260 Moore

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Tim Taranto

I’ll be­gin af­ter it ended, at Zeus’s birthday party at that Sene­galese restau­rant in Fort Greene. A bliz­zard hit the city, closed the schools and bridges, turned the streets into tun­nels, trans­formed cars into white ef­fi­gies. I was draw­ing in the con­den­sa­tion on the win­dows that looked out onto the street as ev­ery­body at my table shouted to each other and laughed. An old col­lege friend vis­it­ing from Los Angeles touched my arm and in­tro­duced her­self, asked how I knew Zeus. Al­ter­na­tions of con­fu­sion, recog­ni­tion, and em­bar­rass­ment ran over her face as she be­gan to re­mem­ber that we’d ac­tu­ally known each other since un­der­grad. Per­haps she re­called that we’d even been lovers for a night, years ago. She tried to pass it off as though she’d known it was me all along, that she was just play­ing a joke. For her sake, I went along with it. “How are you?” she said, and took my hand in a way that was meant to seem sym­pa­thetic or earnest. Con­sid­er­ing the trans­for­ma­tion that had oc­curred in my body over those past few months, I couldn’t blame her. In car win­dows and in the store­fronts along Court Street, in the bath­room mirror in the teach­ers’ lounge and in the pho­tos from my cousin’s wed­ding, I barely rec­og­nized my­self. “Well,” I said, “I don’t have cancer or any­thing, if that’s what you’re think­ing.”

Back at the end of June, dur­ing the Mon­tauk Cen­tury Ride, I re­clined in the grass be­side a man who looked a bit like Larry David. He was stretched out with his eyes closed; he gnawed a wedge of melon. “The only way to sur­vive New York is to get the fuck out of Dodge any chance you can. Oth­er­wise, you’ll end up blow­ing your brains out the back of your head.” He wasn’t talking to me—i don’t know who he was talking to—but I heeded this or­a­cle with de­vo­tion and doubt in equal mea­sures. On July Fourth week­end, I boarded the Metro North for New Haven to meet Sun. From there we headed up to Deer­field for Ed’s twenty-fifth birthday. Ed, the birthday boy, greeted us in the drive­way, slick with sweat from a run in the woods. He filled us some juice jars with a mead he’d brewed with his dad. I car­ried my drink into the bath­room with me and changed into my trunks. I chugged the mead, then re­filled the jar half­way with an Is­lay from my flask, chugged it, then brushed my teeth.

Out­side the lit­tle bath­room win­dow, cot­ton-ball clouds mo­seyed over a pas­ture of blue heaven, red-winged black­birds and bobolinks sounded off from the fence posts of the neigh­bor’s dairy farm, Ed’s cho­co­late Labs sparred on the lawn. I was al­ready feel­ing drunk; I told my­self I could live here. A quick drive through a cir­cuit of maple-lined roads brought us to a falls and a swim­ming hole. Fam­i­lies pic­nicked on the rocks and teenagers leapt shriek­ing and splash­ing into the gorge. The soil there, ex­posed in the cliffs, was folded with clots of gray clay. Peo­ple dredged the clay over their skin, let­ting it cake and crum­ble on their faces and chests. I ap­plied the clay-like war paint and worked it into my beard, smeared it through my hair. I tried nap­ping on the rocks while Sun and Ed swam, but I was jolted awake with the sen­sa­tion of fall­ing into an abyss. Even in the county, I was a clenched fist. “The sun, a ripe per­sim­mon, nests in the black branches,” I said to my­self, “and it can’t help me.” I waded into the chill lime­stone pool un­til the water swal­lowed me up to my throat. I dunked my head and rinsed out the clay. Tow­el­ing off near the car, I found a bald patch, the size of a cock­leshell, lo­cated on my scalp just north of my left ear. “Looks like alope­cia areata,” Ed’s fa­ther, a physi­cian, said later. “It’s not any­thing to worry about, health-wise. But keep an eye on it.” It wasn’t the first un­ex­plained oc­cur­rence of hair loss I’d ex­pe­ri­enced. When Ian died in a house fire sopho­more year, my hair washed out in the shower, whole clumps col­lect­ing in the drain. Dur­ing my first year in New York, when I was un­em­ployed and crash­ing at my sis­ter Ruth’s, call­ing in to WNYC as an un­so­licited fact-checker, pac­ing the apart­ment naked with a joint, I slept with my yoga in­struc­tor and she gave me sca­bies. My stom­ach itched af­ter the shower and itched worst in bed. I got a pre­scrip­tion for a pes­ti­cide cream and coated my whole body with it. The lashes on the lower lid of my left eye curled wildly and fell out not long af­ter that, and some­how, I didn’t think much of it at the time.

As soon as I got back from West­ern Mass, I got my­self an ap­point­ment with a der­ma­tol­o­gist who was her­alded as the best. Al­ready, the bald spot had dou­bled in size, and two smaller patches had ap­peared over the op­po­site ear. In the ex­am­in­ing room, I ner­vously rubbed one of the new bald spots un­til the doc­tor en­tered. He was so tan and his teeth were so white that they ap­peared to be glow­ing. His hair­line was so low, his scalp so re­plete with hair, that I knew there was no way this man could grasp the dread I felt. It didn’t take long be­fore he echoed Ed’s fa­ther’s di­ag­no­sis: I had alope­cia, but at that stage it was dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine which type. If it was areata, an au­toim­mune dis­ease that pro­duces bald

patches and brit­tle fin­ger­nails, the ef­fects could be re­versed with treat­ment. If it was an early stage of a more vi­cious va­ri­ety of alope­cia—to­talis or uni­ver­salis, in which the body purges it­self of all ker­atin cells, hair, and nails, even the mi­cro­scopic cilia in the nose and ears—then there would be lit­tle hope for re­growth. There was a chance I’d end up hair­less for the rest of my life. “Not likely,” said the doc­tor. “But I’m go­ing to zap these lo­ca­tions to­day, and we’ll see where we’re at in a few weeks.” He jabbed a nee­dle into my scalp a dozen or so times. “Some peo­ple say this hurts, but I know you can take it. You’re a tough guy,” he said. It hurt, a lot. He wrote me a pre­scrip­tion for a top­i­cal cream, and his as­sis­tant wrote me a re­minder for a follow-up.

My anx­i­ety wouldn’t let me sleep. If I man­aged to drift off, I’d wake with vi­sions of bed­bugs crawl­ing in my sheets. The best I could do was go to the roof with the French press in hand and wait for dawn. In the morn­ing cold, I eaves­dropped on the grack­les chat­ter­ing—mim­ick­ing car alarms and cell phone chimes, sirens. Once, while my room­mates were still asleep, I left a poem on the dry-erase board that had included a line about the grack­les and other things that I felt were har­bin­gers of our planet’s demise. When I got home from work, some­one had ti­tled my poem “GRACK KILLS” and added an il­lus­tra­tion of a pe­nis cac­tus wear­ing a som­brero. The steroids worked, sort of. They pushed up ar­chi­pel­a­gos of dark, pube-like hairs. These hair pat­terns were short-lived and van­ished as rapidly as they emerged.

“When did you start shav­ing your arms?” Lily asked. We walked through a colon­nade of dap­pled London Planes in Maria Her­nan­dez Park, sip­ping hor­chata. My friend Lily and I had just gone thrift­ing. She tick­led my fore­arm. “I wish I had your arms!” she said. “Would you judge me if I got elec­trol­y­sis? Not ev­ery­where, just like my ape arms and my ’stache.” “It’s your body,” I said.

I started spend­ing my sleep­less nights on the in­ter­net. I’d un-tag my­self from group pic­tures, like the one taken at a pic­nic on Gover­nor’s Is­land, or an­other Ruth had posted of our fam­ily at the Cor­co­ran’s Gau­guin show. In it, I looked like a fugi­tive, with my hat pulled down over my ears, my fleece zipped over my mouth. Ed emailed a photo of me, Sun,

and Zeus at the Blaschka glass ex­hibit. I had a lit­tle pony­tail in that picture, a beard, too, and look­ing at the picture made me cry. I or­dered a new pair of glasses on­line with rims thick enough to mask my thin­ning eye­brows. I googled wigs and Wed­mded au­toim­mune dis­eases, and ev­ery­thing I dis­cov­ered made me feel a lit­tle more hope­less. Pack­ages ar­rived weekly from my mother. She sent bi­otin and shark car­ti­lage sup­ple­ments, in­cense and oils, sham­poos and tinc­tures, but it was snake oil. My pubes were gone, half my scalp was bald, but to make her feel bet­ter, I told her I’d no­ticed some re­growth since I started ap­ply­ing the tea tree oil to the af­fected ar­eas, and that my nails felt stronger af­ter a week of the folic acid.

“Shit, you’ve got­ten faster!” said Jo­hanna. She was stretch­ing, her foot hooked on a bench at Grand Army Plaza. I’d been run­ning in Prospect Park be­fore work and then again once I get home. “I’m just try­ing to re­gain some con­trol over my body,” I said. “That fuck­ing dog though,” she said. A shep­herd mix had chased me on the trail near the boathouse, bark­ing fu­ri­ously. I’d al­ways been great with dogs, but now I was driv­ing them mad. Ba­bies, too. Ba­bies used to adore me, and now I caused them to bawl. “I think it’s my hair, or lack thereof,” I said. “You’re in­vis­i­ble?” she said, reach­ing for her toes. “Yeah, like they can’t smell me,” I said. “Hair traps smells, and dogs com­mu­ni­cate through scent. All mam­mals do, to some ex­tent.” “Could be fear they’re sens­ing,” she said. “I’m like this big hair­less mam­mal they can’t iden­tify. It freaks them out,” I said. “Or it’s just your fear,” she said.

My fin­ger­nails didn’t fall off in the way I imag­ined, pop­ping off like pis­ta­chio shells. In­stead, they with­ered, flaked, and fi­nally peeled off in bloody strands, ex­pos­ing my raw cu­ti­cles. With­out fin­ger­nails, I couldn’t even pick a heads-up nickel or un­lace my sneak­ers. But­ton­ing my pants be­came a strug­gle. In a Korean nail salon on Smith Street, I waited to have a full set of acrylics put on. Glu­ing fake nails to my nailbeds was Lily’s sug­ges­tion, and it beat the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of blood­soaked Band-aids bound around each fin­ger­tip. The nail tech was po­lite and smelled like fruit juice. “You think you’re weird, I can tell, but you’re not weird,” she said. “I don’t think I’m weird,” I said.

“Many Brook­lyn men now come for the man­i­cure and pedi­cure,” she said. “You’re not weird at all.”

At a house con­cert on the Up­per West Side, a neigh­bor of the host asked why I was wear­ing a knit hat in­doors when it was Au­gust, and ev­ery­one else was schvitz­ing. He yanked off my cap and guf­fawed. “Holy shit! You look like a pe­nis!” he said. “I’m sick,” I said. He put a hand to his mouth and apol­o­gized. “Chemo?” “No, noth­ing like that,” I said. “It’s au­toim­mune.” “Oh, thank God. You’re a lucky son of a bitch.” I fum­bled through the lit­tle I knew about my con­di­tion, and he told me alope­cia wasn’t a big deal. He told me it was a gift. “Do you know how many of my friends would have killed to be you?” he said. “Do you know what they went through, shav­ing their bod­ies?” He made a com­i­cal ges­ture to his dick and balls. “Shit, they drove the boys wild! Down in the Vil­lage, they’d pull off their wigs, and they’d be practically jerk­ing off on their bald heads! That was New York in the eight­ies though, and those boys are all gone now.”

Upon see­ing me for the first time af­ter sum­mer break, a fel­low teacher at the Montes­sori school was cu­ri­ous about the bet I’d lost. A sec­ond­grade stu­dent told me she liked me bet­ter when I had eye­brows. I told her I liked me bet­ter then, too. The hor­ri­fied home­room teacher apol­o­gized to me and co­erced the kid into an apol­ogy she nei­ther meant nor com­pre­hended. My prin­ci­pal said she was sym­pa­thetic to ev­ery­thing I was go­ing through, but the school had a dress code that ex­tended to the fac­ulty, and she’d pre­fer it if I didn’t wear my hat in the class­room. “I want you to know that I’ve done some re­search about your sit­u­a­tion,” she said, twirling her fin­ger in a halo around her blonde curls. “I’ve read it’s ge­netic, but no­body in my fam­ily . . . ” I said. “Well, I read the trig­gers are men­tal,” she said. “I’m ask­ing you to take care of your­self. Do you un­der­stand what I’m try­ing to say to you?” The school psy­chol­o­gist placed me in touch with a ther­a­pist in Park Slope who ex­plained at our first ses­sion that he felt my hair loss was in re­sponse to stress. “Do you know what I’m look­ing at right now?” the ther­a­pist asked me. “I’m look­ing at an at­trac­tive man sit­ting in my of­fice, and a smart man. I don’t see a bald man sit­ting here.” We agreed to meet at the same time in two weeks, and he rec­om­mended that in the mean­time I take up jour­nal­ing and daily ex­er­cise. I

was al­ready run­ning be­fore and af­ter work, and the only plan I had was to cut him a check for my co­pay and flake on our next ses­sion.

I vis­ited my brother at the bar where he worked and handed him a Pyrex con­tainer of chard en­chi­ladas. “It’s bet­ter warm,” I said. “I’m go­ing to at­tack this now,” he said. He or­dered me a rye. “Some­one told me I looked like the Zig-zag to­bacco guy tonight,” he said. He twisted the ends of his mus­tache and held his phone up to his face. On the screen was the im­age of the Zig-zag logo. “The Zig-zag dude, you know?” The bar­tender slid me the drink, and I handed it to my brother. “I’m tak­ing a break,” I said. He pat­ted my shoul­der. “You had a way bet­ter beard, buddy,” he said. “Sorry.” “There’s noth­ing to apol­o­gize about,” I said. One of the reg­u­lars, a cab­bie, asked if I was the bald brother. He re­moved his hat and glasses, and I saw that he, too, had alope­cia. His scalp looked pink and wrin­kled and gross. There were fleshy pads where his eye­brows had been, and his eye­lids looked red and chapped. See­ing other peo­ple with alope­cia made me anx­ious and nau­seous. I once spot­ted a woman with alope­cia on the Am­trak and switched train cars to get away from her. The only thing the cab­bie wanted to talk about as he drove me home was our shared dis­ease. He showed me pic­tures from the dif­fer­ent alope­cia con­fer­ences he’d at­tended in St. Louis and Seat­tle—pho­tos of him pos­ing be­side his bald com­rades, rub­bing each other’s heads. He wanted to fix me up with a nice bald girl he knew who lived in Sheepshead Bay. “Don’t worry,” he said. “She wears a wig.” Parked in front of my place, I promised I’d join him at the next alope­cia sup­port group meet­ing at Weill. I asked him how much the fare was, but he re­fused to let me pay. “We stick to­gether, brother,” he said. I told him I’d see him at the meet­ing, though I had no in­ten­tion of ever see­ing him again.

My fa­ther was tak­ing the Am­trak up from DC the fol­low­ing morn­ing. I woke up early, while my apart­ment was still dark, and bumped along the walls to the bath­room. I winced in the bright light over the sink and was as­ton­ished by what I then saw in the mirror. I ran my fin­gers over my cheeks and scalp, ex­am­in­ing my re­flec­tion from all an­gles. There

was a del­i­cate stub­ble, a dust­ing of hair, on my head and chin—eye­brows, lashes, ev­ery­where. Nope—not a mir­a­cle. It was just an­other heal­ing dream, a des­per­ate wish­ing dream, and with dreams like this, I woke up feel­ing like I’d lost again what was al­ready gone. I was late meet­ing my fa­ther and Ly­man at Mc­sor­ley’s. I or­dered a round of two-and-twos for the table, put each of mine down in a sin­gle go, and or­dered an­other round. “I thought you were tak­ing a break,” Ly­man said. “I didn’t say that,” I said. “You feel­ing all right?” my fa­ther asked. “I’m fine,” I said. “Se­ri­ously.” My fa­ther and brother ex­changed a look. “I’m fine,” I in­sisted. “Okay, no one here thinks oth­er­wise,” said my fa­ther. He picked up the tab and we headed to Chelsea. There were some Richard Serra prints my fa­ther wanted to see. While wait­ing to cross Broad­way, I took in my brother with his wooly beard and tar-black top­knot, my fa­ther with his snow­capped scalp and white beard that got whiter each year like the muz­zle of an old dog. “I want to duck into Harry’s first,” said my fa­ther. My fa­ther’s buddy Harry had a print stu­dio near the gallery. The stu­dio—once a cor­ner gro­cery—had twin lithos, a dip­tych of wild irises, one in each win­dow. I’d been mean­ing to visit him since I moved to New York but hadn’t man­aged to make it work. The door chimed as we en­tered. The place reeked of the fa­mil­iar stink of ink and cigars and thin­ners. Harry still wore the same over­alls and the same glasses on a cord around his neck and placed them on his nose when he saw us. He rose from his draft­ing table and gripped my fa­ther by the shoul­ders. Like my fa­ther’s hands, dark ink il­lu­mi­nated the fi­brous cracks of the skin on his fin­gers and knuck­les. “Holy Moses, Paul,” said Harry, look­ing at me, and then Ly­man. “I don’t have to guess which one of these mooks is your son!” said Harry. Ly­man put his arm around my shoul­ders. I used to be the one that looked like Dad.

On the way to my doc­tor’s ap­point­ment, I felt like ev­ery­one on the G train was star­ing at me, like I was a bald Coney Is­land sideshow act. Or maybe they were star­ing be­cause I was wear­ing a hooded fleece and a Carhartt beanie on a ninety-eight de­gree day. And what was I hid­ing? A copse of hairs on my skull that I was still re­luc­tant to shave off. It felt too much like a sur­ren­der.

The orange-skinned doc­tor saun­tered in with one hand in the pocket of his white coat, the other thumb­ing with his phone. “Hold up, Jed,” he said. I didn’t bother to cor­rect him. Ex­am­in­ing my feet dan­gling from the ex­am­in­ing table, I no­ticed the hairs that once curled from the knuck­les of my big toes were all gone. “You’re go­ing to love this,” he said. “My wife wanted me to show you this.” He nose-laughed. “Take a look at this,” he said, and handed me his phone. “Vin Diesel?” I said. “Bingo!” he said. “There’s more, scroll down. Bruce Wil­lis, Jason Statham, Yul Bryn­ner. Pa­trick Stew­art.” “Cap­tain Jean-luc Pi­card,” I said. “You know what these men have in com­mon?” he said. “They’re sex sym­bols, ev­ery one.” He jabbed a fin­ger at my head. “This, a bald head, is in. It’s what women want nowa­days. Trust me, women get wet for bald dudes! I wish I was bald! Be glad this isn’t the sev­en­ties. Be thank­ful you’re not a woman with alope­cia.” He told me he was end­ing my treat­ment; I had uni­ver­salis af­ter all, and re­growth, for me, was pretty much out of the ques­tion.

Ruth rented a car for La­bor Day week­end. Me, Ruth, and Ly­man drove through the Catskills to our child­hood home, which, since our par­ents’ move to DC, had be­come our fam­ily’s coun­try house. The well-worn ex­pe­ri­ence of this drive—the same rivers and moun­tains and trees pass­ing by the win­dows like a zoetrope—felt dis­tinctly changed this time. Ev­ery­thing had taken on the pro­por­tions of a dream-mem­ory. At the Delaware Water Gap, I spot­ted an os­prey soar­ing over the river, and I imag­ined my body in the cur­rent be­low, float­ing up­stream, against the cur­rent. We got din­ner at the land­mark Ital­ian restau­rant in our home­town. While Ruth and Ly­man were out­side smok­ing, I stayed in the booth draw­ing flow­ers on my place­mat. A wait­ress came over. “Why do I feel like I know you?” she asked. I knew ex­actly who she was—my child­hood crush. I rec­og­nized her as soon as I en­tered the restau­rant; I saw her laugh­ing be­side the oven with one of the cooks. “I’ve just got one of those faces,” I said. “I think you’re pulling my leg,” she said. “You’re re­lated to the Pied­monts that live in that big white house on the park.” “I am. I’m their cousin,” I said.

“I knew it!” she said. A thin wed­ding band glinted on her fin­ger. She wore it as nat­u­rally as a child­hood scar. “Tell Ted Pied­mont that Claire says hi,” she said.

The three of us walked home, cross­ing the green steel tres­tle, pass­ing the fire­house, the clock tower, old Gro­ton Academy, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War mon­u­ment, the Ma­sonic tem­ple. The bats came out and cel­e­brated the ar­rival of night with an aerial show, dart­ing in er­ratic pat­terns over our drive­way. I packed my one-hit­ter and toked it alone be­hind the car­riage barn. The boughs of the tow­er­ing Nor­we­gian spruces swayed with an al­most ma­ter­nal care and the whole Milky Way spilled out above. I ex­haled a lung­ful of Catskill air, and de­clared that this whole thing had been out of my con­trol since it be­gan. I con­fessed this to the brown bats, the pines and the lilac bushes, the river, the stars, the en­tire sum­mer night, to my­self. As if to voice her af­fir­ma­tion, a great horned owl clucked and hooted over­head in the eaves of the barn. There were too many lights on in the house. Our par­ents’ records were scat­tered on the ori­en­tal rug in the for­mal din­ing room. Ruth and Ly­man were sift­ing through boxes of pho­tos in the kitchen and laugh­ing hys­ter­i­cally. “Will you shave me?” I asked Ruth. Up­stairs in the hall, Ly­man found the clip­pers that our mother used to shave our heads with each sum­mer on the night be­fore swim lessons. There wasn’t much hair to buzz—it fell on my shoul­ders and flut­tered into the sink like soft as­ter­isms of down. Ly­man asked if I wanted to save the clip­pings, and I told him no, thank you. There weren’t any hairs to raise on my arms or on the back of my neck, but still lit­tle bumps ap­peared as soon as my sis­ter ap­plied the cold shave gel to my head. Ruth steered her pink ra­zor care­fully over the con­tours of my skull. She handed me the ra­zor and asked if I wanted to shave my own chin and lip, my cheeks and jaw, my lone eye­brow, for what would be the last time in my life.

First pub­lished in Ars Botan­ica (Curb­side Splen­dor) in July 2017 and reprinted with per­mis­sion of the pub­lisher.

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