I managed to take a short break from the sales floor and was out back by the dumpsters and truck loading area taking out a cigarette from the still nearly full pack. There was a small crowd of us smokers. Jane from the same store I worked in; a couple of girls from the salon two stores down from us; a guy from the shoe store; a few others I didn’t recognize from other shops around the mall. It was cold and windy, and we were huddled into the corner where there was at least some protection from the weather as none of us had time to get coats before our breaks.
I put the cigarette in my mouth and took out my lighter. My first attempt to light it failed. The flame wouldn’t even get vaguely started. Jane cupped her hands around it for me as I tried again. I managed to get it lit, but it was flickering like mad. I bent over it to light my cigarette, instead of bringing the lighter up to the cigarette as I normally would.
As I bent down a lock of hair fell forward and hit the flame. Weak as the flame was, it was enough to cause the hair to burn. I heard a hiss and smelled burnt hair. Most of the long gold and brown lock fell to the ground.
I raised my head, and there was the chunk of hair I’d just burnt hanging in front of my eyes. The singed ends didn’t quite reach the tip of my nose.
“Holy shit Cheryl” Jane said as she looked at me.
I took a long drag from the cigarette and let the smoke out slowly. I fingered the end of the short lock, it felt like there were little tiny balls at the ends of the hairs.
“What the hell am I going to do now?”
One of the ladies from the salon spoke up. “Don’t worry, it’s fixable.” She took a drag from her own cigarette, then continued. “I can just give you some bangs, and add some layers around your face.”
“I’m closing tonight. It’ll be after midnight before I get out.”
“I’m booked pretty solid anyway. Stop by the reception desk during your dinner break and make an appointment. You can ask for ‘Pat.'” Pat took another drag and let it out.
I didn’t really like the idea of cutting my hair, but bangs and a few layers didn’t sound that bad. I hadn’t really had my hair cut since I was a kid and my mom had decided my bright hair attracted too much attention.
I contemplated how badly I needed to quit smoking again. I started smoking at 16 when I left home and started going through withdrawal from the second hand smoke that had surrounded me since I was a baby. It didn’t matter how long it had been since I had quit, I still needed one every time the stress got to a certain point. This time, I had managed to go 3 years, before I had bought a pack a few days ago. Between the extended holiday hours, breaking in a new manager, and agreeing to go to my crazy family this year I had reached my breaking point.
“I have a headband up in my locker you can hide it with for tonight.” Jane offered, as she finished her cigarette and dropped the butt next to the hair on the ground.
On my dinner break, I stopped off at the salon on my way to the food court. It was very busy, just like everywhere else in the mall. Between my racking up overtime at the store, and Pat being serious about being pretty solidly booked, January 2nd was the next available appointment. I was just going to have to spend the next two weeks hiding the damage with accessories.
It was well after 1 am by the time I got home, the buses ran on a normal schedule even though the mall stayed open late so it had been a long wait. I figured I could get a shower while Dave was sleeping so he wouldn’t notice I smelled of smoke, but he was sitting on the couch watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” as I walked in. I hung up my coat and said a quick “hi” hoping I could get to the shower before he noticed the smell or Jane’s headband.
“Come sit with me, I’ve hardly seen you all week.” Dave smiled.
“I really want to go take a hot shower.” I said.
“Just 5 minutes.”
“As soon as I get out.”
“Whatever.” Dave said not smiling anymore, and I went off to the bathroom.
As I lathered up my hair, I realized Dave was going to notice the burnt lock hanging in the middle of my forehead. This was going to be a long 2 weeks trying to hide it. I stepped out of the shower and had a hard time wrapping the towel around my head tight enough to keep the lock from falling out.
I went out to the living room in my robe and towel and snuggled up to Dave. He kissed me, but had a rather unhappy look on his face as he pulled away.
“You’ve been smoking.”
“I’ve been hanging out with Jane.” Dave had complained about my smelling of smoke many times after I’d rode in Jane’s car to go out for drinks. It was only sort of a lie, since I had been with Jane. I thought I could get away with it.
He looked suspicious but didn’t press it further. He started gently fondling me. I was starting to relax when he tried to take the bulky towel off my head.
“No!” I knew the moment it escaped my lips that the over reaction was way more suspicious than the short lock was. Besides, it was too late as the towel was already falling off.
“Are you trying to hide something?” Dave asked just before his fingers found the short lock.
He looked at the singed ends for a minute then got up and walked over to my coat. He reached into the pocket and pulled out the pack of cigarettes.
“I suppose you want me to believe these are Jane’s.” He held them up for me to see.
“I’ll quit after the holidays.”
“The sooner you stop the easier it will be.” He balled up the pack in his hand and went to the kitchen garbage to throw it away, then stomped off to the bedroom.
I tried not to smoke the next day but bought a new pack during my dinner break. All day I had to keep fixing the scarf I was using to hide the damage to my hair. Then when the 5 o’clock after work crowd started getting pushy and I realized the new manager had over scheduled the day shift and under scheduled the closing shift, I needed a smoke.
I left the pack in my locker at work. Dave was asleep by the time I got home.
Christmas day came, and I had my first day off in 17 days. We went to my mom’s house where I swiped a couple of cigarettes from her pack, and snuck off to smoke them away from Dave.
The 26th was crazy again with returns and people eager to use their gift cards. Finally, the 29th wasn’t too bad. It was hard, but I managed the day with only two cigarettes. The 30th was even quieter and I didn’t have any that day, just a million Altoid mints as a substitute.
The big rush was over, and my hours were back to normal. Which meant I was getting to see more of Dave again. I noticed though, that Dave was not acting his normal self. He didn’t want to nibble my ears. He didn’t rest his chin on the top of my head. He wouldn’t go near my neck.
Finally on New Year’s day, I was fed up with it.
“What’s wrong, why are you acting so distant? You haven’t gone near my neck in days.”
“It’s just your hair smells like smoke and I don’t want to have my face in it.”
“It’s been days and I’ve washed it. It’s your imagination.” I had a very short temper at this point. “If it bugs you so much I could just cut it off.”
“You ask me a question, you don’t like the answer, so you make idle threats.” He did not sound happy. “I’m sure the smell will be fine in a week or two.”
“What makes you think it’s an idle threat.” There are few things that can turn an idle threat into a real one faster than calling the threat idle. I wanted a cigarette and it was making me cranky.
“I know you well enough to know how much you care about your hair.” Dave said with a guffaw. “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Dave had obviously forgotten just how spiteful I could get when I was going through nicotine withdrawal.
The 2nd finally came the next morning. It was time to get my hair fixed so I wouldn’t have to spend the first 6 months of the new year wearing headbands, scarves, and what-have-you.
Dave had slept on the couch, and managed to step on his glasses that morning, so instead of taking the bus and letting Dave have the car to get to his job, I would drive us both to the mall where my appointment was and Dave could get his glasses fixed.
I’d let go of the previous night’s fight and was just planning to get bangs and layers to blend in with the lock of hair I had burnt off. Dave was being careful not to say the wrong thing, probably remembering now what it had been like last time I’d quit smoking. He was doing pretty good at the not pissing me off thing, up until we parked.
“You’re not going to do anything stupid that you’ll regret, later?” He asked in a worried tone.
I know he was just genuinely concerned, but it was the wrong thing to say, and I had no patience for it. I got out of the car, slammed the door hard and gave him the finger as I stomped off across the parking lot. I then wondered if he could actually see that I’d given him the finger without his glasses.
I got to the salon just a bit early, so I sat down in the waiting area, with a coffee and started looking through the style magazines. I flipped through the pages impatiently till I came to a really short pixie. I sat there contemplating it till Pat came over. I put on my happy facade, and smiled.
“Hi, hun’. Haven’t seen you by the loading platform in several days.”
“I quit smoking, again.”
“Good for you. I must have quit a million times, longest I’ve ever made it was 4 months, how ’bout you.”
“I’d made it 3 years before I started up again in December.”
“This was just a blip then, you’ll do fine.” She smiled and shifted gears. “So, come on back and let’s get started on fixing the damage.”
“I, uh, was kind of thinking of maybe instead of just fixing the damage doing something totally new.” As the words came out, my anger started getting replaced by nervousness as I realized what I was about to do.
Pat sat down next to me and peered down at the magazine page I was looking at. “That’s a very big change.”
“New year, new me” I said trying to sound confident. “I need to change things up right now.”
“Alright then, a fresh start it is.”
I had started this out of spite and anger, but something about a fresh start sounded really good. I felt much lighter as we walked back to the sinks. I relaxed down into the chair as Pat wrapped a towel around me holding it in place with a hairclip.
Pat handed me the large rhinestone encrusted barrette I had been using to hold back and hide the burnt lock. I had a ton of hair accessories I enjoyed wearing. I really wanted to be able to keep using them.
I breathed deeply trying to relax as she shampooed my hair. The feel of the warm water was helping me relax and let go of some of the tension I had walked in with. I felt my long hair swirling around behind me in the basin. I started remembering how much I loved my long hair. I had been a true blonde as a child. Now I was more of a dirty blonde, as my hair had darkened with age. It was still nice though.
By the time my head was wrapped in a towel and Pat was leading me back to her styling chair, I had pretty much changed my mind. She sat me down and pulled out a slippery black cape. She draped it over the front of me, then pulled it up over my shoulders and fastened it behind my neck. When she took the towel off and my long hair spilled out over the cape for me to see in the mirror, I was completely sure I didn’t want to go through with it anymore. Bangs and layers would be fine, maybe trim an inch or two off the bottom.
As Pat started combing out my hair and I was about to speak up and tell her I had changed my mind, I heard Dave’s voice. He was explaining to the receptionist that he was with me, and she told him he could sit in the waiting area. I had a good view of the waiting area from Pat’s station, so I watched him sit down.
He looked down at the magazine, and lifted it up. With his eyebrows raised at me, he pointed at the picture in a silent question. Suddenly I didn’t want to change my mind anymore. I looked determinedly straight ahead at the mirror, my gaze fixed on my angry eyes instead of my hair now.
Pat was concentrating on the combing and I don’t think she noticed the exchange between Dave and me. She was just finishing up and had most of my hair twisted up on the top of my head held there with a couple of clips. Just a bit of it hung down in the back, combed smoothly down. Except for the short burnt lock hanging in my face that had started this whole thing.
Pat reached forward for her scissors that were sitting on the counter and I looked at Dave. He looked so anxious, his elbows on his knees resting his face in his hands. I could see he still had a glimmer of hope that she was going to just trim the bottom.
I watched Dave as I felt the scissors on my neck. I listened to the crunch as the scissors closed, then the swish as the hair slid down the cape. Dave closed his eyes, and took off his newly repaired glasses. He pinched the bridge of his nose then let out a sigh.
Pat wasn’t paying any attention to him, and just continued with her task. I felt the comb run through my hair again, before the crunch and slither repeated.
I looked at myself in the mirror but there wasn’t really anything to see, everything was happening behind my back. I could feel the scissors on my neck again, but I couldn’t see them, or the hair I could hear being cut. I supposed I should feel more emotional about the hair I was losing, but not being able to see it made it feel very abstract and distant. My anger at Dave felt a lot more real.
So, I turned my attention back to Dave. He had opened his eyes back up and put his glasses back on. He looked simply unhappy, not angry or hurt, just sad. Almost worried, and clearly uncomfortable.
I could feel Pat combing the hair at the back of my head up now, then her fingers against my scalp parallel to my spine. I could hear snipping and little plops as the shorter wet hair hit the cape.
Pat had worked her way across the back of my head methodically, and finally reached the side behind my earlobe. I could finally see something. I saw the short hair she combed up, then held between her fingers. She snipped off even more of it, which landed on my shoulder. At that moment the haircut went from simply an abstract concept to a reality, and my heart rate changed. She had cut off everything that was long enough for me to see behind my ear. My hair was now so short back there that my earlobe hid it.
She moved back to the center where I couldn’t see and started working across in the other direction. It felt a lot more real than it had before This time I knew that the snips and plops I heard meant hair just like the short bits on my shoulder were coming off, and being made so short they could hide behind my ear. I breathed in and let out a shaky sigh.
I watched as she made it ’round to my other ear and again short chunks of hair fell to my shoulder.
She undid a clip from the top of my head, and started combing down more hair. Once she had what she wanted down combed out, she refastened the rest back up. She went back to the middle to cut again.
This time I could see a bit more. Even though it was happening at the back of my head, it was high enough up I could see hair hanging from her hand before it started falling. It was so long, pretty much the entire length of my hair.
Watching as my long hair fell away from my head, I started to really think about what I had done. I hadn’t even thought about if the style I picked would look good on me, I had just picked the shortest one I could find in the magazine. I felt really stupid right now.
She had arrived at the back of my ear again. I listened to the scissors slice through the wet hair. The long lock fell over my shoulder and slithered down the front of the cape into my lap. I looked down at it and thought about how much I was going to miss waking up and seeing my long blonde and light brown hair laying next to me spread out on my pillow with the sun hitting it in the morning.
Wet as it was, it didn’t look blonde at all, and I realized that I was going to be losing all the sun bleached ends.
“Pat, it’s going to look darker short, isn’t it?”
“We can put in some highlights to brighten it back up, or maybe even go a bit lighter.” Pat said. “How light was it when you were a kid?”
“Very, not quite platinum, but darn close.” I remember it. “It started darkening gradually after puberty.”
“Do you want to go back to it?” Pat asked smiling.
“I’m not sure if I’m up for the maintenance.” I looked over at Dave, I was too emotional right now to really think clearly about it. “Let me live with the darker color for a few days, then I’ll decide.”
“This cut is gonna take a bit of maintenance anyway.” She warned me, now that it was too late to take into consideration. “Just let me know what you decide about the color.”
As we’d talked she’d gone back to the middle and was again working her way around to the other side of my head. She was almost at my ear again. Another lock fell into my lap. I swallowed.
The final lock from behind the ear fell to the side, I could imagine how much hair must be on the floor. The two locks that had fallen in my lap were an impressive enough pile, and many times that had gone to the floor. It was a sobering thought.
Pat was combing down more hair now. This time, It hung over my ears. She once again started shearing away the long locks, in back first. The sound of snipping followed by the slither of hair sliding down the cape had become routine. This time, a lot more of it made it to my lap as she worked forward.
She had made it all the way to the front. This was the first time I got a really good view of what was going on, not obscured by my ears. She combed the lock outward perpendicular to my head. She then trapped the hair between her fingers, just barely away from my scalp. She snipped at it with the tips of her scissors and pretty much the full length of my long hair fell away. The width of her fingers seemed to account for as much, if not more, of the length left on my head as the very slight space left between her fingers and my scalp.
I felt the points of the scissors nibble away at the hairs all around my ears. My ear was totally exposed. No way to hide the extra piercings my parents hated so much. I reminded myself that I was an adult and didn’t need to hide shit from my parents.
When she finished in front of my ear and returned to working on the back, I could see what the side looked like even better. It was so short it lay smoothly against my head, just covering my scalp. The wispy hairs in front of my ears were gone. I contemplated my young face. It occurred to me, that without make up and something that showed off my cleavage, I might end up looking like a teenage boy. This was going to be high maintenance on all kinds of levels. I started thinking about what growing it out would be like, and it occurred to me that since she hadn’t even finished cutting it, it was way too early to think about that. Supposedly I wanted this.
Pat let down the top. It had been kinda hard to tell what length the top was in the magazine, because the model had it slicked back. Pat didn’t seem to be thinking about the magazine though, since she had the short lock I had burnt off to match anyway. So instead of starting from the back this time, she combed up the short lock of my forehead along with some of the long hair next to it and cut all of it together. For the short burnt bit, she was just neatening it up a bit leaving the length, but the long hair was another story. The long hair that drifted down past my eyes took my breath away.
Pat kept matching the length of the burnt lock as she cut away at the top. Though she wasn’t cutting it as short as the sides had been, this was much more dramatic in that I could see everything now. The long locks falling past my eyes, to land in my lap and on my shoulders. The pile of wet hair in my lap was almost heavy. My heart was racing now and I felt a bit breathless.
Soon she had the whole top reduced to one length and started combing it this way and that. My long hair was gone. It surrounded me mostly on the floor, some on my lap. There was so much of it.
She started snipping away at the edges of the slightly longer top, lifting it here and there. Taking it just a bit shorter towards the crown.
She was taking her time and making a myriad of little adjustments. Though the changes in the mirror seemed subtle as she snipped away, the short hairs that fell seemed like a lot. My hair was getting kind of dry at this point, and was fluffier as it fell than it had been when she started.
She finally put down the scissors and started drying me off with the blowdryer. When it was dry, she made some more adjustments. The completely dry hair fluttered down all around me.
After a bit, she put down the scissors. She picked up a small cordless clipper. “Don’t let this scare you.” She said as she flicked them on. There are few things scarier than being told not to be scared.
It felt good though as she ran them up my neck and flicked them away from my head. The buzzing vibration was soothing.
I looked at myself in the mirror as she cleaned up my neck. The color was a bit blah, but the style was fun. When she turned off the clippers, I slid my hand out from under the cape and flopped the top back and forth a little bit.
“How about I show you a few different ways you can style it?” Pat offered as she finished up.
“I don’t think I would remember much right now. I need to get used to it.” I said. “How about you show me next week when I’ve decided about the color. I know I want to either go for the highlights or lighten it overall, I just need a few days to decide which. Oh, or maybe a darker richer color would look good?”
“Ok, I’ll come up with you to the desk, and we can make an appointment for next week.” Pat smiled. “You definitely sound like you need to think more about the color. How about for right now I’ll pop that barrette of yours back in.”
When she’d styled it and put the barrette back in, I was really happy to see that not all of my hair accessories would be completely useless. The barrette looked really sweet there, even if it no longer served a practical purpose and was now just purely decorative.
As I went up to the desk with Pat, I kept up my happy facade. If anyone is good at retail, one skill they have is that no matter how they really feel, they can maintain a happy friendly facade. After everything was settled I hugged Pat and thanked her.
Dave then came over with my coat. “Oh, I see you’ve gotten your glasses fixed.” I pretended I hadn’t known he was there for ages, and been paying attention to him. I don’t think Dave bought the act, but it wasn’t really meant to be for him, so he just pecked me on the cheek not saying anything, then put his arm around my shoulder as we walked out.
Out in the mall I quickened my pace to the parking lot and pulled away from Dave. Out in the parking lot, my neck, my ears, and the back of my head were freezing. I tried pulling up my scarf, but it was little help.
When we got to the car, I just got into the passenger seat without discussing it, I didn’t feel like driving. Dave climbed in next to me and started the car.
As he pulled out of the parking lot, he asked without looking at me. “How did you explain wanting that instead of just fixing the front to the hairstylist, Cheryl?”
I didn’t feel like answering right away.
“I’m guessing you didn’t go with ‘I want to ruin my life.'” His voice had an edge to it. “I can’t believe you would do this to yourself, I know you loved your hair.”
“I told her I wanted a ‘new me for the new year’ she called it ‘a fresh start.’ I didn’t embarrass you by telling her you complained my hair smelled like smoke.”
“Don’t you dare blame this on me.” He pulled the car over to the shoulder and turned towards me. “I never would have brought it up if you hadn’t asked me directly, and I never suggested you go and cut off your hair. That was your idea. And frankly it scares me that you’d do something so drastic.”
“I know you’re angry that my hair is short.”
“I’m not angry that you cut off your hair!” He shouted. “I’m frustrated that you seem to be hellbent on some kind of self destructive path and I don’t know where it will end.”
“Stop being so melodramatic. It’s just hair, it will grow back.” I was looking out the window, so he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes. I wished it really was just hair to me, but it wasn’t. It was security and comfort. It was a veil I could hide behind when I needed it, like right now it would so much easier to hide my tears if I had long hair hanging around my face.
I had meant to hurt Dave, but I had just hurt myself instead. I guess that really was pretty self destructive.
“I don’t care about the hair, I’m worried about the smoking, and the lengths you seem to be willing to go to in order to hide it.” He just sounded drained. “I mean really, you cut your hair off just so it would be harder for me to tell when you smoke.”
“You really think that?” I asked turning towards him. He nodded. “I just cut it because I was angry at you and thought you’d hate it short.” I turned back to the window, letting out an ironic laugh.
“I don’t hate it. It looks good.” He reached over and ran his hand through it. “I just don’t want you to kill yourself slowly. I love you and want you to grow old with me.”
He said it so tenderly, I spent a few minutes just looking down while he stroked my hair and neck.
“You were that angry at me?” He asked. “I’m sorry. To be honest, it wasn’t even that the smell bothered me so much, I was just worried it would get stronger and I’d know you were smoking again. I guess it is sort of my fault that I wasn’t more direct with you.”
“Oh god.” My anger had drained out of me and all that was left was reality. “I just cut off all my hair for no reason.”
Dave gave me a quirked up smile. “It’s not as bad as all that. Let’s just pretend you did it for the reason you told the stylist about wanting a fresh start for the new year.” He lifted my chin so my teary eyes were pointed at his. “A fresh start sounds like a good thing. It’s very bold. How about we go home and I show you just how sexy I think you look right now.”
I nodded and raised a hand to my shorn head. I remembered that the part about getting a fresh start had appealed to me earlier. The short hair felt nice at least. There probably was something to be said for not hiding behind a curtain of hair too. It did make me feel like a fresh new person.
Dave kissed me firmly on the lips, with just a bit of tongue, before starting the car back up.