Fiction · 02/24/2021

Like Britney

Andre doesn’t go out dancing anymore. On Saturdays, he paints these sad-boy Edward Hopper scenes. Faceless men at bus stops. Hunched guys alone in diners. Once he painted a woman on the red line, her face hidden by a tangle of blonde hair. I knew it was me. He’s lucky he’s got a steady hand now. Someday he’ll save enough for beauty school. For now, he practices on me, giving my plain face smoky eyes before a date. I tell him it’s the guy from last week. The one who “wears pants that don’t touch the ground but is actually pretty cool.” Andre and I both want boyfriends, but sometimes I feel bad because I get asked out more. I still go to bars.

Andre does my makeup, but I put Britney on myself. Britney is the name of my wig. I’m not into naming inanimate objects, but I make an exception for Britney. I bought her when I was twenty-five, the year I moved to Chicago and started losing my hair. At first I thought it was stress. Or city plumbing. I dutifully cleaned the drain. Pried black locks from a greedy hairbrush. Took pictures of my scalp and watched the strands fall. Like that, it was gone. Dorothy braids on Halloween. Jumping-jack pigtails. Hot curlers before prom. Regrettable bangs. Crisp interview buns. Flirty hair twirls. A few lab tests in a dusty office confirmed it. I didn’t have cancer but I also wasn’t growing any more hair. “Alopecia,” the doctor whispered like he was casting a spell. And then, “It’s going to be okay.” I hate it when people say that. Like okay is a consolation prize for a happy life.

I tell Andre I’ll be home late and skip down our sixth-floor walkup. Britney bounces at my shoulders. After I found out I was going bald, the world mocked me. Rapunzels tossed their hair on city buses. The real Britney whipped her mane in an ode to Pepsi-Cola. Shampoo models annexed billboards I could see from my apartment window. This was before Andre moved in, when I lived with two art students who wore black turtlenecks and left notes on the bathroom mirror about someone clogging the shower drain. I wanted to kill them. Instead, I blasted “I’m blue da ba dee da ba dye” on repeat until they moved out. Then I bought a platinum blonde wig on credit.

I meet my date at the pizza place. He gives me this big hug that squishes Britney’s pins. He’s just as I remember him from last weekend’s dizzy tiki bar makeout: six feet tall, mouse-brown hair, nothing special. We slide into a red booth and flap open our menus. His eyes eagerly scan pictures of deep dish pizza and cheesy bread. Last week, he told me his family didn’t allow junk food. He’s from one of those families that enjoys hardship. All three siblings shared a bicycle with a broken chain. The bike stalled so often they nicknamed it Turtle, which made me think he could understand Britney.

Whenever I tell a guy about Britney, I never say the name “Britney.” I lay it out in real unsexy terms. “I have an allergy that causes me to lose my hair.” The truth is, I’ve only said this once. It was on a third date with some guy from the internet who had a poster of Al Pacino with the word “Scarface” in bright red print. On a creaky futon, he caressed my shoulder, looked at the top of my head and said, “It’s okay. Bald girls are kinda edgy.” But quick as a lightswitch, he was sure to let me know the next morning that he wasn’t looking for anything serious. “It’s not you,” Scarface shrugged. “I’m just so picky.” I guess I could have waited until I knew him better. Or just told him from the start and not wasted my time. Or maybe I shouldn’t have told Scarface at all. But what if Britney had flown off mid-makeout? Or what if an awkward amount of time passed and he thought I was keeping it from him? It’s not always easy to know who to tell or how to tell or when to tell, and when I get asked out these days, I find myself saying yes to the ones who seem like they also have something to hide.

The best time to tell, I’ve decided, is between too soon and too late. Sometime after I rush to the bathroom to repin my hug-rumpled Britney and before Nothing Special has a chance to wonder aloud if Natalie Portman regretted “whacking it all off” for that one movie. I’ve got to tell before he starts talking about how he never got to eat sugary cereal as a kid (I don’t want to steal his spotlight)—but after the waitress slides two cold beers across the table. We clink mugs. I wipe my foamy moustache, swallow hard, and say, “I need to tell you something.” Nothing Special leans in so close that I can see a tiny gap between his front teeth and feel his hot eggy breath on my skin.

“Wait,” he scans my face. “You’re not a vegetarian are you?” I shake my head. “Thank god!” he lets out a laugh, forgetting I had something to say. “We might have had a problem.”

Our pepperoni pizza arrives and Nothing Special tells a story. Someone at his work accidentally said, “Love you!” to the boss at the end of a video call, which Nothing Special finds hilarious. He’s had a “real job” for a year and the idea that full-grown adults make mistakes is still delightful. I laugh along, but it’s hard to enjoy anything when each bite is one moment closer to breaking the truth. We’re down to the last few slices and I’m still hungry, but Nothing Special takes them in a doggy-bag to go. “Tomorrow’s lunch!” he says, swinging the bag at his side as we walk by the river. He’s full on pizza and beer and that makes him bold enough to say, “We should ride bikes here sometime.” Night swans glow. Boats bob in the harbor. All of them have names. Princess Diana. Risky Rick. Land ho! I shiver, thinking of helmet hair and wind and low-hanging branches.

When we get to the station, Nothing Special recites some stupid guy line. “Looks like it’s gonna rain. Want to see my place?” But then he does that thing where he shy smiles with his hands pushed into pockets of pants that don’t touch the ground. It kind of kills me. And for a second I think maybe he’s as good as I get. I might not even tell him about Britney. I’ll just let him roll me around and mess up my wig, and I’ll spend my whole Sunday raking it out so it doesn’t look like shit on Monday morning. He looks into my eyes. His lips sink into mine. Hands on cheeks. Fingers creeping toward my neck when I pull away. I look at him. Nothing Special isn’t a bad guy. He’s just not the guy I would choose if I had all the hairs on my head. He’s okay. And someday I’ll find better than okay. Someday I’ll get tired of pretending I’m something I’m not. I’m tired of it already. “Actually,” I tell him. “I think I’ll head home.” He looks at me, all puppy-dog hurt. But it’s only because he doesn’t know the truth. Normally, I’d rather be a mystery. But tonight, I just want to be a bald girl and not hide it.

I fast-walk down the street until I realize I’m going the completely wrong direction. So I have to walk three blocks back to the Damen stop. Nothing Special was right about the rain, and I don’t have an umbrella. I take Britney off my head and walk bald. I never do this but somehow with the rain covering me, it feels okay. Outside a lamp store, I look at my reflection in the window. My shirt is soaked, but my head looks clean and smooth. Most people have lumpy potato heads and don’t even know it. Most people never even see their own heads.

When I get home, the living room light is on and the house smells like paint. “How’d it go?” Andre calls out, and I realize he probably stayed up for me, home alone, pretending he likes his new Saturdays. And it makes me cry thinking about how we both can’t have what we want. I come into the living room, holding Britney. Andre’s never seen me bald. I always wear at least my bandana or a baseball cap. He sees my tears and his carefully applied mascara running down my cheeks and says, “Oh, shit.”

Andre leaves the room and comes back with his laptop and a speaker. He turns on Britney. The real one. “Me Against the Music.” The beat comes in with Madonna’s cameo. Hey, Britney! Andre takes her from my hands. He puts her on his head and starts dancing on the couch. At first, it’s kind of pathetic. He’s got red paint on his nose and his too-tight basketball shorts. He’s singing in that throaty Britney way, whipping my hair, pulling my waist, and I watch him. Shimmying shoulders, eyes shut, dirty socks scrunched into the couch. I want to get in the zone. Get in the zone. But then he’s dancing. Really dancing. Like he’s in a trance. The way I imagine him when he talks about his days shutting down clubs, owning the dance floor. Most days, he’d rather be there, but right now, he’s all here. Swaying and popping and dipping. And I realize he’s not just dancing for me. So I start dancing, too. Bobbing my head, swinging my hips. Come on Britney, lose control. Let me see you dance. As the chorus runs out, Andre and I are both a little more like ourselves. Andre and Britney and me.

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Kaitlin Roberts is a writer and journalist living in Berlin. Her stories have been published by The New York Times, Gimlet Media, Parhelion Literary Magazine, and others.