THE VICTORIANS KEPT locks of their deceased loved ones’ hair in lockets. I remember picking through my mother’s jewellery box, slow and careful as an archaeologist, and finding a curl of silk blonde tied with a thin red ribbon—hair from my first haircut, still as wick as it was twenty-three years ago. I could die and my mother would still have that part of me, as the rest of my body rots away or combusts. You can buy antique hair lockets online now—you can own a piece of someone long dead, long decomposed, a little piece of them immortalised behind glass and hung around your neck.
The cells that grow hair are stem cells, the same ones that regrow skin in the event of a wound. Hair itself is protein, keratin, like your nails. (Once I found a mutant hair in my shoulder that was like a nail clipping poking out of my skin. I pulled it out painlessly.) The only living part of it is the follicle, which is why it hurts to wax your legs but not to shave them; why it feels good when your lover tugs on your hair and feels like nothing when a stranger slices it off.
When I brush my hair now, I end up with a kind of loose fur collar, a halo of hairs around my neck. I am responsible for the majority of the hair population in the bathroom. I know they are mine because my hair is bleached on the ends, so when they are separated from the mass they are distinctive—brown on one tip and vanishing towards the other.
I think about all the information in a hair. Not just its colour and texture (brown and black camouflaged by numbers, red and blonde a pointing finger) but the genetic code, the markers of a person. In Gattaca it’s an eyelash that gives Ethan Hawke away. At work, I idly glance up, and somehow there is a hair clinging to a fluorescent light; I’ve been here.
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