Lisa Chen

The Ponytail

          I once loved a man whose hair grew to the middle of his back. We met at an opening in the Meatpacking District for a Japanese artist who had eschewed the ponderous, sedimentary oil paintings that had made him famous in favor of crayon and watercolor renderings of dogs. These dog portraits represented a return to innocence, the pure possibility of art, he said through an interpreter.

          My man was from Malaysia and had lived in New York for less than two years, working in arts administration and taking photographs on the side — or vice versa, depending on who he was talking to. He did not have a beautiful face. He did not have an ugly face either. Without his long hair, you may not have found his appearance memorable. Someone would say, Do you know him? and while you flipped through your mental catalogues, your helpful interlocutor might add, He has long hair, a ponytail. Using his hair as a rope, you’d be able to pull the rest of him into focus, his wide-set eyes, the list of his jaw.

          At one point in the evening the artist gave a short performance of his crayon art, accompanied by a recording he’d made of dogs barking in Central Park, the originating source of his inspiration. The artist, gripping a purple crayon in his hand, rapidly outlined a dog on a butcher paper canvas draped across a plank balanced on two sawhorses. Several people in the audience barked in encouragement.

          My photographer stood watching, slouched to the side with his hands in his pockets, a bemused look on his face. I was attracted to this look – smug, knowing, yet colored with genuine delight at the spectacle of life. I recognized it as one I affected myself to manage disappointment.

          It is the way of women to touch a man’s hair without asking his permission. They assume he will appreciate the attention, unthinkingly, like a dog. Separated from him at a party, I would find him wedged in the kitchen, a strange female pulling lightly on the end of his hair. With each tug I could feel the resistance in my own scalp. When I approach and introduce myself, these women would take me in with just the slightest tremor of their pupils, calculating what I had or didn’t have on them; was I master enough.

          Sometimes he wore his hair in a loose, careless knot at the top of his head, tender as a scrotum.

          Because I didn’t know Malay and his English was not quite fluent, we talked at times with the sophistication of a pocket dictionary. Ordinarily, this would have bothered me. But my last relationship had been loamed by adult “discussions” and adult compromises that left me feeling like a decent human being but not very loved. By contrast, our halting exchanges struck me as more elemental. We lacked the vocabulary to say anything but the most simple and direct things.

          I love you. Are you happy? You hurt me. I want to be nice. Yes, we try.

          To put in our lovers’ parlance, we had it good and bad, and we might have kept going had I not become convinced that his hair would undo us. The longer it grew – and the better his English got — the more women he seemed to attract. These women would say:

          Your hair is so shiny. What conditioner do you use?

          Are you Native American? Are you an Inuit?

          They’d ask: Doesn’t it get in your way?

          And I’d think: You get in my way.

          At first I teased him about cutting it. He laughed and said he would, if I agreed to stop shaving my armpits and legs. I laughed and said, How about just cut it to shoulder length? He suggested I stop plucking my eyebrows and forego my eye cream. He went after my shapewear, which struck me as unnecessarily cruel. Neither of us was laughing anymore.

          Couples who stay together turn lumpy and plain together, that’s proven. But is it because both parties realize they no longer need to chisel their physiques to attract a sexual partner, or do they, on some subconscious level, transform themselves into undesirable blobs, like something you’d see on Animal Planet, activating a biological camouflage to deflect unwanted attention?

          I had one final card to play. I threatened him with an ultimatum: If he continued to refuse to cut his hair, I would leave him at the end of the month. The days counted down. Whenever I saw him, his ponytail seemed to whip in the air with insouciance. Its flouncing aggravated me. The final day arrived. We had hardly spoken to one another for the past 24 hours. Many times I thought of calling my own bluff, only to be tormented by the conviction that I was in the right. Why couldn’t he do this one small thing for me, even if it meant indulging my misguided jealousy? So what? Jealousy, properly applied, can be a powerful astringent.

          The final day dribbled into the final hour. I found myself lying next to him in bed, fully clothed. When the clock struck midnight and still he did nothing, I rose, pulled on my boots and walked out the door.

          I haven’t spoken to him since. It’s been years, practically the entire Obama Administration. But I have seen him, at least once. I spotted him from behind as I approached a traffic light on Sixth Avenue. I recognized his long ponytail immediately, the quick, rough way he snarled it in a rubber band. It was summer. I remember because I had a flickering feeling of apprehension about the wedges of sweat showing through my shirt, the shine on my nose.

          Not that it mattered. He never looked back, and I made no effort to catch his attention. When the light changed, I let him get far ahead of me. I didn’t want to talk. Just to see. I tracked him as though standing on the shore following a swimmer slice further into the ocean. I nearly lost sight of him when he sped up to pass a gray-haired couple pulling a grocery cart; I caught up with him as he stopped to admire wands of cut hyacinth at a flower stand in front of a bodega where we had once stopped in to buy candy before the movies. I allowed myself the pleasure of being carried by his current, unseen, until he was swallowed by a rush of shoulders in the remove of the sun.



Lisa Chen was born in Taiwan, wrote a book, Mouth (Kaya Press), was once a writing fellow at the Center for Fiction has work forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Seneca Review and Sonora Review. She lives in NYC.