“Kate” by Alex Brown

Alex story pictureOn Saturday morning, Kate texts me telling me to come to her house at noon. i want to have this small amount of control before i lose even that, she says in the messages. that’s all i want.

can you bring your camera?

At 11:58, I arrive at Kate’s house, or rather, her parent’s house. It’s painted sky-blue with a weedy, flowering yard. The day is hot and quiet — May is just shifting into June. When I knock on her door, she answers and pulls me inside by the hand through the house, cool and dim, to her bedroom. Nicole is already sitting on a chair at Kate’s desk.  

“Hey Matt,” she says.

Nicole is Kate’s childhood best friend turned adolescent accomplice — you cannot know Kate without knowing Nic, or vice versa. Nicole is a year older than us, she graduated last year. She goes to the local community college now and studies something like sociology.

The floor is covered in a quilt-like arrangement of several towels, and noise rock is playing from Kate’s laptop speakers, some internet-discovered garage band. Sitting next to the laptop on her bed is the electric razor, a hand mirror, and a pair of large orange craft scissors.

“Nicole already braided my hair,” Kate says, pulling the braid through her fingers. A hospital bracelet and embroidery-thread friendship bracelets slide down her wrists. “So we can just chop it off.”

“Where’s your mom?” I ask.

“Work,” she says. Still running her hands over her hair, she begins pacing around the square of towels.

“You don’t want her to be here for this?” I ask.

“I don’t really care,” Kate says. “She knows I’m doing it anyway. This nurse talked to us about it last week.” She drops her hands to her sides. “I just want it to be my two best friends.”

“Sure, of course.” I sit on the edge of the bed, take my camera out of my bag, and start changing the settings.

Kate’s room has changed a little since I’ve last been here. An armament of orange pill bottles is gathered on Kate’s bedside table, and she’s added to the posters, ticket stubs, photographs, and notes that are taped to the unpainted white walls. They lift and shuffle in the air of the open window.

“Let’s do this,” Kate says. “I’m sick of this, I’m—”  

As if to make a point, she pulls a few hairs off of her shirt and floats them down to the floor.

The noise rock continues to drone from the laptop. Kate drops a pillow from her bed, strands of her hair already clinging to the peach-colored pillowcase, on the middle of the towel patchwork. She kneels almost ceremoniously, her head bent down as if in prayer. Nicole picks up the scissors and the hand mirror.

“You’re sure, right?”

“Yes,” Kate says. “Now. The nurse said ten days and it’s been eight. I don’t want to wait too long.”

“Okay.” Nicole kneels behind Kate. “Come sit over here, Matt,” she says. “Take pictures.”

Nicole’s got the craft scissors poised at the nape of Kate’s neck. I take a photo.

“Go,” Kate says.

Nicole begins closing the scissors around Kate’s braid. The shhkk sound of the hair being severed feels calm and final. Kate’s hair is thinner now than it was a week ago, but the cutting still takes effort. I take another photo.

 

I met Kate in band in freshman year. She played second clarinet until she left school a few weeks ago. I play first clarinet — she used to get pissed at me for that. We started hanging out before and after football games, drinking styrofoam cups of her favorite drink, cold milky cinnamon-rice horchata, from tiny shack-like Mexican restaurants. She loves reading the beat-up discarded paperbacks she collects from her volunteering job at the library and gifts to me whatever she finishes or finds too bad to finish. She introduces me to other people as Matt, who I am explicitly not dating.

 

With a final snip, the braid is entirely separated. Nicole had enclosed the braid at the top when she braided it, so now it is a neatly gathered segment of hair, like sweetgrass braided for burning. She lays it on the floor beside them. I move to take a close-up picture of the braid against the towels.

Kate laughs a little and shakes her head a few times, the remaining hair fanning out into a sort of bob. I keep taking photos of her. “It feels so light,” she comments. She looks at herself in the hand mirror.

“Do you want to take a minute or keep going?” Nicole asks.

“Keep going, please.” Kate says.

 

I have a lot of photos of Kate from when we first started hanging out. I had just gotten my first camera and was tired of taking the same pictures, so I started taking pictures of her in all the places we would hang out. When her hair wasn’t shoved up under her hat in marching band it was long and spilled around her shoulders. In these past few weeks of panicked texts, terrifying uncertainty and long hours of silence where she would usually be asking to go somewhere with me or ranting about some now-trivial high school problem, the Kate I knew a year ago seemed almost fictional. It scared me that sometimes I wondered if she would ever be like that again.

The razor, when Nicole switches it on, lights up blue and is abrasively loud, tearing through the stillness and covering up the music. Kate and Nicole both seem more apprehensive now.

Nicole brings the razor to Kate’s scalp and curves it along her head, the hair falling away easily, some strands clinging to Kate’s shoulders. She does this a few more times and the bareness of Kate’s scalp starts to become visible, not completely smooth but blanketed in thin, short hairs like pencil sketches. I keep taking photos.

“Wait,” Kate says. “Can I do one?”
“Go for it,” Nicole says, switching the razor off and handing it over.

Nicole climbs around in front of Kate to hold the hand mirror, and the buzzing starts up again like the razor is a live wire. It scares all of us a bit, every time. “It’s like a lightsaber, right?” Nicole jokes over the buzzing.

Kate stares into the mirror as she clears a few sections of her own hair in slow sweeps of the razor. Every streak exposes more scalp, a phasing moon.

“Damn,” Kate says, breaking into a nervous grin. “Okay. I’ll let you do the rest.”

When Nicole finishes, Kate brushes the hair off her shoulders and shirt and stands up.

We follow her down the hall lined with family photos to the blue bathroom. Nicole and I are standing behind her when she faces herself in the mirror.

“Oh wow.” She rubs her head, touches her face.

“Oh, wow. Oh god.”

Her head is all translucent fuzz save for a few island-like patches where the medicine is already taking hold. She heaves a gasping breath, like she’s crying.

“Oh wow.” Then, she smiles. “Thank you.”

 

We spend the rest of the afternoon watching a movie in the blue dim of closed curtains. I take a few more photos of Kate, or of Kate and Nic together, and eventually put the camera away.

Kate takes a pill — Percocet, apparently — and says she’s going to sleep for a few hours.

“I’ll stay here,” Nicole says.

Kate says she’d like that.

I decide to leave, as long as that’s okay with Kate, and Kate says it is.

 

The sky is clouding over as I drive home. It’ll rain tonight. When I get home I start sorting through the photos on my computer, choosing which ones I’m going to send to Kate. I stop on one picture of Kate sitting on the floor looking up at me, in the few minutes of that day when she had the bob before Nic buzzed it. Being caught in the middle of the process, afraid but not wanting to stay there, seemed like a place Kate would find herself in most of the time now. I clicked through to the next photo, the peacefulness of the braid on the floor, a piece of Kate cut away, a piece of herself now changed, temporary yet permanent.

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