6.11 / September 2011

Units of Measurement

I have been saving my hair in Ziploc bags, labeling in precise script the numeration of days: March 12, March 13, March 14.  Measuring the loss, measuring myself as loss.  There is something enormously pleasing about seeing myself, gathered, documented, consolidated–something so bodily in something so wonderfully plastic.

Taking a shower is a struggle of will.  In the space of water and tile the loss takes shape, becomes quantifiable and I am never sure if I want to confront the calculation. I use shampoo for babies, excessively gentle and I never feel clean at all.  I rub my scalp the way a mother might bathe her infant, concentric motions, the hands positioned as if holding an apple.  I think of the piano lesson I despised as a child, the way my hands looked unnaturally hunched when bargaining with the keys for something pretty.  The webbing between my fingers grows fur in the shower and I am always amazed that there is enough hair left to fall out unceasingly.  I paste the hairs to the shower walls, let them fall into patterns, abstract images.  Here is a woman doing a back bend.  Here is a skateboard.  Here is the view of a mountain range, far far away. I let the water pressure lash at my back, it feels bruising in a dull, pleasant way. I stare at the black strand mosaics, considering that odd moment when a piece of myself no longer belongs to me, the foreignness amplified against a sterile white wall.  Later when the hairs have dried, they peel dreamily off the walls, one after the other and I am amazed at the coordination with which they do this.  They look secure, adhered, and quite suddenly one falls, tumbling sweetly like a leaf and then as if prompted by example, all the other hairs descend obediently.  They coil onto the floor, looking dejected and ruined. I gather them up.

I feel ridiculous when trying to patch myself up.  There are bobby pins everywhere around me, growing in piles like rows of ants.  Shift a flap of hair to cover this bald spot.  Pin.  Rearrange the part.  Pin.  Pull everything forward. Pin. It is a paltry attempt at best, pathetic from beginning to end.  Every morning after regarding myself in the mirror I consider letting the holes breath.  Perhaps some air will do them some good.  And then I picture them glowing against daylight and fasten on a hat. Each hole is roughly the size of a quarter and growing wider.  I thumb at the naked scalp and it feels the way things should not feel-blanched and numb. It feels like the moment when I slide my hand underneath an unused pillow, sharply cold and eager to warm.

My mother cries every time she sees me.  I walk in the door and she can hardly look at me, leaving me standing awkwardly, rather incapable of comforting her.  Nothing reflects my grotesqueness more accurately than my mother’s reaction to it.  I do not mourn my hair so much as the unhappiness it spreads onto others, a cruelty in its mathematic allotment of misery.    The more I love you, the more this will hurt.  She calls me to her and has me lay my head on her lap.  I feel misplaced, there.  But I am glad she insists, there is a measure of relief in resigning to a state of childishness.  She combs my hair with a brush that looks as if it was made for a doll, wide bristled and serving no purpose at all.  She wants to get it over with.  If it’s going to all come out, she’d rather have it done in one go.  It is the slow depreciation that destroys her.  I feel vaguely resistant.  It is natural to want to retain.  But there is nothing left in me to put that resistance into action and I let my hair lace onto her lap.  She grips it in handfuls and I can sense that she is hiding it, tucking it underneath her which seems ridiculous because we both know what has been lost and in truth, I need to gauge, to weigh how much I am no longer myself.  But I am touched that she tries to spare me.

My sister says I need this and I am ready to believe her.  Yes, I say.  She has gone through all the motions of borrowing the shaver, of cleaning the instrument as if preparing for something holy.  The little faux-salon she has set up in the bathroom makes me want to cry.  It feels pathetic.  The ripped open trash bags lain out under the chair and across the floor.  The towel draped over a kitchen chair.  It is unbearable.  All this generosity.  All this wanting to help.  She seats me and wraps my shoulders in a beach towel and I imagine myself laughing and recalling with her how we used to play at this sort of thing as children except that we never did and our enactment of it now is only embarrassing.  She is tender in all her movements.  It makes me crave the violence of shaving my head, a swift unforgiving action.   She brings up the shaver to the level of my ear.  It is a machine that lacks grace, a certain ugliness about it and I immediately do not want it anywhere near me.  It purrs just at the nape of my neck and I stare bold-faced into the mirror, chanting in my head, it’s done it’s done it’s done over and over again so that the blank repetition smothers everything, leaves no room for reaction or thought.   Then it is done and I wait for catharsis to bloom but it is slow to come and I begin to suspect that there is none to be had.  I am still the same disintegrating thing as before, only now I have the appearance of someone who has come to terms with this and there is no satisfaction to be found there.  I turn around, look up at my sister and say, “thank you, this is what I needed.”

Saehee Cho holds an MFA in Writing from The California Institute of The Arts. Her work has been featured in Sidebrow, decomP, BAP, Shrapnel and Out of Nothing. She lives in Los Angeles.
6.11 / September 2011