–This is another old one I let sit not quite finished for a few years. I dusted it off and finished it up, the styles and stuff are obviously a little out of date.-
“We really don’t need or want a fancy greenhouse.” I stated as simply and clearly as possible to Brad, Susie’s agent/manager.
Brad has spent the past half hour pitching the idea that we should go on some cable reality show that follows a small company that builds extravagant greenhouses. It wasn’t even going to pay Susie, we would simply be getting a bit of a discount on a very very expensive construction project.
Susie was nodding along and looking enthusiastic. I hated the idea. Construction is messy and time consuming. Plus, it meant we had to open our home to camera crews. I put up with a certain amount of public visibility because I knew it just came with being with Susie, but I never liked it much and kept it to a minimum.
“Jess,” Brad started. “This isn’t about getting a greenhouse, it’s about exposure. This is a really popular show with women between 30 and 45, which is also Susie’s main demographic. It’s about reminding them how much they loved her when they were in their teens and twenties.”
Brad always calls me Jess, I hate it. It’s part of his need to make everything in Susie’s life fit his vision for her. That includes me. I’m pretty sure the reason he uses it is to make the name more androgynous. He’s been doing it for the past 20 years.
A little over 20 years ago, I was a nerdy economics post-grad, and Susie was playing bars with a cover band on weekends and doing odd jobs on weekdays. We had a simple life and could totally just be ourselves. It wasn’t perfect, we lived on Ramen, depended on the generosity of my parents way too much, and I was racking up student debts, but it was good. At that point we assumed I’d be the one who would eventually make us a decent living when I finished my PhD and got a job.
2 years later, Susie was playing sold out stadiums, and Brad was calling most of the shots. In most ways it was also good, but it came with a downside. Life’s a trade off, sure we didn’t have to live on Ramen anymore, but we also gave up a fair amount of control over our lives and privacy.
I remember the first time we were attending a red carpet event where Susie was an A lister. All these designers were trying to get her to wear their dresses, those that knew they didn’t have a chance with Susie were sending me samples. There had been one I loved, it was a soft pink with exquisite embroidery and bead work, I wanted to wear it so badly. The color was going to be the perfect backdrop as my long warm brown wavy hair tumbled over my shoulder like a waterfall. I could totally picture it.
Me in something pink and delicate and oh so girly did not fit Brad’s vision though. Susie needed to be the girly one, so I couldn’t be also. Brad had me wear a slightly feminized version of a tux. He had his stylists slick my long hair back on the sides making a very slight pompadour at the top, and pin it tightly up in the back. He wanted it cut short, but Susie put her foot down at that.
“Jessica and I will talk about doing the show tonight, Brad.” Susie interrupted before Brad and I could start yelling at each other. “I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know what we decide.”
I let out a sigh of relief as Susie walked Brad to the door. I hoped that was the end of it.
“We really should do the greenhouse thing, Jessica.” Susie said as she stood by the door to the bathroom taking off her makeup. “It’ll be fun.”
I slipped off my glasses and put down the magazine I was reading to look at her from our bed. She looked completely serious standing there in her pajamas holding her wash cloth.
“Why?” I couldn’t quite figure out what she thought we would get out of it, well other than a greenhouse and a huge construction bill. “Where would we even put a greenhouse.”
“It could go over the pool, and have a breezeway from the house, then you could do laps all year long no matter what the weather is like. I know you’d like that.” She said cheerfully. “It would be like your own personal Carribean island.”
“Which still doesn’t answer why. Why are you trying to sell me on the idea?”
“I want the exposure.” She finally admitted. “I might make it back up onto the B list. Sure now that I’m a C lister, life’s a bit more peaceful, but there were advantages to being on the B list. It would be great for our charity work.”
“It’s going to be so messy and disruptive.”
“Please.” Susie gave me the look I always gave in to.
A couple of weeks before filming was scheduled, I was getting ready for work when Brad knocked on the backdoor.
“Susie’s at the gym.” I informed him and assumed he would go away. Instead he came inside.`
“That’s ok professor, I can go over her clothes with her when she gets back.” Brad said slickly. That’s Brad, slick and fake. “We can go over what you’re going to wear for the show now.”
I rolled my eyes as I walked back to the coffee maker and started filling my thermos. Theoretically, I didn’t mind being called “professor” the way I minded being called “Jess.” It was after all what my students usually called me and I didn’t mind them calling me professor at all. There was something about the way it sounded coming out of Brad’s mouth though that grated. He gave it a slightly sarcastic twist. It always felt like a veiled insult.
“You know what, you may get to tell me what to wear on the red carpet, or when I go along with Susie to interviews, but you don’t get to tell me what to wear in my own home.” When Susie wasn’t around, I felt less need to play nice with Brad. “I don’t even want to do this show at all, I just agreed to it because Susie wants back on the B list.”
“Back on the B list…” Brad let out a rather genuine sounding sigh.
“What’s that supposed to mean.”
“The chances of Susie making it back onto the B list are minuscule, I’m just trying to keep her from falling off the C list completely. It’s getting harder and harder to book her for anything. You know as well as I do she needs the attention to continue.”
“Oh please, you’re just trying to make money off her like you always do.”
“Really professor? How do I get paid? How much is Susie getting paid for this? How many of the things I book her for are charity fundraisers she plays for free?” Brad actually sounded hurt, it was the most real I’d ever seen him. “Use that fancy economics PhD and tell me how much money I’m making off of Susie these days.”
I took a deep breath. Fuck, he was right. He made a percentage of what Susie earned, this year that will not have been enough to keep his greyhound in kibble never mind enough to pay his own bills. Susie and I did fine mostly because I had invested most of the money wisely when it was coming in fast. My salary and book royalties were perfectly decent, too. Brad of course earned nothing off my income or Susie’s investments. Yet, he still came by at least once or twice a week, he still made all sorts of personal arrangements for Susie as if she were still a star. If you broke it down by how much he made an hour he probably would be better paid flipping burgers than managing Susie.
I wasn’t being fair to him. I probably should have noticed ages ago, that Brad had stuck around long after the goose stopped laying golden eggs, I’d just been so caught up in resenting his influence over Susie for so many years, I’d never bothered to actually think about it.
Suddenly feeling embarrassed and guilty, I fumbled to put the lid on my thermos. I looked down at the still half full coffee pot, as Brad just stood there looking a strange combination of hurt and pissed not saying anything.
“Want a cup of coffee?” I offered to break the uncomfortable silence.
Sitting across from each other at the breakfast table, Brad and I sipped our coffee.
“Why do you still manage Susie?” I asked. “You don’t stay with all your clients for 20 years do you?”
“Susie is different.” Brad says warmly, his usual sleek facade missing. “When I took her on I gave her the usual talk about how the career of a pop star normally is over in under 3 years, so plan for a second career when this one is over. Before Susie, the longest I’d kept a client was 5 years before suggesting they go back to school or something.
“Susie had real staying power though. By the time we got to 10 years, there wasn’t a lot of money in it anymore, but Susie wasn’t burned out. She still loved it, was financially stable enough not to need the second career, and had a solid enough fan base that still remembered her that it wasn’t a total waste of time. Though those fans were becoming moms who were too busy to go to major concerts they had to travel to get to, they would hire a babysitter so they could see Susie at smaller local venues, especially for a good cause. So I booked her for charity stuff mostly and everyone was happy.” Brad took a sip of his coffee before finishing. “By then, I guess I saw Susie as a permanent part of my life.”
We sat in silence again drinking our coffee. I guess on some level I’d always known that Brad did really care about Susie, I’d never suggested she fire him or anything, but he had always annoyed the crap out of me to the point that I created a narrative in my head that had him mostly interested in the money and not Susie’s well being.
It dawned on me that since Brad never married, never had kids and had no siblings, with the exception for his 90 year old mother and his spoiled greyhound, we were the closest thing he had to family. For Susie, the father figure she never had, for me, the annoying in-law. I glanced at the clock a few times as the uncomfortable silence stretched.
“So, what do you plan to wear for Greenhouse Genius?” He asked eventually.
“I guess pretty much what I always wear.” I said. “I mean what’s wrong with what I’m wearing now?”
“You don’t get it. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the way you dress. Believe me, there are a million things right about this whole hot-for-teacher look you’ve got going on.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about him calling my perfectly professional outfit a “hot-for-teacher look.” Sure, the peacock blue blouse was a bit of a bold color and showed just a hint of cleavage, ok more than a hint. Yes, the black slacks accentuated a few curves and the kitten heels were a tad bit flirty. And I’d been told the beaded chain my tortoise shell reading glasses hung from had a naughty librarian vide… Ok, on second thought he was right about the hot-for-teacher look, and I’m back to embarrassed.
Brad kept talking ignoring my discomfort. “It makes you adorable. The problem is that it just doesn’t say wife of a rockstar, I need you to make Susie look good.”
“So, I shouldn’t look at all sexy, so I don’t upstage her.”
“Oh no, I want you sexy. I want you very sexy. The star is supposed to get a sexy mate. You have never ever appreciated just how sexy you look in the styles I’ve been giving you. I’m not trying to take away your sex appeal, just give it a slightly androgynous twist. It gives Susie the vibe that she can have anyone male or female. I want you to be sexy, just in a way that pairs well with Susie’s appeal.” Brad was on a roll and just kept talking. “I want you to know balance her. I just want a bit of both yin and yang from you two. If I leave you to your own devices, you guys are all yin and no yang. I’m just bringing out your yang, and trust me you’re sexy with yang.”
“You sound like an idiot.” I pointed out drolly. “You’re just trying not to say that people expect one of us to be butch and one to be femme and you want Susie to come across as the femme so I have to be the butch.”
“Thanks professor” Brad responded sarcastically. “I may not have your way with words, but I know what I’m doing. I also really do care about keeping Susie happy and doing what I can for her pet charity.”
The uncomfortable silence was back. I sipped my coffee and checked the time. I was going to be late for my office hours if I didn’t leave, but I suspected none of my students would even notice. I sighed and texted my TA to put a note on my door that I wouldn’t be in for my office hours.
“What do you think I should wear?” I asked.
“I’ve got a couple things in the car. I’m thinking tight black jeans, simple jewel tone button down shirts, leather blazer. I’m aiming for a slightly toned down biker chic vibe. You’re a size 12 these days, right? I’ve got you absolutely perfect boots to go with it. You’ll love the boots.”
I knew I was going to hate the boots. “Susie isn’t the only one with an image to maintain. I need to keep my professional image intact.”
“Come off it Jess. You’ve got tenure and the university loves that you attract students who think you know all the ins and outs of entertainment industry finances. Being associated with Susie does wonders for your career, whether or not you like to admit it.” He stared at me practically daring me to try to deny it.
I’m sure he believed it since I never corrected him. I was always worried that if I corrected him, it would get back to Susie. I would never tell Brad the reality that whatever boost my being associated with the entertainment industry gave me was nowhere near enough to make up for the annoying reality that careers in academia usually came as his and hers pairings, and that not having an academic husband was a huge handicap. I had the tenured full time position, but it was at a third rate party school. It was something that I down played to Susie as much as I possibly could.
Since I didn’t say anything, Brad continued. “I’ll go grab stuff from the car and you can try a few things on and we’ll decide what you’ll wear which days.”
“Ok, that one’s perfect for the reveal.” Brad said as I stood in front of the full length mirror in the 5th and final outfit. “I think we have each day covered.”
4 other outfits were carefully laid out on the bed. One was for the consult day, the other 3 were for any days I talked to the construction crew. On the chair was a large pile of rejected clothing. Brad started hanging the winning outfits on the end of the rod in my closet.
“Fine, I’ll just change back into my own clothing and get to work. You can help yourself to more coffee or whatever while you wait for Susie to get home.” I said as I turned away from the mirror and started taking off the leather blazer.
“What are you doing with your hair?”
“You’re starting to go grey and the messy bun thing you do most days doesn’t go with the look we are aiming for.”
“I suppose you want me to slick it back.”
“I want you to get it cut and cover up the grey.” Brad seemed exasperated. “It’s a frizzy mess these days that should just go. It was annoying enough that you insisted on the long hair before you started getting those wiry greys and at least it was smooth, now though… But I know I’m not getting my way, Susie’s been telling me that’s taking things a step too far since that first time I gave in and said she could take you to the Grammys as long as she let me dress you.”
“What do you mean gave in and let her take me? Who else would she have taken?” I asked as I smoothed down my maligned hair. I only had a few dozen greys, I thought they were part of the reason it was getting easier to make the students take me seriously. I didn’t mind the grey, though it bugged me a bit that the overall color had dulled a bit in the last couple of years.
“Oh, she never told you about that?” Brad raised an eyebrow at me as I sat on the edge of the bed pulling off the stupid boots I was never ever going to admit were actually really nice. “I was planning to send her with one of the guys from that boy band that had just gone platinum, but no she had to take her no name girlfriend who can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Paired with the right boy band guy and they’d have made every single tabloid cover.”
Brad gave me a look as I sat there trying to process this nearly 2 decade old information that was new to me. It was obvious he still resented the opportunity I’d unknowingly ruined.
“Don’t get me wrong, in retrospect, I’m glad she did insist on taking your relationship seriously. You’ve been a stabilizing force in her life. You always took her home before the heavy drugs came out, you didn’t let her just burn through the money, you made sure she had a comfortable house to return to when the tour ended. She’s much better off than most artists who put out a few hits then faded from the limelight.”
Brad had finished hanging up the outfits and had started shoving the rejects back into the garment bags he’d brought them in.
“Well, since Susie loves my hair too much to let you cut it, what do you want me to do with it?”
“Susie doesn’t give a shit about your hair, she just doesn’t want me pushing you too far. So she kills the conversation before it can even get started. All you have to do is mutter ‘but I like my hair long’ and Susie comes to your rescue.” Brad sighed and ran a hand up through his own thinning white hair.
“There isn’t anything wrong with my liking my hair.”
“Oh grow up. It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. Besides it would look good if you’d just trust me. You’re as bad as that whiny drummer who was scared of getting the side cut last month. She at least has the excuse of being 19, so I had some sympathy.”
“So you didn’t make her get the side cut.”
“Oh no. She got the side cut, it looked perfect at the photo shoot last week. I was just really nice when I told her that I wasn’t going to waste my time if she wasn’t willing to commit to the band’s image, and I didn’t tell her she needed to grow up, since unlike you she has time to do it naturally.”
“I never really signed up for this though.”
“Which is why I haven’t dropped you for being an impossible pain in the ass to work with.” Brad sounded drained. I suspect he was trying to make me feel guilty. “Listen, here’s a photo of the style that would really fit the image I want. If you care about helping Susie by looking the part that helps her appeal to her audience, take it to Pauline and get it done. Or, if you care more about looking 10 years older than you are and being fantasized about by half your male freshmen, who think of you as a hot Miss Frizzle, just slick your hair back in a ponytail, or do whatever you want. I give up.”
Brad took the folded up printer paper from his pocket, and handed it to me. I unfolded it and looked at it. It was the first time the haircut conversation had ever made it to the showing me pictures stage. Every time we’d had the conversation before Susie had been in the room and ended it by simply telling Brad to drop the subject. Looking at the picture I was shocked.
“You really don’t think Susie would object to this?” I ask waving my hand over the printout.
“If she thought it was your idea, no.” Brad said as he zipped up the last garment bag. “She only minds that it’s my idea.”
I heard the front door closing, and footsteps downstairs.
“IS THAT BRAD’S CAR IN THE DRIVEWAY?” Susie shouted up the stairs a second later.
“WE’RE UP HERE HONEY.” I called down before I slipped the paper into my magazine.
“Has Brad been nice to you, Jessica?” Susie asked me pointedly giving Brad a dirty look as she joined us. “Not too pushy.”
“He’s been fine.” I said kissing Susie’s plump lips. “I need to get to work, I’ve already missed my office hours and I’ll be late for my lecture if I don’t get going. He’s got stuff for you to try on, so I’ll leave you guys to it. I’ll just go to the guest room to change so you aren’t distracted.”
That night, I was sitting up in bed reading an article, waiting for Susie to finish her whole long cleanse, moisturize, make sacrificial offerings to the gods of youthful skin routine, as I do every night. Finally Susie hopped into bed with a bounce. The bounce caused me to drop my magazine.
“What’s this?” Susie was holding the folded up printout that had fallen out of the magazine.
I was about to tell her it was a suggestion from Brad, when what he said suddenly came back to me and I was curious to know what she’d think if she didn’t know it came from Brad. “It’s just a hairstyle I was sort of vaguely contemplating. Thought it might look younger.”
As she unfolded it I waited to hear that she hated it and thought I was perfect just the way I am. She’d tell me how wonderful my long hair that she’d been protecting from Brad for all these years was and convince me cutting it short would be a huge mistake. Then she’d run her fingers through my long hair and we’d make each other very happy before we went to sleep.
“Hmm, sexy.” Susie said waggling her eyebrows. “This would really highlight your cheekbones and bring out your smile. It’s definitely a younger look. I’m a little surprised, but it will look great if you go for it.”
“You actually like it?” My voice sounded much more appalled to my own ears than I wanted it to.
“Don’t you?” Susie sounded completely confused. “You’re the one who found it and went to the trouble of printing it out.”
“I didn’t find it and print it, I was just…”
“Was this Brad’s idea?” Now Susie looked pissed. “I’ve told him a million times to lay off you about the hair. Don’t worry about it, Jessica, your hair is perfect the way it is. Just ignore Brad.”
“A minute ago when you thought it was my idea you said it was sexy. Which is it, perfect the way it is, or sexy if I changed it? Do you agree with Brad that I should cut it? Have you been lying to me all these years about liking my hair?”
Susie actually laughed. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can look good with either. Just because you could pull off short and sexy doesn’t mean the long romantic thing you’ve got is bad.”
“So why have you been putting your foot down about not letting Brad choose what I do with my hair if you like his ideas.”
“It’s Brad’s dictating I object to, not his style ideas.” Susie explained very rationally. “I don’t want him guilting you into something you’ll hate, even if it might look good. You could look good doing the short edgy thing, but you can also look good doing the naughty librarian thing, and since the naughty librarian thing is you and you’re happy with it, it’s the one you should go with, even if Brad’s ideas are just as good.”
I was feeling very confused as I sat there next to Susie in our bed petting my long hair that hung in front of my shoulder. I’m sure I was looking hurt from the sympathetic look she was giving me. The idea that Brad had been right again really upset me.
“But you really thought I would be sexy with that haircut?”
“Sweetie, let it go. You don’t have to cut your hair for me to find you sexy. Come on, let’s snuggle and get some sleep.”
“Of course it would have taken a few years off her Brad, that’s not the point. She likes looking more mature, she feels it’s easier to get taken seriously. You know she started using the reading glasses when she was just 35.”
Susie was in the kitchen on the phone. She must have forgotten we left the window to both the kitchen and bedroom open. Normally, someone in the bedroom wouldn’t be able to overhear a conversation all the way from the kitchen, but the windows changed that.
“You’ve totally killed her confidence with that little game you played…. Did you really have to point out that I would like it if I thought it was her idea…. For god’s sake that does not make up for telling her she should cut off all her hair…. I’ll forgive you when she gets over it…. Yeah, you’d better hope it doesn’t take that long…”
I decided to get up and stop the accidental eavesdropping. I was deliberately loud enough opening the bathroom door that she would know I was up.
“I’ve got to go, I’ll talk to you later Brad…. Yeah, love’ya too.” Then I heard her coming up the stairs.
“Good morning.” I said as best I could around a mouth full of toothpaste as she came back in through the bedroom to the bathroom.
“Hey Jessica, I forgot the windows were open.” Susie came over and slid up onto the counter next to the sink.
She looked so cute sitting there with her legs dangling. I rinsed out the toothpaste and wiped my face, before I went to stand in front of her. I picked up one of her blonde locks that hung around her shoulders. These days her hair reached just above her nipples in soft layers, and had pink tips here and there around the bottom. Brad had texted the idea to Pauline just as he always did, and Susie went right along with it just as she always did. Making Susie blonde was one of the first things Brad had done when he became her manager. I think it was even before he had the audio engineer booked.
With just one exception, Susie’s hair always fit Brad’s vision. That one time Susie’s hair was not what Brad wanted wasn’t even because it was what Susie wanted. She’d been on tour overseas and one of the numerous local stylists that they relied on to keep Susie blonde while traveling had really fried her hair with the bleach. Brad was considering flying Pauline out to see what could be done to improve the brittle hair, but Susie had other ideas. She had a few days till her next venue and was missing me, so her and Brad flew back home. That night when they got back her hair felt crunchy, and bits kept breaking off, in my hand, on her pillow, every time anything brushed against it.
Since I didn’t want to give up a single minute of the brief time we had together I went with them to the salon the next morning. Brad wanted Pauline to do some kind of deep conditioning treatment and trim the ends a bit.
At the salon Pauline just shook her head and said the only realistic option was to cut it off. Brad argued, but lost when Pauline demonstrated the amount of hair that broke off in the comb she ran through Susie’s hair. Then Brad asked for extensions. Pauline told him they could do that in a few months when there was a base of undamaged hair long enough to attach extensions to. Brad tried arguing with Pauline that it couldn’t wait a few months, since they were in the middle of a tour. Pauline won that argument also, saying attaching the extensions to hair that damaged would just lead to obvious bald spots. Brad relented, and Susie got very short hair.
No one had been happy as Susie’s hair was being cut off. Brad was grumpy on the phone arranging new photos, Pauline muttered about incompetence, Susie just looked nervous and vulnerable. I tried to reassure her it would look great even though I really hated the idea of her hair short.
Pauline had cut off the bulk of Susie’s hair dry, combing a small section out, clamping it between her fingers just inches from Susie’s scalp, then cutting the section off with a single snap of the scissors. She did it fast, the scissors and comb flipping back and forth, the hair sliding down the nylon cape in a steady stream. Soon, the damaged yellow hair around the chair made it look like the wagon floor of a hayride.
She then did have her assistant deep condition what was left, before having the colorist dye it a deep fuchsia that she said would help camouflage the dark roots as they came in so bleach wouldn’t be needed till they were ready to go back to blonde. When Susie came back from the sinks and Pauline took off the towel, there was a lot of broken off hair clinging to the towel. I wondered how much more had simply gone down the drain.
Then Pauline cut Susie’s hair even shorter. The comb running up the back of her head as the scissors followed it snapping open and closed so fast they blurred. She even used clippers at the neckline. When we left the salon, Susie had just about an inch or so on top, and even less on the sides and in the back.
That night as I ran my fingers through the hair it felt much better than it had the night before, not perfect, still a bit dry and damaged, but not breaking off any more. She didn’t look like my Susie though. Sure she looked good still, but it was a bit like sleeping with a stranger. I tried to hide it, but she could tell so I just reassured her I just needed time to get used to it.
Soon after she talked about how the short hair was because her hair was so badly damaged in an interview on one of those late night shows. Brad had set up the appearance to make sure people didn’t think the sudden dramatic haircut was an existential crisis or something. She acted as though the damage was mostly from too much sun and swimming in chlorinated pools instead of mostly from bleach. Brad felt sun damage sounded a lot more fun and didn’t really want everyone thinking about Susie not being a natural blonde. In the interview, Susie mentioned my reaction to the haircut, saying I hated it but pretended not to. I obviously couldn’t hide anything from her.
Months later when the last of the damaged hair had been trimmed away, and the newly grown hair was long enough, extensions went in. I hated it so much more than I had disliked the short hair since the spots where the extensions were attached felt weird. I couldn’t wait for Susie’s real hair to be long enough that Brad would be happy with it and the extensions could go.
“Do you ever get sick of Brad always telling you what to do with your hair?” I asked Susie.
“Nah, it’s nice not having to fret about it. I know he’ll always come up with something good, and I don’t get stuck in a rut.”
“Am I stuck in a rut.”
“You’re comfortable with who you are. Or at least you were till yesterday. Besides you make little changes sometimes. Sure you basically keep it long, but you sometimes add layers, and once you did those side swept bangs. It’s not like you always tell Pauline to do the exact same thing.” She had her arms around my waist as we talked.
That wasn’t quite accurate. I always ask Pauline for the exact same thing. Every now and then I nervously went along with a few minor changes she talked me into.
“Do you think Brad is right? Do you think my look influences how your audience sees you?”
“Probably, but I don’t care that much. I don’t really want to be back on the A list. I prefer playing smaller intimate venues anyway, I don’t want packed stadiums and world tours anymore. I like how the fans can talk to me after the shows. It’s nice to hear how much my music has meant to them. I’m fine just aiming for the B list and keeping you happy, I don’t need you to lose yourself so I have a shot back on the A list.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to tell her Brad was just trying to keep her on the C list. I also was suddenly feeling like I would do practically anything to keep her from falling off that C list. Getting a haircut wasn’t really losing myself.
I kissed her and then asked, “What are your plans for today?”
“Just my usual unscheduled thursday. I’m going to head out to the gym now, not sure what I’ll do afterwards.”
“Ok honey. I’ll see you tonight.” I gave her another quick kiss and a pat on the thigh before she slid off the counter and headed out the door.
When I was sure she was gone, I called Brad. “I’m willing to do it.”
::You’re willing to do what?::
“Cut my hair. I’ll get the haircut and cover up the greys. But I’ve lost the picture and I’m not sure I have the nerve to make the appointment, so can you take care of it.”
::Are you serious? I got the impression from Susie she didn’t want me even making suggestions anymore.::
“It’s ok, I’m the one who made the decision. My last class is over at 11:30, so anytime in the afternoon is fine, just text me.”
::Just so long as Susie doesn’t blame me for this.::
“Even if she does, she’ll forgive you by Monday. You know her, she can’t stay mad, she’s a total softy.”
::True.:: Brad chuckled.
Waiting in the salon for Pauline was hell. It had taken every ounce of self control I had to simply walk through the door when every fiber in my body was screaming don’t do it. I’d been here dozens of times over the years, but never like this. I’d always just come to get my long hair trimmed and styled, or with Susie. This time I was going to get it cut off short the way Brad, and I think Susie, wanted it.
Usually after I changed out of my blouse into a smock and the receptionist got me a tea, I graded papers while I waited for Pauline. Today, I was too nervous. I just sat, staring out the window and reminisced.
I remembered how nervous I was the first time I came to Pauline’s salon to get my hair trimmed. Susie had an interview on a morning show and even though neither Brad or I wanted it, the shows producers really wanted me to go along because part of the episode was about communicating in relationships, and they wanted to include the partners from everyone they had as a guest that day. They were getting all the earlier guests to stick around for a final guest who was a relationship counselor who had just written some book.
A few nights before the interview we had our typical sit down with Brad so he could go over talking points with Susie and stuff. I had expected Susie to just forget that Brad had complained about my hair again after he left. For a change Brad had not suggested I get it cut short, just that it would look better if it was a bit less damaged and frizzy. Instead of simply telling Brad to shut up then not bringing it up again, she had kind of shrugged agreement while he brought it up. For that interview Brad had pushed less than he usually did about my image, I think he was worried that I might say something about him being one of the main strains on my relationship with Susie. Then after he left, she said that I could actually really use a trim, pointing out that I’d been getting a lot of split ends.
That first time, it was one of the other stylists at the salon, Rob, that had trimmed a couple of inches off while Susie promised me that it was barely noticeable in terms of length. Rob had been the one that slicked my hair back into an updo before red carpet events before, so I’d known him. It was different being in the salon with scissors though, for events Rob had always come to us and I never saw any cutting implements. At the end of it I did have to admit that it looked better and was healthier, so I had kept up the regular trims. Rob moved cross country about 5 years later, and Pauline took over trimming my hair even though I wasn’t a big name client.
“Hi Jessica.” Pauline’s normally soothing greeting almost made me jump out of my skin. “Are you aware of the text Brad sent me? There’s a couple of pictures.”
“I know, we talked about it.”
“This picture?” Pauline held out her phone to me, “this is what you talked about and you’re ok with it?”
“Yeah, that’s the one we talked about.” I squeezed the words out of my dry throat.
“You really want to do this? You’re as pale as a ghost.”
I just nodded, unable to talk anymore.
“Is Brad pushing you to do this, I know what he can be like, and I won’t do it if you aren’t happy with going along. I’ve gone against Brad on these things a few times; of course then been surprised when he keeps bringing me his new clients anyway. I guess it lets him not have to worry he’ll go too far.” Pauline looked thoughtful. “Though last month, I was the one who had no patience for that drummer of the band he brought in. She was nervous but ok with the idea of a sidecut, but was worried about what her parents were going to say. Brad gave her a very watered down version of his usual ‘Don’t waste my time’ speech then wandered off muttering about maybe it was time to retire. The rest of the girls in the band were left telling her it would be fine and her parents were just going to yell a bit. I mean really 19 years old and still worried that her parents would get mad over a haircut. I wish Brad would have just told her to grow up, but I was the one who finally had to remind her she was an adult and could do what she wanted with her own hair.”
“I sometimes get calls from students’ parents, and have to remind them that their child is actually an adult and I expect students to contact me themselves.”
“Which brings us to you’re not in the industry.” Pauline focused back on the present situation. “You don’t have to do this just to please Brad. Susie and his other clients go along with him because they know he can get them what they want, you don’t have to.”
“It’s not just that Brad wants me to fit a certain image. I want to look nice for Susie. I think the change will spice up my life.” I said since it had been clear Susie thought it was going to make me look young and sexy. “I’m hoping it will take a few years off, and get me out of my rut.”
“Rut. More like a deep trench.” Pauline said with a chuckle getting up and leading me back into the salon, “I can do the cut today, Brad had me reschedule one of his other clients, but I’m going to schedule the color with Tim, he’s our colorist, for Tuesday, so I can do a patch test and make sure you aren’t allergic to anything. You’re really ok with this big a change?”
“I want to do it.” I said as calmly as I could before sitting down.
Pauline started pulling and pushing my hair around the way she usually did, and consulting with me about what she was going to do. Most times I paid careful attention and spoke up frequently about not making any layers too extreme, and how everything needed to still be long enough for me to pull back in a ponytail. This time I barely listened as she talked about how she was going to do things a bit differently from Brad’s picture to suit me. I didn’t say anything, just nodded stiffly when she said “tighter around the ears” and tried not to think about what that really meant.
“Alright as long as you want to. It should look really striking on you.” Pauline said as she shook out her nylon cape. “Let’s take care of the bulk before I have Linda wash you. There’s too much grey to donate it.”
Pauline put the cape around me and fastened it. I was nervous as hell, but managing to pretend this was just a normal trip to the salon, denial is a powerful thing. She snapped the snaps and spread my long hair out over it. I kept reminding myself to breathe as the fabric pressed into my neck feeling much tighter than usual. She started combing.
Soon she held about a third of my hair in a loose bundle on the right side of my head. I swallowed as she picked up her scissors. She placed them above her hand just inches from my head. I held my breath.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, snap. Each crunch made my stomach clench. I watched the hair fall away from the blades in two different directions, short hair towards me, the cut ends of the long hair towards Pauline’s hand.
Pauline was holding my hair dangling loose. Short tufts hung along the right side of my face. Nothing touched my right shoulder. She dropped my beloved tresses carelessly to the floor.
Oh god, what had I done. I suddenly felt like I’d lost a part of me. Well, I guess I actually had. I was trying so hard to be a grown up and not cry, but it was a losing battle as the tears started pouring over the edge of my eyelids. I clutched the still long hair on the left side of my head as I lost it.
I could hear Pauline saying soothing things to me, feel her rubbing my shoulders, knew she was trying to convince me to let go of the long side so she could cut it too. I was aware, but I couldn’t actually follow it as I just sat there unable to control the sobs that shuddered through me as I clutched tightly to what was left of my hair.
I was trying so hard to pull myself together and stop acting as though it was a big deal when I knew it shouldn’t have been. Thinking about it just made pulling myself back together harder, it added a whole extra layer of embarrassment on to the shock of seeing a third of my hair cut off.
This had been such a mistake. I was terrified of what people were going to think about the short hair. How they were going to see me now. The long hair had been my comfortable blanket shielding me from the world, and now almost half of it was gone and Pauline is telling me it’s too late to keep the rest.
Finally Pauline stepped away and picked up her phone. “Susie? I need you down here now… I’ve got Jessica in the chair and she’s freaking out, I don’t know what to do. I’ve had a few tears once or twice but never like this…. Thanks, hurry.”
Pauline put an arm around me as we waited for Susie. Linda came over at some point with tissues and a glass of sparkling water. I don’t know how long it took before Susie was there telling me everything would be ok and asking what was going on. Pauline explained as best she could. I was too out of breath to talk.
I heard Susie angrily talking on the phone to Brad. “She’s cutting all her hair off, are you happy!… That’s not funny.”
“What did he say?” Pauline asked her.
“He said ‘yes, he was happy.’” Susie answered Pauline then switched back to talking to Brad. “She’s bawling her eyes out…. You’d better hope she does, because it’s too late to stop it.”
“So what did he say about her crying?”
“He said she’ll like it once it’s done and she sees how good it looks.”
“I doubt that, but we’re never going to find out, if she won’t let me finish. I wish I’d made the first cut smaller so I could just blend it into the longer hair, but as it is, I really can’t do much other than finish cutting it short at this point.”
“I’ll talk to her.” Susie said to Pauline, then came over to me and squatted in front of the chair. “Listen sweety, it’s going to be ok, but you have to let Pauline finish, we can’t just leave it like this. Here we’ll trade you hold my hand, and let go of the hair you’re clutching.”
I slowly took Susie’s hand, clutching it like a lifeline. Pauline came back over and leaned down next to me.
“Jessica, are you up to continuing?” I nodded yes to Pauline’s question. “Do you want me to go ahead with the original plan, or do you want me to just fix it in a way that keeps as much length as possible. I could take it to about here with layers. It would look a bit late ’90s-ish, more conservative than Brad would have wanted, but not bad. It would leave you enough length that we could put in extensions next week.”
Pauline indicated a point just a bit below my ear. I suspected she was talking about a basic mom cut. I’d still be losing most of the length, and it would achieve none of the things I’d been willing to give my hair up for. Since I was stuck with short hair anyway, or extensions, both of which I hated, I might as well be miserable with the cut Susie had said would be sexy and Brad thought gave me that biker dyke image that made Susie seem more cool femme.
“Go ahead with the original plan.” I finally managed to croak out. “It’s what I came in for, I just…”
“Shhhh,” Susie soothed at my renewed sobbing. “What were you thinking sweetie?”
“I wanted to do something to make you happy.” I said between sniffles. “You said it would be sexy.”
“For future reference, you being this unhappy shouldn’t ever be part of any plans to make me happy.” Susie gave my hand an extra squeeze. Then joked “It’s hard to be sexy with snot all over your face.”
“I didn’t expect to feel quite so…” I looked at myself in the mirror as I used the hand not clutching Susie’s to blot at my face with a tissue. I didn’t know how to explain it. How to say the things I was feeling, when it didn’t really make sense to me.
There was a lot of fear involved, I know Susie said she thought it would be sexy, but I wasn’t sure she really meant it. Even if she did mean it, did she really know what I was going to look like. She could be imagining something that is completely unrealistic. I was really worried I would look like my mother with short hair.
I knew colleagues and friends were going to be asking or at least wondering why I suddenly did something so drastic, but it felt like a private thing between Susie and me, but there it was going to be for the whole world to see. Going to work with my hair cut off tomorrow was going to be like going to work in nothing but my bra and panties. I didn’t want to tell people I cut all my hair off because Susie’s manager wanted me to. Admitting to being that easily manipulated was incredibly embarrassing.
Then there was the comfort my hair provided, the feel of Susie’s hand running through it, the sensation of it brushing against my lips. So many even less identifiable emotions. What had I expected to feel even.
“I didn’t expect to feel so…” I repeated, still not sure how to finish the sentence.
“I know, you thought you wouldn’t like it, but would be a grown up. And the good feeling of having done something for me would make up for you not really liking it, like how you don’t really want a greenhouse, but knowing it will make me happy is more than enough to make up for that.” Susie filled in for me. “But now you’ve got doubts about whether this is actually something I want, and you are realizing that it’s not just that you won’t like short hair, but that your hair is a big part of your identity.”
What could I do, but nod. Susie got me in ways no one else could. Sometimes she understood me better than I understood myself. She hugged me for a few minutes, when she pulled away I noticed she had a tear running down her cheek. She stroked my face for just a second then stood up and took my hand again.
“Are you ready?” Pauline asked, and I just nodded.
With my eyes closed and my hand clutching Susie’s, I sat there as I felt the comb run through my hair again. The combing wasn’t bad, but all too soon it stopped and the hair was once again gathered in a bundle. I held my breath as the sound of slicing filled my left ear. It was almost like I could hear each strand ping as it was severed. The soft ends of the hair began to fall against my face. I opened my eyes, just in time to watch the scissors close on the last few strands of hair that bridged the gap between Paulines hand and my head. I wished I’d kept them closed as I felt my heart sink.
As short locks fell forward onto my face, they stuck to the salt and wetness. Susie reached out and stroked my damp cheek with her free hand. Susie’s soft fingers with callouses just at the tip where they rubbed along the guitar strings gently loosened the hair from my skin before brushing it behind my ear. When this was over, I wouldn’t have enough hair for that to happen again.
Pauline was behind me next. She started gathering the hair that hung down the back of my neck and over the cape. The feel of her hands brushing against my neck was accompanied by the sound of hair swishing against the nylon cape. When the swishing stopped and the hair was held tightly, I felt the cold metal briefly brush against my neck. I held my breath in an attempt to keep from sobbing again, as I knew the last remnants of my long hair were about to go.
Crunch, I felt a few strands land lightly against my neck. Crunch, the tension on the back of my head began to release. Crunch, I watched Pauline’s hand rise up holding the last of my hair. Snap, it was over.
I sat there looking at the reflection that didn’t look like me as Pauline dropped the last of my hair to the floor. I looked down at the hair, my hair, in tangled clumps around me. It was already so much more hair than that the time Pauline had talked me into the long side swept bangs. That time the hair laying on the floor had shocked me even, and this time there was already 4 or 5 times as much hair and she’d barely begun. Susie let my hand go.
“Ok, that’s the hard part over,” Pauline said with a hopeful tone as she came around behind me. “Let’s go back to the sinks and Linda will wash your hair.”
Wash what hair? I thought. I had so little left. I didn’t want to move, I didn’t want to face Linda.
“Is it necessary?” I half whispered. “Can we just get this over with?”
Pauline looked thoughtful for a brief moment saying, “You don’t think it will help you relax? It would give you a little time to reconsider if you want to get the style Brad sent me, or if you want me to keep more of the length.” I just shook my head. In the mirror I watched her gesture to go away at a confused looking Linda. “Sure, we can skip the wash.”
Pauline walked back to the counter, and picked up a spray bottle. She pointed it at my hair and squeezed. The air around my head was filled with a fine mist as Pauline rustled the short hair that was steadily becoming damp. As the hair started to really get damp, the top started to curl the way I had thought only the ends ever would, then it occurred to me, that my hair was now all ends.
After putting down the spray bottle, Pauline started hanging hair clips from the hem of her blouse. Then she picked up the comb and scissors before coming back behind me again.
The comb started scraping along my scalp. I felt the tip of it carving lines between sections Pauline used the clips to hold up against my head. Soon all that was hanging down was a bit over my ears.
“You’re sure about the style? I can leave it a bit longer than we talked about, I could leave it an inch on the sides and still get the basic shape.”
“We’ve come this far, might as well go all the way.” Having lost over a foot of hair already, what was the point of fussing over that last inch or so.
Pauline used the comb to lift the hair hanging over my ear and sliced it off. The clump of hair fell to my shoulder. When the comb pulled away from my head, the hair left behind no longer touched my ear.
Pauline repeated the process of combing the hair up and out then slicing it off over and over. At first heavy chunks of damp hair landed noticeably on my shoulder. Gradually though, the hair falling became less and less noticeable. I watched in the mirror as the scissors cut closer and closer to my scalp. Why did I do this to myself?
After a while, Pauline was barely using her comb as the points of her scissors nibbled the hair right around my ears practically down to the skin. The feel of the metal chillingly real as the tips scraped my skin.
Suddenly Pauline was done and walking around behind me to my other ear. As she started slicing the hair away from above the other ear, I examined the now exposed side. The whole area was short enough to see scalp through. Towards the top just barely visible through the short hairs, but the closer to the ear it got the shorter the hair and the more visible the scalp. I reached up a shaky hand to feel it. The hair right by the ear was just stubble.
A moment later, Susie’s hand joined mine behind my ear. The feel of it was more magical than I expected. Her fingertips brushing through the stubble to find my fingers. I looked up at her and she smiled down at me.
“You know those chandelier earrings you love but hardly ever wear because they always get tangled in your hair?” Susie asked. I just blink since I don’t want to nod while sharp blades are slicing off my hair. “Well, you can wear them everyday now.”
Despite how I felt in general, my cheeks rose in a smile. Susie is so good at seeing the bright side to anything. Of course I would have given up ever wearing any earrings ever again if I could just turn the clock back a few hours and not have agreed to cut my hair, but it was comforting to know Susie could still make light of the situation.
I could almost just have forgotten the situation and lost myself in the feeling of Susie’s hand on the side of my head, if it weren’t for the hair landing on my shoulder with a plop every few seconds and the constant sound of snipping on the otherside. Susie took her hand away.
Pauline was finished with the second ear, and was letting some more hair out of the clip in the back. I felt the slight tug of the comb going through the hair just above my neck. Then the cold metal tips of the scissors started going across where I normally gathered the last of the loose hairs when I was putting my hair up.
I watched in the mirror as Pauline worked away on the back of my head. I could only see what Pauline was doing not really the result. I could feel it though, the cold metal against my skin along my neck. Pauline’s nimble fingers lifting hair up, and the comb’s teeth scraping through what little was left, not meeting any tangles.
Pauline gradually worked her way up towards the top. The hair began to fall in my view again. at first falling to my shoulders before sliding off either to my lap or the floor. After a while it fell past my face. Some even brushed my nose as it tumbled past.
Finally Pauline was holding the last section of my hair between her fingers in front of my face. I watched as she snipped off 3 or 4 inches of hair, forming bangs. Bangs already shorter than the side swept ones had been. Once the last of it was cut, Pauline started just ruffling her fingers through my hair. I looked down at my hair covered lap and fought to not start crying again.
For what felt like ages, Pauline kept ruffling away and snipping just a bit here and there. Combing the hair forward and snipping along the edge of it, the cold blades sliding along my cheek. Often the scissors just slid through the hair, the blades so sharp they sliced through without closing.
I was glad when she finally pulled out the hairdryer. The scrunching product through my hair, while sculpting it into shape took less time than it usually did.
I sat as patiently as possible while Pauline did the million little adjustments she always did after what seemed to me to be the end of the haircut. I always wondered if there was really a reason, or if she just wanted to make sure clients felt like paying 20 times more than they would have at the mall was worth it.
Eventually Pauline picked up her little edger and started using the humming thing on my neck. I swallowed down the objection I wanted to make. Though I’d seen her use the edger on Susie a few times, this was the first time I’d ever felt it myself. It was strange feeling her turn my naturally M shaped hairline into a V shaped one.
Pauline unfastened the cape and carefully removed it so the pile of curls from my lap slid to the side, and not onto my feet. I knew I should be looking at the haircut to decide if I liked it, but I knew I didn’t. I also knew it was probably perfectly cut and falling beautifully and all that. So what was the point of looking?
Pauline seemed to know I had no desire to really look at it, because she didn’t show it off to me the way she usually did just patted my shoulders and went off to get whatever it was she wanted to test on me to see if I might be allergic. Susie went with her so they could talk then Susie gave Pauline a quick hug.
When they got back, Pauline smeared a bit of something behind my ear. Some component of the dye, I guess. Then Susie told me she’d drive home and someone would bring my car later if I left my key.
“I bet once you get used to it you’ll love it.” Susie said optimistically while driving us home. “Back when I had short hair, it was really comfortable. If both you and Brad hadn’t hated it so much, I might have kept it instead of growing it out. It never got in my face in bed, and no tangles.”
That’s Susie, always focused on the bright side. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved most about her. Right at that moment though, I kind of wish she’d just shut up about the whole thing so I could try to forget it.
“It’s just as sexy as I imagined it would be.”
I wasn’t sure if I should believe her. On the one hand, I knew she would say anything to make me feel better, on the other hand, Susie was a really terrible liar. I remember the first time back in college as an undergrad I brought her home for the Thanksgiving break and her trying to pretend she liked my mother’s dry leathery turkey and limp soggy string beans, nobody was even vaguely fooled. Yeah, maybe she did mean it. I smiled at her, and she finally shut up about it.
That night I took a very long shower just letting the hot water spill over me as Susie was doing her usual night time routine. I rushed through a quick hair washing not bothering to condition the remnants of what had been my impressive mane. Susie was testing the edges of some peel off face mask to see if it was ready as I came out and started drying myself. I watched Susie work through her routine as I massaged some lotion into my legs. She was almost done when I went to my sink next to hers and carefully focused my gaze down at the flowing water as I got my toothbrush ready, avoiding looking in the mirror. I turned my back to the mirror leaning against the counter as soon as I had the toothbrush ready.
Susie had finished her routine and stood next to me watching as I finished brushing my teeth. As I rinsed, I once again kept my gaze carefully averted from the mirror. When I swiftly turned my back to the mirror as I blotted my face off, Susie sighed deeply.
“Stop sweetie, just stop and actually look at yourself.” Her gentle hands on my hips turned me to face the mirror. Then her left hand was at my face tilting my head so I had to either look or resist her. “See, you look beautiful.”
Her hand glided along my cheek and up into the hair on the side of my head. Then she reached down and guided my hand up to the side of my head. “Feel it. Isn’t it scrumptious, just like velvet.”
I looked into the mirror as my hand brushed over the shortest hairs around my ears. It did feel amazing. It was already dry there. My hand continued to the longer still damp hair at the back of my head. I rubbed up and down over it a few times, delighting in how it felt a bit like a damp paint brush.
I had to admit, it was pretty good looking. More modern and polished than my usual style. If I were some woman I met somewhere, I would think it was a good haircut for her. I was having trouble feeling like myself though. Susie pressed her toned body into me as I brushed back the slightly curly hair that flopped on my forehead.
“See, sweetie. You look sexy and powerful.” Susie whispered her lips brushing against my ear. Then she started kissing the spot right behind my ear as her own long soft hair brushed against my bare neck.
Powerful, that was an interesting choice of word. I looked at myself, the damp hair pushed off my face. Nothing to hide behind, no shield, no armour. I felt vulnerable. Powerful? Of course it is only the brave who face the world naked and unafraid. I guess truly powerful women don’t need to hide.
Her right hand had moved to my cheek again, and my hand met hers there, her left hand was snaking its way inside my bathrobe. Her fingers started at the pelvic bone then moved downward. Her lips had moved into the stubbly hair next to my ear, kissing me in a place I could have never before felt it.
“It feels amazing on my lips.” The whisper was low and breathy. “Short hair can be very sensual.”
Her left hand moved between my folds as her face brushed against my neck. She started nibbling at the spot on my neck where the hair had been taken to the skin. Susie must have kissed and nibbled my neck a thousand times before, this time was like no other. The sensation of it rivaled the sensation of what her hand was doing down below in the folds between my legs.
I smiled at my reflexion, suddenly happy with the new woman I was.