Some Friendly Trichs

by Sophie Nadel


 

1.
CARMEN
          The bus was late. It was Monday, September 9th. I would say that it was a dark and stormy morning, but that would be overdramatizing the first day of school. I will say, however, that a low, viscous mist coated the ground as an ominous land-swamp. I waited, tapping my toe to the music feeding my brain through IV cords of headphones, for the first bus in two months and the official end to summer break.
           I was beginning to think that I messed up the date. I mean, it happens a lot during summer. The days sort of smash together into a big, gluey collage, and all of asudden, you’re waking up on Muesday and playing video games on Satursunday. Don’t even get me started on the days of the month.

          But no, my mom had personally shaken me awake this morning, and she has an impeccable internal clock, so if she says that it is Monday, September 9th and not Frursday, June 31st, I have no choice but to believe her.
      When the bus finally did come rolling down the corner, bouncing up and down happily, glad to be working once again, the door creaked open in front of me, and I heaved my backpack on my shoulders, ripped out my earbuds, and climbed in.
          In the two months we had off, you’d think that somebody would do some maintenance on these buses, but no. The cushiony seat backs still looked as though they had been torn up by rabid dogs. The same half-chewed gum decorated the windows and the emergency exit door like a new type of graffiti. The reek of gym socks was stronger than I remembered, and I did not rule out the possibility that a family of skunks decided to buy a summer home.
          Nonetheless, I plopped down in my usual spot with the chewed up seat belt (kindergartner, maybe?) and the words, “School is shit. Mike was here,” (senior?) etched on the underside of the bench, only visible if I bent my head between my legs and squinted, marvelling at how many trips this bus has to make in a day and how itsmany different passengers decided to abuse it.
        Zoe was already there, of course, just as she has always been since the beginning of sixth grade. She gave me a little wave and a smile, showing a brief glint of her shiny teeth.
           “Nice hat,” I snickered. Zoe reached up to straighten her new fedora.
          “I like it,” she said. “It makes me look snazzy.” I reached for the brim. She swatted my hand away.
         “What, can’t I see it?”

          “From atop my head, you can. Nice try, Carmen.” She turned to the window, but I could see a slight frown reflected in the glass.
          “So,” I said, over the growling of the motor. I leaned against her back and put my feet up on the vacant chair across from me, “Why the hat, all of a sudden? I thought you hated headwear.”
          She forced a laugh. I furrowed my brows in confusion, but decided not to ask. “I never said I hated it! I just thought it was, um,” she trailed off, watching the trees fly past the window. “Well, whatever I thought then, I have a new opinion now. Taylor is awesome.”
          “Taylor? Did you get a boyfriend or something?” At that moment, the bus stopped again and let in the twins from 21 Park Avenue. Knowing they’d want to sit in their usual spot, I scowled and lowered my legs and assumed a regular position facing the front. Zoe laughed again, but this time legitimately.

           “No! Taylor is my hat.” She touched it for good measure. “Get it? Taylor? Like, tailor? Like, they had to tailor this hat so it would fit?”
I shook my head sadly. “No. Stop trying to make puns. They are awful. All of them.” She playfully pouted, but instantly brightened up.
          “So, how was your summer?” she asked in that dragged-out tone that suggested petty conversation.
          “It was good. How was camp?” Zoe had just gotten back from Moon Lake yesterday. We had written, of course; what kind of friends wouldn’t? Her letters were full of adventures, swimming, friendship bracelets, and lyrics from camp songs, whereas mine pretty much described the TV shows I had been watching.
          “It was good. Hard to leave, you know? Long bus ride home… Everyone was crying.” I nodded, remembering her describing a similar dramatic scene last year.
          “You pumped to be going back to school?” I asked. The bus slowly turned into the gates of the middle school and kids stood up all at once, ready to dismount. Zoe laughed, grabbing her backpack and rising with the rest.
          “You know it!”
2.
          The hallways were crammed with bodies and pulsed with the steps of people pushing past each other, finding their friends and catching up. Zoe and I maneuvered through the crowd and down the old hallways adorned with new posters. Welcome back, students! and Reading is winning! and Bully Free Zone competed for the prize of sappiest and most stupid motivational crap.
          I retrieved a stick of gum from my sweater pocket and offered some to Zoe before popping my own piece into my mouth. Through our excessive letter-sending, we had discovered that we were in the same homeroom in room 314 and were determined to find it together without having to ask anybody.
          “Oh! Carmen! Over there!” The first 3 and 1 were visible on the plaque identifying the room, but as we were swept further with the crowd, we discovered that the last digit was, alas, a 7.
          “Nice try. Next time, don’t just jump to conclusions,” I said, giving her a little shove. She stumbled to the right and I watched, curiously, as she seemingly automatically reached up to center her hat, even though it hadn’t moved. I was just about to question her further about it when someone clamped hands over my eyes.
          “Guess. Who!” With her distinct squeal, there was never any mistaking her. Lia often was disappointed at how quickly I could guess.
          “Lia, please get off my face.” The hands drew back like a curtain, and all of a sudden her smiling face popped in front of me.
          “Hi, Carmen! Hi, Zoe! I love the hat, by the way. Can I try it?” I observed as Zoe batted her arm away with one hand and used the other to clamp Taylor securely on her head.
          “No way,” she said. Her voice was cheerful, but there was an aftertaste of something else. Sadness, maybe? Fear? Yes, that was it. It was the same anxious tone she had used with me. “You had lice last year.” Classic Zoe, I realized, defense through offense. Sure enough, it worked.
          “You’re not supposed to know that!” Lia cried. “You don’t just spy on someone who gets a lice check –”
          “I didn’t spy on you! I was after you in line! It’s kind of hard not to notice when the nurse pulls you aside instead of sending you back to class!”
          Before Lia could say anything in her defense, I interrupted with the question on my mind.
          “So, Zoe, how long have you had that hat?”
          “I have had Taylor, thank you very much, for about four weeks. My parents bought him for me.” Four weeks ago and she hadn’t mentioned it in any of her letters? It was very un-Zoe to leave anything out. Especially to me.
          “Why? I thought you hated hats?” Lia interjected. Zoe just shrugged and mumbled something about Taylor being an exception. Neither of us could press further, however, because at that moment, the bell rang, screaming at us to get to homeroom, bringing us out of our conversation and back to school. Zoe and I said goodbye to Lia, promising to meet at lunch for the gross cafeteria food to recount the first few hours of our first day. With a nod of her hat and a small wave from me, Zoe and I loped the rest of the way down the corridor, nodding at friends and trying to find 314 before the other.
3.
          By lunchtime, Zoe still had not separated from her hat.  Each first day was the same routine, and this one was no exception — rules to the classroom, introductions on curriculum, personal information letters to fill out and sign. I trudged through this first day of school as slowly as one would trudge through mud, only to emerge sick and tired. But at the back of my mind, Zoe and Taylor loomed in my peripheral vision. I caught her in the hallways sometimes with Taylor still perched on her head, observing the scene from five feet up. It didn’t come off in Homeroom, even though Mrs. Freman asked Johnny to remove his baseball hat. He, of course, made a fuss, complaining that if Zoe has a hat on, why shouldn’t he? I cradled my head and tried to block out the incompetence of my classmates. Mrs. Freman tried to explain that he shouldn’t care what other people were doing, life wasn’t fair, yadda yadda yadda.
          In math class (the only class Zoe and I share), Taylor was on her head, even as Danny complained that he couldn’t see over her extra height.
          Now, at lunch, Taylor sat proudly atop her head, gloating to me how much of a best friend he was to Zoe — how they never parted. I rolled my eyes to myself at the thought of possibly competing with a fedora and plopped myself down at our usual table near the window. Lia and Zoe were already there, sitting across from me.
          “Hey, Lia. Hey, Zoe,” I said. “Hey, Taylor.” Today’s lunch was grilled cheese. I used to think that it was impossible to mess up something so simple as a toasted sandwich, but now I know the truth. The cheese was a rubbery mess, oozing from the slabs of burned bread and onto my tray like guts from a squashed bug. I tried my best to think of another analogy as I picked at the lunch.
          “Zoe, why won’t you let us see the hat?” Lia looked as though she were begging since before I arrived.
          “C’mon, Zo, surely you can’t wear that hat all of the time,” I joined Lia. I knew that it was probably wrong of me to team up against Zoe like that, but I had to know what the story behind it was. I had a feeling that there was more to Taylor than she let on. Plus, I may have been more than a little bit jealous of the hat for coming so close to replacing me.
          “Yes, I can. And I will.” Zoe protectively put one hand on the rim of Taylor. I leaned in across the table, eyes sparkling.
          “Zoe,” I whispered with a mischievous inflection. “If you don’t let us see the hat….Lia and I might have to steal it!” I grinned as Lia lit up like a lightbulb. Zoe, however, seemed to have darkened. Her eyes went wide.
          “You wouldn’t dare,” she whispered. I giggled and made a snatch at Taylor, causing Zoe to jerk back her head. 
          Stealing each other’s things was a common game my friends and I played. Often, one of my friends would leave the table for water or to buy a snack, only to return to find a bag of chips gone, hidden under the table. Sometimes, Zoe didn’t even notice until either Lia or I subtly pointed it out. Then, she’d put her hands on her hips and stare at us until we pulled it back up from the table. Other times, I would make obvious snatches for the book that Lia usually brings to lunch, turn to a random page, and start to read out loud. It was all in good fun, teasing and mild horseplay. No one ever took offense at being robbed. It was just a natural part of our friendship.
          So I guess that I should have realized something was wrong before my fingers closed around the rim of the fedora. 
          I jerked it off and held it above my head like a sword from a stone, cheering, before dropping it lightly onto Lia’s head. But Lia wasn’t celebrating. She stood, still as marble, staring at Zoe. Her face was a mask of shock and horror. Tentatively, I inched my eyes away from Lia to meet Zoe’s. They were misting over with tears. She was frozen, too. She held my gaze as it found its way to the top of her head, to the throne where Taylor had previously sat, to a circle clearing in the center of her hair. The brown fluff that I had envied so much last fall, the glossiest hair, before she put on Taylor for the first time, had vanished. In its place was flesh, peppered with buds of new hair peeking through the gland. It looked like a lush rainforest had been cleared in the very center of her scalp and was trying unsuccessfully to replenish. It felt as though the entire cafeteria had fallen silent, as though all conversations were turned into white noise in the back of my skull.
          Zoe simply stared at me as I stared at her. My arms found their way back to my side and Lia slowly reached for Taylor, as if a sudden movement could kill her. Zoe blinked once, sending a waterfall of teardrops cascading down her cheeks, leaving slippery footsteps. The tears seemed to snap her back to reality, and she suddenly rose from the table. The sound returned, conversations about school, about activities, about summers. But there were fewer sounds than before. Without even taking my eyes off of Zoe, I could tell that students were turning to look, one at a time. I could barely choke out an apology before she sprinted out of the cafeteria, hands on her head, protecting it from the deadly stares that followed her.
4.
ZOE
          I slammed the stall door behind me and sat on the toilet seat, not caring that it was open, not caring that my jeans were absorbing toilet spittle. I clutched my head and moaned. My fingertips were prickled by the shameful spikes of growing hair, a reminder of what I had done.
          I knew that I shouldn’t, that I couldn’t, especially not after what had just happened, but I had no control of my hand as it repositioned itself into a claw. My nails closed around a newborn hair and I pulled, relishing the soft feeling of relief it gave me. Everything’s fine, Zoe. It’s okay. I could feel its reassuring whisper on my skin, how it slipped out of its gland without a hitch. I brought it before my leaking eyes and rolled it between my fingers. Small and black. The best kind. The ones that felt the best and looked the most delectable before pulling from any location at all, including the top of my head.
          I steered my prize claw back to my bare head and chose another. I’ll stop. I know I will. I have to, eventually. But not today, not now, not like this. I thought that they would understand: That they would know not to cross the boundary. That they could take a hint.
          My eyes closed as I removed a third, then a fourth. Each sent a wave of relaxation through my muscles.
I guess I was wrong. I told them not to. I told them to leave it alone. I made it very clear that its position was on my head! I could feel my cheeks burn underneath my cheeks. How could they disrespect my wishes like that?
          I remember visiting day at camp. My parents had hugged me, kissed me, showered me in candy and cool little knick-knacks they found in their travels. On the bottom of their gift bag lay the hat, the opposite of a prize inside. I remember picking it up and turning it in between my hands, confusion plain across my face. My parents should know that I don’t like hats, shouldn’t they? When I complained, my mother had smiled sadly and pulled up a photo of me from the camp website on her phone. I was in a hitting position, racket hanging loosely but firmly at my side, waiting for my opponent to serve the ball. The photo, however, did not capture the fearsome expression on my face as I braved the adversary, but rather the server’s fierce expression and the back of my hair. Or, lack of it.
          I knew that before I had been tugging at the strands back there, enjoying the feeling of a hair falling loose, but I had never imagined that it would affect my appearance in such a way. I never derived that it was more than a harmless habit.“Is that…Is that me?” I had asked. I already knew the answer, but I wanted to hear the confirmation from my parents. My mother nodded solemnly. My cheeks flushed from embarrassment and anger as a hand instinctively reached to touch my head. The photo did not lie. No hair tangled my fingers as they stroked the skin. How come I hadn’t noticed a cooler breeze on the back of my head? Why had nobody told me that I was going bald? Why did nobody swat my hand away from the spot I was picking at? Later, I realized that no one had the nerve to tell me; no one wanted to risk hurting me. If it hadn’t been me, I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve either.
          “Did you do this to yourself?” My mom whispered, so no one would overhear. My eyes flared at the accusation and I instantly became defensive.
          “Why do you care? Why do you want to know? It’s none of your business!” I could see her working to maintain her calm. My father stood by the ladder leading to the bunk above mine, looking away as though he were looking for another girl, not this one, the one that needed a serious intervention in front of everyone. A few of my fellow bunkmates looked up from their loot, but no other eyes lingered on me for more than a second, either because of boredom or because they knew what was happening, I’ll never know.
          “I need to know so that I can help you get better, okay?” My mom was talking again.
          “There is nothing wrong with me!” I squealed, ignoring the rest of the bunk. My mother clasped firm hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye.
          “I know, sweetie, I know. But you need to tell me. Is it self-inflicted?” Breaking her iron gaze, I looked towards dad. Then, I nodded quickly and tersely. Immediately, the pressure on my shoulders eased. I turned my head back to her face. She nodded slowly.
          “We spoke to a doctor. It’s called trichotillomania. A hair-pulling disorder.” My mother’s voice was soft, comforting, but I was too frantic to be calmed. “Plenty of people have it.” The comment was meant for me to feel better, but it only made me feel worse, somehow. I knew that I was pulling out my hair, but I was only pulling a little bit! Not enough to make such a bald spot, right? Yet, once I started to evaluate my time at camp, it started to fit together. From all of the times where I would sit, waiting for an activity to begin, to all the times I was reading in bed, my fingers furiously dancing around my scalp. The constant tugging had become a rhythm in my life, and I hadn’t even noticed.
          Eager to hide my spot as quickly as possible, I ignored my hatred of headwear and threw the hat on my head. Immediately, I could feel how the air was blocked, how the wind failed to caress my skin, suffocating under the cover.
          But I kept it on. I wore it through the summer, only taking it off to shower and to sleep. I even got a pass from the camp doctor so I wouldn’t have to swim, so I could minimize the reasons for taking off the hat. I pulled alone, privately, whenever I went to the bathroom.
          It was Scarlett who came up with the name. On the night after visiting day, I was sitting on the porch of the cabin, watching the stars shimmer above me. The door creaked and slammed, and suddenly Scarlett was beside me.
          “Hey,” she said softly.
          “Hey.”
          “I, um, I forgot to tell you yesterday how cool your new hat is.” She offered me a slight smile, the kind of reassuring kindness that only Scarlett Gold can give.
          “I hate headwear.” My reply was terse. I was angry. At myself for doing it, at everyone else for failing to point it out to me, and my parents for ruining my day by pointing it out to me.
          “Maybe,” she began, scooting closer to me. “Maybe you should name it!”
          “I dunno.”
          “Okay, then, I guess that means we’ll have to use bigender names! How’s Jordan? Or Alex?” I watched her watch the sky and saw her eyes widen as though a lightbulb went off in her head.
          “I’ve got it!” she proclaimed. “Taylor! Because, like, it’s clothing, so you had to tailor it to fit properly, right?”
          “Whatever,” I mumbled. Then, I stood and went back inside, not bothering to point out that since my parents had unexpectedly brought it, there was no tailoring involved: Not bothering to mention how grateful I was for her help, how much I loved the name Taylor.
          I allowed myself a small, melancholy smile while remembering, as tears fell like shooting stars across my cheeks. I reached for another hair before I heard the bathroom door swing open. Instinctively, I jerked my hand back to my side in mid-pull.
          “Zoe.” It was Carmen’s voice. I recoiled slightly, recalling her astonished gaze after removing Taylor from my head and revealing my shame spot.
          “Zoe, are you in here?” I must have made some sort of noise, or maybe Carmen had just known that I was there, because she took the stall next to mine. Over the wall dividing the two stalls, Taylor fell with a soft thud on the grey tile. I scooped him up and placed him gently where he belonged — on my head, on my bald spot. I clasped my hands tightly over my knees to resist the urge of pulling, the siren’s song from underneath my hat.
          “Look, I’m really sorry. I had no idea.” Her voice echoed through the empty room. I stayed silent. Carmen didn’t wait for me to say anything, just continued.
          “I should have taken a hint. You got so, well, defensive whenever someone reached for your hat. It piqued my curiosity, and Lia’s, too.” She fell silent, waiting for a reply. When she got none but the quiet dripping of the faucet, she went on.
          “I’m not blaming you, or anything! Don’t think that. It’s my fault. Not even Lia’s. I made the grab, I pulled it off. It was me.” 
          Part of me wanted to comfort her, to tell her that it was Lia’s fault as much as hers, but I remained still.
          “So, I’m just trying to say that I’m really, really sorry. If I had known…” She trailed off, then picked up her train of thought again. “No, I should never had known, or else you wouldn’t be wearing the hat in the first place. I’ll make it up to you, Zoe. I’ll find away.” I heard the click of the lock sliding and footsteps across the tile floor.
          “I’m going to go back to lunch, now, okay? Come whenever you’re ready.” Then, the door to the girl’s bathroom swung open with a whoosh of air and fell shut again witha clank. I was alone with Taylor, alone with my thoughts.
5.
          My father drove me to school the next day on his way to work. I was too ashamed to show my face on the bus. I had to go back to school, no matter how much I begged my parents to let me stay home. Everyone knew, now. Those who didn’t see my behatting during lunch surely heard from someone who did.
          I kept my head down in the hallways, hoping Taylor would act as a suitable shield to protect me from the bulging eyes and dying conversations as I walked past. I crouched next to my locker and turned the dial. It was hard to see with Taylor so low over my eyes, but eventually the lock clicked and the door swung open. I began to put away my stuff when I heard my name. I turned my head slightly and picked out Carmen’s blue shoes with purple laces running directly towards me. I hastily averted my gaze and pretended to be really interested in my schedule that was hanging by a magnet on my wall.
          “Zoe, look at me.” I ignored her, rummaging through my backpack, pulling out the folders and binders I would need for English and math.
          “Zoe, please. I’ll never get to make it up to you if you don’t let me.” Maybe it was the sorrow in her voice, the begging to make everything as good as it used to be. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to stay mad at her. I wanted things better as much as she did. For whatever reason, I met her gaze.
          And drew back a little bit, surprised. On top of her head, Carmen wore a fedora, just like mine, except white instead of brown.
          Before I could say anything, Lia appeared from the other side of the hall. Her fedora was neon green. It suited her bright personality fabulously. She swept me into a hug so that the rims of our fedoras clicked like glasses giving a toast.
          “Mine’s name is Franny. The hats were Carmen’s idea, really, but I was thinking that we could all, like, make a special hat club.” Lia’s eyes sparkled. “Maybe we’ll get the entire school to wear hats!”
          I could feel the tears swelling in my eyes again, but this time from gratitude. I stood up from my locker and encased them both with tight arms. My head hung over Carmen’s shoulder, and I could feel her shirt dampening under my chin. I could see people walking past us in the hallways, staring at me for my famous baldness, or at all three of us for our peculiar headwear, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t care.

          If I closed my eyes, I couldn’t even tell they were looking. I could only feel the warm embrace from two people who loved me for who I was.

 

Author Biography: Sophie Nadel is a freshman at Horace Greeley High School and is too young to decide what she would like to study in college. She enjoys writing (duh), geeky things, performing improvisational comedy, snakes, and referring to herself in the third person.