Why My Hair is White
One evening, upstairs in a Connecticut brown shingle house on Long Island Sound, I stood in front of the mirror as usual, naked as usual, and oiled my hair a slippery black, smearing downhill flat against my skull with a viscous goo a friend brought me from Alaska, walrus oil—something to encourage my hair, to bring on new things, and maybe old ones as well. And then I lay back, showered and cool on the smooth, expensive summery sheet so soft and was bathed a second time in wind coming through the evening screens on both sides of the wooden room.
I never expected the results. A cry full of longing rose up out of the sloshing cove. It was more a sobbing toothy singing, possibly the walrus cow we’d heard of, even though I know you’re thinking it was the wrong latitude. Yet there were connections. My own Clarissa was gone, drawn beneath that moody water back in another summer, sailing alone—an accident, best not mentioned again, even to myself. I thought nothing of it, the cries briefly confused with memory. I lay on my aunt’s guestroom bed, lingered instead at the edge of boyhood, adolescence, young man love, times full of hope and expectation and yearning in memory of Clarissa’s sun-warmed skin, her breasts, her fears, my hopes.
At the same time, I heard the gravelly crawling on the driveway, the sigh of elms, I felt the moon’s full blue, the cat’s mentioning something about shadow and the invasion of territory. And not until the moon had slipped in through the screens on the other side of the wooden room, on the side away from the sea, did I sit up on my stretched sheet and peer out over my white legs to see her, massively huddled at the foot of the bed, with her weight bowing down the floor, and probably the old beams below it, and eclipsing my aunt’s disordered shelves of vacation mysteries.
What can I tell you? How much I pitied her? Not my aunt with her lipsticked cigarette stubs and her unfinished glasses of Scotch, but my sad blubbery visitor with her big eyes, one turned sideways, spy glassing me, calling on me to explain myself and the stuff in my hair, the cruel trick of the oil, the impersonation of friends in frigid worlds I would never understand. I thought to look at the tube, the one the oil had come in. Was there some writing on it, something I should have considered, some warning? We sat that way for a while, waiting for the moon to move on and leave us for the elms, the sand tennis court, the cove where the boats lay rocking, asleep, including the one which had carried my Clarissa to her grave beyond the reef. A plunging fifteen-foot nun she had cut too close to, which spilled her over the side, then repeatedly drove her under until like Ahab she rose and fell with it, entangled in its mooring chains, no longer afraid.
I felt I owed my visitor some explanation, sitting there with my hands on my knees, she with her flippers touching the brass bed on one side, and Agatha Christie on the other, her tail, wet against the white porcelain of the toilet all the way into the adjoining room.
“Do you have some kind of message for me?” I asked. “Is there something I need to know? Or is it only something about my hair?”
I fully expected her to disappear, as all apparitions do, fade into shadows, join familiar contours, become clothes flopped over wicker rockers, lumped blankets on pine chests, towels on the floor, the shadow of a door in the mirror. But she shifted and sniffed the sniffing of twenty dogs. I smelled seaweed and fish breath, ripe squid and sour sand, dead eels and mud at low tide and most curious of all, the hardest part to tell, the smell of sunlight and wind on a young neck and cheek, the wry wrinkle, the corner of a mouth, she who could mock me in water, at tennis, a flurry of legs while dancing, wrestling and breathy in bed.
I hesitated, something cold uncoiled in the stomach.
“Clarissa?” I asked, fearing my own voice, fearing what the question might bring.
“Clarissa, is that you?”
But there was only more sighing from the flippery, undulating mass, the one eye cocked in my direction and that seemed to say, “Watch what you say, think, and do. Watch what you remember, ask to repeat. And stop oiling your hair with oils to which, God knows, you have no right. And above all, leave the dead alone, do not disturb their sleep, nor their drift, as they tack through dark water. Get lotions from the earth, its plants and such. Take memories from the living. Walrus fat is for walruses, and life for the living.
And then something pressed me back upon my sheet, where I placed my hands, my fingers intertwined, over my chest, and sank back down into summer sleep, determined to leave well enough alone, as I’d been told .
In the morning she was gone. But not the water on the floor, nor the smell of the sea. I rose and showered long, scrubbed and purified, revealing my hair as what it was—preternaturally white, and resolved never again to use what was in the tube, nor yearn for the dead. And since then, I have gone dry, tousled, feathered, fluffed and never flat. I have a girlfriend. I am kind and say “I love you.” And almost all of me means it. I’m reformed and renewed, in every way, with abundant confidence. Except that I do not sleep naked in moonlight on sheets pulled flat beside the sea, nor yearn for things I cannot have, and do not ever peer at that spot between Agatha Christie and the porcelain toilet, in that wooden room, above the cove and the bobbing, breathing, sighing sea.