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.