Finding Myself in “Neverland”

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I set out to write something short, based v-e-r-y loosely on a story a friend recently told me about one of her first post-college living situations. And then things, as they often do in my stories, began to unspool. I know I’m still leaving you hanging on a couple of series, but life has been insanely busy lately and I’ve had very little time to write. When I made the time, this was what came out. Hope you enjoy!

Portland, Oregon. I’d never been there before, but I knew it was where I needed to be.

It was 2011 and I had left everything behind me but a few changes of clothes and my toothbrush, maybe a couple of other personal items. I bought a one-way bus ticket out of Boise and didn’t plan to look back.

It had turned out that college wasn’t for me, and rather than flunking out I decided to drop out at the end of the semester. Only problem was, my parents didn’t approve of the plan. They made it clear that my choice to leave school—which also meant giving up my dorm room—did not mean I could just move home and make them support me until I figured out what was next. Fine by me. I didn’t really want to move back in anyway.

But where would I go?

I remembered my friend Rusty had moved to Portland last year. It seemed like the kind of place a lot of people our age, without plans or prospects, were turning up. So I sent Rusty a message on Facebook, where I’d been scrolling through photos of their Portland adventures, to see if they thought I should go out there, too.

“Totally,” they had replied. “It’s great out here. I don’t think I’ll ever leave. I’ve never felt more like myself. You should come try it for a little while.”

I asked them where I would be able to stay when I got there. They told me there was a big, old house in the Hawthorne neighborhood one of their friends had inherited from her grandma or something. It’s where Rusty was staying, and a bunch of other young people, all rent free, and for as long or as short of a stay as they desired. “It’s kind of like Neverland here, Nat. Just a bunch of young people who left home or quit school or just needed to escape. We take care of each other. Nobody has a real job—an office job—but we get by. Like a family.”

“Are you sure your friend won’t mind me crashing there for a little while?” I inquired.

“Not as long as she thinks you can fit in with the rest of the group.”

“What does that mean?”

“Help out with chores around the house. Work the odd job now and again so you can earn some money to contribute to food and stuff like toilet paper. And, like, just generally embrace Neverland.”

“That sounds easy enough.”

“When do you think you’ll be getting here?” Rusty followed up. “Some of us are heading up to the mountains tomorrow to do some hiking and camping.”

“I was thinking Saturday or Sunday. Will you be back?”

“Probably not. But I’ll let everyone know you’re coming and that you’re cool. They’ll take care of you till I’m back.”

“You’re sure it won’t be a problem?”

“Nah, you’re good.”

A couple of days later, I walked up the front steps of the house Rusty told me I’d be welcome in. A man and a woman were sitting in a single Adirondack chair sharing a joint.

“Hey,” said the woman before I got a chance to knock on the door. “What’s up?”

“Oh, I’m Nat. Rusty’s friend? They said I could stay here for a bit, while I figure out what I’m doing with my life.”

“Oh yeah! Nat!” She stood up from the chair and approached me. “I’m River. That’s Andy,” she said, gesturing toward the man who she had just been sitting with. “This is my house, I guess. And you’re welcome to stay here as long as you need. Rusty vouches for you, so we’re good.” River was about my height, and she wore a baseball cap pulled low on her forehead. Although her eyes were shadowed, I could tell she was looking at me closely. “If it seems like you can fit in here, that is.”

“Oh, yeah, Rusty told me about the chores and stuff,” I said.

“That’s part of it, for sure,” River said vaguely. “But for now let’s figure out where you’re sleeping.”

She led me into the house, and I followed behind. From this angle I could see that she had a great body: tight, perky butt. Long, tan legs showing below the short cut-offs she was sporting, toned back and arms barely hidden by the tube top she was wearing. She sported a large tattoo of a songbird at the base of her neck, clearly visible, I noted, because she didn’t have any hair flowing out from beneath her hat.

We finally stopped in a room on the second floor, near the back of the house, with two twin-sized beds in it. “This is what we call the den, but really we use every room up here as a bedroom. Sorry it’s so hot in here,” River apologized. “Old building. Bad insulation. All of the rooms on the back of the house are cold during the winter and hot during the summer, and the electricity in the building can’t sustain window unit air conditioners. It cools off quite a bit at night, and there’s a box fan in the window that you can run to help pull some cool air in.”

“That’s a relief,” I said, already feeling my long black hair sticking to my neck and shoulders. “I don’t suppose you have a hair tie lying around anywhere? I may have one in my bag but I’d have to fish it out.”

“Sorry,” River responded, shaking her head. Right. Of course. River clearly had short hair under that hat, or else I wouldn’t have been able to see her tattoo so clearly.

“No worries,” I said. “I’ll figure something out. Which bed is mine?”

“The one on the right. The one on the left is actually Rusty’s, so you’ll have the room to yourself until they get back.”

“And how many other people are staying here right now?”

“Twelve, I think? It can be hard to keep track.” She began counting names off on her fingers. “Me and Andy, who you met on the porch. Rusty, obviously—and they’re up in the mountains with Lin, Charlie, Dakota, Corey, and Stevie. Then Sacha, Lex, Sam, and…I guess you!”

“I look forward to meeting them,” I said.

“Well,” River said. “It’s Sunday, which means it’s family dinner night. You’ll at least get to meet the folks who aren’t out hiking then. I’ll leave you to get unpacked.” She left, keeping the door open behind her.

Unpacking just took a few minutes—I probably spent more time unsuccessfully looking for a hair tie than anything else—so when I was finished I started to wander around the house, getting to know it a little better. As I passed a room with the door partly open down the hall from mine, I heard a voice. “Hey! Come on in!” I pushed the door open and saw a man in black jeans and a white undershirt lying on his stomach on the floor, reading a book. He pushed himself up to stand, standing nearly a foot taller than me, and as I looked up to make eye contact, I also noticed his haircut, cropped almost to the skin on the back and sides, with the longish top dyed lime green and pushed forward over one eye. “I’m Lex,” he said, extending a hand. “You must be Nat.”

“That’s me,” I nodded, shaking his hand. “Cool hair.”

“Thanks,” he said, pushing the lime green locks backward, out of his eye. “One of the things I love about Portland is that I can wear my hair like this and nobody gives a fuck about it. They just let you be you. You should see some of the looks I got back home.” I was unsure how to respond, but fortunately for me, Lex kept talking right over my potentially awkward pause. “I’ve got to run to the store. It’s my turn to make family dinner. See you there?”

“For sure,” I told him. “Girl’s gotta eat somehow.”

“Ain’t that the truth!” he laughed as he headed for the stairs.

The next few hours were uneventful. I found a book that looked somewhat interesting in the living room and took it out onto the front porch, to which River had returned. I guessed she and Andy were an item, or else they were just that stoned (or both), because they seemed too wrapped up in each other to notice me when I came out.

It was a beautiful day, but hot—I learned later that I arrived in Portland just in time for the hottest June on record—and every time I shifted positions, I could feel my hair briefly becoming unstuck from my back and then finding a different place to cling to. I hadn’t encountered any hair ties as I explored the house, either. Finally, with an exasperated sigh, I wrapped my hair up into a loose bun and proceeded to hold it my left hand while I held my book with my right, clumsily trying to turn pages one-handed.

The sigh must have caught River’s attention. “You unpacked quick!”

“I didn’t have much to unpack.”

“And it looks like you didn’t manage to track down a hair tie, did you?”

“Unfortunately, no.”

“Not many of us really have much use for them here, so I’m not surprised. But we’ll get you taken care of after dinner.”

Dinner was a delight. Lex didn’t make anything that special—spaghetti and vegan meatballs, accompanied by a few jugs of cheap chianti—but the conversation was great, and I found myself really enjoying the company of my new housemates. I got to meet Sacha and Sam at dinner, too. It turned out they were cousins, although they had arrived to Portland separately. Sacha was impossibly fair, with a soft smattering of freckles and eyes that were so dark blue they almost looked black. Her white-blonde hair fell just to the tips of her earlobes in front, and angled up sharply in the back, so that there was hardly any hair on the back of her head below her occipital bone. Sam, who explained that her father was Jamaican, had mocha-colored skin and hazel eyes. Tiny, tight curls covered her entire head, making her hair look quite short, although I suspected that if she had pulled one of those curls straight it would have been several inches long.

I also got my first good look at Andy that night, even though we’d passed much of the afternoon together on the porch. He was more attractive than I’d realized, out on the porch, with an olive complexion, warm brown eyes, and a ready smile. There seemed to be some wave as well as some length to his hair, but it was hard to tell for sure about either one, as he wore his hair that night in a topknot secured near his crown. I made a mental note to ask him to borrow a hair tie later, and wondered why he didn’t proactively offer me one on the porch earlier when I was talking to River. The hair on both sides of his head was quite short, though not as short as Lex’s back and sides, connecting in a “v” shape on the back of his head, accentuating his square jawline.

And then there was River. She had ditched her baseball cap before dinner, and although I had already expected the hair beneath to be short, it turned out “short” was almost an understatement. Her entire head was covered with a cropped, red carpet of hair—cut so close to her head that you could see a hint of scalp shining through. It was a striking look, and made her green eyes pop. No wonder she didn’t have a hair tie, I thought, as she sat down. It would probably be years before she’d be able to use one again, if she even wanted to let her hair grow that long. I thought back to the time in fifth grade when I had asked my mother to let me get a short haircut for the summer, and she said no, because if I didn’t like it it would take years for my hair to grow back to its current length. Since then, any time I thought of cutting more than a few inches off my length—which was, when I arrived in Portland, almost to my hips—I remembered my mother’s warning and got scared to do anything. I’d never even gotten bangs. I found myself wondering what River’s hair looked like before she shaved it all off. Maybe I’d ask her about it sometime when I got to know her better.

After dinner, I helped Lex with the dishes, and then River invited us to join everyone in the living room. We sat around and talked and polished off the chianti, and at some point Andy produced a joint that we passed around the room until there was almost nothing left. After the past several months at college, where I never really felt like I’d found my people, I was surprised and delighted by just how much River’s house felt like home.

The others began to trickle upstairs, and soon it was just River and me. “So what do you think, Nat?” she asked. “Will you be staying with us for a while?”

“I’d love to,” I said. “If you’ll have me.”

“Like I said, you’re welcome as long as you like, as long as it seems you can fit in here. And for the most part it does. There’s just one thing.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the direction this conversation was headed in. I hoped I wasn’t about to find out this was some sort of weird sex cult, but then I remembered that Rusty is asexual and they wouldn’t be living here if it were. “What is it?” I asked River, concerned.

“When you talked to Rusty about us, they may have mentioned that this place is kind of like Neverland. There are no parents here. No bosses. No real grown-ups, in the conventional sense. Very few rules. And we want everyone here to be their 100% true authentic selves, not just in the house but when they go out into the world—to the extent that Portland is at all like the rest of the world.”

I thought back to my conversation with Lex, earlier, when he’d said that he loved being able to walk around looking the way he looked and nobody in Portland ever gave it a second thought. But I still didn’t understand exactly what River was saying.

“I’ve found that the big thing that holds people back from being their true selves is their physical appearance. Most people don’t dress the way they want to, they dress the way they think (or know) other people want them to. And for a lot of people—women and femmes, particularly, but men, too—that’s also true of the way we wear our hair. I had hair at least as long as yours for years, even though I didn’t really feel like me when I wore my hair long, because other people in my life liked it. Boyfriends, girlfriends, people on the street. My parents. My grandparents. Any time I’d think about wearing my hair the way I really wanted, or at least the way I thought I really wanted, I’d worry about what other people would think.

“After my grandmother died and my parents decided to retire in Florida, and I was single for the first time in a while, I said fuck it. I decided to treat myself to an appointment at a fancy salon with the intention of getting most of my hair cut off. At the time, I was thinking a bob—certainly nothing as short as my hair is now. And the stylist tried to talk me out of cutting my hair, even when I said I wanted to donate it.”

“So what did you do?” I asked, enthralled by River’s story.

“I left and went to a barber shop. The barber thought I was waiting for someone, and when I told him that no, I was the one who was there for a haircut, he told me he didn’t cut women’s hair and even if he did, he refused to be responsible for ruining mine.”

“And then what?”

“I came back here, got drunk while watching some videos online about how to cut your own hair, and went for it. Put my hair into two pigtails and tried to cut them at about the same length, right above my shoulders…but like I said, I was drunk. One side ended up a lot shorter than the other—just below my chin. So I tried to even it out and cut the longer side to my chin, too, but that just made things worse, because now that side was even shorter than what had been the short side—like maybe it came to my jaw. I didn’t want to go back to the salon to have them fix it, but I’d also resigned myself to the fact that there was no way I was going to make the two sides even unless I waited till I sobered up. And I was afraid that sober River wasn’t going to take kindly to what drunk River had done. So I dug out the ancient set of clippers my grandfather used to use to cut his hair and that my grandmother never could part with and decided maybe I’d do a side cut on the shorter side. That way at least part of my hair would still be in a bob. I put a guard on, turned the clippers on, and without hesitating just mowed down a strip of hair on the side of my head. And another, and another, until the whole side of my head was buzzed down. It didn’t look bad, actually.”

“But you clearly didn’t stop there,” I said.

“Oh, no, I did. For the moment, at least.”

“So when did you…”

“A couple of weeks later. I’d started doing this thing when I stood in front of a mirror, where I’d turn my head from side to side to admire my handiwork.” She paused to demonstrate. “It wasn’t what I’d set out for, but I was proud of myself for finally getting rid of the long hair that I’d hated for so long. And one night I realized that every time I turned my head from side to side like that, I’d linger longer on the buzzed side. It was when that side faced the mirror that I felt more like me, if that makes sense.”

“The completely authentic you?”

“Yes, exactly!” she exclaimed. “I realized that the really, truly, completely authentic me didn’t need any of that hair that other people loved so much. I had to get rid of it all. And so I did. Right that very moment.”

“When was this?”

“About two and a half years ago. I’ve kept it more or less this length since.”

“Do you think you’ll ever grow it out again?”

“A lot of people ask me that—mostly people who remember my hair when it was long and want to tell me what a shame it was that I shaved off all my hair. I’ll tell you the same thing I tell all of them: I’m not growing it out as long as this continues to feel like the most authentic version of me. If it stops feeling like that, I’ll do something else.

“I’m not the only one here with a story like that. Actually, the only person who came here looking like their authentic self was Lex—it’s just that he needed to move away to actually live it. But Andy and his dad used to get into fights if he didn’t want a haircut. Sam had been straightening her hair for years because that’s what society expects women of color to do. Sacha was a shampoo model, if you can believe it. Rusty and the folks they’re with all changed their hairstyles when they came here, too.”

“I did’t realize,” I said. “Rusty didn’t say.” The truth was, I had been so wrapped up in Rusty’s photos of Portland that I completely failed to look at any pictures of Rusty themself that might have given me any hint.

River nodded. “They were all wearing their hair a certain way because someone or something who had power over them expected it. When they came here, they escaped that life and were able to become the person they always knew they could be, if someone had only let them.” River paused, studied me. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Okay,” River said. “Let’s try this: you have been messing with your hair since you got here. You’ve asked for hair ties and seemed exasperated when you couldn’t find one. You spend more than an hour on the porch holding your hair up off of your neck while you read, and I could tell that you were sweating profusely under it even then. So what I want to know is, do you actually like your hair? Or do you like that other people like your hair?”

“I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Was there ever a point in your life where you really wanted to change it, but either someone talked you out of it or you talked yourself out of it because you were worried you might hurt someone? And just to be clear, ‘no’ is a perfectly fine answer here, if it’s the truth. but I’ve never met a person yet who answered this question in the negative once they really thought about it.”

“When I was eleven I really wanted a pixie cut for the summer,” I replied after a few moments of thought. “My mom told me not to do it because if I hated it it would take so long to grow out. And I hear her voice every time in my head every time I even think about doing something different with my hair.”

“Was she worried you’d hate it short, or that she’d hate it?”

“I…I’m not actually sure, when you put it like that.”

“Think now. If your mom hadn’t said anything, would you have gotten that pixie cut when you were eleven? If she hadn’t said anything, would you have been more likely to do something else different with your hair over the last several years?”

I paused, then finally nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I think that if my mom hadn’t said anything, I would have gotten that pixie cut, or any other number of haircuts over the years.”

“So the way you present yourself…” River began.

“Isn’t authentic!” The realization felt like a jolt of energy. Here I was, the college dropout, living life on my own terms—or so I thought—only to realize there was still something holding me back.

“Close your eyes,” River instructed. I expected her to tell me to start visualizing something, but instead, after a few moments, I heard the unmistakable sound of scissors slicing through hair, very close to me. My eyes flew open in time to see River present me with a large , eighteen-inch long chunk of dark black hair. My hair. “I made the first cut to about your shoulder,” she said, as I tried to process the fact that I was now holding quite a bit of my own hair in my hands. “I can cut the rest of the way around and you can tell me if you’re starting to feel like the authentic version of yourself yet, and if not I’ll keep going. Or you can tell me what you think your authentic self looks like and we can get straight to it. I’m not a pro by any means, but I suspect you’re not going to ask me for anything I can’t handle.”

“Oh,” I started. “Um…”

“Think back to all those haircuts you almost got but didn’t. There was that pixie cut…”

“Yeah, that one was kind of a longish pixie. I’ve thought about getting layers several times but I think we’re past that with what you cut. When I read The Great Gatsby in high school, I toyed with the idea of getting a flapper bob for a minute. I’ve thought about getting a lob, too, or adding in layers. Some shorter pixies, too. And…” I trailed off.

“Yes?” River asked. “If it scares you to say it, you might be on the right track.”

“A mohawk,” I said quietly.

I saw a look of surprise flash across River’s face. “I’ll admit, I didn’t see that one coming,” she said. “Are we talking like an 80s punk death hawk, or more like a fauxhawk, or…”

“Something in between,” I answered, suddenly relieved to be talking about this. I’d first spotted the hairstyle the previous summer, when I was out with some friends shortly after we graduated high school. I thought about it for days, but I was worried about even bringing it up with my friends. So I just…let it go.

“As for instance?”

“Shorter on the sides than a fauxhawk, but not shaved to he skin. Long enough on the top that I can play with it a little, but I don’t have any interest in spiking it up all the way. A wider strip of hair than that punk mohawk shape, too.” I was getting excited now. This was it. I was sure.

River was scrolling on her phone as I talked. She turned her screen to face me. “It’s perfect!” I exclaimed.

“Okay,” River said. “Then come with me.” She led me down the hall to a bathroom, where an array of haircutting tools was already laid out. River had known, even before I had, that I would be getting a haircut that night. She gestured toward a stool that was positioned in front of the bathroom mirror and I was able to see for the first time where she had cut that chunk of my hair. I laughed at how absurd it looked, that section of hair ending a foot and a half above the rest. Under different circumstances I might have been upset instead, but I knew I was going to lose a lot more hair than that before the sun came up.

To my surprise, Raven put a pair of haircutting shears into my hand. “If you’re truly committing to your authentic self, you have to help find her. Start cutting.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re just getting rid of the long stuff for now. Have fun. And if you want to donate your hair, hand it to me as you cut rather than throwing it on the floor. I’ll tie it up after.”

I placed the shears into my hair roughly even with where River made her first cut and started to close the blades when River stopped me.

“Be bolder,” she said. “If you cut there, you’re giving yourself a possible out.”

I understood immediately what she meant and slid the blades higher, not closing them until they were maybe two inches from my scalp, right behind my left ear. When I finished the cut, I held two feet of long, black hair in my hand. I burst out laughing as I handed it to River. “My mom would be so pissed at me right now,” I explained once I’d calmed myself a bit.

“Remember, Nat, you’re in Neverland. There are no parents here.” She smiled benevolently at me. “Do you want to keep cutting or shall I take over?”

“I think I want to keep cutting, if that’s okay.”

“Of course. But first let me section some of the top and back off, since you want to leave it a little longer. Don’t want you to get too scissor happy, unless what you really want is my haircut.” She gave a little wink as she began to trace a line along the top of my head, starting above my left eye and angling in slightly as it crested the top of my head. Then she did the same thing on my right side, pinned all the hair that was between the two lines up, and held a mirror behind me to see what she had done. “A classic mohawk would go all the way down to your nape but a lot of the more modern shapes seem to stop around he occipital bone. Is this okay?”

Looking into the big bathroom mirror, I caught sight of the reflection from River’s mirror. The lines she traced came to a soft point about halfway down the back of my head. It was not that dissimilar from the shape of Andy’s hair, although I knew that by the time I stood up, I’d have far less hair than Andy. With all of that hair on the top of my head pulled up, you could also clearly see the chunk I had cut out of it behind my ear and the shoulder length hair River had cut just in front of that, as well as the several feet of untouched hair still spilling down my shoulders and back, just waiting to be destroyed.

“Nat, is this okay?” River asked again. I must have been lost in thought for a moment there.

“Yes!” I exclaimed, perhaps just a bit too enthusiastically. “Can I get back to cutting now?”

“By all means,” River said, smiling as she stepped aside.

Looking at myself in the mirror, I grabbed a handful of the hip-length hair River had left hanging down, pulled it taught, and snipped it clean off, as short as I could. River took the severed locks from me as I plunged the shears back into my hair, this time making quick work of the section she had already cut to my shoulders, perhaps an inch of hair left in its place. “Throw that part on the floor,” River instructed. “It’s probably not long enough to donate, plus it’s really liberating to just toss your hair away like it’s trash. Like it has no value to you anymore.”

I did as she expected and felt a tightness in my stomach as the bunch of dry hair separated in the air and floated in individual strands and small clumps to the ground. I knew it was excitement, not anxiety, that was making my abdomen clench, but it felt like there was something else, too. Not just excitement but…perhaps a hint arousal? I wasn’t sure yet, but I was eager to find out. I grabbed a lock at the back of my neck and, because I couldn’t see what I was doing, carefully positioned the shears so I could just feel them grazing my head. Schniiiiick. Another long, severed lock for the pile River was amassing. “Do you want to cut the rest, or do you want me to take over?” she asked. Instead of replying, I locked eyes with her in the bathroom mirror as I sliced through the next lock, then held it out for her to take. “Okay then,” she laughed.

There wasn’t much hair left for me to cut, and I wanted to savor it. I made the next lock small and cut through it so slowly it was as if it had been gravity, and not my fingers, that finally closed the blades. I felt goosebumps spring along the back of my neck and down my spine. “Ah yes,” River said, noticing—there wasn’t any hair to conceal my skin’s response to the experience anymore—”I forgot to mention that for some people, the process of shedding your old identity and becoming your authentic self can be exciting in more than one way. And I haven’t even used the clippers yet!”

So it was arousal I was feeling, I thought. “Was it for you?” I asked River.

“Was and is,” she responded. “Possibly TMI, but Andy and I tend to each other’s hair now. Mutual excitement.”

“But your hair was already like this when you started dating Andy?” I asked.

“Yes, and he was just in the process of growing his out when he came to live here. A few months later, when his hair was long enough to start playing with, I gave him his undercut. After, he asked if he could cut my hair and I figured what the hell, he couldn’t really mess it up. Afterward, we made love for the first time.”

“Oh! I thought he lived here because you were dating. I didn’t realize he had moved in first.”

River smiled. “It wasn’t planned, believe me. At least, not on my part. But finish cutting,” she nodded at the shears in my hand, which had fallen silent while I listened to her speak. “It’s late and there’s still more to do.”

Decisively, I grabbed the last long section of hair, which was hanging over my shoulder, and snipped it off. I looked at myself in the mirror, still a lot of my long hair piled to the top of my head, and uneven tufts on the sides (and, I imagined, the back). I looked ridiculous, but all the same, for the first time, I was beginning to get an idea of what I would look like when I walked out of that bathroom.

“Good,” River said, as she took the last long strands from me. “Now we can really have fun.” She unfurled a cape and secured it at the back of my neck, then circled me, slowly, eventually stopping to pick up her clippers and put on a guard. “Some of the hair you cut is really quite close to your scalp, so I’m going to take this shorter than in the photo I showed you, if that’s okay. Otherwise you’ll have a couple of uneven spots, but it will only be noticeable for about a week.”

“Go as short as you see fit,” I replied. Two hours ago, if you had asked me, I would have told you I’d probably wear the same long, shiny, black hairstyle until I died. And now I was letting a relative stranger—one who was not, it should be mentioned, any sort of trained stylist—not just use clippers on me but choose how short she wanted to go? I should have been horrified by my behavior, but instead, I realized I’d probably never been so excited.

“Well in that case,” River said with a mischievous grin, removing the guard from her clippers and choosing another, smaller guard, “we’ll go with this one. Chin down, if you please.”

I did as instructed, then heard a loud pop, followed by a humming sound that I knew brought with it the end of whatever hair I had left on the back and sides of my head. “You’re going to love this,” River said. And then, putting one hand on the top of my head to keep me still, she placed the clippers with the other. She held them in place for a moment and I could feel their vibrations tickling my neck and moving down my spine. Then she slowly pushed them upward, toward the hair she had earlier clipped out of the way. The sensation of the clippers moving up my nape toward my occipital lobe was truly indescribable. My stomach clenched even harder. My whole body felt warm. I was surprised by how calm I felt, how relaxed, even as the hungry blades of the clippers continued to strip my hair down to near nothingness…even as a growing wetness formed between my legs.

River guided my right ear toward my shoulder and began peeling the hair from the left side of my head. Though not as intense as the sensations on my nape had been, the experience remained pleasurable, especially as River folded my ear down and carefully buzzed down any hair that remained behind it, grazing that pulse point where I always loved to be kissed. She followed the same steps on the right side of my head, and then, when I thought she was done, she had me straighten my neck. For the first time since River began buzzing I could actually see the mirror, but despite my intense curiosity to see how I looked, I wasn’t focusing on myself—not yet. Instead, almost as if it were a movie, I watched as River ran her fingers along the back and sides of my head to make sure there weren’t any uneven spots, her buzzed red hair contrasting with what was left of my black. She was so close to me, and I could feel her breath on my neck as she inspected her work, occasionally bringing the clippers back to my head to fix an imperfection. “Okay,” she announced, stepping back and switching her clippers off. “Almost done with this part. Just one more thing.” She removed the guard from the clippers completely. “I just want to tidy your hairline and then we’ll get to the top.”

And then, she was close to me once again, carefully outlining her work with the unguarded clippers. She worked much slower than she had with the guard on, but then this was much more precise work, and I had to admit I was enjoying her closeness. She ran the clippers along my hairline and up and over my ears, and then switched them off and grabbed the mirror she had held earlier. “Here,” she said. “What do you think so far?”

In the reflection of the mirror River held, I could see just how short she had taken my hair down—as short as hers, maybe even shorter. My neck looked long, and as I turned my head slightly to admire the sides I was pleased to see that my ears, which I had never given that much thought to, were actually cute and tiny and didn’t stick out. “Go ahead,” River said. “Touch it.”

I brought my hands out from under the cape and brought them to the sides of my head. “Oh my god,” I said, as much to myself as to her. “It’s so soft.”

“Mmmhmm,” she agreed, bringing a hand to her own head. “I haven’t gotten tired of that feeling yet.” She closed her eyes for a moment and then looked back at my reflection. “All right, Nat. You ready to keep going?”

“So ready!” I wanted her hands back on my head. In my hair. I realized I was practically purring.

River smiled and unclipped the hair on the top of my head. All at once, it spilled over my shoulders, same as it ever was, so long and so thick you’d never know what was hiding underneath. “I should mention,” River said, “that we can stop here. This way you can still have your long hair when you want it, but you can also pull it up and reveal what’s underneath.”

I had to admit: it was tempting for a moment. I thought of all the cute updos I could do if I left what remained of my hair long and flowing. Plus, this way, I could mostly hide my haircut from my family the next time I saw them. But then, that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? How could I embrace my authentic self if any of my legacy of long hair remained to hide behind? “No,” I told River definitively. “Let’s keep going.”

“Thought so,” she smiled. “Let’s get rid of the bulk of this and add it to the donation pile, shall we?”

In the mirror, I watched, fascinated, as River pulled what remained of my hair into a ponytail at the top of my head, sliding the rubber band maybe four inches above my scalp. “I though you didn’t have any hair ties?” I asked.

Her reflection winked at mine. “I keep a couple with my haircutting tools just for occasions like this. But admit it, if I’d given you a hair tie when you asked for it this afternoon, we probably wouldn’t be doing this tonight, would we?”

That knot in my stomach gave a little lurch. “No,” I conceded. “Probably not.” Dammit, I thought to myself. It really was too bad she was with Andy.

“Last chance to change your mind.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Great, because I’ve been wanting to try something for a while.” She picked up her unguarded clippers once again, and they roared back to life. “Do you mind if I cut through your ponytail with these instead of scissors?”

“You’re in charge here.”

“No, nobody is in charge here. We are all in charge of ourselves. We may be responsible for one another, but none of us are in control. That’s kind of the whole the point of being here, doing this. But…” River paused, “I guess I am the one with the power right in this very moment. Here we go!”

She pulled up on my ponytail so I could feel a gentle tugging, then brought the clippers just below the hair tie she had used to secure my ponytail and I heard them change pitch as what was left of my hair attempted to put up a fight. But I knew it was a losing battle, as the tension of the ponytail began to ease and the hair that wasn’t contained in it began to fall back toward me, hanging in the downward direction it always had but stopping several feet above where it last fell.

I felt a final tug as the last of the ponytail gave way. In the mirror, I saw a triumphant River holding it over my head. “There,” she said. “You’re looking more like you already.” I had to laugh because the “me” I saw in the mirror at that moment sported a rough, uneven, and unflattering bob. But I had to admit that River was right: after two decades of hair that fell like a curtain all the way down my back, the mere act of getting rid of it was bringing out the me I knew I wanted to become.

“This is the point where I remind you I’m not a professional hair stylist, although I’ve gotten pretty decent at it over the last couple of years. I’ve actually done everyone in the house’s first haircut except Sam’s—she very understandably wanted to see someone who had more experience working with Black women’s hair—and Lex’s, because he already had that style when he came here. They’ve mostly come out okay, I think?”

I hadn’t seen Rusty’s hair yet, nor had I even met the other housemates they were camping with, so I could only judge River’s talents on Sacha’s and Andy’s appearance. Still I thought they both looked great, and told River so. “I have no reason to believe I won’t, too,” I added.

River gave me a squeeze on the shoulder and grabbed a spray bottle from the counter, dousing my hair with it until it fell heavily around my face. Then she began to comb my hair—what was left of it—in different directions, assessing her next move. I watched in the mirror as she began cutting, first longer pieces that fell on my lap with a soft plonk as she tried to get everything to a length that would lay relatively flat if I pushed all my hair in one direction, then smaller pieces that fell with very little sound as she added the texture that would allow me to style my hair like that haircut I had seen the summer before, and that was in the photo River she showed me: pushed forward and tousled, coming to a point just between my eyebrows. There didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to this part of the cut. Instead, River cut intuitively. A little snip here, a little snip there. It was unlike any stylist I’d ever seen working, but then again, as she reminded me, River was no stylist.

Swapping scissors and comb for a blowdryer and a brush, River stood in front of me and began to dry my hair. About halfway through, she reached for a bottle of some sort of styling product and quickly glazed it over my hair, then went back to blowdrying, scrunching and tousling whatever length she’d left me with until she seemed satisfied.

River wasn’t rough, but she was assertive, and my whole body hummed as the wet spot between my legs only spread further. “Are you ready?” she asked me.

Unable to open my mouth for fear I’d let out a moan rather than a reply, I nodded. River unfastened my cape and stepped aside.

Even though I had watched most of the haircut take place, I was still shocked by what I saw. Not a girl with long black hair that hid her features but a woman with big, expressive eyes and high cheekbones. The hair on the back and sides of my head was long enough to be visible, but short enough to see a hint of skin through. Starting above my occipital lobe and continuing over the top of my head, toward my forehead, a sculptural mohawk-esque arrangement of hair, perhaps three inches in length at the most, that was brushed in along the sides so it came to a gentle point that cascaded forward into a tumble of…not bangs, but less structured hair that fell down my forehead. It was punk but sophisticated, arty but not overly adventurous. And for the first time in a long time, possibly ever, I knew I was looking at me. My arousal only increased. Was I…turning myself on? Or was it the entire experience and the conclusion that I was forever changed that made me eager to get back to my room and find the vibrator I was glad I thought to bring with me. I noticed cheeks flush slightly in the mirror.

“One last thing,” River said. “And this part is 100% optional, but I suspect you’ll be interested.”

“Yes?” I waited, expecting River to do a bit more refining of my cut, or something along those lines. Instead, she circled around to the front of my chair, leaned down, and planted her mouth on mine. I parted my lips and felt her tongue enter my mouth. My hands shot up to her head and began to explore the soft, velvety fuzz that covered it. I felt her hands doing the same to me. I had kissed far fewer women in my life than I had men, but in that moment, I forgot all about my relative inexperience.

Then something occurred to me. “Wait,” I said, pulling back. “What about Andy?”

She smiled at me, amused by the interference of my moral compass. “Andy is waiting for both of us in my room, if you’re interested. And if you’re not, I can send him to sleep in Lex’s room for the night. He won’t mind.”

My mind flashed to the handsome man who had sat across from me at the dinner table. It wasn’t a no. “How did he know?” I asked her.

“We both had a hunch,” River answered.

“Is this a thing you’ve done with…”

“Other people? Yes. Nobody who’s currently in the house, though. Is that okay with you?” She ran a finger along the nearly-shaved side of my head, then down my neck as the goosebumps returned.

“Before tonight, I would have said no,” I said. “But I’m trying to listen to that authentic version of me who’s just finding her voice, and she says absofuckinglutely.”

“Good,” River said, helping me up from my stool and beginning to lead me down the hall. “Andy told me recently that he misses having a partner whose hair he could pull. And I think I’ve left you with just enough.”

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