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BLOND AMBITION Sarah Bayliss

My mother wore her hair cut short, and I often wished that she would let it grow, like some of my friends' mothers. My friend Annie's mother has hair that hung down her back in one rope-like braid, and it was so long that it licked her thighs. But my mother would not let her hair grow beyond her chin. She told me that when she was a child, her hair caught on fire as she was blowing out the candles at her fifth birthday party. Nearly all of it burned off in an instant.

 

My grandmother was a hairdresser, and she styled what was left of my mother's hair into the short, limp bob that she has worn ever since. "You can imagine how shocked Granny was," my mother told me. "A hairdresser, for heaven's sake! And her own daughter burns off all of her hair."

I didn't find out what my grandfather thought about this episode, because my mother didn't tell me anything about him. In fact, she told me that she never had a father and that she, her sister and her mother lived with her Uncle Gene and his family. To me, it sounded like one long, bustling party—a home full of children and relatives, a glamorous mother. I loved to hear her tales about "olden-days," as I liked to call the era of her childhood.

 

My mother refused to explain why she and her sister were fatherless, regardless of how hard I pressed her on the subject. "Why, I was plucked off the apple tree," she would say lightly when I asked, and kiss me on the head. I pictured my little mother and her sister swinging side-by-side from a branch, suspended from their heads by thick stems until they fell gently into my Grandmother's outstretched arms.

Occasionally, I held one of my own hairs through a candle flame and watched it curl up in a fraction of a second. I lit a match afterwards, letting the sulfur smell disguise the aroma of singed hair.

 

* * *

 

As I lay on the sofa one afternoon, slowly yanking out dark strands, I absent-mindedly began pulling out my eyelashes. A group of them came out at once, making a soft ripping sound as they detached. I looked at the ten black-brown lashes gripped between my fingers and felt a prickle of fear. Looking in the mirror, I saw a little bare spot on my left eyelid.

 

The feeling of pulling out my eyelashes was almost more satisfying than detaching hairs from my head, because they were short and thick. I liked how my eyelid separated from my eyeball, and the suction-cup like way in which it snapped back into place once the eyelash was freed. It was best to pull them out one by one. Satisfying, exact.

But I began to worry about whether I was pulling too much. Over time, both eyelids became partially naked from my plucking, and the hair on my head started to look soft and downy, like a baby's. It was straw-like, not able to make up its mind whether it was brown or yellow. A patch of white scalp peeked through the sparse hair on the left side of my head. Although I tried to curb my habit, I often found myself emerging from daydreams to discover both hands positioned up on my head, systematically detaching strands.

 

My sister's friend Stacey was the first to notice. "Allison's going bald," she said one afternoon, as we all stood looking at ourselves in my mother's bathroom mirror.

 

"I am not!" I said defiantly, regarding my own reflection. As I stared at my wispy image in the mirror, I imagined two me's, one with a head of platinum blond hair, the other looking pale and see-through. I thought I saw the images switching back and forth, like a hologram.

 

"Then why do you look like you have a comb-over?" she shouted, laughing. I pushed them out of the bathroom and stared at the doorknob, listening to their flat laughter in the hall.

 

It was impossible to stop plucking. A few days after Stacey accused me of going bald, my mother took me to a dermatologist to get a medical opinion on my thinning hair. He examined my head and slid a few strands under a microscope. After inquiring if other women in our family suffered from hair loss, he handed me a bottle of shampoo that contained real tar and told me to use it twice a day. The shampoo emitted a rich medicinal odor, but didn't reverse the effects of my secret pastime.

 

My mother became an authority on hair follicles and pattern baldness. But after a few weeks had passed and my hair continued to disappear, she became oddly silent on the subject. I was standing beside her at the bathroom dressing mirror one day after we had visited the third, and last, doctor. I held her hand, inhaling the clean smell of the lemon moisturizer she used. She regarded the small, chaotic mess of hairs spilled across her dressing table, and then gazed at my reflection with the pained sympathy of someone observing a person with a disfiguring birthmark. I watched her inhale slowly before she spoke. "Allison, there must be a reason why this is happening to you," she said evenly. "Could you have been pulling out your hair, dear?"

 

"No," I said, fingering a thin braid, realizing with a sense of shock that she might be aware of my private activities, and may have even seen me doing it when I thought no one was looking. I felt a dribble of sweat roll down from my left armpit. "I don't know—it just keeps falling out," I said, trying to keep my voice level and gripping my fingers together behind my back, far away from my head. "It seems to be worse on the left side than the right."