When I look back on the cruel joke known as my life, three things stand out. Number one is my Crohn’s Disease. For those who don’t know, Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease. I’d never heard of it before, and when I was diagnosed, at nineteen, I felt embarrassed. Not because I’d be sick for the rest of my life but because I had a disease no one had heard of. It was like getting accepted to a crappy state school. “Why couldn’t I get diabetes, like Matt?” I wondered. Matt was my best friend growing up. He was better looking, dated prettier girls and wore cooler clothes. Now he had a cooler disease. His had to do with blood sugar, so he kept with him a neat diabetes kit with glucose meters and a supply of insulin shots. Mine had to do with diarrhea, so I carried around a pocketful of toilet paper. Even the name diabetes sounded cooler, strong, like a Greek warrior, while Crohn’s was basically “groan” combined with “corn”.
Number two is my drug addiction. Because of the chronic diarrhea, my twenties were spent tucked away in various studio apartments, wearing pajama bottoms and watching TV. I couldn’t stray far from the toilet, but I needed something to fill the gaping hole once reserved for a social life. That something was opiates. I didn’t even know what they were until age twenty-three, when I had my first root canal, but once I got a taste I spent the next fifteen years hunting them down, like an obsessed detective. Nothing else mattered—friends, romance, hygiene; nothing. I thought about painkillers all day long. I dreamt about them at night. Sometimes I looked at pictures of them on the internet, gazing the way a detective might while browsing through a cold case file, remembering his days as a rookie, just starting out.
Far worse than bowel disease or opiod abuse, however, was my insufferable hair—number three on my list of defining characteristics. I had never seen straighter hair on another living thing, human or animal—and that’s not an exaggeration. I had seen straighter hair on a tennis ball, one that was old and deflated and had been smacked so many times that it was nothing but stray threads of fabric hanging onto a beaten-down nub of its former self, the word “Wilson” barely legible in faded pink print.
Even at its fullest, my hair was a thin and feathery bulb around my face, a helmet made of milkweed. As a kid in the early eighties, this was acceptable—anyone with straight hair under the age of ten had the same pageboy hairdo. But as bodies matured, hairstyles followed—for most, that is. Toward the end of grammar school my friends began parting their hair, some even combing the sides back. I watched with envy as long, swooping waves took shape on their heads. Hair hung freely above their eyes and feathered out the back, while mine remained dull and unresponsive, falling straight down, like a blanket you’d drape over a birdcage. The only time my hair obeyed was when it was soaking wet, right after a shower. Those five minutes were glimpses into a better life. The steam would clear and I’d stand there, comb in hand, ready to mold my hair into whoever I wanted to be: Patrick Swayze, Michael J. Fox—the possibilities were endless.
I held onto the pitiful hope that it would dry that way, but of course it never did. One by one the strands popped back into their natural place. By the time I arrived at school my hair was the same lifeless pelt it always was. It was like a clown punching bag, the kind that are weighted at the bottom—every time you knock it down it just bounces back up, mocking you with that evil clown smile.
One Saturday a friend and I took the train into Boston to visit a rock n’ roll paraphernalia shop called Stairway to Heaven. As we walked through the Commons I saw a homeless man, asleep on a blanket. What struck me wasn’t the rancid smell, or the urine stain on his pant leg, or the gangrene on his toes, but rather his hair. It was a thick, elegant mane, long and dark and just the right amount of oily. I was amazed at how it stayed naturally back while the sides clung to his face in these lazy, seahorse-shaped curls. The symmetry and curvature were perfect, and it occurred to me that mortal hands were not capable of creating such beauty. “So unfair,” I said, cursing God, thinking how I’d give anything to trade places with this homeless man. “Some people are just blessed.”
As a dainty twelve year old with a head like a dandelion, I was nervous about entering junior high. I’d be mixed in with hundreds of other kids, new faces from different districts, some a lot meaner than mine. To survive I’d need to toughen up my image, so that summer I sought counsel from Eddie Mahoney, an older boy who’d gone to my elementary school. He was the bad seed, the kid your parents warned you about. He smoked cigarettes, wore denim jackets and rode a stolen BMX bike. He also had blonde hair that was silky in texture, parted nicely down the middle, and by some miracle stayed tight at the sides and didn’t bulge out like mine. His mullet had a natural taper and even curled up slightly at the bottom. I could learn a thing or two from this guy.
Eddie had already graduated from junior high and was keen on the etiquette, certain customs like how one should dress and what music they should listen to. “Aerosmith, AC/DC…” he said, counting off his fingers. “Polo shirts, Capezio shoes, Girbaud jeans…what else…Dep styling gel…Drakkar cologne...”
“Wait—go back,” I said. “Before Drakkar. Styling gel? What is that?”
And that’s how I discovered hair product: from Eddie Mahoney, the neighborhood bully.
That afternoon I rode my bike to CVS and bought my first bottle of Dep styling gel. It cost $2.99 and came in three pastel colors—green, yellow and pink, like dish soap. The colors had no real significance, only to suggest that with this product came the promise of a certain lifestyle. One that was exclusive to Miami or Los Angeles.
I spent thirty minutes each morning working with the gel, forcing a part into my hair and slicking back the sides. I slathered it on by the handful, sometimes molding individual locks to fashion the perfect bend. Then I’d napalm the entire area with my sister’s Aqua Net hairspray. The sides stayed back okay, but the top looked like a steeple made of dry wicker. When I finished, my hair was crisp and painful. It made a crunching sound when I raised my eyebrows, like tiny bones being squished under a shoe. Often I experienced headaches from the strain of the follicles trying to free themselves from bondage.
It wasn’t pretty, but it got me close to where I wanted to be, and that was Top Gun. When I first saw that film it was like meeting an older brother who’d been kept secret my whole life. Tom Cruise’s fighter pilot was the “best of the best”—exactly the kind of male role model I needed. My father wasn’t really doing the trick, what with his fiery temper, sock holders and Oldsmobile Cutlass. Cruise’s character was cool and dangerous, tan and physically fit. He had jet-black hair that was combed up and over to the side, which—more importantly—always looked wet, like he’d just stepped out of the shower.
I brought the movie’s VHS case to Burt, the seventy-year old barber who had cut my hair since I was a child. “Whatever you can do to make it like this,” I said.
He stared at it blankly. “Like military?” he said in his French accent.
“Not regular military,” I said. “This guy rides a motorcycle. He plays beach volleyball.” I scratched my head, frustrated by the cultural barrier. “Have you not seen this movie?”
Burt nodded as though he understood, and then gave me a crew cut. When I got home I shut myself in my bedroom until my father came and got me for dinner. “I don’t understand what you’re so upset about,” he said from behind the door. “At least now you look like a normal person.”
No response. “Son?”
I heard him, but I didn’t feel like talking. It would take at least two months for my hair to grow back to Top Gun length.
I sat and stared out my window for the rest of the night.
My family wasn’t sure what to make of my hair obsession, but once I started dressing in the Top Gun outfit they showed concern, or at least their version of it. “It’s not healthy for a boy your age to worry about this kind of crap,” my mother said, this after my sister’s boyfriend gave me a pair of used cowboy boots. “Have you seen yourself? You look like an idiot.”
“If you’re referring to the cowboy boots, they were a gift. And, if you must know, a lot of kids my age wear them.”
“Yeah, in Wyoming,” my mother said.
I shook my head, sighed and put on my aviator sunglasses. “Whatever,” I said. “I’m going to Joey’s for dinner.” Then I slid into my fur-lined bomber jacket and walked out into the stifling August afternoon.
It takes a certain mix of courage and delusion to dress exactly like a movie character on any day other than October 31st, and even more when it’s the first day of ninth grade. Had the Top Gun clothes fit properly it might have been less humiliating as I set foot into my new high school, but as it was I looked clownish. The quart of gel in my hair had begun to melt and run down my cheeks. The aviator sunglasses made no sense, given that the school was indoors. My spindly legs were lost inside my jeans. The bomber jacket hung flat from my narrow shoulders. And since the cowboy boots were a size too big I couldn’t walk in regular strides and instead cross-country skied over the linoleum, afraid to lift my feet, like a child playing dress-up in high heels.
“You are so cool,” said one twelfth-grade girl, applauding as I shuffled down the school’s main corridor. Though this was the desired response, I didn’t think people would actually say it aloud to me. Or line up and cheer, as many of the others did when I walked by.
In 10th grade I got an after-school job bagging groceries at Star Market. “Good. Now you’ll understand the value of a dollar,” my father said. He was right. With my own money came independence. The days of nine-dollar haircuts with Burt were over. I took my first paycheck and went to the fancy hair salon in the center of town.
“Wow, this is straighter than Asian hair,” said Tina, one the stylists, as she ran her hand across my head. “Yours isn’t just straight but extremely fine, and it grows in two different directions. On this side your hair grows straight down, but over here it actually grows outward. See? That’s why the sides are uneven. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“There must be something you can do,” I said. “How can I get from this,” I pointed to my lampshade hair, “to this,” I said, holding up a copy of Us magazine. It was open to a picture of Tom Cruise, standing behind a bar, tossing a bottle in the air—a still frame from the movie Cocktail. After that first day of high school I decided to move on to another Tom Cruise film, one with more mainstream hair and wardrobe.
“Well, he gets his hair permed,” Tina said. “It’s obvious. Look at how straight his hair is here,” she said, referring to the inset photo from Top Gun. “In Cocktail his hair is wavy. It’s just not natural, these two hairstyles. This one is a perm, no doubt about it.”
A light shone in the darkness. “Can I get a perm?” I said.
“Sure,” she said, rifling through my hair some more.
“It won’t be curly though, right?”
Tina shook her head. “For this we’ll do a body wave, which is like a perm but the curlers are bigger and looser.”
This sounded like a miracle cure, what I’d been searching for since third grade.
“We’ll need to wait a little while, though,” Tina continued. “Your hair has to be long enough for the curlers, or else it could come out kinky.”
I made an appointment for the following month and began the countdown.
The next day I told my friend Jason about the perm. He was a cashier at Star Market, and we often took our breaks together. We had common interests, like acting, and Tom Cruise, and hair. Not just our hair, but hair in general. A lot was happening in the industry. Where the eighties had gel, mousse and aerosol hairspray, the nineties reintroduced pomade to the world and gave birth to a new class of product that included wax, fiber, paste, and molding clay. It was an exciting time to be alive.
Jason’s hairstyle was straight but full, and able to hold a decent part down the side. I would have gladly traded an internal organ for his hair, but he was bored with it. He was always trying new looks, never quite content with any of them. Some days he wore it straight down and in his eyes, like a surfer. Other days it was gelled up into a messy pompadour and held back with a bandana around his forehead, a look that fell somewhere between 21 Jump Street and Color Me Badd. Each hairstyle came with its own distinct persona: straight down was the Southern California dude; gelled up with the bandana was the suave and urban white gangsta, a look that seemed out of place when you factored in the blue Star Market smock and the cash register.
Earlier, Jason had mentioned he was at a crossroads with his hair. He felt the pompadour look was too “Top 40” and was searching for something more sophisticated, something that required less product and maintenance. As inspiration he cited scenes from two movies that best represented his ideal look. That’s how particular Jason was—it wasn’t just so-and-so from some movie, it was so-and-so’s hair in this one specific moment. The first was Keanu Reeves in Point Break, near the end, after he jumps out of the airplane and rescues Tyler. “That’s it—that’s the hair I want. Right there,” Jason said, pausing the video as Tyler runs into Johnny Utah’s arms. The second scene was in Days of Thunder, also near the end, when Tom Cruise sits in his trailer preparing for his final race and tells Nicole Kidman that he doesn’t know how to do anything but drive. The latter was the most elusive. To Jason, the Days of Thunder hair was one of the great natural mysteries in the modern world.
When I told him about Tina and the miracle cure, he scratched his chin. Dubious. Cautiously optimistic. But his eyes were sparkling.
“A perm?” he said. “That’s not for girls?”
“Technically it’s a body wave,” I said. “A lot of guys get them. Tina said that Tom Cruise’s hair in Cocktail is a perm. She could tell right away.”
From his pocket Jason pulled a folded-up page torn out of People magazine. It was Tom Cruise in his Days of Thunder racing jumpsuit. Not the specific scene Jason referenced, but close. “Can she make my hair like this?” he said.
“I think you need to pick up the phone and call her,” I said, grinning, my mouth full of potato chips.
Jason scheduled his perm for the same Saturday as mine. We went to the salon together, on the bus, each with seventy bucks—money we had earned working part time at a supermarket, money that was now being spent on perms.
My appointment was first. Jason sat in the waiting area while Tina led me to her chair. She wet my hair with a spray bottle, combed it out, flattened it between her fingers and rolled it into curling rods. Once the curler was tight against my scalp, almost painfully so, she snapped it into place with a barrette-like latch. This is really happening, I thought, watching my head sprout with curlers.
Tina passed the time by talking about her boyfriend, a landscaper named Tony. In his spare time he fixed cars, so he always smelled like engine oil. I asked if she cut his hair, and she said no, Tony buzzed it himself. He didn’t care about the way he looked. I pictured him as a tough, quiet guy with calloused hands, never talking about his feelings, if he even had any. A real man’s man.
“Okay, let’s get you over to the hair dryer,” Tina said, leading me to the room with the plastic head bubbles, where I sat between two middle-aged women.
Once I was settled, Tina went to the waiting room for Jason. As they walked back Jason looked over at me—my hair in curlers, my head under a plastic dryer, perm solution collecting at my temples. He nodded at me, but his expression was blank. Fearful, even. I set down my copy of Marie Claire and gave him a reassuring thumbs-up.
Twenty minutes later Jason entered the room of plastic head bubbles, his hair now coiled into dozens of tight rods. He took the last available dryer, still with that despondent look on his face. He sat next to a woman who I’m quite certain was my third grade music teacher, Mrs. Averick. She kept glancing over, trying to figure out how she knew me. I lifted my magazine—by then I’d moved onto Cosmopolitan—and shielded my face with it.
A buzzer went off and Tina brought me back to her chair, where she removed the curlers, washed my hair and then blew dry it. I couldn’t believe what I saw in the mirror. My hair was curlier than I expected, but it looked natural, even the part on the side that Tina created. There would be no more globs of perfume-scented product, no more stiff, crunchy, jagged edges, no more cowlicks popping up throughout the day. Now I was equal. Normal. The person I’d always wanted to be. “I love it,” I said to Tina in the mirror. Then I turned back to her. “Thank you.”
Afterward, Jason and I waited at the bus stop, staring at our reflections in the glass. Jason was solemn. His hair came out even curlier than mine. Maybe it hadn’t grown out enough to perm, or maybe the curling rods were left in longer, but he looked like a French poodle. “Tina says the curls will relax in a few days,” I said, cheerfully. But Jason said nothing. He just turned his head from side to side, studying this new alien hairstyle, his face growing more hopeless with each rotation.
The bus came and we boarded. The passengers stared at us. At first I thought they were in awe of our hair, but by the end of the ride I realized we stank of hydrogen peroxide. If I could smell it that meant the others could smell it tenfold. A man in front of us had to cover his mouth with his hand.
We both wore baseball hats for the first three days back at school. On Thursday we made a pledge to take them off, convinced that enough time had passed for the curls to loosen up and not be so noticeable. Our first class on Thursday morning was theater arts, which we were both in together. The class was predominantly female, so we figured it was a safe place for trying out bold hairstyles. The logic was that girls were more sensitive and understanding when it came to image makeovers.
“Did you guys get your fucking hair permed?” said Katie Hanley as she entered the auditorium with a group of friends.
“No,” I said, defensively, while Jason slid down in his seat.
Class started with improv exercises. The teacher called a few students to the stage. “We need a guy up here, too.” He looked for us but didn’t recognize the two curly heads in the back row. “Jason? Danny? You two look different.”
“They got perms!” someone screamed.
“Can they do a rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water?” someone else blurted out. “They can be Garfunkel and Garfunkel.” The class erupted in laughter, along with the teacher, who took a while to regain his composure.
As it turned out, the girls at school were merciless in their ridicule. They called us “curlicue” and “pubic head”, and when they laughed it wasn’t just a chuckle, it was a ferocious, knee-slapping belly laugh, the kind that brings tears to the eyes. “A fucking perm!” they screamed, holding their stomachs, spittle spraying from their mouths.
The boys, on the other hand, didn’t even notice. Some gave me a second look and asked if I got a haircut. “Just trying some new mousse,” I’d say, pointing at my hair, which was straight as a pencil three days ago and now looked like Michelangelo’s David. A couple guys asked outright if got a perm, to which I’d respond, snobbishly, “It’s a body wave.” And they’d just shrug and move on to something else.
As the curls relaxed, so did my classmates’ interest. After two weeks my hair had settled into a more natural-looking, wavy state. The Cocktail hair, precisely what I had wanted. It seems odd to feel so complete just because your hair has a natural wave, or a part down the side—traits that so many others take for granted, like a healthy bowel movement, or an evening glass of wine.
Two months later and all that remained of the perm was a lazy sweep at the bangs and a nice bend around my ears. Another two weeks and the perm had disappeared completely. But its ghost was there. I felt it in moments of insecurity and teen angst, those desperate episodes of youth when you feel left out and unpopular: the big party you don’t get invited to, or the teenage crush who won’t even smile back. This is the agony of adolescence that seems like it will never end. Those were the times the ghost of my perm would whisper to me, loud enough so only I could hear:
“Don’t worry, Danny,” it said. “Nothing lasts forever. Not even permanents.”
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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