Jessica’s visit to the salon was very impromptu.
She was just returning from a long day at work at 7 on a Friday night when her eyes moved past the sprawling unisex salon, Hairway to Heaven. She paused mid step and absentmindedly fingered her bun at the back of her head.
She rarely tended to her hair, apart from the regular wash. Jessica just let it go ahead with its own mind, growing down to a couple of inches past her waist. The sultry April Mumbai air prickled her skin and when she failed to recollect when her last haircut even was, she decided it was well beyond time for a trim at least.
With a sigh, she pushed the glass door open and walked up to the petite receptionist by the desk, her heels clacking against the floor. The interior was sleek and modern, and from the entryway to the main floor, she could see dozens of chairs lined along a circular room, nearly all of them occupied.
“Welcome, I’m Vanya,” the receptionist greeted with a warm smile. “What are you looking for, Ma’am?”
“A haircut,” Jessica smiled apologetically, tugging her shirt down her skirt. “I did not make an appointment. Will it be a long wait?”
“Hold on a second please, Ma’am,” she looked down into her computer and after a few clicks, looked up at her. “There’ll be an approximately 20-minute wait time, Ma’am.”
“Oh, that’s alright,” Jessica smiled.
“May I ask what kind of style you’re looking for? We have junior, senior and lead stylists. If you have any preference, kindly let me know.”
“Not really,” Jessica thought for a second. “I’m looking for something simple, basically a trim. Anyone would do.”
“Great,” Vanya smiled. “Please take a seat Ma’am,” she pointed to the plush couches lining the wall, facing the salon floor.
Right when Jessica was about to turn around, she felt a huge presence come to a stop beside her. “Excuse me,” came a deep throaty voice and she turned around to see a tall man with a mop of curly hair, in a black T-Shirt and blue jeans.
“Vanya, what is madam looking for?” he asked and Jessica’s eyes flashed between he two.
“A basic haircut, Sir,” Vanya got off her hurriedly. “All the stylists are busy. It may take 20-”
“The extension is empty isn’t it?”
“It is,” Vanya nodded after a pause.
“I’ll take care of her, then,” he tapped his fingers against desk twice with a nod. For the first time, he turned to Jessica and she felt dwarfed next to him in her petite 5’2” frame.
“I’m Nikhil D’Souza,” he shook her hand. “I’ll tend to you today. Please follow me.”
Flashing a smile back at Vanya, Jessica hurried to catch to catch up with his long strides.
“I didn’t catch your name, sorry,” Nikhil slowed down, leading her across the main floor of the salon. Nearly every chair was occupied and there was bustle in the air, along with the smell of peroxide and bleach.
“Jessica,” she told him.
“Jessica?” he looked sideways at her, his eyebrows crashing into each other.
“Yes,” she replied. “Jessica Braganza.”
“Let me guess,” Nikhil grinned, waving to stylists all dressed in black T-shirts and blue jeans as well, aprons around their waist. “Goan?” He opened a door leading to a stairway.
Jessica laughed. “Bang on.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Jessica figured he was probably this friendly to everyone. Better experience, better business, better tips.
When he reached the landing, he opened a large door, revealing a corridor opening into a large office and another smaller corridor.
“This was actually the space back in the day,” he led her into the corridor. The entire floor was empty. “Once business picked up, I bought the floor area downstairs and extended.”
“Oh, wow,” she said softly. So, this guy actually owns this place? “You don’t use this area anymore?”
“Not really, I just use the front area as an office,” he shook his head. He showed her towards the entryway. “You see, it’s tiny.”
Jessica walked in to find a very old school set up, two wooden chairs with leathered cushions facing two large mirrors across the wall. The counters held an array of items, scissors, combs, brushes, in little tumblers with a sink attached in the center. The checkered floor was spotless, glowing in the bright lights. The walls at the side held pictures of various short haircuts.
“It’s starkly different from downstairs,” he chuckled from the entryway, leaning against the doorframe. “But it’s completely functional, and more peaceful anyway.”
Jessica began to feel slightly nervous. Alone on an isolated floor in a tiny… what was this even? She looked at the old school pictures lining the walls and realized that they were all men’s.
Nikhil’s voice came from right behind her. “This is a barbershop.”
When she shot him a look, he smiled, “It was, at least.” Jessica wasn’t convinced. Something seemed off, about this whole thing. She tried to think of a polite way to say she’d rather wait rather than go through this, but she couldn’t, because, more than anything, Jessica was soft.
“Sit,” Nikhil said, grasping the chair firmly and reluctantly, Jessica set her bag on the empty chair beside it and climbed into it, feeling small and overpowered. Without a second’s pause, Nikhil grabbed the cape hanging from the armrest and fastened it around her neck tightly.
His whole demeanour had moved from friendly to… overpowering? Jessica wondered with nervousness, watching him pull an apron off from the overhead cabinet and tie it around his waist.
With adept expertise, he unravelled her hair from the bun and let it cascade into its shiny glory, and he weighed it in his hands. “Your hair is long.”
“Yeah,” Jessica smiled hesitantly.
“Too long,” he whispered and looked at her point blank in the mirror. “Hair wash?”
Before she’d even gotten the word out, he was spinning her around in the chair, pulling a lever so the back relaxed and her head was just under the faucet in the basin. Instead of moving behind her for the wash like she’d normally known stylists to do, he stayed rooted in his spot by her side and without even bothering to look away from her eyes, started running the water.
Feeling slightly uncomfortable, Jessica closed her eyes. Shrouded in the cape, she felt small and timid when his hands moved with her hair in what can only be called sensual strokes. He was so close, she could smell the musty scent of his cologne.
“Was the water too cold?” he asked lathering a dollop of shampoo into her hair.
“I’m alright,” Jessica replied softly, figuring the best way to get over the weirdness she’d begun to feel was to just stay mum. The scent of roses hit her and she relaxed with the gentle way with which he worked the lather from the roots to the tips.
“Feel good?” his voice was husky.
“Yeah,” Jessica nearly purred involuntarily.
She heard his soft chuckle before he ran the faucet again, rinsing her hair off the shampoo. A few droplets of water fell just above her eye and before she could react, she felt his gentle thumb wiping it off her face. A soft blush crept up her cheeks and she tried to disconnect from the situation but he just wouldn’t leave her be.
“Your hair is quite well maintained given it’s length,” she heard him say as he applied some conditioner through the lengths. “How often do you get trims?”
“I honestly can’t remember,” Jessica opened her eyes and he looked at her with a smile. “I just let it grow out a few years ago and trimmed it maybe twice in this time.”
“Ah, so first major haircut,” he nodded, setting her hair down to soak the conditioner in for a minute.
“Well, I’m just looking for a trim,” she added.
“Let’s look how bad the ends are after we dry it and then we can decide.”
Jessica gulped at how firm his voice sounded. She’d had never been allowed to have long hair as a child or do anything with it at all really, cut in a blunt line an inch down her shoulders. She rebelled at the age of 19 by colouring her then bra-strap length hair red, but soon experienced its ill effects on her hair and had to cut it back to a little below her shoulders again a year later.
For the last three years she’d been growing her hair out, never harassing it again. Apart from her annual two-inch trim, she’d never really had a major haircut and she was certainly not looking forward to one now.
She was snapped back into reality when the stream of water through her hair resumed and he smoothly washed her conditioner out. He grabbed a towel and gently dried the majority of the water off her hair with it. Nikhil then adjusted the level so the seat was straight again before running a hair dryer for a few seconds through it so it was only slightly damp.
A light sweat formed on her forehead from the heat and she heard Nikhil say right then, “I’m sorry. This space does not have air conditioning.”
“I’m fine,” she smiled at him through the mirror, watching him as he set down the dryer and set a pair of scissors and comb in his apron pocket.
Nikhil raised her seat to access all her hair and her feet dangled in the air, across the foothold.
“You can kick your heels off if they feel uncomfortable,” he said warmly and she did. Picking up all her ends he said to her sternly through, “There’s at least two and a half inches of damage down here.”
Jessica was at loggerheads. What do you reply to that? “Okay,” she nodded quietly.
Nikhil took the comb from his pocket and started running it through her hair, smooth and tangle-free from the conditioning and blowout. He parted her hair precisely and clipping away the part above her ears, combed her hair once more before picking up his scissors as well.
Jessica felt a slight tug at the hair right in the middle of her nape and she heard the scissors close. Just two and a half inches, she told herself, watching him pick little sections and feeling the same tug and snip about five or six times. When he was done, Nikhil parted the top into two and clipping away the left, sectioned the right into two more parts, and grabbed another clip to tuck the top away. He repeated the same process again across small sections and once done, did the same with the last of her hair there. Since he was doing all of the cutting from the back, she couldn’t really see just how much he’d cut off.
Within five minutes, Nikhil had completed the process on her left as well and he combed over all her hair to the back once more. He then pulled open the bottom drawer on the right to retrieve a mirror and slid it across the back to show her the length with an expectant look.
Jessica saw that he’d stuck to exactly what he said he’d have to take off and she smiled in appreciation.
“You can get off the chair and check before I blow dry,” he said tucking away the mirror. “Then I can make any more changes you’d like.”
Surprised, Jessica got off the chair, landing with a soft thud and an embarrassed smile. She turned sideways to see her hair land precisely at her waist over the cape, still slightly damp but straight and neat nevertheless. She saw him untie the apron from his waist and set it down on the empty chair, turning to look at her with a serious gaze.
“It looks good,” she pulled a lock of hair from the right over her chest.
“Does it?” he sauntered over to her, coming to a halt right behind her, her back engulfed in his broad chest.
Frozen, she just watched as he reached over with his right hand to grab the lock away from her and her hand fell limply to the side.
“What…” she stammered. “What are you doing?”
He smiled, with twinkling eyes. “I’m your barber.”
He draped his left arm over her soft body and she struggled against his hold. She couldn’t even move her hands against the gridlock as he held them down, her strength no match to his. He towered at least a foot above her and he smirked again when she finally stopped withering in his arms.
“What do you want?” she cried, looking at him beseechingly through the mirror and he tugged at the lock of hair still in his right hand.
“Let me show you. And, Jessica,” he hissed into her ear. “Stay.”
She lay still as he removed his arm from her body but she didn’t dare move. He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and retrieved a pair of scissors.
“No,” Jessica whimpered and tried to get away, but Nikhil’s arm closed tight around her once again. Taking the scissors into his right from the left, he transferred the lock of hair to his left.
With a domineering edge to his voice and a stern gaze, he hissed again into her ear, “Jessica!”
Tears in her eyes, she froze in his arms and he said louder, “Don’t you dare move.”
He pulled at the lock still in his grasp and she winced. With a smirk, he brought the pair of scissors and cut it off at her collarbone. Jessica broke out in a sob when he released her from his grasp and let the twelve-inch lock fall to the floor.
“This,” he turned to her and fingered the lock of hair hanging to her neck, “is what I want.”
Jessica looked at him like a deer caught in headlights and he smiled slowly at her. “I knew it the minute I saw you.”
Tears fell from her eyes as he set the scissors and a comb on the armrest of the chair. “I want to dry your hair before I cut it,” he moved closer to her ear. “I want to hear every snip. But it’ll be hot,” he reached behind to her neck and pulled the cape off with a smirk. “Take your shirt off too. It’ll be cooler.”
Jessica stayed rooted to her spot. Remove her shirt? Where would the night end?
He grasped her elbow in a tight hold and repeated with authority, “I said, take it off.”
Mutely, with shaking hands, Jessica unbuttoned her shirt, and shrugged it off. He gave her a half smile, appraising her barefoot, in her white bra and high waisted black skirt. “Turn around,” he said softly and she did, looking down so as to avoid looking at the reflection in the mirror, having to watch him do whatever he planned to.
She heard the sound of the dryer being turned on and soon enough, felt him rolling the large round brush along each section of hair. Her hair was nearly dry anyway, and it only took him a few minutes to get rid of all the dampness. He set aside the dryer and brush, and out of the corner of her eyes, Jessica saw Nikhil grab the scissors and comb from the arm rest and flinched.
He smiled seeing her jerk and cocked his head to the side. “Don’t like the scissors? Alright.”
Jessica looked up and saw him tucking the scissors back into his pocket but open the first drawer beside the sink. She saw him grab a black, gleaming hair clipper and set it in front of her.
“Please,” she began to cry, backing away from him. “Please don’t do this.”
Nikhil pulled her back to him with one swift movement and chuckled. “I will.”
With the comb still in his hand, he drew a line straight across from the tips of her ears. Holding the hair above it in his left hand in a firm grip, he grabbed the clippers and switched it on.
“Don’t move, or I promise, it will be worse,” he hissed into her ear, looking at her straight in the mirror.
Desolately, she succumbed to his will. Nikhil set the clippers into motion at that and ran it across her nape. Jessica felt the thrum and the movement of her long hair down her bare back with every swipe across her nape. The sensation of the blade cutting so close against her skin sent tears rolling down her face. Without paying any heed to her state, he ran it along her nape multiple times and then a few times more, leaving barely any stubble and switched it off. He let go of her hair at the top, kicking away the nearly eighteen-inch locks at his feet.
Freed from his gasp, Jessica fell forward with a cry, her forehead hitting the mirror. She felt his hands on her waist again as he gently pulled her back into his chest. She looked at him helpless in the mirror, as he stepped back and grabbing the comb, smoothened her hair across her back again. She wiped off her eyes as Nikhil murmured softly, “Don’t cry.”
Setting the comb back in his pocket and throwing her one last look of caution, he grabbed the clippers again and Jessica’s heart nearly lurched out her chest when he switched it on.
“Isn’t waist length hair supposed to be waist length?” throwing an arm loosely around her waist, Nikhil thrust the clipper right above the high waistline of her skirt and pressed it close into her skin. Jessica nearly gasped at the sensation and bit her lip.
“Maybe we should just go up to bra-strap length instead,” he mused, and she felt the clipper then digging into her soft skin just below her bra strap. Her heart lurched at the length he’d taken off without so much as a thought.
His smile grew bigger as he progressively cut across her bra, sending six-inch locks fluttering to the floor. Jessica gulped when he finally shut the damn thing off.
Nikhil set the clipper aside and turned her around to face him, fingering the lock of hair sticking out at her collarbone.
“Have you ever had bangs?” he asked her, tugging the lock.
“No,” Jessica replied, thinking back to her old, basic hairstyle.
With a smirk, he said, “Let’s see how they look on you.”
Jessica closed her eyes and tried to wish herself away when she felt him gather out over a two-inch width of hair at her crown along with the shorn lock, and comb it out away from her eyes. Her eyes fluttered when she heard the first cut and she opened her eyes to find bangs falling onto her face, barely out of her eyes.
He worked through the whole bit and dropped the twelve-inch locks down to the floor. Her mouth fell open in dismay but Nikhil nudged her face back to look at him and went about thinning the ends to give a more soft, wispy look to her bangs. Once done, he smoothed the hair over her forehead again and Jessica knew without having to look that they were barely half a centimetre away from her eyes.
“I will trim them every month,” he whispered raspily into her ear and she shivered. The same ordeal every month? “I will come find you, if I have to.”
Jessica shivered under his gaze and looked away. “You know what,” Nikhil said and she looked back at him with trepidation. “It’s summer, you don’t want long hair now,” he swiftly pushed her towards the barbershop chair again.
Long? Long?! This is not long! She wanted to scream but turned around to him, trying to placate him. “Nikhil, please,” she blinked tears. “I’m alright like this,” he raised an eyebrow and let her continue. “It’s not that long-”
With a huff, he pulled her up by the arms and sat her in the chair himself, high as it was. Tears rolled down her eyes as he fastened the cape around her once again. Jessica hunched forward in misery but immediately felt his strong hands pulling her back into position.
“You need to be taught to listen,” he hissed into her ear. Nikhil clacked open some buttons along the back of the chair and without giving her any time to react, fastened one leather strap across her neck and holding her hands down, strapped another belt of sorts across the cape at her waist.
“I did not want to restrain you,” he said softly, setting her hair free behind the chair. “And I initially thought of taking only a couple of inches off,” he looked at her devastated face in the mirror, grazing the blade of the scissors across her breast. “But you drive me to the extremes, Jess.”
“Down,” he moved her face toward her chest, combing out her hair from the back of her head to the ends. Repeating the process, he stopped before he even reached the base of her neck and in a clean cut, snipped away right below the comb.
Jessica shut her eyes close as tears pooled in her lap and felt the blades close an inch and half above her shoulders. It was shorter than she’d ever had in her entire life. Once he was done with the hair at the very back of her head, she felt Nikhil adjust her face straight again and looked at her desperate, tear-stricken face in the mirror. The hair lying on either side of her face hadn’t yet been hacked away and she looked on forlornly as he moved the left section backward after a few minutes.
She felt the blades closing around her neck and finally, she saw the end section being cut and swing down to her neck while nearly 8-inches of her hair slid down her side. Jessica sighed to herself in silent resignation as Nikhil proceeded to give the right section the same treatment, carefully clipping away around her neck.
Once done, he moved to her left and cleaned up the sides, tilting her head to the right. He snipped with a steely determination and Jessica bit her lip when her hair felt like it barely grazed her neck in that position. Silently, he did the same on the right and Jessica looked at herself in the mirror, her hair once flowing past her waist, now a couple of inches shy of shoulders.
Nikhil unstrapped both the belts but Jessica didn’t dare move. He unpinned the cape and smiled at her, “You’re done.”
Before she could get off the chair, he quickly came over and lifted her up with one arm and she looked down at him, alarmed. He ran his free hand across her freshly cut hair and flashed her a knowing smile.
“Jessica Braganza,” he whispered to her as she waited with baited breath. “This is not a one-time thing. I know where you live,” Jessica’s eyes opened in shock. “I’ve known you all my life in Panaji,” he smiled broader when her mouth fell open in shock. “I’ve waited for you because I didn’t want to rush this quiet, unassuming girl who had my heart. But you’re here now, and you’re not leaving.”
Jessica gulped at the confession as he traced a finger against her jaw. “How?” she stammered.
“I remember playing football with you last as a ten-year old before I moved away. I remember when you visited my school in Mumbai for a fest at 16. I remember you moving into my street three years ago,” his smile was slow and Jessica stared at him in shock.
“So, this,” Nikhil looked down at the space between them. “is most definitely happening. And a part of that is me taking care of you, in every way,” he tenderly brushed his lips against her jaw before setting her down.
Jessica didn’t dare look up at him. He tilted her chin up with one finger, “And as you can understand, taking care means I take care of your appearance,” he smirked. “So, through this summer, your hair will not touch your neck and your bangs stay the way they are.”
“So, get yourself, fixed and come down Jess,” he kissed her cheek and walked out with purpose.
Jessica’s mind was out of control. She gingerly picked up her shirt and put it on, slowly buttoning it up while wondering how in hell had all this happened. She felt like she was being pranked. Smoothing it down her torso, she tucked the shirt into her skirt, relaxing any ridges. She looked at herself in the mirror, realizing she looked both sexy and cute at the same time. Her hand reached up to touch her nape and she shivered at the prickly buzz.
Supporting herself against the wall, she put on her heels trying to calm herself down. She threw her bag over her shoulder, she stepped out of that crazy room and walked down the stairs to find Nikhil waiting for her with his hands in his pockets. They fell into step walking through the main floor of the salon again, nearly an hour after the first time. The stations were getting progressively empty and Jessica staunchly avoided looking up while Nikhil greeted and made quick casual conversation in the background. To an onlooker, they looked like any other customer and stylist, leaving after a job done.
But only she was aware of the tremors his voice alone caused in her ear, how his eyes would send her toes curling. She didn’t know what it was. Reaching the reception, she saw Vanya pause when she first saw her and then look taken aback.
“Hi,” Jessica said nervously, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear as she began to dig around for her purse in her bag. She felt Nikhil’s silent presence beside her and bit her lip.
“You look great, Ma’am,” Vanya smiled, her eyes darting between them.
“Thank you,” she blushed, aware of the smirk he was most definitely flashing. “How much will it be?”
“It’s on me,” Nikhil put his hand between Jessica and the counter and Vanya stopped with a bewildered look. Neither woman spoke a word while Nikhil looked down at Jessica with warmth and her cheeks glowed red. Quickly recovering, Vanya flashed a smile at her before drawing her a receipt.
Tucking it away in her purse, Jessica turned around as Nikhil walked her to the door. She could only imagine what Vanya must be thinking.
“I’ll be there at your place in hour,” he brushed his cheek with hers, drawing back with a smile.