July 06, 2016
The Internet isn’t popular enough yet for thousands of people to make the comparison between Justin Timberlake’s hair and a block of dry, uncooked Ramen Noodles. It is 1999. Because no one is paying attention, no one notices that Justin has a bad case of head lice that he refuses to acknowledge due to his busy schedule and also his desire to maintain a top-ranking position as teenage sex icon. The rest of N*Sync is in the hallway toying with the TRL celebrity photo booth while Justin sits in the greenroom of the Times Square studio. Carson Daly has just walked in to give Justin a hug. Carson asks, Do you need anything my man? to which Justin replies, I think I’m OK for now. Neither of them are particularly good at conversation, and they take turns looking in different corners of the room as JC and Joey call out poses from the hallway: Let’s do a silly one, Let’s stick our tongues out, OK, this one let’s just smile. Finally, Carson says, Not into pictures? Justin wishes he could explain to Carson that he actually loves photo booths, but the rest of the boys would surely get lice if he participated, so instead he just says, Nah, not my thing, and scratches a spot on his scalp that has been intensifying throughout the exchange.
Justin and his girlfriend Britney Spears are sitting side by side on an all-white couch in her Los Angeles apartment. He has just scratched his head for the seventy-sixth time since arriving at her place an hour ago. She has not asked about the incessant scratching even though this is their first time ever hanging out alone. Justin feels like perhaps she is not really interested in him, otherwise her attention would be more singularly focused on their conversation instead of on the yellow stain that appears to have been smeared into the white fabric of the couch. Britney tells him that one week earlier she was eating a plate of honey-glazed ham with mustard when she dropped her fork and ruined the upholstery. Justin asks why she didn’t just flip the cushion, and Britney seems confused, as if she didn’t know that cushions could be flipped. They do not flip the cushion, but rather Britney licks the tip of her thumb and starts to rub the mustard stain even though it is not making a difference in the harshness of the color. While she’s doing this, Justin scratches his tightly curled hair for the seventy-seventh time, and this time a louse breaks free and lands on the couch. Justin notices the louse but does not say anything to Britney about it. He goes to flick the louse into a corner of the room, but it moves too quickly and disappears between the couch cushions.
After performing the smash hit, “Bringin’ Da Noise” to a sardine-packed stadium of screaming teenage fans, Justin and the boys run backstage to change costumes from silver lamé jumpsuits to all-black outfits with marionette strings, a la their new album, No Strings Attached. It’s during this quick change that his hair stylist and sole confidante, Wisconsin, expresses concern for his ever-worsening lice condition. She tells him that she, herself, is totally fine with having lice, but there’s a real increasing chance he could pass it on to his bandmates without even having to touch them. Justin asks Wisconsin if she has told anyone. They are both whispering due to the team of people on either side of his body testing the slack on Justin’s strings. Wisconsin says, No, of course not, and Justin believes her because she has never been anything other than loyal. He scratches his head and says, OK thanks then, and she says, Break a leg. Justin thinks that in a different life, he could have fallen in love with Wisconsin. He thinks about giving her a kiss on the cheek, but tenses up, bashful, at the last moment and scratches his scalp instead before heading back out onto the stage.
Justin is alone in his downtown New York hotel room. The boys had all decided to take a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park, but they only thought to invite Justin at the last minute. He declined. He has just tried calling Britney, and chose not leave a message when her answering machine picked up. For a moment, he considers calling Wisconsin instead, but thinks that she probably is off doing something fun, like attending a bowling alley birthday party or having sex. He remembers what she told him about managing his lice. It’s all about points, she said, about filing your fingernails into points. Justin didn’t pack a nail file with him on tour, so he requests one be brought to his room. While he waits for the front desk to send it up, he thinks about the points on Wisconsin’s chipped-paint fingernails and the way they massage into his scalp when she washes his hair. Something about the way his lice seem to relax when her hands are near makes him feel good. He wonders if her lice feel that way when he’s around too, like they don’t need to be running from one end of her head to the other just to feel noticed by someone. Like they can just exist there, on her, and itch her occasionally and know that she will be there, excited to scratch back.
KATE CATINELLA is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Rutgers University-Camden. She lives in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @katecatinella.