t starts like this: A girl. Any age. Pulling hairs from her head. A few a day until there is a bald spot the size of a dime. In her family, there are worse things; nobody notices. Or she does it in private, like sucking her thumb.
A photo taken at the beach: The girl is about eighteen. She is smiling, not knowing that the wind is raising a shoot of new hair at the crown of her head; it stands up against the sky like a stalk. When the pictures come back, she is appalled by this evidence. The lie? The fan on the blow dryer caught a whole lock of hair, chopped it up and out.
Her apartment: The couch is where she sits; behind it where she drops the hairs while she reads and pulls, studies and pulls, talks to friends long distance and pulls. After three years, when it is time to move out, she cleans, and behind the couch is where the vacuum cleaner stops, seizes, breaks.
The repairman: This is your problem right here. He shows her a clump of her own hair that snagged the belt. He pulls it out, a small and tangled garment. You lose a lot of hair, he says. Oh no, she says, I got this vacuum at the flea market. It’s really old. That belt’s probably never been replaced.
Should work for you now, he says, and charges her only four-fifty. She thinks she should be paying more.
The dermatologist: She shows him the three round places, now nickels, where her fingers won’t let the hair grow back. Because they are circles, he must check for ringworm, inside a dark closet, with a purple black-light. Out in the room again, in regular light, with Los Angeles brown out the window, he asks her, how long has it been?
A year? she says. He says: You are doing this to yourself. You are literally pulling your hair out. In the building next door they are filming a week’s worth of Jeopardy. Because she has sat in that studio audience, clapped when the sign said “applause,” she knows that the contestants bring five shirts, so that to people watching the show it will look like five different days.
The dermatologist gives her a month to stop this nonsense. He will check her at that time and if she hasn’t improved, he will be forced to do a biopsy. She knows a punishment when she hears one.
For three straight days she wears a baseball cap and does not touch her head once. She cancels the one-month check-up. Says to the receptionist: The situation is under control.
The ringworm comes back negative.
The psychiatrist: We must rule out obsessive compulsive disorder, distinguish that from habitual. How long do you do it at one time? The girl, by now a woman, guesses thirty minutes, not knowing what marks the cut-off point between crazy and distressed. Habitual is the diagnosis. No different than nail biting, or grinding teeth.
The vacation: In various Mexican hotels, the best friend slaps her hand when she does it. If she’s across the room, she claps, says Hey! As a last resort, the friend applies an ointment from their first-aid kit, to each of three ragged spots. When her hand goes there anyway, her finger lands in the goo. Yuck, she says. Well, says the friend, maybe it’ll make you stop.
When she was six, her father had rubbed jalapeno on the favored thumb.
The doctor in the paper: The article is sent to her by the best friend. A woman has written in to tell about the strange thing her husband does. Not only does he pull out his hairs, but then, he eats them. Chews and swallows. See, the friend says, there are worse things one can do. The medical columnist is familiar with the pulling, and shares with his readers the technical name for this: Trichotillomania. The part he does not understand he attributes to a nutritional deficiency in the husband. Suggests a visit to the family doctor, a stronger multi-vitamin.
For her, it’s not the pulling that’s so bad, but the picking of the patches left bald until they bleed.
The haircutter: Wow, what happened here? Looks like you really whacked your head. No, she says. He tells her the hairs are broken off at the root. Some people bump their heads and then forget all about it, he says. You probably don’t even remember it happening, he says. She says she guesses not.
The next haircutter: What’s this? She says she thinks she whacked her head. Anyway, the hair is growing back.
The window at night: She is surprised by her own reflection, her resemblance to a statue, one arm lifted above her head, bent at the elbow. Then, she is surprised by the muscle that builds in that arm, the kind she imagines one might get from masturbating too much, only hers is from this vigil she keeps with her scalp.
When she starts, without warning, to go at it with both hands, she realizes even she has limits. To give herself a break, she takes her reading into the bathtub. Two hands must hold the book at all times, to prevent it from taking a swim. Two occupied hands, one head at rest. She imagines the cells regenerating, developing a new layer she will peel to perfection.
Haircutter, the third: Circular baldness, this one says, and she has a name for it that she learned in beauty school. It is not the same name the doctor in the newspaper provided. It’s not uncommon, she says. It’s a nervous condition. She calls the other one over, the one giving a perm, to see this condition they’ve only read about in books.
She can only go so long without a trim. Can only butcher her own bangs so many times before they require professional help. In this small town, she is running out of hair care providers.
The last haircutter: What in God’s name???
A nervous condition.
I never heard of such a thing. You should see a doctor.
Can you please, for now, just get rid of the split ends?
— Melanie Bishop has published fiction and nonfiction in Glimmer Train, Georgetown Review, Greensboro Review, Florida Review, Valley Guide, Hospice Magazine, Puerto del Sol, and Family Circle. She teaches creative writing at Prescott College in Arizona, where she is also founder and fiction and nonfiction editor of Alligator Juniper, the college’s award-winning, national literary magazine.