Green-Eyed Envy

Commentary: Alphabet Soup

My partner has red hair.

It was one of the first things I learned about her more than 11 years ago. I’d never even seen her; my best friend had dutifully found me a date and we were talking about the arrangements. I’d been single for a few months and felt ready to get back into the swing of things, to pursue that activity so elusive to the stereotypical lesbian (who, as the old joke goes, brings a U-haul instead of flowers on the second romantic encounter with another woman). I was ready to date.

”I’ll find you a date,” said Lyn, who was really enjoying me as a single gal, ”but you can’t get into a relationship.”

”I don’t want a relationship,” I told her. ”I want a date.”

So she introduced me to Kim. And before our first dinner together — a double-date during which the sweetly shy Kim and the awkwardly timorous Kristina said few words to each other — when I asked Lyn to tell me what this mystery woman looked like, she said, ”She’s got this incredible red hair …”

That meant nothing to me at the time. It was a superficial characteristic. She has red hair. I have brown hair. So what?

Silly me. It turns out that red hair is a prized possession. It’s a fairly rare commodity; statistics indicate that as little as two percent of the U.S. population has naturally red hair. Two percent.

And my partner’s one of them.

So, 11 years ago, I got an education. Fast. I learned, first of all, that Kim’s red hair is in fact incredible. There are different types of red hair: There’s the kind that you barely notice because it’s almost brown or almost blonde. There’s the type you see on a young kid who’s more freckle than anything else. There’s the type that doesn’t quite work on an adult whose skin is too pale or whose particular shade of red just doesn’t cut it. There’s the type that comes from a bottle, but we won’t dignify that with more than a mention.

And then there’s the type that sits on Kim’s head: It’s a remarkable hue with a thousand layers of color. It does things in the sunlight that generations of artists haven’t come close to catching on canvas.

But more than that, it’s a defining characteristic. It goes beyond the superficial. I have brown hair; she is a redhead. People remember her months after a brief initial encounter and say hello to her first. I receive quizzical looks, glints of near recognition and outright dismissals.

The second thing I learned was this — and I’m probably violating a secret code, but America needs to know: Redheads are insanely competitive with each other. They check one another out. I didn’t catch onto this until Kim’s father pointed it out to her, not long after we met. ”I’ve seen you,” he said. ”You look each other over.”

I started watching, and he was right. They’re always comparing themselves to each other. There’s a smug thing going on: ”Mine’s so much better than that.” It’s like a secret society of rivals. This made for an interesting one-year anniversary trip to Ireland, where the competition was astounding.

The third lesson was that people comment on redheads in ways they don’t comment on other hair colors. My friends, for instance. A lot of people asked me early on — and people routinely ask her too, gallingly — if her hair color is natural. (Of course it is.) One person suggested I could throw away my grandfather’s lucky buckeye: ”Does she bring you good luck? I’ve heard redheads are lucky.” (I haven’t won the lottery yet, but I do feel fortunate to have found Kim.) Another friend asked if all of Kim’s body hair is that compelling tint. (It seems some people have no tact.)

All of this focus on her hair makes me reconsider my own. My hair does kind of cool things in the sunlight too. Kim and I fondly remember one of our early walks in the park together on a sunny summer day in 1995. We were smitten with each other; I was fast on my way to violating Lyn’s stipulation that I could have a date as long as I didn’t start a relationship. The sun was streaming through the trees in Sligo Creek Park, and Kim’s incredible tresses were stunning passersby. She, oblivious to the fireworks she was creating, was fixated on me.

”You have copper highlights!” she said. Her excitement startled me. I hadn’t ever thought much about my highlights — the copper ones or the blonde ones. Or the rest of its color, which always struck me as a fairly plain brown. It’s just my hair. It’s perfectly adequate, the right amount of curl and thickness, a color that works with my skin. I’ve never permed it or dyed it (except for one unfortunate teenage experiment with peroxide). It works for me. But until that moment, when Kim pronounced my hair special, it was just … hair.

I immediately had elevated status. Copper highlights! I became a sort of adjunct member of the society of redheads. It occurred to me later, when I started romanticizing about a future with Kim, that with the right collaborator I could possibly produce some redhaired children for us. By that point, her hair had become so special to me that it seemed like a trait we had to try to breed for.

But I pale in comparison to her. It takes me no longer than a few minutes to locate Kim in a large crowd; it could take her an hour to find me. Her hair has, I have to confess, been more than a source of pride and awe for me. I’ve had my moments of, well, jealousy.

I try to console myself. What about me is special? What makes me unique? What do I have that would make someone on the street notice me?

I search the mirror frantically. There must be something. I settle on my eyes, which are a stunning shade of green — and when I wear a green shirt, they practically pop out of my head.

I am green-eyed.

She walks up behind me and sees me studying myself in the mirror. ”What’re you doing?” she says, smiling sweetly at our images. I smile back at her, and look into her eyes.

The world’s most perfect blue.

Kristina Campbell’s green eyes reside below her mop of brown hair in the wilds of Takoma Park. She can be reached at kcampbell@metroweekly.com.

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