Friday, December 10, 2004

Invisible

This wasn't what I had expected – surely everyone could see. They should be staring at the hair that looks a little wrong, a little askew, a little fake.

They should be staring at me because I look like a whore or a lunatic. No-one else dresses like this.

I felt exceptionally self-conscious but for some reason no-one else would play along with my fevered imagination of the way the world would react to me in a wig.

I had purchased my dark, burgundy-tinted wig on a whim when last in Malaysia and hadn't really used it before. Cleaning out a cupboard here in London one day I came across it in it's professional little packet with it's foreign little accoutrements and a plan hatched in my mind that I was sure would toy with C's psyche in a most satisfactory manner.

Instead, once I had launched it, it seemed to be backfiring and was toying with mine.

You see, C's world is one made up of passion for history, books and her friends. These three things - in equal measure - define the C I know and give her unique strength of character as well as providing three targets for never-ending fun. In this case, I would trigger her passion for the wellbeing of her friends.

She had recommended a hairdresser to me, a hairdressing school, actually, for one of the better known and more fashionable salon chains. Her recent haircut had been wonderful, if slightly on the cutting-edge side of things.

I decided that I would put on the wig, take a photo with the digital camera and email it to her at work with an 'Oh my GOD, I went to those people you recommended and look what they've DONE!' message. I would explain that I had been talked into having my hair dyed as well as cut short. I took the shot, crafted the email and – just for dramatic effect – posted another image with the same kind of message on her online forum.

It worked. Within minutes, I received a frantic SMS from her – demanding to know if this was true, demanding details, consoling, detailing her shock.

I had hit one of the rawest of nerves. If all women have a natural maternal instinct to protect their young, C's has been rerouted to protect her set of friends.

We agreed to meet at M's office after work so that I could – in the manner of all women - recount exactly what had happened again and again, twittering at the tiniest detail and remembered eyebrow twitch of the hairdresser.

This was essential to get to the bottom of What Went Wrong.

I, for one, wondered how long I would be able to pull the charade off and how long it would take for her to notice that the hair wasn't real. I also hoped that I wouldn't get pummelled or excommunicated from the League of Extraordinary Friends once she realised what I had done.

So there I was late in the afternoon on my way to the city in one of the ubiquitous tube carriages that can lull me into a stupor like nothing else. I feel comfortable on the tube, the comfort that comes with a high level of predictability.

This time, though, I could feel the wig tight on my skull; sliding up miniscule millimetres with every step, every movement. I could feel the pins against my scalp, the foreign, cold hair brushing against my face and a dark fringe obscuring my sight, driving me mad with the desire to sweep it away. I had the urge to constantly pull the wig down...down because I could have sworn that the whole thing was perched like a dark octopus on top of my own, voluminous, pinned back tresses.

Now, stepping onto the tube felt so very different - my senses were heightened. I was very much alert to other's reactions. I was different, they had to see it.

Couldn’t they see it?

I felt that I was positively radiating differentness and strangeness. Every time someone's glance flicked in my direction, I was ready to see recognition of my attempted deviousness flicker across their features.

I had expected surreptitious stares as well as open ones. I had expected women to see through the disguise immediately and men to take a little longer to discern what was wrong.

But I didn’t receive anything of the sort.

In fact, I was disconcertingly invisible.

I didn't understand. Not only was I not receiving the level of eye contact I was used to on a normal basis – I was receiving less.

I stepped off the train and into a large crowd of commuters, many of them walking in the opposite direction. Again, less eye contact than normal.

Oh god…did I actually look like one of those people that you make a concerted effort to avoid eye contact with? One of those men whose clothing is kept together with safety pins or the women with the bulging-eyeballed look of the loon?

No, I didn’t. I caught my reflection in a store window and looked like anyone else.

Anyone else other than me, that is.

Suddenly, though, I understood. I recalled how the world had changed for C when she dyed her own very dark hair to a platinum blonde a few years ago. Crowds became a mass of men giving her attention, nightclubs were awash with admirers and co-workers who had seen her as part of the furniture suddenly discovered a rather attractive woman in the vicinity. C hated it. She felt cheap, she felt she was getting all this new attention only because of the colour of her hair.

I hadn't realised until that moment exactly how much eye contact I got as a blonde. That my hair makes me somewhat of a beacon in a crowd, even if only for one swift look from almost every stranger, male or female. This eye contact with people who walked past, this 'normal' facet of crowd interaction is what I was missing now. Far from making me an object of curiosity, the wig was hiding the very thing in me that caused my standard level of attracted curiosity. Fascinating.

I began to wonder how the world looked to redheads and women with jet-black hair. What it felt like to walk around as a man. What it was like to be black in this city. To be taller. To be short. To be thin. I wished then, and still do now, that I could wave a magic wand and try each – even if only for a few hours.

So the stunt I pulled, thinking that I would remain amused, detached and cleanly aloof, left me fundamentally changed. So much for pulling the strings and watching someone else dance.

Claire, by the way, only had a few seconds of speechless shock before my own nervousness and guilty conscience undid the elaborate caper. She was still looking at me, getting used to her first sight of my new look…when I automatically reached up for the thousandth time that hour to tug the hair down and accidentally gave the game away. Madame Bond I am not.

M

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