TELOGEN EFFLUVIUM by Brooke Middlebrook

Is when your hair falls out from stress. Your hair’s heading for the exits but the name rolls off the tongue. 

Perhaps it’s because I take scalding showers, or I eat too much Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese. Sure, it’s organic, but nothing good for you comes as a powder. The best part is the bunny tail you press to open the box.

External forces cause follicles to enter a sleep cycle. Hair loss, when inherited, is called alopecia. The old nature vs. nurture question, like we’re not all tired of that debate. 

Someone I know is laying in an ICU bed tethered with oxygen, someone not quite family or friend but another vector that relates us to each other beyond these simple terms. Our lives act on each other’s in ways not easily catalogued, the forces underneath similar enough, moving in generally the same direction, but sometimes, like now, shearing against each other, and underneath my concern for this person is a selfish wish to know in which direction my arrow will point now. I don’t know how this works; I failed physics. 

Like hair, I go through phases. Sometimes I don’t listen to song lyrics, or I mishear them, and then many years pass and at the exact right moment I come to understand. Two decades after the song is released, while separating egg whites from yolks over the kitchen sink, I realize that her placenta falls to the floor. 

Thirty-eight and eleven-twelfths years of age doesn’t seem like a good enough fulcrum from which the rest of my life slides down, hairless. 

I failed physics because I spent the class wetting cotton balls and throwing them at the ceiling when the teacher’s back was turned. One might call it my rebellious phase. 

Someone was telling me there are seventeen-year cicadas about to emerge from the ground. I misheard and thought they said seventy, as if any length of time living in the dark is not an achievement.

One afternoon in my college dorm, I was alone in the girls’ bathroom, washing my hair in the last shower of the row. I heard a drunk boy enter and shuffle towards the sound of water, his can frisking along the tile. Then there was silence, until he tore my curtain open, and I was certain this is it, this is how it happens, in flip flops. But he stood there looking, and laughed. I must have misheard that particular lyric. 

At least once a day my elbow is tickled by what I’m sure is a bug but is only a fallen hair, stuck to the fabric of my sleeve. 

I was on a 6 train headed uptown at a time in my life when much was in flux, and the book I was reading asked, How much uncertainty are you willing to tolerate? and in that exact moment the question was comforting, like a warm bowl of noodles. 

At the nymph stage, young cicadas survive all those years underground by sipping root sap.

One night at a bar in Emmetsburg, Iowa, I was picking songs on the jukebox when a cellophane-wrapped chicken ’n cheese sandwich fell on my head. There could be no arc or trajectory, it simply dropped from the smooth ceiling. I have since lived my life secure in that moment’s reality and impossibility. 

But how do cicadas know it’s time to tunnel up to air in synchrony? Some phases begin without us realizing, not until later recognizing the border behind us, not until the nymphs are molting and walking on soft legs.

My friend Frank, a pediatric geneticist, was called to testify in the trial of a mother accused of poisoning her child with salt. The defense claimed Frank’s assessment failed to identify some rare metabolic disorder as the cause of her child’s ill health. I asked him what it was like to be part of such a sensational trial, a case of nature vs. (disordered) nurture. Can you believe it? he said. They made me sound like I was bad at my job. 

In physics, forces were always moving towards or away from each other with those arrows, confident, announcing their direction. I failed because I saw little use in naming forces if they could be canceled out. 

Losses can still tickle quite a long time after the fact.

Distinctions matter. All those cotton balls hanging over my head, bunny tails, speech bubbles containing the words, ‘I don’t know’. The slope I climbed up was fragile; the slope I’m rolling down is always changing. So many things have roots.


Brooke Middlebrook currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama but grew up in the hills of western Massachusetts. Her work appears in Waterwheel Review, Unbroken, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She can be found @brooke_squared on Instagram.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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