It’s easier than you think. First you have to cut your hair, which is probably the hardest part. You’ve always had long hair—at least since you were nine or ten, anyway. Your mother always wanted to cut it short because she said she thought you looked so cute with short hair, or maybe she just said that because you never brushed it and it got all knotted and she ended up yanking clumps of it from your head while you howled, face skyward, eyes scrunched shut against her patient smile. You didn’t want so cute; you wanted sophisticated and sexy, without quite knowing what those things meant. (You know what they mean now, of course, though you also know they’re a lot more complicated now.) But the way you cut it now isn’t cute either; it’s just short. Shockingly short. Even your mother would hate it if she saw it, although she would probably just smile even bigger and look even more patiently pleading. You’ll cry a little about the hair, but after it’s done you’ll look so unlike your old self you’ll realize it was worth it.
You can color the hair, too—either bright red or else good old standby blonde, and when the roots come in, tint those bluish-black so that people will be confused and think that was your original shade. Remember, the goal here is to erase whatever you were and start anew so no one from back there could possibly recognize you. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t know all that many people back there, and that few if any of them would bother to hunt you down; it’s the idea behind all of this that matters.
Next you get holes. Three more on the left and two more on the right. You think about doing a nostril but it looks like a hassle because you have to use this tiny screwdriver thing instead of just jamming in a stud so you say forget it, seven silver hoops tangling and dangling from your lobes will do. You consider a tattoo for some time in the near future, but it has to be something random, without any significance to your or anyone else’s life—a toad, maybe. Or a peanut. Something brown, something you won’t miss when it fades to unrecognizable haze.
You don’t need them, but get a pair of vanity glasses—big, dark, nerdy-in-a-chic-way frames. Wear heavy pale pancake make-up to hide those identifying freckles—those damned freckles that were so sweet your mother gently/firmly dissuaded you from buying Porcelana fade cream when you were 13 and wanted flawless, alabaster skin. As for the rest of your make-up, make it heavy and dark and don’t blend anything in. The more your features stand out, the less your face will, and that’s what you want—the parts, not the whole. It also doesn’t matter much what you wear as long as it’s baggy and ill-fitting and misrepresents the real shape of your body. It won’t be fun dressing this way but at least you won’t be stared at like poultry—legs, thighs, breasts, in a tight-fitting, see-through package. You’ll think it’s funny how you often yearned to be seen that way. Patience, your mother’s eyes said to you, even though she never said it out loud. Actually speaking it would acknowledge that you were expecting something, and she seemed oblivious to what that something could be. But how could she know? When she was your age, she was on a farm coaxing a chicken into her arms to be killed and cooked up for her family at dinner. Or was it a sweatshop for a fraction of minimum wage? Something like that, the nearest you could ever figure out. It’s not like she ever talked about it, or you ever asked. That life is as incomprehensible to you as yours must be to her. You can’t help but get angry when you think about it, though. People took dates to the prom; they didn’t take the bus. Didn’t she know that? And the maxipads she handed you when you were nearly 17? You will need these soon, she advised solemnly; I will explain to you when that happens. And six girls in your grade already mothering toddlers. But the worst thing was she wasn’t entirely wrong. It took you until now to be fully aware of how many of the things that were supposed to happen back then didn’t happen to you—of how you were asleep all those years, as oblivious as she was. Naturally you blamed her for holding you back somehow—and then for not preparing you for how it would be when you finally, finally got there.
When you’re doing all these things to change the way you look, the irony won’t be lost on you that this must be what a girl born and raised in a small, sleepy part of the world thinks of as going wild, when actually all of that stuff, the earrings and the hair and tattoo, even the nose ring, has all become laughably mainstream. But that doesn’t matter—you’re not rebelling, you’re not stating some radical ideology. And it isn’t that you want to punish yourself by making yourself ugly, or some other silly pop psych theory. You just want to look not you, that’s all.
One thing you don’t do, though, is start some sort of method acting exercise where you invent a role to fit your new look. Don’t pick up a Cockney accent or start quoting Dostoevsky or throwing your head back recklessly when you laugh. You’ve always been a good liar, but good liars know what they can and can’t get away with, and you know you’d never be able to get away with lying a whole new personality for yourself. Besides, you don’t have to do all that; you’ll probably become someone else anyway, without even trying. All this time, when the peroxide is being squirted in, when you’re sitting in the piercing shop waiting for the third hole on the right, when you’re pawing through bins of nubby flannel shirts in the thrift shop, you’ve been thinking of that someone else you used to be back there. It’s hard to even remember who she was, if she was anyone at all. So now, perhaps she—you—really could be anyone at all.
When you’re done with everything, you drive. Driving is necessary; you need to be able to measure time and space to feel that you are actually going somewhere. Straight lines are necessary, too—to be going away from something toward something else. As you drive, space opens up before you beyond the straight line. You are uncontained; you wonder if, when you stop each day and get out of the car, you might begin to expand until you fill the space all the way up to the sky.
But when you get out’â€at the gas station, at the minimart, at the motel with the neon pulsing vacancy vacancy vacancy sign—people look at you. In a diner someplace unknown where you stop to eat for lunch (green formica counter, red leatherette booth seats, garage sale pictures of cows and pigs), everyone turns and stares. They keep staring, too long. You try not to meet their lingering, unblinking eyes, eyes that seem connected to a single entity—as if not just the people but the walls, counters, chairs and booths, the whole room has turned to look. Seconds go by, counted by the taps of your shoes on the linoleum floor, as their eyes remain on you. You coil into a corner booth, unfolding the laminated menu fortress-like around you, and feel the room slowly turn away. It stops being an evil red-and-green pulsating force aligned against you and becomes once again a roadside pitstop with cows on the wall and a soggy apple pie on the counter. But it’s too late; everything has collapsed back into a single point inside you. At first you think it’s just the earrings and dye-job and all that, but you know that’s not quite it. It’s that they’ve never seen anyone like you before. But then neither have you. You want to ask them what they see.
Recognition is a tiny explosion in the brain. When you look at yourself, finally, after all the changes, there’s no explosion; you aren’t shocked at how you look so not you. You simply don’t acknowledge that what you see is you.
* * * * *
The last step is different from everything else you’ve done, and you know you’re way too chicken to go through with it at the moment, but you keep thinking about it as you drive. You’ve only heard how to do this part. You’re supposed to go down to the Hall of Records and make up some false pretense to find the name of some girl who was born around the same year as you and was given a social security number but died very, very young. That becomes your new name and social security number, you see, your newly minted identity. This is serious going under, probably a major felony and a lot more drastic than putting seven holes in your head, since even those will close up if you let them. The illegality of it isn’t the only thing that scares you, though. You keep thinking that you might be waiting tables somewhere one day and this woman you’re serving keeps staring at your nametag with an odd look on her face until you realize she’s the dead baby’s mother. You wonder what would happen, if she’d be violently angry at you for desecrating her dead daughter’s name, or if she’d completely flip out and think you really were her daughter, alive all these years and living incognito. Mary-Lou, honey, is that really you? My baby’s all grown up now. It’s crazy, especially the name Mary-Lou, but you keep thinking about it until you can actually see this woman running up to you, arms wide to take you back in, and for one confusing moment you forget who you’re supposed to be and panic, thinking there’s some other life you should have been living all this time, but you weren’t living it at all.