En Guarde; Based (very loosely) on a true story


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“Really” the referee huffed, “this is the fourth time I have had to pause a bout for someone on your team to fix their hair, and the second time I’ve had to do it for you.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized as I twisted the hair elastic as tight as I could. “It won’t happen again.

“See that it doesn’t or I’ll be awarding a point to your opponent.”  She admonished as I carefully put my mask back on trying not to once again make my hair come loose.  “Fencers, fence.”

It was on the bus ride back to campus that we really got an earful from coach.   “Do you know how embarrassed I was back there?”

No one answered we knew it was a rhetorical question, instead we all just stared at our feet.  Well not all of us stared at our feet, just the 3 of us whose hair had fallen onto our target areas.  Emma, Jody, and me. The others just sat quietly reading or playing on their phones trying not to get involved.

“I’ve been doing this for decades and never had this kind of problem.”  He ranted on. “It’s not like you 3 are the first long haired fencers ever.””

“We’re sorry coach.” Emma squeaked out in a small voice. Her own hair wasn’t that long, just past her shoulders, but very thick. The elastic she had been using literally burst open during her third bout.

“We’re going up against that military academy next week, you better believe nothing even vaguely like this ever happens on their team.” Coach glowered at us, his eyes practically burning holes through us. “Either learn how to secure your hair properly or go get it cut.”

 “Yes, coach,” the three of us said glumly.

 

I was pretty overdue for a trim anyway, so decided to ask my stylist Lisa for help when I went in.  Making an appointment to see Lisa this week instead of putting it off another 2 weeks meant I was going to have to eat nothing but dorm cafeteria food for the foreseeable future. Most students went to the cheap chain salon just a short walk from campus, but I felt going to Lisa at the nice salon on Main Street was worth the extra cost and longer walk. My hair just was worth it to me. I also spent more on shampoo, conditioner, and what have you than eating out.

Sitting in the styling chair the shampoo girl lead me to, my hair wrapped up in a towel, I looked in at a magazine of updos while I waited for Lisa. Most of them were pretty elaborate looking and I figured would interfere with the mask.

“Hi” Lisa said pleasantly as she walked up and started draping a cape over the smock I was wearing. “What are we doing today Gillian?”

“Well two things really” I explained as she shook my long golden blonde curls out from the towel they had been wrapped up in. Of course wet as my hair was it looked more dirty blonde and barely wavy, but I knew Lisa would soon have them looking perfect again.  “I have a few split ends, so a slight trim and shape up of the layers. I also need help with learning how to put it in a good updo though.”

“What do you mean by learning an updo?” She asked as she gently started combing out my hair.

“Well, I have a fencing scholarship over at the university, and I have to wear my hair up when I fence, but the mask keeps knocking it loose.” I explained as she clipped most of my hair to the top of my head then started snipping a dusting of hair from my ends.

I went on to explain about how the mask was really more like a helmet, and how there was the bar in the back and elastic. My hands showing where the side shields came to while she lifted up the layers the quarter of an inch clippings falling to my shoulders and lap. I got a little nervous as I always do when one of the locks that came off the top looked more like a full inch, but reminded myself it had been a while since my last visit to the salon.

After she dried my hair using the round brush so my hair straightened out and looked even longer than when I let the curls dry naturally. Heck I knew it was technically shorter than when I walked in but it looked longer when she put down the brush and dryer. It reached all the way to the bottom of the chair.

“Ok, so I’m thinking a low chignon would be the most practical. Something kind of like a bridal style but just skip things like adding pearls or rhinestones.” She explained as she gathered my hair back with a flat brush and started twisting it into place. “If it can stand up to a night of dancing and trusting the groom to move the veil, I think it should make it through an afternoon of sword play.”

Lisa went over all the details, but I really wasn’t sure I could reproduce what she did.

“Listen, if you want to come in before your match, I’ll put it up and won’t charge you a full bridal updo visit.” Lisa offered, “I’ll just charge for a basic blow out.”

“I don’t know. It’s not just that I’m a broke student, I also only have a really short time between class and when I have to be at the bus.”

“Well, if you come in with your hair already clean and blown straight, it will save time and I’ll knock the price down to half off a blow out.”

“I’ll think about it.” I promised as she sprayed a generous layer of hair spray over the chignon she had created.

 

It became obvious during practice that my ability to recreate the chignon on my own was a failure. After one side came out and the hair tumbled completely loose covering a large section of my target area coach yelled. “If that happens at the match I will come up with my own solution, and you’re not going to like it.”

I made the appointment with Lisa as soon as practice was finished.

 

The day of the match, I flew out of class as soon as it ended and walked as fast as possible to the salon. “We’re sorry, but you’ll have to wait a few minutes, Lisa is running a bit late today” the perky receptionist said while offering me an herbal tea.

Lisa hurried a bit as she stuck in the dozens of bobby pins and sprayed me with an extra thick layer of hairspray. She rushed me out the door with a good luck and wave as I jogged back to campus.

 

“YOU’RE LATE” coach barked loudly at me as I took my seat and took my seat on the bus.

“Sorry they were running behind at the salon.” I said as I took my seat.

“You wasted time at the salon before a match? It’s not a beauty contest.”

“It was to make sure it stays up off my target area.” I explained and got the biggest eye roll ever from coach.

When we got to the match, I could see coach was right that the other team never had hair on their target areas. All the girls on the women’s team had nearly identical bobs, and all the guys on the men’s team had even more identical super short haircuts.

Things started out pretty well. It wasn’t till Emma’s third match that her elastic once again burst under the strain of her thick hair and it tumbled onto her shoulders.  

“Anyone have some scissors handy,” the referee joked as she put her hair back up, but he didn’t look like he was really trying to be that funny.

When one of Jody’s long black braids fell as she try to parry and slapped against the tip of her opponents foil the referee awarded the touche to her opponent.

My chignon held up pretty well at first, but as the bouts went on and I repeatedly took my mask off and on it started to loosen up. I tried to shove the bobby pins back in between bouts. It wasn’t till my second to last bout that it was dangerously close to falling apart. I had 4 points to my opponents 3 at the point that it finally came down. Half of it still up the other half covering my back.

“That’s it.” The referee said. “Two points.”

“THAT’S SO UNFAIR!” I exploded before I thought better of it. “You can’t just give her the bout over a little mishap!”

“Yes, I can.”  He said coldly. “And now I’m kicking you out of the rest of the match for insulting a referee instead of saluting your opponent and shaking hands at the end of a bout.”

 

Coach just sat silently seething the entire bus ride back to campus. We lost the match by the skin of our teeth. I knew it was partly my fault. I didn’t feel like the hair falling down was really my fault, but I should have held my tongue and not yelled at the referee. That was poor sportsmanship.

“Everyone except Emma, Jody, and Gillian, I will see you tomorrow at practice.”  Coach announce once the bus parked in front of the gym. As soon as it was just the four of us on the bus, coach spoke again. “I warned you three not to let this happen again. Today it cost us the match. You now have to make a choice. You can either give up you spots on this team, or…. you can come with me right NOW to my barber shop where we will see to it that there are no repeats of today.”

“Fencing is fun and all, but I’m not getting a haircut.” Emma was the first to speak. “I look awful with short hair it poofs out and I look like a triangle.”

“It can be any style you like as long as it’s short enough it doesn’t touch your shoulders when you move around.” Coach reassured Emma. “It doesn’t have to triangular. But it does have to happen now.”

She shook her head still. “No, I won’t do it.”

“Fine go clean out your locker,” coach said coldly. “Jody?”

“I guess it’ll grow back after the seasons over.” Jody said in barely a whisper.

“Go put your gear in your locker and meet me by the back door in five minutes.”  Then he turned to me as Jody got off the bus. “Gillian?”

“I don’t know.” I was feeling almost numb. “Maybe tomorrow we could go to my salon, not that I can really afford another trip…”

“The fancy salon again is not an option. You are one of the best fencers I’ve ever had.  Today though, you wasted time and money getting all that hair put up and it still cost you two bouts. I’m not going to waste my time on you if you are unwilling to fix problems that stand in your way.  And I know the long pretty hair is a thing for you girls, but it’s getting in the way. It needs to be off your target area.”

“I guess I don’t have much choice. I need the scholarship.”

“Fine. You’ve got three minutes to stow your gear and meet me at the door.”

 

We rode silently to the barbershop in the back of coach’s minivan. Jody played with the ends of her hair, which she had found the time to comb out smooth. The sleek black hair reached down to her butt. Finally we pulled into a parking spot just a few feet past the storefront with a swirling red and white barber pole.

As we walked in a bell attached to the door chimed. Though I’d never been in a barbershop before, it looked just like what I’d seen in movies. Black and white tiles on the floor, 3 big chairs reminiscent of old dentist chairs spaced out in front of a counter with a mirror that reached to the ceiling above it, a line of older more basic chairs along the opposite wall without the mirrors, a small counter and an old fashioned register near the door, in the back just a single sink not very well set up for hair washing. At the middle chair an older man was running clippers up the back of a caped guys head. The black hair littering the floor was not much yet.

“Hey Jimmy,” a man with a broom said to coach as we walked in. “You just made it, we were just about to lock the door. As it is, you’ve missed me. It’s Deb’s birthday and if I’m not home to take her out by the time the babysitter gets there I’ll be sleeping on the couch tonight.”

“That’s ok, I’m sure Brenda and Joe can take care of us. Say happy birthday to her for me and have a good time.” Coach said cheerfully as the man pulled on his coat and walked out the door turning the open/closed sign as he left.

This really was coach’s BARBERshop, not a salon. Considering coach was mostly bald with just a ring of thin white hair round the back and sides of his head that he kept so short it was practically stubble that terrified me.

“Sit down girls” coach ordered. “Gillian, take out those things that are holding your hair half up.”

I started pulling out bobby pins, piling them on my knee as a warm tear started running down my cheek.

“Hey Jim.” A cheerful lady came out of the back, “weren’t you just here.”

“Hi Brenda,” coach said. “I’m just bringing these two in for something a bit more practical. Something short enough it won’t get loose. Well above their shoulders. It’s been getting in their way while fencing.”

“Ok, go on and hop into the first chair by the window then and we’ll get you something cute that’s less hassle.” Brenda smiled at Jody.

Jody slowly walked over to the chair as I continued to pull out bobby pins. Coach picked up a fishing magazine and started reading it. He didn’t watch as Brenda shook out a cape and draped it over Jody without washing her hair or anything. Just tossed Jody’s long hair to the front so her neck was exposed. I watched as she wrapped a strip of tissue around Jody’s slim neck before fastening the blue cape and folding the tissue down over it. That was so different from at the salon. Where I’d get to change into a smock then offered tea and get shampooed and conditioning treatment beforehand.

“So,” Brenda talked to Jody as she ran a comb through the smooth black hair that hung to nearly the bottom of the cape. “Anything in particular in mind? We could just bob it to get it off your shoulders. You would look cute with a pixie. What do you think?”

“I’d prefer a bob.” Jody’s voice was weak as she said it.

“Alright.” Brenda paused in her combing to look at Jody in the mirror. “We could take it to about here,” Brenda held her hand at about the halfway point of Jody’s neck, ”and it will be well off your shoulders, but i think taking it up to the jaw line will be more flattering.”  Brenda raised her hands up to the top of Jody’s neck.

“I guess it will be a bit edgier too.” Jody didn’t sound fully convinced. “When I’m not just wearing the sweat pants and stuff I put on after fencing, I usually dress kind of goth.”

“I think we should do it with bangs then. It will fit the vibe more, look cute, and keep the hair out of your eyes.”

Jody just nodded, not smiling as Brenda reached for the largest pair of scissors on her counter. Jody’s hair was all smoothed down her back at this point.  Brenda opened the blades of her scissors and slid one side of them into Jody’s tresses just about at her shoulders. As the scissors slowly closed with a slicing sound I watched as over a foot of hair gradually slid down the cape to spill onto the floor like a dropped silk scarf.

I swallowed. Jody let out a defeated breath. Coach didn’t react at all and just kept reading the magazine he was completely absorbed in.

I watched as Brenda opened the scissors again and slipped them along to the next section of hair and continued to cut away the length. It slid so gradually almost like molasses. Jody’s hair swiftly becoming a shiny pile around the base of Brenda’s chair.  When Brenda had cut the last long lock off just above Jody’s shoulder, she put down the scissors and took a quick break to sweep aside the huge pile of Jody’s hair so it was sitting in a corner as Brenda started wetting what remained on Jody’s head with a squirt bottle.

Brenda picked up her comb and a smaller pair of scissors. She parted Jody’s hair along the back of her head, combing all but a bit along the hairline forward and twisting it out of the way. Brenda then began snipping off the hair at the back right against Jody’s neck with just the tips of her scissors. I watched as 2 or 3 inches of wet hair plopped onto the cape, leaving a crisp line above a lot of exposed skin.

I started thinking about what I would choose when it was my turn. I was more interested in keeping as much length as possible than having it be edgy. It occured to me that my curls were going to work to my advantage. After they washed out the hairspray and fluffed up my curls, cutting it to a couple of inches above my shoulders would mean it would still reach below them when I took the time to blow it out straight.  

Suddenly I was startled by a man walking in front of me blocking me from seeing how Jody’s haircut was progressing. It was the guy from the middle chair. He exchange the customary thankyous and see’ya arounds as the old man did a quick sweep up and dust off of his chair.

The old man, Joe I guess, was standing next to his empty chair with cape in hand. “I’m ready for you young lady.”

I slowly got up, leaving my pile of loose bobby pins on the seat next to coach, and walked over to the chair.

“I was hoping to…” I started trying to tell Joe what I was thinking as he draped the white cape over me, but he was paying no attention at all.  He was just going through the motions of positioning the tissue around my neck and pulling the cape uncomfortably tight.

“Hey Jim,” Joe turned and talked to coach instead, “what we doin’ here? I take it the hairs been a bit of a distraction, aye?”

“You could say that. Whatever, as long as it’s short and practical.” Coach barely looked up from the magazine. When he looked back down he grumbled to himself just barely loud enough for Joe and I to hear, “all that damned hair cost us our matched today.”

Joe grimaced at me as he took a comb out of his pocket and tried to run it through my hair. Of course it got stuck immediately in the stiff layer of hairspray.

“Don’t take very good care of this do you, young lady?” Joe chastised me.

“It just needs to be washed first, you’ll see the texture better that way, I straightened it this morning.” I began to explain as Joe continued to ignore me while reaching into his pocket and pulling out large scissors.”There’s a lot of hairspray in it.”

Joe made a huffing noise and simply cut his comb free. As the scissors crunched and a huge chunk of my hair fell away. I felt my eyes fill up with tears. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach that nothing I said to Joe would mean anything to him. I looked at coach through the mirror hoping he would say something, but he was once again completely absorbed in his article.

“It’ll take forever to work through this mess.” Joe muttered, I think to himself not me. He reached under the counter and picked up a huge black clippers, that hung from a hook. They looked like the ones dad used on the dogs to shave them down in the summer to make finding ticks easier.

I tried to say something but the sound got caught in my throat, as my heart pounded so hard I thought it would jump out of my chest as the clippers popped to life. I hoped the sound would alert coach to what Joe was doing, but he was still not paying any attention.

Joe inserted his comb into the front of my hair and pulled back hard till the comb was stuck just a couple of inches above my scalp. He then ran the clippers smoothly over the comb it vibrating against the teeth. Short hair fell forward against my forehead, the ends hanging before my eyes. It was too late to speak up. Tears flowed freely down my cheeks as I watched Joe shaking the clump of long golden blonde hair from his comb.

There really wasn’t anything to do but sit silently watching as Joe combed up the hair and zipped it off with the clippers at whatever point his comb got stuck at. As he work his way across the top he got to an area with less hair spray he just comb to roughly the same length and as he ran the clippers through the hair it fell freely forward into my lap. I looked down at my long golden hair, still somewhat straight from when I had blow dried it that morning. It had been so so beautiful this morning like the color of fresh corn silk flowing down my back like a river.

I looked up at the mirror and hated what I saw. It looked like a bad mullet the top hacked down the sides still long. I closed my eyes and just listen as the clippers rattled over the teeth of the comb repeatedly, and the constant hum through out. I was resigned to my fate as I felt hair landing on my shoulders. Joe roughly pushed my head around as he worked.

Eventually I felt the comb lifting the last of the hair off my neck, and I knew Joe was almost done cropping off the bulk of my hair. I opened my eyes to look at the rough crop I now had, and watched as the last of my long hair was zipped off to fall behind me out of my sight.

“Now that the mess is out of the way, we’ll do something nice and practical. Something that takes no time to care for so you remember to focus on what’s important.” Joe said to me low enough the others couldn’t hear it as he hung up his black clippers and reached for red ones that hung from the next hook. “Chin down to your chest, it’s going to take long enough to grow back you’ll remember what cost you this match for a very long time.”

I did as told. I don’t know why I just let Joe talk to me like that instead of saying something to coach. Probably because I Joe was doing a good job at making me feel guilty.

I stared at my lap and watched as the tears dripped from my nose into the dry hair piled there. It was only a moment before I heard the pop of the clippers coming to life and then a very similar hum.

I felt the vibration as the cool machine was placed against my neck. I felt as it went up through my hair tugging slightly. It was a long stroke going high up into my hair. Then it moved away. I looked up to the mirror in time to see Joe flick a clump of my hair off the head of the clipper onto my shoulder. Then the vibration returned to my neck and started working up another path next to the first.

My neck was starting to feel much colder than it had before. Heck the whole back of my head was getting chilly. Hair kept falling down my neck tickling it, then it started falling forward into my lap as Joe work up the sides and above my ears. He’d already cut it so short, but the clumps had to be almost 2 inches long. I knew the back and sides of my head must be nearly bare. More tears drip from my nose into the growing pile of hair in my lap. The machine was warming up as he worked away, it’s vibrating against my sensitive ears making them tickle inside.

Finally he turned off the clippers and said to me “Head up now.”

I looked in the mirror. My ears were completely exposed. The only fullness left was the roughly cropped hair on top.

Joe started spraying water into the hair on top. As my hair became damp, the natural curl came back to it.

Joe picked up his scissors and started snipping. His fingers guided the length now, it couldn’t be much since i felt them right up against my scalp. Bits of hair started falling everywhere as the rhythmic clicking of the scissors work across the top snipping little bits. The damp bits that fell on my face stuck in my salty tears. It was hard to guess the length of the damp curls landing in my lap. Some looked like little “C”s others were fully circles.

I watched as the crop became shorter but neater. The curls lay close to my head, barely noticable anymore. I guessed I had maybe an inch of hair left on top. Certainly not enough to do anything with.

Finally Joe spun the chair around to face coach. “Jim, this short enough on top?”

Coach looked up from his magazine finally. The expression on his face change immediately. He looked shocked. “It’s shorter than I expected, Joe. I figured Gillian would want it to be a bit longer than that.”

“I take my instructions from you Jim. Short and practical,this one’s not going to be costing you any more matches.” He dismissed the question of what I wanted. “I could take it down further. Make a really lasting impression.”

“Nah, Joe it’s fine.” Coach put down the magazine looking a bit unsure of himself.

“Ok, then I’ll just clean up the back and dust her off then.” Joe said as he spun me around back towards the mirror. “I’m sure she won’t be letting this hair be a distraction again. She’ll remember this for a good long time.”

As the chair spun I saw Brenda had paused while cutting Jody’s new bangs and both of them looked kind of shaken by what they had just witnessed. Brenda took a deep breath and turned away.

“Honey, let’s get this finished up.” Brenda said softly to Jody, as she guided Jody’s face back to the mirror.

Joe picked up his smallest silver clippers. They didn’t pop to life the same way as the others did, they just made a softer hum when he turned them on and started stroking them down my neck. It wasn’t long before he put them down and picked up a big fluffy brush, kind of like a giant makeup brush, and a shaker of powder. He sprinkled some of the powder on my neck and started dusting. The sensation of it making me extra aware of how extremely bare my neck was. When he brushed it off my face the bristles dragged through my tears making it take longer.

Joe took the cape off me spilling the hair on it down to the floor where the rest of my hair was scattered around like straw.  

“You concentrate on your schoolwork and practice hard now, so you don’t have to come see me again, aye?”  Joe chastised me as I got up.

“Joe leave her be,” coach yelled over.

I stood before the mirror, ignoring coach paying Brenda at the register them talking in hushed voices. I realized I had the same haircut as the guys on the opposing  men’s team from today. My shaking hand tentatively reached up to feel what was left on my head. It was like scratchy velvet. Not long enough to even come between my fingers on the sides. My hand made it to the top where it was just long enough to pinch between my fingers, but not enough to bury my fingers in it.

As I walked over to the chair my coat was left on, I could see Jody was trying to come up with something to say, but she was at a loss for words, so she just handed me my jacket. Her bob was pretty cute and did totally fit the way she dressed when not fencing. The short bangs emphasized her pretty eyes. I didn’t say anything either knowing hers was only slightly more what she had wanted than mine.

The uncomfortable blast of cold air that hit me when we walked out the door, just added insult to injury.

In the car coach finally spoke to me. “Gillian, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean this to be a punishment. I guess that’s how Joe interpreted it. It should have occured to me he would. I should have been clearer about ‘whatever’ meaning what you wanted as long as it didn’t touch your shoulders. I should have been paying attention, god how many times I’ve told students to pay attention then I don’t when I should. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you.”

I just shook my head no, because there really just wasn’t. I looked out the window trying to hide my tears.

“Hey listen I know it’s not even vaguely what you want and you’re devastated right now, but let me reassure you do look good with it. Kind of punk. You’ll get used to it. And it is very practical.” Coach looked serious when he said it and Jody nodded vigorously before she put a comforting are around me.

I returned a half hearted smile, as I brushed off tears.

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