Fake it til you: lie down on the floor and curse the people having fun
At the Reno Roller Kingdom, where it smells like feet and butter and popcorn that hides beneath sofas, time runs laps around the rink to the tune of mostly clean 2000s pop hits. Pre-teens swivel their hips and dance nimbly as they skate backwards at breakneck speed, sporting edgy magenta haircuts and masks of boredom concealing glee. They all somehow know to jump at the same time, and all around the rink skates leave the ground and then click down with seamless coordination. It must be a TikTok thing. Meanwhile I wobble around the rink, frequently catching an edge and throwing my hands out to prevent a catastrophic wipe out. After several close calls I exit the rink to take a break, and I sit down at a table with my friends. We are the oldest people there by several years. As I toss a piece of irrecoverably over-salted popcorn into my mouth, a tiny child with long blonde hair skates up to me and stares openly.
“You’re BALD!” She exclaims, giggling.
“That’s right, I’m bald!” I respond, restating the obvious.
“Why are you BALD?” she asks brazenly.
“Well, I, uh, shaved my hair off.” I say. This is technically true but omitting a lot of relevant
backstory. I wonder if I should say something like “well I got sick and my hair fell out” and demonstrate adult truthfulness and vulnerability or something but I find I don’t have the will to answer the follow-up questions.
“My dad is bald. You have a bald head like my bald dad!” she hollers, squirming and cackling with delight. I grimace. She leans forward and starts to rub her tiny hand over my head like she’s petting a neighborhood dog. I think I actually lean forward so that she can reach it better, which I can’t explain. “Excuse me I farted” she divulges suddenly, drawing her hand back. This is a jarring interjection but thankfully isn’t another comment about my bald head. Then, recovering from her brief embarrassment and losing interest in my baldness, she starts to swing her skating walker from side to side and, as if challenging me to a dance battle, yells “You like THESE bad boys?? You like THESE bad boys??” You like THESE bad boys??” thrusting her hips aggressively to accentuate every “THESE”. Wow this is getting weird, she must have just eaten like four cotton candies I think.
“Yeah you, er, have some great dance moves” I say and then turn back to my table, feeling both highly amused and slightly violated by this small sugared child. But I also wonder how many other people are secretly thinking, ‘Why is that woman bald? Does she have cancer? Poor thing’ and I, in a way, appreciate her straightforwardness, before she’s learned to settle for sidelong glances and pity eyes.
(Featured image: the Roller Kingdom look. I would want to pet my head too!)
When I was little, my hair was a precious resource. It was long and sandy, the tangles reaching all the way to my butt. When I got haircuts I would sit rigidly, my hands white-knuckling the salon chair as the scissors closed in. If they cut off more than half an inch, I would quietly wither on the inside and then wail to my mom the minute we exited the salon. Over the years I lost this attachment to my hair’s length, cutting it shorter and shorter until it bobbed just above my shoulders. But I never imagined that it would be gone.
Years later when I sat on the rim of my bathtub and began hacking away at my hair with a pair of Bartell’s childrens scissors, I felt an unexpected sense of relief. It had been falling out in clumps for several days, and I was putting a dying animal out of its misery. Anna and I bopped to Justin Bieber as we snipped and shaved our way through a series of unflattering hairstyles to end with a close buzz. I looked in the mirror and turned to the side, considering my head shape. Not bad.
My friend’s mom had cancer growing up and I remember seeing her bald for the first time. She seemed utterly nonchalant about sporting her bald head, but I was shocked. My nine year-old brain zeroed in on her pale scalp, barely contained a gasp and scream-thought ‘OH MY GOD SHE’S BALD!!' (But I hadn’t eaten any cotton candies so I was able to keep my mouth shut). Now, I’m so used to looking at my head that I forget it can seem strange or shocking to others. I've actually found that I don’t objectively hate being bald. I love the feeling of a beanie against my skin, the instant cooling effect of taking it off, the impossibility of greasy hair, and the ability to dry my head instantaneously after a shower. I both love and hate that when I slap the back of my head it sounds like I’m tenderizing a steak. But I hate what my baldness broadcasts. And I do miss my hair. Sometimes I want to not look like an angsty skateboarding teenager in a beanie.
And that brings us to wigs.
Strolling the streets in a wig, I feel giddy. Smug, like I have a secret that nobody knows. Some days I’m Kendra, a glamorous banged brunette who takes down corporate henchmen with lawyerly ease. Other days I’m Astrid, whose bubblegum pink curls bob through anime conventions and deposit pink strands in comic books. Other days I’m Katya, whose purple-gray waves curtain her face while she plays Phoebe Bridgers covers. In a wig, I get to escape into a new identity for a moment, and it’s thrilling. I feel sassy and beautiful and normal. I feel free.
Until, inevitably, the wig starts to itch, to press in the wrong places on my head, to sweat. Eventually I’ll slide it off my head, slip into my sweats and consider the bags beneath my eyes. And I’ll admit that I’m not Kendra or Katya or Astrid. I’m just a muted version of me, putting on a show to convince myself I’m not exhausted.
On my bad days I lie alone, curled in my leather reclining chair, feeling as if someone slit open my body and filled it with rocks. If I force myself to walk outside I find that the world is too steep, too loud, too fast, too windy, too bright. My mouth burns with chemo-induced sores that make it impossible to eat anything solid, and when I walk up the stairs I end up in a heap at the top, my body leaden and flimsy. Bitterness cuts through the haze as I scroll through Instagram and see people going to concerts, traveling, running, parading the incredible health of their bodies. I feel angry. Fuck this. I’m sick of being tired. Tired of being sick. I’m ready for this to be over. I watch 8 hours of Netflix to forget it all.
I feel both helplessly young and incredibly old. In some ways I feel like I’m going back in time - learning to walk again, to run (see post two). Becoming stripped down to my naked, unfrilled features and feeling bare before an unfathomable world. Feeling comforted by the many who have filled in as mom along the way. In other ways, I feel as if I’ve leapfrogged decades, aged in years counted by pill bottles, hospital visits, insurance headaches and declined social events. Aged by the battle to preserve an appearance of health and youth. On days when I can jog, I inch forward at a glacial pace while old ladies trot past me and sprightly young men that I would have once pounded past just to prove a point sprint by at warp speed. I find that my old athletic pride, the competitive fire that once burned fiercely, is gone. Or it at least rests dormant. Along with most of my other vanities. I am just too tired to care.
I don't feel like the same person that I used to be. Parts of her are too dampened by fatigue or the threat of weakened immunity to express themselves. I don’t want to go out and dance my soul out for fear of Covid, and I would be too tired to do it anyway. Wild (or even mild) outdoor adventures that I would have once jumped at the opportunity to tackle sound largely unappealing. I don't feel particularly adept or efficient at work. Instead I feel slow, cautious, and unbearably boring. This is largely adaptive for the moment, and I’m able to find joy in smaller, stiller acts. In the comfort of my routines and in the small divergences from them. In the simple pleasures of friendship and conversation. I know that most of these changes are a result of the treatment, but I also know that even as I emerge from the chemo haze I won’t be the same person who walked into it. As with any experience, I'm being shaped by the glass I've seen shattered, the wounds I've incurred, the strength I've found, the people who have been there to see it all. I will be changed for the better, I think. Forced to stretch in the direction of empathy, equanimity, and earnestness, but no doubt bearing scars, and holding little patience for that which doesn’t serve me.
For now, I find that it’s ok to plod slowly down the road to healing, frequently stopping to catch my breath. For now it’s ok to get athletically owned by the elderly, to wobble around the Roller Kingdom, bald head catching the light and attracting handsy five year olds. I would say it’s even important. It’s life telling me to sit the fuck down. And that's all that I can do. So I’m sitting, looking around, and feeling more humble than I ever have.