The Buzz

By Ariel Barley
April 27, 2024

Why did I do it? Well, the itch, the scalp-feeling, and the attention.

why buzz it?

I’m young, sitting on our couch; it’s stainless, for the most part. I perch right where Dad will spill his stupid decaf coffee on the cushions in a few years. The house hasn’t been renovated yet, so my little brother and I still share a pink room where cardboard butterflies dot the walls.

Mom sits behind me, warm-blooded like I’ll be one day. I lean into her — all reptilian.

“Your hair is beautiful, you know.”

She says this like it’s nothing, a universality. Like: Dad is an architect, the cats outside will haggle the door for food at six, and my hair — even snagged in a metal-toothed comb — is beautiful.

I decide then that I like having something beautiful, like my green Tinker Bell wings and my red heart tee.

well, the itch

“I want to buzz my head.” 

I’m lying. The thought is a worm in my head, wriggling.

Really?” Hailey looks at me, and her nose scrunches up. Her hair is long and curly.

“Yeah. It’ll help me fit into my swim cap easy.”


Okay, I think, stung. I knew you would say that. Plus, I’m not really going to do it.


It’s junior year, and I’m warming down after a swim meet. My shoulders cut through calm water. This is my favorite part of swimming: the aftermath. It’s where my body tells me that I’ve done something good. I can use that to override the fact that I haven’t gotten any faster in a year.

I grab onto the wall and slip off my swim cap. The water cools my head as it soaks in, tempering the redness of my skin. My tears disappear, blending into water. 

(Something about swimming: you can cry in peace, surrounded by a hundred people.)

My hair floats up around me. The clockwork anxiety that’s clawed at my stomach leading up to this all week sputters out. That’s the cycle with swim meets: train, dread, race, repeat.

I don’t love swimming, but I love the way that it swallows up my teammates — that they can adore the sport so candidly, with such a seductive passion.

I love that people gasp when I tell them I practice eight times a week. I love that boys compliment my biceps, and that girls like how my hair is bleached by the chlorine. I love Butterfly, because my knees can hyperextend (which makes me a little faster, and it’s easy to disguise that grand lack of talent as a special skill).

I’ve grown complacent with mediocrity here. I want to quit, but I’m not really going to do it.

the scalp-feeling

“Rub my head?” Cecily begs. She lays upside-down on our couch, wheedling.

You look like a cat, I think. “Only if you rub mine.”


The scene is a New Guild party, a semester ago. My biceps are long gone. I’m in pink and peplum, and I’m, like, so fucking drunk.

In an act of cartography Behr and I uncover the bathrooms about an hour into the party. I’m sort-of about to piss myself, so I reason with the girls at the front of the line. We make it out alive, but a bathroom trip marks the point in the night where we’re thinking we should leave — the point that decides the severity of tomorrow’s headaches.

Right on time, I turn to everyone and ask if we can go home after this, ugh.

My friends agree, discussing which pizza we want to get. We decide we’ll stay for one more song.

And then, miraculously, that song is Azaelia Banks. So, we stay — way longer — and the atmosphere just lights up.

I don’t drink anymore, but I start to feel the buzz in my teeth. Heat sits warm and heavy in my cheeks, and my friends flit past me like little gnats, and we all weave through the bodies dancing around us (for something like the fourth time tonight).

We flaunt too-confident hellos with typically irrelevant characters, and lock buggy arms and legs all the while. Behr smiles at me from somewhere, and then Shel bumps her shoulder against mine, and then Matthew kisses my nose. Everyone rubs my scalp, because short hair makes people want to poke at you.

Tonight I could throw up everywhere, and the people around me would still hold me tight. This is my worst, and my best, simultaneously. I feel it all the way home, and into my apartment, and into my pumpkin-patterned blanket.

(I’ll talk about this night for a long time after — hail it as the perfect going-out night. My friends will attempt to recreate it; we’ll see if there’s a reliable formula that we can apply to our Saturdays. No combination of pregames and parties have gotten us there yet — to this plane where the love for our friends becomes a physical sensation.)

and the attention, obviously

“Your hair!”

I smile, and do a little twirl. The joke is that it’s just me spinning, without any other moving parts. “My hair.”


Lush has lipstick now. I find this out from Cecily, who hands me an unassuming black tube. It goes in her floral makeup bag, clinking onto all of the other products. She leaves me with the bag, because what’s mine is hers, and we have a product-testing ritual that must be upheld.

I plop the bag on my bathroom counter, brushing away toothpaste and ladybug hair clips. The lipstick is red.

I bring it to my hand and draw a little heart to test the opacity. The heart is solid and a little wonky. Lipstick normally has an indent in one direction to help with application, but this tube looks more like a crayon (fitting, because lipstick has always felt childish to me — a tool for drawing on adult features).

Lipstick is for popstars and my pretty mom in her pretty wedding pictures; this is what I’ve always thought.

I apply it despite that rule, cringing at how waxy it feels. Beauty-guru videos play in my head, warning me not to overline. They guide me through the unfamiliar movement.

Once finished, I blink at myself.

I don’t love the way it looks — the color, and the shape, and everything aesthetic. The red is just so…much — so excessive. I tend to look best in purples and pinks, and the red clashes with my skin. Yet, I can’t look away from this version of me (and really, it’s just me with red lips, but it feels far more significant).

When I show Cecily, she says that she loves it on me. I think she might’ve said this even if she hated it, but I can tell by the stretch of her skin that she means it. I drink that up, live off of it, and decide right then that I can be a lipstick girl if it makes people look at me.

but what do you think, mom?

My hair — the hair is all around me.

“What do you think?” I ask.

Mom purses her lips, like when she’s eating my candy and doesn’t realize they’re sour gummy worms until it’s too late. She holds her mother’s scissors to her chest. She has always been my hairdresser, as Grandma was for her.

“I think my daughter is beautiful,” she says.

She hates it. I figure I’ll survive. ■

Layout: Melissa Huang
Photographer: Isabelle Milford
Stylists: Cynthia Lira & Alexandra Howard
Set Stylist: Yousuf Khan
HMUA: Kennedy Ruhland & Juniper Luedke 
Models: Brandon Akinseye & Josephine Bandora

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