from Southeast Asia so we like our noggins round. Like a ball. Aesthetically symmetrical. She’d sit me on her lap and rub my head like a crystal ball. And that’s why I’d look way better if I ever did something as stupid as shaving my head.”

Our positioning was just so that I couldn’t reach her long braided hair, still thick and lush despite being bleached pale blond, but when I kicked out with my left foot, it connected solidly with her stomach. She grunted and got up and started yanking me around again. I resisted until I realised she had seated me in her lap and was now rubbing my head with both hands in slow isometric circles.

“We can still fix this,” she hums, “We can still fix you.”

1 Like

Lin knows a lot about skulls. She has studied lobotomy, phrenology, trepanation; it’s enough to make anyone suspicious.

After she has finished massaging my skull, she retreats into her office, and I can hear her rummaging through the piles of junk, file folders and clippings and empty cardboard boxes, soap and perfume samples, movie tickets, drawers full of the strange promotional materials investigators in our line of work are inclined to receive. I do not know how she functions in such chaos. Regardless, she emerges soon with a hideous contraption.

I must look appalled. “It’s a Korean beauty product,” she explains, breezily defensive. “It’s for straightening the bridge of your nose, or something. We won’t be using it conventionally.”
And with that, she pulls it’s pincers apart, and affixes the machine to my head.

I’ve heard about this, in children; how board tied to the soft and forming skull could shape it, how nomad mothers created generations of terrifying, cone-headed warriors.

3 Likes

I felt odd while looking at her bizarre little gadget. I knew her habit to correct things came from a good place. Still, my skull wasn’t something that had to be fixed. At the same time, it would have been really convenient to perform a tiny intervention that would make my life more… well, convenient. But what’s the point, I thought? Why did I shave my head in the first place? Was it an act of culture, contra-culture, aesthetics or anti-aesthetics, of becoming more me or changing what I thought I was?

At the time I couldn’t really tell, I just felt that it wasn’t the right thing to do. Lin was approaching ceremoniously, as she was trying to convince me that everything would be fine. I closed my eyes and said: ‘Please stop, Lin. I am not doing this. I have to do the opposite, I can’t hide, I have to be my skull. I have to be that fucking deformation. If that’s who I am, I will embrace it.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘I don’t know, to be honest…’

‘I think we should go out tonight. Embrace means expose, right? Wanna try?’

This haricut had become more complicated than it should have been.
“Aargh! This was just supposed to be me embracing another step in my life, a significant transformation of myself,” I agonized.
Apparently I hadn’t been quite clear about this transformation. It was supposed to look as good as it felt but this definitely wasn’t the feeling I had been going for. Neither was the public reaction.

The thing about physical appearances is that they tell stories. And a step out into the world gives people the right to spin the stories. Something over which I had no control.
I had to reclaim my control. Fact of the matter was that I didn’t feel in control and didn’t know how to regain the reins. The horse had bolted!
Lin was right. The idea of exposure had to be accompanied by embracing or vice versa. I didn’t care which. Embrace. Expose.
Otherwise it’s just you being some minor character in other people’s daily activities.
“Oh! I saw this girl with an awful cut” or “Did you see Jas? What in the world possessed her?” or “Sorry, what were you saying again honey? This girl with a really weird head just walked by. Distracted me. Don’t know why some people do the things they do. Go ahead. Continue.”

I had to spin the web in my direction again.
The prospect of going out was too soon.
“Too soon. Too soon,” I muttered.
My eyes hadn’t gotten accustomed to the new look.
“Aaargh!” I cried aloud, through gritted teeth. I was standing in front of my mirror trying to match clothes to head. I had forgotten about the wardrobe. My clothing style needed to be adjusted to accommodate this hairdo. Evidently I hadn’t planned this well, this transformation. Anjali poked her head into the room laughing.
“Sister, I think you gotta get some new clothes and boots,” she said in an accent that was attempting to be gunslinger. John Wayne?
“I think it’ll look fabulous with boots. It’s…” she paused as if trying to find the right words, “It’s not so bad you know. Just look at yourself from the left side. Maybe you can walk sideways so people can see the left side of you?”
I threw a hairbrush at her.
“Gosh! So violent!” she exclaimed, jumping aside. The hairbrush made a quick exit into the hallway.
“Oh shut up! You know this is horrible! I don’t want to go out. I’m going to stay inside for a few weeks.”
I knew Lin wasn’t going to let me but I said it anyway.

I had planned on stewing in humiliated misery, but half an hour later Anjali was back, dragging a sinister, rustling garbage bag.
“Sister,” she called, “Look what I’ve found for you!”

There were boots in the bag, and jackets, and scarves, all alien, and, from my perspective, of deeply suspicious origin. The boots were black and spiked, the boots had laces like moebius snakes slithering up the thigh, the boots were frosted lime green in strategic places. The jacket was glittering and radioactive, embroidered with slogans in a language I did not recognize. The scarves were patterned with little skulls and swords and noxious potions.

“Anjali,” I asked, pleading, “Where did you get these?”, but she only smiled with mischief and unusual delight.

I tried the clothes. I looked like a pile of nuclear waste; but somehow, good. The scarf covered the right side of my scalp, so that, conveniently, only the left was visible.

I reflected, feeling somewhat nauseous, on how it had only taken one bad haircut to turn everyone I knew into a fairy godmother.

The scarf can work, I thought.

I looked at myself in the mirror, tilted my head, turned up my mouth and said quietly, in, what in my head was a cool voice,

‘Hey there.’

‘O.k. the scarf works,’ I declared.

‘Own it,’ I said, repeating Judy’s motto.

I sucked my teeth.

‘Oh go to hell, Judy,’ I mumbled, victim that I was. She did warn me.

‘Do you think I’m depressive or something?’ I asked my sister.

I was beginning to lose traction on my self-confidence again. The bits and pieces that covered my body really did look like some sort of waste retrieval drive. These shifting loyalties towards myself were plain and simple, destructive.

‘What do you mean? If I think you are dreamer. Yes, I do. Do I think that you are depressed? Nope. I just think that you have no fashion sense and you need to be supervised. At all times.’

I glared at her.

‘I didn’t ask for a commentary,’ I said, looking at the mess in the mirror.

‘Yeah I know. I just thought I might as well. Say everything in one sentence. Saves you the trouble of asking more,’ she replied.

She continued slicing an apple that she had walked in with.

‘Did you wash that?’ I asked.

The bag she had dragged in, looked like it had been stored in a dust hole in some underground shelter. I didn’t remember her washing her hands after pulling out the clothes from it.

She looked at me and shoved a slice into her mouth.

I rolled my eyes.

She stared and continued chewing.

Anjali was the sort of person you wanted in a crisis. She would take one look at the shark that was about to attack you and quickly but calmly advise “I think you should swim a bit faster toward the other side of the boat. There’s a shark approaching from behind you. Be quick about it. It’s about 3 feet away.”

She was precise and devoid of any real emotion. I sometimes wondered whether she had suffered some sort of trauma that none of us were privy to.

Needless to say, the only piece of clothing that was attached to my person that night was the scarf. I left the other girl home, the one that would have worn that pile of rubbish had she been fully convinced that her head was the appropriate size and shape for her. As it was, the scarf clad one wasn’t too sure.

Lin was exuberant.
“Woweee! You look so hawt!”, she exclaimed when she pulled up in her very red 1964 Covair.
It was a warm night and she had left the car open air. On workdays, Lin wore slacks and blouses that always fit neatly. Tonight, she was decked off in black leather boots that reached her knees, a mini skirt and a green turtle-neck top. I realized, I had never really gone out with her. After almost seven years of a work friendship, the most we had done by way of a casual evening was have a bottle of wine at the office. Our office. We both lay claim to the office as ours and loved the space, as run down as it seemed. We had built the advertising business together right out of university. The messiness worked for us though Lin’s desk was always clean, her pens arranged in straight lines and writing paper stacked neatly, always toward her left. The paper was held down by a stone that for some reason, she had sentimental attachment to. She had an obsession with vintage cars though she owned only one. Her aim in life was simple - recapture the 60s, live in the now.

I had never met another female obsessed with vintage cars like Lin was but tonight, I could feel the attraction to the cars spilling over and making its way into me. With no hair and a heather grey skull covered cotton scarf accessorizing slim fit jeans and a red v-neck t-shirt, it seemed like the car, for the first time, fit my decor. On ordinary days of plentiful hair and loose blouses that I wore outside my slacks, because American clothes never kept Indian hips in mind, the car simply felt old and smelled like Lin’s perfume. Tonight, even the smell of her Vera Wang perfume added to the style of the evening. I knew people would smell it when we pulled up at the club. I jumped over the door into the front seat, in a fit of boldness. Lin looked taken aback and then laughed her loud, raucous laugh.
“Well somebody just had a fit of attitude,” she exclaimed, doubling over with laughter.

Cases were too slow recently for Lin to save enough for a classic car stereo—Modern convenience in your classic car!—and she couldn’t abide to terrible stacks of CDs shoved in the glove compartment so her melodramatic 2000s kpop blasted from an old iPod sticky tacked to the dashboard. The high voices of adolescent boys crooned about. . . unrequited love, lost youth, something melodramatic, before the song suddenly burst into rap. They were bops, sure, but I never understood how Lin loved music she didn’t understand the lyrics to.

“Now this just ain’t a night out—” Lin stuck her head out and yelled at a motorcycle that cut too close, cussing them out in Hokkien. I resisted the urge to grin; the coarse shards of the Chinese dialect always clashed with Lin’s carefully curated image. Lin glared. “As I was saying, this ain’t just a night out. Remember, we’ve got a job to do.”

“Of course, I know that.” Though truth be told, I remembered little about the case we had taken on right before my little flight of fancy, right before I took the shears to my thick and glorious mane. Something about a woman missing, her daughter orphaned and left at the laundromat by our apartment. And the vagabond with the dashing smirk that appeared around the same time. Anjali showing up with an outfit so put together it was as though she stole it off someone. My head ached. Little bits of information were buzzing around in it, almost making connections but mostly just zipping by each other like the flies that would gather above rotten fruit. I squint out into the dark night but it is impossible to see past my reflection. My new look is too distracting. “We’re scouting. We’re on a lookout.”

I stared out the window, rummaging quickly through my memory to unearth some clue about this lookout. I had not the slightest idea as to what we were supposed to be ‘on the lookout’ for! Lin and her adventures!

We zipped past the MacDonald’s. The cosy smell of fried chicken made me hungry and then, it occurred to me that I had no idea where we were headed. All I could think about right now was the hunger. I was all up for breaking my diet this evening. Fried calamari with a screwdriver sounded great right now.

“You see anything?”

Lin’s voice broke the hunger dreams.

“Huh? Umm…no. No. Nothing yet.”

I didn’t tell her I had no idea what we were supposed to be looking out for.

“Well, keep looking on your side. I’ll keep an eye on mine. I think we’ll find the place soon.”

“Wait. What place?”

I was now confused. First there was the two-year old at the laundromat and now there was a place? In any event, Lin was driving way too fast for me to spot anything much less, a building that we were supposed to locate.

Lin! Lin was always landing us in some sort of muddle.

First off, at uni, she stole psychology classes. She would sneak into the classes and sit on the floor at the back of the class to listen to the lectures whenever they didn’t coincide with our classes. She believed in energy of the universe and went around shouting ‘Oh Atoms!’ whenever things didn’t go as planned. Her parents were Catholic but she wasn’t ‘into the God thing’ as she explained.

She first came across trepanation when she read a news article on psychic consciousness and some Susan character who had done hers at home with a drill.

“See! This is the shit I’m talking about,” she had exclaimed almost knocking me into my locker one morning.

“Seriously? You want to bore a hole in your head for light?”

I walked off. I had read the piece earlier and was hoping that she hadn’t seen the newspaper that day. My fear was now exclaiming excitedly at my locker.

“You don’t understand! This is really cool shit! Think about your head right now. Doesn’t it feel heavy? If you had a hole in it, I’m sure it would air your brain a little?”

I looked at her blankly. I wasn’t sure what to say at that point.

Yes, my head did feel a bit heavy but boring a hole in it without the supervision of a surgeon was insane. Crazy! Madness!

“Umm. If I said yes, would you leave me alone?” I asked

“No no!! C’mon. I wouldn’t do it to myself. But I think it’s cool. I mean, how does someone just decide that it’s o.k. to drill a hole in their head? But she’s fine. So I guess it’s not too bad is it? I mean, it’s safe enough right? I never knew that you could do that!”

Her excitement returned.

I wondered why she had even chosen digital design. She should have been an artist or a pathologist. Something that required you to be either locked away in solitude, communicating through your work or something that she could experiment on which wasn’t a real person. Well, at least, not a live person. It would be either stone or dead. Same difference.

“One question,” I said, as we zipped past a particularly dark part of town, “what exactly are we looking for?”
She looked at me.
“Look at the road!” I gasped.
The car swerved and came to a sudden halt, my body almost coming into contact with the dashboard.
“What the hell! You are the lookout. Can’t you remember what we were supposed to be doing tonight?”
“No.” I replied, running my mad through my hair, or whatever had remained of it.
I felt light-headed, on many counts.
“The guy. We were supposed to be looking for the house with the used tools shed in front of it.”
“Who puts a tool shed at the front of their house?” I asked.
She stared at me, her lips pressed hard together. I knew the look. I got it a lot. It was the sort of look that Bert gave to Ernie when he said something stupid.
“Well, you’re a trip, you know that! This is important. We are working on the case with the guy who dropped off the baby.”
“But I thought the mother did,” I cried. I was confused. What did I miss?
“He delivered the baby with the note. He said we were supposed to look out for the used tool shed.”
“But you’re driving so fast. How am I supposed to identify a tool shed when you’re zipping past so fast.”
“Well,” she said, taking a deep breath, “that would have been possible assuming that you knew what you were looking for. So, what are you bitching about? You had no clue anyway.”
Damn! It was going to be a long night.

“Well I know now,” I snapped. The cool air conditioning against my scalp did nothing to quench the sudden flare of irritation.

“You know now,” Lin agreed breezily. As she started the car again, she lowered down the volume of the music, and changed the music to chill indie tunes. “Here, have some soothing ambience. Keep your eyes peeled. Pop them right out of their pretty painted sockets and press them against the window.”

Grumbling petulantly, I leaned my forehead against the glass and its icy touch calmed me down at last.

Phrenology. Lin once sat us down with great sheets of paper and coloured markers. She marked out with great confident strokes, a wobbly side view portrait of a head, perfectly bald and unassuming. Its skull was perfectly round. As she divided it into segments, and then divided those segments into little fragments, she had me colour in each one. There, right above the brow, shaded an awful florescent yellow, the Perceptives. I rocked my head to massage the point of Individuality between my brows. I was here and searching for a clue to help the baby. It had to be me. Perceptives. What did I perceive? The street was crammed with near-empty buildings and emptier people. Right above Individuality was Eventuality. We were hurtling towards it.

Lin was saying, “Shall I give you a second chance? Turn back, take this street again?”

“No, keep going. It’s in front of us, the house with the tool shed out front.” I felt it with a certainty that made my hair stand on end.

“Front, front,” Lin singsonged, “It’s so hard to see what’s in front of us.”

Which was, I decided, a terrible thing for a designated driver to say, but I did not have a sensible rebuttal. I did not need one, for I saw it then. A tool shed. A tool shed in front of a house. I knew it was a tool shed because a massive hammer was embedded in its poor rickety door.

“Lin!” I gasped, and then gasped again as she slammed on the breaks.

The shed looked like a hybrid structure that had come together with the collision of the world of Greek gods and Narnia. The hammer might very well have been Thor’s. And then, there was the door.
In my mind, doors never were a sign of good luck.
“This isn’t real. Magic isn’t real,”. I was saying to myself.
I ran my hand over my scalp again.
I wondered for a second whether this recent shaving had something to do with the strange feeling I was getting in the pit of my stomach. With the sight of an old tool shed, the larger than life hammer and this sudden adventure.
Lin was already getting out of the car.
“Where are you going?” I hissed at her.
“To get a closer look,” she replied, looking back at me as though I had just asked the dumbest question.
“Don’t look at me like that! You have no idea what’s behind the shed much less for behind the door. Don’t you think we should call some backup?”
“And who would you propose?” she demanded.
She said it without stopping to wait for an answer.
I really had no clue.

“I hear voices!” Lin hissed loudly.
I was impressed. I didn’t think a hiss could sound that loud.
I had hopped over to the driver’s seat just in case we had to make a quick run for it.
“Where?” I hissed back.

Fifteen feet apart wasn’t significantly much distance but it was enough for someone to grab Lin before she got to the car.

“Behind the door,” she said through gritted teeth.
Whoever was behind the door then was sure to hear our car engine.
“Lin! Get back here now!”
My heart was beating faster now. She didn’t stop.
“What the fuck! Get back here now!”
Fear was now breaking down my general proper decorum. I could feel myself wanting to shout.

Lin approached the door, her hand reaching out for the hammer.

Nothing happened at first when Lin wrapped her slim fingers around the hammer’s shaft, no crackling of lightning and thunder, until she pulls.

The wood cracks under the movement, splinters, coughs the hammer out and spits it into Lin’s groping hands. Light spills from beyond the dark timber. All at once the air is alive with angry shouts and the unmistakable, high pitched screeching of a child.

Without thinking I raced towards Lin, arms outstretched. Too late, Lin wrenched the door wide open with a wild cry of triumph. A large figure lurched out, stumblig in surprise, and another smaller shape zipped out and plowed into me; all of a sudden I had an armful of sobbing child.

“Run!” the child babbled, “Go! Run! Help! Bad wolf!” and off I shot like a hare towards the car. There was a great clamour behind me, two voices and beings struggling against each other. Two steps from the car I felt something claw my head but it found no purchase. A might swoosh of wind behind me and the BAM of—

“I missed!” Lin yelled, and abandoned the hammer where it was lodged in the earth. She scrambled into the passenger seat as I floored it, child trembljg in my lap. “Let’s go!”

In the rear-view mirror was the large dark shape of the man that Lin had been grappling with. He turned towards me and in the dim light, his sharp-edged face seemed familiar…