The Combover by Judy Harju Galliher

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close-up and blurry image of long hair

You fidget as your eighth-grade homeroom teacher starts handing out school portraits. Last year, you tried to conceal your braces with a closed-lipped smile. Weeks later, the photo displayed a grimace. This year’s picture must look better. Normal. Your family moved, and you’ve landed in foreign territory at Chippewa Middle School.

Your seersucker elephant pants and half-zip pullover fit right in at your old school. Classmates coveted your brown leather shoes from Conn-Co. At Chippewa, those elephant pants billowed around your legs and ankles as you ran the 100-yard dash. Everyone snickered.

The Chippewa kids wore Adidas and straight-leg Levi’s. Their moms didn’t stitch elephant pants on their sewing machines. And they sure didn’t buy their shoes at the discount store.

When Mrs. Ames hands you the windowed envelope with your photo, you take a deep breath and peek. Not bad! Nice how the baby blue shirt compliments your eyes. The smile just hints at your braces.

But wait. What’s that?

You zoom in on your hairline. At the part, it’s wide and wispy. Fuzzy where it frames your face. You squirm as you realize the thinning hair exposes where you stroke, stroke, stroke, tug, tug, tug, and pull, pull, pull the hairs from your head.


You migrate your habit and pluck from the crown of your head.

You know the drill: Grab a chunk of hair. Slowly, so slowly, stroke it from scalp to end. Repeat. Again. And again. Winnow the tress down by releasing smooth strands of hair until you’re holding a single strand with the texture you adore: a knot, a bump, a split end.

Appreciate how the world stills as you stroke that single strand. Let the tactile activity absorb you. For now, nothing else matters, not the elephant pants, the 100-yard slog, or the laughter. Instead of the new kid, you’re just you.

Eventually, pull the hair out. Gently, so the bulbous root comes with it. If you’re alone, slide the strand between your lips. Several times. If you’re in public, run the strand through your fingers. Several times.

Then start over at the beginning: Grab a chunk of hair.


This works, pulling from your crown. You no longer see the effects of your habit.

But others do.

On a steamy August day, your parents opt for a lakeside picnic dinner. As your mom piles the chicken and chips onto the picnic table, you absentmindedly pull your hair. She chides you, “Leave your hair alone.”

Your brother’s friend teases, “Pretty soon, you’ll be pulling hair from everywhere.”

You want to flatten like a Salvador Dali clock, melt and slide off the wooden bench into oblivion.

Your brother glances at you. Does a double take.

“Wow, you have a bald spot,” he says.

Back home, your mom’s makeup mirror shows he’s right. At the crown, your part ends in a wide swath of bare scalp. Your face flushes. How can you go to school looking like this?

You devise a plan. The next morning, after your shower, you perform a trick of aging men everywhere.

The combover.

You rummage through the bathroom vanity to find some hair gel. Brushing your hair back, you press it tightly over the bald spot, apply the gel, and clamp it down with a barrette.


High school means another wardrobe change. The Mounds View students wear carpenter’s pants, not Levi’s. Nikes are now the shoes du jour.

Whatever you wear, you keep finding ways to hide your hair-pulling. Ponytails become your friends. As do barrettes in all shapes and sizes.

Because you can’t stop. No matter how often your mom says, “Don’t pull your hair.” It’s soothing, stroking your hair while watching TV or reading. You don’t know why you do it. You just keep stroking. Keep pulling. Keep falling into a meditative trance.

One day, you surpass all prior combovers. You sweep all your hair to the left for a side ponytail.

The next day, a popular girl with beautiful hair, Nikes, and nothing to hide wears her ponytail to the side for the first time.

That night, in bed, you smile as you pull your hair. You find a strand scaly with hair gel residue. You run your fingers down its length. You stroke it, release it. Tug it, release it. Then you pull it out. Run the strand between your lips. And roll over to fall asleep.

Meet the Contributor

Judy Harju Galliher writes from Northern Virginia when she’s not running, reading, or traveling elsewhere. Her work has been published in The Mindful Word, The New York Times, and Pangyrus. She is an MFA candidate at Spalding University.

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Ed Schipul

  7 comments for “The Combover by Judy Harju Galliher

  1. A gorgeous and revealing story…and so heartfelt! As a child my younger brother and I used to “rock” back & forth in bed and on the couch to relax and fall asleep…often humming or singing a mantra! I didn’t sleep over at a friend’s house until my teens as I was convinced I could not fall asleep without rocking. I overcame it but it was pure relaxation and contentment during my childhood! A revealing, important story!

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