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She marched briskly down the sidewalk despite the driving rain, her shoulders back, her chin thrust resolutely forward. Her auburn hair was partially covered by a green plaid scarf; the collar of her red wool coat was drawn tightly around her neck to protect against the biting January wind. The cold rain pelted her face. She looked neither left nor right until she reached the entrance of the small shop. The faded gold lettering on the window read “Lou’s Barber Shop.” She peered through the glass and saw to her relief that there were no customers inside.

She pulled the door handle and entered the warm interior. A stringent odor instantly filled her nostrils, not the antiseptic smell of the hospital where she worked, more like the aroma of her father’s aftershave lotion, a distinctive masculine scent.

The white-haired barber looked up from his newspaper. “Can I help you, miss?” he politely inquired. She had to chuckle; she was nearing fifty; it had been years since anyone had called her “miss.” This must be Lou, she thought, the ancient proprietor who had cut hair at this location for more years than people in town could remember. Nearly everyone looked young to him.

“Yes, I have an appointment with Maria,” the woman announced. She looked around the room searching in vain for a second barber.

“What you say?” the old man asked, cupping his hand behind his right ear. He must be hard of hearing, she thought.

“Maria,” she almost shouted. “I have an appointment with Maria.”

He nodded to acknowledge that he heard. “You want Maria? Stepped out to get some smokes,” he informed her. “Be back in a minute. Can I help?”

She smiled again. She had no intention of accepting his offer. “No thanks. I’ll wait,” she said more loudly than normal.

“Take a seat. Make yourself comfortable,” the barber said, gesturing toward an empty row of worn plastic chairs arranged in front of the plate glass window.

She untied the knot that held the scarf, removed the coat, thrust the scarf into its sleeve, and hung the wet garment on a rack behind the door. She tossed her shoulder length hair and grinned self-consciously at the curious barber. He seemed puzzled by her presence. Why was he staring at her? Clearly, this was not a place that women usually patronized. She wondered if she had made a mistake. It would be so easy to walk out the door and disappear before Maria returned. But, no, she had come this far, she would not turn back now.

She chose a chair near the door and peered out the window searching for the absent barber. The street was nearly empty, only a few vehicles driving through the steady rain. No sign of Maria. She inspected a pile of outdated magazines stacked on the low table in front of her. Sports Illustrated, Field and Stream, Business Week-nothing of interest there. She turned her attention to the muted television propped in a corner of the room. Actors in a soap opera conversed earnestly about some unknown emergency. She could care less.

She crossed her legs and examined the furnishings in the small shop. Two throne-like barber chairs with red leather seats and gleaming chrome arms dominated the room. The white jacketed proprietor occupied the one opposite the door. The other must belong to Maria, she concluded. Wide leather straps hung from each chair, their function was a mystery to her. An antique cash register, even older than the proprietor, stood near the door. Posted above the register was a hand lettered sign. “REGULAR HAIRCUTS $12. FLATTOPS $14,” it proclaimed. How much for a lady’s haircut, she wondered.

Two huge mirrors covered the back wall, each one bordered by a collage of snapshots. The photos behind Lou’s chair showed him posing proudly with a series of enormous fish. The old man obviously was an avid angler. The most prominent picture behind Maria’s station showed a chubby girl of four or five in a pink dress; several smaller shots of the same child as a baby completed the collection. That must be her daughter, she thought. An official looking document taped to the mirror contained a mug shot of an unsmiling woman with short dark hair. Maria’s barber’s license, no doubt.

Lou tried to fill the awkward silence. “Lousy weather we’re having,” he observed, selecting the safest possible topic.

“Sure is,” the seated woman agreed. Her curt response signaled a desire to avoid conversation. Still, he persisted.

“Your first time?” he inquired.

He did not have to explain; she understood the thrust of his cryptic query. This was her first time in this or any barber shop. It was easy to tell by the length of her hair, she supposed. A woman might enter here with long hair, but she wouldn’t leave that way. “Yes, my first time,” she answered softly. To deflect any further questions, she selected a dog eared magazine at random and began leafing through its pages. The aged barber got the message. She didn’t want to talk about it. He slowly lifted himself out of his comfortable chair and grabbed the broom standing in a corner of the room. He methodically swept the white tile floor, reaching under the two large chairs, guiding a pile of black, brown, and gray clippings into a dust pan. How many hundreds of times had he performed this mundane task, she wondered.

The door suddenly burst open, letting a blast of cold damp air into the cozy space. A very wet younger woman clutching a dripping umbrella charged into the room. “Christ, it’s nasty out there!” she called to no one in particular. So this is Maria, the woman thought. She collapsed her umbrella and removed her soaking wet raincoat. “At least it’s not snowing,” she observed more cheerfully. She ran her fingers through her damp hair, pushing it back off her face. The woman studied her boyish haircut-clipped short in back and up around the ears, but longer on top with full bangs pushed dramatically across her forehead, rather like Demi Moore in “Ghost.” How would she look with her hair cut that length, she wondered. Soon she would find out.

At first Maria seemed unconcerned about the woman who sat waiting impatiently. Then Lou spoke. “Maria, you got a customer,” he said, nodding toward the seated figure.

Maria turned to face the only other person in the room. “Oh shit! You must be Mrs. Sullivan. I completely forgot. I’m really sorry,” she apologized.

“That’s okay,” the older woman said graciously as she rose from her seat, smoothed her dress, and extended her hand. “I’m Katherine Sullivan. It’s Ms. Sullivan, I’m not married,” she corrected her.

“Maria Castellano,” the younger woman replied, eagerly shaking her customer’s manicured hand. “Hope you weren’t waiting too long.”

“Not too long,” the older woman lied. She didn’t like being kept waiting but was too well-mannered to show her annoyance. She detected the odor of cigarettes on the brash young barber. She was not a smoker and disliked the smell. She didn’t appreciate her coarse language either. Again she questioned her decision to come to this place, but it was too late to make a graceful exit.

“Why don’t we get started,” Maria gaily offered as she escorted her customer the few steps to her station. “Have a seat,” she said, holding the chair. The older woman climbed up, slid into the leather seat, and placed her arms on the chrome armrests. The barber turned the chair so her customer looked directly into the large mirror. The woman brushed a stray strand of hair off her forehead and tucked it behind her ear. She smiled as if she found the incongruous sight of her elegant figure in these shabby surroundings mildly amusing.

Maria reached into a cabinet and extracted a maroon polyester cloth that she draped around the woman’s shoulders and fastened behind her neck. She pumped a pedal beneath the chair four times, raising her customer a foot higher. Next she selected a large black comb from a container on the counter beneath the mirror and began running it through the woman’s center part
ed locks. Their color once had been a rich reddish brown, but now a liberal sprinkling of gray threatened to dominate. Maria repeatedly tried to curl the ends under to fashion a smooth page boy, but they resisted her coaxing. What would have been a sleek, classic style with more pliant hair instead resembled an unmanageable thicket. She put down her comb and ran her fingers through the woman’s hair, getting a feel for its coarse texture. It was the kind of hair that always was a challenge to shape. The woman observed her scowling. “It’s the weather,” she explained. “When it’s rainy like today I can’t do a thing with it. That’s one of the reasons I came here.”

“I see,” the barber agreed. “So how d’ya want it cut?” she asked nonchalantly. It was a routine question, one that usually did not cause fear, yet the woman felt her stomach tighten.

“I’m interested in something shorter,” she replied deliberately. She had anticipated this moment many times in the last week. She wanted her words to seem casual and relaxed, as if this haircut was no big deal, but they came out sounding rehearsed.

“How much shorter?” the barber continued. Another perfectly predictable question, yet the words only added to her nervousness.

Again she had a practiced response. “Quite a bit shorter,” she quickly answered. This would not be enough, she knew; some elaboration was required. “I saw how you cut Karen Alexander’s hair and thought something about that length might work for me too.”

“So you’re Mrs. Alexander’s friend,” Maria beamed, recognizing the name of a recent client. “She said she was gonna recommend me to her friends, but I didn’t think nothing would come of it.”

“Yes, I’ve known Karen since high school. When I told her I was thinking about getting rid of this mop,” she said, gesturing at her unruly locks, “she said I should come see you.” Of course, that wasn’t exactly the way it had happened, but her barber didn’t need to know the whole story.

She didn’t think it was necessary to relate how shocked she had been when her closest companion for more than three decades appeared two months ago with her hair cut radically short. For years Karen’s gleaming black tresses had hung to the middle of her back. They had been her trademark, the envy of all their girl friends. She was amazed to learn how her friend impulsively had decided to abandon the look that had been so much a part of her identity. “I was walking past this old time neighborhood barber shop on my way to have my nails done,” Karen had related. “I glanced through the window and saw this young female barber sitting there, just waiting for her next customer. She smiled and seemed to be inviting me inside. I thought about it for a moment and said, `Why not?’ I was about due for a trim, so I went in. She said I looked like I could use a hair cut and I said, `Sure.’ Sitting in her big chair I dropped the idea of having my ends trimmed. Suddenly I experienced this overwhelming urge to get my hair cut short, very short. So I told her I wanted my hair short as a man’s. My usual stylist would have tried to talk me out of it, but Maria didn’t even hesitate. She acted like my request was the most normal thing in the world. Thirty minutes later my hair was gone; you can see the result.”

This sudden makeover shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise; Karen had always been a trend setter. She had been the first among their circle of friends to have her ears pierced. In high school she had worn the skimpiest miniskirts. She was the first to lose her virginity, the first to get married, and the first to be divorced. Kathleen had never been a leader, always wanting to blend in with the crowd, but all the time admiring her friend’s boldness and spontaneity. Now, once again, she was following in Karen’s footsteps.

The woman didn’t tell Maria how she had quizzed Karen incessantly about every detail of her new haircut. After patiently enduring a barrage of questions, her friend had turned the tables. “Kath, it’s time you got your hair cut too,” Karen had insisted. “How long have you worn that style? Ten, fifteen years?” The woman had to admit it had been more like twenty. “It looked great before you started to get gray,” Karen continued, “but now you definitely need something different.” The two friends had bickered good-naturedly for weeks. At first Kathleen had resisted Karen’s urging. The thought of cutting her hair was something she was unwilling to contemplate. Gradually, however, Karen’s arguments had prevailed.

She did need to do something about her hair, she finally conceded, but going to a barber shop was just too unconventional for her taste. Still, she continued to listen. “It will be so simple,” Karen had maintained. “You just walk in; tell Maria you want your hair cut like mine; half an hour later you walk out minus your mop, looking like a completely new woman. What could be easier?” It might have been uncomplicated for Karen, the woman observed, but that didn’t make it any less painful for her.

“It’s good you came,” Maria replied. “Most ladies are scared to get their hair cut in a barber shop, but basically it’s the same as a salon. Besides, I can always use a new customer. It gets kinda quiet here sometimes.”

The woman smiled reflexively. The decision to cut her hair had been a New Year’s resolution. It was time to do something about her unmanageable mane, she resolved; start off the year with a new look. Still, it had taken nearly a month to work up the courage to make the appointment. On three different occasions she dialed the shop’s number, only to hang up before anyone answered. “Yes, it does make me a bit nervous,” the woman confided, “but Karen says you do good work, so I decided to be brave and here I am.” Actually, it had been one of the most difficult decisions of her life, one she had agonized over for weeks, but she didn’t want to sound overly dramatic. She affected a breezy tone in the hope it would mask her nervousness.

“So you want me to cut your hair like Mrs. Alexander?” Maria inquired.

“Yes, if you think that length will suit me,” the woman replied. In the back of her mind, a small voice said it still was not too late. If the barber concluded short hair was not right for her, she could be persuaded to change her mind.

“You bet. You’ll look great,” Maria replied automatically.

She didn’t even think twice, the woman observed. This was a far cry from her beauty salon where the stylists analyzed every detail of a new hairstyle before beginning. They do things differently here, she observed. “Then I guess I’m ready,” the woman said without a great deal of conviction.

“Great,” Maria answered. “First I’ll cut off the bulk, then I’ll come back and give it some shape.”

“Sounds like a plan. Let’s get started” the woman declared. She pretended to be eager. In reality, she couldn’t bear discussing it another minute. Everything she needed to say had been said. The sooner Maria began, the sooner this ordeal would be done. She held her breath and waited for the shearing to commence.

She had weighed the pros and cons of a barbershop haircut with a mixture of dread and anticipation. Any of the stylists at her regular salon could have cut her hair to the length she desired although they probably would have tried to dissuade her. Going where she was unknown somehow would make the conversion to short hair easier. She considered visiting one of the trendy downtown salons that catered to the younger crowd, but she had been swayed by Karen’s insistence that Maria cut hair as well as any beauty operator and at a fraction of the cost. She admired the neat contours of Karen’s new haircut. It was brief but still feminine; simple yet elegant. She understood it would be easy to care for. With more gray appearing in her head each month she knew it was futile to continue with her old style.

Finally, she was persuaded. She would get her hair cut in the barbershop. Karen offered to come along for moral
support, but she told her that was unnecessary; this was something she wanted to do by herself. If she chickened out made a fool of herself, her ever confident friend would not be there to witness it. Last week she had driven past the shop to check it out. It looked a little seedy, not at all the way she had imagined. Don’t let a small thing like that throw off your plans, she told herself. Yesterday she finally screwed up her courage and made the call. Maria told her an appointment wasn’t necessary, she could stop in any time, but she had been adamant. She didn’t want to arrive and then sit waiting for some man ahead of her to be finished. They settled on a three o’clock time slot. She left work early without telling anyone her destination. She had kept her intention a secret from her co-workers; they would have made too much fuss; only Karen knew her plan. The four mile drive took less time than she anticipated. She didn’t want to arrive at the shop early so she parked down the block and waited in the car until the appointed hour. Now it was quarter after three and her personal moment of truth had arrived.

Maria selected a pair of scissors from an assortment on the shelf beneath the mirror and positioned them parallel with the older woman’s jaw, about an inch below her ear. “About here?” she asked. The woman blinked, nodded her approval, held her breath, and watched in pained silence as Maria slowly closed the blades. Eight inches of auburn hair floated free from her head, slid down her shoulder, and came to rest in her lap. The woman glanced down wistfully at the severed hair, knowing there could be no turning back. She swallowed hard, and wiped a tear from her eye.

“You okay?” Maria inquired.

The woman was embarrassed by her tears. Crying was the last thing she wanted, but she couldn’t help herself. Long hair had been part of her image since her teenage years. She remembered the fun at high school sleepovers when friends took turns braiding exotic designs into each other’s hair; how elated she was when the ends of her hair finally reached to her bra strap; how grownup she felt with her tresses wrapped in a French twist for her senior prom. She was thankful no other customers were present to witness her humiliation. “Yes, I’m fine,” the woman answered. “I told myself that I wouldn’t cry and here I go. Sorry to be such a baby.”

“That’s okay,” the barber consoled her. “I cried too the first time I had my hair cut short. Mine was much longer than yours; it reached nearly to my butt. But now I love it. Can’t wait till its time for another haircut.”

The woman tried to picture Maria with long flowing locks covering her back. It was difficult to imagine. “Yes, your haircut looks very nice. And who does it, if you don’t mind me asking?” the woman inquired.

“Oh, Lou does it,” she explained, gesturing toward the elderly man who had put down his paper and now was absorbed in the television soap opera. “Once a month he reminds me its time for a trim and I hop into his chair.” Maria made it sound like a perfectly commonplace occurrence. Could she ever be so casual about having a barber cut her hair, she wondered.

The woman was impressed. She didn’t think the old man was capable of creating such an attractive hairstyle. “Your hair looks very nice,” the woman observed. “He does good work.”

“Yeah, Lou’s a real pro; he’s been a barber for more than fifty years. He started when he was a teenager in Italy,” Maria informed her. “He’s a little hard of hearing, but aside from that, he’s still pretty sharp. He’s got no plans to retire; says he wouldn’t know what to do with himself. He’ll probably be cutting hair when he’s a hundred.”

Maria resumed her customer’s haircut, unhurriedly circling her head, deftly removing another long section of hair with each stroke of the scissors. The woman watched sadly as the businesslike barber impassively sheared the locks she had lovingly groomed for so many years. Then, without warning, Maria placed her comb above the woman’s forehead and pulled a cascade of hair down across her face.

“What are you doing?” she cried in alarm.

“I’m gonna give you some bangs. You said you wanted a haircut like Mrs. Alexander,” the barber explained defensively.

“Yes, of course,” the woman acknowledged. “You kind of took me by surprise. It’s been so long since I’ve worn bangs.”

“I can do it without bangs if you want,” Maria answered, “but this style looks better with them. Besides, you then won’t have to be pushing the hair outta your face all the time.”

She realized that over the years sticking an errant lock behind her ear had become an unthinking habit, almost as natural as breathing. “I suppose you’re right,” she allowed, giving Maria permission to continue.

The woman peered through an auburn veil as the barber snipped a straight line half an inch above her eyebrows. When Maria had severed the last long strand she stepped back and invited her customer to inspect her drastically altered image. “Well, what d’ya think?” she asked brightly.

Katherine stared into the mirror. The chin length bob she now sported was a radical departure from her old look. The forehead that had been exposed only minutes before was now hidden by newly carved bangs. She tossed her head from side to side to test the length. She grinned as the ends of her hair whipped against her cheek. It was a sensation she had never experienced before. She reached up and gingerly fingered the ends of her shortened hair. “I don’t know what to think,” the woman replied. “I look so different. I hardly recognize myself.” The new style was a major change. It wasn’t as stunning as Karen’s haircut, but didn’t look half bad.

“Well, I’m not done yet,” Maria merrily informed her. “There’s still lotsa work to do. I’m gonna shape it so it don’t all hang at the same length. It’ll look a heck of a lot better when I’m done.”

The woman was pleased to hear Maria’s plan. The short blunt cut was okay, she supposed, but it looked rather juvenile, kind of like a little Dutch boy. She had hoped for a more sophisticated style. “Yes, that sounds good. I can’t wait to see how it turns out,” the woman said, showing genuine enthusiasm for the first time. The most traumatic part of the haircut was over; the rest would be easier, she believed.

Just then a ringing phone interrupted their conversation. Both women listened as Lou answered the call. After a moment he handed the phone to Maria. “It’sa your momma,” he said matter-of-factly.

Maria stepped away from the chair to take the receiver. Her customer saw Maria’s face cloud over. Katherine listened as the young barber became more and more alarmed. “Oh my God,” she yelled. “How bad is it? Where are they taking her? Yes, I’ll be there just as soon as I can.” The woman could tell that the news was not good.

“Ms. Sullivan, I’m awful sorry,” she hastily apologized. “That was my mom. Mandy, my little girl, just had an accident. She fell down the stairs and hit her head. They’re taking her to the hospital. I gotta get there right away.”

Maria already was pulling on her coat when the distressed woman called to her. “What about my haircut?” She understood that Maria needed to be with her daughter, but she felt overlooked and abandoned.

“Lou will finish it, won’t you Lou?” she yelled over her shoulder as she dashed out the door.

The woman slumped back in the chair, too stunned to speak. She watched her barber disappear down the street. Lou now stood at her side, comb and scissors in hand. He didn’t ask permission, but simply took over where Maria had stopped. She wasn’t happy about this unexpected development, but she couldn’t walk out now; her haircut was only half done. Besides, he cut Maria’s hair and it looked fine. Perhaps this won’t be so bad, she consoled herself.

“How you want it cut?” he asked brusquely.

The woman was dismayed to realize that Lou had not heard any of her discussion with Maria. Even if he
had, he probably didn’t remember Karen’s haircut. For the second time in fifteen minutes she tried to describe the style she wanted. “I’d like it a bit shorter than this, but graduated so it’s not all the same length,” she directed him.

“What you say?” the uncomprehending barber asked.

Oh my god, he hasn’t heard a thing, she thought. He must be deaf as a post. “Cut it short, like Maria’s,” she explained in a louder than normal voice. Maria’s haircut wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, but she figured it was best to stick with something familiar to the old barber.

“Sure, nice `n short,” he confirmed. “I can do that.”

“But not too short,” she cautioned.

“You bet,” he replied. “Nice `n short.” Apparently “short” was the only word that had registered. She wanted to give Lou more precise instructions on her favored haircut, but it seemed pointless. She could talk far an hour and he would not understand. For better or worse, she had to trust the elderly barber.

As Lou took Maria’s position he swiveled the chair so the woman now looked out onto the rain soaked street. His maneuver denied her use the mirror to check on how he was cutting her hair. She considered asking him to turn the chair around, but didn’t want to make a fuss over such a small thing. Best to let him do it his way, she thought.

Lou approached with a plastic bottle and without warning began spraying a fine mist of water over her head. She started to complain, but then remembered that wet hair was easier to cut. Nothing to get upset about, she supposed, it’s just his way. When her head was thoroughly soaked the barber began combing her shortened locks. Drops of cold water dripped down her neck, but Lou didn’t seem to notice. He took his scissors, stepped behind her, and, using his comb, lifted a section of hair from the back of her head. Without hesitation he snipped it off and quickly selected another section slightly higher on her head. Lou worked briskly, humming an operatic aria. Was it Puccini? “Madame Butterfly” perhaps? His confident method somewhat eased her concern. She listened as the steel blades clicked together. Snip, snip, comb. Snip, snip, comb. The steady rhythm was reassuring and she relaxed a bit. Despite his advanced age, Lou definitely knew how to handle the implements of his trade.

After five minutes he still was clipping the back of her head. “You’re not cutting it too short, are you?” she asked, a note of concern creeping into her voice.

“Almost done,” he answered. Had he heard her question? She couldn’t be sure.

Lou finally turned his attention to the right side of her head where hair still hung to her chin. He inserted his scissors just below her temple. Before she could utter a word to stop him, the ruthless barber cut away a wide swatch of hair, half exposing her ear.

“Stop! What are you doing?” she cried in alarm. This was not what she wanted-not at all.

“Cutting it nice `n short, like you said,” he replied defensively.

“But I didn’t want it this short,” she protested.

“Don’t you worry, missy, everything’s gonna be fine,” he crooned. He placed his warm hand on her shoulder to reassure her. He’s treating me just like a small boy receiving his first haircut, she sadly noted. No doubt Lou had decades of experience dealing with little boys, but his patronizing words did not comfort her; just the opposite. She was beginning to panic. Lou obviously had no idea how she wanted her hair cut and nothing she could or say do would make him listen. The haircut he was administering was far shorter than anything she had envisioned, yet there seemed to be no way to stop him. Hastily, she considered her alternatives. She could get up and walk out the door in her present half-done state; she could try to communicate with the nearly deaf barber; or she could meekly accept the butchering he was inflicting. None of these options was very promising.

“Please don’t cut it too short,” she begged.

“Sure, nice `n short,” he repeated. She silently groaned. He hadn’t heard a word.

Lou resumed cutting on the side of her head. She felt him lifting with his comb and snipping off the hair that protruded between its teeth. From the corner of her eye she watched as auburn clippings accumulated in her lap. His first cuts produced pieces two and three inches long. As he continued, the cuttings became smaller. He trimmed around her ear, leaving it completely uncovered. She disliked the shape of her ears and shuddered at the thought of their being fully exposed.

After cutting for much longer than she thought necessary, he stepped to her left side and began again, making sure that both sides were cropped equally close to her scalp. She felt powerless to stop him. She couldn’t go out in public with one side short and the other long. She had no choice; she must accept whatever haircut the barber decided to deliver.

As Lou finished clipping around her left ear, the shop door opened and a distinguished looking middle aged man in an expensive trench coat walked in. She recognized him as one of the doctors from the medical center-the head of the pediatric unit. Their paths had crossed a few times at committee meetings and fund raisers. She fervently hoped he didn’t remember her. “Hi Lou,” he called. “How you doing?”

Lou looked up. “Hi Doc,” he said, “Be with you in a few minutes. Gotta finish this lady first.”

The new customer hung up his coat and took a seat opposite the woman. He smiled warmly in her direction. To her chagrin, she saw that he recognized her. There was no way she could ignore him. “Hello Dr. Hopkins,” she said, bracing herself for the interrogation that was bound to follow.

“Katherine, is that you?” he said in shocked surprise. “I didn’t recognize you at first.”

“Yep, it’s me all right,” she answered bravely. She wanted to throw the cape over her head to hide, but it was too late for that.

“What in the world are you doing here?” he asked, clearly astonished to find her in this highly unusual predicament.

The woman groaned inwardly. This was too embarrassing. To preserve her dignity, she would have to pretend this haircut was her idea. “Getting my hair cut, as you can see,” she explained with a hint of sarcasm.

“Tired of long hair?” he asked curiously, eyeing the mound of auburn hair on the floor and the smaller pile in her lap.

She wanted to avoid his questions, but he was sitting only six feet away. “Something like that,” she replied vaguely.

“Well, Lou does a good job. He’s been cutting my hair for years,” he offered.

Their conversation ended as the barber resumed his work. The woman felt his comb lifting her newly formed bangs up off her forehead. He evidently was unaware that Maria had fashioned them only a few minutes earlier. She wanted to demand that he leave them alone, but the presence of the doctor silenced her. She couldn’t make a scene in front of him; she had to make believe this is what she wanted. She smiled gamely as the barber slid his hand flat across her head, closed two fingers around the bangs, and sliced off everything above his knuckles. A large clump of damp hair bounced off her nose and landed in her lap. Too late now, she thought, he’s going to cut it all off.

Initially she had expected that he would leave the hair on top longer than the back and sides as he had with Maria’s haircut. That way she would have something left to style. Now she knew this was impossible; he was going to crop everything to the same brutally short length. Lou placed his comb an inch farther back on her head and selected another section of her hair. She closed her eyes as the oblivious barber blithely worked his way toward the back of her head. He continued humming the melody from his opera more briskly than before. She expected him to burst into song at any moment. She was acutely aware of his comb raking her scalp as he selected each new section; felt his hand pressing against her head; heard his sc
issors crunch as he continued her shearing. Comb and snip; comb and snip. For three agonizing minutes Lou continued until he reached the back of her head and put down his scissors. She prayed that now he would release her from the chair.

“You use product?” he asked.

“What?” she stammered. She had no idea what he was talking about.

“Product? You use product on your hair?” he repeated loudly as if she were the one with a hearing problem.

She still had no clue. She didn’t know what to tell him, but he insisted on a response. “Sure,” she said numbly.

Lou reached toward the counter behind him. Then she felt him rubbing a thick, scented substance into her hair. This must be styling gel, she realized. That’s what he was talking about. She never put gel on her hair, but it was too late to tell him to quit. His hands were surprisingly strong. Under different circumstances she might have enjoyed the scalp massage, but this only added to her misery.

When the gel was thoroughly applied, Lou rinsed his hands and began to brush her remaining hair. He attacked the top of her head with short hard strokes. Never before had she experienced anything like the stiff brush that now was buffeting her scalp. Why is he doing this, she thought. There’s nothing left to brush.

Finally he seemed satisfied. He put down his brush and returned with a silver cordless clipper. “What’s that for?” she demanded. “What are you going to do?” Would he never be satisfied, she thought. Was he going to clip her even more? Would she wind up with a buzz cut like a young boy on his way to summer camp?

“Just gonna clean your neck,” Lou informed her as the switched the clippers on. She sat frozen in place as he guided the blades around her ear. She felt the vibration of the clipper as it glided down her bare neck. The sensation was rather pleasant, but she dreaded the outcome. The only women she knew who wore their hair this short were lesbians. He seemed determined to rob her of every trace of femininity. Now I’m really going to look butch, she silently moaned.

While Lou buzzed her neck she noticed the doctor was neither reading a magazine nor watching the television. Most men would have feigned disinterest, but his alert eyes followed every detail of her haircut like a little boy inspecting a shiny new bicycle. She was the center of his attention. He seemed completely absorbed in the spectacle he was witnessing. My god, she thought, he’s going to tell everyone at the hospital how I got scalped in this barbershop.

At last Lou switched off the clippers and used a soft brush to whisk small pieces of hair from her face and ears. He shook some powder into his hands and patted it onto her shaved neck. She sensed that this was the last step; she couldn’t wait to be liberated from his grasp.

Finally, the barber turned the chair so she could examine herself in the mirror. Now she beheld the full extent of the damage he had wrought. She didn’t recognize the short-haired woman who sat covered by the maroon cape. Tufts of auburn hair flecked with gray stood straight up from her scalp. Her ears poked out from the side of her head. She could see her white scalp gleaming beneath the short hair at her temples. “Oh my god,” she groaned out loud. She pulled her hand from beneath the cape and ran her fingers across the stiff spikes on top of her head. She discovered her hair was even shorter than she feared; no piece was longer than one inch. On the sides it was less than half an inch. The minute hairs at the base of her neck were prickly to the touch. Nothing about this haircut resembled Maria’s stylish do; nothing looked the least bit feminine; it was a complete and total disaster, her worst nightmare. She tried to choke back her tears; she couldn’t let the doctor see her crying.

“Well, what d’ya think?” Lou asked expectantly. For some reason, he appeared proud of his handiwork; as if this was the finest haircut he had ever given. Obviously, he had no idea how dreadful she looked. He seemed to expect a compliment of some kind. What could she say? Despite her grief, she didn’t want to hurt the old man’s feelings.

“It’s so short,” she exclaimed, unable to conceal her dismay.

“`Nice `n short, just like you wanted,” Lou reminded her.

She fought to control her anger. “Nice `n short” had been his idea, not hers. She never asked for a haircut like this, but knew it was useless to quarrel with the geriatric barber. She just wanted to be released from the chair and flee the shop as fast as she could.

Lou held a small mirror behind her head so she could view the back. Just as she feared, she saw that her hair was tapered down to nothing. Lou had given her a man’s short haircut–not quite a buzz cut, but not a great deal longer. Silently she cursed Karen for suggesting this barbershop haircut; she blamed Maria for running out on her; she reproached Maria’s mother for not watching her granddaughter more closely; she chastised herself for not being more forceful when she had the chance. It would be six months, maybe more, before she began to resemble a woman again. “Yes, it’s just fine,” she grumbled.

Finally, Lou seemed satisfied. He unsnapped the cape from behind her neck and shook the accumulated clippings onto the floor. The woman stared in sorrow at the pile of auburn hair that recently had been attached to her head. Why had she ever let Karen talk her into this ridiculous haircut, she mourned.

When she finally stepped down from the chair Lou informed her, “That’ll be twelve bucks, miss.”

“What?” she said, still in shock and not immediately comprehending his request.

“Twelve bucks, for the haircut,” he demanded.

“Here, let me get that,” the doctor said as he sprang from his chair and offered Lou a twenty dollar bill from his wallet. “Keep the change.” Lou took the bill and happily deposited it in the cash register.

“You didn’t need to do that,” she protested although she was impressed by his generosity, his gentle manner, and his kind blue eyes.

“My pleasure, Kathleen,” he replied. When they passed in the hospital halls he sometimes nodded in her direction. Now he acted like they were long-time colleagues. She liked the way he called her by her full name and not the abbreviated “Kate” most of her co-workers used. His formality was refreshing. He reached for her coat and held it open as she firmly knotted the scarf around her head. He was a real gentleman, she observed, but she couldn’t understand why he was beaming from ear to ear. Why was he being so attentive? His reaction was very strange indeed.

“Lou, I’ll be back in half an hour,” he called as he grabbed his coat and escorted the woman out the door.

They stood on the wet sidewalk outside the barber shop. “There’s a little cafe around the corner,” he said. “We could stop for a cup of coffee if you like.”

She was perplexed by his invitation. A cup of coffee was the last thing she needed. She wanted to rush to her apartment, pull down the blinds, and not come out in public until her hair had grown to a decent length. Still, rudeness was not in her nature. If this handsome physician wanted to take her for coffee, she would not refuse. “Sure, that would be fine, Dr. Hopkins,” she said obligingly.

“Please, call me Harry,” he insisted as he took her arm and guided her down the sidewalk.

The coffee shop was nearly deserted. They had no trouble finding a table for two. He ordered espresso; she requested decaf. When the waitress left he inquired, “Aren’t you going to remove your scarf?”

“I don’t think I should. My hair’s so short,” she apologized.

“I thought that’s what you wanted,” he continued, sounding mildly confused. “Isn’t that why you went to a barbershop for your haircut?”

“Not exactly,” she sighed. “It’s a long story.” She couldn’t bear to relate the whole sad tale so she gave him a condensed version. “I wanted a short haircut, that’s true, but not this short. I’m afr
aid Lou got carried away.” Her voice began to choke as she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.

Harry reached out and gently took her hand. “You shouldn’t be upset,” he consoled her. “I think your hair looks great.” His hands were warm and his words sincere. She blinked and looked back at him, her face full of doubt. Was there something wrong with his vision? Couldn’t he see how terrible she looked?

“You’re very kind,” she answered. This man was too good to be true. She felt like putting a bag over her head and he was trying to lift her spirits. But she remained unconvinced.

“You probably think I’m saying that to make you feel better, but I really mean it,” he insisted. “The short hair accentuates your eyes, and you have beautiful eyes.” She blushed at the unexpected compliment. “As a favor for me, take the scarf off, please,” he begged. Slowly she undid the scarf and let it slip down around her shoulders. She ran her fingers across the top of her head to straighten the flattened spikes. The unfamiliar feel of the short stiff bristles made her more self-conscious, but he didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were fastened on her head, drinking in every detail of her haircut. What he said was true; he seemed enchanted by her new look.

She struggled to explain her earlier emotional outburst. “I don’t usually cry. It’s just that I’ve worn my hair long for most of my life,” she explained. “It’s such a big change.”

“Never too late to try something new,” he said approvingly. It was clear he did not think her haircut was a mistake; he actually liked it.

“I thought men liked women with long hair,” she probed, trying to discover the reason for his enthusiasm.

“Well that’s not true for all of us. I, for one, think short hair can be very sexy,” he emphatically informed her. “Yours definitely is sexy.” She blushed a second time. For most of her life men had largely ignored her. “Handsome” was the word often used to describe her looks, never “beautiful.” Although she dressed in fashionable clothes and exercised to stay slim, no one had ever called her sexy. She was unaccustomed to such heartfelt praise.

His frank comments emboldened her. She wanted to get to the root of his passionate interest in her hair. “I couldn’t help but notice that you seemed to be enjoying my haircut quite a bit,” she observed.

“Did it show that much?” he asked. Now it was his turn to be embarrassed.

“I wanted to hide and there you were drinking every detail of my shearing,” she confessed.

“Yes, it was amazing. I’ve never had a chance to observe a transformation like yours before,” he enthused. “Transformation” was not a word she would have used to describe her barbershop experience. He sounded as though he had witnessed a miraculous change, rather like watching an ugly duckling turn into a beautiful swan. “I just wish I had come in earlier. It would have been simply marvelous to see it from the beginning,” he continued. Was this guy strange, she wondered. He looked perfectly normal, but his enthusiasm for her haircut definitely was bizarre. “Perhaps next time,” he suggested.

“I hate to disappoint you, Harry, but there’s not going to be a next time,” she firmly informed him. “Once was enough. I have no desire to repeat this trauma.”

“Please, don’t say that, Katherine,” he implored her. “It would be a crime to give up this style so quickly. You look so hot.”

Normally, she had a witty rejoinder for a comment like this, but his ardent words left her flummoxed. “I don’t know what to say,” she stammered.

“Say that you’ll return with me to Lou’s barber shop in four weeks,” he proposed. “You’ll need a trim by then. You’ll be surprised how quickly your hair grows out. I want to see your next haircut from start to finish.”

“I don’t know. Let me think about it,” she answered tentatively. His request was peculiar, but she would hate to disappoint him. Keeping her hair short for a while might not be so terrible, she thought. If he found her haircut attractive, she might be able to get used to it.

“Okay, I can live with that for now,” he said hopefully. She knew he would not give up easily. It might be interesting to let him persuade her.

They continued to chat for the next thirty minutes. She learned that he was divorced. He asked if she was seeing anyone. Before leaving they exchanged phone numbers and made a dinner date for the weekend. Finally, he excused himself. “I better not keep Lou waiting any longer.” He bent over and tenderly kissed her on the cheek. “See you Saturday, Katherine,” he said as he stroked the short bristles on back of her neck. His touch sent a shiver of anticipation down her spine. She watched him walk out the door, marveling at her good fortune. A date with this attractive doctor was something she never anticipated. What’s more, she had a strong hunch that their budding relationship might develop into something more lasting. She just had to be careful not to dampen his enthusiasm.

She strolled back toward her car without replacing her scarf. The rain had stopped and the cold air streaming across her bare head felt oddly refreshing. As she walked past the barber shop she saw Harry sitting in the big chair with the same cape she had worn now covering his shoulders; Lou stood poised with his scissors. She waved and they beckoned her to join them. Somehow the place no longer seemed so forbidding. “Hi guys,” she called as the reentered the welcoming shop.

“Back so soon?” Lou asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I thought I’d observe Harry’s haircut if you don’t mind.”

“Sure, that’s fine,” the barber and his client echoed.

“Be sure to cut it nice and short,” she instructed Lou with a wink.

“Nice `n short. You bet,” he agreed. Suddenly his hearing seemed perfect.

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