Columbia College | Columbia University in the City of New York
We hope you enjoyed the winners of CCT’s personal essay contest. Here are the two works chosen as Honorable Mentions, from James Vasco Rodrigues ’15, SOA’20 and Abigail Peters ’22.
By James Vasco Rodrigues ’15, SOA’20
During those hirsute halcyon days, my hair was a source of pride and occasional amusement. Dark brown and curly, like the rest of my family’s, it was thick as thatch and highly mutable. I have a distinct memory of my older sister standing behind me in the mirror, sculpting my hair with a brush into all kinds of fabulous shapes. It was, she would say, like some otherworldly material — no matter how ambitious her strokes, how outlandish her topiary ambitions, it seemed to hold its form.
In short, my hair was substantial, quick-growing and resilient. While some hated their hair, I saw mine as a boon. Always future-oriented, I began to value its hardiness as a safeguard against old age, an ace up my sleeve. I couldn’t imagine myself bald, and was relieved I didn’t have to — the older self of my dreams was sophisticated, debonair, with a touch of grey at the temples (on a bullish day he might even be played by George Clooney). I had sympathy for those with no hair (including my father), especially those young men who were bald or balding before their time. These poor souls I pitied in much the same way one might the victim of some horrible industrial accident; they were reminders of the random cruelty of the universe. I felt for them, but also felt lucky their plight wasn’t relevant to my life. It seemed the most fortuitous of breaks.
Then I turned 24, and everything changed. The harbinger of my doom, the executioner of my dreams, was a retired Uzbek pharmacist named Olga. After struggling to make ends meet in the world of Tashkent apothecary, she had moved to New York and become a barber at Raphael’s on First Avenue. She worked there for years in relative obscurity until, one chilly March morning, she took it upon herself to reduce my world to ashes.
The trim started like any other. We exchanged small talk, Olga told me of her children, I plied her with questions about the Korean-Uzbek community from which she came. Then, somewhere between feathering and the final fade, she delivered the fateful blow. My hair, she observed, was significantly thinner in the back than it was in the front. “What do you mean?” I asked, a lump in my throat. “It’s just thinner,” she said matter-of-factly, devastating in her detachment. A flash of panic arced across my mind. I needed reassuring. “Does that mean I’m going bald?” Olga shrugged. She was, she made it clear, no expert on the matter, merely a witness to my ruin. My interest in post-Soviet state collapsed faster than their erstwhile Union. I was suddenly consumed by another, more immediate concern.
Upon returning to my apartment, I undertook the logistically complicated and anatomically fraught step of photographing the back of my head. Despite many failed attempts, sustained effort yielded a result, though very much not the result for which I had hoped. In an instant, the economy of my self-worth went into crisis. Shares of “James’s future” and “being attractive” suddenly sold for cents on the dollar. In the midst of the selloff, it dawned on me that every image of my future had to be edited, the catalogues combed through, the pictures airbrushed. The prospect was too dire for words. It seemed unfair, an impossibility. What of the barbers? What of the heaps of curly hanks? What of my mother’s father?
Being a man of reason, I wasn’t ready to condemn my future before seeking the advice of a medical professional. And so I went to a dermatologist, secretly hoping for some alternate explanation. The doctor didn’t look much older than I. She asked if my father was bald. I answered honestly (yes). And his father? Again, honestly (yes). “But,” I stressed, sensing a line of questioning unsympathetic to my cause, “my maternal grandfather —” She assured me no additional information was necessary.
An iPad was produced and used to snap macro photos of my scalp. The doctor promptly disappeared; I fretted. She soon returned with cheery news. It was nothing to worry about, just Male Pattern Baldness. I feigned relief, was advised on courses of action, and was promptly ejected onto the sun-dappled shade of Central Park East. It was official; I would be bald. In that moment, faced with the gay flowerbeds of the city’s well-heeled clinicians, it seemed any other diagnosis would have been better.
With my fate sealed, I entered what some might call a funk, others a depressive episode. In these dark days, every shower felt like a funeral. The thousands of hairs that ended up in the drain every evening made me wonder how there were any left on my head at all. I sought solidarity through online forums but found instead self-sorry elegies and boomtown quackery, a wretched realm of Calabans and carpetbaggers. I tried remedies, some FDA-approved, some not. Nothing seemed to help; the shedding continued. My bald spot followed me everywhere, always on my mind. I took to wearing caps indoors, even when it was too hot or plainly rude. I arranged my seat self-consciously in a room so no one would be subjected to the back of my head. I raged. I rationalized. I became eagle-eyed in spotting my balding brethren: a connoisseur of the telltale signs of a retreating hairline, a toupee seam, tricks of the comb. And, feeling their pain, my heart went out to them.
The more I wallowed, the more it struck me that at the heart of my problem lurked an inescapable paradox. I hated the fact that I was losing my hair; but I hated even more how desperately I wanted to keep it, and how this want was powerless. I vigilantly monitored its disappearance, and sneered at my own vigilance. I did whatever I could to hide it, but felt shame in the hiding. I was constantly at war with myself. The opposing currents of these contrasting impulses formed a kind of maelstrom, an inner storm my ego had to navigate day in and day out.
I wanted more than anything to be unapologetically myself, but unmoored, caught between nature and will, I was increasingly unsure of who that self was. Surely, I thought, it couldn’t be a hairless me. Though I knew that letting nature take its course was the only way to freedom, doing so somehow felt like giving up — a capitulation that took with it my youth, my appearance, my relatability. Try as I might, I couldn’t help but feel I was losing some essential part of my identity. For months, I wrestled the angel. I tried to be optimistic about treatment. I knew I was fighting a losing battle, but what makes one fight harder than telling them theirs is a lost cause? Every look in the mirror I hoped for a miracle. More often than not, what I saw staring back was the question of who I really was — to myself, to others — and who I wanted to be.
Months turned into years, and as I fretted over my lost youth, it was slipping me by. I realized that my panic was out of step with my symptoms. I began to own up to my hair loss, to speak openly of it to others. In doing so, I learned that most people are less observant than I. Some people expressed shock, others hardly noticed or cared. My hair still falls out at a prodigious rate, and yet I still have more on my head than many. I started to come to terms with the fact that my future self will be more in line with Stanley Tucci than George Clooney. And that’s OK. After all, Tucci’s the better actor.
I am by no means out of the storm, but in weathering it I’ve acquired a better sense of myself, who I am under the surface, what I’m really made of. My metamorphosis has tested my courage, my self-regard and my empathy. I never would have thought that something so superficial would be a catalyst for such introspection, but the truth is my balding has rendered a change in me as much spiritual as physical.
I wouldn’t say I’m excited for my fate, but when it comes, I trust I’ll be ready. In the meantime, I’ve resolved to enjoy what hair I have while I have it. In quarantine I grew it until it shot not up and out but fell in springy tresses. And then, with the coming of the New Year, I shaved it all off. After fearing the exposure of a buzz cut for so long, I was finally ready to see the shape of my head — to have my balding pattern laid bare in the most uncertain terms — to have a trial with little to no hair.
So far, the buzz has been a dream. It’s low maintenance, practical, utilitarian. The hairs that fall out are hardly noticeable now; at least they don’t clog the drain. It’s been years since the rout at Raphael’s, but I’m OK with where I am. I’ve still got some years with my hair, and I plan to enjoy them. And when it’s gone, I’m no longer terrified of what might lie underneath, because I already know.
James Vasco Rodrigues ’15, SOA’20 is a writer, filmmaker, comedian, educator and Jeopardy! champion from New York. He earned a B.A. in Latin American history and an M.F.A. in film. He lives in Los Angeles, where he works in television and hosts an educational Twitch stream, WikiWithJames.
By Abigail Peters ’22
I thought girls called “Blossom” would sleep in the garden under the apple tree and always smell like roses. I used to gather the petals from the bush by the front door, soak them in warm tap water in old jam jars and line them up along the bottom of the airing cupboard. I meant to check on them, to get the perfume, but I put the jars too close to the boiler and they shattered. That summer I never smelt like roses, and I never slept under the apple tree. My fear of the dark was so paralyzing I couldn’t even sleep in my room without the light on.
Instead, my mum painted a mural of a tree above my bed and in the evenings, my cheeks burnt and knees grazed, my dad would carry me upstairs and stoop under my door frame, pull back the blankets and tuck them around me. Then, I would ask, every night, “Tomorrow, can I dye my hair pink?”
“Not tomorrow, but maybe one day.”
That summer I was still so small, and he was tall as ever. I thought he was a giant. Or some mythical creature made from an oak tree. His hands looked like bark, gnarled and twisted, so impossibly big against mine.
He never stopped smelling of the earth. I said that in the eulogy. I said, “Even after a bath he still smelt like grass. I never understood that; it seemed like it was inside of him.”
I was 14, my black shoes were giving me blisters and my dress stuck awkwardly to a body lumbered with the early transformation into a woman.
I threw a handful of dirt over his coffin because I saw it in a film, but I wanted to go down on my knees in the soft dirt, scratch and scratch at the ground, rub it all over my face. Put the earth inside of me and keep it there until it choked me, and I died, too.
I finally dyed my hair pink a month after he went back to the earth, but it didn’t come out right, so I cut it all off in the kitchen with meat scissors.
The changes began in the autumn I turned 9, when the trees sagged with the rain and my spine did, too, curved at the top to make myself smaller, an imposter in my own body. “Little legs,” Dad said when I came home from school crying because someone said I was made of pipe cleaners, “you’re so lovely, all of the time.”
“Maybe you’ll be a really great runner?”
“You know I can’t run. You remember Sports Day.”
He did remember Sports Day. When I came last in every single race and had a nosebleed because I tried to do the high jump but smacked my face on the side of the wall.
He had to come and take me home early and we walked through the village together. My nose dripped into a wad of paper towels as he held the ice pack against my cheek. He knew my hands got cold. His did, too, and by the time we got home his fingertips were blue.
“Well, maybe a dancer?”
I shook my head back and forth. “Nope. I can’t dance either.”
“Well, you can do lots of things; anything you want, little legs.”
“What if I keep growing and growing and I’m too tall to fit anywhere?”
“Well then, I’ll just have to cut you little holes in the ceiling.”
I thought I was going to be very tall; even averaged out with my mother’s height, my father was towering, a giant of a man, the gentlest.
Then, in the last year, as if by a wicked force of magic, he shrunk. His body shriveled up and I saw, lying down, in his pajamas, staring straight through me, that he wasn’t really that big after all. The shoulders that used to be expansive — a plane beneath his scratchy jumper for me to press my cheek against on late evenings, on the sofa, under our blanket — seemed barely wider than mine.
I didn’t keep growing. I’m not even that tall — a little more than average, maybe. I don’t know where all the height went, but I lost it somewhere. I know that lack of sunlight stunts growth. I know I missed about a year’s worth when he was dying. When I couldn’t go to school, couldn’t leave the house with that weight on me, could barely walk with it, so instead lay on my bed staring at the ceiling. Light came through the window, but I never opened it. I don’t think it’s the same through glass.
He had dementia. He was diagnosed on Boxing Day, when he collapsed in front of the TV while we were watching a movie. He woke up in hospital that icy December afternoon without a single solid memory from the last 15 years. He would die 17 months later, the frontal lobes of his brain riddled with disease.
I wasn’t allowed to see him until he came home. He walked in the door — he still remembered how legs worked then — and he smiled up at me, said, “Hello, my love,” and I smiled back because, of course, that couldn’t have really happened, because stuff like that only happened in TV shows, because it was Christmas, because he was my dad.
He looked to my mum and back to me and then said, “Are you lost, my love? Where are your parents?”
I ran out of the room and out of the house and up the path, into the field that had played stage to the best parts of my childhood. I threw my head back and screamed. I threw myself on the cold, wet ground, and put my fist in my mouth and bit down until it bled. I kicked and heaved and choked until I realized that he wasn’t coming back. Until I realized he had taken some part of me with him.
My mother would later ask me if a little part of me hated her.
“Why would I hate you?”
“Because I looked after him at home for all that time, because you had to see it all.”
“No, I don’t. Not even a little bit.”
Because, at the end of it all, I learnt some indescribable things; about love and devotion and myself.
There was a last moment.
It was August. I was 14. The swallows were making great arcs in the sky, the cat was wrapping itself around my ankles and I was standing next to the bed, something orchestral thrumming inside of me. The smell in the air, the one you’ll only know if you’ve ever watched someone die.
I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do, but I thought I should hold his hand because that seemed right.
Then, very slowly, his fingers moved around mine and he opened his eyes, then wider, and finally for the first time in 15 months, he said, “Abigail.”
My knees buckled and I slid to the floor, still gripping his hand. He said it again and again and it was the symphony, it was miraculous and perfect, and it was over as quick as it had started. His eyes fell shut again and I didn’t get up from the floor until Mum came in however longer later, lifted me up with long, delicate fingers, and guided me out of the room.
It wasn’t tragic, it was the least sad moment of all of it. It was an exhale against skin, it was the slow pull of the bow down the strings of the violin being played in the pit of my stomach.
I went into the garden and lay under the blossom tree and then, a few hours later, he was dead. I lay unmoving until dawn, a wasp buzzing around me and a fox screaming somewhere in the distance.
It’s nearly impossible to describe a life after death. Or becoming a woman in the shadow of it. The closest thing I can say is this. One day, you wake up. You go to the bathroom. You avoid the mirror because you know you’ll see your father’s face reflected in your own. You open the window, you look outside. You feel the sun.
Then, it hits you. Today you did not suspend yourself in the minutes between sleeping and waking where your father is still alive, and you are still a child and the summer is still so eternal. You opened your eyes; you could breathe without the weight of something pressing on your lungs.
A few months later, another summer, you realize that you haven’t cried in weeks. That you have been smiling so much your face, so used to stillness, has started to hurt. That you have started imagining the future again.
And so, it will go on, for years, the gradual unspooling of the thread.
I suppose the only way to understand the before, the after, and what had to change to survive it is to go right back to the start, the very first moment after I was pulled into the world and cleaned and placed in his arms.
He was staring down at me. Mum was filming it all on her big yellow camcorder, and I have seen the video so many times I have it memorized.
She zooms in on his face, then down to mine, over and over again, both of us staring at each other.
“I named her,” she says.
He doesn’t look away from me when he says, “You did?”
“I did. Abigail.”
“Lovely, that’s lovely.”
“It means father’s happiness.”
He looks up at her, stares right into the camera and smiles, then gently lifts me higher, until my little face is turned into his neck and he presses his cheek against the top of my head and says, “Abigail.”
Abigail Peters ’22 is a rising senior majoring in creative writing. She grew up in the English countryside and spent her childhood reading, which sparked her love of words. Her work often focuses on youth, family, love and grief, and she hopes to spend her life writing.