The Assignment

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I sit facing the mirror, as I feel the cape on my lap being pulled up over my shoulders and fastened around my neck.  My mouth is dry, my heart is pounding and I’m in a bit of a cold sweat.

The stylist bends forward and asks me, “Are you sure about this?”  He looks up as he waits for my answer.   My friend, roommate, and occasional coworker, Sue, has her mouth open to answer for me.  He looks her straight in the eye and adds,  “I’m not asking you.”

Just an hour or so ago, Sue had been sitting where I am now, getting her own long hair cut off.

 

This whole thing was Sue’s idea.  If she hadn’t dragged me into it, I wouldn’t be doing any of this.  I said no when she first asked me.  Repeatedly.  But she’d needled away at me, going on and on about all the aspects of it that would make up for the one bad part; we would have to cut our hair short.  She called it a minor downside, to me it was a great big huge obstacle to the whole plan.

Otherwise it was a great idea.  We would be going on a nice long trip, paid for by her magazine, her editor had approved a huge travel budget.  We would visit a bunch of cities I could normally only dream of seeing on the sporadic income of a freelance photographer and the high cost of living in NYC.  We even only had to report about fun tourist stuff in each city, not my usual assignments like a boring politician speaking or what have you.

Of course this wasn’t just any travel article though.  The angle was simple but clever.  We would spend half our time in each city as girls and the other half as boys.  Everything about our assumed identities would be the same, college students on break, except for our gender.

We felt we looked young enough to get away with 19.  It would be the perfect age, especially while we’re boys; old enough to be traveling without adults, yet young enough to explain why we would never have stubble on our faces.  The article would compare how we might be treated differently depending on our perceived gender.

Most of the things that would make us read as one gender versus the other were going to be things we could change back and forth as we traveled.  Makeup when we are girls, binders  around our chests when we’re boys, etc.  Obviously, we would have two different wardrobes.

The sticking point was our hair.  Sure, some men have long hair, but the standard is that men have short hair.  Since appearing to be boys was going to be the harder role for us, following the male norm of short hair was the obvious way to go.

It’s why I said no, when Sue asked me to take the assignment with her.

 

“Oh come on, it will be fun.”

“No Sue.”

“It’s a great opportunity.”

“No Sue.”

“I know you’ve always wanted to be able to travel to most of these places, and it would take you years to save up to see just one of them.”

“No Sue!”

“I don’t want to have to share a room with another photographer.”

“NO SUE!”

“We might make the cover.”

“Really?”

Then she knew she was beginning to break my resolve.  I would find brochures about the cities on the itinerary strewn all over the apartment over the next couple of days.  She kept it up till I finally caved and said “yes” this morning.  She called her salon right away and had us in this afternoon, since it is the middle of the week.

She was right to rush before I could change my mind.  I changed it in the taxi on the way to the salon.

“Sue, I can’t do this.”  I tap on the glass divider.  “Excuse me driver, can you just let me off at the next subway station?”

Sue leans forward.  “Ignore her, she’s just got cold feet.”

Sue pulls me back against the seat.  “Relax.  It’s just hair, it’ll grow back.”  The exasperation evident in her voice.  “We can discuss it more when we get there.  I’ll go first, you’ll see it’s no big deal.  Besides, you should meet Dave anyway.  You’ll like him.  You need a real stylist anyway.”

“I don’t need a stylist”  I look out the window.

“Here’s a deal, I’ll pay for extensions for you when we get back.”  Sue offers.  “It’ll be almost like you never got it cut.”

“I don’t want things glued in my hair.”  I sigh as I watch the busy midtown streets we pass on our way to the upper east side.

 

Sue’d been trying to get me to go to Dave for a while.  A few months ago, Sue discovered I trimmed my own hair.

Since I work odd hours, I’m home often enough during the day, and have our apartment to myself, when Sue and our other roommates are all at work.  That day, I was using the quiet time to trim just a tiny bit off the bottom since I was getting split ends.

Sue came home halfway through, because she forgot her phone.

Sue was surprised, but then said that explained why I never did anything with my hair.  She offered to treat me to a trip to her salon, believing I was being frugal.  It took forever to get her to understand it was a trust issue.  Then she just tried to convince me I was being silly about the trust thing.

 

The cab drops us off at the corner near Sue’s salon.  Sue takes my hand and starts leading me inside.

“Sue, I really don’t think I can do this.  I’m about to hyperventilate.”

“Seriously Becca.”  Sue says, rolling her eyes.  “I’ve seen you risk your life to get a better angle for a photo, and you’re making this kind of fuss over a haircut.”

I really can’t think of an argument for why I am more relaxed about risking my life than getting a haircut for my photography.  This really doesn’t have anything to do with common sense or logic.

Sue drags me inside.  She sits me down in the waiting area telling me to calm myself before she heads off to the back to get shampooed with a girl named Amy.  I’m managing to keep myself vaguely calm.  The decor is helping.  It doesn’t look like a typical salon.  The furniture is eclectic antiques.  Instead of counters, the stylists have a variety of console tables, dressers and desks at their stations.  Some have marble tops, the ones with wood tops have glass on top to protect the surface.  Above each is a framed mirror.  The floors are highly polished hardwood.  The walls are covered in vintage wall paper.  Here in the waiting area is a small oriental rug under the colonial revival coffee table.  The only exception are the stylist chairs, they don’t clash with the antiques, but seem new and functional.

Next thing I know, Sue is sitting in the chair with her perfect hair wrapped in a towel.  Dave’s station is the one closest to the front, so she is just a few feet from me.

I know it was just a bit over a week ago that she got her hair done last.  She’d had her perfectly placed layers trimmed, and gotten a blonde ombre.   She had loved it, and begged me to take a new picture for her facebook profile.  Her hair isn’t as long as mine, but still it is well below her shoulders and she spends a fortune on it.  Now she is just going to cut it all off.

Dave is fastening the cape around her as they talk, then he takes off the towel.  Her long wet hair dangles down over the back of the chair.  The wetness somewhat obscures the ombre effect, but not completely.  Sue’s explaining about the article and how we will need to be able to pass as both male and female students.  Dave nods as he untangles her wet hair.

He starts twisting up her hair into sections and putting clips in to hold the sections against her head.  He’s left one section hanging down in the back just above her neck.

He combs down  through that one loose section, and tilts her head down with his hands.  He combs a lock from it straight out and traps it between his fingers very close to her head.  Next thing I know he was slicing it off with scissors I hadn’t even realized he’d been holding.  I watch as Sue’s long lock of hair slithers down the cape to the floor.

I just stare unable to look away, knowing I am going to be next, as another lock joins the first one on the floor.  The hair on the floor is so much longer than what is left on her head.

“So, Sue tells me you’re a photographer?”  Dave smiles at me, for just a second then looks back down at Sue’s hair.  “Do you just do journalism, or do you do other types of photography too?”

I wonder if Dave can sense that I’m on the verge of panic and is trying to take my mind off things.  Or maybe Sue said something about me.  I’m not sure why he’s talking to me instead of Sue.  I try to keep up my end of the conversation, talking about having done weddings till I was getting enough journalism work to keep me from starving and pay my share of our rent.

Really though, I can barely think of anything, but watching lock after lock of Sue’s hair sliding down onto the floor, where they coil as they land.

Sue was right that I would like Dave, he’s being friendly and funny.  Also, he’s pretty easy on the eyes.  None of that is making me feel more at ease though.  It’s just confusing things, making me feel more nervous.  On top of all the fear and dread I have of cutting off my hair, I also feel embarrassed that it would happen in front of this guy I’m liking.  Liking Dave isn’t making it easier, it’s making it worse.

Dave is combing through the suddenly short hair on the back of Sue’s head. It hardly needs combing, it’s so short now.  None of it reaches anywhere near the collar of the cape wrapped about her neck.  As he combs, he holds the hair against her head at the bottom and takes little snips at it.  He’s even got the scissors flat against her neck at the very bottom, cutting some of the hairs completely off.

Then Dave’s releasing the clip to let some of her long hair fall down about her shoulders again.  He combs it out as he tells me another funny wedding story.  He’s got as many as I do, though I’m doing badly at keeping up with the telling since I am so nervous.

Dave’s smoothed out Sue’s hair and is cutting again.  This time the hair just drops straight to the floor with a slight plop. There is already quite a lot of hair scattered around the chair.  I can’t help but imagine how much more there will be when I get mine cut.  My fairly straight dark brown hair reaches to my butt, where it curls under ever so slightly at the healthy ends I trim myself.

Sue and Dave are just smiling and chatting like nothing big is going on, and my heart is pounding as I watch Sue’s lovely hair falling to the floor.  Dave’s working on the hair above Sue’s ear now.  He’s making it just as short as it is in the back.

How can this be no big deal to either of them.  It’s so much hair.  And they know I’m going to be next, with my even longer hair.

Sue’s hair is becoming so short, just like a guy’s haircut.  Well, I suppose that’s the point, just like a guy’s.  The hair all around of her head lays flat against her skull, everything, but the top hair still in it’s clip.  None of it touches her ears.   Fascination and repulsion war inside me.  The whole thing is completely overwhelming.

Dave’s letting down the hair from the top now.  He isn’t making the top as short, which I’m finding a bit of a relief.   I know it’s Sue’s hair not mine, but I don’t think I could have handled it if it was just as short on top as it was in the back.  He tightly twists the locks upward and then snips at them with the point of his scissor at an angle.  The twisting looks like it should be painful, but Sue’s not complaining, so either it isn’t or she is so used to the discomfort it no longer bothers her.

It’s still a lot of hair falling to the floor though.  When each twisted lock is free from her head, Dave  just drops it next to the chair, forgotten and unwanted.  Watching him walking carefully to not slip on all the hair, I wonder if that becomes second nature to stylists.

Dave’s finished the top.  That’s it, all Sue’s hair is cut off.  Her expensive blonde ombre is now nothing but scattered discard on the floor.  He’s not totally done. he’s still doing the twist and snip thing at the top a bit more, but now the hair he drops from his fingers is just short bits.

He is going around the edge of her hair now, shaping the edges.  Using the tips of his scissor at her neckline nibble it into shape.

Dave starts drying Sue’s hair.  I can’t handle it, I know it’s about to be my turn.

“Sue, I can’t.  I just can’t.”  I start walking towards the door.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Sue pull off the cape covering her as she says to Dave.  “Just give me a minute, I’ll be right back.”

–PART 2–

She catches up to me just outside the door.

“Becca, you’re being silly about this.” She starts, “plus you’re embarrassing me.  Dave must think I’m… I don’t know, but please stop acting like this.”

Dave is standing at the door by then.  “Sue, why don’t you let me have a chat with Rebecca.   Amy can finish drying you, and I’ll be back in a bit to finish up the cut and show you how to switch the styling for when you want it to look more feminine or masculine.”

Sue sighs and heads back inside.

“You’re going to make it shorter?”  I ask.  I find the idea that he hasn’t actually finished cutting Sue’s hair terrifying.

“Not really shorter, just add more texture and finishing touches.”  Dave says casually.  Then points to the next storefront over.   “How’bout we grab a couple’a bagels and coffee.  You’re the last person I have scheduled for today, so I have time.”

“So you can talk me into the haircut?”

“I have no interest in talking you into anything.”  He chuckles.  “Sue’s the one who cares whether or not you have short hair, I just want a bagel and you look like you could use to talk.”

 

Soon we’re sitting at one of the tiny tables, with our fresh bagels.  It is just what I needed.

“So,” Dave starts, “I take it you aren’t as sure about this assignment as Sue is?”

“It’s not the assignment.  It should be a great article, and Sue is convinced it might even make the cover.”  I explain.  “I’ve never had a cover.  And the travel would be wonderful.”

“So it’s just the haircut you can’t do?”  Dave asks.

I give a cross between a shrug and a nod.  Now I feel bad.  I feel like making a fuss about the haircut is an insult to Dave.  Like I think the haircut he gave Sue is bad or something, though of course I haven’t even seen the final results yet.  My cheeks are now hot with embarrassment.

“I’m sorry,”  I fumble for the right words, as I look down at my half eaten bagel avoiding his eyes.  “I don’t think you’ll give me a bad haircut.  I just don’t want short hair at all.  I know I’m being incredibly silly.  As Sue keeps pointing out, ‘It’s just hair, it’ll grow back.’  I feel like a child.”

“It’s not just hair.”  Dave states tilting his head to catch my eye.  I look up surprised.  “If it was just hair I’d be out of a job.”

“So, what is it then, if it isn’t just hair?”

“Did you ever read The Outsiders?  The actual book, not the movie?”  He pauses till I nod.  “Remember how when they cut their hair to disguise themselves, Ponyboy talks about being trapped in a halloween costume they can’t get out of?”

“Yeah, I remember.”  I think I’m beginning to follow him.  The longish hair of the greasers was an outward sign of the neighborhood they came from and who they hung out with.

“Hair is about identity, and confidence.”  His sparkling eyes look at me.  “Hair is a big part of the statement you make to the world about who you are and what you believe. I would never want to take those things away from someone.  It’s different when a woman comes to me and wants to cut her hair.  Then she is feeling like she needs to adjust her feeling of identity, and will feel more confident after.  It’s a statement she wants to make.”

“How does Sue fit into that?”  I ask.  “You happily cut off her hair even though she loved it before.”

“Sue’s self identity is as a hard nosed serious journalist.”  Dave explains.  “Being totally cool with doing anything for a story is more of a confidence boost, than perfect hair.”

I smile at him, feeling much less silly.  Though I’m not sure I really feel terribly confident in who I am right now.  The only statement my hair really makes is I’m a girl.  I’m mostly motivated by simple dread at the idea of sitting in a salon chair, at the mercy of someone with scissors.  It’s funny that Dave seems to be able to read and understand Sue so well, but doesn’t seem to have noticed I’m simply driven by fear right now.  Maybe he has noticed and is trying to make me feel better about giving into it.  Or, maybe it’s just that he knows Sue so much better since he’s been doing her hair for a few years, and this is the first time he’s ever met me.

We’ve both finished our bagels and are just sipping our coffee.  Dave starts to get up to go.

“So, we’ll go tell Sue that she’s just going to have to find another photographer to go on this assignment with her.”  Dave says, and I‘m not sure if it’s a question or a statement.

I don’t get up, I just sit there fiddling with my coffee stirrer.  “But I really want to do this assignment.”  I say in a barely audible voice frowning.

“Stuck between a rock and a hard place?”  Dave sits back down.  “So, what do you want to do?”  His voice is neutral.  He’s leaving this up to me, with no pressure one way or the other.

“I don’t know.  I haven’t really had my hair cut since I was little.”  I say.

“I guess you didn’t like it?”  Dave asks leaning back and taking a swig of his coffee.

“My mom made me get it cut real short one time, and the teasing was horrible.”  As I speak, Dave nods encouragement for me to continue.  “I’d sort of been in a fight at school.  This boy had hit one of my friends on the playground, knocking her down.  I punched him back and tackled him to the ground.  We both ended up in the office suspended for the rest of the day waiting for our moms to pick us up.  At some point in the scuffle the gum he’d been chewing, which he wasn’t supposed to have, got in my hair.

“The school secretary gave me some ice to hold against the gum till it would get brittle.  It was supposed to just flake out of my hair.  When my mom picked me up though, she just threw away the ice before it had time to work.  She took me home and cut out the gum, then called to make an appointment at one of those kiddie salon combo barber shops.”

“So the gum was really high up?” Dave asked.  I shook my head no.

“Just fixing where she cut out the gum wouldn’t have been too bad.  The short chunk still reached my shoulder.”  I pause and swallow.  I can feel tears beginning to well up in my eyes.  “The whole way there she ranted about how I was acting like a boy getting in fights.”

“What happened?”  Dave’s voice has become soft and his eyes no longer sparkled.

“When we got to the salon she told them to make it short.”  The tears start rolling down my cheeks remembering it.  “She said, that I could have long hair again when I learned to act like a young lady.”

Dave reaches over and holds my hand.

“When the barber finished, she told him it wasn’t short enough, and made him cut more.  She did it three times even though it was obvious he was reluctant, making him go shorter and shorter.

“The next day when my suspension was over and I could go back to school, all the kids said I looked like a boy.  Never mind the look on my dad’s face when he first saw it.”

We just sit quietly for several minutes.

“Sue must think we fell off the face of the earth.”  I’m trying to sound light to break the mood as I wipe my face with the back of my free hand.

“Sue can wait.”  Dave says in a calm reassuring voice.  “We’ll go back when you’ve decided what you want to do and are ready.”

Dave has told me to take my time, but I know that we can’t sit here forever, and he’s right that I need to decide.  I can’t keep waffling.

Do I get a haircut and go on the trip of a lifetime, contributing to what should be a great article, and possibly landing my first magazine cover?  Or, do I let an event from my childhood shape me and continue living in fear, letting my hair define me?  Just thinking that makes the answer obvious, but I’m not quite ready to take the leap.

“Would you cut mine the same as Sue’s?”  I ask, trying to feel a bit more in control.

“I’ll do whatever you want.”  Dave states.  “But, if you are asking my opinion, I would recommend something a bit different.  I cut Sue’s hair to suit Sue.  You have a small face with delicate features, Sue’s face is longer.  I would taper yours in the back instead of squaring it off like Sue’s.  Also, with your texture, I would razor it to give it extra body and movement.  If you’re up for it, I think yours would look good shorter on top than Sue’s.”

The idea of shorter than Sue’s is chilling, but I know it’s just the idea of it, and that I don’t actually think I will look worse with less length on top. I sit contemplating and playing with the ends of my hair.  I need to decide soon.  Our coffees are almost empty, and the guy at the counter is giving us dirty looks for taking up valuable real estate for too long.

“I like to think I’m a pretty hard nosed photojournalist myself.”  I’m more talking to myself than Dave.

“You know, if you want you could donate your hair.  It’s longer and healthier than Sue’s was.”  Dave prompts.  “I can see it’s not dyed.”

So now, if I say no again, I’m going to feel like a heel.  At first I’m annoyed that he would put extra pressure on me, but as soon as I look up at him, I can tell he’s just trying to make the decision he thinks I’ve already made a bit easier.  I did hate the idea of my hair just ending up in the garbage.

“OK,”  I stand up.  “Let’s do it.”

“Well let me finish Sue first.”  Dave says while following me out of the bagel shop and back to the salon.

–PART 3–

When we get back, Sue looks impatient sitting at Dave’s station playing on her phone, but lets it go as soon as she hears I’ve calmed down and am ready for my haircut.  Dave returns to working on Sue’s hair.

He’s making little snips with the points of his scissors into the longer hair on top.  Sue’s soft mousey hair drifts lightly to the floor.  The long wet hair that had surrounded the chair is gone now.  I guess it got swept away while Dave and I were in the bagel shop.  The new collection of short dry hair is still a fair amount though.  I can’t believe how much hair is being cut in the name of adding texture.

As he’s going around the edge, with a small humming machine, Amy comes over and says she can shampoo me now.

“I want to start the cut dry.”  Dave interrupts.  “It’s how it should be for the donation, clean and dry.  As long as you don’t have any product in your hair?  ”  I shake my head.  “I’ll wash her myself when I’m ready.”

“So that’s how you talked her into it.”  Sue says slyly to Dave.  “Convinced her to donate it.”

“I didn’t talk her into anything.”  He says.  “I just listened to her work through it herself.  This is her decision.”

It’s more like I managed to push myself into it, than that I’ve actually made a decision, but I appreciate that Dave feels like I’m in control even If I don’t feel like I am.

He’s now showing Sue where to part her hair to make it look more like what he’s calling a businessmen’s cut.  He leaves it styled in a casual tussle for her though.  It really is just about to be my turn.  He takes the cape off her and is showing her the back in a hand mirror.

“Ok, your go.”  Sue says as she gets up from the chair and stretches.  She is coming over to take over my spot in the waiting area.

I get to my feet and take a very deep breath.  I start walking over to Dave’s chair.  When I’m seated, he starts draping the cape over me.  He places it on my lap then pulls it up.  Before he fastens it around my neck he twists my hair slightly as he lifts it over the cape front.

Dave bends forward and asks me, “Are you sure about this?”  He looks up as he waits for my answer. Sue has her mouth open to answer for me, he looks her straight in the eye and adds,  “I’m not asking you.”

“I’m a hard nosed photojournalist ready to do whatever it takes to get my story.”  It’s as close as I can get to a yes, because no, I’m not sure.  I know Dave will take it as yes, and I needed to say it to myself again to strengthen my resolve.

Dave starts combing through my hair.  I kind of wish it was wet, so it would look less like my hair.  In its dry state, everything about it is so familiar; the bounce, the shine, the dark brown almost black color, the way it falls smoothly down to my lap.

As he combs my hair out I catch an occasional glimpse of the scissors.  They are held against his palm, so they aren’t really obvious, but every now and then they catch the light and the flash gives away their presence.  I’m breathing pretty heavy, I’m trying to keep it under control..

“You ok?” Dave asks.

I want to say I’d be better if you weren’t holding those scissors, but I bite my tongue and just give a noncommittal “Um-hm.”

I feel Dave lift a section of hair in the back with his comb.  He has combed it back and I can see him in the mirror holding it carefully in his hand.  Straight back from my head. It’s a huge lock.

He’s flipped the scissors up so they aren’t against his palm anymore.

I can’t see the scissors anymore because they are now behind my head.  Suddenly I hear crunching.  The slight tautness I hadn’t even realized I’d felt at the back of my head till this moment is suddenly noticeable as it’s being released.  Hair hits my neck, and I can feel the freshly cut ends.  I’m breathing pretty fast now.

The lock of hair is now dangling loose in Dave’s hand, no longer attached to my head.  He is placing it neatly on the console in front of me.  By now my breathing not just fast, it’s gotten very shallow.

I’ve gone from breathing heavy to hyperventilating.  I’m starting to feel dizzy as I gasp.  Dave calmly opens a drawer, takes out a paper bag and dumps its contents out.  He hands it to me.

“Here you go.”  He says softly, as I place it over my mouth and nose.  “Slowly.”

The bag crinkles as it inflates and deflates.  At first wildly, but then it slows to a normal rate.

As I calm my breathing, I look at the lock of my hair in front of me.  It takes up the full width of the console it is so long.  It feels so wrong that it’s not attached anymore.  I look over at Sue and can see the judgment in her eyes about my over reaction.

Once I have calmed down enough I lower the paper bag from my face.  I know what Sue meant about me embarrassing her, my ears are burning.  Dave though just takes the bag from me as though it was something that happened every single day.  Making me wonder how often this happens.

“You seem to be well prepared for this.  Do you often get hyperventilating clients?”  I ask.

“Clients no.”  He says as he shoves the bag back in the drawer.  “My sister every time she gets in a fight with our mother.  Which is pretty much every time the family gets together.”

He’s gone back to combing my hair as though nothing happened.  I’m amazed at how unflappable he is.

He’s talking about his sister as he combs my hair.  There is something really sweet about a guy who obviously cares about his sister as much as Dave does.  It’s helping me stay calm.

He’s combed up another long lock, just like the one sitting on the counter.  This one is from the side of my head, so I can see what’s going on.  He holds the lock out, and positions the scissors around it.

The scissors start to close.  I hear that same scrunching noise again.  The hair falls away from the scissors, one side towards Dave’s hand, the other towards my neck and head.  The scissor close with a slight click.  He opens them again, because he’s only a quarter of the way through the thick lock of hair.

Three more cuts, with the crunching and click and watching the hair separate from my head.  He’s holding the long lock, and this time I can see what the short hair left on my head looks like.  It is sort of layered.  The bottom reaches halfway down my neck, but the hair from higher up on my head sticks out around my ear.  He sets this second lock carefully next to the first as my hand emerges from under the smooth black cape to feel the damage.

I know I shouldn’t think of it as damage.  It being just a rough cut to take off the length isn’t helping me not think of it as damage though.  I can just grab the short hairs left behind my ear.  Just barely twirl them with my finger.   I know Dave’s planning to make it much shorter before he’s finished, I wonder what my hands will do when they are fidgety without hair to twirl.

I slip my hand back under the cape as Dave turns around.

He combs up the hair above my ear this time.  This lock is thinner and it only take two cuts to sever it.  The hair still covers the top of my ear, but I suspect it won’t by the time the cut is complete.  The hair laid out on the console is getting very thick.  As much as I knew I had a fair amount of hair when it was on my head, it seems like even more now that it’s off.  And that’s only half of it.

When Dave finishes smoothing out the lock of hair from the front, he goes back around and repeats the process on the other side.  I am hating the sound of crunching in my ear.  Then the feel of the cut ends falling against my neck.  Watching the scissors close over and over again as more hair falls.  Watching myself exposed with nothing to hide behind.

Now the pile of hair to donate is complete.  As Dave fishes through his drawers looking for a rubber band, I take the opportunity to touch my hair again.

Yeah, still seems like damage. I look at myself in the mirror and feel small and vulnerable.  My hair hasn’t been this short in nearly two decades, and it’s hard to know how to handle it.  I suppose the worst is over though.  I’ve made it through the cutting off of the length.

“Come to the back and I’ll shampoo you” Dave says as he undoes the cape.  Then he takes my hand and leads me to the back.

He guides me to a chair where I sit down nervously at the edge, while he grabs towels from an armoire.  He drapes one of them about my shoulder and tucks it into my shirt slightly.  Then goes behind me and I can hear water beginning to run.

“Lean back against the seat.”  He says.  “don’t panic when you feel the chair reclining, I won’t let your head hit the sink.”

I can feel his hand cradling my head as I go back.

“Now let your neck rest against the basin.”  He seems to have guessed that this entire experience is new to me, and that I need to be warned about everything.  “Let me know if the water’s too hot or too cold.”

The water is actually just perfect so I just do my best to smile and try to force myself to relax.  Dave starts lathering my hair.  It feels nice.  His strong fingers working against my scalp, around my neck.  I try to watch him, but it’s hard, from this weird angle, and I’m worried about getting shampoo in my eyes.  So I just close my eyes and try to forget everything as he rinses and conditions me.  The water is once again running over my scalp.  Then the towel is rubbing over my head.

Soon the damp towel is wrapped around my head and Dave is helping me up.  I am finally reasonably relaxed as we walk up front to Dave’s station.

When we get there though, I’m reminded why I was tense.  My long hair is still sitting on the console, and much of the tension returns.  As Dave fastens the cape back around me again, and takes off the towel, I’m totally tense again.  I feel so disconnected from the person in the mirror.  Wet strands hang loosely about my face.  They don’t even reach my jaw line in the front, just about my cheeks.

Dave combs through my now short hair.  I am amazed at how easily and swiftly the comb detangles it.  Not that my straight hair tended to tangle too badly, but it was so long some tangles were inevitable.  Now, the comb finds no resistance at all.

“Like we discussed?”  He asks as he changes the blade in his razor thingy.

I’m trying to remember what I read in some fashion magazine years ago about razor haircuts and split ends.  It’s useless, I can’t remember if it said that it caused them or prevented them.  I suppose it doesn’t actually matter anyway anymore.  Split ends are a long hair worry, not a short hair worry.  I just nod.

Sue’s phone beeps her incoming text tone.  She looks down at it.

“It’s Sean.”  She starts telling me about the text from her boyfriend.   “His brother and sister-in-law can’t make it to the ballet this weekend.  So, he’s got extra tickets and said I should bring you and your date.”

For a brief moment I’m delighted, I love going to the ballet.  I can wear the Adrianna Papell my sister gave me for christmas that goes perfectly with my new rhinestone headband.  Then I look in the mirror and my heart sinks back down.  Most of the hair the hairband is supposed to hold back is gone.  The rest is about to go.

“Sue, I can’t, not like this.”  I stammer.  “I look too casual.  And I’m never going to find a date in time.”

“That’s only because it’s still wet and not finished.”  Dave reassures me.  “It will look glamorous as hell with the right touches.”

“I’m never going to find a date.”  I bring that excuse back up.  It really is just an excuse though, there’s no reason I have to have a date to go, we could bring along one of our other roommates.  I just don’t want to say in front of Dave that I still don’t believe I can look like I belong in the audience at Lincoln center without the hair he’s cut off.  Or really I don’t even want to be seen in public at all till it’s grown back.

“Dave, what are you up to this weekend?”  Sue asks boldly while I turn beet red and sink down as far as I can.

“I was planning to do laundry,”  Dave smiles at her.  “but, I have been yearning to see the ballet all season.”

“Now you don’t need to find a date.”  Sue announces.  “I’ll text Sean.  That I have two takers for the tickets.”

Dave looks at the panic in my eyes.

“How about I stop by early at your apartment and help you with your hair.”  He offers.

I’m too mortified to say anything at this point but “thanks.”

Sue starts talking away about our weekend plans.  I’m too distracted to really pay attention, but I can tell Dave is really looking forward to it too, from the way he’s talking with her.

I can feel his fingers in my hair right before I hear the slicing begin.  It’s a softer sound than the crunching was when he cut through the long hair.  I think if the adrenaline wasn’t heightening my senses, I wouldn’t have noticed it.

I concentrate on keeping my breathing steady and not hyperventilating again.  I feel like I should be over the panic, since my long hair is gone already.  Well, not gone, it’s there right in front of me, but not on my head.  It being cut even shorter though is still terrifying.

I can’t see what’s happening back there, I only know that it’s happening by what I hear and feel, and based on what Dave said about tapering it.  What I’m hearing and feeling is giving me only the barest minimum of information; he’s slicing off hair swiftly.  I feel the very slight tug and release every few seconds.  I can tell it’s pretty short from how close he seems to be working to my scalp.  I feel his warm fingers almost constantly, I can sometimes feel the cold metal too.

I have a vague notion that taper means there will be a gradual transition, but I’m not clear of how short to how long that transition will be.  I really don’t know exactly what I’ll look like at the end of this.  Sue has assured me that Dave is great, so I should look stunning when he’s done, but it’s just her say so.  Also, no matter how stunning it may be, I’m not going to look like me.

Every now and then, I catch sight of a short lock of my hair dropping to the floor behind me in the mirror.  There are glints of his razor swinging back and forth swiftly through my hair.

Finally, Dave is working far enough towards the front so I can actually see what is going on.  I watch his blade swipe through the 4 or 5 inches I have left on the top of my head.  He’s cutting off about 3 of those inches leaving me with just about 2.  Though it’s hard to really say the exact length, since the way he slices leaves each lock with soft whispy ends.

Some of the hair is falling on my shoulders and sliding down to my lap now.  I look down at the bits of hair.  As short as my hair had seemed after the initial cut, I’m shocked at how much more is coming off from the top of my head.

I want to cry out for him to stop, say it’s short enough and to please just leave it, but I just take a deep breath and control myself.  I know he can’t stop now.  It’s only half done and will look ridiculous.  It’s too late to stop.  I have to just sit there, trying not to look too miserable as he keeps cutting more and more off.  I have to just let this happen, I don’t know how to fix it myself.

I watch as the hair on my head is transformed into a soft crop.

Dave cuts my bangs to just brushing my eyebrows.  It’s kind of scary having the razor blade flicking up and down so close to my eyes, so I close them tightly.

At first it seems more one length than tapered, but then Dave starts working more on the sides in earnest.  I discover that the bottom of the taper is to be quite short, not that the top isn’t pretty short too.  At the very bottom, the back of the razor is touching my skin before he slices through the hair.

He runs his hands through my hair shaking it and taking just little pieces off here and there, mostly from the top.  After a bit, He seems to be done doing that and starts combing my hair down.  It’s pretty short all over now, so I’m hoping he’s done.  He’s not.

He places his comb in my hair behind my ear, and taps the blade along it making an almost musical sound.  Short bits of hair rain down to my shoulders.

He pulls the comb away from my from my head as he moves up the sides, leaving behind hair that starts as little more than velvet but very gradually blends into the longer hair towards the top.  I guess this is the taper he was talking about.  He keeps working around my head, to the back where I can’t see.  He bends my head down.  I swear I can feel the blade scrape against my skin at the very bottom of my nape.

He spends a lot of time moving my hair around and combing it in various directions then cuts a bit more here and there, it’s so short already, I can’t imagine there is anything that should still be cut more, but Dave keeps finding things.

Finally he puts down the razor and starts drying me.  Before he actually picks up his dryer, he works some kind of styling product through my hair.  He’s pulling it into shape with his fingers as he dries it.  I shake the cape slightly with my hands to knock off the hair on my lap.

I feel very relieved it’s almost over, but then I remember how much more of Sue’s hair he cut after it was dry.  So, I’m not sure I’m safe from it becoming shorter yet.

“Dave, can you come take a quick look at the schedule for next week?”  The lady at the reception desk calls over as soon as Dave turns off the drier.

“I’ll be right back.” He says to me, before he turns and starts walking over to the desk  “What’s up?”

I take the chance to feel my hair.  My hand runs from my neck into the hair above.  It’s very short.  at the nape, it doesn’t even cover my fingers.  But, it’s soft as hell under my fingers.  It doesn’t feel the way I expected it to.  I’ve run my hands up through the freshly cut hair of many of my exes, I had expected it to feel like that with the sharply cut ends.  There is none of the prickliness I thought there would be.  It’s almost like the fur of a small animal.

I see him walking back in the mirror, so I pull my hand back in again.  He’s seen me though and smiles at me.

He runs his hands through my hair a bit then picks up his scissors and comb.  As I suspected, he’s going to be cutting more.

He combs up a bit in front and starts snipping away at it with the tips of his scissors.  Very short bits of hair fall on my face.  I close my eyes so nothing falls in them.  I just listen to the sound of snipping and feel the little bits of hair falling to my face and neck.

He’s working at the back now, so I blink a couple of times to clear away any hair caught in my eyelashes.  Dave’s got my head tilted down, so I am looking at the new pile of soft dry hair in my lap.  Little bits occasionally slide down from my shoulder to join the pile I’m looking at.

Dave lets my head up, and I’m looking at myself in the mirror.  The effect of the cut is rather androgynous.  I wished I’d gone to the trouble of doing my makeup today.  Usually, I only wear it for things like interviews, meetings, dates, holidays, etc.  I don’t wear it most days.  I have a feeling that without my long hair to declare my femininity for me, I’m going to be wearing at least a bit of lipstick and mascara everyday now.  I really wish I was wearing some right now.

I look at Dave, he has put down his scissor and comb, and is mixing something in his hands.  He rubs it through my hair and pulls bits of hair to where he wants them.  Surprisingly, this one simple thing has helped it look a lot more feminine.

He’s unfastened the cape and is showing me the back in a hand mirror.  He’s telling me tips on how to style it.  I nod as though I’m listening, but it’s really just going in one ear and out the other.

I’m mesmerized looking at the back. The transition from bare neck skin the the slight velvet hair is so gradual, it’s hard to say where one ends and the other begins.

Looking forward again in the mirror, I know if this cut were on someone else who looked exactly like me, I would think it looked great.  But it’s on me.  I want my hair back, it’s right there in front of me in a ponytail.

“What do I do with the ponytail?”  I ask.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”  Dave offers.

Sue is at the reception desk paying, as Dave helps me up, and tells me he’ll see me Saturday night.  After I try to look more relaxed about Saturday than I actually feel, I go straight to my purse and look through it for the shimmery lipgloss I carry around in it.  I feel a bit better with at least the bare minimum of makeup on.  Sue is chatting with Dave telling him that she’ll email the directions.

Part 4

I hide at home for the next 3 days.  I fortunately only have one easy assignment to go to, I go straight there and straight back home.  Sure the cut looks nice abstractly, but I don’t want to talk about or think about it.  Heaven forbid actually having to explain to someone why I cut off my perfect hair.  I know there will be comments and questions.  I can’t face them.

I can’t even face myself really or our roommates.  I brush my teeth facing away from the mirror distracting myself.  I spend all day in a hoody with the hood pulled up over my head.  I tend towards chilly so none of my roommates say anything.

Saturday arrives.  I slip into the Adrianna Papell dress.  I look down at the the intricate bead work.  Admire how the champagne color brings out the tan skin on my arms.  But I avoid looking in the mirror.  I’m going to have to look in the mirror though to put on my makeup and jewelry.  To continue avoiding it, I keep changing shoes.

The buzzer buzzes and Sue runs by to answer it.  She’s simply got her short hair slicked back and is wearing a nice little black dress.  I hear through the crackly intercom “It’s Dave.”

I sit on the side of my bed trying to calm myself.  It’s not like Dave’s going to be startled by my lack of hair.  He’s the one who cut it off after all.  I want to get my makeup done first though.

I run to the bathroom and start putting it on.  Fortunately we have a really slow elevator.  I’ve just achieved a smokey eye in record time and I’m just putting on my mascara when I hear Sue at the door, letting Dave in.  I rush to put on my lipstain.

I had left the bathroom door open and it’s visible from the living room, so Dave and I look at each other and make eye contact.  He smiles broadly at me.  I smile back, then am overcome by a surprising wave of shyness and look down.

“That’s an incredible dress.”  Dave says as he comes over to me.

Places his hand on my arm, and kisses me on the cheek. After the kiss, his hand brushes back into my hair, over my ear, and then traces the muscle that runs down my exposed neck to my shoulder till it gets to the beautiful neckline of the dress.

“I love how it shows off your long neck.”  He continues.  “You look perfect.”

I have to admit, the neckline’s a great feature of the dress that had been hidden when I had a curtain of long hair over it.  I still feel weird and awkward without my curtain of hair though.

“Are you getting used to the hair?” He ask me.  I’m not, but I don’t want to insult him, so I just kind of shrug.

There is a moment of uncomfortable silence.

I finally break the silence with.  “So, you came early to help me make it glamorous.”  Dave smiles again.

“What would make you feel dressed up?”  He’s sent the ball back into my court.

“I don’t know what to do with it.”  I say with another shrug.  “I know what I would have done with my long hair, but…”

“What would you have done?”

I lead him to my room, and pick up the delicate headband sitting on top of my dresser.  It’s a gold colored metal in a leaf design with little rhinestone accents.  He smiles at it and takes it from me.

“What product do you have.”  He asks.

I point at my bottles of moroccan oils and leave in conditioners.  Except for some lightweight mouse, it’s all stuff meant for protecting the hair from damage, not for styling really.

“Sue, can we borrow your styling products.”  Dave yells out to the living room.  As he takes off his perfectly fit suit jacket and lays it carefully on my bed.  His dress shirt actually has french cuffs with cufflinks.

“Sure, bottom drawer of my desk”  Sue says coming to the door of our bedroom to point to it, while fastening her earring.  Then she wanders back to the bathroom.

Dave starts going through the drawer checking out what Sue has.  He pulls out a jar of styling wax. He gestures for me to sit in Sue’s desk chair. He scoops a very small amount of wax into his hand, and starts working it between his hands.  He starts working the wax into my hair and shaping it.  Pulling down my bangs on my forehead and using the wax to define each lock.

The headband sits on Sue’s desk, next to the jar of wax.  When I had my long hair I would have put it on by slipping it on my forehead then sliding it back to push the hair off my face.  I don’t see how that’s going to work with my hair so short.  Most of it will just fall out of the head band.

When Dave picks it up and starts putting it on me though, it’s completely different.  He puts it in straight down at the point I would have pulled it back to and just starts arranging the hair around it.  Sculpting my bangs and pulling just a bit of the hair above my ears over the sides of the headband.  It’s not functioning to hold my hair back, it’s acting more like an extremely subtle tiara.  It looks like it belongs there, not like a pointless affectation as I feared it would.

“Feel fancy enough?”  Dave asks.

“As you said, ‘glamorous as hell.’” I smile at him, and I actually do feel pretty comfortable with myself again.

We head out, we’ll be meeting Sean there.  Our plan is to have dinner at Lincoln Ristorante.  When we get to Lincoln Center, we find an empty bench to the side of the opera and wait.  Sue gets up as we see Sean approaching.  She embraces and kisses him.

“I thought Becca was coming?”  He says looking around, his eyes go right over me without recognition.

Sue glares at him as I feel the blood drain from my face.  I had expected him to be surprised if Sue hadn’t thought to warn him that I’d also had my hair cut.  I did not think he would literally not recognize me.  I suddenly feel like I want to be back hiding in my hoody.  I get up to make an escape.

“I need to go use the ladies’ room.”  I make an excuse as I head over to the nearest building.

Behind me I hear heavy footsteps following me, and the sound of Sue arguing with Sean receding in the distance.  Before I get to the doorway I am heading towards, Dave has caught up with me.  I duck around the corner of one of the massive columns and lean against it out of view from Sue and Sean.

“Becca, are you ok?”  Dave looks very worried as he comes around the corner.

“I think I just want to go home,”  I get out as I look through my clutch for the tissue packet I know I put in there.  “I just don’t feel like me.”

“Give me a minute to tell Sue, we’re going.  Then I’ll hail us a cab.”

“You don’t have to take me.  I can get home on my own.”  I’ve found the tissues and start blotting carefully at the tears escaping my eyes.  “I know you were looking forward to tonight.  I don’t want to ruin the ballet for you.”

“Do you really think I came because I wanted to see the ballet?  I never even asked Sue which one it is.”  Dave is smiling with one eyebrow up.  I shrug again, it seems to have become the main way I communicate with Dave.  He puts his hand on the side of my face.  “I wanted to see you.”

“You want to see the person who hyperventilates, overshares, and doesn’t even act grateful for the nice haircut you gave her?”

“I want to see the person who was strong enough to do something so scary it made her hyperventilate, who is able to unload her baggage when it gets in her way, and cares about my feelings enough to try to pretend she doesn’t completely hate the haircut I gave her.”  Then he kisses me, firmly.  “Besides, you tell really funny wedding stories, and laugh at my less funny ones, even when you’re nervous.”

“I don’t completely hate it.”  I’m looking at my feet again.  “It’s just making me really self conscious to not look like me.”

I wrinkle my forehead and look at him, not sure if he understands.  He nods, then reaches up and strokes my neck for a moment.

“You look like you, Sean just never paid enough attention to get past the the curtain of hair.”  He gazes down into my eyes.  “So, I’ll go tell Sue we’re both going back to your apartment?”

“Or we could both stay.”  I offer.  “Just give me five minutes to fix my makeup.”

And this time I really do go inside to the bathroom.

The rest of the evening goes perfectly.  It takes me a bit, but I relax and start feeling like myself again.  At the end of the evening Sue checks that I don’t need her then heads off to Sean’s house in the suburbs with him.

“I enjoyed tonight.”  Dave says, his arm wrapped around me.  “When do I get to see you again?”

I smile up into his sparkling eyes.  “How about in the morning.”

 

It’s the day before Sue and I are to leave on our assignment.  I wake up in Dave’s arms.  I’m really going to miss him while I’m gone.  For the past month and a half, I have spent more time in the bed of his Jersey City apartment than in my own.  Since our early morning flight is out of Newark, Dave offered to have Sue and I both stay here tonight.  

I head off to the bathroom.  Looking in the mirror, I run my hand through my short hair.  It’s grown out a bit.  Sue had rushed the haircut so I wouldn’t have time to change my mind, so it really was way before we needed to do it.  It’s still short enough to serve the purpose, yet… It’s not perfect anymore.  Particularly in the back.  The neck is kind of messy.   I don’t feel quite as put together with it getting scruffy.

Dave’s awake when I get back to the bed.

“Dave, do you think you could find time to give me a trim to freshen up my hair before I leave tomorrow?”  I ask as I climb back into bed with him.

“Did you actually just ask me totally of you own volition to cut your hair?”  Dave does that smile with the one eyebrow up of his.  His finger tracing the muscle of my neck.

“Yeah, I guess I did.”

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