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Cartography 11: Jack Of Hearts
On being hunted like a fox
Cartography is a 52 week essay series mapping the interior life.
I did not color my hair out of fear or anxiety, but control. I had a vision and I wanted to make it real. I saw myself differently than I was, and I took action to make the necessary changes to bring that vision to life. The same night I took my glasses off and never wore them again. I have been able to make do in my life since, with no ill effects to speak of.
When I came to school the next day, nobody knew me. They realized soon enough, but from that moment on I was treated differently: no more bullyings, no more joking and teasing. And I began to move differently in response. I became blithe instead of cold, I became charming and deflective instead of arrogant. And I began to acquire friends, more than I ever realized I could have.
I have never been able to determine if that was a mask that I put on, a skillset I developed, or simply growing up.
Regardless, I took a vision and made it real with a $7 box of blue-black at 14. I learned a lesson: aesthetics matter. If you can’t change the world, your response must be to change yourself.
The next year I finally shaved my head. In mid-September, my freshman year of high school, I cut my hair into a mohawk, died it a sick puke green, and put on my Uncle’s old USAF jacket. It swallowed me whole like a whale. I should have been relegated to the back of the classroom, looking like Travis Bickle meets Eric Harris. But I bloomed instead.
I drew the attention of attractive juniors and seniors. I had my first girlfriend, an affair that lasted all of 4 weeks and we never kissed. I was an honors student who hung out with the bathroom smokers and troublemakers. I had grown up in the halls of this high school; my father had taught there for 15 years and I spent every teacher workday, holiday, and many afternoons there in that time. It was as much my home as my own room. Many of the teachers had watched me grow up and the name that I had inherited carried a small bit of weight.
I used my charm and wit and a sharp line in my scalp to cover up the constant anxiety and fear I felt. The mask I had picked up, my new skills, and a budding social life, taught me a new lesson.
Aesthetics did not matter. I was able to play against my internalized vision and present one face to the world while cultivating another in practice. Your works and the feelings you instilled in people can and should play against archetype.
Bleaching your hair breaks down 15-20% of the protein strands in your hair to break. The keratins become brittle and weak.
Inhalation of chlorinated byproducts can irritate the lungs of people with certain conditions, including asthma.
Activated compounds in hair dye may burn your scalp and need to be treated carefully as a result.
I should have been more afraid of my visions and the risks of making them real.
As I got older, I floated between groups of subculture, picking pieces for myself and recombining them in any number of ways. In a larger city, even one like Charlotte, I probably would have stuck more to a singular aspect and developed a stronger version of myself along with a few addictions. Instead, I stole like a magpie and sought to bridge the gaps between what inspired me and terrified me.
I didn’t change my appearance out of anxiety or fear, but control. I wanted to control the image others had of me. So I chose the aggressive, the inciting, the stark, spiked jackets and chains and cross buster tee-shirts and black metal lyrics written in every notebook I had.
And I did this because my aggression put them on their backfoot and let me upset their expectations. Like a junkyard dog that brings you to its favorite toys and asks you to throw the ball.
I only learned how to be loved in spite of myself and my vision, and I resented the people who loved me because of it.
I loved my friends because we had shared interests.
I resented the people who saw me as “brave” or “courageous”.
I loved people who could connect with me on music, passion, interests, books, learning.
I resented people who would say “I think it is so cool you’re into all of that.”
I loved my friend who got sent to an “Alternative School” for smoking in the bathroom and in that time was at the top of his class because he built his own vocabulary lists from Greg Graffin lyrics.
I resented the girl who asked me to senior prom just so we could wear matching outfits, despite never being close the entire time we had known each other.
When you take a vision, and push it into the world, you will find the people who resonate with it and with you. You will also find the people who deeply misunderstand it, and in turn, you.
I had learned a new fear- that of being loved but deeply misunderstood.
My junior year I was an AP student. Chemistry, US History, Government, Language. I’ve always been quick and clever, able to wrap my head around concepts quickly and retain information simply. This frustrated my teachers because I absolutely refused to do my homework as supplement. I was an inveterate C student until my exam grades would bring me up to a 91.
My teachers couldn’t change it, nor could my parents. I was above the work, because the work came easy to me. I never needed to go deeper. I found that as I made so many advances in compromising myself socially, leaning into charm and affect and image, I began to dig my heels in when it came to other parts of my personality.
I became more stubborn in what I would not compromise on.
I embraced asceticism, black and white thinking, hard lines on politics.
And what was worse was that I was quick and clever enough to never have to deal with much pushback. I was the worst kind of teenager— too clever by half, image obsessed, and convinced I knew exactly what was wrong in every situation and that I knew how to fix it.
This was the second mask I took on. Arrogance blended with charm and they melted into one another.
Physical aggression was never necessary. I was able to pay half the attention and pass every test on sheer confidence, socially and otherwise.
This is not a dream I have had, but a vision that centers me at times.
I am not a pleasant stream for afternoon idylls.
I am not an ocean of terrifying depth, impossible to know.
I am a glacier fed lake, inviting and still.
I am a cool respite in times of heat and a pleasant experience on the surface. Worth trespass.
But to trace my source is to find sharp crevasses. To dig in spiked heel and reject comfort.
I do not imagine I am more complex than others. There are hundreds of thousands of glaciers. I am not unique or special.
To chart the map of my life, either by myself or with another, requires guidance.
I was so open in High School that I easily fell into a relationship quickly. Off and on, al the way through until I moved away to college. She was not who I lost my virginity to, but she was there when I found out that woman had cheated on me while I was away for a week.
She was hard, immobile, cold. Willing to manipulate me emotionally and everyone around her, because that was the lesson she had learned in her own household. I can’t fault her for using what tools she had at her disposal. But neither do I have to gloss over the hours on the phone begging her not to kill herself when I couldn’t speak to her. I can just as easily recognize that she was the best person she could be with the tools she had as I can say that she used everyone in our social sphere as chess pieces to keep me with her.
This was a person I spent years with. It’s a relationship I still carry as a standard because I promised myself I would never allow those tactics to be used against me ever again.
We would dye each others hair at times. Our kitchens became labs for us, fumes and chemicals and plastic and soundtracks all mixing into a headlong rush of incandescent teenage love.
I wonder sometimes if I have ever been so deeply loved by someone who truly knew so little about me.
After we broke up, we went to a show at Tremont Music Hall in November. It was already cold, bitter, which seems like a strange memory now.
During the direct support act, she gave me a handjob under that massive USAF coat that I still hadn’t grown into. I was 18 by this point, but still a thin punk with more swagger than power to back it up.
On the way home we felt the tension building up and I parked in the lot of our local community college and we had sex in the back of my car.
As soon as we were done, I told her that this did not mean we were getting back together.
We went on to work together for the next 7 months until I got ready to go to college. We would find ample opportunities to fuck each other and fight at the same time.
I was unwilling to sacrifice my charm nor was I willing to give up my position around the end of the relationship. I was tenacious, cold, and willing to set both of those parts of myself aside for validation from the only person I thought was willing to give it to me.
A third mask of shame and uncertainty melted into the first two. I was becoming a matryoshka doll.
I stopped dyeing my hair after I moved to Philadelphia. The last time I did it, I bleached it for a winter for a woman I was seeing.
By this point in my life I had shed so many of those youthful insecurities and instead replaced them with a sense of growing into myself. But I was more certain of myself and instead adjusted my vision of myself through the work I wanted to study, the learning that kept me pushing forward.
The problem with visions and masks though is that they are not so easily changed as a hairstyle. You take time constructing a version of you for the world around you, you give yourself over to a god or image that springs from your mind, and without knowing it you stumble into a version of yourself that is built largely out of not your vision, but the reaction from the people around you. The creator shapes his creation, and in turn, the creation shapes his creator. This is unavoidable.
This is why one must be resolute, unflinching in their pursuit of a vision. Popular response will shape you without knowing it. You will build yourself a trap of chasing the validation of your audience, and the experience becomes Pavlovian. You salivate at the thought of being loved for your masks when really the mask is a means to an end, a tool to be put away when one steps off stage.
You resent everyone else for loving what you show them, without ever realizing they have been shown exactly what you wanted them to. How could they not want to fuck you in the back of a car if that’s the only place they could be close? How could they not avoid the glacier trails when they have a perfectly good lake you have provided for them?
I have to ask myself what I fear more: being misunderstood, or being loved for a misunderstanding?
Which will cause more hate to bloom in my heart?