Most Improved

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Most Improved
Ginger Herten

Steve approached the lane and picked up his ball.  He spent a brief moment wiping it, then I watch as Steve lines himself up on his usual mark on the approach, gets into his usual stance.  Then pauses to brush the hair out of his eyes.

“And that is why you aren’t going to get within 40 points of your average this game.”  I tease him.

“What?”  He turns and gives me an annoyed look.

“Stopping to brush the hair out of your face is throwing off your rhythm.”

He turns back to the lane, and repositions himself, and starts down the approach.

He’d been just letting his hair grow for a while now.  It hadn’t gotten to the point of being in his eyes yet when the league broke for summer a month ago.  He’d asked if I wanted to practice with him over the summer after he got back from escorting his mom on a month long cruise. He was back now and his sandy hair was in his eyes.

Steve gets the dreaded 7-10 split, then of course only manages to get the 7 pin with his second ball.

He comes over and sits next to me taking a long swig of his beer.  It was the tenth frame, and he’d bowled a 142.  This is our third game.  He bowled a 156 the first one, and a 147 the second.

I lean over and pull down a bit of his bangs giggling.  They reach half way down his long nose.

“It’s not the hair.  I’m just out for practice.”

“Yeah, right.”  I tease some more with a laugh.

“You always pause to brush yours out of your face.”  He points out.

“Always, is the key part.  I’m used to it, I’ve always had hair in my eyes when I bowl.  It’s part of my rhythm.”

I get up to bowl my own frame.  As always my long hair was mostly held back in a braid that slaps me in the back as I get into my stance.  There are as usual a few wispy bits that have gotten loose and are in my eyes though.  Which I try just blowing off my face, then brush aside with my shoulder when they float back down.

I left the 5 pin standing.  Which I manage to miss on my second ball.  Feeling like an idiot for not picking up the easiest spare possible, I go to sit down with Steve.

“Not too bad, 119, that’s over your 110 average.”

“Maybe I’ll manage to get most improved this year.”  I smile.

It seems funny that 119 seems good, but when I joined the league last year, I was really out of practice.  I hadn’t bowled since college, when I had a 145 average.   My ex, Sean, hated bowling.  He flat out refused to ever go with me, possibly because the few times I got him to when we first started dating I always beat him.  He also managed to ruin my going without him, he would whine so much about my doing overpriced working class stuff till it sucked all the fun out of it.  Sean was just whiny.  In retrospect, I realize half the reason I married him was just to have an excuse to get out of my parents’ house.

Since the divorce I’ve been getting back to the person I used to be with a life of my own, which included joining a casual bowling league.

“Another game?” Steve asks as he finishes his beer.

“Sure, I’m going to run to the bar for another drink first, want one too?”  I say as I get up.

Steve nods and smiles.  I can feel him watching me as I walk off.  I can also feel myself blushing

When I come back with our beers, he has already bowled the first frame of the next game.  He got 7 pins with his first ball and just 2 with his second.  Not a good start for a 180 bowler.

“Well there goes your chance for a clean game.”  I tease some more.  “Definitely the hair.”

“It’s not the hair and I’ll prove it.”


“Give me one of your hair thingies.”

I rummage through my bag and loan him a small barrette which looks ridiculous on him.  Which I suspect is what he wanted, to make me giggle again.  It holds his hair back and off his face though.

“If I bowl over a 170, I’ll go get a haircut.”

“Yeah right”  I laugh.  “You’re just going to throw this game.”

“I won’t I promise.”  He does the cross his heart thing like we are little kids on the playground.

I get up and bowl my frame with my usual brushing my hair back with my shoulder.  My first ball takes out the left corner, and my second takes out the right.

“If your theory holds water, maybe you should get a haircut too.  You’d look cute with bangs.”  He says flirtatiously as he gets up to bowl his frame.

Steve is as smooth as can be on the approach no stopping to fuss.  The ball curves perfectly into the sweet spot.  It’s a strike.

“It’s a fluke.”  He insists as he starts the next bottle of beer.  I’ve lost track of what round we’re on with the beers, but he’s beginning to sound tipsy.

“Ha, I’m betting you’ll be making that 170 with plenty to spare.  Having the hair out of your eyes is helping.”

“Ok,  how about you put your money where your mouth is.  If I can break 190, you get a haircut too.”

“Deal.”  I suddenly realize I’m pretty tipsy myself, I just made a bet I’m not sure I wanted to.  Oh well, with the amount of beer we’ve been drinking, I figure the strike really was a fluke.

Another strike in the 3rd frame making it a double surprised me, but I figured it was just luck. When Steve got a turkey in the 4th frame, I began to get worried.

Steve finished with an impressive 221.  Obviously, hair in his eyes was more of an obstacle for Steve than being very tipsy.

“Listen I’ve had too much to drink to drive myself home, and I’m guessing you have too.”  I say as I change my shoes.  “My place is walking distance from here, but I’d rather not walk it alone in the dark.  You could crash on my couch and get your car in the morning.”

“Sounds like a plan.  Want to pick up a pizza on the way?”

We weren’t all that tired when we got to my place, and neither of us was working in the morning so we sat up for a while after we finished the pizza talking.  Talking turned to kissing as Steve played with the tendrils of my hair that were constantly loose.

“So, what are your plans for today?” I ask as I put some waffles in the toaster and pour two mugs of coffee.

“Well I need to pick up my car and swing by my place to get clean clothes.  Then I was planning to get a haircut.  We could go bowling again tonight, or maybe play pool.”

I felt the blood drain away from my face as I remembered last night’s bet.  Now that the alcohol is out of my system, I thought we weren’t really serious about that.  I put a hand to my loose hair.

Steve looks at me confused for a moment, then he gets that look of light dawning on him.

“Don’t worry.  It’s not about last night’s bet, and I don’t expect you to go through with it.  I’d completely forgotten about it till I saw the look on your face.”  He is laughing.  “I’ve been planning to get it cut all week, it’s just the first quiet day I’ve had since I got back.”

I laugh too with relief.  “So, why’d you make such a fuss about it not being the hair last night.”

“I like the evil glint you get in your eye when you’re teasing me.”  He takes a sip from his coffee.  “Not that I wasn’t telling the truth about you being adorable with bangs.”  He adds, as he reaches over the breakfast counter and brushes the hair back and behind my ear.

“Sean would hate bangs.  I once thought about getting them and he said it would make me look like I was twelve.”

“So, he just loved your hair so much he couldn’t stand the idea of you getting it cut?”  Steve asks and twirls a lock of mine with his finger.

“I don’t think he even liked my hair that much in particular, just had a firm belief that women are supposed to have long hair.”

“How could anyone who supposedly had an investment in long hair, not appreciate yours.  You have great hair.  It’s thick and I love the color.  It’s like gingerbread.  All light brown till the light hits it just the right way and it goes all reddish.”   Then Steve leans in close and continued very softly.  “You know how I think a woman is SUPPOSED TO have her hair?”

“How?”  I lean in.

“Anyway she wants.”  And he leans back again.  “Whatever makes her happy and comfortable.”

“So all the ‘You’d be cute with bangs’ talk means you have no opinion.”

“Well, you were the one making a fuss about hair in the eyes.”  He chuckles.  “I leave it between you and your hairstylist.  I just think you’re cute.”

The toaster pops, and I hand him one of the waffles.

“I don’t have a hairstylist.”  I say casually as I spread jam on my waffle.

“Really?”  He seems surprised.  “What do you do, just go to random places when you want a trim?”

“I haven’t gotten a trim since college when my roommate would do it.  Before that my mom trimmed it.”  I shrug.  “Then Sean always just acted like, it wasn’t worth it… it’s hard to explain.”

“Sean’s gone.”  Steve reminds me.  “You’ve been divorced for a year.  Who cares what he thinks.

“Hell, even when you were together, why care so much about what he thought.”  Steve says passionately.  “It’s your hair.  You’re the one who has to live with it.”

“So, you wouldn’t care if I cut off my hair that you were just telling me was so nice.”

“I’d care, it’s just how you felt about it is what I’d really care about.”

I start thinking about it while I munch on my waffle.  I’d kept my hair long my whole life to make others happy.  My mom treated me like her personal Barbie doll.  In school, I wanted to fit in.  Then there was Sean, who was so sulky if I didn’t do what he wanted.

Why had I thought to blame Steve’s poor game on his hair?  The answer was simple; pausing to brush hair off my face was something that I hated doing.

“You know, you’re right about last night.”


“I was the one making a fuss about hair in the eyes.”

Steve nods and takes a bite of his waffle.

I start thinking more about it.  Most of the time when you suggest things to other people it’s because it’s what you would want for yourself.  Do I really want to get the hair out of my eyes?

“I don’t want hair in my face constantly anymore.  I’m sick of it.  It’s annoying.”  I’m talking fast now.  “I’m done living my life the way Sean thought I should.  Why am I still set on looking the way he wanted me to?”

“Ok.”  Steve says tentatively.

“Now, I just need to figure out where to find a decent hairstylist.”  I sigh.  Random places from a search engine seems a bit scary.

“If you’re really sure you want to get bangs, you could come along with me.”  Steve offers.

I lean against the counter and run my hands up into my hair.  They get stuck in the tangles as usual.

“I don’t want bangs.  I want to cut it all off.  I want to be a new me.  A me I control.”

“Maybe, you should sleep on this.”  Steve says nervously.  “You might regret it tomorrow.”

“A year’s long enough to wait.”  I say more firmly than I really feel.  “Does the offer to tag along with you still stand?”

Steve kind of nods and shrugs simultaneously.

I’m not sure Steve isn’t right again, and I am going to regret this totally impulsive decision tomorrow.  Right now though, I don’t care.

We walk to the bowling alley and both get into Steve’s car, and drive to Steve’s apartment.  He changes into clean clothing, and we hop back into the car.

“So, where is this place, what’s it like?” I ask.

“It’s on Franklin Street.  Near the post office.  It’s sort of a cross between a barber shop and a salon.  Jessica, the owner, took it over from her father who retired about 10 years ago.  He was an old fashioned barber, but she updated things a bit to bring in more business.”

“You seem to know the whole history.”

“I’ve been going there for as long as I can remember.  My dad went to her dad since before I was born.”

He pulls up in front of the shop and parks.

“You sure you want to do this today?”  He asks again.  “I’d be happy to bring you back next week if you want to think about it some more.”

“I don’t feel like waiting.”   I say, then more tentatively.  “I could find somewhere else if you feel weird about me tagging along.”

“I don’t mind you tagging along, I’m just worried that you’re going to regret it.”

“If I regret it, it’ll grow back.”  I shrug with a tilt of my head.  Trying to sound more casual about it than I feel.

We get out of the car and walk in.  It’s a small friendly shop.  A sink off in the back.  Some comfy chairs around the front.  A desk off to the side.

It’s filled with photos.  Old black and white ones of a younger man standing in front of this shop next to an old fashioned barber pole.  Some of him inside with another barber.  The photos give way to color, as the man gets older.  Several with his family through the years.   Then with the young woman, who had grown up in those family photos, working with him in the shop.  Then there is her wedding and kids and most recently, a graduation with her standing next to one of the grown up kids.

I feel like I’ve barged into someone’s home, and am wondering if I should be here.  I was only sort of invited.  I know it’s a public place, but I’m so tense everything seems more intense.

I’m kind of embarrassed too.  Steve and I have really only just started dating, dinner after the league a few times, then last night.  And here I have roped him into helping with something really personal.

This is beginning to feel like a really bad idea.  I’m not even sure I want to cut my hair at all any more.  It looks good long.  The minor nuisance of it never bugged me much before.  I’m really just trying to stop being the girl who married halfway through college to have a better place to go than home.

“Jessica, this is my…uh…this is Terry.”  Steve introduced me.  Was he going to say girlfriend?  “She wanted to get a haircut too, so I invited her along.”

It’s now too late to back out without making things even weirder.  So I just say hi, and go to sit in one of the comfortable chairs while Steve gets his haircut first.

“So, how was the trip with your mom?”  Jessica asks as Steve gets in her chair and she drapes a cape over him.

“It was fine, she met a bunch of other widows around her age to hang out with, so I mostly got to drink daiquiris by the pool.”

“Your hair grew a lot while you were gone.  The usual?”  Steve nods, and Jessica reaches over and takes a large pair of clipper off a hook.

While she’s adjusting them, I take out my phone to check email and stuff.  I’m startled away from my phone though by a loud clunk, then the clippers she’s holding start humming.  I watch as she pushes the clippers into Steve’s hair and huge chunks of it start falling to the floor.  It’s a bit shocking to see.

“So, Terry how did you and Steve meet.”  Jessica asks, so I put down my phone.

“We’re in the same bowling league.”  I say.

We continue to make casual conversation, while she is cutting Steve’s hair.  The process is making me nervous an awful lot of hair is coming off.  His cut hair is making a carpet all around her chair.  The back of his head is starting to look like it had when I first joined the league.  Neater, and darker since the sun bleached bits are getting cut off.  I want to go over and feel it, but resist the temptation.

Steve is telling a funny anecdote from the trip, as Jessica puts down the clipper and starts on the top of his head.  She sprays it with water, then starts snipping away at it with scissors.  She holds up the hair with her fingers, before snipping off about half of it.

After the top, she uses little clippers to square off the back,  then starts dusting Steve off.

I know this means it’s just about my turn.  I have a huge case of butterflies in the stomach.  I want to do this, but I’m also really terrified.  Watching her sweep aside so much of Steve’s hair is not helping matters.

“Ok Terry, I can take you now.”  Jessica beckons.

“What did you want?” She asks as I sit down.

I realize I hadn’t actually thought about style.  All I’d thought about was being annoyed with what I had.

“I’m not really sure.”  I stammer.  “I’ve never had anything different.  I kind of just feel done with it.”

Jessica wrinkles her brow a little and places her hands on my shoulders.  “What made you decide you wanted a haircut?”

“The way it is constantly in my eyes.”  I look at myself in the mirror and play with the ends a bit.  “It takes a half hour to get out the tangle after I shower.  When I braid it, it slaps me in the back.  I feel like I’m all tangled up in it at night lately.  I sit on it constantly.”

“Why have you kept it long if it bothers you so much?”  Jessica prompts.

“Well I always get compliments.  Then there was my ex-husband…”  I trail off and look down, embarrassed now to admit I had given up so much control over my life.

“Ah” Jessica lets out in an understanding way, and gives my shoulder a squeeze.

“Do you use product?”  She asks.

“Only on special occasions.”

“Do you like to tuck it behind your ears?”

For that one I had to think and reached up for a moment. I do all the time, but do I want to keep doing it?   Then I shake my head ‘no.’   It’s annoying behind my ear.

“Do you need to look a certain way for work?  Conservative or something?”

Again I shake my head.  “No, I work at a gallery, I can be as bold as I want.”

“Let me go grab a picture.”  She walks over to a stack of entertainment magazines and picks through them.  When she finds what she wants, she flips through it then folds the page back.

“What do you think?”  She asks as she hands me the picture.  “I was thinking it fits the out of your eyes bill, and it’s fun and edgy.”

It’s a picture of Lena Dunham.  Her hairs short all over, with choppy bangs not even touching her eyebrows.  It’s really adorable on her, but I don’t know if it would work on me.  I don’t look that much like her.

“Do you think I can pull it off?”

“Don’t worry, you’ll look great.”  Jessica assures me.  “The question is, do you like it?”

I smile and nod.  It’s cute and fun and I want to be the sort of woman who is comfortable in short edgy hair.  No more curtain to hide behind.

“We’ll get you shampooed.”  She says picking up the cape.  “But first let’s get rid of the bulk.”

First, she drapes the cape over me after, twisting my long hair in front of my shoulder so she can fasten it in the back.  She rummages through a drawer and pulls out a bag of small rubber bands, then she places them on the counter.  She combs through my hair for a minute.  She parts my hair in the middle all the way back, and then down from the center part to my left ear.  She combs that section straight out for a moment and holds it in her hand.

I’m both very terrified and very excited.  It’s a bit like an amusement park thrill ride.  That weird combination of intense adrenaline from the ride tricking your subconscious into thinking you are about to die, since you seem to be plummeting to you death, but having such a good time also.  The big difference is in an amusement park, the thrill ride is all smoke and mirrors, just pretend.  At the end of the ride you get off unchanged with nothing but a memory.  I wasn’t getting out of this unchanged.  This was real.

Then she does it.  She just slices through it with the scissors.  The sharp scissors make a sound that starts as crunching and ends with a snap as the blades severe the thick lock of hair.  The now short hair falls against my left cheek and ear.

Jessica is holding the lock up and wrapping one of the rubber-bands around the end of it.

I look in the mirror and my heart is pounding.  The hair she cut just covers my ear.  I reach up a shaking hand and feel the cut ends.

“That was the hardest part.”  Jessica tells me with a reassuring smile.  “The next one’s easier.”

She repeats the sectioning down to the right ear and combs out that side.  When she cuts through the hair on the right side, I’m more prepared for it.  It does get easier.  She rubber-bands it like she had the last lock and places them next to each other on the counter.

Next, she combs the hair on the right side on the part in the back.  She combs it straight down.  I feel the cold metal against my skin about half way down my neck.  Then I hear that same crunching sound.  It takes a bit longer than it had in the front to get to the snap part, but it gets there.  Soon she is rubber-banding the third lock.

As she puts it down on the counter, I realize that there is just one section of my long  hair left.  It’s almost all gone.  I’m wondering what came over me this morning that I suddenly was doing this.

She starts combing out the last section.  My heart is pounding again like it had for the first.  This was it, the end of long hair.  I feel the cold metal at my neck again and hear the scissors crunching through the final lock.

It was done.  I am having an adrenaline rush beyond any I’ve ever had before.  I take a deep steadying breath and let it out slowly.

As Jessica rubber-bands up my last long lock, I run my fingers up into my short hair.  It’s amazing, they just go right through my hair and don’t tangle or snag.  It doesn’t look like much yet, but I feel so much freer.

“How do you feel?”  Steve asks tensely.

“Great.” I smile at him and he visibly relaxes.  Though not completely, I think he’s still worried I’ll regret this tomorrow.

I’m not totally sure I won’t be regretting this tomorrow when the adrenaline wears off.  I haven’t seen what the final result will look like yet either.  So, I understand why he’s still a bit tense.  I’m still pretty tense myself.

“Come back to the sink.”  Jessica guides me there.

I sit back and the warm water runs over my head.  I relax letting go of much of the tension as the familiar feel of lather engulf my scalp.  For a few moments the fear is forgotten.

After the conditioner, and another rinse I feel the towel wrapping around my head and we head back to the main chair.  In the chair facing the mirror, Jessica unwraps the towel and my wet hair hangs messily around my head.  Jessica starts combing out the hair.  It’s still long enough to have some tangles, though not like it was before.

Then she has the scissors poised and ready.  I’m nervous again.  My hair is already, so short, and it’s about to be a lot shorter.  She combs up a long section at the top of my head and holds it between her fingers.  She points the scissors downward into the hair above her fingers, and starts cutting.

She is cutting at an angle, taking multiple snips to get all the hair between her fingers cut.  Hair starts falling down onto my shoulder.  The locks sitting on my shoulder were surprisingly long, considering what had already been cut off.

She combed up another section and started cutting again.  This time, it falls in my lap with a wet plop.  I look down at it.

I push myself to try to stop focusing on the hair that I’ve lost, and to try to think about how much I want to be in control of my own life, and how this is me doing what I want instead of going along with what everyone else wanted.

I look up at the mirror; I barely recognize myself and wonder if this really is what I wanted.  I close my eyes.

I simply listen to the cutting for a while.  The scissors make a rhythmic crunching and slicing sounds as Jessica works them rapidly through my hair.  I feel the cut locks falling down on my shoulders, back, and lap.  The comb runs across my scalp swiftly, lifting up the hair for her.

I open my eyes again, as she combs the front of my hair down onto my forehead.  She cuts up into it creating short jagged bangs.  Hair falls down into my face tickling my nose.

As she moves onto to working on the back, I reach my hand up from under the cape, knocking the pile of hair from my lap onto the floor.  I reach up to the bangs.

Jessica pauses and smiles at me.  “Fun, aren’t they.”  She says.  “When you want to look edgier, pull them down to emphasize the jaggedness, when you want a softer cute look, brush them to the side.”

I try out what she suggested and it works.  I smile and pull my hand back under the cape.

She goes back to cutting the back.  I feel the points of the scissors nibbling away at my hairline.   My neck is getting sore.

Finally she puts down the scissors, and starts drying my hair.  I think it’s almost done, but when my hair is dry, she doesn’t release me, she comes back again with the scissors and comb.  She is just taking a few little snips here and there.  The hair that falls is different now. The short dry hairs fall loosely like flurries.

Then she switches to a different pair of scissors.  When she opens them up, they look like they are a cross between scissors and a comb.  I am a bit confused by them.

She then combs up a large section of hair from my crown.  She closes the comb scissors around the section, deep into it, but nothing seems to happen.  She closes them again closer to the ends, and then one last time very near the ends.  She then runs the comb through the section of hair.  I am shocked to see huge amounts of hair come out stuck in the comb.  I realize, the scissors aren’t combined with a comb, they have teeth.

She is combing up another section of hair.  The toothed scissors once again are closed around my hair showing no effect till Jessica runs the comb through.  It is a very weird feeling, to see all that hair just coming out with the comb.

Soon enough she has gone all over my head with them.

I look in the mirror, and my hair is so so short.  I really don’t recognize myself.  Abstractly, it looks good; I’m just having trouble with the idea that it’s me I’m looking at.

“One last thing.”  Jessica says and picks up the small clippers.  She runs them along my neck in a curve, first on one side, then on the other.  “All done.”

She takes the cape off me, knocking hair to the floor, then holds up a small mirror for me to look at the back.

I raise my hand up into the hair as I look at it in the mirror.  It feels incredible.  My hand just goes right through it so easily.  It’s that whole no tangles thing I experienced earlier, but even more so.  The short ends brushing against the backs of my fingers is incredible.

Nothing is in my face, or on my neck.  It’s so refreshing.

“So what do you think?”  I ask as I get up looking at Steve.

“When you decide to let go of the past, you really let go.”  And he smiles.  “Do you feel more like the real you?”

Yes, yes I did.  I maybe having trouble recognizing myself in the mirror, but I feel more like myself anyway.  I’ve had so many conflicting emotions it’s hard to sort them all out, but I know I feel more like I can be me.

Whether or not I was going to achieve the most improved bowling average next season, I had already achieved most improved at being in control of my own life.

Back in the car, I smile at him.   “Thanks for letting me tag along.”  I say and kiss him



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