The Role of a Lifetime

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I started writing this one with the intention of it being a short, scenario-based story. Clearly, it got away from me a bit and might now be the longest single-installment story I’ve posted on HSN. Happy reading, I guess!


After college, Andi moved to New York with big Broadway dreams. She had been singing, dancing, and acting her whole life, starting in a community theatre production of Ragtime while she was in elementary school. Since then, she performed in local and regional productions as well as every play her high school produced over her four years there, and most of the plays at her college the following four years. With her waist-long blonde curls and big blue eyes, she was well suited to ingenue roles, and her looks combined with her talent to guarantee her plenty of lead parts.

It had been easy enough to find an agent when she moved to Manhattan. Steve wasn’t much older than Andi, but after an internship with one of Broadway’s biggest casting agencies while he was at NYU, he knew a lot about how to get his actors auditions, and, once the auditions were secured, how to position them in such a way they’d be more likely to win the part. Sometimes, this involved telling them to sing a certain song, or perform a certain scene. Sometimes, it was more about telling his actors who in the audition room would really be the decision-maker, or advising them on topics to bring up or avoid should they find themselves making small talk with the production team. Every once in a while, Steve would instruct his actors to dress or look a certain way for the audition, perhaps going so far as to change their appearance to show their commitment to the role, like the woman who, at Steve’s urging, dyed her hair red before an audition and scored her first leading role, or the guy who had his shoulder-length hair cut severely short to be more believable as a World War II-era GI in his audition. He, too, got the part.

So far, Andi had landed a few parts, but not nearly as big or as many as she or Steve would have liked. Steve believed in her talent, knew she could be a star. She was always happy to learn a new song with very little notice if Steve thought it might give her an edge. She followed his notes on dress to a “t.” The only thing was, any time his audition prep for her included a note on her hair, she would push back on him. “I am not changing my hair,” she would tell him. “Not ever. If they like me enough to cast me, they’ll figure out how to make a wig work.”

Her hair truly was beautiful; he couldn’t blame her for not wanting to change it. Still, Steve thought back to the first big audition he’d sent Andi on, shortly after she finished a small supporting role in a two-week off-off-Broadway production. The part was perfectly seated in Andi’s range, and he believed she possessed the physical comedy chops it required. He was surprised when the casting director, an old friend from his internship, texted him after Andi’s audition. “Sweet girl, very talented, just not right for the part.” He’d gotten similar feedback a few times since then—everyone seemed to like Andi, to think she was talented, but no one thought she was “right” for the parts they were casting.

Much as Steve tried, he couldn’t get any more insight into what the directors meant. But then he’d go see the shows when they would open and look at who was getting cast. Very few of them looked like Andi, especially when it came to their hair. Where Andi’s flowing blonde curls would have been a fit for a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, these were all more modern shows. None of the women who had been cast in the parts Andi also auditioned for had long, romantic waves. One had straight, dark hair almost as long as Andi’s golden locks, but it was shaved on one side. Most wore their hair somewhere between their collar bones and their chins. A few wore it even shorter.

Andi would be be arriving at his office soon for a meeting, and Steve had more bad news. He just wished he knew why. It couldn’t possibly be the hair, right? Actors change their looks all the time for roles, he thought to himself, thinking back on all the parts Andi had missed out on. Casting directors are used to looking for talent first and then getting the look right. Steve sometimes suggested his actors make changes so they would stand out, but the casting directors already had the actors’ headshots by that point, so they had a good idea of what the performers looked like before they invited anyone to audition. Any change Steve suggested the actor make before the audition would be a pleasant surprise, not a precondition. Was Andi’s hair such a distraction that they couldn’t see past it? Perhaps her headshot didn’t adequately depict its full glory and the casting directors didn’t get what they were expecting.

Andi came bouncing through his door a few minutes later, her golden curls following behind her. She sat across from him at his desk. “Steve! I had the best audition this morning. I really, really think this could be it!”

Steve ran a hand through his short, thick hair and grimaced reflexively. He was hoping they would have started with a little chit-chat first. “Yeah, so, about that,” he began, his brown eyes turning sincere. “I just got a text from the casting director. They said they’re not inviting you for a callback.”

Andi’s smile faded. Steve could see tears springing to her eyes. “That’s like the tenth time that’s happened.” She shook her head, blinked her tears away, and forced a smile. “But I’m still new on the scene—it’s gotta be normal, right?”

“Sometimes,” Steve said, debating between being conciliatory and blunt. He chose the latter. “But not normally with my clients.”

Andi tilted her head to the side and blinked. “What are you saying?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure out why I send you on auditions for parts you’d be great in, only to hear back that you’re not right for the part. Are you getting nervous or something when you go? Flubbing lines, that sort of thing?”

“No, never. I meditate before I go and I’m always cool as a cucumber when I walk in that room. We chat a little bit, I do my song, sometimes they have me do a pre-prepared monologue or read a scene, and then we chat for a couple moments longer before I leave.”

That all sounded pretty standard. “Ah, okay. So let me ask you…when you chat with them, what are you talking about?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Nothing much, unless you’ve given me specific instructions beforehand. Usually it’s just the weather, subway delays, tourists. They’ll ask me a few questions before or after I audition, sometimes both, but I always figured they wanted to be sure I was capable of thinking on my feet, not just reciting lines I’d already learned.”

“Let me ask you…” Steve began delicately. “Has anyone ever said anything about your hair?”

Andi threw most of her curls over her right shoulder and smoothed it protectively. “I mean, I’ve gotten compliments on it,” she said.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, you know. Like when we’re talking someone will say I have beautiful hair.”

“And then?”

“I say thanks?”

“Okay, but what else?”

“Sometimes they’ll ask me if it’s my natural color, or how long it took me to get to this length. The casting director this morning asked me if I’d always worn it like this.”

“And what did you say?”

“I can’t remember. Probably that it’s been more or less the same since I was in middle school and that I never felt too inclined to change it because I like it like this.”

Steve nodded slowly. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Andi, I don’t know how to put this delicately so I’m just going to say it. None of those casting directors actually cared about how long you’ve been wearing your hair like this. They’re asking you because they’re trying to get a feel for how attached you are to it, so if the director has a specific ‘look’ in mind for a character’s hair they’ll know it won’t be a problem for you.”

Andi looked incredulous. “You’re telling me every casting director in New York City has a problem with my hair?”

“I’m telling you a lot of casting directors in New York City don’t want to gamble on a new actress being difficult to work with.”

“But I’m not difficult to work with. You know that!”

“I do. But I also know that when I suggested you even do so much as flat-iron your hair before an audition you balked. So…I guess I can kind of see where they’re coming from?”

“This is ridiculous,” Andi said. “I have perfect ‘lead actress in a musical’ hair. I think you’re imagining things.”

“Only one way to know for sure.” Steve picked up his phone and navigated to the contact information for Marcia, the casting director he’d heard from earlier that day. Once the phone on the other end started ringing, he switched to speakerphone, then held a finger up to his lips to indicate to Andi she shouldn’t say a word.

“Steve?” came the voice on the agent’s speakerphone. “Everything okay? You usually only call if it’s an emergency.”

“Yeah, sorry, I’ve got an eye strain issue going on right now and the doctor wants me to slow down text and email correspondence for a few days while my eyes rest.” Andi looked at Steve quizzically. He shrugged and again indicated she should keep quiet while he was speaking with Marcia. “I saw your text come through about Andi Whitmire. Any chance you could give me a little more detail about the decision?”

“Yeah, sure, not much to explain, really. Pretty girl. Phenomenal voice. Good line read. But the director has a very specific vision for this show, which frankly isn’t Andi. I know a lot of actors are willing to change things for a part, but when I started talking to Andi about her hair it seemed like she was pretty attached to it. I didn’t want to waste her time or ours by going through a few rounds of call-backs, and then, once we’re ready to cast, find out she’s not willing to cut her hair for the role. By that point, she may have missed out on another opportunity, and we may have lost our second-choice actor. It seemed better to make the decision now and move on.”

“Aren’t wigs an option?”

“Sorry, Steve, but she has a lot of hair. I don’t think it would all fit under a wig.”

Steve made direct eye contact with Andi as he spoke into his phone. “What if I told you she’d consider changing her hair?” Andi shook her head fervently at him, but he ignored her. “Would you think about bringing her back in?”

“I think it’s probably too late for this part. We’ve already seen a few other performers since her audition that we’re going to move forward with in callbacks. But if you’re sure Andi would be comfortable making a big change, there’s another show I’m going to be casting for at the end of the month. It’s super hush-hush for now, but I trust you. They’re doing a jukebox musical of Sinead O’Connor songs. Meredith O’Hara directing, straight to Broadway with a guaranteed four-month minimum run. Andi has the perfect voice for the lead. But…I mean, you know. The hair.”

“Is the lead character supposed to be Sinead O’Connor?”

“No, but she’s supposed to be a teenager who wants to be Sinead O’Connor, shaved head and all. And, well, you know Meredith’s directing style. She wants 100% authenticity all of the time. So a bald cap wouldn’t be an option, even if Andi’s hair could reasonably fit under one.”

Steve watched Andi as she processed what Marcia was saying. Her face was almost impossible to read. “Okay. I’ll talk to Andi and see how much she’d be willing to sacrifice if she were cast in the lead. But I can’t imagine she’d turn down the opportunity to work with Meredith. She’s one of Andi’s idols.”

The line was silent for a moment. Then, Marcia spoke again. “If Andi really wants to impress Meredith, she won’t wait to see if she’s been cast.”

“I’m sorry?”

“To cut her hair.”

“That’s a helluva gamble.”

“I know it is. And look, if I had hair like hers I’m not sure I’d take the gamble myself, to be perfectly honest. If she shaves her head for this audition and doesn’t get the part, it’s going to be a long time before she shows up at another audition looking like her headshot. But then if she shows up at the audition with Meredith looking like she did in today’s audition, I can almost guarantee you Meredith won’t give her a second look. I really think it could be worth it for her. Besides, it’s easier to put a wig on over a bald head for an audition than it is to try to cover all that hair up with a  wig for a two-hour show eight performances a week, so even if this part doesn’t work out, this could still help her with other auditions because the director will know they can put Andi in basically any role and find a wig that works.”

“When did you say auditions are?”

“Three weeks.”

“Okay,” Steve said. “I’ll get back to you ASAP. Good luck with the rest of your auditions for the current show.”

“Thanks, Steve.” Marcia paused, clearly debating whether to say anything else. “For what it’s worth, I really do hope Andi will at least think about it. This could make her a star.”

Steve hung up his phone. Across his desk, Andi burst into tears. He calmly circled around to her and wrapped her in a hug. “Listen, Andi, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. I didn’t realize it was that big of a deal.”

“Did you know about that in advance?” she sniffled into his shoulder. “Did you plan this?”

“Oh god, no. I swear. I was just testing a hypothesis.”

“Well, I guess you were right.”

“That was just one casting director. It may have been a coincidence.”

Andi shook her head and pulled away from Steve slightly. “No, Steve, now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t think it was. At almost every audition I’ve been to since I moved to New York, someone would make an off-handed comment about my hair. I’m so used to people complimenting me on it that I never gave it a second thought. But it can’t be a coincidence. You saw all those shows I didn’t get cast in. Did anyone have hair like mine?”

“Not in the roles you were auditioning for, no. Can I ask why it’s such a big deal for you? Changing your hair, I mean.”

“When I was twelve, I was cast as Annie for a production at the biggest regional theatre in my hometown. I was over the moon. Like, what little baby musical theatre actress doesn’t want to play Annie? I was supposed to wear a wig for the show, but the first day I rehearsed with it, it fell off during ‘I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.’ The director told everyone to take five and he huddled with the hair and makeup team. I didn’t really think much of it—just figured he was telling them they needed to make sure my wig held in place—but then they called my mom over. I could see from her face that she looked a little upset, but she nodded at everything they said, and then they called me over, too. I was still holding that stupid wig in my hands when they told me I had too much hair to fit under it. That if I really wanted to be Annie, I was going to have to get a haircut. My hair at that point looked a lot like it does now, and everyone always complimented me on it, so I don’t think I quite understood what they were saying. Surely they weren’t suggesting I cut all my hair off. I asked them how much hair I’d need to cut so the wig fit better, and my mom looked at me and said, ‘sweetie, the director thinks—we all think—that the wig isn’t going to work at all. If you really want to play Annie, you’re going to have to look the part.’

“I asked her what she meant and the production’s hair stylist explained that, well, they’d have to cut my hair short, and dye it red, but at least my hair was curly so they wouldn’t have to perm me. The color was going to be temporary—they’d refresh it once or twice a week during he run of the show but after we closed it would start to fade and I’d be back to blonde in no time—but the haircut was going to be quite short, and she wanted to make sure I knew that before I agreed to anything. Then the director added that I’d have to make a decision right away because the show went into tech next week and it was going to be hard to recast the role on such little notice.”

“What did you do?” Steve asked.

“What could I do? It was Annie. I said I’d do it. The director said, ‘Well then, let’s not waste any time,’ called a lunch break for everyone but me, and had the stylist take me back to one of the dressing rooms. It was all happening so fast that I was kind of dazed. I remember being covered with a cape and all my hair being put into a ponytail and the stylist taking out a huge pair of scissors and then suddenly the ponytail wasn’t on my head anymore, but in her hands. I remember that the cut ends of my hair tickled my ears but I didn’t laugh. I remember my mom taking the ponytail from the stylist and trying not to cry as the stylist started chopping the rest of my hair off so close to my scalp it was like I could feel a little breeze every time she closed the blades. She wasn’t being mean but she wasn’t exactly being sympathetic, either. The director had told her my hair needed to be finished before everyone was back from lunch and she was working quickly, and I just sat there watching my hair disappear. Eventually, when it seemed like there wasn’t anything else to cut and I just had a head full of short curls, she pulled out her clippers and I remember my mom gasping because nobody had ever used clippers on my hair or on hers, but the stylist either didn’t hear or chose to ignore her as she cleaned up my neck. And then the director came in to check on how everything was going and he nodded at the haircut and said the cast was coming back and we’d have to deal with the color later, and the stylist took her cape off me and all of this curly blonde hair went flying all over the room. And then I had to go out on stage and face the cast that I was rehearsing with that day, all these grown-ups who had been so sweet to me over the past few weeks, and they just looked shocked, but they were still so sweet and through all of this I was still dazed. I wasn’t upset. I didn’t have an opportunity to be upset. And we finished rehearsals and then the rest of the cast went home and I went back to the dressing room and the stylist dyed my hair that bright orangey-red Annie’s hair is supposed to be and she styled my hair so it was extra curly and when I finally saw myself in the mirror, I hated it. But looked like Annie. I was Annie.”

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Steve said. “They could have been more delicate. You were just a kid. Still, you understood back then that changing your hair to play a part is just part of the biz. What changed?”

“The next day at rehearsals, the other girls in the cast were there to rehearse one of the orphanage scenes and they were not nearly as kind as the grown-ups had been. In fact, they were absolutely horrible to me about it. I remember one girl telling me that she hoped playing Annie would be worth all of the boys in seventh grade completely ignoring me when school started that fall. I tried so hard to just push through. It wasn’t always easy but eventually the show opened and the reviews were so good, and we kept selling out and it was for me! I was Annie! But then the run ended and it was time to go back to school and on the first day, my hair was still pretty red and very short and I saw this boy, Lou, who I’d known since kindergarten and kinda had a crush on and I forgot all about my hair for a second and I walked over to him to ask how his summer had been and he looked blankly at me for a second like he had no idea who I was, and finally he goes, ‘Andi? What the heck did you do to your hair? You look so ugly!’ And then he started laughing and he called some of his friends over and they started laughing and that’s basically how seventh grade went. The red did eventually fade but I got to deal with a really fun grow-out phase while also at the height of puberty. None of the boys would dance with me at school dances, and a lot of the girls seemed to be pleased by that. I still had my small core group of friends, but mostly it was really lonely. And I was also having a harder time getting cast in shows than I was used to. So I made myself a promise that once my hair grew back to the length it was before Annie, it was going to stay like that forever, no matter what some director said.”

Finally finished with her story, Andi buried her face in her hands, a curtain of blonde curls mostly covering both. Steve watched her for a moment, trying to figure out what to say.

“Andi…” he finally began. “Are you telling me you’d be willing to give up the role of a lifetime because some kids were mean to you in middle school?” She shook her head, or at least that’s what Steve thought she was doing based on how her hair moved. “Okay, then what?”

She sat back up, tucked her hair behind her ears, wiped her eyes. “No,” she finally said. “I’m telling you that I’m strongly considering breaking a promise I made to myself, and I need you to understand if I do, how important it is that I nail this audition.”

Andi stood, collected herself, and used her phone to make sure her mascara hadn’t run from her tears. “Thank you, Steve,” she said, giving her agent a hug. And then she left quickly, clearly still mulling over what to do.

Because no timeline for auditions for the Sinead O’Connor show had been finalized, Steve had told Andi she still had time to make a decision. So while he awaited more information from Marcia about the show, Steve continued sending Andi off to auditions for other productions. After all, there was a chance that another “role of a lifetime” would come along in the meanwhile—one that wouldn’t require Andi to make such a big sacrifice.

And it seemed, perhaps, there was one: the casting director for a Sweeney Todd revival had just told Steve he wanted to see Andi again for the part of Joanna. He grinned at the idea that a play about a barber might allow his client to save her hair. But as he was about to call Andi with the good news, a series of texts came through from Marcia:

Sinead auditions one week from tomorrow.

Told Meredith I thought I might have the perfect actor for her, but she was skeptical after seeing Andi’s headshot. I told her to be a little more open-minded—the girl could seriously surprise her. So if Andi seriously wants the role…

💇🏼‍♀️🙍🏼‍♀️🪒

LMK and I’ll tell you what time her slot is.

Steve thought for a moment about what to say in reply, then decided it would be best if he called Andi first.

“Hi Steve,” Andi answered, a note of stressed eagerness in her voice. “What’s up?”

“Well, I have two updates for you. Both good, I think.”

“Oh?”

“First of all, you got the Sweeney Todd call back. They’d like to see you again Friday.”

Andi let out a delighted squeal so loud Steve had to hold his phone away from his ear. “Oh my god, really? That’s so great! I knew I nailed it!”

“Don’t you want to hear the other update?”

“Can’t I bask for a second?”

“Second’s up.”

“You’re no fun, Steve. What’s the other update?”

“I just heard from Marcia. She wants you to come in for the Sinead show. But…”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah. She was pretty clear that if you accept the invitation, you show up bald.”

“When is that audition?”

“Next Thursday—a week from tomorrow.”

“So theoretically, the Sweeney folks may have made a decision by then?”

“Yeah. But if they don’t, you’re going to have to.”

Andi inhaled sharply. “Okay,” she said on the exhale. “Okay, okay, okay,” she repeated.

“Still with me, Andi?” Steve asked.

“Yeah. When do we have to let Marcia know?”

“I told her we’d get back to her ASAP.”

“Do you think you can find out whether she’s told any of the other actors to…” her voice faltered. “To do the same thing?”

“I don’t know if she’ll tell me, but I’ll ask. In the meanwhile, I assume I can tell the Sweeney team they’ll see you Friday?”

“Yeah. Yes. Definitely.” It was clear she was trying to muster her original enthusiasm.

“Okay. You worry about that. Let me worry about Sinead for now, okay? Talk to you later.”

“Thanks, Steve,” Andi said. “You really do take the best care of me.”

They had barely hung up before Steve phoned Marcia.

“Steve?” she answered. “Are we phone friends now?”

“I just thought it would be easier to respond to your text this way. Have a sec?”

“Yeah, but just a sec. I’m on my way to meet Meredith.”

“Okay,” he said. “This won’t be long. I was just wondering, before my client commits to anything she might regret: have you given anyone else the advice you’ve given me about Andi?”

“I can’t guarantee Andi would be the only person to audition bald, if that’s what you’re asking,” Marcia answered. “But if they do, it’s of their own accord. You’re the only agent I’ve given this advice to, I swear. You’re a friend and sometimes I like to give my friends an edge if I can. Plus, I really do like Andi. I see something special in her. I’m willing to go to bat for her, but Meredith is going to need to know Andi is committed.”

“I appreciate the inside information, Marcia.” Steve said. “Andi will, too. Cards on the table, she has callbacks for another show the day after tomorrow and depending on how that goes, she may or may not be available for Sinead.”

“Well, if you’re putting your cards on the table, want to tell me what show?”

Sweeney Todd. Joanna.”

Marcia was silent for a moment. “I can see how Andi would make a lovely Joanna, but that’s a pretty small part. She’d be auditioning for the lead here.”

“But if she gets it, then it’s a sure thing and she gets to keep her hair. I’m not sure she’d want to turn it down for a chance at a part that involves a sacrifice before she even gets to the first audition.”

“Fair point,” Marcia said. “But I still think this could be one helluva opportunity for her.”

“I’ll let you know, Marcia,” Steve said. “Good luck with Meredith.”

“I’m penciling Andi in for 1 p.m. on Thursday,” Marcia said. “Keep me posted.”

Andi’s Sweeney Todd callback went perfectly, the casting director told Steve two days later. Unfortunately, the director felt he needed to see his top three picks one last time. The final callback would be Monday. It wouldn’t leave much time for the production to get cast before the Sinead audition. “I have good news and bad news,” Steve said when Andi picked up her phone. “Good news, the Sweeney team says you nailed your callback.”

“And the bad news?” Andi asked. “They cast someone else, didn’t they?”

“No,” Steve said, “But they do want you to audition again. On Monday. Which means they probably won’t make any final decisions until Wednesday at the earliest, and the Sinead audition…”

“…is on Thursday,” Andi completed the sentence for him. “What do I do, Steve?”

“What do you want to do?”

“What I want is the better part without the haircut, but since that’s not possible…” she trailed off. “Did you ask Marcia whether she’d told anyone else to show up band?”

“I did. She hasn’t. She’s giving you an edge, kiddo.”

“God, I wish that wasn’t the case. I’d feel a lot more confident walking away from that show if I knew I was going to be up against a dozen bald women.”

“So what do you think?”

“I think I’m going to keep procrastinating on making a final decision. I’ll do the callback. Keep me on the Sinead schedule as long as you can.”

“You got it.”

“And Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“Know any good barbers? Just in case?”

“I’ve got you, Andi.”

“I know you do, Steve. Have a good night.”

It was the day of what was supposed to be the final Sweeney Todd callback. Andi spent even longer on her hair that morning than usual. It fell in voluminous spirals to her waist, and as she walked the few blocks from the subway to the building where her audition was to take place, she noticed people turning to admire her golden hair. Would she still have it by the end of the week? She hoped she’d know soon enough.

A few other actors were in the audition room when Andi arrived. The casting director introduced them as performers who had already been cast and said the director wanted to see how Andi looked and sounded with them. She was given a few sides and some sheet music to review in an adjoining room, and then, half an hour later, she was back with the larger group. She felt she’d done well. The production team looked pleased, and the other actors complimented her on a job well done. Before she left, the casting director asked if she had any questions. “Yes,” she responded. “When do you think you’ll make your final decision?”

“By the end of the week.”

“Okay,” Andi said. “It’s just that I might be changing my hair quite a bit for another show and I have to let them know by Thursday morning.”

The casting director nodded with understanding. “If we make a decision before then, we’ll let your agent know. But I can’t imagine you’d do anything to your hair we couldn’t work with.”

Andi laughed nervously. “Of course not,” she said. “It should be…versatile.” She thanked everyone in the room for their time and left.

The next few days were nerve-wracking. Every time her phone buzzed, Andi anxiously looked at it, hoping it was an update about Sweeney from Steve. She texted him a few times to ask for updates, but his answer was always the same. No news yet. He’d let her know.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, when Andi was so anxious for news that she’d been pacing around her apartment for two hours, Steve finally called. “Listen…I just got off the phone with the Sweeney team. They said they need a little more time. Frankly I don’t know what’s taking them so long; they have the rest of the show cast. I asked if there was any chance they’d be making a decision before lunch tomorrow, but it doesn’t seem likely. So…” he paused. “It’s decision time.”

Still pacing, Andi caught her reflection in the mirror that hung over her sofa. God, her hair looked so beautiful this time of day, when hints of golden hour would find their way through her apartment windows. She pulled her hair back tightly, turning her head from side to side, as if trying to picture what she would look like without it. It couldn’t be a worse look than Annie.

“Hello?” Steve’s voice came through her earpiece. “Andi? Still there?”

She let go of her hair, and felt it tumble once again down her back. “I’m here,” she said. “Text me the address of that barber shop, would you?”

“Only if you’re sure.”

“I’m as sure as I’m going to be. And Steve…can you meet me there?”

“Of course. Let’s meet at 10:00, an hour before the shop opens. I’ll set it up with the barber so he opens early—he’s a friend. That will give you plenty of time to get back uptown to your audition.”

Neither Steve nor Andi slept very well that night. Both had hoped that, by some miracle, the Sweeney Todd team would make a middle-of-the-night decision and save Andi’s hair in its eleventh hour. But no call came.

It was raining the next morning. Steve arrived at the barbershop at 9:45. He rapped on the door, trying to get the attention of Mike, the shop’s owner and his own barber. He wanted to prepare Mike for what was about to happen.

“Hey, Steve-o! Always happy to see you, but what gives asking me to open an hour early? You can’t be that desperate for a clean-up—I just saw you a week or two ago.” Mike held the door open for Steve, and walked behind him back into the shop.

“I really appreciate you coming in early today, Mike,” Steve said, looking up toward the barber, who stood almost a foot taller than him. “But I’m not here for me. I’m sending you another new customer this morning. One of my clients, Andi.”

“Andy, huh? What are you meeting him here for? Usually you just send me the clients you want to get spruced up for an audition, you don’t come to supervise. And you never ask me to open early.”

“Andi. With an ‘i.’ She’s…well, do you remember Sinead O’Connor?”

“Of course I do. Gorgeous girl. I was pretty young when that video came out and I think it was the first time I’d seen a girl with the kind of haircut my dad gave me and all my friends. I thought she was amazing. I wish more women were inspired by her look.” He paused and cleared his throat. “It’d be great for business, I mean.”

“Well, Andi is about to audition for a musical about a girl who wants to be just like Sinead O’Connor. I thought she might appreciate some privacy.”

“Gotcha,” Mike said, “That won’t be a problem.” Steve thought he saw a flicker of a smile on the barber’s face. “If you’re sending me one of your clients to get Sinead O’Connor’s haircut for an audition, I’m assuming her hair is already pretty short and she doesn’t have much to lose?”

“Ah, no actually.” Steve nodded toward the door, which had just opened.

“Steve? I thought we were meeting outside?” Andi walked in. She was wearing a rain jacket, the hood pulled up over her head so she wouldn’t have to deal with an umbrella in the crowded downtown streets.

“Yeah, but with the rain…” Steve began to explain, but he trailed off as she lowered her hood. Beside him, he heard Mike let out a low whistle.

“Yeah,” she said, shaking out nearly three feet of blonde curls, made even curlier by the ambient humidity. She didn’t appear to have heard Mike’s whistle. “That makes sense.”

“Andi, this is Mike,” Steve said. “He’s been my barber for a few years now and I send him a lot of my clients.”

Mike held out his hand. It looked enormous next to Andi’s, but he was too busy staring at her hair to notice. “So far only his male clients, though,” the barber added. “This is a nice change of pace.”

Andi took his hand and shook it firmly, but without enthusiasm. She took a moment to size up the barber. Tall, square jawed, a little older than her, and just handsome enough to make this whole situation even more embarrassing. It just figured that the man making her bald was someone she absolutely would have been interested in dating, but who surely would have no interest in her after today. “Did Steve already tell you why I’m here?”

“Something about Sinead O’Connor.”

“Yeah. Let’s get on with it.” She walked further into the shop. “Which chair is yours?”

“I usually work in the first chair but we can go further away from the window if you want. Give you a little privacy.”

“No need to move all your stuff. If this works out, the whole world is going to see me bald soon anyway.” He locked the door of his shop and crossed back toward his chair, where Andi was now settling in.

Steve had worried Andi would be anxious, but she seemed resolute. “You doing okay?” he asked her as she sat in Mike’s chair and he busied himself setting up his station.

“I was up most of the night.”

“Me too.”

“But around sunrise I finally drifted off. And I had a dream that I was at Sweeney Todd’s barber shop and he was shaving my head with a rusty straight-edge while singing ‘Nothing Compares 2U.’ Seemed like a sign from the universe.”

“So you’re good?”

“I’m…sanguine.”

“Take a seat over there,” Mike said to Steve, nodding at the next chair over. “I don’t open for another hour, and the other guys don’t get here till noon on Thursdays, so you’re not going to be in anyone’s way.” Steve gave Andi’s shoulder a little squeeze and took his seat.

The barber gathered Andi’s hair into a ponytail and clipped it to the top of her head with a couple of alligator clips he used for some of his longer-haired clients. He grabbed a neck strip and secured it around Andi’s neck, just below her hairline. Then, grabbing a fresh cape from a drawer at his station, Mike shook it out and let it settle gently around her. Once it, too, was secured into place, he let Andi’s hair back down. It cascaded over the back of the chair, the golden color gleaming in the light that streamed in through the shop’s windows. Never in his life had he been asked to cut hair like this. Part of him thought it was a shame he had to…but part of him couldn’t wait.

Gently, Mike began to run a comb through Andi’s curls. It was all coming off, so it didn’t really matter all that much if there were tangles in it, but he wanted to take a moment to admire her hair before he severed it from her head. He also suspected she would appreciate these last few moments of attention paid to her crowning glory. Finally, he stopped, put his comb down, and made eye contact with Andi in the mirror. “So how are we doing this?” he asked her, a tinge of awe in his voice.

“I’ve never shaved my head before,” she answered. “You’re the expert. You tell me.”

“Well, then the first thing I’m going to tell you is that technically, Sinead O’Connor’s head wasn’t shaved. Her hair was just buzzed short with hair clippers. If her head had been fully shaved you wouldn’t have seen that shadow of hair. So, the good news today is that you’re leaving here with some hair.”

“Oh that is good news!” Steve chimed in from beside them.

“Steve, I appreciate your support, but you’re not helping right now,” Andi replied, shutting Steve up immediately. Then, to Mike, she said: “You said that was the good news. I assume there’s bad news, then?”

“Depends on your interpretation,” Mike said. “It’s just that you’re very blonde and so even with the hair I’d be leaving behind, you’re going to look…pretty bald.”

“Considering that I already expected to leave here completely bald, I think I can live with that.”

“Okay,” Mike said. He was surprised by how calm she was. He hadn’t been a party to all the weeks of Andi’s tears that led up to this moment. “So are you going to want to keep or donate your hair? Or should I just throw it away when I’m done? For what it’s worth, it would seem like a shame to throw it away.”

“Yeah, I guess, can we just keep it for now and decide what to do with it later?”

“Sure, of course. It just affects the way I do the cutting.” Mike began to section Andi’s hair into several small ponytails, all over her head. “If you know how to make braids, you can speed this up a little bit and braid the ponytails I’ve already made while I finish the rest. Andi nodded and began absentmindedly braiding the first section she grabbed, staring quizzically into the mirror as if she wasn’t entirely sure how she’d gotten there.

“You still okay?” Steve asked, noticing the expression on her face. Beneath her cape, Andi just barely perceptibly shrugged. In a few minutes, her long curly hair had been transformed to a wild collection of blonde braids, springing in every direction from her head.

“If your goal was to make me look as ridiculous as possible so I’d be begging you to cut my hair, you’ve succeeded,” Andi said to Mike as they both looked at her reflection in the mirror.

“Does that mean you’re ready?” Mike asked.

“I don’t think I’m ever really going to be ready, but I’m here. You might as well start.”

“Do you need me to come hold your hand?” Steve asked, from the next chair.

Andi nodded, and Steve crossed over, standing in front of her while Mike positioned himself behind, and took both hands. Steve was not very tall, but he worked out almost daily and his broad shoulders blocked the mirror right in front of Andi. Because of this, she could not see, but could certainly feel, Mike pulling a braid near the crown of her head taut. “Last chance to change your mind. After I cut this, there’s no turning back.”

“Please just get it over with,” Andi said. Mike closed the blades of his shears below the rubber band where the braid started, no more than an inch above Andi’s scalp. She could hear the slicing blades over her head and felt the sound all the way in her bones. Her stomach dropped and her eyes felt hot. After a few seconds, the tension on her head eased, the slicing sound stopped, and Mike was laying something on the counter at his station. Her hair, surely.

As Mike placed the first long blonde braid down, Steve felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He gave Andi’s left hand a gentle squeeze with his right, and released her, retrieving his phone and looking briefly at the screen. It was a text from the Sweeney Todd casting director. “Just came from our final casting meeting. Director wants Andi! She mentioned something about changing her hair today for another show? Hope it’s not too late—her hair was one of the big reasons he chose her over the second pick. Call me when you can, so we can work out the contract.” Steve put his phone back in his pocket. Mike had already cut two more braids from the top of Andi’s head while he read the message—short tufts of blonde hair sprung up in their absence. If only the message had come through ten minutes earlier! But now, it wouldn’t do anyone any good if he shared the contents of his message.

He returned his hand to Andi’s and studied her face. Her classically pretty face, with its big blue eyes staring fixedly ahead in the direction of the mirror, even though Steve’s body still blocked it. He found it hard to read her expression.

Andi started slightly when Steve placed his hand back on hers. “Everything okay?” she asked.

“Yeah. Just a text. Not important. You okay?”

Mike pulled another braid taut, this one near Andi’s left temple. Schniiiiink. The blades closed next to her ear and at the same time she squeezed her eyes shut, wincing slightly at the sound, a tear forcing its way out one eye and rolling down her cheek. “I’ve made peace with my decision,” she replied to Steve, even though she was still clearly affected by each cut made by Mike’s shears.

“You’re doing great,” Mike chimed in, selecting another braid near the last one he had cut, pulling it slightly away from Andi’s head, and placing his shears at its base. He fluttered the blades slightly as he began to cut—this was a thicker braid than the last few had been—and soon enough that plait, too, had come loose in his hand. “Really, really great.” Because Steve was standing in front of the mirror, Mike couldn’t see Andi’s face as he cut, or the shape of her head as it emerged from beneath the severed hair. But as he walked the few steps to his counter to lay each braid down, he would sneak a look back at Andi. She was clearly upset, but not nearly as much as he would have expected, or as she’d led him to believe she would be. The severed hair left on her head stood in ridiculous contrast to the long braids that were still present, but he knew he’d be evening out everything soon enough. Mike could already tell that by the time she left his shop, she’d be even more beautiful than Sinead O’Connor had been at the peak of her career.

Mike may have understated his feelings about Sinead O’Connor when Steve first arrived at the shop. It wasn’t just that seeing her “Nothing Compares 2U” music video was the first time he’d seen a woman with hair that short; he was seven years old at the time, and generally not interested in girls yet, but Sinead O’Connor became his first celebrity crush. His dad had teased him a little at the time, saying “I guess that’s what I get for raising my son in a barber shop,” but Mike’s infatuation with O’Connor didn’t subside. Five years later, when he was 12 and Robin Tunney shaved her head live in the opening minutes of Empire Records, Mike had a new crush, and a new favorite movie. At fifteen, he started working after school and on Saturdays in his Dad’s shop and he always hoped someday a girl would come in, asking his father to give her the full Sinead, but none ever did. At 18, the girl Mike was dating let him give her the tiniest nape undercut, but she never seemed enthusiastic about showing it off, and quickly told Mike she planned to grow it out. At 25—about the same age as the girl who now sat before him, sacrificing bundle after bundle of straw-colored hair—a different girlfriend showed up for a date, to Mike’s absolute delight, with her previously shoulder-length hair cut into a trendy, shaggy pixie; for the next two years, until they broke up, she kept her hair more or less in this style and would let Mike touch up her neck between cuts, but never let him do anything more, despite the fact that he was, by then, practically running his dad’s barbershop.

In the years since then, Mike took full control of the shop after his father retired to Florida and continued to cater to its mostly male clientele. He dated many women, some with long hair and some short—not as short as he had dreamed of—and he held out hope that some day, a woman he was dating, or, hell, just some woman off the street, would ask him to cut all her hair off. Which was more or less exactly what was happening now.

“Mike, buddy, you okay?” Steve asked, interrupting Mike’s reverie.

Mike shook his head and blinked, returning to the present. “Yeah, sorry, I, uh, had a long night.” He selected another braid and snipped it close to Andi’s scalp. The left side of her head now matched the top—short patches of blonde hair, some still hinting at Andi’s natural curly texture but most too short for even that. “We’re about halfway done with this part.”

“This part?” Andi asked from below.

“The cutting. Then I’ll use the clippers to even everything up and you’ll be looking like Sinead O’Connor in no time.”

Andi did not reply, but did let out a long sigh.

“Sorry it’s taking so long,” Mike explained. “You just have a lot of hair.”

“Had,” Andi corrected him.

“Had,” Mike agreed, snipping off the braid that hung nearest her right temple. He continued to work for several minutes in silence, finding a rhythm as he snipped each long braid off the side of Andi’s head and placed it on his counter, which was now teeming with golden plaits. When there was nothing left to cut except the braids on the back of Andi’s head, Mike asked Steve if he could grab a bag that they could put the severed hair into from the closet in the back, before it all fell onto the floor.

“If I move I’m not blocking the mirror anymore,” Steve said to Mike. Then, to Andi: “Is that okay?” Andi nodded, but the second Steve released her hands, before he moved from his station, her hands flew up to her closed eyes to prevent her from seeing her reflection.

“You know,” Mike said, selecting a section of hair just below Andi’s occipital bone and placing his scissors at its root, “You’re going to have to look in a mirror eventually. Your hair’s gonna look like this for quite a while.”

“I’m just not ready yet,” Andi said. “I think I want to wait until you’re totally finished, though.”

Mike closed his blades, severing yet another braid from Andi’s head. “Fair enough,” he said, returning to his silent rhythm.

Steve returned with a large plastic shopping bag. “This is all I could find.”

“That’ll work.” Mike nodded toward the pile of hair on his counter. “Would you mind?”

Steve looked somewhat helplessly at his client, her head now almost entirely bare of its blonde curls, her hands held over her eyes, which were clenched shut. He would feel so bad if this was all for naught. Taking advantage of the fact Andi could not see what he was doing, he snapped a photo of the pile of hair on the counter and attached it to a text to Marcia. “This had better be worth it,” he typed. He had no idea what to say to the other casting director and decided to wait a bit longer before replying to the text about the Sweeney Todd offer. He slid his phone back into his pocket and began picking up Andi’s severed hair and placing it, one bundle at a time, into the bag. He was surprised at how soft it was. A faint odor of Andi’s shampoo drifted up as he worked.

“Okay,” Mike announced. “Last one.” Mike grabbed the final braid, right at Andi’s nape. He placed his blades almost her neck and she let out an involuntary shudder, feeling his hands, his blades, so close to her head. She was used to having men’s hands in this spot, of course, but not to the absence of hair between her skin and theirs. Slowly, Mike began to slice through the hair, prolonging the moment as long as he could. Finally, the final strands were severed, and the plait came free in Mike’s hand. Steve, having already picked up the rest of the hair, held the bag up so Mike could drop the braid in to join the others. This done, he put the bag down on Mike’s counter and returned to stand in front of Andi, easing her hands off her eyes so he could hold them again.

“How bad is it?” Andi asked him, opening her eyes once she was confident Steve was blocking the mirror.

“You’re going to look great,” Steve assured her.

“Okay, but how bad is it right now?”

“Pretty comically bad,” he said, smiling at Andi. I’ll take a picture and if you want to see it later, I’ll send it to you.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and switched it to camera mode. Andi shot him a slightly pained smile as he took the photo. Before he could put his phone back in his pocket, though, a message from Marcia came through. “Holy shit, that’s a lot of hair!” she had written. Then, in a second message, “I’m not telling Meredith because I want it to be a surprise. Does Andi have a hat or something she can wear when she first comes in, and then she can give Meredith the big reveal?”

“She as wearing a hooded raincoat when she got here,” Steve replied. “Is that enough?”

“YES,” Marcia texted back a second later. “Meredith loves drama. She’s going to be WOWED. Don’t send me a photo of the final look. I want to be wowed, too.”

“Wowed enough to cast my client?” Steve typed.

“We’ll see…” came Meredith’s response.

Suddenly, the sound of a loud pop followed by a low, steady hum. Mike had turned his clippers on. Steve returned his phone to his pocket once again and took Andi’s hands.

“Who were you texting with?” she asked him.

“Marcia,” he said. “She says to come into the audition room with your hood pulled up, and then to lower it dramatically when you start.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Andi said. “I think I’m going to be wearing my hood up for the next couple of months, at least.”

“Don’t tell me you’re going to be embarrassed by the beautiful haircut I’m giving you,” Mike said. Then, he placed one hand on top of Andi’s head and gently guided it downward. “Point your chin down, please.”

Andi did not resist Mike’s touch—in fact, she surprised herself at how readily she complied with his instructions. There was something about the weight of his hand, the warmth she could feel coming off it, that calmed her. It was too bad it would be years before a guy who looked like him would want anything to do with her.

Mike placed his clippers at the base of Andi’s neck. She felt the tips from the plastic guard press into her skin. Suddenly, the machine had thrust upward, its vibrations clearing at least another inch of length from the back of Andi’s head. A quarter of an inch of hair remained, but it was so blonde that it was barely perceptible. Mike steadied his breathing, suddenly aware of a tightness forming under the fly of his blue jeans and grateful that the apron he wore would conceal it. He returned his clippers to the base of Andi’s neck, slightly to the right of where he made his first pass, and then pushed them upward again. More blonde tufts separated easily from Andi’s head. More blonde stubble emerged.

Andi still couldn’t see anything that was happening, but she could certainly feel it. To her surprise, the warm vibrations of the clippers as they made their way up her nape felt pleasant, like a gentle massage. A massage that was robbing her of the last vestiges of her curls, she reminded herself. How long until her hair would curl again? How long until she could make a ponytail? Until she could pull her hair forward over her shoulders and cover her breasts in the way so many boyfriends had loved? God, she had better get this part. The shot at a Tony nomination almost made the certainty that it would be years before a man touched her again worth it. She could almost see herself on the red carpet, wearing an amazing gown and doubtlessly an amazing wig, because she was not showing up at the Tonys bald. Mike guided her left ear toward her shoulder, somehow both gently and firmly, then began to run his clippers up the right side of her head. Her ear was filled with the machine’s buzzing. She knew what it meant, and she hated even the knowledge of it, but still, the feeling of the vibrating machine and the barber’s large hand were reassuring.

Steve watched Andi as Mike stripped the last traces of blonde curls from the right side of her head, and then guided her right ear toward her shoulder. Andi’s eyes were closed, which did not surprise him…but he thought he saw the faintest hint of a smile, which did. It had been a long time since anyone had run a set of clippers all over his head. He always hated the way he looked with his middle school “summer cuts,” as his dad put it. Still, the experience of getting the cut itself was always sort of nice, the vibrating machine almost lulling him to sleep until the barber removed his cape and helped him out of the chair. “Feels kind of good, doesn’t it?” he said to Andi. She didn’t say anything in reply, but Steve thought he might have heard the faintest feminine moan beneath the sound of the machine.

Mike made one last pass up the left side of Andi’s head, which was now as nearly-bare as the right. The only thing left to do was the top, which had looked so short only moments ago and now looked so very long. “Steve, I need you to let go of Andi’s hands so I can spin her to face me.” The agent gave his client’s hands another squeeze and let go. Andi’s back now faced the mirror. Her eyes, if she had wanted to open them, would have been aligned with Mike’s pelvis. Once again, he was grateful for the apron. “Almost done with this part, okay?” he asked Andi.

“This part?” she asked. “What else can you possibly do?”

“So, right now, I’m just finishing using a number two guard all over your head. I was going to fade it down from there, so it’s shorter on the back and sides than on the top.”

“I thought you said you didn’t need to completely shave my head?”

“I don’t. I won’t. This will just complete the look.”

Andi sighed. “Fine. I leave myself in your capable hands.”

“If you want, I can show you what it looks like with the number two all over, and we can decide?”

“It’s fine,” Andi said. “We’ve come this far already.”

Mike placed his still-humming clippers at the center of Andi’s forehead. Without another word, he guided them back toward her crown, carving an aisle through the field of shortened blonde hair that had still covered the top of her head. His pants got tighter. He prayed his apron wouldn’t betray him. He returned his clippers to their starting point, pushed them back. The path of stubble was wider now. Just a few more passes and the longest hair on Andi’s head would be a quarter of an inch. He noticed a small whorl right on her crown where she must have had a cowlick that went unnoticed before due to the weight and length of her hair. He traced its swirl with his thumb. “Did you know you have a cowlick here?” he asked.

“Not really,” Andi said, resisting the temptation to push the top of her head into Mike’s circling thumb. She didn’t know what he was doing, exactly, but it felt amazing. She tried to collect herself. “My hair has never been this short. The last time it was even close, I did notice that some of the curls in that spot didn’t want to behave as my hair was growing out, but I didn’t think anything of it.”

Mike made one final circle. “If you decide to grow your hair long again, this guy might give you a little difficulty. I’d recommend seeing someone who’s good with curly hair to help you figure out how to get over that awkward phase.” His clippers returned to her forehead and made another pass, pushing up and over her crown and dropping the hair they gathered behind her.

Steve noticed Mike’s word choice there. “If,” not “when.” He couldn’t imagine Andi wouldn’t start growing her hair long again the second she could, but he had to admit, now that her haircut was almost complete, that she pulled off the super-short hair very well.

Only one narrow strip of longer hair remained on Andi’s head, a few curls still fighting their way through. Mike pushed his clippers across it and suddenly the last traces of the actress’s curls were on the ground. He kept the clippers running and began to run his left hand over Andi’s head, checking to make sure everything seemed even. If any hair seemed even a fraction of a fraction of an inch off, he ran the buzzing machine back over that spot. He was trying to be professional, but the feeling of those velvety bristles on top of the head of a beautiful actress was almost too much for him.

Andi, too, was enjoying the feeling of Mike’s hand running all over the top and sides of her head. She wasn’t exactly surprised—she’d been enjoying the feeling of Mike’s hand on her head for almost an hour how—but still, she never would have expected to feel anything but horror and despair at this point, to say nothing of a twinge of delight. And…perhaps something else? Finally, Mike seemed satisfied that every hair on Andi’s head had been cut evenly. Andi tried not to pout when he removed his hand and turned the clippers off.

Mike removed his guard and went to pick up the next one down. Did he notice the briefest twinge of disappointment when he stepped away from Andi? Or was his mind running away from him at the thought of having so shorn such a beautiful girl? He placed the number one guard on his clippers and told Andi he was turning her back to face the mirror.

Steve resumed his position as shield between his client and the inevitable first look she’d get at her new identity. Once she stopped spinning, Andi opened her eyes and looked up at Steve. “Now how bad is it?”

“Honestly…” Steve began. “Honestly you look fantastic. I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised. I know Marcia and Meredith will be.”

“She’s going to look even better when I finish,” Mike said to Steve. Then, once more placing his hand atop Andi’s head: “chin down for me again, please.”

Andi felt Mike once again place the clippers at the base of her neck and draw them upward, this time stopping lower than he had previously—just above her occipital bone. He didn’t seem to be wasting any time, making careful, quick pass after careful, quick pass, using one hand to guide her head while the the other held tight to the buzzing device Mike was using to remove even more of her hair. It tickled a little when he folded her ears down to make sure those areas were trimmed evenly with the rest, but she didn’t mind. As before, when it seemed as if he had cut every hair he could, he ran the blades over the entirety of the area he had just shortened, using his hands to make sure nothing was missed. Andi didn’t want him to stop. It was just her luck that she was getting excited by a guy who was stripping her of her femininity and who probably wouldn’t want anything to do with her after he was finished.

Mike turned the clippers off and removed his guard completely. “Okay,” he said. “Last step.” He wished it wasn’t, that he could keep running his hands and his clippers over this beautiful head for hours longer. For the last time, he eased Andi’s chin toward her chest and placed his clippers at the base of her neck. Did Sinead O’Connor have a skin fade? He couldn’t remember, actually. But Andi was getting one. He ran the unguarded clippers upward, well above her hairline so that it appeared as her neck was suddenly three inches longer. He brought the clippers back down to the starting point, shifted them over slightly, and repeated the action. As blonde as Andi’s hair was, there was still a definite difference between the hair still left on her head and her completely denuded nape. He grabbed a smaller set of clippers and began to run them carefully up and over Andi’s ear, once again folding it down, then he inverted the machine and carved a clear, sharp curve. This was the part of the cut that required the most concentration, and he realized how close his face was to Andi’s ear as he carefully cleared the hairless path. Her cute, little ear, now exposed for all the world to see. He wondered briefly what it might be like to nibble on it. He did not know Andi was wondering the same thing at that moment: what would it be like if the handsome barber were to nibble on her ear?

Steve, oblivious of both Mike’s and Andi’s internal monologues, watched as even more of his client’s once-glorious mane hit her cape and the ground. She was stunning, but it was quite the change. He hoped that, even if she didn’t get the part, she would at least come to appreciate the leap of faith she took that day (and also the versatility that would come with wearing different wigs to future auditions—a short black bob for Chicago,  long and straight and brown for Hair, cascading red tresses for The Little Mermaid…the possibilities were endless, and she was sure to stand out from the crowd).

Mike had worked his way around to Andi’s other ear, carefully, closely, examining his work. It was important to him that this haircut was perfectly executed, both because he had waited for so long to give one like it and because he understood how much Andi had riding on this radical new style. Andi could feel his breath on the side of her head, a strange new sensation. Even when her hair was Annie-short, she didn’t remember being able to feel actual air on her head.

“I’m going to spin you around one last time,” Mike announced, switching his clippers off. Steve gave Andi’s hands another squeeze and let go as the chair turned away from him. He could now see the back of Andi’s head, see how high Mike had taken the fade. The skin became the softest blonde stubble, ever so slightly longer on the top of Andi’s head than on the back and sides. The look was sure to make a statement when she went in for her audition that afternoon.

Mike stood in front of Andi, studying her face carefully. “What?” she asked him. “You’re making me nervous.”

“Sorry. I’m just trying to decide if I should shape your hairline any in the front. I think I’m gonna.” He squatted slightly so that he was level with Andi’s face. Their eyes met for a moment before Mike instructed her to close hers. Switching the smaller set of clippers back on, he began to trace a curved line back from the corner of her left eye toward her ear, then quickly buzzed off all the hair that fell below that line. He repeated himself on Andi’s right. Once finished, Mike reached past her for his neck duster and took a moment to brush away any stray clippings of hair he saw on her face and neck, then he stood back to admire his work. “Open your eyes,” he instructed Andi. “I want to make sure I’m finished.” She did as instructed and took in the effect of the final strokes of his clippers. The change was subtle, but it made her hairline more symmetrical and drew even more attention to her eyes. “Okay,” Mike said after a moment. “I think you’re done. Are you ready to see?”

“No,” Andi said. “But I’m going to have to look in a mirror at some point.” She closed her eyes as Mike spun her back toward the mirror, then held a hand out in the direction she thought Steve was standing. He took it and stood calmly while Andi squeezed with all her might. Mike unfastened Andi’s cape and removed the paper around her neck, then stood back.

“You can open your eyes whenever you’re ready,” Steve said gently to Andi. “Your audition still isn’t for a couple of hours. There’s no hurry.”

Andi squeezed her eyes shut even tighter and took a big inhale, holding it for a moment. Then, as she exhaled, she opened her eyes. Almost immediately, she let out a loud shriek and brought both hands to cover her mouth, letting go of Steve’s hand in the process. Mike and Steve looked at each other, unsure whether Andi was frightened or sad or delighted. Tears sprang to her eyes and she let out a big sob, which then gave way to peals of laughter. “I can’t…I don’t…” she said between breaths, still crying and laughing.

“Breathe, kiddo,” Steve said, giving her shoulder a little squeeze. He wasn’t sure if he should be worried about her or relieved that she had’t collapsed on the floor in grief. He brought one of her hands to his sternum and had her feel his slow, steady breaths, hoping she would match hers to his.

After a few minutes of steady breathing, punctuated by laugh-sobs, Andi issued one final sniffle and wiped a tear away with the back of her hand. “I’m…sorry, I guess? I just really don’t know how to process what I’m seeing. You did a great job, Mike. I just can’t connect the girl I’m seeing to myself.”

“Pretend the girl in the mirror is someone else,” Mike suggested. “If you saw her through a window at a coffee shop, say, what would you think?”

Andi leaned forward and peered at herself more closely in the mirror, slowly turning her head from side to side. Finally, she spoke. “I would think she looks beautiful.”

You are beautiful,” Steve said. “You look beautiful. And you’re going to nail your audition.”

“I hope they like it,” Andi said. “It’s going to take me a while to get used to.”

“If they do like it,” Mike chimed in, “and you get the part…you can come see me any time you need a clean-up. Or even if you don’t get the part but decide you want to keep the look for a little while.” He felt his face get warm. “It’s on the house, in exchange for opening night tickets,” he added, hoping the request would distract from his blushing.

“Thanks, Mike. If I get this part or any other part, I promise to get you those tickets. Oh!” She turned to Steve. “Speaking of other parts, still no word from the Sweeney Todd folks?

Steve had really hoped she wouldn’t ask. “Um, yeah. About that…” he began. “They texted a few seconds after Mike cut the first braid. The part is yours, if you want it…only they asked that you not change your hair.”

Andi let out a sudden, loud cackle, then clamped her hands over her mouth. “Guess I’d better nail the Sinead audition then, huh? I don’t think the Sweeney folks are going to be very happy when they see this.” For the first time, she allowed her hands to drift up to her head. She gave it a few gentle pats that turned into slow, back-and-forth strokes. “Oh wow. This is softer than I was expecting it to be,” she said, almost to herself.

“What should I tell the Sweeney team?” Steve asked, watching his client seeming to enjoy her sudden and somewhat involuntary lack of hair—hair that had finally landed, rather than disqualified her from, a role.

“Um…stall them, I guess?”

“Until your hair grows back?” Mike teased. “That’s going to be several years.”

“Just until I see how today’s audition goes,” Andi replied. “If it doesn’t go well…we’ll have to see where I can get a good wig, fast.” Andi gave her head one last rub, then looked around. “Is there somewhere I can clean myself up? I didn’t want to wear too much makeup this morning in case I’d just cry it off.”

“There’s a bathroom in the back, but honestly the light is better here if you’re doing makeup.”

“Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” Mike wanted to linger—oh! Dolores O’Riordan, another of his cropped-haired teenage crushes—but decided to give Andi as much privacy as the open-plan room would allow. He walked with Steve to the waiting area in the very front of the shop. “Brave girl,” he said to the agent, sitting in a chair.

Talented woman,” Steve corrected, sitting across from the barber. “Thank you so much for opening up early today. Can you imagine what it would have been like if we’d done this while your shop was full of people?”

“Yeah. Which reminds me, I guess I should open the door. It’s 11:30. I don’t think it’s ever taken me that long to cut someone’s hair.”

“Yeah, well, when was the last time you had to cut that much hair?” Steve asked.

“Never,” Mike acknowledged. “But I kinda…always wanted to.” He shook his head quickly. He and Steve were friendly but that was not a conversation he felt they could have. He stood, deflecting. “Good thing nobody was trying to get in right as I opened, huh?” Mike crossed to the front door and turned the lock, then flipped his “open” sign to face the street and sat back down across from Steve.

The two men made small talk for a few minutes longer, before Andi walked up to them. She had clearly studied some old photos of Sinead O’Connor before doing her makeup. Mike was speechless. The girl of his dreams since he was in first grade stood before him, only her eyes where blue where Sinead’s were green, and the faint dusting of hair on her head was blonde as opposed to the Irish singer’s brown shadow. “What do you think?” she asked, turning to look between her agent and her barber. Her barber? The thought was so strange.

“You look perfect,” Steve said. Mike could only nod in agreement.

Andi looked at the barber quizzically. Was he actually speechless? He had the same look in his eyes with which so many man had looked at her in the past, only that was when she had a curtain of golden curls still attached to her head. She smiled at him but addressed both men. “I hope they think so.”

Now that the potential trauma of the haircut was over, Steve was all business. “Listen, you’ve still got an hour and a half before your audition and it’s only going to take you 40 minutes, max, to get uptown. My apartment is just a couple of blocks away—that’s why I come here—if you want to come over and rehearse your music a couple times before you head up?”

“That seems like a good idea,” Andi agreed. She turned to Mike. “We’ll get out of your hair—ha! I didn’t even mean to make that joke. How much do I owe you?”

Mike snapped to attention. “Oh, ah…don’t worry about it.”

“Mike, you just spent an hour and a half with me. Please let me pay you.”

“Or let me,” Steve chimed in, already reaching for his wallet.

“Okay…how about this? If you get the part, you can pay me out of your first check. If you don’t, we’ll call it even. I’d feel awful if I cut all your hair off for nothing, even though it really does look great on you. Think of it as me working on a contingency.”

“God, don’t tell any other actors that,” Steve said. “You’ll never make another dime.”

“Nah,” Mike said, smiling at Andi. “This is a one-time deal.” Secretly, he hoped it was also an enticement for her to return.

“Okay…thank you, Mike,” Andi said. She brought her hand up to her head one more time. “It really does feel nice, doesn’t it?” Then, without awaiting his reply, she grabbed her raincoat, put it on, pulled up the hood, and walked out the door with Steve. It wasn’t until they were out of sight that Mike noticed the pair had left the bag of braids behind.

Ninety minutes later, Andi found herself in the waiting area of the audition space that was being used by the Sinead O’Connor production team. She realized she didn’t even know the actual title of the play until she saw it on the door: Am I Not Your Girl?, after the album of the same name. A few other actresses milled about, some humming tunes that Andi recognized as Sinead O’Connor songs. As far as Andi could tell—that is to say, unless any of them were wearing very convincing wigs—nobody else had shaved her head for the audition. It was warm in the waiting area, but she kept her hood up, concealing her closely-cropped head and feeling somewhat more confident about her chances of impressing  Meredith O’Hara, a director whom until recently Andi had only dreamed of working with.

It wasn’t long before the door to the audition room opened. Marcia, whom Andi recognized from that fateful, failed audition a few weeks prior, looked around the room, her eyes finally landing on the hooded actress. “Andi? Hi. We’re ready for you.”

Andi followed Marcia into the room and closed the door behind her. A few feet away, she spotted a few copies of her resume and headshot on a table. The version of herself smiling up from the glossy photo looked so different from the woman who left Mike’s barbershop that morning. She smiled slightly, knowing her big reveal was only seconds away, and crossed to the table, where she introduced herself to the people she imagined made up the rest of the production team. Very intentionally, she saved Meredith for last. “It really is so nice to meet you,” she said to the director. “I’ve been a fan of your work as long as I can remember.”

“It’s always nice to meet a fan,” Meredith replied, a hint of her Irish accent still present despite her three decades living and working in New York. She was pleasant, but seemed skeptical that the long-haired blonde whose headshot sat on the table before her could be the person she needed. Suddenly, all of Andi’s fears about losing her hair faded away; she couldn’t wait to prove the director’s initial impression of her wrong. She made her way to the other side of the room, where a pianist sat, awaiting further instruction. She handed him her sheet music—it was, of course, “Nothing Compares 2U”—then turned to face the team at the table.

“You know you can take off your coat, dear,” Meredith said. It was more an instruction than an offer, and it was exactly the moment Andi had been waiting for.

She smiled, making eye contact with the director. “Oh yes. Of course.” Without shifting her gaze, Andi raised her hand to her hood and slowly tugged it backward, revealing that all the hair in her headshot was gone.

Many at the table let out a small gasp, but Marcia, who knew the surprise was coming, gave a short nod of approval to Andi; beside her, Meredith was still held in the actor’s gaze. She smiled and sat back in her chair. “What are you singing for us today, Andi?”

The Sweeney Todd casting director texted Steve again, shortly after Andi left for her audition. “I do have the right number, right? Usually when I tell agents I’m casting one of their actors, they call pretty quickly.”

Steve knew he couldn’t put his reply off any further. He’d been thinking about what to tell her since he first saw her message, seconds after it became too late to save Andi’s hair. “Sorry,” he typed. “Was in a meeting. Haven’t had a chance to discuss with Andi yet.” That part was kind of true—beyond letting her know she’d been cast, Steve hadn’t really talked this over with her. “Don’t know what to tell you about her hair.” That part was very true. He honestly did not know what to tell them. “Will get back to you once I talk to her.”

“She has until tomorrow evening.”

“Noted. Thanks.” Shit. He knew there was almost no chance the Sinead show would have made any decisions by the next day. Andi would have to decide between taking the smaller part in Sweeney Todd—if they’d still have her, without her trademark blonde curls—and gambling on the part for which she’d already sacrificed so much.

Andi absolutely nailed her audition song and her cold read, and afterward everyone behind the table wanted to talk to her about her hair. Meredith, especially, seemed impressed—both with her audition and with her commitment. “I have to admit,” she had said, “when Marcia showed me your headshot and said she thought you’d be perfect in this part, I took one look at your hair and said no way is this girl going to shave her head for a show. I’m quite glad to see I was wrong.”

Marcia had walked Andi as far as the door. “Listen,” the casting director said in a hushed tone, “Meredith wants to get this role cast quickly—the investors are eager to see how their money’s being spent, and she wants to choose the rest of her actors based on the lead. Steve’s going to get a call from me in about 15 minutes inviting you for a dance audition tomorrow, so clear your morning. If that goes well, there will be one more round of callbacks Monday, and Meredith plans to have this part cast by the middle of the week. I heard through the grapevine that you were offered the part in Sweeney. I can’t tell you not to take it, obviously, but you’ve already gone through a lot to get here and I’d hate to see you walk away.”

Andi hugged Marcia. “Thank you for the opportunity,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She exited the audition room triumphant, ecstatic at how well that had gone. And then she noticed the other women in the waiting area had all stopped what they were doing and were staring at Andi, who had not pulled her hood back up. She smiled at them, then walked toward the stairwell, her nearly-bald head held high. She’d pull the hood up before she stepped outside into the rain, but for now, right now, she was content for the world to see. Behind her, she heard panicked whispers from the other actors. Should they have shaved their heads, too? As the door to the stairs swung shut, Andi smirked to herself. She wondered if anyone else would be losing their hair by the dance call tomorrow.

Less than a week later, after a grueling dance call, a lengthy final audition, and an awkward video call from Steve’s office with the Sweeney team in which they told her what a mistake she’d be making if she walked away and begged her to reconsider her decision to gamble on another show instead of going with a sure thing, at least until she removed the knit cap she was wearing and the director wished her well and disconnected the call without another word, Andi got the call she had been waiting for.

“Steve! Do you have news?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. Andi thought sounded a little sad. “Kind of bad news,” he continued.

“Fuck!” Andi shouted. She really had put all her eggs in one basket and if this part didn’t come through, she’d be left without hair and without a part, back in the audition grind.

“I know. I’m sorry. It really sucks that you’re not going to be able to start growing your hair out for at least the next nine months.”

“What?!”

“You got the part, kiddo.”

Andi burst into sobs. These were not the sad tears she had wept in Steve’s office a few weeks earlier, or the confused tears that issued forth last week when Mike revealed her new look. “I got the part?” she asked between sniffles.

“They’re sending the paperwork across now. Swing by my office later to go over everything and sign it?”

“I’ll go over now, if you’ll have me. I’m worried that if I don’t sign the contract now it won’t be real.”

“It’s real. And I have to say, I did a good job negotiating the terms, too. You get your first check as soon as they get the contract back. Oh—before I forget, the marketing team wants to take some promo photos the day after tomorrow, to start building up excitement for the show. They asked if they should have a hair stylist on hand, or if you’d get yourself cleaned up beforehand.”

“Tell them I’ll take care of it,” Andi said, putting a hand to the side of her head and noticing that it was beginning to feel a little scruffy, even though it hadn’t even been a week since all her hair had been cut off. “I’ll see you in a few.”

The following evening, just before 7 p.m., Andi found herself walking into the barbershop. A barber was sweeping up bits of hair from the floor, but she didn’t see Mike, her barber. “Sorry, we’re closed for the night,” the man said on hearing the sound of the door open. He did not even glance behind him to see who he was talking to.

“Oh, uh, I was actually just hoping I could talk to Mike?”

The barber looked up on hearing a woman’s voice. “Wait,” he said, sizing her up, “I don’t suppose you’re Andi, are you?”

Andi rubbed her head and smiled at the man. “I guess Mike told you about last week?”

“He’s barely stopped talking about you. I’m Bobby. I’ll go get him—he’s just doing the books for the night.” The barber began to make his way to the back. “Yo Mike!” he shouted. “Someone here to talk to you.”

Mike emerged from the room that doubled as the shop’s office and break room, smiling easily. When he saw Andi, he faltered slightly, but recovered. “Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” she replied.

“Bobby, you were just headed out, right?”

To his credit, the other barber knew how to take a hint. “Yeah. Yeah, I was,” he agreed with his boss, even though he hadn’t yet finished cleaning his station. “You two have a good night.”

Mike followed Bobby to the door, then locked it and flipped the sign that hung from it to “closed.”

The two stared at each other for a minute. Mike finally broke the silence. “You left all of your hair here. I didn’t know what to do with it. It’s still in the bag in the back. I’ve been meaning to call Steve…”

Andi reached into her purse and retrieved a piece of paper. “I’m here about our contingency agreement,” she said. “This is my first check from the production company behind Am I Not Your Girl?, which opens in five months. So I believe I owe you for a haircut.”

Mike grinned. “You got the part?”

“I got the part!”

They were still standing across the room from each other. Neither knew what to do here. Should they hug? They barely knew each other. This time, Andi broke the silence. “I just picked up the check from Steve’s place—that’s why I’m in the neighborhood—so I haven’t deposited it and I can’t technically pay you from the check, but I wanted to come over anyway and settle up and say thank you.” She tucked the check back into her purse and began to remove her wallet.

Mike took a few steps toward her. “No, listen. You keep that money. You earned it.” God, she was beautiful.

It was Andi’s turn to advance toward Mike. “You earned it, too.” God, he was hot. “But if you won’t take my money, think of it as taking the producers’ money. They’re going to reimburse me for all my haircuts through the end of my contract. They seem to have liked your work, so if it’s okay with you, I’d like to keep coming by when I need a clean-up. Starting now, actually. My hair grows fast and we have a photo shoot the day after tomorrow, but I guess in general I’ll be able to go a little longer between cuts?”

“Yeah,” Mike stammered. Was he really going to get to keep cutting Andi’s hair—what little of it there was—for the next several months or longer? He collected himself. “I mean, once a week if you really want to keep it looking sharp, but because you’re so blonde, regrowth won’t be immediately obvious and you can probably get away with coming in every two to three weeks.”

“Do you have time to clean me up now? I can come back in the morning.” Andi unconsciously rubbed her head as she said this. Mike immediately forgot whether he had plans for the rest of the evening.

“No, uh, now is good. Have a seat.”

Once Andi sat and Mike had her caped, he began to feel a bit more in control of himself again. This was his domain. He was a professional, after all. Still, Andi had been running through his thoughts all week and now the beautiful, nearly bald woman sat in front of him once again. And would continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

“So listen,” Andi said as Mike oiled his clippers, standing just outside her peripheral vision. “I’m just going to say this because I’m feeling very bold lately, but if I’m totally off the mark just forget about everything I said and point me toward another barber if it’s especially awkward, but…” No, she told herself. Don’t do it. He was just being nice. Professional. She sent her mind a signal to chill out. “I kind of get the feeling that if I were to ask you to get a drink with me after we’re done here, you wouldn’t say no.”

He smiled, knowing Andi couldn’t see it. “Are you asking me?”

“Would you say yes?”

Mike turned his freshly oiled clippers on and placed one hand on the crown of Andi’s head. “Point your chin down,” he instructed.

Of course it was a yes.

18 responses to “The Role of a Lifetime

  1. You may want to use a few less words. Honestly nobody wants to read that long of a story in this forum. First thing I do is glance at how long spoken the author is. This one could be considered a novel. 🙄

    1. The extra back story really helps to add dimension to the main character, something
      I struggle with. The slow burn to the inevitable cut was really well done, too.

      Sometimes a long story can be full of extraneous asides, which take me out of the
      experience. This story just pulled me deeper into it’s world.

      1. Thank you! One of the things I find most exciting in a lot of these stories is that slow burn, as you describe it. (I’m also going to say that’s my excuse of the two unfinished series I’ve got up right now. Just trying to make everyone shudder in antici…pation.)

    1. Thanks! Honestly, I write this stuff for me and I’m glad when it resonates with you folks. Sometimes what I write is short. Sometimes it’s long. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  2. AB,

    What a wonderful story. Key word … STORY.

    Black Leone was spot on with his comment! It is so sad that there are so many Whoknows out there who simply have no idea what constitutes a story … backstory, details, fleshing out main characters, creating something special and memorable … just like you did in ‘The Role of a Lifetime’.

    Thanks for staying true to yourself, ang giving us your best! And, as always, your best keeps inspiring your fellow writers … and countless, appreciative readers.

    Jenna

    1. Thank you, Jenna. I know that a lot of the folks here, especially the writers I really admire, care about things like good writing and character and plot development. If that’s not what someone is looking for, they can move along. The comment was completely unnecessary, but whatever. In my professional writing career, I’ve gotten a lot worse.

  3. Wow, this was a hefty one! Thank you for putting some much care and effort and time into it, because it really shows. I loved her fearful anticipation and how it gradually turned into something else. You managed to create a lot of tension that didn’t even have to do with the haircut, and it worked well.

    Thanks for sharing it with us!

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