by Courtney Elizabeth Young
Here are the ways I have heard it happens: in bed, waking to wheezing, breathing in loose clumps lining your pillow. Out with friends, falling into your Cobb salad, your Pinot. In the pool, raking waters in a panic, clawing to clean up the unhinged mess you have become. Wiping sweat away from your brow after removing your garden hat, now filled with clumps. In the conference room, before a presentation, onto your notecards. With windows down, enjoying a summer breeze until you see it in the rearview mirror, whipping and whirling away and out of your car. Fast, far, and away, anywhere and everywhere, because it defies boundaries.
Here is how it happened to me.
I am finished running. There was no sun, but my scalp burns, it itches. I didn’t expect this process to be painful down to the follicles, but it only makes sense. There is always pain when there is an abandon. I am trying to relieve the screaming in my scalp, Ma, so I stand in the shower, palms on either side of the spigot, head bowed in submission.
I knew it was coming, Ma, I saw it thinning all weekend, so I am ready, I promise. I have been walking within a warning, and I will do it right. I am making a proper sacrifice by bathing before a butchering, by washing before an offering. And so, I open my eyes. I see pieces of me that detach, that fall away, that coil around the drain, my tears mix with the water, Ma, pushing them all the way away.
There is a shaking in my hands when I shut off the shower, a shaking as I wrap one towel around myself and when I reach for another. This shaking does not steady nor cede but there is a deadpan I maintain, until I feel an effortless removal, when I pull the dampened towel away.
There is an animal noise that comes from somewhere inside my apartment, Ma, some deep yet distant carnal wailing I cannot track nor translate. There is a widening of my eyes, a tremor growing with violent ferocity. I ride its jagged lightning, flinging the matted mess away from me.
There is a mirror and a spastic swiping of steam, but this is a mirror that is not true, because in it is not me—instead there is a woman I have never seen. The left side of her head is completely bare, Ma, her scalp a pale slice of skin; a raw slab of meat.
This woman in the mirror, Ma, she looks confused. She frowns and I frown back, so I walk away, but she does too. She is following me through my apartment—from the mirror on my door to the mirror above my bed. So I move faster, running to the mirror in my living room, my bathroom, my bedroom, but there she is again and again and again.
I blink at her and she blinks at me. I raise my left hand and so does she. I reach to run my fingers through soft waves, but I feel only a headstone scalp—bald and bare. Then she is panicking, Ma, reaching frantically for hair. She is always reaching for what is no longer there.
This woman, she runs back to the bathroom where she finds the towel she cast aside. She lays it in front of the full-length mirror, her tears a torrent in her eyes. She kneels before it like an altar, with short and choppy breaths—she begs, “no, no, no,” her only prayer a pathetic lament. She lines up lost tresses before her where she sits, and the rest, Ma, she remembers in snips.
There is a shaking hand that calls Aimee, that calls you. There is an earth-quaking voice that manages, “the shaver,” until she goes dashing back to every room. There is the consulting every mirror for a contradiction, but they all tell her the same truth: “the woman in the mirror is you.”
There is the bedroom floor, mirror and altar again. There is the rocking back and forth, eyes oscillating between who she is and who she’s been. There are heels of hands pressed into eye sockets, pads of fingers tapping and padding toward a precipice, shrieking at the feeling of skull through skin.
There is the hair that falls around her from only bowing her head, there is the frantic picking up of pieces, of salvaging severance from stem. There are nail marks that draw blood from fists too tightly clenched, there is trying to make the shards hers again. There is the desperate holding up of them—first to the woman in the mirror, then her mother who walks in.
There is incorrigible sobbing that turns to incoherent blubbering when you find me there, holding up pieces of myself I have lost so that you may see. There is a falling of your face and then your body to your knees as you watch what happens when I cannot let go of what has let go of me. There are my hands, Ma, and then there are yours—yours—reaching for not what I have lost, but for what you have: me.
There are hands, pulling me into you, rocking me as long as I need, my muffled mumblings spit-soaking your shoulder until they cease. Hands holding my face out from yours, wiping my tears instead of your own, your eyes a red-rimmed graveyard of grief. You tell me you’re sorry, tell me you know, tell me to breathe.
There are your hands, not forcibly removing what I am not ready to release, but holding soft a death grip that opens gradually. Your hands, pulling me up when I cannot stand or see, raising my arms above my head, out of this towel and into something warm despite my pleas. Your hands, helping me rip the mirror off the wall to take outside with me, even if you don’t understand why this is something I need to see.
Your hands, I let lead. Into structured slaughter, to the dark dock where the water rushes beneath. Where Aimee takes the mirror and puts it in front of my seat. Where there is a single red rose in a vase upon a table, where there is a candle with a flame that flits in fits but does not flee. Shadows that flicker over a shaver conjure a gnash of teeth, waiting to cut and cleave, and in the dance of light, Ma, I swear it’s smiling at me.
Courtney Elizabeth Young is a 32-year-old rape crisis counselor and sexual assault survivors’ advocate pursuing an MFA at Southern New Hampshire University while in her second battle with triple-negative breast cancer. She has lived on and backpacked six continents and over thirty countries alone so far—but isn’t done yet. A proud owner of both the DRD4 and MAOA gene, she has lived out loud her wild ride through life on everything from cocaine to camels, from crocodiles to cancer. She won the Emerging Writer’s Grand Prize through Elephant Journal, was the featured travel photographer and writer in DRIFT Travel Magazine, and her work appears or is forthcoming in Palooka Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, and Tipping the Scales: She Speaks and Hour of Women’s Literature.
Cover Design by Karen Rile