It was a perfect spring day in 1994. Â Jen and her boyfriend, Mike, were on spring break. Â They went to a medium sized state college, and had met filling their physical education requirement in a rock climbing class. Â They moved in very different circles, since Mike was a fine arts major and Jen was majoring in mathematics, but they shared a lot of interests-like nature-so they’d started dating and had been together for a couple of years. Â This spring break, they had decided to avoid the usual crowded resorts and instead go backpacking in the Appalachians with a puptent.
A sudden cloud burst opened up as they walked along the almost deserted trail they had all to themselves. Â They dashed to a dense stand of evergreens just off the trail to take shelter from the rain. Â When they got there, they stripped off their wet clothing and made love in the pine needles that cushioned the ground.
Soon, the cloudburst ended and they started getting dressed.
“Ugh, I’ve got something in my hair. Mike, can you see it?” Â Jen was trying to pull her long braid of thick chestnut hair around far enough to see what was in it, but whatever it was, it was high up above the braid, and she couldn’t see it.
“I think it’s pine sap,â€ Mike said. Â â€œIt’s got needles and stuff stuck in it too.” Â Mike looked at it closely, and touched it gingerly. Â “It smells nice, like a christmas tree.”
Jen took the elastic off the bottom of her braid to try to get a better idea of what it was. Â She pulled the braid out with her fingers. Â The bottom came loose into the soft silky tresses she was familiar with. Â She loved the way the hair felt in her fingers. Â As she worked her way to the top though, she started hitting sticky clumps. Â Her long hair hung to the middle of her back in ripples. Â The sap was too high up on the back of her head to see, so she just pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail, securing it with a scrunchy.
“Let’s just get to where we’re going to pitch Â the tent.” Â Jen said picking up her pack and hitching it up onto her shoulders. “We’ll be next to the stream, I can wash it out when we get there.”
“It looks like it’s just another couple of miles up the trail.” Said Mike peeking at the map. Â “We should have 3 hours till dark by the time we get there if we move pretty quickly.”
When they arrived at the campsite, Mike offered to get everything set up while Jen went down to the stream. Â Jen gathered up her towel, shampoo and comb, and walked down to the bank. Â Mike watched through the trees as she took off her shirt, so she was wearing nothing but her blue jeans, boots, and bra. Â As she kneeled down next to the stream, the light caught her long hair showing off the Â reddish highlights. Â Mike dragged his attention back to the tent.
Soon he could hear Jen cursing at how cold the water was.
Jen returned to the campsite with her towel draped over her shoulder and her hair dripping.
“It’s still in there.” She told Mike with a worried look on her face. Â “Can you take a look?”
Mike checked it out. The sap was now kind of hard, but still smelled christmasy and was a bit sticky right at the surface.
“It’s really tangled into the hair, Jen,” Mike said. Â “Maybe with hotter water it will come out. Â I’m building a fire anyway, let’s try heating up some water.”
While he worked on the fire, a thought struck him.
“I’ve heard you can use mayonnaise on sticky things like gum in hair.” Â Mike said with a frown. Â “I don’t think we brought any. Â Did we bring anything greasy?”
Jen thought for a moment. Â “I suppose maybe that combination sunblock bug repellent stuff we have.”
Jen rubbed a ton of sunblock into the pine sap while the water warmed up. Â Then washed out the sunblock with the hot water, hoping the pine sap would go with it.
“It didn’t work.” Â She stated gloomily. Â “It’s starting to get dark.”
“Does it still smell sweet?” Â Mike asked, then checked it himself. Â It still smelled of pine.
“Would it be weird to ask you to taste it?” Â Jen asked.
“Yes,” Â Mike managed to get out while laughing hard,Â “but I know why you’re asking, so I will.”
“Is it sweet?” Â Jen asked seriously. Â “Is it going to be attracting bugs all night?”
“Yeah, it’s sweet.” Â Mike sighed, it suddenly seemed a lot less like a laughing matter. Â “You can’t sleep with it in your hair. Â What are we going to do about it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Jen.” Â Mike said tentatively. Â “I think we’re going to have to cut it out.”
Jen cringed and got up and walked over to the fire.
“No. Â There’s gotta be something else we can do. Â Or I could just sleep like this, it’s not that bad.”
“If you sleep like that, you’re going to wake up with ants crawling all over you. Â And more hair is just going to get matted into what’s there.” Â Mike pointed out. Â “Do you really want that?”
Jen sighed deeply. Â Of course she didn’t want that, but the thought of cutting it out made a chill run up her spine. Â It wasn’t a tiny bit down near the ends, there was a lot of it, up on the back of her head.
“Jen,” Â Mike dragged her away from her thoughts. Â “What are we doing?”
“I could just sit up all night.”
“And then hike 15 miles tomorrow?” Â Mike sounded dubious. Â “We have to be back at school on Monday, we can’t get bogged down. Â Be realistic.”
“Why did I think this was going to be more fun than going to a crowded motel room by the beach and playing drinking games, with Jessica and her sisters?”
“You’ve been enjoying it up till now.” Â Mike said with a smile. Â “It’s not like there’d be no chance of something going wrong if we’d gone to the beach.”
Mike got out his swiss army knife and unfolded the tiny scissor from it. Â He sat there looking at Jen for several minutes while she poked at the fire with a stick, not meeting his eyes. Â Finally he broke the silence.
“Come on Jen, we have to do this.” Â He patted a spot next to him. Â “I’ll be careful, I’ll just cut out the sap and leave the rest to hide the damage.”
“You really think I’m going to let you cut my hair off?”
“It’s just a bit from the back.” Â He kept at it. Â “No one will notice it. Â I’m not going to cut it all off.”
Jen snorted out a laugh. Â She was not nearly as confident that it wouldn’t show.
“Really, you’re not going to come over here?” Â Mike sighed. Â “I know you don’t want me to cut it out, but can you come up with an alternative, a real alternative, not sitting up all night.”
She kept poking at the fire, ignoring him. Â Her mind was racing to come up with an alternative. Â He was right, staying up wasnâ€™t really going to work.Â Not only would she not be up for 15 miles the next day, she wasnâ€™t even sure she could make it through the night without dozing off. Â It wasnâ€™t like pulling an all nighter at the dorm, where she could play loud music and drink a couple of cans of Jolt. There had to be some other way though, she just needed to think of it.
Nothing came to her.
“Fine, I’ll go to you.” Â Mike circled around the fire, and sat on the log behind her. Â “Just put down the stick and let me get the sap out. Â It’s getting late, and we haven’t even eaten yet.”
Jen sighed and put the stick all the way into the fire. Â Finally, she gave in and went from squatting at the edge of the fire to sitting just in front of Mike.
“Fine.” Â She said in a tone that made it clear that although she was agreeing to let him cut out the sap, it was very reluctantly. Â â€œRemember you promised to be careful, and not let it show.â€
Mike started by pulling away as much hair as he could that didn’t seem to be stuck in the sap.
It was several minutes before he took the first small snip. Â That first snip was soon followed by another, and then another. Â The scissors made a little crunch as they closed, then squeaked as the spring opened them back up.
With each snip, Jen’s heart sank deeper. Â Â Each snip took her further away from the hope that Mike was right and Â it wouldn’t show. Â She closed her eyes and reminded herself that the scissors blades were very small, so even though it was many snips, it hopefully wasn’t much hair.
The big matted chunk finally came free. Â There was Â a lot of hair stuck in it. Â Very long hair, it was obvious that most of the length had been cut from that spot.
When Jen saw the amount of hair that was involved, she felt her stomach jump like she was on a rollercoaster. Â She tried to convince herself that it just looked like a lot.
Mike tossed it in the fire. Â Â When it caught, the pleasant smell of pine fought with the stench of burning hair.
Jen started to get up.
“Hang on, that wasn’t all of it.” Â Mike said before she even made it to her knees.
Jen let out a groan and sat back down.
Mike went very slowly, pulling as much hair free from the smaller clumps of tangled hair and sap as possible. Â These smaller locks came off in just one or two snips, before Mike tossed them into the fire. Â As he went, it was longer between snips.
For a long time after the last snip, Mike ran his hands through Jen’s long hair, checking to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.
“I’m pretty sure I got it all.” Â Mike said finally.
“Does it show?” Â She asked.
Mike didn’t know how to tell her. Â Even in the low light from the campfire and battery powered lantern it was really obvious. Â He’d promised her he’d be careful, and he had been. Â It just hadn’t mattered how careful he’d been, her hair was a ruined mess anyway. Â He felt like he’d broken the promise he’d made. Â He knew he needed to tell her the truth, but that felt like it would be breaking the promise even more. Â He was just silent, opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“I’m sorry, Jen, I tried.” Â Mike finally got out weakly. Â “There was more sap than I thought there was.”
Jen reached up to feel how much and from where Mike had cut. Â Her fingers found short tufts of hair just a few inches long all over the back of her head. Â The parts that were still long were few and far between. Â Worst of all, there was a good sized chunk missing from very high up where none of the longer hair could cover it.
“Damn-it Mike, you promised to be careful.” Â Jen blurted out, then got up and stomped off to the tent.
Mike sat there for several minutes, not sure what to do, then decided he should follow. Â Jen was laying on top of their sleeping bag, sobbing quietly.
“Do you want me to come in?” Â Mike asked.
Jen was silent for a few seconds; she couldn’t decide if she wanted him to go away, because she was really angry, or if she wanted him to stay because she really needed someone to comfort her. Â The need for comfort won out in the end.
Jen nodded yes, and slid over to make room for Mike even though she didn’t say anything. Â He lay down next to her, wrapping himself around her. Â She felt cold to him and was shivering slightly. Â He pulled the sleeping bag around them.
“I really am sorry.” Â Mike knew it didn’t actually fix anything though.
“I know.” Â Jen said sadly.
Mike woke up early the next morning, and slipped out of the sleeping bag trying not to wake Jen, but she woke up anyway as soon as he got to the tent flap.
“Hey, good morning.” Â Mike said. Â “How do you feel?”
“Like I cried myself to sleep after having no dinner.” Â Jen answered with a hoarse voice rubbing her face.
“Let’s get ourselves some breakfast.”Â Mike suggested hoping it would help her feel better.
Mike revived the fire they had forgotten to put out the night before, while Jen went and got the food from where they had hung it in a tree. Â He was glad their distraction hadn’t lead to a forest fire. Â Mike reflected that he now had two things to feel guilty about, ruining Jen’s hair and nearly burning down the park they were in.
While they ate, Jen ran her hand through her hair.
“Mike, Â I can’t go back to school like this.”Â She said, sounding completely miserable.
“Your first class isn’t till 2 o’clock, you can get it fixed in the morning.” Â Mike tried to reassure her. Â “If you want, I’ll come along to hold your hand or be a shoulder to cry on again, whatever you need.”
“I don’t want to set foot on campus like this.”Â Jen said. Â “I don’t even want to be seen on the bus on the way back to campus.”
“You want to drop out of school and spend the next year living here in the woods.” Â Mike joked.
Jen smiled a little at the joke. Â It was the first time she’d smiled since last night.
“I want you to fix it now, before we need to get going.” Â She said around the lump in her throat.
“You trust me to fix it after I messed things up last night?” Â Mike couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“You didn’t mess up the cutting last night, you just made promises you couldn’t keep.” Â There was an edge of anger in her voice. Â “I knew it was too much hair to not show. ”
“I’m sorry I pressured you.” Â Mike said his eyes down at the ground. Â “It wouldn’t be the end of the world if we missed a day of classes.”
“There’s no point dwelling on it.” Â Jen sighed. Â She’d realized she was more angry at the situation than at Mike. Â “I trust you to cut off all the weirdly long bits so I don’t look completely horrible. Â You were right about it being the only option, it’s why I agreed to let you do it. Â I’ll get it styled when we get back to campus.”
“You’re sure about this?Â You don’t look horrible.” Â Mike was very hesitant. Â “You could hide it under a hat or something.”
“I just want to get it over with. I don’t want to have anyone ask what happened. Â I donâ€™t want to explain it to a hairstylist.”
“Why? Â Is it really that big a deal to tell people you got pine sap stuck in it?”
“And then the question of why I was lying under a pine tree wriggling around will come up.” Â Jen blushed just mentioning it. Â “I’d rather have a bad haircut than people thinking about us under a pine tree.”
It took all of Mike’s self control to not start joking about Catholic guilt.
He got his swiss army knife back out, and unfolded the scissor again. Â It was not going to be easy to cut so much hair with tiny scissors like this. Â His thumb was still a bit sore from having just cut out the sap last night. Â Plus, they had 15 mile to hike today to get to the next camp site to be in range of the trailhead where they were going to be picked up tomorrow. Â There wasn’t really time to linger and talk about it.
“Ok, Take your shirt off and come sit here.” Â Mike said as he got into a comfortable position.
He spent a few minutes trying to figure out how he was going to match the length. Â He finally figured out that if he rested his pinky on her head as he held the end of the hair pinched between his thumb and pointer finger with all his fingers pressed together, the short bit on top that he needed to match stuck out about a half inch.
Mike was nervous for the first cut. Â He kept it pretty close to where Jen’s hair was already mostly short tufts, anyway. Â He held out a fairly small lock, so he could easily cut through it with the comically small scissors. Â He placed his pinky and held the hair like he had with the short lock. Â He took a deep breath and cut it a half an inch away from his fingers.
Nervously, he let it go to see if it blended in. Â It did, it was just about the right length. Â Â Mike took another deep breath and plowed ahead. Â He cut the next lock the same way.
“How’s it going?” Jen asked nervously.
“I’ve barely begun. Â I can stop now if you’re not sure. Â We could find a bandanna or something to cover it up.”
“Just keep going.”
Mike picked up another lock and snipped it off. Â It landed on Jen’s back and caught on her bra strap. Â Mike looked at the long strands. Â They were over a foot long. Â The morning sun was catching just so to show off its chestnut color perfectly.
It took a while, but Mike eventually had cut off all the weirdly long bits between the short tufts. Â The whole back of Jen’s head was now roughly one shaggy length. Â Â Mike’s boots and Jen’s shoulders were covered in the cut off hair. Â He brushed off her shoulders with his hand.
Cutting the long bits between the shorter hair hadn’t been too intimidating. Â The back was ruined anyway, so cutting it there hadn’t felt like he was ruining it more. Â The sides were still long and full though; cutting into that was a lot more intimidating.
He needed to think. Â What was he aiming for it to look like. Â The obvious answer was normal enough that people weren’t going to ask Jen what happened to her, but he felt like he should do a bit better than that. Â He looked at the back of her head and thought about what girls he’d seen with hair that looked like that length in the back.
“Hey Jen, remember that movie we went to see last week? Â ‘Reality Bites’ I think it was called.”
“Yeah, did you want to go see it again or something? Â It wasn’t that great a movie.”
“I was thinking about the main character’s hair. Â What was her name? Â Lily?”
“No, Lelaina. Â She was played by Winona Ryder.” Â Then it occurred to Jen why Mike mentioned it. Â “Oh god, are you thinking of making mine that short?”
“In the back it pretty much already is.” Â He answered. Â “I’m just trying to figure out how to get the front like hers. Â It wasn’t the same length in front as in the back was it?”
Jen’s hand was now up in her hair at the back of her head. Â She winced feeling it.
“Yeah, it was longer in the front, I guess.” Â Jen shrugged. Â “I don’t know really how to achieve that. Â You’re the art major with a concentration in sculpture. Â Just think of it as carving with hair.”
“I think I can figure it out.” Â Carving with hair actually kind’a made sense.
Mike moved around to squat in front of Jen. Â You could barely tell the back had been all cut off from the front. Â He took a lock of her hair from the front and pulled it down on to her face. Â He tried not to pull it down too much so it wouldnâ€™t spring back shorter. Â He remember the hair just brushing the lips of the movie character. Â He held the scissors right about there around the lock. Â He took a deep nervous breath.
He cut it off. Â The soft hair fluttered down to the ground.
Jen looked down at it and drew in a sharp breath. Â This was the first lock that had fallen into her view. Â She’d felt the others fall against her back, but seeing it was a whole different degree of reality. Â A moment later, another one joined it. Â She wanted to look away, but just kept staring as the pile of rippling chestnut locks grew huge Â The sound of the scissors crunching and squeaking was only interrupted by the occasional bird chirp.
Mike could tell Jen was reacting more now that she saw the severed hair next to her. Â It was really too late to stop though. Â More than half her head was covered in short shaggy hair instead of the long flowing hair she had brushed out and braided just yesterday morning. Â She’d had such beautiful hair, he wondered if she was ever going to forgive him for making such a mess of it.
He kept cutting. Â He worked towards the back, making it gradually shorter as he went till he was cutting it to the same length as the back.
Jen’s hair was starting to take on a whole new shape. Â It was beginning to look like a short style, instead of just ruined long hair. Â Mike wasn’t sure how Jen was going to feel about it, but he liked how the short hair looked.
Jen was down to just a few long locks. Â Just a few more snips and it was all gone. Â Mike ran his hands through her hair shaking it out. Â In part to make sure he hadn’t missed any longer strands, and to make sure that the shape was right. Â He also just kind of like the way it felt; the freshly cut hair slightly prickly on the sensitive skin between his fingers. Â He made a few more snips here and there where it didn’t look quite right.
When he was done, it had come out pretty much the way he’d envisioned it. Â He smiled at it for a moment, then remembered how pissed Jen’d been at him and wiped the smile off his face before she could see it.
“It’s done.” Â Mike told Jen as tenderly as he could.
He started to pull off the loose hairs caught on her bra strap. Â She started brushing the hair off the front of herself, not saying anything.
Mike got up, and softly brushed the hair from her shoulders, not sure if she wanted him to touch her or not. Â She didn’t pull away, so he moved around to the front of her. Â He brushed the hair off her face and behind her ears.
“Do you forgive me?”
“I have to go see how it looks before I decide” Â Jen answered, but from her tone he could tell she was joking and she wasn’t blaming him anymore. Â “Can you finish cleaning up here while I go dig out a mirror?”
“Sure.” Â And he bent to kiss her cheek.
“The mirror’s too small to really see it.” Â Jen called from the tent.
“Get the polaroid from my pack and I’ll take a picture so you can see.”
She came back with the camera. Â He took her picture and handed the camera back as the photo emerged. She took it out and stood there shaking it impatiently waiting for it to develop.
“You know shaking it doesn’t make it happen faster.” Â Mike teased.
She just stuck out her tongue at him then looked at the picture that had finally developed.
“Oh my god!” Â She exclaimed and held the face of the picture to her chest.
Mike cringed feeling bad, he thought he’d done a decent job. Â “You hate the haircut that much?”
“What? Â No. Â I’m not wearing a shirt.” Â She stammered out. Â “I can’t believe I forgot and let you take a picture of me topless.”
Mike started laughing hard.
“Is the hair OK?” Â He finally managed to ask when he caught his breath.
She held the photo out, and examined it more carefully.
“It’s actually pretty good.” Â She finally said. Â “I never would have just gone out and done this, but it does look good and everybody will think it’s just a style I chose. Â If that whole starving artist thing doesn’t work out, you could always go to beauty school. Â Now I’m going to burn this photo before anyone ever sees it.”
She started walking towards the fire. Â Mike stepped in front of her.
“Let me see it first.”
“Just for a minute.”
“You look so sweet in it. Â Please let me keep it. Â I’ll never let anyone else see it, I promise.”
“You didn’t do so great with the last promise you made me.”
“So, give me this second chance to prove I can keep promises.” Â He bent down and kissed her.
She smiled up at him and handed him the photograph.
This time, he kept his promise. Â In the decades that have followed, no one but Mike and Jen have ever laid eyes on the faded polaroid he still cherishes.