In September of 2013, I walked into a small barbershop in Split, Croatia, clutching a picture of Rihanna and smelling of sausage and beer. Lunch had made me bold.
“Bok,” I said, “hello” in Croatian, to the woman blow-drying warm air into a fantastically red-headed old woman. I could have listed groceries in Croatian all day — eggs, “jaja.” cheese, “sir” — but “bok” was the scope of my street language, so I pronounced it like the spirited bat from Anastasia and smiled dumbly to convey good-will and enthusiasm. She paused her blow-dry and accepted my picture: Rihanna performing on stage, hair flopped to one side (revealing buzzed perfection on the other). The picture would be indistinguishable from me in only an hour’s time.
“Can it be done?” I asked.
The hairdresser didn’t speak English well, or at all, but she nodded and laughed.
“Yes,” she said, deliberately, acing the pronunciation. A terrier seated in the lap of the old woman slipped off his perch and crept towards the spot of sunlight peering through the door to resume his nap. The sausage and beer hit my brain simultaneously and it occurred to me I could use a nap, too.
The style wasn’t as dramatic as I dream it. I like to say I shaved off half my skull, but it was really just the lower, left quadrant of skull, a look that, in a few months, cultural rule-breakers Demi Levato and Avril Lavigne would adopt. (I don’t know how they got my picture but I’m flattered nonetheless.)
Yet I clung to the drama then, sleepily, as I watched my long, horrifically damaged locks flutter to the ground. And I cling to the drama now, as the left, sad side of my head joins its right-sided brother in shoulder-length, nothing-to-see-here curlitude.
“Ahhh,” I said. The hairdresser laughed again, borderline too much for someone cutting people’s hair, let alone shaving it. The terrier slept in his sunbeam.
Until this day at the barbershop, I never knew what my skull looked like. As far as I was concerned I didn’t have one, and my hair went straight to my brain. I watched the procedure — the combing, the parting, the thoughtful eye-squinting — in the mirror until that first DDZZZZ lulled me out of shock as she turned on the shaver.
Then, contact with the head. Huh. There’s that skull. There it is. The hairdresser’s teen apprentice stood behind us now, snapping pictures and doing what teens do with pictures. I hoped the Croatian on her Instagram captions read, “my boss is killing it right now with this haircut,” and not, “lol my boss is taking advantage of another American who’s looking for something indescribable in our country <laughing emoji> <laughing emoji> <laughing emoji.>”
The hairdresser and I locked eyes in the mirror. I nodded as if to say: “I’m not scared; super into this.” The cool gesture was cut short as she grabbed my head to keep it still. This is how we communicated, through our physicality, just as the physicality of my shaved head would communicate “BAD BITCH” to everyone, from now on, till the day I decided to re-enter nice society.
On the social media channels, too, they’d be like: that girl who fled NYC to live in Croatia is a bad bitch and has the hair to prove it. She may not have a job, but that’s because she’s really committed herself to an alternative lifestyle.
After the cut, I took the local van-bus back to my suspiciously cheap apartment on the Adriatic, but not before buying some beets and cabbage at the market — that’s all the market seemed to have these days. I walked up to the entryway of my hideaway, a seaside one-bedroom where I sought refuge from New York and Brooklyn and Bushwick and essays and crying into pad thai and URGENT gmails and lost unlimited metro cards (that I could have gotten refunded if I were less lethargic and more of a go-getter) and cat calls and train traffic and Sephora and crying into pizza and crying into tote bags and crying into bagels. I looked in the mirror, and flipped my hair back and forth, flipped my hair back and forth, felt up the buzzed left side, posed, grabbed some red lipstick, put it on, and asked myself, in the lipstick microphone: Do I look fucking Brooklyn now.
That night I ran along the water, sneakers on the pebbles, over and around little boats covered in plastic tarp for the winter, and I watched the water change from one blue-blue (dark, endless) to another blue-blue (green-like, pure) to a profoundly different blue-blue (tied-dye, every blue). There were so many blue-blue’s I’d never noticed. The run wasn’t that long, only ten minutes: the sun hadn’t really changed positions. But I had changed positions, ten minutes worth of jog-steps, and that made a difference in the color of the sea.
Last January, I moved back to the city, to America: I feared the repercussions of living in a foreign country without a visa — even though locals assured me that the authorities “would never get me” because I was “white and nice.” This made me want to leave even more. Above all, I was sick of cabbage and tiny little Euro coffees that made me feel like a giantess with each careful sip.
For my second go at New York, I landed in Harlem, right by the 103rd street White Castle. (Important background: I only ever live next door to White Castles. Currently, by the Bushwick White Castle.) I shaved my head again for upkeep, a move that would force me to commit to the New, Badder Maria, who was no longer traumatized by the speedy and horrific passage of time. NBM, for short, looked like an artist, and that would help her make art.
Back in America, showing my friends my head, I made jokes about employability, the real joke being I’d never be hired anywhere anyway. What skills did I have? If I were a coding wizard, an advertising wizard, a journalism wizard, even a wizard wizard, it wouldn’t matter if I were full-bald with one long, purple dread sprouting from the middle of my head; I’d still find employment.
The undercut made for spirited conversation on Tinder, though, my point of re-entry into the New York dating scene.
“I like your head.”
“wanna give ME head haha”
“rly labored transition bro L. so it’s a no from me”
I shaved for upkeep in March, to assure myself that time was forever static, with quick maintenance shaves in April and May and June. My hair, dumb dead protein that it is, never got the message, so it kept growing.
In August, I made the decision, without any deliberation, to grow it out. I wasn’t sure why or how it occurred to me to get serious about my life, and why or how my buzzed, lower quadrant of skull prevented me from getting serious. Deep down, I think it bugged me that every time I mentioned growing out the undercut, no one said, “Wait, stop!” They were like. “Cool…” Subject change. “Wanna get sandwiches?”
I bet Rihanna doesn’t make decisions based on statements designed to trap friends into saying how they really feel about her hair. But if last year taught me one thing, it’s that I’m not Rihanna.
On my 23rd birthday, shortly after the buzz, I blacked out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I was taking a short vacation with my friend Rebecca. After a night of drinking and eating and ballroom dancing with a cheery bulbous man in Sarajevo, we skipped through the city, eventually stopping to pee on the segment of the Latin Bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand, bless him, was assassinated, the event that set World War I in motion.
I question whether the evening would have been possible with a full head of hair, or without the Bosnian moonshine that the old man, Sasha, poured into our mouths throughout dinner.
I’m looking in the mirror now, a year later, and the left side of my head is a bob, a relic of someone else’s urine adventures, freedom, alternative spirit.
I live in Bushwick now, by the White Castle, of course, and wear boots that look worn when you buy them.
I was an ambitious 5th grader, I recall, smoothing down my bob hairs, hairs reminiscent of my mortifying, little-Dutch-boy 5th grade look. I ran an “Insurance Company” with my friend Annalea. During class, we put together a box full of index cards, with the names and roughly sketched faces of our kid classmates who had signed up for our services. We would ask them for snacks — apples, popcorn, cake, pistachios — in return for “protection.” Protection, we insisted, meant all sorts of useful things: getting to cut in line before recess, saving spots in line before recess, us being nice to them. We were little thugs is what we were, but we were committed to something and we had dreams.
The year went by so fast. I don’t know more words, I don’t think. I said “ostentatious” out loud for the first time, in August, so there’s that. I didn’t break any limbs or laws. I wasn’t incarcerated. But I look for progress, not just not-regression, and I can’t find it. I’m once again jobless, once again by choice, once again with too-easy access to a White Castle, a privilege I abuse relentlessly.
Time passes in hair.
I was recently in a room full of young writers, discussing the phenomenon of the undercut.
“Everyone should have one,” a petite woman with clear-rimmed glasses said. “It adds edge.”
She showed the group the remnants of two separate grown-out undercuts — one from a year ago, the other from two years ago, one ending at her chin, the other, mid-neck.
“It’s like a tree trunk,” I said, lifting my face up from the glass of red wine I’d been romancing. “When you cut it open you see the rings. Your layers are like the rings.”
Each layer tells a story. Each layer begins at the root.
“That’s what people forget,” my hair-stylist roommate told me the next day as she cut my hair in the common room. “The end of your longest strand started here.” She pointed to my skull. She continued to trim around my former undercut, now long enough to put behind my ears, with just a little fluff peaking out.
When I wake up in the morning, I look deranged. Like I killed someone and then cried all night about it, eye bags puffy and flecked with dried-out discount eyeliner. I hoist myself out of bed and flip my part to the left like it never happened.