illustration by Joe Ciardiello
It was supposed to be our secret. My hairdresser claimed to possess a special elixir that could subtly, naturally, almost undetectably “blend away” gray hair, which, at 45, I had a touch of. Sitting before the mirror in her chair, uncertain whether to start the masquerade, I examined my head in a way I shied away from when I was alone at home without support. I looked at myself from angles I wasn’t used to, discovering that the gray was more extensive than I’d been willing to admit.
Instead of threading its way between the darker hairs, it had consumed whole sectors of my head, especially on the sides and in the back. It was advancing the way frost does, or mold.
“I suggest we leave some in,” my hairdresser said. “Just enough to make you look distinguished.” I nodded, but that last word did not sit well with me. It sounded exactly like what it was: another way of saying “old.”
Every month for seven years, this conversation, or some version of it, was repeated. The world moved along, the seasons changed, but my hair stayed the same or approximately the same. Toward the end of each color cycle, my natural color—or lack of it—would reassert itself, a bit more conspicuously each time, forcing me deeper and deeper into fraudulence.
My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, began to argue—mildly at first but increasingly emphatically—that gray hair looked terrific on men my age. For evidence, she pointed to various luminaries who looked terrific no matter what. George Clooney. Anderson Cooper. They were the silver all-stars, and I hated them. I hated them not for their age-defying male beauty but for their ability to accept themselves.
In the short story “The Mask” by French writer Guy de Maupassant, a rakish man about town who loves the nightlife collapses at a dance. While attempting to revive him, a doctor notices that his patient is wearing a lifelike youthful mask. The doctor cuts it off with scissors, revealing the man’s white hair and wrinkled face.
I’d read this story when I was young, along with similar tales of postponed decrepitude such as The Picture of Dorian Gray. Their gloomy common message seemed to be that when it comes to signs of aging, you can run but you cannot hide—and that the longer you attempt to run, the worse the final reckoning will be.
My hairdresser seemed to disagree: Her faith in modern products was that strong. And so was mine, until six months ago, when my hairdresser tried a stronger potion, convinced that the old one would no longer suffice.
The results were disastrous. Denying that your hair is gray gets easier, but denying that it’s green is difficult. I managed the feat anyway, temporarily. The bathroom mirror told me something was wrong, which I decided was its—the mirror’s—fault.
I avoided it.
What I couldn’t avoid was the mirror in the makeup room of a late-night TV show I appeared on. My hair had become the color of an Army uniform. The makeup woman said nothing. She only frowned, but my teenage daughter was not so kind. “Your hair is all weird,” she said one afternoon, in the pitiless light of 4 p.m.
My wife broke her diplomatic silence then. “It’s green,” she said. “And not a subtle green.” As if there could be such a thing. I’d hoped there was.
The process of coming out as a gray was not, in fact, a process but an event, a little like a first weigh-in at a diet clinic after a decade spent eating chili cheeseburgers. While walking the streets one moody evening, I decided to stop at a beauty shop on a random block in downtown Missoula, Montana, where I was teaching. I walked into the shop and stood beside the chair of a gray-haired cosmetician with a pompadour. I let my head tell the story; I didn’t speak.
He showed me with a gesture to a sofa by the men’s room, where I sat for an hour, awaiting emergency treatment. When the time came, I said, “Don’t try to save it. Shave it.”
Day by day and week by week, my new old hair grew in and grew longer, obliging me to confront, with awful clarity, a general grayness that startled even me. Time had accelerated under the mask, just as the great writers had said it would. Worse, I began to detect in those around me changes in how they viewed me, treated me. My students in the graduate-school writing program at the University of Montana asked me about authors of 40 years ago as though I might have known them personally. My wife ran her fingers through my hair more often, almost as though she were checking if it would stay on.
One morning, my teenage daughter asked me to change a black T-shirt that I’d obtained at a rock concert that month for a light blue oxford button-down she had spied hanging in my closet. Grumpily, beaten down, I put it on. “That looks a lot more appropriate,” she said.
The keenest humiliation of all, the one that at last compelled me to accept myself, occurred at a New York City sandwich shop. After taking my order, one of the girls behind the counter asked if she could ask me something. Being asked if you’re willing to be asked a thing is always a bad sign; I instantly stiffened.
“What?” I grunted.
The girl, who appeared to be 18 or so, followed with something like: “It’s not that I think you look old or anything, but when was doo-wop? Do you remember? Doo-wop music? When was that? The ’60s? The ’50s?” It just got worse. “The ’40s?”
“Late ’50s, early ’60s,” I said coolly, wondering if I was being paranoid. Did the girl really think that I’d been on the scene then, or did she merely find me professorial, a man who appeared to be rich in general knowledge?
“That must have been so cool,” she said. “Walking around hearing singing on all the corners!”
I’ve grown into my gray hair since then. I’ve had to. The celebrity “silver foxes” (to use my wife’s term) don’t irritate me as profoundly as they used to. On my good days, I even count myself as one of them, convinced that my color shift has revealed in me a certain mischievous élan that was veiled before. When asked by my juniors about the distant past—about doo-wop and the like or whether I ever met Flannery O’Connor—I reply with an overemphatic cheerfulness, as though the questions are patently absurd but I am too seasoned and comfortable with myself to take offense, at anything.
The hard part is when I’m alone, out on the street, and glimpse a male stranger who looks fully as old as I once pretended not to be. Is that how I appear to others now? I try not to think about it. I let it go.
I let my old hairdresser go too. I avoid her now—I still can’t face her. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been seeing other scissors, or perhaps it’s because I don’t want to embarrass her. In the highest tradition of her profession, she attempted to do the impossible and failed.
But she’s young. She’ll get over it. I won’t even try.