Discover more from The Beef
Permanents and impermanence
A short story about long hair
I was 18 when I got my first and only perm.
For the last few years I’d been the classic “very smart but doesn’t apply himself” kind of student. But I was also a nerd, so the semester before I’d found myself in an “alternative” school for six weeks because I got busted ditching class to go to the journalism room. There’s no way to know for sure, but I was probably the first yearbook editor to be banished to the campus usually reserved for pregnant girls and kids caught smoking weed. The joke was on them, though, since my GPA went up and I finally learned how to play chess. (Cholos are the best chess teachers.)
This time I landed in a kind of midsemester summer school. Like most people, I thought the subjects I was interested in or good at were fun, and everything else was tedious and a chore. But like trash piling up in the corner, those chores eventually demand to be done no matter how much you might want to ignore them. My garbage was starting to stink and my counselor let me know that either the mess had to go or I did.
Memory gets fuzzy at this point and I think I start to blend different punishments and second-chances, but what I remember was spending eight hours a day every weekend sitting in a stuffy classroom and trying to make geometry stick in the slippery folds of my brain. The girl sitting next to me at the lab table didn’t help.
Of course there was a girl.
I don’t remember much about her either, except she had jet-black hair, lots of eye makeup, and was a very cute rocker chick who inexplicably knew I was alive. I never saw her out of that class; I was a rocker, too, with long hair and black T-shirts, but while I was burrowing myself into the journalism room, she was hanging out with the real rockers who hung out in the school parking lot smoking weed. She was far, far beyond me.
And when she suggested one day that I might look cool with a perm, I nodded dumbly, went home, and told my mom I wanted a perm.
You know what a lot of guys don’t know about perms? It can absolutely destroy your hair, and soon enough mine was dry, developed split-ends, and completely failed to get me anywhere with the rocker chick anyway. Eventually it grew out enough that it wasn’t immediately obvious I’d gotten a perm—and believe me, it was obvious—but by that point I was ready to cut it off and go back to shorter hair.
Since then my hair has gone through a variety of lengths, from a little longer and shaggy to buzzed down Full Metal Jacket-stubble. But it was never what I’d call long. Then the pandemic happened.
With Death seemingly stalking outside our door, Sandy and I became hermits, almost never leaving the apartment and sure as hell not for something like a haircut. The coronavirus washed in and out like the tide, never totally going away and trying to lure us all back onto the beach so it could drown us in its hidden riptides and feed its mutated deep sea monsters. Like castaways on a remote island, we went through periods of fear, guilt, helplessness, depression, and a sort of lunatic acceptance of our situation. And the entire time our hair grew and grew and grew.
The last time I cut my hair was early February 2020, the week before my birthday. I didn’t know it was going to be my last haircut for the next two-and-a-half years, but we really don’t know much, do we? One thing I do know is my hair is pretty nice when I don’t subject it to a goddamn perm. It’s thick and surprisingly dark, considering my beard is nearly completely gray. When it’s even a little more humid, the last few inches bend and curl until it looks like I took a curling iron to it. The ends reach down to the bottom edge of my shoulder blades, officially making my hair the longest it’s ever been.
It’s also a huge pain in the ass. Washing it takes forever; drying it and combing out the tangles is another eternity. The lack of air and sunshine is making itchy patches develop on my scalp the way the canopy of a rainforest keeps the ground persistently spongy and damp and disturbingly alive. I pull my own hair when I’m sitting on the couch or laying in bed if I don’t remember to flip it out and over my shoulders. At any given time there’s at least one hair in my mouth.
There are several cultures across the world in which a person will cut their hair in mourning. Cutting the hair can be a symbol of loss, of respect, of sadness, and hope that new growth is possible afterward. I’ve come to feel as if continuing to let my hair grow is the opposite of that. I wonder if my long hair is itself a symbol of grief, a tether to more than two years of incessant fear and stress. The weight is getting heavy around my neck, and I’m tired.
The pandemic isn’t over. Sometimes it feels as if it’ll never be over. But I think this crushing period of mourning, the insistent florescent buzz of grief, can be. At least, I want it to be. It’s a small thing, but it’s time to clear away this overgrowth, all the vines and moss weighing down these branches. Time for a change.
Tonight, I’ll cut my hair.