Gesundheit! (Why Not to Get a Sidecut During Allergy Season)

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“Are you sure about this?” Natalie asked. She was standing behind me, making eye contact in the mirror. One of her hands was on my caped shoulder, the other held a buzzing set of clippers affixed with a plastic guard.

Natalie had been my best friend since grade five, and she’d wanted to be a hair stylist for as long as I could remember. Twelve or so years later, and she’s just finished cosmetology school and doing an eighteen-month apprenticeship at the posh salon about a mile from my university campus. I’d normally never be able to afford a place like this, but salon apprentices are required to bring in volunteer “models” a few times a month to hone their skills under the watchful eye of one of the salon’s master stylists. I’ve already modeled for Natalie a few times since she started—a few months ago, she added long layers to my waist-length, chestnut-colored hair and practiced her balayage technique; a few weeks after that, she transformed those same highlights into jewel-toned streaks that I knew I’d have to ask her to dye back to a normal color shortly after commencement.

I knew Natalie worked with other models as well, and while the wildest we had gotten was adding those bright colors, I knew from social media that she had given some of her models much more dramatic makeovers. One model went from dark shoulder-length wavy hair to a short, curly bob dyed an emerald green. Another went from hair nearly as long as mine to a longish pixie with bangs tumbling across one eye. Natalie never asked me to make a big change, probably because thought I’d say no.

But last week, while she touched up my color, Natalie confided in me that she was getting a little worried. The first major review of her apprenticeship was coming up and while most of her feedback from the master stylists had been good, they had also pointed out to her that they had yet to see her demonstrate any clipper technique, which would be essential if she wanted any chance of staying in that salon past her apprenticeship, as a junior stylist.

Natalie wasn’t surprised to receive this feedback. And it wasn’t as if she didn’t want to refine her skills in this area. It was just that she wasn’t having any luck finding a model willing to allow an apprentice stylist near their hair with a set of clippers, and she was running out of time.

“What about that girl you gave the pixie cut?” I asked. “Could you get her to go a little shorter?”

“Hannah? She cried through her entire haircut. I actually left it longer than I had planned to because she was so upset. I couldn’t possibly ask that of her.”

“Well, could you find a guy friend to help?” I had asked that afternoon.

“We don’t have many male clients here,” she responded, “so the salon wants to see how I can incorporate clipper technique into women’s styles.”

“So you need to find a woman with short hair, or who’s willing to get a short haircut?”

“Not necessarily. I could show I know how to do clipper work by doing an undercut or a sidecut on someone who wanted to keep their hair long. So, if someone had a nape undercut, it could stay hidden as long they wore their hair down, or with a sidecut, they could part their hair differently and more or less conceal it.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I mused. “Do you want me to do it?

Natalie gasped. We had never talked about cutting my hair beyond when she gave me layers and she was surprised I’d even make the offer. In truth, I was, too, but after all this was my best friend, and she needed help. “Katie, no! You’re supposed to start interviewing for jobs soon. I doubt those big-wig financiers are going to take you very seriously if you show up looking like a punk.”

“I won’t,” I assured her. “It sounds like it could be really subtle.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You’re not asking, Nat. I’m offering. But I’ll tell you what: keep trying to find someone. If you can’t get a volunteer, I’m here for you. That’s what best friends do.”

And that’s how I found myself swathed in a cape back at Natalie’s salon a week later. It was a beautiful Friday in April, so I had decided to walk the two miles or so from my off-campus apartment clear on the other side of the university to the salon. The campus gardens were bright and vibrant, and all of the flowering trees were in full bloom. By the time I got to the salon, my eyes were a little itchy and my nose a little runny, but I figured my allergies would calm down once I was indoors and away from the pollen.

We had originally planned for a subtle nape undercut, but as Natalie began to section that area off from the rest of my hair, her mentor, Belinda, came by to say said they weren’t going to get a good idea of her clipper skills from such a small area, and asked if we had discussed doing a sidecut. We had, in fact—but only briefly, when Natalie called me the night before to confirm that no, she had not yet found a model and she did in fact need me to do “the biggest favor you have ever done for me, ever.” We ruled out the idea of doing a sidecut pretty quickly because it would be a little harder to consistently conceal than a buzzed section at the nape, but now it seemed we were headed in that direction anyway.

I watched the two of them as they engaged in a half-whispered conversation. Natalie’s long blonde ponytail, streaked with pink and green, bounced as she talked animatedly, while Belinda’s flawless lavender-colored bob barely moved while they spoke. Natalie’s voice rose as she tried to protest to the master stylist, saying that was asking for a lot from any woman, but especially one with hair as long as mine, but I interrupted. “It’s fine,” I reassured her. I rubbed my eyes quickly, not because I was particularly upset but because they were still itchy from the pollen outside. “I’ll just part my hair over it when I’m interviewing. Besides, it could be fun to do something kind of crazy my last year in uni.”

“Katie,” she objected, “I don’t think you realize how long it will take for the sidecut to grow out to the length that your hair is now. Way longer than your final few months before commencement.”

“I trust you, Nat,” I assured her. “You’ll be able to sort me out.”

“You look upset,” she said.

“I promise, I’m not. My eyes are just watering because of my allergies. I’m fine.”

Belinda patted Natalie on the shoulder and walked away to tend to other salon business while Natalie got ready. After draping me with a cape and releasing the hair she had pinned up earlier, she used the tail of a comb to trace a straight line from my right temple to a few inches behind my right ear. She pinned up all of the hair above that horizontal line, and then traced a vertical line from the point where the first line had stopped all the way down to my hairline, outlining the area that would soon fall victim to her clippers. Any hair not in this area that was still hanging down was pinned up with the section she had separated earlier. Natalie spent a few more moments making sure her lines were completely straight, then asked me what I thought.

I turned my head from side to side, gazing into the mirror and trying to imagine what it would look like—what it would feel like—to no longer have any hair on the right side of my head. I hoped Natalie was right, that it would be relatively easy to conceal when needed, but at the same time, the idea of doing something so different with my hair was kind of exciting. With the exception of the layers Natalie had given me, and the highlights and subsequent colorful streaks she had added to my hair, I’d been wearing it the same way for as long as I could remember—thick and long and straight and brown, all the way down to my waist. I had never had clippers used on my hair, and the only reason I had been so cavalier about offering to let Natalie use them on me was because I loved her more than I loved just about anything else in the world. More than a decade of best friendship wasn’t the sort of thing you’d take for granted, and I knew that if our roles were reversed, she’d do the same thing for me.

“Well?”

“That looks fine, Nat,” I sniffled. Damn allergies. “I trust you.”

“You’re sniffling.”

“Post-nasal drip.”

“Okay,” she said. I think she wanted to believe me more than she actually did, but I was telling the truth. My allergies still hadn’t calmed as I’d hoped they would have, but otherwise I was fine. “I’m going to go go get Belinda and we can talk through my plan, and then we’ll get started.”

The two soon returned and chatted quietly behind me while I continued to sniffle. I could feel the makings of a sneeze coming on, but it never arrived and eventually the feeling subsided. Between sniffles, I caught parts of their conversation, not that I really knew what they were talking about. “That all sounds great,” I finally heard Belinda say, “but be sure to check with your client.”

“Katie,” Natalie turned to me. “Belinda wants to see a few specific techniques here. So first she wants me to show her a fade, which means your undercut will get shorter as it gets closer to your face and neck. And then she also wants me to show some line work, so if it’s okay with you I’m going to shave a design into the undercut when I’m done. Probably a flower or some vines. Will that be okay? It’s not as subtle as we had discussed.”

“Will I still be able to cover it up with the rest of my hair?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Then it sounds subtle enough to me.”

Belinda took a seat in the empty station next to where Katie was working and turned to face us, then nodded at Natalie to begin. She picked up her clippers, affixed a plastic guard, and turned them on to make sure they were working well. Placing one hand on my shoulder, she looked at me in the mirror. Our eyes locked. “Are you sure about this?”

“I’m positive,” I responded.

“Okay,” she said. “Tilt your head toward your left shoulder.” I did as I was asked and Natalie positioned herself to get started. “Stay perfectly still,” she instructed.

Natalie placed the buzzing machine below my temple, right at my sideburn, and I heard the machine change pitch as she moved it upward, into my hair. And then all of a sudden, with no warning, that sneeze that had never materialized burst forth, my head recoiling from the sheer velocity of it, a second sneeze immediately following the first.

Natalie gasped and switched off her clippers. Belinda stood and walked quickly to us, blocking my view of the mirror. My best friend and her mentor looked at one another, horror in their eyes. “What?” I asked. “What is it?”

“You didn’t…you didn’t warn me that you were about to sneeze,” Natalie said. Tears were springing to her eyes—tears I did not think were allergy-induced.

“I didn’t have time,” I protested. “It just forced its way out.” I looked from her to Belinda and back again. “Wait…why?”

Belinda laid a reassuring hand on Natalie’s arm. “When you sneezed, you lifted your head up and leaned into Natalie’s clippers,” the master stylist explained. “It might not have been too bad if you hadn’t sneezed again right away, but, well, the clippers didn’t stay where they were supposed to.”

“So what are you saying?”

“Well…” Belinda began. Then she stepped aside so she was no longer blocking my view of the mirror. My eyes flew to the spot where I knew Natalie had started her pass with the clippers, and then traced their path upward…past the line she had so painstakingly drawn…and then even higher, along my hairline, past the center of my forehead, and then zigzagging toward my crown. There was only the slightest trace of hair left in that path, and it was very clear to me that I was well beyond any hope of leaving the salon that day with a subtle sidecut I could hide with the rest of my hair. I began to laugh at the mad bald streak on my head, starkly contrasting with my long chestnut brown hair and the colorful streaks near the ends. And then I started to cry, even while I was laughing, because even though I was the only non-stylist of the group, I knew that there was no chance I would be leaving the salon with any of the rest of my hair, no matter how long nor how healthy it was.

Natalie looked horrified. “Katie,” she said, trying to catch a break in my laugh-sobs, “Katie, I am so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” I told her, unsure whether the wetness in my eyes was from laughter, tears, or pollen. “I should have warned you that I’d felt a sneeze coming on before you started. I just figured the need had gone away.”

“So…” Belinda interjected, steeling herself to deliver the bad news.

“If you’re about to tell me that the only option at this point is to shave my head, there’s no need. I’m not blind.”

“You are awfully calm about this,” the master stylist observed.

“I know there’s nothing to be done about it, so I might as well relax and let my best friend show you the full extent of her clipper skills—which I’m sure are quite impressive—and think about how to explain my new look at my upcoming job interviews.”

“I have lots of wigs that I’ve used for cutting practice!” Natalie said. “You can have anything you need! Or I’ll buy you a new one!”

“Thank you,” I said. “I will probably take you up on that. But for now, can you please just get the rest of this off my head? I look ridiculous.”

Belinda gave Natalie a nod of approval and assumed her seat, and Natalie took up her clippers again. She switched them on with a loud pop and brought them right to the center of my forehead, at a spot that was already missing quite a bit of hair. “I am so sorry, Katie,” she said, and then she pushed the clippers backward toward my crown.

The buzzing of the clippers felt almost therapeutic, and I allowed myself to close my eyes, trying not to think too hard about what I’d see when I opened them. “At least this feels nice?” I said to Natalie as she worked.

“I know some people quite enjoy it,” Natalie responded, without elaboration.

I could feel her moving toward the right side of my head now, the area that had been the only place the clippers were actually supposed to touch until my allergies dictated otherwise, and the vibrations began to travel down my spine as goosebumps began to rise up from my arms. It was similar to the physical reaction I would sometimes have when my ex-boyfriend would pull on my hair as he took me from behind, and yet obviously very different. In fact, it would be a long time before anyone would be able to pull on my hair like that again. I experienced a simultaneous feeling of disappointment at that realization, and excitement at possibility of new experiences with future partners.

I felt another sneeze looming. “Natalie, do I need to try to warn you next time I need to sneeze?”

She laughed, for what I think was the first time since I’d arrived at the salon. “Right now, there’s honestly nothing you can do that will screw this up. But once I start on the fade, you’ll have to be very, very still. Otherwise you’ll end up completely bald.”

“Won’t I be pretty bald when I leave here already?”

“You’d be shocked at the difference between a quarter inch of hair and none at all.”

As if on cue, I sneezed again. Now more conscious of the perils of sneezing in the vicinity of a set of clippers, I felt Natalie’s clippers skip across my scalp. “Okay, yeah, I can see how that could mess things up.”

Natalie had moved to my left side and I heard her giggle.

“What?” I asked.

“I was just thinking of how long you hid your cartilage piercing from your mom when you got it.” She gave the top of my ear a gentle flick with her free hand. “There’s definitely no hiding it now.”

“Maybe I should get the other side done, too,” I shrugged. “She’s going to be way more upset about my hair than she is by another hole in my body.”

We fell again into a comfortable silence, the humming of the clippers for a moment the only sound coming from Natalie’s station. The buzzing across my scalp had moved from calming to pleasant, and were it not for the knowledge that the sensation was only made possible by the stripping of every hair from my head, I might even have described it as downright pleasurable.

“You’re handling this remarkably well,” Belinda observed from somewhere beside me. I must have started to smile as Natalie worked her clippers across my head.

“I’m sure I’ll have a massive freakout once I open my eyes,” I said. “But for now I’m trying to enjoy the feeling and not think about the end result too much.”

“The feeling of helping your best friend out, right?” Natalie teased.

“Sure,” I said, “that.”

Natalie pushed my chin down toward my chest. “Almost finished with the hard part,” she said. “For you, I mean. After this section, there won’t be a single hair on your head that’s longer than a quarter of an inch.” She placed her clippers right at the base of my skull and drew them upward toward my crown…and holy shit, yeah, we had moved on to pleasure. I felt an involuntary contraction of all the muscles in my lower body, a spreading warmth as the clipper’s blades chewed their way through the last of my hair, carefully hugging the shape of my skull as if to caress it. I tried to stifle the low moan that was rising in my throat; fortunately, another sneeze came out instead and I felt the clippers skip once more.

“That had better be your last sneeze for a while,” Natalie cautioned, “Because now it’s fade time.” I heard the clippers stop and felt something heavy land in my lap. With my hands trapped under the cape, I could only assume it was the last of my hair. I thought about freeing my hands to confirm, but decided it was best not to, lest the feeling of my hair in my lap rather than on my head should send me into a tailspin.

The sound of footsteps indicated Belinda had risen from her chair to position herself in a way to better supervise this next step. There was a click and a pop, and then the now-familiar and welcome buzz of the clippers. Natalie guided my head toward my left shoulder. “Seriously,” she reiterated. “No sneezing for the next few minutes, okay?”

I felt Natalie place the clippers at the same point where she had started what was supposed to be my sidecut and move them upward, stopping just shy of where she was supposed to have stopped the first time. She made several parallel passes, working toward the back of my head and folding my ear down so she could navigate around it, then repeated the process on my left side. I was proud of myself for having kept all sneezes at bay.

Then, Natalie once again pushed my chin toward my chest and placed the clippers at the spot where my head and neck meet, making a pass to about the same height as where she had been stopping on the sides. As she brought the machine back down for her second pass up my nape, I felt that low body muscle clenching again and bit down on my lower lip to keep myself quiet. Somehow, my best friend was shaving my head and I was…turned on by it? I reminded myself that when she was done I’d still have to come to terms with my new look, and a foreseeable future without any hair, and willed the increasing arousal to subside, but found it was only getting stronger.

Mercifully, just when I wasn’t sure I could take it anymore, Natalie stopped moving and turned off the clippers. The next sound I heard was Belinda’s voice. “Good work,” she said encouragingly. I could feel her fingertips on my head, inspecting Natalie’s work. I let out an involuntary shudder, which Belinda at least pretended not to notice as she provided feedback to Natalie. “You still need to take the guard off to tidy everything up and line up the edges, but the fade is great.”

“What about the decorative line work you wanted to see?”

“Skip it for today. Katie has been an extraordinarily good sport but I think we’ve put her through enough. Next time I have a client with an undercut or a sidecut I’ll see if they’ll let you create a design while I supervise. Unless, that is, Katie wants to leave here with a big flower carved into the side of her head.”

“I, uh, I think I’m good,” I interjected. Part of me wanted to do anything it took to keep the clippers on my head, but there was still a big part of me that was worried about what she’d see when she opened her eyes, and that part of me didn’t want anything that would draw even more attention to my new, accidental, look.

“Okay then,” Natalie said. “That’s settled. Let’s get you finished.” Her clippers hummed to life again. “And seriously, Katie. Don’t sneeze.” I could sense Natalie very near my face as the sound of her clippers got louder as she drew them ever closer to me, until finally, they made contact.

Starting again at my right temple, Natalie carefully traced her clippers around my ear and toward my neck, along my hairline. This time the sensation was not titillating as it had been before—perhaps because the clippers were not sneaking their way up my nape but rather staying quite low—but remained quite pleasant. When she reached the center of my neck, right over my vertebrae, Natalie pulled the clippers away. “Halfway there,” she said. “Before I start on the other side, how’s that nose doing?”

“Fine, I think? Nothing tickling right now.”

“Good,” she said. Then let’s finish, shall we?” Natalie moved to my left temple and repeated the process. Once again, I found the sensation more pleasant than arousing, but I was still disappointed a few moments later when she switched the clippers off and declared herself finished.

“Lovely,” I heard Belinda say. She ran a finger over the top of my ear, along the line Natalie had just traced and I felt the sensation of skin touching skin, one I had never felt before in that spot. A tingle ran down my spine. “Very clean work through here,” she dragged her finger further, toward my nape. It took a lot of work not to whimper when she took her hand away, but then this was my best friend’s boss—I had to have some decorum. “I have to say, Katie,” Belinda said as she stepped back. “I know this isn’t remotely what you wanted, but it really suits you.”

“Nat?” I asked, reaching without looking for my best friend’s hand.

“It does, actually,” she said, interweaving her fingers with mine and giving my hand a squeeze. “And I’m not just saying that so you won’t be mad at me when you see it.”

“I promise I won’t be mad at you,” I said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“Your eyes are still closed.”

“Just because I’m not mad doesn’t mean I’m not scared.”

“Remember,” Natalie assured me, “that if nothing else I have a bunch of wigs you can choose from. Or I’ll buy you one.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to steel myself. “Okay.”

“Count of three?” Belinda suggested, still standing quite near us. I think she was waiting till she could see my reaction.

“Together,” Natalie asserted.

“One…two…three!” we all counted. I opened my eyes.

It took me a moment to realize that the young woman I saw in the mirror was, in fact, me. But she had my same hazel eyes, my pointy chin, my freckles. When I turned my head slightly I could see she bore the same cartilage piercing most people didn’t know I had, as it had always been hidden under masses of thick, brown hair.

Hair that was now…in my lap. In a pile on the floor. But not on my head. Only the faintest trace of hair was still there, more visible due to my dark hair color, really, than because there was any sort of length to be seen. My hair, no more than a quarter-inch long on the top of my head, faded down to my skin, disappearing above my natural hairline at my ears and temples. Now I understood why it felt the way it had when Belinda touched me. There really hadn’t been any hair there at all.

I raised a tentative hand to my head, expecting it to feel like sandpaper, and found instead that it felt like velvet: extraordinarily soft. And as I moved my hand, I could feel each strand—if they could be called that anymore—moving with it, creating a gentle friction that made the hairs on my arm (which were now possibly longer than the hairs on my head) stand up. “That feels amazing,” I sighed to no one in particular. Still, that feeling of arousal was disappearing as I thought about bringing this look into the real world.

“Yes, but do you like how it looks?” Belinda asked.

“Or do you at least not hate it?” Natalie added.

I released my hand and leaned toward the mirror. Belinda held another behind me, so I could see the back. Just like on the sides, my hair faded to nothing above my hairline, giving the illusion that my neck was much longer than it actually is.

It was all so new and so strange. I didn’t even know how to take it in, and in my confusion, the arousal I’d been feeling while I was being stripped of my hair now fully dissipated—probably for the best, I thought. “I…definitely don’t hate it,” I said at last. Natalie visibly relaxed. “I just don’t feel ready to say if I like it.”

“That’s fair,” Natalie said, although she looked disappointed. “That’s fair. It’s a big change.”

“But,” I added, once again bringing a hand to my head and gave it a little rub, “I certainly like this. And I also like that I helped you prove your mettle as a stylist.” I looked to Belinda. “She did, right? Even though things didn’t go at all to plan?”

Belinda nodded and smiled at Natalie. “Even based on skills alone, I would have been impressed by Natalie’s performance today,” she said. “But the way she handled herself, during what might possibly be every stylist’s worst nightmare, was even more impressive. I do hope you won’t be upset with Natalie.”

I shook my head. “I’m definitely not upset,” I said. “But I think I’m just a little in shock, seeing myself like this.”

“Do you want me to go get my wigs?” Natalie asked.

I shook my head. “It might be best if I try to get through the weekend without a wig,” I said, “and see if I can get used to it. If I don’t feel ready to face my classmates on Monday, I’ll let you know.”

“Aren’t you going out this weekend?”

“I have a paper to write. I’d mostly planned to be home. Probably for the best,” I joked, pointing to my head.

“Okay, well, call me Sunday if you want a wig and I’ll bring a few over to your apartment.”

“Might I make a suggestion?” Belinda interjected. “Don’t stay home all weekend. Part of getting used to a big change like this is getting used to other people seeing it.”

“I do have that paper to write, though,” I protested.

“I’m not saying you have to spend all weekend neglecting your work. But at the very least, let me take you and Natalie out for a drink. You could both probably use one.”

The truth was I did have a paper to work on, but I also wasn’t eager to get my other friends’ reactions to my new look before I’d gotten used to it myself. But we were a mile from the popular campus bars, so I figured it would be safe to go to a spot nearby and agreed to Belinda’s offer.

Natalie uncaped me, the last of my previously waist-length hair spilling to the ground to join the rest. I watched as she swept it all into a pile, then scooped it into a waste bin, and felt a twinge of sadness. I really had loved my hair. Who knew if it would ever again look the way it had when I walked into the salon?

I touched up my makeup in the mirror at Natalie’s station, wiping away the mascara that had smudged thanks to my allergies—far from the worst consequence of my allergies that day, I thought—and decided to go with the bolder of the two lipsticks I had in my purse. I still wasn’t sure what to make of this new me, but at least now I looked like I’d deliberately put myself together. As we headed out, I caught sight of the three of us in a mirror: Natalie, her long, blonde hair now released from its ponytail, the colorful streaks poking playfully through her waves; Belinda, her flawless lavender bob swishing just below her chin as she walked; and me, with my dark, barely-there hair starkly contrasting the other two women’s.


Epilogue

My first interview was scheduled for two weeks after my inadvertently dramatic makeover, far too soon for any demonstrable growth that could make my style pass plausibly as a pixie.

Although I had by then gotten used to my new look—and yes, perhaps, even liked it (or at least liked some of the unexpected, newfound attention it brought me)—I decided it was too bold a look for an interview with a prominent investment brokerage. Natalie came over the night before and outfitted me with a wig that was close to my natural color and fell just past my shoulders. With a little finessing, it looked like real hair. It was a little odd seeing myself with hair again, but also comfortable, like greeting an old friend. “Maybe when my hair grows back,” I mused, “I’ll keep it around this length.”

“You can,” Natalie said. “But I think it would be awfully boring.”

“Maybe I’ll let you try to give me a subtle undercut,” I teased. “Something nobody will see if I wear my hair down.”

“Only if it’s not allergy season,” she chuckled. “But in all seriousness, what will you do if you get one of these investment brokerage jobs? You won’t want to wear a wig every day.”

“My start date wouldn’t be for another four months at least. It should have grown out enough by then that I can look ‘professional,’ don’t you think?”

“I mean, if you want it to.”

“Even if I didn’t, I don’t think I can walk into my first day on the job as a junior broker with a buzzcut.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Natalie said. “I’ve got to go. Call me tomorrow and let me know how it goes.”

My interview the next day was on campus. I arrived a few minutes before the proscribed time so I could make sure my wig hadn’t shifted out of place on my way, hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone who had seen the “new” me and question why I suddenly had hair again.

On-campus interviewers are usually conducted by more junior members of a firm, following an earlier phone interview with a member of the HR team. These younger employees’ time isn’t worth as much, so firms use them to screen for any particularly good or particularly bad candidates before the higher-ups get involved. There will usually be two or three interviewers present so they can discuss the candidates they meet with—that way, the firm doesn’t have to rely on the opinion of a single person, even this early in the process.

I had just emerged from the bathroom and taken a seat outside of the room where my interview would be taking place when the door opened. A young Asian man, a few years older than me, emerged. “Katie?” I nodded. “I’m Mike. We’re ready for you now.”

He led me into the room, where I saw his colleague was already sitting. “This is Michelle,” Mike said, pointing to a young woman, about his age…with platinum blonde hair nearly as short as mine was (under the wig, that is). She wore a tailored black pantsuit and bright red high heels and looked far more stylish than I was expecting anyone in the investment world would.

It took a lot of effort not to keep my eyes drifting over to the woman’s hairstyle, but the interview seemed to go well. Our conversation flowed freely and we even had a few laughs.

Toward the end of the conversation, Mike and Michelle asked me if I had any questions for them. I asked some of the questions my career counselor had suggested I have prepared, but then added one more at the end. “I’m curious about the workplace culture,” I said. “Is it as formal as other investment firms?”

“In what way?” Michelle asked.

“Well,” I said, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but I absolutely love your look. It’s just not…”

She laughed and gestured to her hair. “Not the sort of hairstyle you’d think would fly at an investment firm?”

“I didn’t mean…”

“Oh, there’s no need to apologize,” Mike said. “She loves to talk about this, and somehow you’re the first person today who asked.”

“There are several philanthropic initiatives at the firm,” Michelle began, “but usually we have these big boring black tie fundraisers for them. Some of the younger brokers got the idea that the firm should start trying to appeal to younger investors—get them in now, keep them happy, have them for life, you know?—and I’m not entirely sure how it happened but I suggested we sponsor a St. Baldrick’s Day fundraiser. And then because I suggested it, I kind of had to volunteer. So we had a St. Patrick’s Day party at a pub down the street from our office and…” she pointed to her head again.

“Oh, so this is recent? Like last month?”

“Nope!” Mike interjected. “This was three St. Patrick’s Days ago!”

“So you kept it!” I observed, trying not to convey any emotion other than passing interest.

She grinned. “I did! Well, more or less. Sometimes it’s a little shorter. Sometimes I let it grow out a bit, especially in the lead up to our event, so there’s something to cut off that day. I change the color up sometimes, too. Never anything too wild—I am still a broker, after all—but let’s just say this is not my natural hair color.”

“And the firm doesn’t mind?”

“If they do, they can’t say anything, especially since after the first year, I’m not the only woman in the office participating. It’s to support cancer!”

“Well,” I said. “I think it really suits you, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Thanks,” Michelle said. “You’d be surprised at how many women look good with super short hair. And it feels amazing. You should try it sometime.”

I thought about ripping my wig off, right then and there, but I wasn’t sure how Mike and Michelle would feel about a dramatic reveal. Instead, I smiled confidently at the two of them and said: “Maybe someday, I will.”

***

After a few more rounds of interviews, I found out almost exactly two months after my first conversation with Mike and Michelle that got the job.

My start date was still another months away, after commencement. I planned to show up my first day sporting a pixie—significantly shorter than the wig I’d worn to all my interviews, but certainly not a radical change, and easy enough to explain away. In fact, I’d just had lunch with Natalie, and she told me that my hair was definitely long enough to shape into a super-short pixie that I’d be able to grow out over time, and with a lot of regular maintenance, to my initial length. My time with the buzzcut had been fun while it lasted, but it had grown out into a shapeless, shaggy fuzz that I was tired of hiding under hats and bandanas, or slicking it back with an impressive amount of hair gel. I asked Natalie if she could get me in at the salon the following day.

After lunch, I went to the gym and then went home for a shower. When I sat down at my desk to work on an assignment that was due the following day, I saw that I’d received an email from Michelle, welcoming me to the firm and informing me that she had been assigned as my mentor, to help guide me through the lead-up to, and first few months at, my new job.

Michelle’s email contained all sorts of important information about who was going to be in touch with which important employment documents, what I should plan for my first week to look like, some tips she’d picked up from working in a male-dominated industry, and more. Then, at the bottom, she wrote:

One more thing—and NO PRESSURE if you don’t want to. My contacts at the St. Baldrick’s Day Foundation were in touch a few days ago. They’ve received a huge challenge grant, meaning they’ll only get the money if they can raise an equal amount. I’ve convinced the philanthropy team to contribute toward the match, and what we decided was that for every current or incoming employee who chooses to shave their heads or lose at least one foot of hair, the firm will donate two thousand dollars. I recognize that it’s no big deal for someone like me or some of the other folks here who participated back in March and don’t have much to lose, but I understand if it’s too much for you. For what it’s worth, there’s no event this time around, so no audience; I don’t know if you’d consider that a good thing or a bad thing. But if you do want to do it (and again, there’s no pressure!!), the donation is due at the end of the month so we’d have to have proof before then. A photo would be totally fine—you don’t have to, like, send us your hair or anything. That’d be creepy. Anyway, LMK about this, or if you have any questions on anything else in the email (if you’re even still reading at this point)!

I looked over my computer monitor, toward the mirror hanging on my bedroom wall. My hair was already dry—one of the best parts of it being so short—but it was sticking out every which way, too long to lie flat against my head but too short for there to be any weight to help it hang down. Natalie swore she’d be able to take care of both issues, and in a way that wouldn’t grow out quite so chaotically. It had taken nearly three months to get to the point where this was even possible, and I knew it would be at least another three years before my hair was remotely the length it had been the day I sat down in Natalie’s chair, which was still my ultimate goal.

But still, I reminded myself, what’s three more months when we’re talking about thousands of dollars donated to cancer? Surely I could live with getting a haircut I’d already gotten once before. We weren’t talking about sacrificing feet. We were hardly talking about sacrificing inches. I hit the reply button.

Hey Michelle, thanks for all this great info. It’s super helpful and I’ll read over it more in depth later and get back to you with any questions. As for your question about the fundraiser, I’ve already got a haircut appointment tomorrow, so consider me in.

Michelle’s response came almost instantaneously:

OMG you’re amazing. But only if you’re totally sure. I know it’s a lot to sacrifice.

I decided I’d hold my reply until I had photos to send.

***

Natalie had been promoted from apprentice to junior stylist, so she didn’t require the constant supervision she had needed before. Still, I noticed Belinda hovering nearby, probably because she didn’t want a repeat of my last visit. Little did she know!

“Same plan we discussed yesterday?” Natalie asked, fastening a cape at my neck.

“Actually,” I said, “I was thinking a repeat of the last cut.”

In the mirror, I saw my best friend’s face turn white. “You’re joking.”

“I’m not.” I told her about Michelle’s email, and the matching grant.

“I’d better go and warn Belinda, so she doesn’t freak when she sees me take out the clippers. It’ll give you time to back out, if you want.”

Natalie walked over to Belinda and I saw the older stylist’s mouth drop open before she let out a hearty laugh. I gave her a smile and a wave as Natalie came back to her station. She picked up her clippers and affixed them with a guard, switching the device on with a pop, followed by a hum. “The time to change your mind is now,” she told me.

“I’m good,” I replied.

Natalie placed the buzzing machine in the center of my forehead and pushed it back. I kept my eyes open this time and could see the clippers move through my hair like a hot knife through butter, a short-mown path emerging along he center of my head, flanked by hair that had looked short enough until right that minute. I couldn’t believe how much length I was still losing.

On Natalie’s second pass, just to one side of the first, I felt a familiar spreading warmth in my abdomen and remembered that the last time I was having my hair buzzed off—the first time, the accidental time—I had been feeling something akin to arousal until I opened my eyes and the shock of the new look chased all other feelings away. But this time there would be no shock. I’d keep my eyes open, and what I would see by the time Natalie finished would be not shocking but familiar, a version of me I’d learned to live with, sometimes even to like, over the past few months.

With each pass Natalie made with her clippers, more tufts of hair, an inch or so in length, fell to my cape or to the floor, and I felt not just warmth but a clenching that I hoped would not become a crescendo until I was back at my apartment. Of course, then I remembered that I had walked to the salon and might need to quietly take care of myself in the bathroom before I left.

Natalie switched guards and I swear she could tell what I was feeling, because it felt like she was moving slower as she worked on the fade, letting the vibrating machine linger longer in certain spots. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing,” I said to her as she finished the fade and removed the guard to tidy up my hairline.

“Don’t think your best friend of more than a decade can’t tell what’s going on in your head,” she retorted. “I suppose now in addition to reminding you not to sneeze I have to tell you not to do…anything else, either?”

“There are fifteen other people in this salon, Nat,” I protested. “It won’t be a problem.”

“You say that, and yet remember how I told you some people quite enjoyed being buzzed? Belinda says that a few times a year, she gets a client who wants a buzzcut and gets off right there in the chair.”

“Can you please just finish?” I didn’t mean to be snippy but I also didn’t know how long I could hold on.

“So that you can go finish? Of course.” Moving with care, Natalie used her clippers to trace the outline of my hairline, first from one temple, behind my ear, around to my nape, and then starting on the other side. This time, when she pronounced herself done, I swear I liked what I saw. Maybe was just because I’d grown accustomed to the look, or because the hormones surging through my body had made my skin glow. But whatever the reason, I thought the reflection staring back at me looked incredible. I ran a hand over the top of my head and felt the familiar, prickly-yet-soft fuzz that covered my head.

“What do I owe you, Nat?”

“It’s on the house,” she said, unfastening my cape. Clumps of my hair slid down it to the floor. Your haircuts will be on the house for the rest of your life because of what happened with that last one. Although I suspect I shouldn’t feel quite so terrible about it anymore.”

“Not today, at least,” I smiled, standing. “Uh…bathroom?”

“Use the staff one,” she pointed toward the back of the salon and then gave me a wink. “It’s more private.”

I barely got the door locked before I began to feel the rush of an orgasm, coming on almost as suddenly as that unexpected sneeze. I wasn’t even touching myself. Quickly, I bit down on my hand to avoid the entire salon hearing me come.

I paused for a moment to assess my situation. Had that been enough for me to at least get home? My clitoris spasmed in reply. No. I unzipped my fly and let my fingers do the walking, staring at myself in the mirror and using my other hand to explore my shorn scalp, until I was about to come again and I had to return my hand to my mouth to muffle the sounds of my pleasure, which came in waves. When I finally felt like I could reasonably get myself home, I rezipped my pants and washed my hands, noticing quite an impressive bite mark on one that I hoped wouldn’t bruise.

There was one last thing to do. The lighting in the bathroom was great, so I snapped a selfie of my new-but-not-actually-that-new look and opened up my email thread with Michelle. “Not as much to sacrifice as you’d think,” I typed in reply to her email. “I’ll have to tell you more sometime.” I made sure the photo was attached and hit send. I was sure she’d send a reply quickly enough, but I’d look for it later. I had to get home.

4 responses to “Gesundheit! (Why Not to Get a Sidecut During Allergy Season)

  1. I knew I was going to love this one as soon as I saw the title — great work, as always! Loved the interactions between all of the characters, and how different they were from one another.

  2. Another great story here. Thank you too much 🙏
    I did hope natalie get a st baldricks shave with Katie’s suggestion and leave that blonde locks there. Isnt it would be good? 🙃

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