Image Credit: Greta Wilensky
Sometime during my first year in New York, my hair began falling out. It had been an ongoing condition since I was in high school, but the city made it worse. I could pluck a strand and see where it had begun growing in so thin it was nearly invisible. I covered the crown of my head with brown-tinted powder and ignored it for the most part. But then the brown-tinted powder company wouldn’t get delivered to my new address. Other packages would come, everything instructed to be left at the deli counter downstairs—but the one thing I really needed was returned to sender almost every time. Productless, I realized the hair on my head was dead and limp in a way it had never been before.
Years earlier, my mom had taken me to a dermatologist in Boston who specialized in hair loss. The doctor wore a white lab coat as she examined the crown of my head. She told me my options: regrow my hair using Rogaine, or don’t. Rogaine works, but only for as long as you continue using it. Meaning, like any drug, once you stop taking it the effects will come to a halt—and all regrown hair will again fall out. I decided against it.
For the next few years, my hair stayed more or less the same. It wasn’t until after moving to Brooklyn in the summer of 2017 that I noticed a dramatic shift. I moved during the last month of my eighteenth year. My earliest life in New York was chaotic and emotional. I lived in the stories of my bad decisions. I slept with a taken man, went to all his parties, did tiny heaps of coke from his long pinky nail. He invited me out with a group of people and we traveled in a pack on the train. I remember staying up on the roof of his apartment, talking into dawn. The walls of his living room were covered in photographs of famous rappers taken by his girlfriend. She was in grad school. He sold drugs. On my nineteenth birthday him and I went to a spa in Queens and after, to a Vietnamese restaurant in Flushing. In the restaurant, he popped his grills onto a plate and we ate pho together. Looking back, I think this is the moment in which I most liked a person.
When his girlfriend called me, I told her the truth. Yes, I did sleep with him. By then, the illusion of who he was was gone. She asked me questions about everything the two of us did. I answered her, willing and obedient. And then, after every detail of every act was laid out across an imaginary table, she asked me, “Did the two of you ever kiss?”
For a long time, I thought she cursed the rest of my hair into thinning and falling out. Or maybe it was my own karmic retribution. I cut what was left into a bob and watched the white of my scalp glaring at me from the salon mirror. When I pulled my hair back my ponytail was thin and you could see the balding.
During these first months, I waitressed at a restaurant on the corner of Fulton and Classon in Bed-Stuy. I worked brunch every weekend, running the length of the wood-paneled interior clutching teapots and almond milk lattes. My second week in New York, I set out from my apartment off of Nostrand Ave with a folder of resumes and walked down Fulton Street, not really knowing where to go, until I stumbled upon what would become my first New York job. “Do you need people?” I asked the manager, standing awkwardly with my blue resume folder clutched in my hands. They did. I started training two days later.
Andre was tall and skinny, with long dreads and an excellent face. At work, he showed me around and explained how things were done. The first night we worked together I joined him and his friends in a cab to his apartment in Crown Heights. We smoked weed on his rooftop and I listened to him tell stories. It was the night after my nineteenth birthday. The roof had an uneven surface and makeshift benches made out of cinderblock and wood. It felt like we were higher than the second floor, like the view was incredible. I broke a nail descending the crooked ladder. Downstairs, the bathroom door was labeled “bathroom”.
Andre was the first friend I made in New York. In my mind he’s like a half-brother, because we were once like family and now we don’t talk. I would get into almost-trouble on Friday and Saturday nights, then tell him every detail at work the next morning. One night, I left the bar with a stranger and wound up in his brother’s car, smoking a black and mild with the two of them. The brother offered me money for sex. The night had potential to go very badly, to catapult beyond my control. I got home safe but scared. “You’re dumb, Greta,” Andre told me the next day at brunch. “But if you’re ever in a situation like that, you know you can call me, right?”
At a shop near my last apartment, I bought coconut oil and incense from an older man, his beard dyed orange with henna. “Your hair” he said, and I knew what he meant. The thinning was getting worse. “Garlic oil,” he told me, pulling a glass bottle from the shelf behind him. I scrunched my nose up at the smell. Another day I was walking down Fulton Street when a woman approached me. “Rosemary oil,” she said. “To grow your hair.”
That winter, I could feel the hair on my head getting thinner, like a nakedness I never experienced before. When it got wet it turned into dark strings across my scalp. I didn’t want anyone to look at me after a shower. Those days I stayed mostly in my room. My first New York apartment was a brownstone with five other people. One was an American guy who worked on a film crew, and the other four were French girls studying abroad. The girls were polite and small in a way that unnerved me. On weekends they went shopping in the city or out to eat in Williamsburg. They were amazed that I was in school and working. The walls of the house were thin and my voice was too loud. I was asked to be quieter, to not burn incense inside, to not clutter the sink with any dishes. I could never be as small and inoffensive as they were. When I had the opportunity to leave, I did.
Amy had long curly hair and lots of tattoos. My favorite one said “BAD NEWS” on her lower back. There was something sardonic about her from the moment I met her, at a late-night diner after one of Andre’s shows. Nina had a strong laugh and a butterfly tattoo where she’d gotten stitches on one hand, and her mother’s name, Carlene, tattooed on the other. Nina was Andre’s girlfriend, Amy was his roommate, and the night we all went out to eat together I felt special just being in the same booth. I had a blue fan from Chinatown that I waved around. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries. Andre got two cheeseburgers and fries. Nina got a waffle and the two of them shared a milkshake. Amy ordered calamari for the table, a beer, and I forgot what else. When we finished eating, she snuck off to pay for us all as a surprise.
Their house was a four-bedroom apartment above a deli in Crown Heights. I had gone over a few times before with other people from work.We smoked fronto spliffs in the yellow living room and I settled into silence, my high mind spreading in ten different directions. The kitchen sink was perpetually full of dishes and everything about the house looked old. Still, I saw it as a way out.
At work, Andre had said he was getting a new roommate. I told him I was interested and he told me he’d ask Amy, whose name was on the lease. When the end of the month neared, I reached out to Amy, unsure. “Get over here,” she replied on Instagram direct message. I moved in a week later.
When I first lived there, the house had a depressed weight to it. There was hot air and stale weed smoke. There were roaches. I adapted. During this time, my job closed unexpectedly. The staff was given three days notice and then we all got drinks together one last time. I went back to my new home and slept on my new mattress, sans box-spring. During those first few weeks, I began my day by going downstairs to the deli to get a large hot coffee, then pouring it over ice upstairs. The deli actually sold iced coffee, but this way I could get two for one. I was that broke.
I met Elena my sophomore year of college, my first autumn in New York. She was the first person I met who raised her hand as much as I did in class. She came to my apartment and we cooked vegetable stew. Elena always wore large earrings, several in each ear, and no bra. She had a Kermit the Frog motorcycle jacket, she was in a band. I remember walking out of a deli with her one late night. She had a sandwich tucked under arm. “I just took it” she said. She was the first person my age that I felt knew something I did not. If you are a woman or girl who is strange, not in a cute way but in the way that people don’t know what to make of you, it’s hard to feel seen. “Thank you” I would one day say to Elena. “The fact that you can be you shows me that I can be me.”
Early March, snow day. The streets outside were blanketed in snow and the sky remained a hazy white all the way into evening. In my new home, Amy and Nina slept on the couches, where they had landed the night before. I joined them as they woke up. Nobody in the house had anywhere to be. Amy began listing the drugs she had in her room. I was surprised at all the options. A few minutes later she presented us with a yellow gel tab of acid, broken into four pieces. Amy, Nina, Andre and I each took our piece. We spent the day playing Cards Against Humanity. I stuck my head out the living room window and watched snow flying in all directions. The deli below us has people moving in and out of it, small figures beneath the snow. Coming down that evening, Amy cried on the couch. Nina embraced her. On the other couch, watching her, I started to cry. Maybe it was her crying and maybe it was the acid, but a grief broke clean through me and I lived a lifetime inside of it.
Amy was born in Saint Thomas and moved to New York when she was eighteen. Her room is full of books, crystals, scraps of memory hung up on the walls. She is eight years older than me and I see her as an older version of myself, except for the ways in which I don’t. The night I met her, she asked me “Are you cool?” and I got nervous because it felt like a trick question. To this day, she is the person with whom I can most freely cry.
This time the year before, while I was attending UMass Amherst, I hooked up with a boy for the first time. It was spring of my freshman year of college when he lead me away from the party. I followed him, half-convinced. We stood in the fluorescent light of a late night Domino’s. He tried to take a picture of me but it didn’t come out right. Later I watched him eat in the car—the whole memory is coated in a film of grease. He pulled his dick out and it stood like an ultimatum between us. The me I am today knows I wanted to leave, to put distance between myself and his imposed desire, but my eighteen year old self didn’t know that. She stayed in the car. She followed through.
One year later I returned to UMass to attend the same party. I wouldn’t have recognized him except for the way he said my name. “Greta??” the second question mark audible like he couldn’t believe his life. I fumbled an excuse and ran. On the edge of the party I started to cry. I returned to New York and told Elena. That story makes me sad, she said. She was right.
After this, I began examining my actions more critically. At this time I was trying to have a dating life of some sort, but all my attempts went heinously wrong. I was hooking up with random men from the internet, hoping for something more tangible. I wanted to be the object of someone’s desire, to sit still and have somebody come get me. I went to a man’s house in Flatbush. We had sex for roughly four minutes. After, I lay in his bed as he played video games in silence from across the room, still naked. I was mortified. Eventually, I took a break from fucking altogether.
One day in mid-April, I came home from the laundromat in early evening. I noticed the light in Andre and Nina’s room was on, and the walls were bare. Andre had taken his passport, his TV, the vinyls tacked to the walls, his Adidas slides. I was the only one home and the first to notice the absence. Evening sun made everything bright as I sat on the busted-up living room couch, taking the memory in.
The night he left I sat in Nina’s room—just Nina’s, now—and we talked about our workdays while I stared at the room’s negative space. “So, he’s gone” I finally said. He had talked about moving out before, but I didn’t think he’d really do it. His brother had an apartment in Flatbush with an extra room. We both knew that’s where he went.
During these first weeks Nina and I hung out every night. Over time, she shared her life with me. She was born in Jamaica and moved to Queens when she was four. She was the youngest in her family and always kept to herself. “You want to know a really random fact?” she asked once. “I’ve never seen an actual baby picture of myself. That’s always made me want to know myself more.” That summer, we went to work, we stayed inside. Nina taught me how to become comfortable in self-reflection, to sit in a room and think. “A thought can drive you” she said. “There’s levels to self-mastery that you have to work to get to.” In June, the house became unbearably hot. One night, the two of us sat in the bathroom—Nina on the bathtub sill, me on the toilet lid. It was sweltering. Nina cried to me, saying “I want to leave this earth knowing that everyone I love knew me for who I really was.” I cried, too, hot tears down my hot face.
That summer, I went to see Andre at his new apartment in Flatbush. As we smoked on his couch, all he could talk about was the new girls in his life. I saw a bright void boiling inside him. The newfound distance had already wedged itself into the space between us. We are very different people, but in some ways we were exactly the same. My half brother who showed me his grief like a photo he kept in his wallet, forgotten but always there.
We left together on the 5 train, sitting opposite each other on the blue benches. Andre did a lot of drugs when he was my age, had lived his wildest years in the time before I met him. “Sometimes when I’m on the train I have acid flashbacks. I think I’m having one now. I’m just gonna ride it out.” I stopped talking and soon, he was asleep with his head tilted back. I got off at my stop and haven’t seen him since.
Getting the wig was Nina’s idea. It was the end of summer and my hair was dwindling. When she first suggested a wig I didn’t take it seriously, but over time I realized it was an opportunity to take control of my appearance. Eventually, we went hair shopping. In the mirror, Nina pulled one wig over my head, and then a second, and I looked at this alternate version of myself and decided. The wig cost $300 and came in a pink bag. Nina bleached and dyed it and cut the lace, which was an all-day project. On the night before my 20th birthday, she secured it onto my head and I walked around the house like a new person. That night we went to dinner in Manhattan. I was drunk and elated and nosedived into my plate of chicken and waffles. In the bathroom Nina took a picture of me washing my hands. She said, “When I think of love, I imagine you.”
Two days later, Elena and I went to the barber shop on Myrtle. When I took my hat off to reveal the hair I wanted shaved off, the barber was shocked. “That’s crazy,” he said, and proceeded to buzz. I cried and all the men in the shop stared. It felt like a scene from something. After, I couldn’t stop running my hand up and down the back of my head. The day was bright blue outside and I felt naked but also like something that needed to happen had finally happened. I was letting go.
One night Elena and I went out and I saw a girl with a shaved head like mine get looked at with affection. I wanted to be her so much I cried at the Spanish food spot Elena took us to. We got rice and beans and she told me, “It’s not sex you want, it’s a connection.” The restaurant was warm and crowded. When she said this I cried some more over my plate of food.
A few months later Elena and I went to a solstice party in Harlem. She performed an essay she wrote called “Shaking My Mother Awake.” I had read it before, over and over, so when she said the words I was tracing along in my head. When she got to the mic, she kneeled down on her knees and asked the room to do the same. The party went from groups of people standing and talking to a short sea of people. I shut my eyes to hear her better and let the tears well the corners. Elena has butter soft skin and a gorgeous face. When we are together in a room I know I’m understood. After the party, we went to Wo Hop, a 24-hour restaurant in Chinatown. “It’s the longest night of the year,” Elena said. It was late, but all around us, families were eating enormous oysters on the half-shell. For whatever reason, the busy restaurant and the big oysters felt like an incredible sign.
On New Years’ Eve I picked up a shift at the restaurant Amy manages. I wore a Happy New Year’s tiara made from metallic green paper. When the clock struck 12, I felt underwhelmed as everyone cheered. I stood in my cocktail dress and black apron and felt a hazy quality fall across the room. I couldn’t wait for it to end. Later, I sat at the bar at 5 AM, drinking a vodka soda. There were no more customers. At the bar I let it slip that I was twenty, 2-0, as in not 21 yet. “I’m twenty? Why the fuck would you say that?” Amy snapped from behind the bar. “Oh shit sorry” I went right away. “‘Oh shit sorry’ nothing. It’s done.” I stared at the ice in my drink numbly, then went home.
On New Years’ Day I worked there again. We were finishing up the tip numbers in the office when Amy and I started talking. I knew I was about to cry and then I did, and she did, and we sat together in the mess of an office and absolutely lost our shit. “Can I open a pack of napkins?” I asked. “I have one open for that already” she replied.
No matter where I am, I feel like an observer. I take lines from other people’s lives and write about them. I don’t know what kind of theft this is. It feels dirty to tell on everyone in this way, to be in the moment but also outside it.
Once a week, I take an electric razor and buzz the hair off my head. I wrap a towel around my neck but still catch the shaved hairs on my skin. They’re countless and tiny, little black lines pointing in all directions. The hair comes in thicker than it used to be. What were once thin brown strands are growing in black. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully regrow my hair. Maybe so, but I’m not counting on it. If this is how it’s meant to be, then so be it. The real story lies beneath the surface. I feel the razor hum against my skin.
Greta Wilensky is a writer from Lowell, MA. Her fiction and poetry has been published in Winter Tangerine Review, Blueshift Journal, James Franco Review, and elsewhere. She’s a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the 2017 Bowery Poetry Club Chapbook Slam. She studies creative writing at Brooklyn College.