by Deborah Reeves
The night before we flew away, our dad sang “Moon River.” You know how it goes—“Two drifters, off to see the world. There’s such a lot of world to see”. I think now of a poem by Bill Knot, and of where and how my sister and I are bound:
“Hair is heaven’s water flowing easily over us.
Often a woman drifts off down her long hair and is lost.”
It is dark when he wakes us to take us to the airport. It’s December in Dublin, a couple of days after Christmas. Presents have been unwrapped and it is the New Year that glints now and begs to be opened. Though it is frosty, we dress in light cotton and jeans that will soon be too heavy. I hold on to a cup of tea, brush my teeth, and triple-check I have everything I need in my backpack. And my sister, she wraps a silk scarf around her smooth head, then carefully places her hair inside an old hatbox, closes the lid, and pushes it far under her bed with a flip-flopped foot. I look into her frightened eyes and she stares into mine. I want nothing more than to crawl back into my own bed, forget the whole thing—except the whole world. I want that more. And so, we step into the still dark and soon are sitting at the gate, waiting to board a flight to Rio de Janeiro.
I had planned to travel alone. I had not imagined things this way. But how can I tell my little sister that she can’t travel with me when she asks? What right have I to stand in her way? I have shared everything with her—from a room to a doll to the unfathomable urge to pull out the hairs on my head. She was carried along that path right behind me and there is no returning now.
Our dad is driving home in the dark and we are anxious in the airport’s interminable glow and the glare of so many strangers’ eyes. I keep up a steady chatter, trying to distract her from looking to see who is looking at her. She reminds me of a nervous bird, bright eyes red and brimming. But I am looking too and, in the harsh fluorescent light, I see her as those who do not know her might: an invalid, an oddity, an alien—a girl with no hair.
I see, too, all the years of our girl lives before this. My mother wrapping tape around my gloved hands before bedtime. A boy in school plucking wildly at the air above his head, mimicking me. I see bare patches of scalp and tufts of downy damaged hair. I see hairs on the floor, on the couch, on my desk, between the pages of books. Myself crying. Myself not knowing how to stop. I see my sister say, “Look,” and point to her eyes. And a sickly fear spreads through me: raw, smooth ridges where eyelashes should be. I see I turn to Now Her Too, to We.
We hid from experience, from our lives: dancing, swimming, running, the rain, the wind, and boys. But, though I suffered with my own hair-pulling, with shame and self-loathing, my compulsion was never as acute as hers or the consequences so drastic. When every effort to stop had failed through the years, I see the day she made the decision to shave it all off and wear a wig. So long ago now that it seems to be a part of her. Barely out of school, it was supposed to be a final fresh start but what was meant to be temporary had become a painful and perpetual solution. The decision, then, to leave her hair at home filled her with anxiety and trepidation. But Brazil would be hot and humid and her synthetic hair was so stifling already. She wanted to dance unchecked till dawn. She wanted to swim in the ocean.
And, suddenly, we are there. Copacabana, Ipanema—from winter to summer in half a day. On stamps and postcards on every corner, Carmen Miranda wears a tall crown of fruit and flowers, and Jesus floats too far above us with outstretched arms. Beach-bars pipe out samba and bossa nova calls us in. We drink straight from the coconut and wander in a dream world where, as far as I can see, the girls are all tall and tanned and young and lovely. Regardless of who they actually are, I cannot—me, of all people—see them any other way but through their bodies. Brazil is beauty.
And women pay small fortunes in salons for all forms of it. The illusory hairless female body. The “escova progressiva,” otherwise known as the Brazilian treatment—a carcinogenic hair masque that straightens kinks and frizz. In the lucrative wholesale of human hair, the temple-offerings of Hindu-women’s locks in India are sold and rebranded as Brazilian. All around the world it is customary for women to lie on their backs and pay someone else to rip the hair from their legs and faces. Beauty is the dissolution of reality and the Brazilian wax epitomizes this. I’ve had it done too and felt quite normal. But when I do it to myself, when I pull the hair from my body in my own ceaseless cycle of insecure anxiety, it is a disorder and I feel like a freak. What is the difference though? It is all anxiety, fear, and self-loathing: the belief that we’re not okay as we are.
The allure of travel is not only to see a new place but also to be seen newly in a place. People do not know your story or the things you carry. They see you with fresh and, often, more forgiving eyes. You realize that you are not tethered to the beliefs and meanings you have assigned yourself. There are different ways of looking at a thing—even the hairs on your head. In the backpacker hostel in Botafogo, difference is a boon. Here, my sister is not perceived as a freak as she feared; rather, her bare head signifies freedom and non-conformity, along with the natty dreadlocked chicks and the boy with a bone through his nose. I can barely make out the anxious, little thing inside. Instead, she seems to me a Gypsy girl, bright scarves and golden hoops in her ears, silver in the palm of her hand.
We are blank slates and on New Year’s Eve we follow the custom, dressing all in white along with the entire, feverish city. We pin ourselves with flowers and ribbons, the color of which represents a wish, a desire, for the year ahead: yellow for money, red for passion, pink for love, and green for hope. White is the symbol of peace. Jenny appears in a bright white sundress and a bob of hot-pink hair, a novelty wig she picked up some place. She has hair again but it is no secret that it is not real. She’s excited for the party on the beach that night. She is glowing from the inside out. She is extraordinary. People are looking at her, the women and the boys, but she doesn’t seem to notice or need it. She is just happy. The ribbons are working.
It is a holiday so there are no trains or buses. We join the crowds and walk with everyone in the hostel around the bay of Botafogo to Copacabana. We dance in the streets and mingle and wander. There are thousands of people dressed in white and ribbons; there are drinks and drugs. Someone stops to tie a shoe, to take a photograph, to pee behind a wall, and in a moment Jenny is gone, swallowed by the white city. There is nothing to be done but believe she is part of a happy group and not lost or on her own. Others assure me she is fine and I know that it’s true, but it’s hard for me to not be afraid for her and the night loses its glitter.
Still, another part of me acknowledges that this is what I wanted. What color ribbon signifies your wish to be free of your sister? Free of her pain and my guilt. For years I have been carrying the thought that I am the reason she began to pull her hair, that I was the catalyst and the cause of so many years of damage and hatred and hopelessness. I am the eldest, I pulled first and she followed. And though I still struggle with the disorder myself, I have not suffered as severely as she has. My load has been lighter and I have compensated by taking the blame. Research says that it is chemical, perhaps genetic. But when my eight-year-old sister said, “Look,” and I saw her naked eyes, my twelve-year-old self saw a link from my hair to hers. No matter where I go, I cannot leave it behind.
On Copacabana beach, at midnight, fireworks blaze the sky and we jump backwards over dark waves seven times for luck. We send tea-lights and wishes out to sea and pray they don’t return on the waves, unfulfilled, or sink to the bottom. We ask this of the orixá Iemanjá. The trail that moonlight leaves on water is thought to be her flowing hair but the moon is missing tonight. My sister is out there somewhere, leaping and wishing: perhaps she wishes to be free of me. There are millions of tourists and cariocas on midnight sands. We all have hopes and secrets to confess into a breaking wave. The difficulty is that pain can’t tell what it really wants.
It only seeks to soothe itself and I am ready for a new form of relief. When I twirl my fingers around a hair and pull, I cannot describe the release I feel. They call it trichotillomania: trich is Latin for hair, till means to pull, and mania is a madness that implies a sort of frenzy. But I’m not sure about that part and hardly ever call it that. It is a calm, soothing sensation for me—methodical, almost meditative. Agitation comes after and perpetuates the cycle that is potentially never ending. At thirty-two, I have been pulling for three quarters of my life. The pain doesn’t leave no matter how much of myself I pull and pluck away. Hair grows back, mostly.
And I know, too, that a continent or a city cannot remove me from the tangle of sorrow, regret, and guilt I feel for my sister. Rio is just the first stop on a much longer journey. And as much as we share the same experience and habits—and whatever the origins and reasons for them—we are ultimately each on our own path and will have to find our own way through this thing.
The fireworks have finished but the beach continues to sparkle and flicker, a million people dance and sway, an undulating sea of white. It is beautiful to watch and I am excited for what comes next in my six months in South America. There is such a lot of world to see. But I am missing my fellow drifter, my huckleberry sister, and I hope that she’s okay out there tonight. The moon is out now and the waves are softly crashing against music and revelry. I stare out into the crowd and catch a flash of hot pink, bobbing and weaving in the distance: a wish returned on the waves. Our hair will always bind us. It has been and will always be a way to know and see each other. I stand on my tiptoes and shout: “Jenny! Jenny!” And, somehow, she turns and sees me, smiles and moves my way.