When I fled my war-torn country as a refugee, I had lost everything: my husband, my son, and my identification papers. Thus it was that I found myself paying to have a new ID forged.
“This is a rare opportunity. You might as well shave some years off of your age. You could pass for ten or more years younger.” The forger convinced me to rebrand myself as Layla born in 1994, as opposed to the truth, which was 1982. This version of me had always been single; she did not have the ghosts of not just her birth family but also her in-laws to haunt her.
I arrived penniless and hungry, but also much younger. Being officially in my 20s would make it easier for me to start over. English as a foreign language had been my favorite subject in school. I met Aiden at the community college where I went to lose my accent. He actually was the age that I was pretending to be, and reminded me a lot of the husband I had lost. His smile, his laugh, the way he forgot his books and had to share mine. Aiden was adorable.
Aiden surprised me when he proposed to me. I hadn’t known him for very long yet, and had certainly not told him all the details of my sad past, especially not about my son who would have been fifteen if he were still alive. Now I realized that I could not tell Aiden these things, particularly the truth about my age.
Aiden had big brown eyes and wavy dark hair like my dear departed husband, too. The resemblance was part of the reason that I said yes. I missed my husband terribly, and though I know it’s not fair to Aiden, this colored my judgement. Aiden pomaded his hair into a formal-looking side-part for our wedding, but he usually let his longish hair fly free, looking a bit like Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.
I meant to tell Aiden about my past, I really did. He did know that I had come to this country as a refugee from a war zone. But he never asked for any other details, and told me I didn’t have to tell him anything if it was too painful. I wondered if he truly didn’t care, or if he was afraid to find out that he wasn’t my first love. If he truly didn’t care, that was a bit sad, too, because the woman I am today, whom he saw fit to marry, was forged through those very experiences. On the other hand, I appreciated that he didn’t seem to have any interest in obsessing over things I could not control.
I did care about him, and about our future together, so I was relieved when I was able to conceive and bear him a daughter. It was a distinct possibility that I was too old, and that going through fertility treatments would mean that I would have to divulge my true age. I wondered if Aiden would have chosen me if he had known that I was actually twelve years older than him. Most of the time I felt the age I was claiming to be, but my body doesn’t lie. It wouldn’t be fair to cheat Aiden out of the happy family he said he wanted to build with me.
But it was all right, as long as we were happy. Aiden had already had rather shaggy hair when I married him, but afterwards he never went to the barber at all, so that by the time our daughter was born his hair was past his shoulders in the back. It was a mess and I hated it. The long hair made Aiden look older than my real age, too. It dragged down his features. My dear departed husband would never let his hair get out of hand like this, even though his was a similar color and texture. When we didn’t have money or fighting prevented him from going to the barbershop, I cut it at home. I was very good at it, too. There was no excuse for Aiden.
When Aiden was burping the baby, she grabbed a lock of his hair and pulled on it, hard. I saw him wince. Yes, that’s what babies do. Aiden should have tied his hair back. I don’t have this problem because I don’t leave my hair down for the baby to grab. After all, this isn’t my first time. Or, better yet, Aiden should just get a proper haircut.
“That hurt, didn’t it?” Once the baby was asleep I made an offhand comment to Aiden. I hoped he would take the hint. Where I come from, men are more careful not to let their hair grow long like women. I don’t mind Aiden being clean-shaven, although this is not the custom in my birth country, because smooth cheeks are nice to kiss, but I do like a man who looks like a man.
“Yeah. I feel stupid now for not realizing that babies like to grab things. It should have been obvious. But I didn’t have any hair ties on hand.”
“I hope that this doesn’t put you off of burping her. I think it’s very important for children to bond with their fathers early on in their lives.”
At the grocery store, the cashier commented that Aiden was lucky to have had a child at his age. He looked confused as she said that her cousin had found that it was too late for him to find a wife willing to procreate, now that he was close to forty.
In the parking lot, he asked, “Do I really look that old?”
I knew the correct answer to this was not an unequivocal “yes,” but if I said “no” I would lose my chance. “Not entirely, at least not in the face and body.”
He looked even more confused at this. I could hardly blame him, since he wasn’t even going grey yet. But his shaggy mop made him look tired and worn. Obviously having a newborn at home will make anyone feel tired and sleep-deprived, but there is no need to try to look that way if you can help it.
About a week later, I was out shopping at the same store with Aiden and the baby, who was now big enough for a baby carriage. I pushed the grocery cart with our purchases out to the car first and was loading them into the back when I heard a voice that I would know anywhere.
“Mother! It’s you, isn’t it?”
I spun around. There, in the parking lot, was my son! I put down my groceries and ran to wrap my arms around him. He was older and bigger now, but there was no mistaking that he was my darling boy. I hadn’t heard my native language in a long time, not since I arrived here.
“You’re alive! I thought for sure I had lost you. This is the happiest day of my life!” I hugged him tightly, one of my hands stroking his hair. “Let me get a good look at you.” I disengaged and held my son at arm’s length. He had grown taller and more robust. Then I noticed his hair. It was long and shaggy, covering his ears and his collar in the back.
“Layla?” Aiden caught up with us with the baby carriage. I turned around to face him. The truth must out.
“I’m sorry I never told you. This is my son. Yes, I’ve been married before. I lost my first husband in the war and I thought for sure that my son was dead, too. But he’s found me, so we can be a family again. Assuming you don’t mind, that is.”
“Layla, this is a lot for me to process. I can see the family resemblance between you and the boy. Maybe he can come home with us for now. What else do I need to know? We need to talk. It never occurred to me that you were a widow. I never thought to ask. When you said you had lost your family I assumed you were talking about your parents, not your children.”
My son looked confused as he watched Aiden and I talk. His English was not very strong the last time I saw him, so I wasn’t sure how much he understood. I could see the shock on his face as it registered that the baby was his half-sister by this new man whom he had never seen before. Poor boy, realizing that his mother had a new husband now, and had not chosen celibate widowhood. Surely he must realize that nobody could ever replace his father, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t capable of loving another man in a different relationship.
“This man is your new husband?” My son kindly refrained from adding what he was likely thinking. On the other hand, maybe he genuinely didn’t realize that Aiden was only about a decade older than him. Come to think of it, Aiden was exactly between us in age.
When we got home, my son looked surprised to see the house and the standard of living it suggested. I realized that he had assumed that we were much worse off than this, given Aiden’s shabby appearance. My son ran his hands through his own hair, which was also much longer than it used to be.
“Were you a child bride? This boy looks like a teenager.” Aiden was confused too.
“No. I was 22 when I got married for the first time, and 23 when my son was born. I lost my identification papers in the war, and when I had new ones forged I made myself a lot younger to increase my chances of getting a new and better life. I’m sorry I never got the chance to tell you the truth. I’m actually 38.”
“Wow. I never would have guessed.” Aiden sank into a chair, but the corners of his mouth were slightly upturned. He was impressed by how convincing I was as a 26-year-old. More convincing than he was, in fact, even though he was the genuine article.
“I hope you like older women. But really, we look the same age. You look 38 with your shaggy hair.” There, I said it.
My son also looked surprised. “Mother, you mean your new husband is a lot younger than he looks?”
It was funny to watch both of them run their hands through their hair at the same time. Their eyes met and they burst out laughing. I really hoped they would bond, so that we could all be together as a family.
“Mother, remember when you used to cut my hair? I missed that.” My son spoke first. I would have to interpret because I was the only person in the room proficient enough in both languages.
“You want me to cut your hair again? I’d be happy to.” My son nodded. “My son wants me to cut his hair. I think I’ll go do that.” Best to keep Aiden abreast of what was going on so that he wouldn’t feel left out.
To my surprise Aiden followed us into the bathroom after he put the baby into her crib. By this point I had already fished out the haircutting set that I kept stashed at the back of the bathroom cabinet. I had acquired it a long time ago in the hope that Aiden would one day decide to let me cut his hair.
In no time at all I had my son caped up and had combed out his hair, parting it along the back of his head into two. I twisted the right and left halves of his hair right above each ear and sliced off the length with the scissors from the set. Now the ears were mostly exposed but the back and very front were still long. I gathered the remaining hair into smaller units to scissor off, then began rummaging through the box for clipper attachments.
“How short do you want it?” I asked my son. He was old enough now to have a say.
“A five on top.”
“OK.” That’s my boy. He always liked his hair short.
Aiden looked on in horror as I began the attack with the clippers. He hadn’t understood a word of our consultation, after all. I started at the nape and plowed all the way up to the crown, taking long strokes up. My boy smiled as I pulled his ears out and down to edge around them the first time, and again as I began to mow down the top, still with the number five.
Once I had gone over his whole head a couple of times I began to fade the back and sides. Given the length on top, I figured the line around his occipital bone could be a two. Aiden stared, amazed. I used to do this all the time, so I know what I’m doing.
As I edged around the ears and nape with the bare clipper blade, my son smiled. There was no mistaking that he was the one who wanted his hair short, and that he was not being forced to cut it. Aiden was still watching, spellbound.
When I finished, my son ran his hands up and down the back of his head and grinned even wider. “This is great. I have my mother back! And I look good, too.” He stood up to examine himself in the mirror. My boy had been a cute kid, but now he was growing into a handsome young man who looked more and more like his father.
“My mother good barber.” He made a comment in English and winked at Aiden. Yes, Aiden, please tell me you’re next.
Aiden moved closer to the center of the room, toward the stool where my son had been sitting. “Your son looks really good. I didn’t know you were so skilled. Did you used to cut his father’s hair too?”
“Yes, I did. He liked to keep his hair short. It was a lot like yours in texture and color. I don’t have any pictures, I’m afraid. But the way my son looks now is very similar to how his father looked when we were first married.”
Aiden ran his hands through his long, shaggy hair. “Why not. OK, you can cut mine too. Don’t shave it all off, mind.”
I laughed. “No, I wouldn’t do that unless you wanted me to. How short are you willing to go? I can do scissor cuts, too, if you’re afraid of the clippers. You don’t have to try to look like my first husband. That wouldn’t be fair to you.”
“I’ve never had a really short haircut so I don’t know if one would suit me. My mother liked my hair longer, and I’m lazy, so I never had the chance to find out. I don’t know what would look best on me.”
“How about if we trim your hair up in stages so that you can see how you look and whether you like it. Your hair length when I first met you would be a good starting point.”
“OK, that makes sense.” Aiden looked a little less nervous at this suggestion.
“Look, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, or if you’re not ready.”
“No, it’s OK. I want to try.”
I motioned to Aiden to sit on the stool. The first thing would be to gather his long hair in a ponytail at the nape of his neck and slice that off. From there I would feather the hair around his face so that his fringe would hit his eyebrows and the top half of his ears would still be covered.
“This is what he looked like when I first met him,” I explained to my son. “Like a cocky British actor in a silly romantic film.”
“Wow, that’s a good copy of the cut I had. I remember now. In hindsight it wasn’t that great on me. You may proceed.”
I smiled as I combed out his hair again. I would cut the crown to taper against his skull and raise the sides up over the ears, but leave the fringe. The result would be the classic little boy cut, beloved of Korean boy band members. That look didn’t really work on a grown man past 22, so I was confident that Aiden would let me cut more.
Sure enough, Aiden was comfortable with the result and ready to go shorter. My son was smirking as he watched. He knew that clippers would be inevitable.
“Are you comfortable with this? Let me know when you want me to stop. I would normally use clippers on the back and sides for the next cut, but I can use the scissors if the clippers scare you.”
“No, go ahead. I’ve never experienced clippers. Your son seemed to like the way they felt against his head. Just the back and sides, right? You’ll still cut the top with scissors, I hope.”
“Yes, that’s the plan.” I put in a part on his right side with the comb. Rummaging through the box I selected a number six guard and attached it to the clippers. I gently pushed his chin down and turned on the clippers. Aiden shivered as the clippers made contact with his nape. I figured the faster I got through this part, the better. Don’t give Aiden a chance to chicken out midway through. He would look strange with his hair only half-cropped, anyway.
I texturized the top and blended the transitions, then combed the front part of his hair back into a small quiff. Aiden looked more dapper already. I could live with this look if he decided he wanted me to stop here. My son looked impressed—Aiden was finally starting to look worthy of me in his eyes.
Aiden admired this cut in the mirror. “Wow, I look a lot better than I expected I would with shorter hair. I had no idea. Keep going, let’s take off another centimeter or two all over.”
Music to my ears. I changed the guard on the clippers, selecting a four this time. He had no idea how short he was talking about going, and I didn’t want to scare him. Better to ease into it. I went over his back and sides again, before changing the guard for a taper. I always enjoyed edging around the ears. The top could be trimmed down with scissors and texturized again. This time the longer hair at the front wouldn’t need to be styled back with a dryer or with product, because it would stand up on its own. Maybe someday he would be up for a buzzcut.
When I finished Aiden looked like a different person than when we started. The short hair showcased his face and balanced out his overall proportions. He looked like the young man he actually was.
I realized with a start that being a much-older woman with a handsome young husband could be dangerous, but the cat was out of the bag now. It was a relief that Aiden finally knew the truth. The important thing was that Aiden himself liked the way he looked. He and my son worked together to clean up the mess of dark hair on the floor even though they didn’t really have much of a common language. My son did manage to remark, “Handsome short,” in English. Aiden smiled in response. He would not need any more convincing to keep his hair short.
I needn’t have worried about what Aiden would think of my past. He offered to let my son live with us, eventually adopting him as his own, and we had another child together, a miracle at my age.
When we went places as a family, he was unmistakably the dad, but when he took my son to his new school and to soccer practice, he enjoyed being mistaken for an older brother. As my son learned English and told Aiden more about our lives before the war, I could see Aiden’s respect for me grow as a survivor and strong woman. I will always love my first husband and miss him terribly, but the happy family I have now with Aiden is the best tribute to his memory that I could have asked for.