Bad Hair Day
The first time I recall ever being truly undone by worry, the kind that played on a continual loop and interfered with every aspect of my life, was the result of an errant haircut at a trendy salon. I became obsessed that I got AIDS from someone I absolutely did not have sex with.
And it all started with Dorothy Hamill.
During my elementary years, she and her hair were a big deal and I had her signature short bob. I was also a tomboy who refused to wear skirts, dresses or pink. My ears were not pierced and my name is verrrry similar to a common boy’s name. So I spent a lot of time explaining that I was actually a girl. Then puberty struck and my hair changed overnight. Suddenly, it was incredibly curly and Einstein appeared to replace Dorothy as my style inspiration. So I did the only thing I could: I grew my hair out. During this time, I developed some (admittedly small) boobs and by eighth grade, no one could claim they thought I was a boy. I wore my hair and earrings huge and long into my early twenties.
Just before I took my first set of law school exams I was visiting Connecticut for my mom’s birthday and scheduled an eleventh-hour cut with her stylist. After some discussion, which was mainly me whining about my course load, we agreed: let’s be practical and go a bit shorter. Less maintenance. I was excited for a transformation, the before-and-after moment.
When I left the salon, I had planned to go shopping because I needed a few things for my new apartment in the city. Unfortunately, one of the things I needed was a mirror. At the local vintage furniture store, there were about 100 of them. By the time I was halfway through the inventory, tears were streaming down my face. I looked like Dorothy Spornak from the Golden Girls. Full circle, Dorothy to Dorothy.
That same month, I realized I was squinting at the white board during class, suffering stifling headaches every evening. Sudden strain from all of the law school homework had resulted in a precipitous decline in my vision and I needed glasses. Between that and the haircut, it was like I was right back in that gawky, graceless adolescent stage. As quickly as I could, I transitioned to contacts and then began to grow out my hair for the second time. The former turned out to be quick and painless. The latter … no so much.
At first, I thought growing out my hair was the same as just not getting haircuts. After a couple months, a lovely and sympathetic friend intervened. Eliza, who is chronically indecisive, recommended the downtown stylist she had been going to in the Back Bay. When Eliza suggests something with authority and certainty, you listen. Incredibly thoughtful and insightful, Eliza does nothing without research and contemplation. She is the epitome of “clean living,” bright clear blue eyes, porcelain skin, thick shiny hair. Her only weakness, if you can even call it that, is chocolate.
“He’s expensive, but his vision is worth it,” Eliza gushed. Apparently, everyone she knew went to this guy now – her roommates, her mother. Hell, even her boyfriend.
I booked an appointment and promptly fell in love. Quinn was fantastically gay in a way that made him delicious to look at (the glittering eyes and perfect tan!), fun to talk to (that spectacular Irish accent!) and generally intoxicating to be around. At my first appointment, he spoke with reassuring authority about my bone structure, proper proportions and his long-term strategy. I was directed to a little room to exchange my top for a sleek smock, then he sent me to a heavily-tattooed woman for a shampoo-conditioner-massage session that lasted twenty minutes. By the time I got back into Quinn’s chair, I was putty. The cut he gave me, which he deemed to be “transitional,” was intended only to provide a flattering shape and lie while my thousand layers grew out to their proper lengths. But it felt like the glamorous end result.
My commitment to Quinn cost me more than my student status could afford, but I deemed it a worthwhile investment. Every six or eight weeks, I would prepare for my appointments like I was getting ready for a date. I’d shave, pluck my eyebrows and carefully apply lip-gloss. Sometimes I would buy new jeans (since I had to change into a cape once there anyway, might was well showcase my ass). I recall even once buying adorable boots and gushing to the woman at Lord & Taylor, “I can wear these to the salon!”
I eventually graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, landed a job, moved to Beacon Hill and could legitimately incur the cost of Quinn’s haircuts. And I started going more often.
One particular evening, I had late appointment and went straight from the office, feeling very professional and sophisticated in my navy suit. Quinn and I went through the usual routine and, about halfway through my cut, he suddenly stopped.
“Excuse me,” he said, “I just sliced my finger with the scissors. Be right back.”
Maybe it was my imagination, but he seemed spooked and ashen. “Should I be worried?” I wondered, evaluating my options. But I really had only one: leave. Unfortunately, I still needed to pay, wasn’t wearing my own shirt and had clips partitioning my hair into different sections. I told myself, “All those sprays, brushes, blow dryers and flat irons he uses will kill anything that might be there anyway.” Right?
In a moment, Quinn returned bandaged and resumed his work while we chatted about a new restaurant that had opened a few doors down. When we were done, I kissed him on the cheek, left a tip and walked back toward Beacon Hill.
But I didn’t feel right. I kept trying to picture his face when he excused himself. Did he seem anxious? Concerned? What if I had a cut on my scalp that I didn’t know about? I got paper cuts on my hands all the time. And unidentifiable bruises on my shins. I theoretically could have an injury that I didn’t know about that allowed some of his blood to mingle with mine. It certainly wasn’t impossible.
By the time I keyed into my apartment I was all-out spooked. I sat right down on the blue-checked couch with Ann and told her the whole story. As she listened, she scrunched up her freckled nose in concern. Over the years of our friendship, Ann had become an expert in my various anxieties, which have included fire hazards, potential meteors and accidental poisoning by landlords conducting pest control. Like a saint, that night she picked over my head like a monkey, looking for scrapes or other portals for infection.
There was nothing.
“Think of all the gay hairdressers and their scissors,” she reasoned. “If there was any instance of transmission, barbers would be required to wear gloves like dentists. Don’t worry about it.” She gave me a hug and I went to bed.
But I didn’t feel better. There was no room for reason in my head.
The next day I told my fiancée. As a state trooper, theoretically, he could come into contact with bodily fluids at any moment, during any shift. He was specially trained to navigate such situations. He also said not to worry.
“That wasn’t in any of the scenarios they went over at the academy,” he explained with a shrug.
So I told my mom, the long-time labor and delivery nurse. “Honey, do you know how much blood I was exposed to in my career? Before latex gloves and universal precautions? Tons. And I’m fine. Or at least I think so,” she laughed.
This was not reassuring.
I even called an HIV/AIDS toll free number to explain the situation. The man on the other end told me that there was no known case of infection from a haircut but that if I were truly worried, I should just get tested. (I did not know at the time that AIDS is a classic OCD obsession and the matching compulsion can be extensive conversations with the volunteers manning the phones on these kinds of emergency hotlines. Those poor volunteers probably speak to as many people with OCD as HIV.)
But it would take many weeks for the virus to build up to detectable levels in my blood. I had to wait a month before getting tested. So, to protect others, I started putting Band-Aids on any dermal imperfection, including old scabs or particularly dry patches. I kept my toothbrush in a separate holder from the mug on the bathroom sink that Ann and I had always both used. I wouldn’t share a tiramisu with Eliza at our favorite Italian restaurant. I pulled away from everyone, my world contracting into smaller and smaller dimensions.
I slowly ran out of hair products and couldn’t buy more because that would require a trip to the salon. Which was out of the question. I could get cheaper stuff at the corner pharmacy, but that’s where people with compromised immune systems congregate. So I resorted to using a scrunchy. I’d smooth down the worst of my fly-aways with hand lotion.
Then I ran out of makeup, but couldn’t go to the department store to buy more. What if the lady in the white coat and lip liner wanted to demonstrate something on me? How many people had used those testers? Couldn’t take the chance.
Then I became worried about dry cleaners. So many pins, both safety and straight. So I started spot cleaning my suits at home.
One day, I looked at myself under the lights in the ladies’ room at the office. Frizzy, splotchy, dark-eyed, stains on the lapel of my jacket.
This couldn’t be normal … could it?