I’m Not Gangster, My Head Is Just Cold.

Sometimes I dream about hair. I don’t mean in the standard dream way where, through some marvel of anthropomorphism, I find myself fleeing from a gurgling monster whose arms, legs, and face are made of tousled, matted hair. Neither do I find myself swimming in boundless oceans of voluminous tresses. (I’d prefer the Abominable Hair Monster dream, all things considered.) My hair-dreams center on my own hair, on my own head, which disappeared a hair shy of a decade ago.

As dreams are wont to do, the hair I have in them is always outlandish. There’s nothing practical about it. Before I was bald, I kept my hair as plain as I kept my sandwiches. Nothing fancy; just a trim, hold the styling gel. I’d sooner experiment with matches and gasoline than try out a fresh hair cut. Before my tenth birthday I flaunted an exceptional bowl cut. Afterwards I opted for the more pragmatic crew cut. Nevertheless, my subconscious insists that dream-state Ryan requests a pompadour-mullet hybrid á la Steve Harrington when he visits the barbershop.

I wonder if other men, men who still have their hair, ever dream about it. Do they find themselves sometimes before a mirror in their dreamscapes, admiring the new, formidable hair-do that spontaneously sprouted from their scalp? If they normally wear their hair in a bouffant quiff, do they ever find their dream persona sporting a crew cut? A pony tail? Better yet, do they ever see their hair thinning? Notice a receding widow’s peak? Plain bald?

If they do, then I bet they don’t tell anyone about it. They’d sooner relate the erotic dreams involving their mothers-in-law than admit that, now and then, they appear in their own mind with a shining, fleshy head. Knock their teeth out, gouge their eyes to pulpy goo with coat hangers, but for the love of all things holy, don’t take away their hair.

I was fifteen — a sophomore in high school— when it was brought to my attention that I might be losing my hair. Hunched over a lab table with a measly worksheet that was supposed to explain some stage of cellular mitosis, I glanced up at the clock and mopped my palm over my forehead and through my hair. My friend, Keane, sat opposite me and had busied himself with converting his worksheet into a supersize paper football. He watched me wipe the intellectual sweat from my brow.

“Whoa,” he murmured. He halted his project mid-fold to gawk.

“What? Can you see down her shirt again?” I asked of a well-endowed classmate who sat behind me. Keane was the type of guy who couldn’t help but to point that sort of thing out the way that a Freudian might identify a phallus in every passing cloud.

“No, man,” he said. “It’s your hair.”

“My hair?” I said and I swatted my head a handful of times. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Pull your hair back,” Keane said. “Like this.” He cupped his hand to the flesh above his eyebrows and pushed his dark, uneven bangs up, uncovering his hairline. I copied him, pushing the blonde strands away for him to get a closer look. Keane gasped and threw himself back in his seat as though he’d witnessed a nest of worms emerging from the braille-like cluster of zits that had relentlessly leased the space of my forehead for two years prior. I half expected him to reach out and smack at whatever pest had sought refuge on my unwitting scalp.

“Wow, man,” he said. “I can hardly believe it.” He shook his head in disbelief and looked me in the eye. “Your hairline is receding.” He spoke it under his breath the way you might inform someone that their fly is down, or that they have shit smeared on the hem of their shirt.

“No,” I said. I felt the heat bubbling in my cheeks and the prickle of perspiration in the pores of my forehead and my underarms. “It’s just my hairline. It’s like that.” Then, as a final defense, I added, “I have a widow’s peak.” That much was true.

Keane nudged a boy at the next table over. “Hey, Pete, get a load of this,” he said and he turned back to me. “Go on, Ryan. Show him.”

“I won’t,” I said.

“Come on, man. Don’t be that way. It’s for science.” He waved his cellular mitosis football in my face.

“No, goddamn it.” I stooped over the table and pretended to involve myself in studying.

“Show me what?” Pete said. He joggled his chair beside Keane with a sequence of sharp hip thrusts. “Did you get a picture down Vanessa’s shirt or something?”

“No, man,” Keane said. “Not that. Serious business here.” He looked over his shoulder to see that no one was eavesdropping, and then he lowered his voice to an almost inaudible register. “Ryan’s balding.”

Pete looked at me, and at my head, and back at Keane. “I don’t see it,” he said.

Keane sighed and nodded. “Show him your hairline, Ryan,” he said.

“I don’t want to.”

“But it’s for science,” Keane said. I smacked the triangle of paper from his hand before he could brandish it in my face again.

“Come on, man,” Pete said. “Just let me see. It’s probably not receding, really. Is it?” This he said with the same air of suspicion with which one might question a friend implicated in murder. “You didn’t really skewer those babies with fire irons…did you?”

Rather than posturing myself as an engaged student who simply could not be torn away from the gripping business of cellular division, I suffered the embarrassment of lifting my hair again for my coevals’ judgment with the hope that, on second viewing, they’d decide mine was as low and unrelenting as any other young man’s hairline. Perhaps, even, on review it would be decided that my hairline was far superior to that of any man on the planet; was, in fact, stampeding down my forehead like Carthaginian elephants and would soon blanket the topography of my face in thick, beastly hair.

Rather, after being exposed to my grim hairline, Pete also gasped and flung his weight back in his chair. I pressed my hair back down before anyone else could see and tried to focus my attention on classwork, convincing myself that my mounting anxiety had more to do with my scientific ineptitude than my premature hair loss, a feat made harder by the impromptu obituaries and eulogies Pete and Keane made for the doomed thatch growing from my head. I spent the remainder of the day finding reasons to keep my hand glued to the brim of my noggin lest anyone else notice my glaring deficiency.

It wasn’t until the solitude of my own bathroom that I lifted the wisps above my eyes and witnessed for myself the atrocity I’d been hosting for who knows how long. There it was. I knew what my hairline looked like. I saw it every morning as I toweled off in the mirror after a shower. But only now did I see it for what it was; that the semicircles of flesh above each temple were not an innocent pattern of my hair growth; that the widow’s peak stuck too far out from the peloton of my hair so that the whole thing was shaped like a snide arrow pointing to my bare, babyish face. One always hopes that profuse facial hair will mature long before the pattern of balding is manifest. Here I was, incapable of cultivating more than a thin layer of peach fuzz on my upper lip and a scalp that was systematically evicting the only tenants it had ever had.

I buzzed my head to a stubble a few months before I was allowed to buy alcohol. Probably, had I possessed the heedless sort of bravery common to other young men, I could have strode into a shabby liquor store and walked out with a bottle in a brown bag. People thought I was older than I was. That’s how it had always been, and the gap between my real and perceived ages was most sizable by early adulthood. When I was seven, I looked ten. When I was ten, I looked fourteen. When I was twenty, it was no longer a surprise for people to ask whether or not I had children. When I grew tired of politely mentioning that they’d mistaken me for being older than I was, I got in the habit of drawing up elaborate fabrications about my imaginary children. Most people were prepared to believe that I might reasonably have a toddler and a career but became reluctant when I went on to say that, although my son was born with advanced glaucoma in both eyes and couldn’t make out a spotlight if you aimed it right in his face, he got around just fine with the use of clicks and high-frequency screeches.

Alopecia might be more acceptable for men than for women, but a college-age man with thinning hair is akin to being the last tamale leftover after the office potluck. It’s not hot, and everyone would really rather pretend the thing isn’t there at all. Should Family Feud be taken as a reliable source of public opinion, the average American woman rates bald men at a one on a scale of ten for attractiveness. Were zero an option for selection, surely the rating would be reduced to a decimal. It’s no wonder that commercials advertising the cure for hair loss are so fraught with the desperation of middle-aged men who’ve gotten it into their heads that the quantity of hair they sport is part and parcel of their raison d’etre. These adverts give the impression that the slightest portent of balding puts a man at serious risk of losing both his wife and his right to a fair judgment before God. Between being completely ignored at best and, at worst, having my appearance likened to that of the Aryans, I couldn’t blame other men for being more afraid of balding than they were of economic collapse, the Taliban, and diabetes together.

There were, no doubt, benefits to being bald before I’d hit the quarter-century mark. I was “sir” to people who were a decade older than I was. I didn’t have to suffer the incessant snobbery of millenial-phobes who regularly mistook me as one of their own. Perhaps best of all, because baldness is routinely associated with villainy in television and movies, reticent, wary Ryan came to be perceived as a menacing brute of a man. Passive reverence is showered upon disquieting men, and after a lifetime of inferiority complex, I relished the repelling effect my appearance apparently possessed. Nevertheless, whenever the gleaming faces of Rogaine die-hards flashed across the tube with their renewed sense of belonging and self-assurance, all the insecurities I’d worked to suppress reared their hideous mugs, each one with a full, flattering head of hair.

I’ve entertained the idea of purchasing a hair regrowth formula, but not so much for my head. Somehow my chest never got the memo to sprout much hair. Patches of pathetic looking hair arrived in my early twenties and have worked tirelessly to colonize my pasty chest, and have recently succeeded in uniting the left and right sides. My chest hair, it seems, possesses the type of acumen that one might someday hope to see in politics. Take note, representatives.

The hair on my head is gone, sleeping with the fishes, taking the big sleep. Rogaine markets to middle-aged men who’ve noticed a decline in their hair growth. They’ve still got it, it’s just not coming in quite as thick or luxuriant. “Boast a head of hair like you had when you were a young man!” the ads trumpet. I am a young man. They’re talking to men who wish to have hair like they did when they were my age. What hope is there for me? “Can regrow up to 25% of your hair!” Yes, well, as it happens, a twenty-five percent increase on zero is still zero. That’s the type of problem solving I went to school for.

How awfully I feel for these men. Here is a sizable population of men who’ve accepted their hair as part of their identity. Surely at some point or another they’ve mocked men like myself stricken with baldness. Surely at some point they’ve equated baldness with inadequacy, or repulsiveness. No wonder they fly into such a frenzy when the flesh creeps a little higher on their head than it ordinarily does. What is the comb-over but a panicked attempt to divert the cruel claws of tonsorial fate? No one ever thought that a fashionable decision. It’s the damage control of hairdressing. It’s the Bill Clinton of hair-dos. Everyone knows what’s really going on behind the scenes. Just be honest about it, already.

As it turns out, being bald isn’t quite as bad as the hair-loving hordes make it out to be. For one, hygiene is simpler. My average shower time is at an all-time low. “Bad hair day” is no longer part of my vocabulary. Should I ever be forced to live under the same roof as a child, I won’t have to worry about removing bubblegum that has fused into my silky strands. The only price I’ve had to pay is suffering an icy noggin more often, which is remedied by any clothing with a decent hood. It might make me look like a wannabe gangster to conservative fashionistas, but that’s none of my business. I’m not trying to be gangster — my head is just cold.

I suppose I also have to pay the price of being the lifelong butt of Mr. Clean jokes. That isn’t all bad. I’d rather roll my eyes at trite jabs than hang my equanimity on the quantity and quality of growth covering my scalp. I might be a loser, but I’m not vain. My dignity is one of the few things I still have going for me. And, last I checked, Rogaine hasn’t made a formula for regrowing that. Not yet, at least.

I’ve come to accept baldness as one of those things that is just here to stay, like social aversion and laziness. There doesn’t seem to be any point to trying to change it, especially if changing it means I have to accept that there’s something wrong with me in the first place (which I’ve always refused to admit). I don’t miss my hair, but sometimes wonder how I’d wear it if I had the option. Probably I’d still shave it bald. Because I’m lazy, and I’m plain. It’s only my dream self who isn’t those things. In my dreams I’m hardworking and charismatic. I also have money.

I chalk it up to the hair.

Modern Beatnik. Unyielding cynic. Irate writer. Dog scratcher. Gamer nerd. Insatiable recluse. You can cut my head off, but you will never shave my beard.