Henry was such a beautiful boy. I admit, as his mother I’m probably not objective, but still. Big, soulful hazel eyes, a fine nose, exquisitely-shaped chin, sensuous lips, well-proportioned limbs that weren’t too lanky, and shoulder-length strawberry blond hair made him a true Apollo. He would have been beautiful as a girl, too, but I could see that when he was older he would be a truly good-looking man. He had won the genetic lottery, getting the best of his father’s and my features.
His sensitive nature made the rough and tumble of an ordinary junior high school likely to be misery, so we had taken the decision to homeschool him. Now, at fourteen, he was bright but calm and mature. Keeping him away from other boys his age had kept him from developing that crassness so common among teenage boys.
When I heard of the new squirrel safari cum replica 1983 sleazy shopping center mashup park that had opened on the other side of town, I thought Henry might enjoy that. The so-called squirrel safari was just a large, woody park, and the “shopping center” was a purposely run-down four-story building with a variety of bars and karaoke pubs in it. There were still many such buildings across Asia, where I grew up, but of course they weren’t as common in the West. This was Henry’s chance to see the kind of sleaziness I was trying to prevent him from embracing. If he could see how grimy and distasteful it was, he wouldn’t want to participate in such vulgarity.
As we were walking through the park there were indeed plenty of squirrels around. These were big, fluffy Western squirrels, not the chipmunks common in Asia. I always thought chipmunks looked a bit more intelligent, but I have no idea really, having never talked to a squirrel.
We rounded a corner in a secluded part of the park and there was suddenly an open-air hairdressing station. The proprietor looked bored as he watched the squirrels having a conference in a circle behind him. Who knew what the squirrels were discussing. Maybe they were voting to chew electrical wires.
“Ah, madam. Good day.” The proprietor looked very distinguished and addressed me politely. I respect an honest tradesman who takes pride in his profession.
“Hello. Henry, say hello.” Henry is so painfully shy.
“Henri, is it? You know, you don’t look very 1983. Your mother can certainly pass for a lady of that period. A young teenager like you in 1983 would have a feathered bob. Madam, may I?”
This was unexpected. On the other hand, why not. I loved Henry’s long hair, but I also liked the feathered look. A bob would still be long for a boy. It would probably work nicely with his thick, mostly-straight hair that had plenty of body. It was glorious hair that I wish I had. Every year I seem to have less and less hair; no bald spots, mind you, but just an overall thinning. Ah, the joys of middle age!
Henry tentatively took a seat on the folding stool in front of the hairdresser, who lost no time in caping him and spraying his hair with water. He sectioned the hair and began cutting the length at the back to the base of Henry’s neck. This haircut would clear his collar in the back.
“What beautiful hair you have. A lovely color.” The hairdresser worked quickly to cut the overall shape first before switching to thinning shears for the feathering. “You know, a pixie-shag would look just as good.”
Before I could say anything, he began to layer the back at the crown. I saw, to my relief, that he was leaving the sides long enough to cover Henry’s ears. This cut could probably be styled a number of ways, such as with the sides slicked back to look more like early-1990s teen heartthrob hair. This would be better than the emo look.
It happened when the hairdresser was almost finished. He said, “Such a pretty young lady, you look just like your mother.”
“I’m not a lady.” Henry whispered. He was so shy that he hadn’t said a word up until now.
“Oh, come now, with that demeanor, you’re definitely more lady than hussy. No need to be so modest about a good upbringing.”
“No, I mean that I’m a boy.”
Both the hairdresser and I frowned at the same time, but for different reasons. I had been enjoying the what-if aspect of the hairdresser’s mistaken assumption that my boy was a girl. The hairdresser was probably mortified at his mistake.
“Oh, well, in that case, this won’t do at all.”
Was Henry smiling? Was it possible that he was enjoying this? “My mother loves my hair long, but I’ve been dying to cut it short. Please.”
“I thought Henri was short for Henrietta. I’m sorry. You’re a lad, not a lass, so I agree that it should be short. Sometimes mothers have a hard time letting go of their sweet little baby as he grows into a man. Of course she loves you to pieces and means well, mind.”
I must have been frowning, because I saw a mischievous grin overtake Henry’s face. He had never been devious in public before. I had no idea he had been longing to cut his hair. This was not forbidden by any means, but I suppose he felt that it was transgressive somehow, even though short hair on boys is the norm.
The hairdresser had inserted the comb at Henry’s nape and was now working his way up the back of his head, taking what would have been short as a woman’s haircut but long as a man’s and cropping it properly short, like his father’s. Now there was less than half an inch of hair covering the back of Henry’s head.
“Obviously the ears are coming out.” The hairdresser inserted the comb above Henry’s ears and sliced off the chin-length hair there. No more bob, feathered or otherwise. Henry giggled as the hairdresser pulled his ears down and out to snip around them. The cut was now unmistakably masculine, even though the top was still fluffy and relatively long.
The hairdresser decided to keep Henry’s side-parting, but mercilessly chopped down the top hair to about an inch and a half, blending the transition to the back and sides. This meant the floppy fringe in the front would no longer be long enough to flop about at all. Henry might want to make it stand up, but even if he left it down, it would still not even reach midway down his forehead.
When the hairdresser finished, he handed Henry a mirror and held a second mirror behind him. I could see from Henry’s expression that he was delighted with the result. He looked less like a beautiful child who could be either a boy or a girl and more like a handsome young man. Henry was taking another step away from his past identity as my baby and another step toward becoming a man.
I could feel myself tearing up. My baby was growing up, which was a good thing, but it meant I didn’t have much time left to be the primary woman in his life, to protect him from that mad, bad world out there. I had no idea he felt he couldn’t ask me if he could cut his hair. It was an eye-opener to realize just how controlling and overbearing I must look to outsiders like the hairdresser in this park. On the other hand, I was proud of Henry for finally having the courage to speak up and get what he wanted.
“All done. A handsome lad you are, too. I bet you look just like your dad.”
In fact, he did. That night when my husband came home from work and saw Henry with his new haircut, he was very pleased with the resemblance. Chip off the old block, and all that.
After that Henry found himself a part-time job and began visiting the barber whenever he wanted to, using his own earnings. I said nothing as his hair got progressively shorter, until he settled on the super-short crewcut that he has to this day. He seemed to get more confident and outgoing as he found ways to connect to the outside world. Henry didn’t need his mother to protect him anymore. No one ever mistook him for a girl ever again, either.