The swarthy barber approached. He wore a short-sleeved white smock littered with evidence of hours spent cutting hair. “Tony” was stitched in dark lettering above his breast pocket. His appearance revealed his Italian heritage—dark curly hair on his head and forearms, stocky build with a bit of a belly, five o’clock shadow on his cheeks and jaw. He could have been an extra in “The Godfather.” It was nearing closing time and he seemed to be in a hurry to finish his day’s work.
My husband and I were the last customers remaining in his shop. When we entered there had been two others. The lone barber attended to an elderly gentleman and barely glanced in our direction. A young man sat watching television in a row of chairs facing the barber. We found two empty places and waited our turn. Before long the barber finished with the old man who paid for his haircut and shuffled out of the shop. The next customer took his place. I studied the barber’s method and the young man’s reaction, searching for cues on how to act in this unfamiliar environment. I listened to the easy banter between the two men. They chatted about the fortunes of the local college football team, the upcoming hunting season, and stock car racing at the local speedway—subjects I know nothing about. I wondered what topic we could possibly discuss when I occupied that chair.
In less than fifteen minutes the barber completed his next to last haircut of the day, clipping his customer’s dark hair close to the scalp. The young man rose from the chair, inspected his image with obvious satisfaction, and paid for his haircut. As his freshly shorn customer walked out the door, the barber turned toward Phil and me. One of us would be next.
“Who’s next?” he asked. These words, so mundane, yet ominous, signaled the beginning of the end for me.
The barber’s gaze shifted between us. I’m sure he expected Phil to answer, but my silent husband sat glued to his chair, waiting for me to make the first move. He wasn’t making this any easier. The barber fixed his eyes on Phil who shook his head and nodded in my direction. Both men now were staring at me. Although I was reluctant to answer the barber’s summons, I had no choice.
Somehow I mustered the courage to rise from my seat. “I guess that’s me,” I said, smiling nervously, straightening my light summer skirt, and looking the barber in the eye. I tried to project an air of quiet self-confidence, an attitude I did not feel. I searched his face for some sign of surprise, but his expression remained calm and matter-of-fact. He acted like he serviced female clients every day; I knew differently. Phil had cautioned me that women almost never enter this male bastion. A mother might occasionally arrive with her young son in tow for a summer shearing. Once in a while a girl tagged along with her boyfriend, but women rarely came here as patrons. There was an unwritten understanding that this place was off limits for females. Today I was violating that rule.
Tony’s Barber Shop has been an institution in our neighborhood for the twenty-three years we lived in Millersville and probably for many years before that. Generations of fathers and sons made monthly pilgrimages to the plain brick shop with the traditional red, white, and blue barber pole revolving out front. They enter shaggy haired and emerge half an hour later neatly clipped. There used to be two barbers, Tony and his father, Gino. But the elder man retired to Florida and Tony now presides alone. Other establishments have gone out of business or converted to unisex hair salons. Tony’s is the last of the old-fashioned barbershops in our part of town.
The barber shifted his weight impatiently. It was nearly six. He probably had been cutting hair without a break since early morning. He appeared eager to close up and head for home. Mine would be his last haircut of the day. He obviously wanted to get started. I couldn’t stall any longer.
I reached down to give Phil’s hand one last squeeze. He looked up and mouthed the words, “I love you.” It was time to go, but my legs had turned to Jell-O. Calling upon all of my will power, I forced my feet to move forward. An enormous chrome barber’s chair with a red leather seat stood waiting for me. I stepped over piles of severed hair that littered the black and white tile flooring. Gray, brown, and blonde locks—evidence of a day’s labors—lay mixed beneath the soles of my sandals. I cringed to think that soon my precious hair, my crowning glory, would find its final resting place on this cold hard surface.
The barber politely held the chair as I climbed into its throne-like seat. Its welcoming embrace engulfed me. I felt the leather through the fabric of my skirt, still warm from its previous occupant. The chrome chair arms pressed cool against my sweating palms. I placed my sandals on the metal footrest, modestly crossed my legs, and pretended I was at ease.
Across the room, Phil was beaming like a young boy on Christmas morning, enjoying this experience far more than I was. Before leaving home he tried to assure me that my first barbershop visit would not be the ordeal I envisioned. “Think of it as an adventure,” he encouraged me. “You’re going someplace few women have gone before.” But my dread was not reduced, far from it. There were good reasons why women feared coming here. Nothing about the place was comforting. It reeked of bay rum and cigar smoke. The ancient sports magazines stacked on the table by the door and the ball game on the television reinforced the masculine atmosphere. A yellowed poster on the wall displayed outdated hairstyles worn by male models. There were no curtains, no flowers, no music playing, no steaming cup of tea to ease my worries, none of the touches that made my salon so comfortable. Even worse, there was no privacy. I looked out the huge picture window and prayed that none of my friends would walk by and see me sitting here. Even though the barber and my husband were the only witnesses, I felt like I was on public exhibition.
Frantic questions flooded my brain. What was I doing here? How did I allow myself to be talked into this situation? Could I possibly change my mind? Was it too late to back out? What would Phil say if I got up to leave? I hovered on the verge of panic.
I might have felt differently if this haircut had been my idea, but it wasn’t. It had been Phil’s idea from the start. Against my better judgment, I allowed my husband to persuade me to come here. For deep-seated reasons that I never will understand, the sight of women’s hair being cut fascinates Phil. Soon after we married I discovered his fetish for short hair. I noticed him checking out other women and accused him of being unfaithful. He proclaimed his innocence, pointing out that the women he ogled all had very short haircuts. He didn’t desire their bodies, he insisted; he was just admiring their coiffures. The more he described his obsession, the more curious I became. I never realized men could become so fixated on a woman’s hair, especially short hair. He assured me his condition, although hardly common, was not pathological. There were thousands of men, he said, who shared his fixation. Like him, they led perfectly normal lives with one slight deviation.
I wanted to learn more about his bizarre condition. How long had he felt this way, I asked. Nearly as long as he could remember, he admitted. How did he feel about really long hair, I continued. He said he found long hair a turn on as well, but it was the prospect of seeing it chopped off that excited him. Did he want me to get my hair cut short, I asked, fearing his reply. Yes, he confessed, seeing my hair being cut short would bring to life his favorite fantasy. He pleaded with me to shed my shoulder length hairdo in favor of one of the radically brief styles he fancied. I insisted there was no way I would contemplate such an exchange. He swore to respect my preference for long hair, but that was not the last of our discussion.
For years we battled over the length of my hair. Sometimes he made no mention of it for months at a time, but I knew the subject was never far from his mind. From time to time, while shopping at the mall or standing in line for a movie, he would point out a woman with a hairstyle he found exciting. Every three or four months, whenever I made an appointment to get my ends trimmed, he faithfully inquired if I was ready to convert to a shorter style. Each time I informed him that I had no intention of sacrificing my long locks. Despite continued rebuffs, he never abandoned the hope that some day I might relent.
Without warning the barber spun the chair. I stared directly into a huge mirror, studying the woman reflected there. Mid-forties; still slender after three kids; no cover girl beauty, but reasonably good looking. I was satisfied with my appearance. Unconsciously, I caught a stray wisp of hair. As I tucked the errant strand behind my ear I critically examined my style— parted down the center, now a few inches longer than my usual shoulder length, straight, without a hint of wave. For years I had worn this blunt cut with no layers and no bangs. I couldn’t remember the last time I had short hair; it must have been in elementary school.
With few variations, my hair has looked the same since high school. During the late 1990s a stylist persuaded me to try a modified Jennifer Anniston look, with the sides angled to frame my face instead of hanging straight down, but that didn’t last for long. Some of my friends like to experiment, trying a new hairstyle every few months, but not me. Over the years I varied the length a bit, but not the basic cut. When it’s shorter—slightly above my shoulders—I sometimes wear a flip. When it’s longer, like now, I occasionally weave my hair into a thick braid. When I’m busy around the house I pull it back into a ponytail. For formal evenings I pin it up. But usually I wear it hanging freely like today. As I pondered my image I conceded that perhaps I was overdue for a change.
As a teen my hair had been my pride and joy. Everyone agreed it my best feature. I used expensive shampoos and conditioners to keep my dark brown mane tamed and glossy. I spent hours brushing it. However, eight years ago the first gray hairs appeared. At first I plucked them out, but the pesky critters reproduced like rabbits. It seemed the more I removed, the more quickly the interlopers multiplied. Before long they became so abundant that my color could more accurately be described as “salt and pepper.” My girlfriends urged me to mask the gray with tint as they did, but I’ve never seen a dye job I really liked. Sure, some bottle blondes look fantastic, but I can’t picture myself as a blonde, and none of the darker shades look completely natural. Plus, I knew that once I started to color my hair, a never-ending series of touchups had to follow. No, I resolved to keep my natural color even if I looked older than I felt.
In recent months I spent more time in front of the mirror trying to decide what to do. It wasn’t just the color that was a problem. The gray hairs grew in coarse and wiry, refusing to coexist with the brown. For the first time in my life, my hair frizzed on damp days. No amount of brushing or conditioner could subdue it. I started wearing hats more often. Rather than proudly displaying my crowning glory, I tried to hide it. I was desperate.
Something had to change. My trademark hairstyle no longer worked. Phil was quick to sense my unease. He offered his predictable advice. “If you’re going to let your hair go gray, you should cut it short,” he urged. “For most women gray hair doesn’t look good in longer lengths.” As much as I hated to agree, I knew he was right. A shorter hairstyle seemed the best solution to my problem. I began to think seriously about cutting my hair, perhaps not to the length Phil desired, but considerably shorter. I paid more attention to women with attractive short styles, especially women my age. There seemed to be plenty of choices—many different lengths and a variety of styles. The more I looked, the more I grew convinced that a short haircut was in my future.
Still, my makeover didn’t have to happen in a barbershop. I could have gone to a salon. That would have been the easy solution. It would have been so simple. Make an appointment without telling Phil. Surprise him one evening by appearing unannounced with a new short haircut. Yes, that’s definitely what I should have done.
Instead, I made the mistake of telling Phil I was planning on cutting my hair. He was delighted—overjoyed would be a better word. “That’s great, Fran. I’m glad you finally decided to do it,” he exclaimed. “You’ll look great with short hair. You won’t regret it.” His glee was entirely predictable; still, I wasn’t ready for his next question. “Where will you have it done?” he asked.
“The Beauty Nook, you know, the salon where I usually go,” I informed him. “Barb, my stylist, has been bugging me to try a new style.” Profound disappointment registered on Phil’s face. In an instant his enthusiastic support disappeared. “Something wrong?” I asked. “I thought you’d be happy.”
“I am Fran, I really am, but is there any chance you would consider a barbershop haircut?” he pleaded. “If you’re going to get you hair cut short I’d really like to see it happen in a barbershop. That would mean a great deal to me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I replied.
“No, Fran, I’m perfectly serious.” His earnest expression convinced me this was no joke.
I was puzzled and confused by his reaction. “But why in a barbershop?” I asked.
Then he revealed how his fetish involved more than just a preference for short hair. It seems that seeing a woman having her hair clipped as short as a man’s while sitting in a barber chair carried powerful erotic symbolism for him. “I can’t think of anything more exciting,” he confessed. “I know I probably should have told you sooner, but there was no way I could think of to share it with you. Besides, since you were determined to keep your hair long, there was no need to tell you. Now that you’ve changed your mind, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.”
“Phil, I don’t know why you think I would ever consent to having my hair cut in a barber shop,” I told him as gently as possible. I explained that cutting my hair short was going to be trauma enough. I saw no reason to compound the agony of parting with my locks by submitting to a barber’s shears in front of an audience of leering men. It might have been Phil’s fondest wish, but it was my worst nightmare. Going to a barbershop was not an option
But Phil was persistent. “Just this once, Fran,” he begged. “You know how much this means to me. You can go back to your salon every other time. I promise I’ll never mention it again.” He didn’t threaten to leave me; he didn’t issue an ultimatum or throw a big fit, yet I knew his hopes would be dashed if I ignored his pleading. Without putting it into words, I could see that his disappointment would cast a shadow over our relationship for months, maybe for years to come. He looked so pitiful that I postponed making the salon appointment. I told him I’d consider his request. In retrospect, I can see this was a serious mistake.
Phil and I continued our discussion for the next week. He advanced every possible argument in favor of a barbershop haircut. When persuasion didn’t work, he tried bribery. He offered to buy me the diamond earrings I wanted if I came with him to Tony’s. He addressed all of my fears. “We can go late one afternoon in the middle of the week when there will be few other customers,” he argued. “I’ll be there for moral support. It’ll only take fifteen or twenty minutes. How bad could that be?”
His continual begging gradually weakened my resolve. I noticed how aroused Phil became when we talked about cutting my hair. Things had become rather routine in bed, I must admit. Perhaps this might add some welcome excitement to our love life, I thought. Phil obviously was turned on by the thought of a barbershop haircut for me. It could pay romantic dividends. I began considering his arguments more seriously.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to give in; that is, not until I saw Angela. Angela Sterling is a sales rep for one of the major suppliers for the plastics company where I’ve worked as office manager for fifteen years. There aren’t many women in this field, but she’s very good at what she does. Angela visits our office every couple of months to check on our account and brief my boss on new products. Most of our orders are placed electronically, but she knows the importance of maintaining a personal relationship with her clients. Over the years we’ve chatted while she waits to see my boss. Ours is not a great friendship, just a casual business acquaintance, but we enjoy each other’s company and have developed a sisterly rapport as women working in a mostly male environment.
Angela is a few years older than I am. I guess her age would be between fifty and fifty-five. She is one of those rare women whose looks seem to improve with each passing year. Her complexion is flawless. Only a few laugh lines betray her age. I’ve always admired how fashionably dressed and attractively groomed she appears—always smart and up-to-date. Her most striking feature is her silver gray hair. Most people would describe her color as “prematurely gray.” For lots of women that’s an insult, but in her case it’s a compliment to her stunning looks. She could model for any company marketing to senior citizens; she’s that good looking. For as long as I’ve known her she has worn her hair in a short pixie style that accentuated her sapphire blue eyes.
When Angela entered our office last week, however, I did a double take. “What happened to you?” I blurted out in surprise.
She smiled at my obvious astonishment. “So, what do ya think, Fran?” she asked. “Like my new hairdo?” She turned so I could inspect her closely cropped head front, back, and sides. Angela had exchanged her soft feathery hairdo for a radically short mannish cut. The hair on the back and sides of her head was buzzed close to the scalp. Her sideburns were cut into sharp points with her ears fully exposed. The hair on top was barely an inch long and stood straight up in a thicket of silver spikes. It was a radical makeover that left me momentarily speechless.
To tell the truth, Angela’s new look was rather severe and a bit masculine. On most women it probably wouldn’t work, but on her it looked bold and extremely stylish. With gold hoop earrings and carefully applied makeup, there was no doubt she was a very sexy woman. It was a look that would cause heads to turn and make people stare. I had to admit her new image was absolutely striking. “Wow, you look great Angela,” I gushed. “When did this happen?”
“I just got it cut two days ago; I’m still getting used to it,” she answered, unconsciously rubbing her hand across the short hairs on the back of her head. “You don’t think it’s too short, do you?” she inquired.
“No, not at all,” I assured her. “I mean, it certainly is short, but on you it looks great.” It wasn’t just the usual polite compliment, she looked terrific. I couldn’t help myself; I had to ask. “What made you do it?”
Angela and I had never discussed personal matters before, but on this day she took me into her confidence. “You know, it’s a step I’d been contemplating for quite a while,” she related. “I’ve never liked long hair much; too much fuss and bother. I guess you could probably tell that before,” she related.
“Yes, I could see that. But why so short?” I continued.
“Well, I’d been thinking about it, but I was afraid what people might say. You know, I meet a lot of people in my line of work and not all of them are fans of short hair on women.”
“So what changed your mind?” I asked.
“Well, the day before yesterday I passed by this barber shop near my home. I noticed a young woman sitting in the barber’s chair. I could see she was in the middle of a very short haircut. I screwed up my courage and went inside. I watched as the barber used the clippers to remove nearly all of her hair. She looked so damn sexy that I decided to take the plunge. Right then and there, before I lost my nerve, I told the barber I wanted my hair cut just like hers. And that’s how it happened.”
“Was it a difficult decision?” I inquired.
“Of course it was,” she answered. “I’ve worn my hair fairly short for several years now, but this was a big departure.”
”What did your husband say?” I continued, thinking of Phil. “Was he upset?”
“No, not at all,” she answered. “In fact, he wondered what took me so long to decide. He loves it.”
“My husband too,” I blurted. I hadn’t planned on discussing my private life with her, but it seemed she would be understanding.
“What do you mean?” Angela asked, looking at my long hair with a puzzled expression.
“My husband is a big fan of short hair too,” I informed her. “He’s been bugging me to get my hair cut short for ages.”
“And you don’t want to,” she guessed correctly.
“It’s funny that you mention it,” I told her. “At first I wouldn’t even consider it, but lately I’ve been thinking about chopping it all off. Not going as short as you perhaps, but much shorter.”
“Well, I definitely think you should try it at least once in your life. I know short hair’s not for everyone, but it’s been a real plus for me,” Angela said with a knowing smile.
“Where did you go to get it cut?” I inquired.
“This may sound strange, but I went to the place my husband goes. The sign out front says “unisex salon,” but nearly all the customers are men,” she added. “It’s really nothing but a barber shop.”
“Wasn’t it scary, going into a place like that?” I asked, revealing my own fears.
“Yeah, it was a bit intimidating,” she admitted, “but I’ve never been shy about entering new situations. I guess that’s why I’ve done well in sales.”
I kept pressing for more details. “But how did you feel getting your hair cut by a barber instead of a stylist?”
“It was a little weird, especially when the barber began buzzing my neck with his big black clippers,” she confided. I tried to relax and enjoy the experience. Actually, I found it kind of stimulating.”
I wanted to continue quizzing Angela about her haircut, but Mike, my boss, poked his head out of his door and bellowed, “Okay ladies, if you’re done gossiping, I’ve got a business to run here.”
“Just a minute, Mike,” Angela told him. She reached into her purse and took out her business card. She jotted something on the back. “That’s my home number,” she said, handing me the card. “Give me a call if you’d like to talk some more,” she said as she gathered her sample case and headed toward Mike’s office. “You should do it.”
“Do what?” Mike demanded.
“None of your business, Mike,” Angela informed him. “Just a little girl talk.”
That evening I phoned her. She was expecting my call. We talked for nearly an hour. I was most concerned about people’s reactions to her new haircut. Angela said that most had been supportive, especially the men, but there were a few women who viewed her super-short style with disdain. “I guess they see me as a lesbian or something,” she said, “but they’ll get over it.”
I also wanted to know more about her husband’s reaction. She told me he couldn’t keep his hands off her head. Touching her short hair seemed to turn him on. “We had the best sex we’ve had in years,” she confided.
Then I told her about Phil’s hair fetish. She didn’t seem surprised. Her husband shared the same condition. I explained that I was afraid that getting my hair cut so short might encourage Phil’s fetish. Angela assured me that nothing I might do would alter his fascination with women’s hair. “That’s going to be a part of him ‘til the day he dies,” she explained. “You are powerless to change it.” Then she asked, “Has he been a good husband to you?” I told her that he’d never given me reason to doubt his devotion. “Then why don’t you give him what he wants?” she argued. “If you don’t like your hair that short, it’ll grow out in a few months.”
Angela talked to me like the big sister I never had. She patiently listened to my concerns and sympathized with my fears. While it was clear she thought I should cut my hair like hers, she didn’t pressure me. She knew this had to be my own choice. When we hung up, I was much closer to deciding.
My mind was spinning when I went to sleep that night. I dreamed I was entering a nameless barber shop. I pictured myself sitting in an old-fashioned barber chair as a strange man began chopping the hair from my head. I imagined stepping down from the chair with my hair cut short as Angela’s. Then I saw Phil’s beaming face as I walked toward him. When I awoke the next morning I knew what I had to do.
It was Angela’s marvelous haircut and sisterly advice that finally gave me the courage to cut my hair. Despite my fears, I decided to follow her example and give Phil what he so ardently desired. That evening, as we sat at the dinner table, I informed him I was prepared to have my hair cut at Tony’s. He was jubilant. “That’s wonderful, Fran. I’m so happy. You won’t regret this, I promise,” he declared.
Later that night I called Angela to tell her of my decision. “I think you’re going to be pleased with the result,” she said. “Would you like me to come along for moral support?” she offered. I thanked her, but told her that wouldn’t be necessary. I felt I could handle it on my own.
That was two days ago. Phil wasted no time. He said Thursday afternoon was the time when fewest customers were in the shop. He recommended we arrive about quarter to six, just before closing time. “Can’t we make an appointment?” I asked. Phil explained that Tony didn’t take appointments. You came and waited your turn, first come, first served. Apparently this is the custom at barbershops.
I fretted over what to wear. Jeans and a t-shirt are Phil’s normal attire when he goes for his haircuts, but I wanted to look ladylike. I selected a short summer skirt and a sleeveless blue silk blouse. I made sure my nails were freshly painted. I applied my make-up carefully—deep red lipstick, a touch of mascara and eyeliner. I was determined to look my best.
Phil paced the floor like a nervous cat waiting for the hour to arrive. When our living room clock struck five-thirty he practically shoved me out the door and into the car. He drove the three miles to Tony’s shop, chatting excitedly. I rode in silence, contemplating what lay ahead.
“You ready?” the barber practically shouted in my ear, interrupting my reverie.
“Yes, of course,” I replied. I steeled myself for the ordeal about to begin.
Tony reached for a dispenser on the counter in front of me and withdrew a long strip of white tissue. “Hold your hair up so I can put this round your neck,” he said. I reached behind my head and lifted my hair as he ordered. He stretched the tissue tight. Next he reached into a cabinet, withdrew a fresh red and white striped cloth, and unfolded it by snapping in the air. He spread it over my shoulders and fastened it securely behind my neck.
I dropped my hair and stared again at the woman in the mirror. With my blouse and skirt completely concealed by the cape, only my head and manicured hands remained visible. My eyes were large, my expression was worried. I looked frightened and vulnerable. I wished Phil was standing nearby, providing reassurance, but he sat across the room. I was alone with a barber who offered little comfort.
Without warning, I began to rise in the air as the barber pumped a pedal beneath the chair. After a moment Tony and I were face to face. His dark brown eyes betrayed no emotion. If he sensed my nervousness, he gave no hint. I wanted him to be kind and understanding, to show some sympathy for my plight. Instead, he acted as if I was just another customer and mine was a perfectly ordinary haircut. He seemed determined to handle me like all the previous male occupants of this seat; the lady with the long hair would get no special treatment.
The barber removed a black comb from a jar on the counter and began running it through my locks. He slowly circled the chair, coaxing every hair into place, spending more time on this task than I thought necessary. He hummed an indistinct tune as he worked. He probably never gets his hands on hair as long as mine, I thought. He was going to enjoy my haircut almost as much as Phil, I realized.
Finally he stopped the preparation. “What’ll it be today?” he asked in a gruff, matter-of-fact voice. I’m sure he repeated the same question to his male customers thirty or forty times each day, but it caught me by surprise.
“Pardon? What did you say?” I stammered, at a loss for words. I didn’t know how to respond to his perfectly ordinary query.
“What’ll it be today, lady?” he repeated more loudly with emphasis on the “lady.” He seemed mildly annoyed. I’m sure he wondered about this woman who sat in his chair—this female intruder in his masculine domain—this woman who didn’t know what she wanted. “You want me to cut your hair?” he demanded.
He obviously considered me a total idiot. I began to reassess my situation. Perhaps I should bolt from this chair before he did something I’d regret. This whole scheme suddenly seemed like a terrible idea. I never should have listened to Phil. I should have ignored Angela’s encouraging words. I really had no business being here. “Run away as fast as you can,” my brain cried out. But it was too late. There was no way to make a dignified exit. My pride wouldn’t allow me to admit I was making a huge mistake. I couldn’t get down from the chair and walk out the door with the cloth hanging around my neck. I wanted to scream and tell this burly barber to take his hot hands off me, but that kind of a scene would have embarrassed Phil and made me look like a fool. No, I was trapped in the chair as securely as if steel cables bound my arms and legs. I remembered Angela’s advice. I took a deep breath and tried to relax.
“Yes, of course,” I answered with false confidence. “I’m here for a haircut.”
“What kinda haircut?” he demanded, making me feel even more stupid.
Of course he had no idea what kind of haircut I wanted. I wasn’t sure myself. He waited impatiently for me to provide some instruction. My throat was dry. The anxious words came hesitantly to my lips. “A short haircut,” I managed.
A sarcastic smile creased his face. “Good,” he joked, “that’s about the only kind we do here.” He seemed almost pleased with my answer. Now I was sure that he wanted to punish my boldness. He was going to make me pay a high price for trespassing in his shop. He would show me who was boss. “How short you want it?” he demanded.
How short? That was the question I was dreading. My husband sat across the room, eagerly awaiting my reply. I knew what Phil wanted. He wanted to see my hair clipped close to the scalp. He would love to see me get my hair cut as short as the guy who occupied this seat before me.
I still hoped to escape with some kind of compromise. My haircut would be short, to be sure, but I wanted to keep enough hair on my head to look half way feminine. For the past two days I had wracked my brain trying to find the right words to describe the haircut I envisioned. I didn’t want to wind up looking like a chemotherapy patient. I wanted to retain some semblance of style. I searched for words to convey my vague ideas to him. The brief yet feminine look I was seeking probably was not among his limited repertoire. I pictured a cut like Angela’s but I lacked the vocabulary to tell this barber how to cut it properly. Belatedly, I wished I had accepted her offer to accompany me. The barber could have used her as a model. But she wasn’t here; I was on my own.
When I didn’t reply he resumed his interrogation. “You want I should cut it short all over?”
I really didn’t want my hair cut short all over, but I didn’t have a ready alternative. “Yes, that will be fine,” I repeated casually, trying to sound cool and laid-back, as if this haircut were no big deal. I couldn’t believe what I heard myself saying. How could I agree to part with my crowning glory so calmly? And without uttering a word of protest! I must be crazy.
“You want I should cut it all off?” he asked again. For the first time his voice betrayed a note of incredulity. I realized that what he meant by “short all over” was far different from what I had in mind. Unless I spoke up, he was going to give me a “buzz cut” like he did to the young man who preceded me. If I didn’t say something right away he would clip me nearly bald. I would wind up looking like G.I. Jane. That was too extreme.
“I’d like it short, but not too short,” I cautioned. I hoped to sound like I knew what I wanted, but I’m afraid my instructions were not very helpful.
My barber obviously was not satisfied. “How short is that?” he demanded.
“Not too short,” I repeated. “I don’t want to look bald. Something moderately short would be nice.” Was this the best I could do? Four years of college, an English major no less, and I could offer no more than this? How in the world could this barber comprehend what I meant by “moderately short?”
“Sure, I can do that,” he said. I was certain he didn’t understand what I wanted, but that didn’t seem to bother him. He obviously wasn’t going to waste any more time with idle chitchat. I had hoped for more dialogue about my new hairstyle, but now our conversation was over. Tony had all the instruction he needed. At the Beauty Nook there would have been more consultation. Barb, my stylist, would have offered me several alternatives. She would bring out stylebooks to examine and seek the opinion of other stylists. We would debate and discuss every detail. But Tony’s shop was a different world where another set of rules prevailed. The barber standing behind me was calling all the shots. He was the boss. He held the final authority. He would select the style I received. I had no alternative but to accept whatever haircut he chose to administer.
Tony stepped in front of the mirror and selected a pair of gleaming silver scissors from an assortment on the counter. He opened and closed them several times, testing to see if they worked properly. This only heightened my anxiety. When he returned to my side he placed his warm hand on my quaking shoulder. On his face I detected a look of concern. “You okay, lady?” he asked in an almost tender tone.
Of course I wasn’t okay. I tried to relax as Angela had suggested, but that was impossible. My insides were churning, my heart was pounding, and my brain was reeling. I felt a lump in my throat and tears welling in my eyes. But sharing my feelings with this impatient barber would do no good. No use delaying the inevitable. Best to get this ordeal over as quickly as possible.
I swallowed hard. “Sure, I’m fine,” I lied.
I doubt that Tony believed me, but what could he do? He had wasted enough time talking to me. He wanted to press on and I wasn’t stopping him. “You got a lot of hair,” he observed, stating the obvious. “Tell me how short I should go.”
He used his comb to select a lock of hair from my forehead along the center part and lifted it above my head. He took the strand in his fingers and inserted his scissors about four inches above my scalp. Our eyes met in the mirror. He was seeking approval of the length. I was too choked up to speak. I shook my head no. He lowered his scissors an inch and again looked for permission to cut. No, still too long I indicated with another shake of my head. Again he lowered the scissors. Now they were poised only two inches above my scalp. Yes, I nodded, that’s short enough. I watched in anguish as Tony closed the sharpened blades; I heard the harsh sound of metal against metal as they sliced through my hair; I saw a long lock floating free of my head, dangling from the barber’s thick fingers.
He held the severed hair in front of my face. I didn’t want to see it, but there was no avoiding the foot-long clipping. “You want I should save it?” he asked. Still unable to speak, I nodded a yes. He gently laid twelve inches of brown and gray hair on the cape. I looked in disbelief at the limp lock in my lap and the abbreviated patch above my brow. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Yet, there I was, sitting submissively as a strange man began removing the hair from my head. I couldn’t object because I asked him to do it. I had only myself to blame.
Slowly, deliberately, he resumed clipping hair from the top of my head, one precious lock at a time. He sliced a succession of long strands from both sides of my center part, carefully placing each piece on the cape next to the first. A pile of dark hair mixed with gray began accumulating in my lap. Before long there was nearly as much hair in front of me as remained attached to my head.
Despite his earlier impatience, my barber now seemed to be in no hurry. He leisurely selected each new lock. My shearing continued for five agonizing minutes. When Tony reached the back of my head he paused at last. In the mirror I saw a ridge of short hairs sprouting along my crown where my part used to run. They pointed toward the ceiling at unfamiliar angles while long hair still hung from the sides and back. I was a strange sight indeed. Barb would have gone ballistic if she had seen the crude mullet that now adorned my head. My barber, however, smiled broadly, apparently amused by my ragamuffin look. Playfully, he rubbed his heavy hand across the remnants of my former style, trying to erase all evidence of the part that used to reside there. The short hairs sprang back as his fingers passed over. I couldn’t tell whether this gesture was intended to reassure or humiliate me, but it didn’t help at all.
“Sure looks different, don’t it?” he observed in an amused voice. He seemed to be enjoying my suffering. Not only was I being scalped in a barbershop, I was being humiliated by a heartless barber. At this point something inside me broke. The tears I had been holding back began streaming down my cheeks. A muffled sob escaped my lips.
I’m sure Tony had never dealt with such an overwrought customer. His attitude changed immediately. “You okay, lady?” he asked again, obviously troubled by my outburst.
“I’m fine,” I said between sobs. He handed me a tissue and I tried to wipe away the tears. I was touched by his concern.
“You want I should stop?” he offered. But after going this far here was no way he could stop. He knew that as well as I did. The only alternative was to proceed as quickly as possible. Now anger replaced my fear.
“No, get on with it,” I ordered rather crossly between sobs. When he didn’t respond immediately, I added, “Well, what are you waiting for?”
His chastened expression told me there would be no further conversation. Without a word he resumed with his scissors, clipping the left side of my head shorter than the top. Now he worked more quickly. It took only a few cuts to reveal the outline of my ear. I watched as he stepped behind the chair and began lopping off handfuls of hair from the back of my head. These he casually tossed into my lap. As he neared the base of my skull I felt the cold steel of his scissors sliding along my neck. I realized the hair in back was now less than an inch long.
Soon, only the hair on my right side of my head remained at its original length. Mercifully, Tony wasted no time trimming that patch the same as the rest. “There, that’s done,” he announced. He held the last long strand in front of my face, opened his fingers, and let it drift down to join the large mound resting in my lap. Now no hair on my head was longer than two inches; the back and sides were considerably shorter.
The barber rested as I assessed the damage. I reached my hand out from beneath the cape and rubbed it across the ragged tufts on the top of my head. Tentatively, I explored the area around my ear and down my neck. The short hairs pricked my fingers. My touch confirmed what my eyes beheld. This was one seriously short haircut.
The tresses I had tended for so many years were gone, replaced by a crop of gray and brown bristles. I couldn’t believe the change. It was much worse than I had imagined. In less than fifteen minutes I had been transformed from a graying, but still fashionable, middle aged woman to a poster child for bad hair. This rough cut looked nothing like the cool cropped hairdo that Angela sported. I resembled a prison inmate or a concentration camp survivor.
“Oh my God,” I sobbed as more tears slid down my cheek. I dabbed at my streaked mascara. I was a pitiful sight.
“Don’t worry, lady, I’ll clean it up in a jiffy,” Tony assured me. I didn’t know exactly what he had in mind, but I knew his solution would involve cutting my hair even shorter. As much as I wanted this haircut to be done, I knew I couldn’t go out in public looking as I did. I had no choice but to let Tony continue with my shearing.
Tony set his comb and scissors down on the counter and picked up an ominous looking black instrument attached by a long cord to an outlet on the wall. I recognized this was his electric clipper. Soon I would be on the receiving end of their cutting edge. He dropped a few drops of oil on the blades, selected a plastic device that fit over the blades, and snapped it in place. He flicked the switch and the clippers began buzzing in my ear. The sound sent chills down my spine. When I agreed to Phil’s request for a very short haircut, he warned that the barber would want to cut my hair with clippers—most men’s haircuts required this. As much as I dreaded being shorn by this implement, I realized there was no alternative. I was trapped in a web of my own design.
The barber approached from the rear and placed his free hand on top of my head, forcing it forward till my chin rested on my sternum. I felt the clippers vibrating at the base of my neck as he slowly pushed them up into my remaining hair. I listened as they buzzed up toward my crown and felt their vibration through my skull. I couldn’t see what Tony was doing, my view was fixed on the pile of clippings in my lap, but I imagined thousands of tiny hairs flying from my head as he mowed it shorter still. He made a dozen passes up the back of my head, many more than I thought necessary. When he stopped I knew that very little hair remained.
The barber gently placed a finger under my chin and returned my head to an upright position. Now I watched as he mowed the hair from the sides of my head. He guided his clippers around my ear and up towards my temple. Fine dark hairs rained down on the striped cape covering my shoulders. He bent back my ear and ran his clippers around the side till the short hair in front merged with the back. When he finished the right side he shifted to the left. Again he ran his clippers up the side of my head and around my ear until both sides matched.
Now my hair looked even more bizarre than before. The sides were neatly clipped, nearly to the scalp, while the top remained a ragged mess. My head resembled a hairy mushroom. I expected the barber to continue mowing the top as he had done the sides, after all, he promised to “cut it short all over.” The result I expected was sort of a modified buzz cut, not quite as short as the summer haircut often observed on young boys, but rounded with all hairs the same length. I imagined the feel of the clippers as they passed over my crown, reducing the top of my head to a furry hemisphere. Instead, he paused and offered me an alternative. “You want I should leave it longer on top?” he asked. “It would give you something to style.”
I was surprised at his thoughtfulness. He was offering an option to the extreme haircut he had started. I thought I knew the style he had in mind. If it turned out as I hoped, it might resemble Angela’s hairstyle—very short on the sides and spiked on top. With enough gel, the right makeup, and some good earrings I might copy her daring and sexy look. For a moment, I pondered Tony’s offer. It would give me a way to salvage some semblance of feminine pride from this haircut. It was an attractive alternative to the buzz cut.
Then I heard Phil clear his throat across the room. I looked into the mirror and saw he was trying to catch my attention. He lifted his hand and passed it horizontally across his head. He was giving me a signal. What in the world did he mean? At first I couldn’t decipher the significance of his urgent signal. He repeated the motion three more times, slowly moving his hand flat above his head. Finally what he was trying to say dawned on me.
He was silently pleading with me to have my hair cut in a flat-top—the style most often seen on cops and military recruits. I recalled the conversation we had had years ago, when he first told me about his fetish. He had shared his vision of the female haircut he found most exciting. He showed me a collection of photos, each one picturing a woman with her hair cut perfectly flat across the top. Some were longer and some were incredibly short. They all looked strange to me, but Phil explained they really turned him on. Watching a woman have her hair cut into flattop was the most wonderful sight he could imagine.
On our way to the shop today he had raised the subject again. “You would look so sexy with a flattop,” he told me. I had remained noncommittal. “Don’t get your hopes up, buster,” I cautioned. Obviously, he was hoping that I now would follow his suggestion.
I shook my head to tell Phil his request would not happen. He clasped his hands, begging me to reconsider.
Tony paused, waiting for the conclusion of this silent conversation.
Phil looked so forlorn that I was swept by a surge of compassion. After all, my haircut had been his idea from the start. The main reason I was sitting in this chair was to satisfy his obsession, not to salvage my vanity. I knew what he was expecting. It would be cruel to get his hopes up and then dash them. I don’t know what form of madness came over me. It may have been sympathy for my husband or the intoxicating atmosphere of the barbershop. I’ll never know what made me do it, but I decided I would grant Phil his fantasy. I had come this far. I resolved to go a little farther.
I gathered the nerve to speak. In a small, trembling voice I asked the barber, “Could you cut it in a flattop?”
“What?” he asked, as if he hadn’t heard me correctly.
“A flattop,” I repeated more confidently this time. “Can you give me a flattop?”
The barber smiled. He seemed almost amused. “You’re kidding?” he replied. Obviously, Tony didn’t think I was serious. But I wasn’t joking.
“Can you cut it in a flattop?” I said again, more firmly this time. In the mirror I could see Phil intently hanging on every word. I hoped he appreciated how difficult this was for me, how much I was sacrificing for him.
“Lady, I don’t know,” Tony answered.
“What’s the matter? You know how to do a flattop, don’t you?” I challenged him. The dynamic in our relationship suddenly had shifted. Now I had him on the defensive. I was questioning his competence.
“Sure, lady, do ‘em all the time. But I never gave one to a woman,” he explained.
“Well, that’s what I want,” I insisted. He was reluctant, but I was determined to force him to give me this extreme haircut.
“Why you want to look like that?” he continued, puzzled at my determination.
I could think of no plausible reason, at least none that he would accept. “Can you do it?” I demanded.
“Sure, if that’s what you want,” he said, still sounding doubtful.
“That’s what I want,” I commanded.
“What will your husband say?” he asked, obviously expecting that Phil would veto my request.
“Why don’t you ask him?” I replied smugly. Of course, I know what his answer would be.
The barber turned to Phil. “Mister, your wife wants a flattop. What do you say?”
“If that’s what she wants, give it to her,” Phil answered. “Just make sure you do a good job.”
The barber rolled his eyes in disbelief. I’m sure he never imagined that Phil would go along with my bizarre request. “Okay, lady,” he answered. I could tell he didn’t really want to do it, yet I had been adamant and Phil had given his okay. Now he had no choice.
He went to the counter again and returned with a spray bottle in his hand. He pumped a fine mist of water over my head, soaking my hair. He grabbed a stiff brush and began briskly stroking the short fringe back off my face. He attacked the top of my head, coaxing the remnants of my hair into an upright posture. His forceful approach soon had the desired effect. All of the hairs on top of my head now stood erect—a ragged thicket of brown and gray.
I watched as he exchanged his brush for the clippers. He removed the plastic attachment that had shielded the blades and flicked the switch again. He returned to my side with the clippers humming ominously. He inserted his comb above my forehead, exposing about half an inch of hair. He held his clippers above my head even with the comb. This time he didn’t wait for my permission. Using his comb as a guide, he ran the clippers straight across my head. Clumps of short damp hair spilled from the blades onto my forehead and landed on my nose. I fought the urge to brush them away; I knew I dare not move. One sudden motion would spoil the look he was creating. He removed the comb, flicked some stray hairs to the floor, and inserted it further back on my head. He executed another horizontal swipe, then another, and another, drastically lowering the surface of my hair. After each pass he casually tossed more damp severed hair to the floor. There would be no more effort to save the clippings; we were past that stage. Each cut was slow and precise. He concentrated, making sure that the resulting plane was perfectly level. My once reluctant accomplice was now the consummate professional.
I watched in amazement as Tony reduced the length of my hair by almost an inch. As the clipping progressed a precise horizontal surface began replacing the shaggy mess that had stood there minutes before. As he reached the back of my head his cuts moved closer. On his last passes I felt his comb only a fraction of an inch above my scalp. I realized there would be very little hair left when he was done. This haircut was going to be shorter than anything I ever imagined.
When Tony finished with the top, he held his comb vertically on the sides of my head and used his clippers to carve sheer vertical walls that intersected with the flat top in sharp right angles. He repeated his upward strokes, each pass shaving another fraction of an inch from my hair.
After what seemed like an eternity Tony switched off his clippers. I thought my haircut was done, but he was not yet finished with me. The barber reached into a jar on the counter and withdrew a generous dab of gel which he vigorously massaged into my hair. Then he returned with the brush and a blow dryer. He attacked the top of my head again, stroking it repeatedly, making sure each hair was in the proper position. Finally he paused and critically studied the top of my head. Every hair stood stiff and straight. A hurricane wouldn’t budge them.
Evidently, a few hairs still were still too long because he returned with his clippers, this time without the comb, lightly skimming them across the flattened top of my new hairstyle. With each pass he removed a minuscule fraction of an inch from my hair. At last he decided my head had reached his vision of tonsorial perfection and switched off his clippers.
Next he used small silver clippers to trim the sides and the back. He carved my sideburns into sharp points, just like Angela’s. He clipped around my ears and down the back of my neck. Then he put the clippers away and took a soft brush to dust the clippings from my forehead and nose. Finally, he loosened the cape and tissue surrounding my neck and dusted there too.
I sat paralyzed, looking at myself in the mirror. A strange woman stared back. Her salt and pepper hair was clipped in a bold military style. The sides were so short that white skin showed beneath the dark stubble. The top stood perfectly flat. When I tilted my head forward, I could see a bare patch running down the middle of my crown. For the first time I understood why the barber was so reluctant to give me this haircut.
So this is what a flattop looks like, I thought. You better get used to it because you’re stuck with it.
Tony held a small mirror behind my head me so I could inspect the haircut from every angle. “Well, lady, is this what you wanted?” he asked brusquely.
“Yes, it’s fine,” I answered meekly. What else could I say?
“Is it short enough?” he asked. “I can take it shorter if you like.”
I couldn’t imagine anything shorter. “No, it’s fine,” I repeated.
“I guess, we’re done then,” he announced. “You should come back in a couple weeks to keep it looking sharp.”
The last thing I wanted was to return to his shop for another haircut, but I nodded in acknowledgment. The barber removed the cloth and the tissue from my neck. He gathered up the remnants of my hair in the cape and said, “I’ll find something to put this in.” As he departed for the back of the shop, Phil got up out of his chair and came over to where I was sitting.
When he reached my side I asked, “Well, Phil, you finally got your wish. What do you think?”
“Fran, I think you are one incredibly brave woman,” he gushed.
“Yes, but how do I look?” I pressed for reassurance.
“You look fantastic,” he exclaimed.
“You really mean that, don’t you?” I said.
“Yes, you look incredibly sexy,” he declared.
“Was it everything you hoped for?” I demanded.
“Oh yes. It was perfect. I couldn’t believe my ears when you told Tony you wanted a flattop. I never thought you would do that,” he said.
“Neither did I. It’s a special gift for you, honey,” I answered sweetly.
“Can I feel it?” he asked eagerly.
“Sure, go ahead.”
He reached out and cautiously skimmed his hand across the top of my head, letting my short hairs tickle his palm. He repeated the motion a second time and then a third.
“Enough already,” I stopped him. “You can play some more when we get home.”
“Fran, this is something I’ll always remember,” he said with great sincerity.
“You realize, that I’m going to begin growing it out tomorrow, don’t you?” I reminded him.
“Yes, I know that, but today I’m going to memorize every short hair on your lovely head,” He answered.
The barber emerged from the back room with a plastic shopping bag stuffed full of my severed hair. He handed it to me and I passed it to Phil.
The barber turned the chair away from the mirror and I stepped down. My husband reached in his wallet and extracted a fifty-dollar bill. “Keep the change,” he said as the barber placed the bill in the till.
I turned to my barber. “Thanks Tony, you’ve been great. I’m sorry if I got a little emotional.”
“That’s okay, lady. You did fine.” A big smile lit his face. We had gone through an ordeal together and both of us were relieved that it had turned out all right.
I looked at myself in the mirror one last time. I turned my head to the side and inspected the level surface of my head. The effect was striking. I was a completely different woman than I was when I walked in half an hour ago.
My look used to be coy and demure. I hid behind my long hair. I would peek out and flirt with men. I used it to impress other women. Now my look was strong and confident. My chin was firm and my gaze was resolute, almost defiant. My ears showed, but they were small and graceful. The gray hairs were still there, but they weren’t as prominent. Phil had been right; they looked much better short. Although this was a man’s haircut, you could still tell I was a woman. “You don’t look so terrible,” I thought. “This might not be such a bad style after all. Hold your head high and don’t be ashamed.”
I marched toward the door with my husband trotting close behind. “Come back any time,” the barber called as we exited his shop. It sounded like he truly meant it.
“Bye, Tony,” I answered. I doubted that I would be back, but you never know.