During our junior year of college, my best friend cut off all her hair—one of those dramatic, “long hair to pixie cut with shaved sides” transformations. Her hair was a beautiful (and fake) red, maintained through regular visits to her hometown of High Point, North Carolina, and before she left for the salon, I asked her to keep some of her hair for me. I wanted to use it to make Victorian-style hair jewelry.
If you’ve ever gotten one of these haircuts, you know the stylist often puts your hair into a ponytail and lobs that off first to remove the bulk of the length. Kate saved that ponytail for me, wrapped in the tin foil squares stylists use for highlights. Though we lived together, the hair stayed in her car. One day, she went to a car wash, and there the person washing her car took out the ponytail from the back seat, parted the foil, assessed the hank of hair, and looked my friend dead in the eye while tossing the hair in the trash. So I did not get Kate’s hair, though we tell this story often at parties, the two of us going back and forth so smoothly you’d think we’d practiced.
We met as freshmen at the University of North Carolina Asheville, where I knew not one single person when I arrived. I first saw Kate on a campus tour, a group of jittery eighteen-year-olds sizing each other up and decidedly ignoring the tour leader explaining campus amenities. Her hair, that noticeable red, was shoulder length with flip ends, her eyes hidden behind giant black sunglasses. She was wearing a sleeveless white blouse with a ruffled neckline, capri pants with a Lilly Pulitzer-esque print, and black ballet flats. Her arms were crossed.
I had come to this school where I knew no one on purpose: I didn’t want to follow half of my graduating class to the University of Georgia for Highschool 2.0. That choice meant I spent the year waiting to relax around people, waiting for that moment when you feel brave enough to exhale and be your actual self. (The fact that I had no idea who my actual self was a problem to be dealt with later.) Kate and I were casual friends amid one of those freshman friend groups where you roll twenty people deep to the dining hall, roommates tagging along with roommates. I don’t think we spent any time together, just the two of us, all year.
And that was fine with me, because I was intimidated by her. She liked bands I’d never heard of, could riff about Angels in America with the theater kids, had an enviable wardrobe, and pulled off a lot of very Southern fashion (like those Lilly Pulitzer-esque pants) in an ironic way. She knew who she was. Up against that confidence, my ignorance of my own self was not just a wave being broken by the cliffs but a pitiful ripple fizzling out miles from shore.
We lived together for the next three years of college, along with two other friends—a foursome whittled from that bigger freshman group. The cracks around all of our edges had worsened by our junior year, leading to a suite full of mentally ill twenty-one-year-olds self-medicating in a variety of disastrous ways. Kate was the only one of us who had already been in therapy, and she knew how to deal with her shit. Of the other three, I was the most high-functioning: not yet (but soon to be) in therapy, not yet medicated, but making it to classes and taking care of myself as best I could.
I wish I could say Kate and I became close that year without saying it was at the expense of our other two roommates, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. We started spending more time together to avoid them, sneaking out for late-night food runs to bypass the emotional minefield of our living space. While neither of us was exactly thriving, we at least understood how the other chose to navigate our individual crises.
By the time we graduated, Kate and I had backpacked through Europe together, edited each other’s grad school applications, and spent hours in McDonald’s parking lots eating Big Macs. But I remained not quite fully relaxed in our friendship, questioning if we were friends because we really were friends, or because I was simply the best choice of the available options. An insecurity that shot through my perception of our relationship like color through marble, streaking something otherwise solid with evidence that impurities existed.
We both went straight to graduate school after college. The location of our conversations moved from carpooling to class or cooking in the kitchen to Facetime and WhatsApp, a five-hour time difference now between us that loomed large to me, all the way across the ocean.
I was not doing well that year mentally, and Kate was the first one I let know how serious the situation was. I FaceTimed her from the kitchen floor, my body tucked in between the fridge and the wall. I was living in university-supplied graduate housing and everything was blue: the walls (cornflower), the curtains (faded denim), the chairs (navy).
She asked me, “How bad is it?” I did not want to say the word “suicide,” though it was correct. It was too big, too surreal, a word I felt I had not earned, because people out there were having a harder time than me and surely I just needed to suck it up. I could not say the word myself, but I was desperate for someone to know, so I led Kate to it, saying something to the effect of “really bad,” or “really, really bad,” or “as bad as it could possibly be.”
“Have you thought about killing yourself?” she asked me.
I was reluctant to look at her directly and meet her eye through my phone’s camera.
“Yes,” I said.
And then she was the one person who knew.
She came to visit me in Glasgow during the summer of 2016. We spent a few days in the city, eating at Ox & Finch like we weren’t on graduate student budgets and wandering through Kelvingrove Park, before we took a nine-hour, unairconditioned bus ride north to the Isle of Skye. We stayed at a small B&B run by a woman named Heather, and every morning she told us to eat more because we were both so skinny. Kate and I found this hilarious, as we were both larger than Heather in height and weight, but we happily obliged by working our way through the toast rack each morning.
We decided to sightsee via a tour group that included a driver, a good number of septuagenarian tourists, and blessed AC. Our driver/guide took us all over the island, and while I don’t remember his name, I do remember he called us his “weary travelers.” “Come along, my weary travelers,” he’d say when it was time for us to move to the next location. It was a good schtick, in his Scottish accent, and no less entertaining for being a practiced bit. Kate and I sat up front in the van and asked him where he vacationed. “The Bahamas,” he said wistfully.
Our group saw the Fairy Pools and the Fairy Glen and the Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing. My photos are all intensely green landscapes, with a small black and white spot in many of them: Kate’s pale skin and black overalls against hills and oceans, waving at me from the other side of a rock formation. I take a picture of her lounging at the Fairy Glen, looking like an outdoorsy pin-up. She takes a picture of me at the edge of some cliff, looking back at the camera and smiling.
Socially, I’d been struggling all year: all I wanted to talk about was the truth of my current mental state, and that wasn’t something I felt I could spring on relatively new acquaintances, who I only knew from school. My baggage felt too heavy for pints after lecture and library study sessions. Meanwhile, Kate had two new fabulous and fun friends in her graduate cohort back in North Carolina, and I was jealous and insecure. Jealous of the time they got with her, insecure because who would want a depressed friend across an ocean when you have someone fun right there to go to He’s Not Here with?
This self-deprecation was unfair to Kate, in that I assumed she was thinking unkindly of me, and talking to her honestly about my feelings would have helped. I don’t believe I did. I just attempted to be reassured by her visit, because you don’t buy an international plane ticket for someone you don’t like. We talked about what we wanted to do after graduate school on that trip, sitting on our bed at Heather’s B&B and killing time before dinner. The sliding door was open so we could hear the sound of the ocean, but there was no screen, so bugs were filling up the top corners of the ceiling. I read aloud a quote from John Darnielle about comfort zones, made the argument that we should both move back to Asheville. I wanted us to live in the same city again. I wanted her to live in the same city as me and not her graduate school friends.
My plan was to start on antidepressants the minute I got home. I would be happier, and things would be better. Maybe I would be less insecure. And it was on that possibility that I made all my plans and hung all my hopes for what my life would look like when I survived this chapter.
As a newly minted Master in my field, I moved back in with my parents and worked at a Joann Fabric and Crafts while hunting for museum jobs/stalling while Kate finished her program. She got a job in Asheville after her graduation, and with her acceptance of the offer the next chapter of her life—and by extension, mine—was decided. It was inconceivable that I would live anywhere other than where she did. I put in a transfer to work at the Asheville Joann on Tunnel Road and unloaded a blow-up mattress, two lawn chairs, and a TV into my new apartment on June 7, 2017. It was my half-birthday of my 24th year.
Kate and I had our growing pains in this second phase of our lives in Asheville. She started seeing someone, a wonderful someone, and I felt neglected. I was scared to say this to her because I already worried I, as a friend, was too needy. The antidepressants I was newly on were helping with many things, but the insecurity I’d felt in college and in graduate school had come all the way back around to our mountain town.
I would not call our first fight the crux of those growing pains, because it wasn’t a fight so much as it was me being immature and uncommunicative. We had plans to meet for an after-work drink, and I was going to finally bring up my feelings and tell her I felt like an afterthought when held up against the sparkle of her new relationship. This plan was foiled when Kate told me she had invited her co-worker—a lovely person who I typically enjoyed spending time with—to join us.
I was pissed. Pissed because she hadn’t asked me before inviting someone else, pissed because now all my momentum to have this conversation was wasted, pissed to disguise doubt, because why didn’t Kate want to hang out with just me? The three of us walked to a nearby rooftop bar where I sat in a wicker lounge chair with a sweating cocktail in a death-grip and stared straight ahead all night, contributing the bare minimum to the conversation and refusing to look Kate in the eye. She and her co-worker politely powered through and attempted to carry on a conversation around the shape of my bad behavior.
Kate texted the next day: clearly, we needed to talk. I let her into my apartment with an awkward greeting, and we sat stiffly side by side on my couch. I spoke mostly to the bookshelf directly in front of us and told her/the bookshelf that ever since she started seeing this person, I felt she didn’t have time for me. It did feel good to finally say it. We softened as we talked through things, both of us relaxing back into my couch and unconsciously shifting our postures to orient towards one another, as usual.
My optimism, my humor, my ability to leave behind what no longer serves me and ask for more—all things Kate loves about me. Sometimes I am so far along the well-trodden path of insecurity that I forget all of the times and ways in which she chooses me, as much as I choose her. We put in place a standing Friday night hang out time, for the two of us, which we are still doing six years later. That person she started seeing is now her husband, and I was the one who married them, in September of 2021.
As an apology of sorts for the hair I didn’t get, Kate gave me her wisdom teeth. We see the same dentist, who recommended to each of us that we get our wisdom teeth removed (advice I’m continuing to ignore). Kate and I joked about doing the surgery together, wondering if we could get a party room at the oral surgeon and go under side by side.
I asked Kate if she’d keep her extracted teeth. “I don’t think I’ll get them,” she said, to which I replied that they are a part of your body and it seems like you should be able to keep them if you want. When she told me she had a surprise for me, I guessed: it was indeed her two bottom wisdom teeth, covered in blood and sealed in a small plastic bag from the dentist.
I look at Kate’s teeth often. When I was a kid, I kept all of my baby teeth in a small, roughly one-inch clear box from The Container Store. I would frequently take them out of the box and pass them from hand to hand, like beads. I don’t want to remove Kate’s teeth from the bag, because the dentist vacuum-sealed them in a way that cannot be redone. But I do want to hold them in my hands, and I think about what it would be like to pop them in my mouth. Her blood still on them, moving them back and forth in my mouth like I’m swishing mouthwash.
“I probably should have cleaned the blood off before I gave you these,” Kate said.
“Nah,” I replied, happy to take them as they were.
The graduate degree I almost died getting is in fashion history, and I’ve long been fascinated by the styles of the late Victorian period (I love a frothy gown). I find their adornments equally compelling, the “potentially macabre-seeming to us in the 21st century” adornments most of all. The Victorians were not the first to wear memorial, or mourning, jewelry to pay tribute to lost loved ones. They were not the first to incorporate teeth—historically thought to have magical properties—and hair into said jewelry. But because of their popularity during Victoria’s reign, hair and milk tooth jewelry both are commonly linked in current popular culture with the mid-to-late 19th century.
In 1864, Queen Victoria had the baby teeth of her youngest daughter, Beatrice, set into a pair of earrings and a pendant in the shape of fuchsia flowers. Her daughter Princess Victoria’s milk tooth was set into a thistle-shaped brooch. Milk tooth jewelry was therefore popularized and served as a way of commemorating an important milestone—a child surviving long enough to lose those teeth in the first place. Not all examples were as ornate as Victoria’s: floating around in antique stores are simple gold bands with a tooth in the center, instead of a diamond, or stick pins dotted with a small milk tooth at the end.
Even more popular than milk tooth jewelry was hair jewelry: by the late 1800s, pages and pages of designs could be found in catalogs. Brooches, earrings, pendants, and bracelets were available in the shape of bows, braids, anchors, and crosses. Jet and onyx were popular materials, both appropriate to wear alongside the requisite black clothing. (After Prince Albert’s death in 1861 Victoria went into deep mourning, which only increased demand for mourning fashion.) Before the widespread availability of photography, keeping someone’s hair was a way to remember them. It was most commonly the hair of someone who had died, but it wasn’t unusual to have a lock of your friend’s hair preserved in a piece of jewelry, frame, or scrapbook.
From far away you can’t always tell if a tooth set in a ring is a tooth: it might look like an opal, or some milky, synthetic stone. The brown braid of a bracelet could be leather, not obviously hair until you get up close. And when you do, there’s the unnerving turn: the recognition of the familiar but slightly out of place, as your brain registers that teeth don’t go on fingers and hair doesn’t bracket wrists and necks. A gold ring sold by British auction house Woolley & Wallis is made from almost an entire top set of children’s teeth, interspersed with small diamonds. A small smile, encircling the finger, worn on the hand of the person who birthed that child and raised it up and made sure it lived long enough to shed a mouthful of tiny jewels.
Hair and teeth made into jewelry makes sense to me. These things are simply extensions of our body: the teeth already in our mouths, the hair we lose in the shower or by brushing. Even when it’s someone else’s teeth or someone else’s hair, it’s all corporeal purview. Humans have not always had as much stuff as we have now, and so of course you would use the material at hand. Of course you would take a lock of your baby’s or lover’s or friend’s hair and wear it close, long before you could carry a photo of them in your wallet or see their face, distance be damned, with relative ease, thanks to technology. It all seems a natural inclination—back to me as a child, passing my baby teeth hand over hand—and it’s in that spirit that I gravitate towards this style of jewelry where I can find it, stopping at antique stores to pet a locket protecting a soft-serve swirl of hair.
Teeth for celebration and survival, hair for mourning and remembrance. Due to the unique nature of each tooth or strand of hair, no two pieces of this jewelry are alike. There are still jewelers today who will put the hair of your friend or dog into a small locket or urn, jewelers who will cast baby teeth and adult teeth in gold, silver, or bronze and dangle them from earrings and necklaces. I wanted Kate’s hair in a necklace, perhaps under a clear stone to showcase that beautiful red color. Her teeth wait in my velvet jewelry box, the corporeal (the magical?) begging for touch.
In my most insecure moments, her teeth are an anchor: I have a piece of her, a literal, actual, piece of her, and because I do not entirely understand nor ever will what drives people to stay, I hold on to the teeth, a twisted logic telling me she can’t ever fully go, because a part of her is with me.
Wherever Kate is living serves as my second home. After 12 years of friendship, I know her things almost as well as I know mine: her deeply haunted oil painting of an owl family, a plastic koala with nubs for legs she always hangs in the kitchen, the heavy copies of Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933 – 1957 and The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration. It does not feel like I am visiting a place that does not belong to me when I stay at Kate’s, particularly when she is not there (like when I’m dogsitting). Her space is always deeply hers, yet I relax into it easily, as I do at my own apartment.
Every Christmas, Kate’s husband visits family in California. This past year she texted me, after a day or two of being alone in her house, and asked if I wanted to have a sleepover. We—me, Kate, and her two dogs—passed out in her bed to the soundtrack of a Korean cooking show. The morning found the dogs desperate for attention, me with the inevitable dog fur in my mouth. Hot and tangled from the sheets and too many blankets, my nightgown somehow turned the entire way around and backwards on my body.
This defenselessness made me anxious. I wanted to leap out of bed and brush my teeth, brush my hair, brush my eyebrows. I wanted to put on deodorant. Despite all my therapy and all my (albeit slow) progress, my default thinking remains fear: fear that no one could possibly suffer the burden of my natural self, in both appearance and personality. I must look good to make up for being too loud or too blunt or bad at small talk. I must be charming and selfless and demure to apologize for acne or eye bags or not knowing how to style my hair. One of the two—how I look or how I act—must be above reproach at all times to compensate for the other.
Kate mumbled a good morning from across the expanse of pillows. I felt the anxiety rise and I forced myself to relax, to keep my rumpled ass in the bed. Kate has seen me passed out on the floor at night and hungover in the morning, at my most put together and at my most undone, countless times across a booth at a Waffle House in the earliest hours of the morning. You are safe here, I told myself. You can exist without apology in this bed, in this house, with this person.
It is true, whether I believe it fully yet or not.
It was Kate, during our junior year of college (same year as her hair chop) and while sitting together with me on a hot pink Walmart futon in our dorm, who suggested I see a therapist. Our dorm that year was built into the side of a hill, and we were on the ground floor, so bugs had easy access to our space: conversations were frequently interrupted by someone jumping up to chase after a giant cricket with a shoe. I was talking about my body, my endless source of dissatisfaction, and Kate told me that, while most people had insecurities, theirs were rarely at the level at which mine plagued me. I will forever owe her for that. I started seeing a therapist at our school’s health center and have continued regular therapy ever since.
How special, that someone sees your pain and gives you perhaps the nicest gift of all: the wisdom and lived experience to say, “It doesn’t have to be this way, and here’s how it can be better.” I hate that her knowledge came at her own expense, that years before we met she’d gone through things that sent her down her own path of healing. She was telling me not to touch that plant because it’s dangerous, and I was grateful while knowing she knew because she herself had been poisoned. Like that but worse, because it was real.
She knows me better than anyone, not just because I’ve told her things I’ve told no one else, but because she can fully empathize with the worst and darkest parts of my brain. They’re in her brain too. And I don’t know what our friendship would look like if one or both of us were different, because we’re not. Perhaps we’d be just as close. But we only know what we share because she cracked open a window into that dark room of hers and was not afraid to show me, and I was not afraid to see.
Our friendship is the most important relationship in my life, and I too am a part of it: what we have would not exist without me, flawed as I have always been. We have become an ouroboros, a living, twining, endless thing, each piece of ourselves we pass to the other, carving the space for us to be seen more fully. This is what I remind myself when I am insecure, when I doubt, when I question: how do I make a person stay? Remember: we have already chosen each other a thousand times.
Tangled together, limbs and hair, turned towards the other as we slept in a dorm room, in a hostel, in the houses on Penny Lane and Narbeth and Brooklyn Road. Her smiling at me through a phone and across 4,000 miles, telling me everything would be OK.
Me smiling back, my teeth a mix of mine and hers, unable and unwilling to tell the difference.