“Are you ready for your discipline?” my stepfather, Jack, asked me, walking into my room.
I groaned, wondering if I was going to throw up again. I’d messed up, and I knew it.
Jack placed a bottle of sports drink on my nightstand and sat down on the chair next to my desk. He wasn’t happy with me, that much I already knew. He had every right to be furious with me, and if my mother had her way, I’d be bent over that desk getting my ass whipped.
After everything Jack had done for me, I’d thanked him by getting brought home by the cops. I deserved whatever I was about to get, I knew that. I just hoped I didn’t throw up while he was meting out whatever punishment he’d decided upon. The night before flashed at me in incoherent bits and pieces. I barely remembered half of it and wished I could forget the other half.
When Jack had sat next to my hospital bed not six months earlier, and simply waited for me to talk, he’d given me a lifeline that I never thought I would see. My biological father had put me in the hospital, but I was still not speaking to anyone else. I knew that he would blather on the way he always did, about being an old-fashioned dad in an age when parents didn’t care enough about their kids to discipline them. He’d mention, sadly, my mother, who was “no longer with us,” and our rural neighbours would take a different look at my black eyes, the handprints I often wore across my face when we sat down in Church, the way I struggled to sit still in a pew, because my ass was smarting from being whipped. I gave it a day or two before I’d be leaving the hospital, my burned hand bandaged, but no further investigation into my homelife warranted.
It was a new cop, though. When he’d returned me to my father a few days earlier, my father had slapped me across the face, right in front of the cop, and bellowed at me to go to my room and prepare for punishment. “He hasn’t done anything wrong,” the cop, a Constable Cummings had protested. “He’s come home in a police car,” my father retorted. It didn’t matter that I had simply been in the wrong place when a junkie decided to hold up the local drug store, not caring whether he got drugs or money, hopefully both. One the stock clerks had pulled me into the back room with her when she saw the robber enter the store, and we hid behind boxes while the robbery happened. We also got a great view of him, which allowed the police a description to look for. Problem was, when Mrs. Venner gave her statement to the police, she said she’d just come back from lunch with her son, and Constable Cummings thought I was her son, so he didn’t think I needed to call home and explain where I was. My father was worried sick. He’d sent me out hours earlier for cleaning supplies and I’d returned in a police car. When he heard what happened, I knew I was still in trouble. He’d had hours to be worried and plan my discipline for being late, and he still had to put all that rage somewhere.
The next day, as my father was shaving my head before church, I couldn’t even sit up. He gave me a pass from Church that day, which was not something he had ever done. When I caught site of myself in the mirror, I realized it was not out of pity, but self-preservation. He didn’t want to explain the burned hand (after reading the passage about your hand temping you to sin and cutting it off, he taught me not to be tempted to rob a drug store by holding my hand to the stove.) Constable Cummings happened to be driving by the house when he saw my father leaving for Church, solo. He waited until my father had gone to come by the house on the pretense of letting me know that the robber had been caught and to thank me for helping with the description. I could barely stand up, and I tried to hide behind a pile of laundry so he couldn’t see me. I’d refused to answer questions, knowing that my father would make me sorry if I did. I got so fed up of him asking me if there was someone other than my father that he could call, as I sat in the hospital, with my burned hand bandaged and trying to get comfortable in a bed while my entire backside was whipped raw, that I snapped if he really wanted to help me, he should find my mother.
Jack had driven non-stop from Vancouver to Prince Albert with my mother when she got the call. I barely remembered her. I knew that when she got fed up of being knocked around by my father, she tried to leave him and he’d beaten her almost senseless. Then, when she couldn’t fight him, he brought me in front of her, stripped me naked and horsewhipped me until I bled. He told her that every time he was disappointed by her, he would punish me. It worked. She left us, knowing that he beat me, but believing he would only hit me when I’d done wrong. If she was around, he’d whip me whenever he wanted to hurt her. My mom had a tremendous amount of guilt when she sat in court in all summer and heard about my upbringing without her. A head shave every Sunday before church (my father referred to it as a haircut. He took great pains to ensure that the difference was noted. The judge asked me how much hair he left. My head was shaved clean. Not just on Sundays. If Christmas fell on a Wednesday, I had my head shaved that morning before Church, and again on Sunday.) I never wanted to rush home from Church to open presents, because my Christmas presents were always haircut kits, or a new disciplinary strap, or school supplies. When I still believed in Santa, I alternated between thinking he was an asshole, and believing that I was a terrible child, because only someone on the truly naughty list would get a leather beating strap as a Christmas present.
But Jack had vowed that he would never lay a hand on me. That I would always be safe under his roof. He’d fought all summer for me. And now, I had once again come home in a police cruiser, this time entirely my own fault. Jack’s expression was that of bitter disappointment. That look alone sobered me, though the alcohol was still in my blood. As he sat there in my room that morning, waiting for me to guzzle down some more sports drink, to help with my dehydration, more of the previous evening came back to me. My mother flying at me, slapping me, yelling at me that she understood now why my father beat me. Calling me ungrateful. All of which I deserved. Jack getting between us and suggesting I go to my room for my own good. Me standing there, paralyzed, worried that when I left the room, Jack was going to hit my mom. My mom snapping at me that I was a terrible person for believing Jack was capable of it, even after she’d had no problem cuffing me. Jack telling us both, so calmly it was eerie, that he had no desire to hit either one of us, but we would discuss it in the morning, when my mom was calm and when I was sober.
More flashbacks. Me puking for half the night, while Jack sat in the bathroom and ensure I didn’t choke on my own vomit. My mom taunting that I deserved the agony of puking and that she hoped I had a wicked hangover. She got her wish. I felt like there was a herd of elephants dancing in my head. Jack admitting, as he held my hair back from my forehead, that if my father got wind of what happened, he could very well suggest that Jack and my mom were not any better capable of being my parents than he was. Me crying, sorry, ashamed, admitting that I had never gotten away with anything bad in my entire life. My father used to take the calendar down from the wall and look to see if he’d left a black X on it since the last Sunday. If he hadn’t, then after supper, he took his whip to me, to “keep me honest.” I was hit whether I did anything wrong or not. Now I was in a new city, with new friends, except none of them were really friends. The guys I played hockey with all had years of memories together. I was just a guy who was good at skating backwards and who could stop another guy’s breakaway. I could take a hit in the corners. When they said they were going to drink before the school dance, I went with them. I just wanted to do something dangerous once in my life and not be beaten for it. Of course I got caught.
Now here was Jack, sitting in my room, expectantly. “You don’t remember your suggestion, do you?” I swallowed back fear. It felt like I was finally out of vomit. “I’m doing my best to forget that last night ever happened,” I admitted, trying to sit up. So far, so good. Gratefully taking the drink bottle from Jack and sucking it down. I didn’t want to risk shaking my head and my voice sounded like gravel. “No sir,” I finally mumbled. “I don’t remember what I decided on for discipline. Should I just stay here and take off my clothes?” That was how my father preferred to whip me. Stripped naked and face down on the bed. When he was finished with me, he could simply pull the sheet over me and not have to see what he’d done to me. I would either move from the piss-stained bed and try to clean the sheets, or I would have passed out and would wake in piss-soaked, often bloody, sheets. I deserved it if Jack did the same. But I felt terrible that I’d driven him to it.
“You need to get up and shower,” Jack replied, standing himself. “You smell like ass. Brush your teeth about a hundred times. If you hold down breakfast, we’ll head out.” Head out? “If not, we’ll take care of it here, but I can’t promise you’ll enjoy it.” I was being punished, wasn’t I? How was I going to enjoy that? As I stood under the water of the shower, and washed the puke smell out of my hair, I had a memory of my sopping drunk self admitting that I had tried at least ten times to get a haircut and chickened out every time. After I was released from the hospital, I was not permitted to return to my father’s house, and my mother wasn’t granted instant custody either. I was sent to a foster family, with eight kids in the house in total. Haircuts there weren’t given as a means of control, but more to save on water. There was certainly no budget for barbers, so I sat in court in a home buzzcut that I had nearly peed pants getting. I had tried several times since I’d moved to Vancouver to get a haircut for school, or before hockey tryouts. I’d walked into a discount chain a few times, taken a number, and panicked when I heard a frustrated parent bark at an unwilling child that he was getting a bruschut. I’d even turned around a few times before I reached the door, when I saw a kid leaving with a buzzcut, even if that kid looked happy about it.
I knew that my hair, grown out since my June buzzcut, was driving my mother crazy. I’d heard her giving Jack shit, telling him that he needed to make me cut my hair. That I needed to learn to respect his authority, and he didn’t have to hit me to make that happen. I’d heard Jack telling her that I would ask for a haircut when I was ready for one. I’d been subjected to enough bad ones in my life, he wasn’t going to make me get another haircut until I was ready. “I’m never going to be ready,” I’d cried, between vomiting. “You have to just make me get it cut. I got as far as the chair once and when the stylist asked what I wanted, I didn’t know. I’ve never had a choice. I stare at people and ask myself if I like their haircuts, then I wonder if you need clippers do that style and then I flip out again.”
Crap. When I was drunk and sorry, I would have sat in any barber’s chair and endured a headshaving. But in the cold light of my hangover, all I could think of was the sound of clippers, the feel of cold steel blades against my throbbing head, and panic started to set in. it wasn’t the headshaving that killed me on Sunday mornings; it was the crack of the whip on Sunday evenings that I knew was coming. I was like a Pavlov dog reacting the bell. The clippers meant the whip. It was just a matter of time. I got out of the shower, guzzled some more sports drink, hoping that the headache would dissipate when I’d had a chance to absorb and keep down some of this liquid. My mother was right; I deserved the hangover. If I still have an aversion to the smell of bleached sheets and towels in hotels, a throwback to the failed attempts to clean the piss and blood out of my bed sheets when I was a kid, I nearly vomit to this day when I see cheap vodka, or smell red Gatorade. I drank so much of it that day.
When I stumbled into the kitchen, my hair clean and combed, for what would surely be the last time, Jack plopped down a greasy breakfast, eggs cooked in bacon grease, strips and strips of bacon, even the hashbrowns were greasy. It was the best cure for a hangover, Jack assured me, as I took a tentative bite. “Why are you being so nice to me?” I asked him. I would feel better if he yelled at me, slapped me, told me how stupid I’d been. “Believe me,” Jack poured himself some more coffee, and it occurred to me that he’d had very little sleep if he was ensuring that I didn’t choke on my vomit for half the night. “I really do want to slap you half silly. But that won’t make you any sorrier than you already are. It won’t erase what happened last night. It would make me feel better for a minute and then I’d feel terrible afterwards. It never occurred to me that in giving you freedom to make up your own mind, I was paralyzing you with choices. And you have all this guilt, every time you try to do something even half badass. So, time for some rules. You are fifteen years old. Your curfew is ten o’clock, unless your mother and I both agree to let you stay out later. You are not going to another dance until we know we can trust you to attend it sober. Movie starts at 9? We’ll decide if you can see it. Hair will be kept off your collar, above your ears and above your eyebrows. I will tell you once that it’s time for a cut and I expect you to come home that night with it cut. If you fail to do so, I’ll cut your hair myself. I’m a lawyer, not a barber. You’ll get what you get.”
I nodded. The breakfast and Gatorade really had helped the hangover. I hoped that the cold hockey rink that afternoon would, too. Otherwise, I would be puking behind the bench. “Brush your teeth, and then we’ll head out,” Jack added. “I want this done before hockey.” I threw my sweaty sheets into the wash before we left, and smiled because they were gross from my being drunk, and not gross from the bodily fluids that came after being whipped. There wasn’t a single jug of bleach in this house. Jack drove to a small barber shop in the neighbourhood he’d lived in before he met my mom, before they’d sold their places and bought something more family-friendly. She’d already left for work and I made a mental note to apologize to her when I saw her that night. She wouldn’t want my excuses why I’d thought it was a good idea to go out drinking with my friends. Jack parked the car and got out, walking into an old-fashioned shop with black chairs and a checkerboard floor. The barber wore a crisp white uniform and the men leaving were doing so with stubble.
I braced myself. I knew what was coming. It would be over quickly. The one nice thing about clippers is that they’re quick. If I just counted to a hundred, slowly, then backwards from a hundred, the haircut would be almost over. Jack grabbed a number and sat down, looking through a car magazine while we waited, like he didn’t have a care in the world. This was a man who had been raised well. A haircut didn’t send him cowering to the corner. I was transfixed by the man in the chair getting his hair cut. I wasn’t sure if that was a crew cut or what was called whitewalls, but it left very little on the guy’s head. I used to get razor burn if my father was too aggressive, if he passed the blades over my scalp too many times in search of the last stray strands. This guy seemed to be enjoying it. I wished I’d brought headphones, so I wouldn’t have to hear the sound. I needed to pee and I wondered if that was from all the Gatorade or if I was just remembering having the piss knocked out of me on haircut day.
When the guy in the chair finished, I tried to breathe slower. I could get through this. But Jack sat in the chair next and I almost started bawling. He was trying to show me that haircuts were not the end of the world. “Hi, Jack. Haven’t seen you in a while,” the barber greeted him, shaking out a fresh cape before he wrapped it around him. “Hi Casey. I’ve moved, so I don’t get back to this neighbourhood as often,” Jack explained, moving while Casey wrapped some sort of tissue paper collar around his neck. “I’ve missed your cuts, though.” Casey started to spray Jack’s hair and asked what he was thinking of. “Those whitewalls that just left looked pretty appealing,” Jack replied, and I nearly choked. I knew I was getting shaved that day, but hearing it out loud snuffed out any hope I had left. I was walking out of this shop properly buzzed. Still, I was walking out with a parent who had the same short cut, so that was a small consolation at least.
Casey didn’t say another word, just combed Jack’s hair a final time and snapped on his clippers. I could hear the sharp hiss of the motor from where I sat. Casey pushed Jack’s head forward a bit and plunged the wide blades up from the neck. In one pass, Jack’s dark hair was gone and there was nothing but a path of clean skin up the centre of his head. Three more passes in quick succession, and the back of his head was clean bald. It took me to the count of sixteen. A quick move and Jack’s head was sideways, as the clippers plowed him into those requested whitewalls. By the time I hit thirty, Jack’s head was bald from the temples down, Casey shaving away more at the back to match where the whitewalls started at the side of his head. “Do you want to blend the top with the sides, or have a hard transition?” Casey asked him, as he snapped a guard onto his clippers.
I exhaled, for what felt like the first time since he’d started cutting Jack’s hair. I knew whatever he answered was the same for my cut. “What do you think looks better?” Jack asked, checking his reflection in the mirror and nodding his approval of the process so far. “Depends on the shape of your head,” Casey replied. “We can start with a hard stop and if that looks too boxy, blend it.” That was all Jack needed to hear before he agreed, and Casey dropped his clipper down at the forehead and worked his way back. There might have been a guard on that blade, but there wasn’t much of one. Inches of Jack’s hair fell off. I had stopped counting when they started talking, but once I resumed, I figured it took about a minute in total before Jack was completely shaved. Okay, that was less than counting to a hundred and back. I could do this. I could almost hold my breath for that long. “This is definitely too square headed,” Casey decided, and in a few quick strokes over a comb, he blended the top and sides so it didn’t go from a quarter inch to bald with no transition. He brushed away the cuttings with a wet towel, and held a mirror so that Jack could see the back.
“I love it, thank you,” Jack gushed and I marveled how he and the guy before him could endure that without hyperventilating. “Your boy could use a good tidy up,” Casey added, the disapproval of my sloppy hair evident in his tone. “My boy could use a good lesson,” Jack countered, and lowered his voice as he turned his back to me. I couldn’t hear what he and Casey said next, just saw the frown of disapproval from the barber as he listened to Jack and looked over at me. I felt the bitter burn of shame, knowing this man was hearing about my drunken escapade of the night before. Jack might have even been warning him that I might start bawling or flipping out as he shaved me. I knew that I had to get over this fear, because I had many years of haircuts ahead of me, and I couldn’t flip out every time I had a job interview, or a date, or just didn’t want to look stupid and sloppy. But in that moment, I wanted to throw up, and I was reasonably sure it wasn’t because I was hung over.
“We can take care of that,” Casey decided, his voice calm. Okay, so he wasn’t going to gloat while he shaved me. Small victories. “You ready, Daniel?” he asked me. No, I wasn’t, but I managed to stand on wobbly legs and will my feet to move me to the chair. Casey pulled out a fresh cape and gave it a shake to get out the folds, as I glued myself to the chair, forcing myself to breathe through my nose. “You’re going to be fine,” Jack assured me quietly, his hand on my shoulder supportively. “I’m right here.” I nearly started to bawl, but that wouldn’t be respectful to Casey. His job was about to be hard enough. So I bit my lip and looked down, while that same tissue paper stuff was wrapped around my neck. “What’s better, Daniel?” Casey asked me now. “Do you want to see what’s happening, or not see it?” Both were equally bad. When I said as much, Casey laughed and said we were going to get through it. He sprayed my hair with water, which was room temperature where I was expecting it to be cold.
I started singing a song in my head, thinking I could tune out the clippers if my head was loud enough. Casey started combing through the tangles, stopping each time he hit a snag, and simply cutting off the knot with scissors. It wouldn’t matter in a few minutes anyway, I figured. Casey then parted it on both the left and right sides, stared at my hair each way, and decided to comb forward from the crown. I sort of felt like he was toying with me, making me think that I might not be getting whitewalled, only to pull out those clippers and start buzzing after he’d lulled me into a calmer spot. When he started to comb and cut with scissors, snipping finger length on top, I wondered if my hair was so long and straggly that he needed to cut it first before he shaved it. He seemed to put a lot of effort as he trimmed away above the ears, pushing a comb against the side of my head and snipping off any hair that poked through the teeth. My counting to a hundred and back would be over before he even turned on the noisy cutters, I realized. Time for a new distraction. Casey continued snipping, dragging the comb over the areas he had just cut, going after any runaways, then moving to another section and repeating the process. I had never had my hair cut with scissors before, and it was quite time consuming. But it felt… nice. I figured that Jack wanted me to experience what a good haircut could feel like before he had me buzzed, so I decided to go with it and simply enjoy the cut. Maybe if I ever earned my way back into his good books, I might be able to get a cut like this. It did meet his criteria- it was above the ears, it was off my collar, and there was not a stray stand across my forehead, let alone anywhere in my eyes.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Casey asked me, as he scraped the comb through my hair, watching little snippets fall like snowflakes. “No,” I admitted. “I’ll try to stay calm while you shave it.” Both Casey and Jack looked at each other. “You don’t like this cut?” Casey asked me, and I worried I’d offended him. “This is great,” I admitted. “But I’m pretty sure Jack wanted whitewalls.” Casey nodded and looked at Jack. “I wanted the moppiness gone,” Jack shrugged. “It’s gone. I wouldn’t mind if the nape was clipped a bit shorter, though,” he said to Casey, not me. Once again, my head was pushed slightly forward and a comb placed against it. More snipping with scissors, and a nod from Jack when it was finished. Casey wiped away those cuttings and asked Jack if that was short enough. Jack asked me how it felt. “Like I don’t deserve to be treated this kindly,” I replied, feeling tears well in my eyes. I’d gotten the through the haircut without bawling, but because everyone was gentle with me. Now I almost couldn’t stop myself from crying.
“One day, son, you’ll walk in here and ask me for a buzzcut,” Casey suggested, talking over my emotions, which allowed me to swallow them. “But it will be your choice, because you want a nice, clean haircut. A haircut should feel good.” We left and I realized that this would become a regular thing, Jack and I getting haircuts together. Eventually, Jack would expect me to brave a clippercut, but he’d be there with me when it happened, and it would be something that didn’t make me cringe when I saw it.
When I got to hockey that day, the rest of the guys I’d been caught with the night before looked as green in the gills as I felt. Jordan, one of my team-mates, who was also in my math class at school, came over to me and asked if I was okay. “You were really scared last night,” he added. Oh, God. Had I said something? “When you want to talk, I’m here. Meanwhile, a few of the things you said last night make sense now. Like why you always change when you think nobody is looking, and you dress and undress so quickly. Or why you have those shiny circles on your hand and it’s not from a cooking accident.” I felt like I had to defend Jack and let Jordan know that everything he just mentioned was from my father, not my stepfather. “Understood. It explains why you were worried your mom and stepdad would send you back to him. My video game has been unplugged and locked away until Christmas. You get anything other than a haircut?” I said a curfew that meant I would never have a social life, and I was probably never going to a dance again. Also, if I smelled Gatorade, I would probably throw up. “You needed that mop cut anyway,” Jordan grinned.
Playing hockey that day, I realized how much less sweaty and gross I felt with short hair. I still did exactly what Jordan had noticed afterwards- showered with lightning speed so that I could be dressed before anyone noticed a scar on my back or my ass. Combing through my new hair, I realized what I wanted to do. Jack smiled when he saw me and asked if I made it through okay. “Yeah, but I think I’ve had enough Gatorade for a while,” I admitted. “What time does Casey’s shop close?” Jack knit his brow and said six o’clock. “I know you just paid for a cut, but can we go back? I don’t think we were done,” I blurted, before I changed my mind. Jack cocked his head now like a dog and asked me if I was saying that for his sake or mine. “Both. I’ll explain in the car.”