It all began even before the break-up, but a five-hour screaming match in front of the campus library marked the grand finale of a yearlong mistake. He yelled at me the whole time, telling me I was crazy, that this was not working. I did not disagree. I begged him not to go. (I hate that girl still.)
Weeks later, I decided something did need to change. My honey-colored hair skimmed the middle of my shoulder blades. In a salon’s mirror, I saw hair that was dirty, limp, lifeless. I slumped down in her chair, nineteen feeling like ninety-nine. I could only see what someone longer wanted. The stylist started painting my hair with nostril-burning purple cream. Two hours later, I saw bangs, and a short yellow bob, hyper-defined against the blurred face.
The nape of my neck was exposed, and I was struck by how cold the air was, how I could feel it so much in that small spot.
I can put photos from college in chronological order simply based on the shade of my hair. The photos I have capture other women, not even shadows of selves, but paper dolls, hidden away—perhaps in a decorated shoebox under the bed.
My twentieth birthday party was about two months after I cut and dyed my hair the first time. A newer set of friends—I stopped hanging out with my friends from freshmen year since they were still friends with my ex—held a party that night. Kegs. A friend’s band. In this photo, blood vessels streak the whites of a young woman’s unfocused eyes. Her eyes droop a bit at the corners. Prior to this photo she had run into her ex. After this photo was taken, she made out with two boys just to prove to herself that she could.
Another photo, about a year after the last: this girl is white-blond like a Swede. Her collarbone cuts through her white sweater. She survived on alcohol, cigarettes, joints, Vicodin, and pots of black coffee. She’s in her friend’s kitchen, with bottle caps on her eyes.
That girl had been the life of the party for several months now. Sleeping was for losers. She was reckless and dangerous. People loved her—at least, they loved to be around her. She hadn’t figured out the difference yet.
A year later, her semester unravels in a matter of weeks. One photo shows the white-blonde girl passed out on her friend’s shoulder at his twenty-first birthday party. That’s when she stopped going to classes. About a week later, the last photo shows her holding on to another friend, unable to stand. Everyone thought it was funny. Her face is mottled, soft, melting away; her clothes are wrinkled and spotty.
Throughout college I was plagued by doubt: not bright enough, pretty enough, blond enough. I was not enough for anyone. At the end, I sometimes looked in the mirror. I remember bare details: a speck of light from the silver glitter caught in the lines under my eyes, smudged black eyeliner rimming my tear ducts, skin like wax paper.
One day I looked in the mirror. I saw only a reflection of the wall behind me, without me blocking it. I finally had disappeared.