Some days it was warm in San Francisco, and I knew the warm days from the cold ones because the morning air trickling in from my open window was still and I would instinctively move my legs on top of my quilt. These days were rare but they were exhausting, as I contended with the heat in a city where air conditioning was a luxury only to be enjoyed in specific places. Specifically not my apartment.
That year the heat arrived the first week of October. After a refreshing summer, I was not prepared for the punishing weight of 95 degrees, and neither was my office. At 10PM, the temperature control for the building would cut, and so I would sit alone in my cubicle with my sleeves rolled up and my dress shoes off, working through Excel spreadsheet after Excel spreadsheet, eyes burnt red by the blue glow of my computer monitor. Every few minutes I would stand and look at the rows of empty cubes around me, the darkness broken only by my flickering desk lamp.
My hair was long; long enough that it no longer neatly tucked behind my ears and instead flicked upwards like a bird’s wings. Long enough that if I pulled down my bangs they reached my lips. Long enough that in this office without air conditioning, it seemed to capture heat and weigh heavily upon my head. I was never one for long hair styles. My grandmother used to tell me that if your hair was too long it carried bad moods with it. But who had time for haircuts? It was my fortieth consecutive sixteen-hour day. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly forty days. Perhaps every day wasn’t exactly sixteen hours. But the numbers sound biblical enough.
At three in the morning I sent my final email and walked home, eager for just a few hours of sleep before my alarm signaled that it was time for me to stick my leg out from the quilt and start again. San Francisco was silent that night, even quieter than usual as people took refuge from the heat – the concrete buildings of downtown reverberating each sound like an empty concert hall. As I scaled California Street, I wondered who dreams of this life, and why I dreamt of it for so long. For the fortieth night, I considered quitting this job. For the fortieth night, I knew I would not.
As I wearily climbed into bed, I checked my phone one last time. Already, there was an email telling me that my final spreadsheet contained a mistake. Telling me to return to the office tonight to correct it. Telling me my sleep didn’t matter. Telling me that under this pressure I had cracked.
I wanted to thrash about and throw chairs. But that would have required energy, so instead I undressed and stood in the shower. The water was warm and steam rose through the open window. Standing made me feel nauseous so I laid back in the old Victorian tub of the apartment I couldn’t afford, the water pouring onto my face from above.
I rubbed my face with my hands, not to wash away tears but to feel the strong pressure against my face. I pressed harder and it began to release something. I could feel something – real or imagined – leaking from my ears, and maybe if I pressed hard enough I could empty myself and make room for something else. My face felt hot but my hand continued to press, under my eyelids and on the cheekbone. I cried out but the feeling was indescribable.
But there was more to release. I began to feel tears in the corner of my eyes as I reached up into my hair and began to pull. It hurt worse than the pressure on my face but I could feel the hair loosening and finally entire strands began to fall to the floor of the tub. I stood in pain, but had to keep pulling. I ripped at it, angry now, shouting what I did not understand. I felt my head throb, and dizziness began to overtake me. My body stumbled through the shower curtains away from the hot water and onto the bathroom floor. The rug cushioned my head and I closed my eyes for a moment of relief. Not finding it, I realized that perhaps the hair wasn’t responsible for the bad mood.