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Hair Dye Is Not Permanent

Lyndsey Kay Nelson

Hair Dye Is Not PermanentLyndsey Kay Nelson
00:00 / 11:15

The first thing to remember when dyeing your own hair is that dyeing your hair isn’t permanent. Now, this may seem obvious, but when that little plastic bowl gets filled with dye and you’re trapped in a chair by a towel and social convention, or as you sit in your basement with a cardboard box and a tiny page of folded instructions, you will want to remember, before you remember anything else, that hair dye Is. Not. Permanent. 


Standing as the best friend of a woman I admired, Nate was someone I could never truly understand from a distance and that perplexed me. 

I’d say he was the only person to ever outsmart me in a relationship, but that’s not nearly true. What is true is that he was the only person I ever dated who made me hate a name. 


Next, please remember, if you at all value your skin tone and have any upcoming meetings where you want to have natural looking hands, wear a pair of gloves. 

Now, you may argue, “Of course I’m going to wear gloves!”

“Well,” I will respond, “you’ve never felt the texture of hair dye in your hair. You’ve never had the fun of feeling the strange gel of dye between the dry strands of your own, old, boring hair as it oversaturated every single follicle.”

See, you may think it’s an easy feeling to resist, but it’s just as tempting a texture as lava. 


I met you in first grade and the first thing I remembered about you was the red hair. Like a fire. Like passion. Like love. Red as a volcano and curly as a poodle and lovely. Really truly lovely. 


Another one that may seem obvious, but when you’re dyeing your hair, bring a towel. Between all the parting and the tossing and the combing, you’re going to make a mess of your room. Bring a towel. 


When I was in the third grade, I drew a picture of you standing under the metal slide on the playground. The picture wasn’t very good, it was a child’s drawing of a child, but something in the picture drew me in. I knew in that moment that I liked remembering you. I liked how it felt to think about you. 


When I met Nate, I was a freshman. He was a year older than me, at least half a foot taller, and somehow he managed to be friends with everyone without ever sharing a single personal detail about himself. It was a kind of magic to watch him interact with a cheesy smile and too round a face. Not once did he mention anything deep about himself and yet everyone thought they knew him. He put on a front like no one I’d ever seen before. 

We’d been texting for a few days when he convinced me to ask him to a dance by suggesting that we were both available for the event and we had a mutual friend running a group. It’s a trick I’d seen done before, but I was a sophomore at that point, which didn’t mean I was any smarter than the freshmen so much as it meant I was cockier. 


On the subject of making a mess, don’t wear a shirt you like to dye your hair in. No amount of towels, no amount of cleaning, no amount of keeping things neat, will ever stop you from making a mess of your favorite shirt or destroying the only pair of jeans that actually fit your waist, butt, thighs, and legs. So, don’t wear anything you like. And don’t dye your hair in a room you like. And don’t dye your hair near a person you care about. 

For the best results, dye your hair in the basement of an old house you don’t live in anymore, when your family is all out at work and school, and you’re the only sign of life in the house except for a dog that’s never been nice to you and a couple of fake plants that could almost convince the world your mother has a green thumb. 

That is the best environment to dye your hair in. 


We stayed friends through my big move. That shocked both of us. We used to write each other letters. Every week, I’d have a letter waiting from my best friend back home in West Jordan, back when Sandy wasn’t a home yet and you were my best friend. Back when anxiety was a myth and depression was a lie and all that mattered was how much I loved talking to you. I told you that every week. I wrote in my letters about how much I loved being able to talk to you. 

Oh, how easily polluted childhood can become. 


After a few minutes of rubbing hair dye into your scalp, you will begin to notice two things. One, the mixture will begin to warm. Two, the mixture will take on a strange smell. Both of these are good things. It may hurt, but these two factors mean the dye is working. Just keep spreading dye throughout your head and ignore the burning and the smell. You’ll get used to it after a while. One day, you may eventually miss it. In hair dyeing, we call this normalization. In relationships, this same effect is called gaslighting.


I didn’t like the way he touched me at that dance. I liked even less the way he looked at the girls around him. And, even worse than that, was the claustrophobic feeling of relying on him for a ride wherever we went. I was his. People said that like it was an achievement, so I started to believe them.


Every summer and every winter break and every birthday, we would find a way to have a sleepover. As we grew up, the sleepovers grew longer, and I grew more and more in…

More and more…

More and more excited to be your friend. That’s all it was. I didn’t fixate on when we shared a bed because I liked you, I fixated because I liked being your friend. I didn’t want to shower you with gifts because I had feelings for you, I wanted to shower you with gifts because I liked how I felt around you. That was all. That was secure.

So, why did we have to ruin it? 

No, not you, I know you didn’t ruin it, you couldn’t have, you didn’t know, I didn’t even know yet. I didn’t realize when I thought about your smile I was thinking about your lips, I didn’t consider the possibility that I saved your Instagram pictures because I simply enjoyed looking at you.

And if we’d never gone to Walmart, if we’d never decided to spend Halloween together, I never would have ventured from that frame of mind. 

If we’d never made jokes about how much it looked like we were dating and talked about going to the Halloween party together as a couple and pretended to be girlfriends, I never would have had a second thought. I never would have realized that I had fallen head over heels in love with you. 

God, I love you--loved you. Love you.


We didn’t talk all summer. Or, we texted, but we only met up in person once for a double date with my best friend and a rare crush that wasn’t named Nate and the whole event felt fake, a figment of someone’s imagination. 

We took a picture that day. His eyes looked like the ocean at the equator and my hair had recently been cut too short and dyed too dark to be in any way attractive. 

I looked back at that picture every day that fall, wondering what had happened to the smile on my face. I blamed the haircut for a while. Then I blamed myself, for a while. I still would rather blame myself that think about what happened that October, what really took the smile away and left me with a brain torn to shreds. 


The truth hit like a pound of feathers: soft, but unexpectedly painful. A pound of feathers and a pound of bricks weigh the same, after all. It’s just a difference of texture. It didn’t scratch to realize I loved you. It didn’t break my bones, it didn’t bruise my skin, it didn’t change a thing about me. It just hit hard, and it took its time to settle. 

Every now and then a new feather drifts to the ground and I find a new piece of the puzzle I hadn’t seen before. My fixation on your hair, my excitement when I heard your voice, the way we sang love songs together and you sang to the universe and I sang directly to you. 


Once the dye has been evenly applied, you will realize that you’ve gotten hair dye on your skin. Your forehead, your neck, your ears, your arms, they will all have been treated with a few spots of hair dye. This is where my magic trick comes in. When you’re in the shower rinsing out the dye, take an acne cleanser (I use Neutrogena), and let that wash away the spots. Hair dye will come out of skin with a cleanser. A lot of things will come out of skin with a cleanser. Bruises, freckles, scars, and rashes will not come out of skin with a cleanser. They come out of skin with time. 


The first sign should have been the date he took to Homecoming. 

She was a friend, from choir, and I trusted him around her. I assumed he’d asked her because I was going out of town for a trip. I didn’t have a reason not to trust him. I was a kid, sixteen years old, what reason would I have to assume my boyfriend was cheating on me? 

 I was naïve to trust him. I know that now.


We walked out the door after I sat by and watched a pair of boys flirt with you for three hours and you joked that the only man you would ever date was a male version of me. 

And I wanted to scream and punch and fight and kiss and do everything else the lovable best friend with a crush on the main character wants to do. I wanted to hit you over the head with a sign that said, “Then just date me!” 

Which you never did. Because I didn’t tell you. Because I couldn’t. Because you’re straight and happy and a girl and I’m Mormon and I’m supposed to be straight and I’m not supposed to feel like this about one of my young women’s classmates. 


It may become tempting to reach for a box of hair dye every time something strange or eventful happens to you. Red for denial, blonde for purification, black for fear, purple for insecurity, blue for novelty, gold for excitement, grey for growing up, brown to feel young, every color of the rainbow to push aside any and all of the new, interesting, terrifying feelings that come with being human. It’s the most tempting form of denial; painting over the pain and returning to school with a new look for friends and others to fawn over.

It’s a hard itch to fight, but you must remember, hair dye is not therapy. Though, it certainly is cheaper. 


We kissed three days after that conversation. 

He kissed me three days after that conversation. 

He took me to the backseat of his car and kissed me three days after that conversation. 

He touched my skin, my side, my waist, my back, and kissed me three days after that conversation. 

Our mutual friend told me he was cheating on me one week after that conversation. 

He stopped talking to me two weeks after that conversation. 

That is, unless he wanted someone to smuggle into the backseat of his car and see what it felt like to kiss a girl who didn’t know how to say no yet. A girl with so much tension in her body every time that her foot stuck out into the front seat. 

A girl who washed her mouth out after every date and dyed her hair purple a few weeks later in the vain hope that a change of color would make him look at her outside of his car. 

A girl who drove home from school one day, her birthday, not that he’d remember, and spilled everything to her best friend, a best friend she’d realized she was in love back in October. 


You and your red hair. Your beautiful red hair, a color I tried and failed to dye my hair more times than you can count.


In the end, I told her everything. Almost everything. The details of the car, those were for me, but the rest of it. His ignorance, his cruel silence, his relationship with another girl. I let it all out, and my darling best friend was the only person with the strength to tell me what was happening. This wasn’t how a relationship was supposed to go, she said. He wasn’t being a good boyfriend. I wasn’t in a healthy situation. What was going on between us, it wasn’t a healthy relationship. 

I drove around the entirety of Sandy in my own car, singing and sobbing in the front seat as everything set in. 

On the way home, I decided it was time to bleach my hair. 


Hair dye is not permanent.  Like everything, like friendships, like love, like rose-colored innocence, it fades. 

It all fades. 

It’s just hair dye, running down the shower drain.

creative nonfiction, 2020
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