He always looked unruffled, so it was hard not to stare. Comparison was the most unremitting dungeon of my life. In this case, I’d only get over the habit when I learned more of his story, the hidden secrets of his passport, the suggestion that he belonged to no hometown.
I’d never been able to do anything with my own hair except messily cover my head. Lately the acreage of protection had shrunk, like holes in the ozone, but this stranger seemed perpetually cool. A bespoke Adonis. Someone who knew the hidden curves of space. When he walked into a room, his hair announced he was Don Juan—Byronic, easy to love and easy to lose. A flower you prized even if it didn’t ask to blossom.
We were living in an area east of East London, offset by some invisible line, a stigmatized gestalt that didn’t require any writ or formal exclusion. The neighborhood had a reputation for toughness. More than mere rumors, its brutality was confirmed by stabbings at nearby pubs. For decades, the place had honed its bitterness, those legends that might have served for civic pride as forgotten as youth.
My partner often quoted the locals: “England is a man sitting and Essex is his ass.”
This was my first year teaching full time. Rather than a position in middle-of-nowhere Oregon, a town of three hundred where even the photographs are forlorn, travel might help me bloom. Unless I got whacked first, a weed cut down.
The handsome stranger courted our school’s current Spanish teacher, a woman who proved that destiny can never be confined to facts. It was only two months into the year and they’d had to hire a replacement for la primera maestra, who’d discovered exits are the best way to break the pattern of weeks. Meanwhile, he worked as a teacher assistant, undistinguished for those tangled months except for his venerable mane.
One night he was attacked in town. Afterward, I started to have doubts about trading places with him, even if it meant abandoning the dream of gallant hair.
After an absence of three days, he returned. His locks were unchanged, though his face looked fresh from an amateur pottery class. He claimed he’d been thrashed by some local toughs. No one doubted him. Such altercations seemed inevitable when new people drummed into neighborhoods. Or felt trapped. Got pushed too hard with nowhere to deposit their anger.
The Spanish teacher told us Señor Hermoso had been with her three years. In that time, they’d settled—brief stints—in three countries. Time and miles convinced her all was well, but bad faith is the core of all secrets.
Wherever they were, he went out alone in the evenings. Locally, this fact hurt his chances of living unscathed, but it did little to pique her curiosity.
Truth came to a head a few weeks later when the handsome stranger disappeared for good. The Spanish teacher also gave up her labors, as teacher and iterant paramour. Our school would be forced to hire a third to finish out the year, like a Baroque opera.
Pelo Bueno would look elsewhere for love. During all his travels, he’d been carrying on with a second girlfriend, and she had finally found out about the Spanish teacher. Until then, his side hustle believed he simply worked long hours, as dedicated to his job as he was to fashioning his hair, a life that required language from the angels. So committed, he could only visit late in the evenings.
For nearly a month afterward, the sordid discovery was all we talked about at school, its influence running in a dozen directions. The women understood the reaction of the girlfriend we’d never met, some chemist’s mixture of love, anger, regret and jealousy, a melting point beyond the men, who withered in silence. Mum, the men marveled at the mathematics of distance and months.
The man would be always be a stranger now, hollow, remote, but he offered an alternate story—blossoming bruises on his discolored face almost made me forget his hair. Yet temporary disfigurement would heal. Even if neither woman still loved him, neither had shaved the glory from his crown. Neither had given him a second mirror.
Men see things simply: matters of timing, precarious states, carrying too much of a good thing. Still, most of us wanted to know how Cool Hair had arrived in the first place. Amid the luggage of worn shoes, summer suits, books, money, and staccato days, he’d lived two lives. Yes, it ended messily, a garden bed turned over, but when someone loves your dead cells you forget, for a time, all the prisons you’ve crafted for yourself.
M. Kolbet teaches and writes in Oregon.