CW: eating disorder.
When I got home from the restaurant around three, there was something different about the bathroom. I realized after a moment that it was me, my freckled nose and mussed brown ponytail—there, above the toilet. The square mirror normally mounted on my bedroom wall was propped on the shelf facing the mirrored medicine cabinet, sending my reflection pinging back and forth between them like a pinball. When I noticed the cerulean thumbprint on the lip of the sink, I gave an elated yelp, and at the sound of my voice Neena poked her head out from between the double doors to her bedroom, grinning, her shoulder-length bob now a fluorescent Jolly-Rancher blue.
Neena had been talking about dyeing her hair for a week or two, and it had happened exactly how I’d expected it would: with no fanfare, the same way she’d showed up at our college graduation the previous month with hair silvery as the inside of a mussel shell. The blue looked amazing, and I told her so. It does, doesn’t it? she said, satisfied. As we stood together at the bathroom sink, our reflections tessellating in the panels of the medicine cabinet, she tousled the blunt strands at the back of her head in the mirror.
Neena and I had been introduced a few months into our freshman year by two boys who kept accidentally mixing up our names. You’ll love her, they said. You’re two of a kind. They had been right: I loved her immediately, and I secretly treasured the idea that someone thought us equals. People knew her. Lots of people. Some of my girlfriends found her intimidating, but together Neena and I multiplied each other’s enthusiasm, set the world spinning in a carousel blur. We called ourselves “The Enas.” On Ena adventures, colors intensified, as though I’d opened an eye I hadn’t known was closed.
We never explicitly decided to live together after graduation. It just seemed to make sense, our lives merging together like two lanes on the highway. Just a week before the ceremony, we’d run into each other at a school gala after a few months apart. Neena’s hair was freshly white, and under the roving blacklight, the halo around her face glowed blue, the bell of a jellyfish floating in the dark.
Now that we were roommates, it pleased me to walk into my room in our apartment and encounter the blankness on the wall where the mirror had been, to know that Neena felt comfortable enough to take something of mine. I borrowed her jewelry, her clothes, her books. When I’d needed a job after graduation, she found me one the next day, serving at the same all-you-can-eat sushi joint that had just hired her. I had always admired her taste, her self-possession, her independence, but I found myself tiptoeing around her sometimes, wary of needing too much.
I used to joke that I was a redhead without the red head. I had the pale skin and freckles, but my hair was the deep brown of damp soil, a shade away from black, though in summer the thin stripe sprouting from the tip of my widow’s peak glinted a tawny auburn in the sun. I wished the red would stay. I wished it would spread, consume the rest of me. I wanted to be all red, or all black, or curly, or decidedly anything—beyond decidedly bushy, that is. My hair’s intractable volume deflated a bit in high school, after I forgot to get a haircut for a year and it grew twelve inches, waking one morning to find I could wind my mane around my wrist twice—so gloriously, accidentally abundant, so much of me ready to exist—but then I chopped it to my collarbones in my sophomore year of college, and now whenever I tried to grow it long again, the ringlets just curled deeper in on themselves so that the whole thing poofed out, not down.
When I cut my hair that year, I only did it because so much of it had fallen out. That’s what happens when you stop eating, I learned. The average non-starving person is expected to shed between fifty and a hundred hairs in a single day, as “club hairs” in their resting stage are pushed out of the follicle by young replacements. But a traumatic event or prolonged period of stress can send more hairs into their final phase prematurely, which is a scientific way of saying that even if you didn’t really mean to do it, even if all you wanted was a reprieve from the anxiety that bubbled at the base of your throat and made eating feel insurmountable, some parts of you that you hadn’t known could leave, will.
My hair took a long time to grow thick again, much longer than it took to gain back all the weight. Then, fourteen months later, spidery handfuls began to web my fingers in the shower again. The doctors said the life cycle of my hair must have shifted such that now, naturally, my hairs might continue to die together in cycles. A crisply synchronized performance of my body’s history every year, like the inverse of a nativity play.
I waited. The hair stopped falling out. It grew back thicker, with a few more strands of white glinting at my temples each time, as though sapped of vitality from the effort. Little ghost threads, come to mend my holes. I hated them, but I told myself I’d get over it. At least the hair grew back.
Researchers hadn’t yet proven the link between stress and early graying. A study at Harvard eventually determined that certain stress hormones cause stem cells to flood our follicles with pigment too quickly, draining the “reserves” of color in our skin. Our color cells are particularly mortal. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.
I’d had so much hair to begin with that after my stomach began eating itself, or after my mind began eating my stomach, or after I entered my second year of school and stopped eating much at all, its loss felt like a private shame. The same couldn’t be said for the rest of me. Losing twenty pounds is a lot for anyone, particularly when that number is equivalent to its percent of your body weight. Unlike most of my other close college friends, however, Neena never cornered me about my dramatic hollowing. We saw each other less that year—our friend groups had fractured into asteroid chunks, and I’d curled in on myself, studying with a feverish focus I didn’t yet understand. I could only assume she had noticed. But Neena wasn’t someone who worried about her body, or about much that wasn’t immediately going wrong. Like me, she was naturally thin, but she’d been spared my chronic illnesses, and she had an immune system like a Volvo. Beyond that, though, Neena believed with every ounce of her light that our lives were full of possibility. She often reminded me that our imaginations could change the world. We were the Enas—to express doubt in myself would have been to doubt her, too.
It was only after we moved in together that I realized I was grateful for her silence. It felt like she trusted me to heal in a time when few others did.
I wanted to deserve her trust. Though I coveted her strength, I coveted the strength she saw in me even more. We often swapped dreams over coffee at the breakfast table, but I chose not to tell her about the nightmares where I pulled out my hair in ropes, leaving behind cowhide patches of smooth white scalp. I never said that sometimes I was still afraid of myself, of the way my body waxed and waned of its own accord. That I felt like both the carrion and the vulture, circling.
When Neena first bleached her hair white, the campus cherry blossoms were at their peak. One particular allée of trees always bloomed in pearlescent white, like a marble colonnade, and when Neena stood before them, her hair disappeared. I thought of my ghost hairs. I quietly envied her the luxury of a surplus of color, a reservoir so deep that she could blithely take color away only to add it back in. So much of our friendship was premised on what we shared that it smarted a little, the reminder that on the rainbow of hurt, our losses rippled at different speeds.
After we moved in together and Neena dyed her hair blue, the idea that I should dye mine lodged itself in my head like a burr. I saw the way she changed color, and I envied her mutability—or rather, I envied how she managed to stay the same in spite of it. She seemed to become more herself with each transfiguration, not less.
Red, I decided. But it would be a realistic red, one found in nature. I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and still see someone that looked like me.
I had to dye it twice before it stuck. Each time, I lifted the mirror from my wall and positioned it over the toilet. I wrestled Latex gloves over my rings and set my long-handled paintbrush and pink plastic bowl on the windowsill. It felt natural that I would attempt the job myself—throughout my childhood, my mother had dyed her silver roots a rich mahogany every three weeks in the locker room at the community pool. She would bogart one of the perforated benches while she waited for the color to set, topless under the dish towel draped around her neck, her hairline messy, as though a child had colored outside the lines.
Though I plastered the bathroom in newspaper and grocery bags, I left behind maroon streaks on the tile and the sink, where they joined Neena’s blue thumbprint, faded now to a mint green. I felt guilty about the damage, but I couldn’t suppress a small smile every time I saw us there, red and blue, staining the world together.
The second time, disaster struck—the dye took a little too well around my scalp, where the heat from my skin faded the pigment like sunlight. When my hair started to dry an hour later, I panicked at the gold halo at my temples. Strips of lighter red flanked my part. I looked like I was balding.
I felt betrayed. Another twist of the knife, another apparition, as though I were masquerading as my own ghost.
I glared at myself in the mirror. I wanted to call my mother. I wanted to blame someone. I coiled my hair into a bun and left the apartment so if Neena came home, I wouldn’t be tempted to hate her for making everything look so easy.
Neena claimed my botch job didn’t look that bad, but I made a frantic appointment for the next day anyway, my first at a salon that wasn’t named Supercuts or Great Clips. The cosmetology school was tucked away on the second floor of a glossy office building in the fancy neighborhood next to the park. My hairdresser-in-training had a raspberry topknot and a kind smile. She seemed confident, which calmed my nerves, but after swiping through my references, she retreated to a corner with three other girls with hair the color of sour Skittles, where they bent over a laminated book and muttered urgently to each other. I couldn’t tell whether they were arguing or merely strategizing. I fiddled with the gold ring I’d worn on my middle finger for years, sliding the three interlocking bands over the knuckle and down again.
After what felt like an eternity, the Skittles marched up behind me together, victorious. Three hours later, they spun me around and I glowed.
I swiveled my head around on my neck like a searchlight. The hair was a red that breathed. It flirted and blushed. Its expression darkened. The color was deepest at the roots, auburn fading into fox-fur copper. The afternoon light blazed in a scarlet halo around my head. I couldn’t stop smiling.
I met Neena back at the apartment just as she was getting off work. We stood in the bathroom and grinned at our reflections in the mirrored panels over the medicine cabinet, a triptych, red-blue, red-blue, red-blue.
I recalled how, when I’d broken up with my college boyfriend after three years together—one of the boys who introduced me to Neena, in fact—a few of my friends had jokingly asked if I planned to change my hair. At the time, it hadn’t crossed my mind. I’d always found the trope of the dramatic makeover a little bit self-aggrandizing, the supposedly universal impulse to write your transformations on your body, to broadcast your breakages. Maybe it was just that enough time had passed since I’d felt body-snatched, but I finally understood. My new hair didn’t feel like a disguise at all, or a diversion, or a denial. It felt like a victory, a taking-back.
Sometimes I think I’d just needed Neena to go first, to show me where to wedge my fingers and toes. Goethe wrote in his Theory of Colours that “we love to contemplate blue—not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” And if this is true, then Neena was—and is—blue personified. I followed her into a realm of the imagination where we did more than merely exist in our skin, subject to the passage of time; a place where we healed and kept healing not just through some inevitable cycle of growth and decay, but through our own initiative. When I had long hair, I often absent-mindedly gripped the last few inches of my mane in one fist and tugged the ends as hard as I could with the other hand, attempting to keep the tension from reaching the root, marveling at my numbness, at the evidence that parts of me were dead. But in this new imagined real place, hair wasn’t dead at all; on the contrary, it was an extension of a vibrant alive-ness, a willingness—no, an implicit demand—to be seen. And if my hair wasn’t a dead thing, it couldn’t turn ghost. It was just me, changing color.
Like the blue thumbprint on the sink, Neena’s ends faded after a few washes to the hue of her favorite pistachio ice cream, then the ambivalent pastel green of the sky just above the setting sun. Mine started fading shortly after I went red, but the copper glint seemed only to grow brighter with wear, the way the ring on my right hand shone under the pads of my fingers whenever I worried the gold bands up and down, up and down. Standing in the shower, watching water the color of old blood swirl around my feet, it felt like flushing out a rust I’d stored inside.
Lena Crown is a writer from Oakland, California, though she spent six years in St. Louis, Missouri, and still considers it home. Her work is published or forthcoming in The Millions, The Offing, Entropy, Hobart, and Porter House Review, among others. She is currently at work on a longer project concerning the relationship between the city and the body. Hang with her on Twitter at @which_is_to_say.