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Samantha eased herself into the large chair as the barber unfolded a white striped cloth that completely covered her conservative navy slacks and ivory blouse.  He fastened the cape behind her neck, selected a black comb from the jar on the shelf, and slowly began combing her shaggy salt and pepper locks.  She watched him work with a wry half-smile on her face.  What would he say, she wondered, when she told him what she wanted?  Would he find her request surprising?  Would he object or would he pretend that it was completely normal?  Whatever his reaction, she would soon find out.

The barber continued in silence for another minute, carefully arranging her side parted bob.  It had been nearly six months since her last trim and the ends of her hair now reached well past her collar, nearly touching her shoulders.  Full bangs covered her thick eyebrows.  If she hadn’t brushed them to the side they would have completely hidden her luminous brown eyes.  Yes, she observed, she was long overdue for a good haircut.

Looking into the mirror that covered the wall in front of her, she inspected the rest of the shop.  The second barber was attending to an elderly gentleman and two other customers were patiently waiting their turns.  She was the only female in the establishment.  This didn’t come as a surprise; she knew that this was a traditional men’s barbershop.  That’s exactly why she selected it on the recommendation of her co-worker. 

Since her first day at the agency she had been impressed by Al’s no-nonsense short haircut.  Every three weeks, without fail, he arrived at the office with his hair freshly clipped close to his scalp.  The other men in the office wore their hair in longer, more conventional styles, but not Al.  She admired his willingness to stand out from the crowd and the quiet confidence he displayed.  She tried not to stare at Al’s haircut, but since his desk was immediately in front of hers, she had many opportunities each day to indulge her favorite fantasy.  She had often wondered whether she would ever get up the nerve to follow his example.

After working together for ten months she finally felt brave enough to ask him where he got his hair cut.  “I go to the Uptown Style Shop,” he replied with a surprised look on his face.  “Why do you ask?”

“It’s for my boy friend,” she fibbed.  “He’s not happy with his current barber shop and is looking for someplace new.”  She didn’t have a boy friend, never had one, in fact, but didn’t feel comfortable revealing the real reason behind her question.  Al probably would figure out the truth soon enough anyhow. 

It was her female lover who had been pressuring her to get her hair cut to a suitably short length.  But coming out of the closet wasn’t easy.

Samantha realized she was different during her teenage years.  All of her girl friends thought nothing was more fascinating than gossiping about the cute boys in their high school.  Sam was more interested in science and sports.  The guys who took her out to parties and dances were nice enough, but none of them really turned her on.  After a while they stopped asking her out.  She wondered what was wrong with herself.  Then, as a college student, she stopped pretending to be attracted to the opposite sex.  In her senior year she developed a huge crush on her Chemistry professor, the one rumored to be a “dyke,” but nothing came of it because Sam was too shy to share her feelings.  In the twenty years since graduating she had had a couple of brief romances, but the affair with Debbie was her first long lasting relationship. 

Deb was a couple of years older than Samantha and much more open about her sexual orientation.  She was a leader in the local Gay Pride organization and had long been a militant advocate of equal rights for gays and lesbians.  Samantha always feared people’s disapproval.  Her parents and close friends suspected the truth, but everyone was happy to avoid openly discussing the subject.  Samantha was only too willing to go along with their “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Three years ago Samantha moved in with Debbie.  It wasn’t long before her partner began bombarding Sam with photos of short-haired women.  “You would look so sexy with your hair cut like this,” Debbie declared after showing her a picture of an especially butch-looking woman with a very brief crew cut.  “When are you going to do it, Sam?  When are you going to let your queer flag fly?” she asked at least once a month.  “You know it’s what you really want.  What are you so afraid of?”

“Deb, please don’t make this into a test of my love for you,” she pleaded.  “I’m just not ready to go public, not yet.”

“When will you be ready?” Deb demanded.

“I don’t know.  Please be patient,” she begged.

But Deb wasn’t a person who took no for an answer.  For three years she pestered her partner and roommate.  Gradually, Sam had begun to warm to the idea.  Several of their close friends sported ultra-short haircuts.  Some of them looked quite stunning and not at all masculine.   Still, she wasn’t able to silence the fear that she would be mistaken for a guy if she got the kind of haircut Deb kept advocating.

It probably was the death of her parents that removed the last barrier to cutting her hair short.  Her father had gone first from a heart attack and six months later her mother followed.  They never had accepted the fact that Sam was a lesbian.  Until the day she died her mother nourished the hope that one day Sam would meet a man who would make her daughter his bride and produce the grandchildren she desired so badly.  Sam had always tried to please her parents, but marriage and children were out of the question.  Their passing made it easier for Samantha to consider think about coming out.  Attitudes were changing.  Homosexuality was no longer considered a fate worse than death, at least in the liberal circles that she and Debbie traveled in.  Finally she decided that getting a short man’s haircut would be the easiest and most direct way to let the world that she was a lesbian and proud of it.

For years she had worn her dark brown hair in a collar length bob that might best be described as “practical” or “low maintenance.”  It was a style that helped her blend in with the other middle-aged women at her office—nothing particularly eye-catching about it, but not unattractive either.  What she liked most about this cut was that it required no special effort, just a quick blow dry after showering and a trim every six to eight weeks.  As a generous helping of gray hair began appearing shortly before her fortieth birthday, however, she began seriously considering a change.  She had to agree with Debbie that the gray made her look much older than she felt.

All through the winter following her mother’s death Sam debated getting her hair cut.  She postponed her regular appointment at the neighborhood beauty salon.  It didn’t take Deb long to comment on her unkempt mane.  “Sam, your hair is looking kinda shaggy these days,” she pointedly observed.  “You’re not thinking of growing it longer are you?” 

Sam denied any
such plan.  “I’ve just been busy at work.  I’ll take care of it soon,” she stalled.

It was the unseasonable heat of early June that finally pushed her over the brink.  Sam came home from her daily five mile run drenched in sweat.  Her bangs dripped drops of perspiration into her eyes.  “Gotta do something about this hair,” she resolved.  That evening while Deb was at one of her political meetings, Sam began flipping through the Yellow Pages looking for a barber shop.

For weeks she searched in vain for a shop that would give her the kind of haircut that Debbie desired.  The stylists at the beauty salon she usually patronized certainly had no experience with the kind of cut she was seeking.  Even if they did, they probably would refuse her request.  She needed to visit an authentic men’s barber shop, she knew, but when she scanned the listings in the Yellow Pages all the shops seemed the same; their small ads didn’t contain enough information to make an informed decision.  She considered picking one at random, but that seemed too risky, too full of uncertainty.

Al had assured her that the shop he recommended was just what she wanted.  “It’s not a fancy place—not one of those unisex shops—they just do regular men’s haircuts.”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what’s my boy friend’s looking for,” she lied. 

It had taken two more weeks to work up her courage to actually enter the shop.  Since the conversation with Al she had driven past the building almost daily.  From the street there wasn’t much to distinguish it from other small businesses in the strip mall—a brick façade with a large plate glass window, a sign above the window that said only “Barber Shop” in big block letters, and the traditional revolving red, white, and blue barber’s pole mounted six feet above the sidewalk next to the door.  From the moving car she wasn’t able to see much of the interior, but she imagined a place without much decoration that smelled of hair tonic and shaving lather.

Every morning for the last week she stood before the bathroom mirror inspecting sad state of her locks.  She always prided herself on presenting a neat, businesslike appearance and her current untidy look was a source of embarrassment. This couldn’t go on much longer, she knew.  It was time to take action.

Sam didn’t tell Debbie what she was planning.  She didn’t want to increase the pressure.  If she changed her mind at the last minute she could back out without incurring her partner’s ridicule.  It was going to be a surprise; she would walk into the apartment one evening and her partner could see that she had come out at last.

As Samantha planned her excursion into this strange new world she wondered what her reception would be.  Would the barber welcome her patronage or would he refuse to serve her?  Would he be hostile or friendly?  She was sure the barber would be a man, probably middle aged or older.  The Uptown Style Shop didn’t seem like the kind of place that would employ female barbers.

Finally she circled the date, Tuesday, June 23, with a red marker on the wall calendar next to the refrigerator.  That would be “H” day, she resolved—H for haircut, of course.  As the day approached, she felt increasing excitement mixed with apprehension.  This would mark a major turning point in her life, she realized.  People would look at her differently afterwards.  Whether or not this would be a good thing, she could not foretell.  Somehow, actually setting the date relieved some of her anxiety.  She now knew that she wouldn’t chicken out.  For better or worse, she was going ahead with the haircut.

Yesterday she had difficulty falling asleep.  Visions of herself sitting in the big barber’s chair flooded her agitated mind.  She tried to imagine how it would feel as the barber impassively stripped away all traces of her femininity.  Would it be the liberating experience she had envisioned so many times?  Or would she emerge humiliated and ashamed?  What would her co-workers say?  They would be shocked, of course, but would they shun her?    She hoped they would be supportive, but like it or not, they would have to get used to it.

After a restless night she awoke before dawn and took a long hot shower, shampooing her thick locks one last time.  Debbie complained, “What’s taking you so long, Sam?”  She dressed in the tailored navy slacks and sleeveless ivory top she had selected for the occasion.  She would wear low heels, but no jewelry, a bit of lipstick and mascara—nothing more than usual.  No one at work, none of her friends, knew of her plan.  She debated telling Al.  If anyone would understand, he seemed most likely.  But she didn’t know him that well; he might be one of those old-fashioned men who preferred long haired women.  Better to wait and check his reaction after the deed was done.

She left work at the normal time and drove directly to the shop, arriving there at a quarter past five.  She hoped there would not be too many other customers waiting to be served.  There would be curious stares to deal with—she knew unescorted women rarely entered a shop like this.  But she was determined.  Nothing could dissuade her now.

She parked in a vacant slot near the front door.  The shop looked nearly deserted—only one elderly customer being clipped and one rather bored looking barber reading the sports section of the newspaper.  As she entered he looked up with a rather quizzical expression.  “May I help you?” he asked helpfully as if she might be lost and seeking directions. 

“Yes, I’d like a haircut,” she said evenly, rather amazed at her own composure.  “You do cut women’s hair, don’t you?”

“Sure, lady,” the barber answered with a note of disbelief in his voice.  He rose from the chair, set down his paper, and indicated that she should take his place.  She was relieved that there would be no delay.  She would be spared the agonizing wait.  She wouldn’t have to try to hide her nervousness in front of other customers. 

The barber who took charge of her haircut was a stocky, dark haired man about fifty years old.  He was Italian, she guessed, based on his olive complexion and his faint accent.  He wore a short sleeved white smock that displayed his hairy muscular arms.  His own hair was closely cropped.  She took that to be a good sign.  He said nothing as he combed her hair, a marked contrast from the chatty beautician who usually administered her haircuts. She welcomed the silence since she didn’t feel like making idle conversation. 

After carefully arranging her hair the barber finally spoke.  “So, what are we doing today?” he asked casually, acting as if she were one of his regular customers.

“I’d like a nice short haircut,” she said in a firm clear voice.  She had rehearsed these words for the past week.  She hoped they masked the excitement and tension she felt.

“Okay, we can do that,” he replied calmly.  If he was shocked by her request he didn’t show it.  He selected a pair of scissors from an assortment on the counter in front of her and pointed them at a spot below her j
aw.  “About here?” he asked.  The cut he was indicating would remove three inches from her bob and return it to the collar length she had worn for years.  Clearly, he assumed that all she wanted was a trim.  Now the moment of truth had arrived.  She could go along with his suggestion and cancel her plan for coming out or she could tell him what she really had in mind.

“No,” she said.  “I’m looking for something shorter.”

“Really?” he commented, this time registering mild surprise at her request.  “How much shorter?”

“A good bit shorter,” she continued.  “Up above my ears on the sides and short in back too.”  Although she sounded sure of herself, this was not the haircut she really desired.  Why couldn’t she bring herself to just come out and tell him what she wanted?  Why did she insist on this evasion?  Why was she afraid to name the style she had been contemplating for the last six months?

“Yeah, I can do that,” the barber reluctantly agreed.  “You’re talking about one of those pixie cuts, right?”

“Not exactly,” she corrected him.  “What I have in mind is shorter than that.”

“Well, lady, there’s not much that’s shorter than that unless you’re looking for a man’s haircut.”  From his dismissive tone it was clear that he didn’t expected her to have her hair cut that short.

“Yes, that’s what I want,” she replied eagerly.  “That’s why I came to your shop.  A short man’s haircut would be just fine.”

“There’s a beauty shop just down the street where they can give you a short lady’s haircut,” he protested.

“But that’s not what I want,” she insisted.  “I’m sure you will do a good job.”

“If that’s what you want, I suppose I can do it, but I don’t understand why.  Your hair looks nice like it is,” he replied.

“Thank you,” she replied, “but I’ve worn my hair like this for too long.  I’m curious to see how I will look with short hair.”

 “Well, you’ve come to the right place,” he said, apparently convinced that she was serious about getting a man’s haircut.  She could tell that he wasn’t too thrilled about the prospect, but he wasn’t going to refuse.  “Let’s get started,” he said decisively.  

Two other customers had entered the shop since Samantha had climbed into the big barber’s chair.  Now both of them sat staring at her.  Curious amusement was evident in their grinning comments to each other.  It seemed they were speculating on what kind of haircut she was going to receive.  Although their scrutiny increased Sam’s self-consciousness, she was determined not to let their stares distract her.  If they wanted a memorable show, she would give them one.

Samantha watched as the barber inserted his scissors into the hair at the side of her head and sliced just below her right ear.  Six inches of severed hair slid down her shoulder and came to rest in her lap.  She was relieved that the discussion was over and the actual shearing had begun.  The barber worked rapidly, cutting around her head and fashioning a straight blunt cut.  When he paused her hair was a good bit shorter than she had ever worn it, but she knew this was only a temporary condition—more cutting would follow.

“Usually I use the clippers to trim the back and sides,” he said, asking her permission to continue.

“Yes, that’s fine.  Go ahead,” she told him.  Sam expected that this would be part of the haircut she had requested.  Debbie had told her that being sheared with the clippers would be the most exciting part of a really short haircut, but Sam was unsure.  It was something she had never experienced.

The barber removed an ominous-looking silver instrument hanging from a hook below the counter, snapped a metal attachment over the blades, and flicked the switch.  A loud insistent buzzing filled her ears.  He turned the chair so she faced the seated customers and could no longer observe his actions.  Samantha felt the barber’s comb lifting the hair on the back of her head and heard the sound of his clippers chewing into her exposed hair.  She imagined clusters of salt and pepper locks dropping to the floor.  He worked silently, gradually moving up toward her crown.  She couldn’t tell exactly how short he was cutting the back, but she knew that he wasn’t showing any mercy.  This was going to be a seriously short haircut.

When the barber turned the chair back to face the mirror her image looked much the same.  Chin length locks still hid her ears and framed her face.  Samantha knew these would be his next target.  With a few expert passes he sliced away the hair covering her ears and carved pointed sideburns.  Now she could see what the finished cut would look like. Her hair was tapered from nearly nothing at the edges to about an inch at her temples; her ears were fully exposed and her neck was bare.  Only the top remained a longer length.

The barber shut off the power to his clippers and returned them to their hook.  He grabbed a spray bottle and thoroughly soaked the top of her head.  He carefully combed the damp hair across her head and pushed the bangs off her face, exposing her forehead.  He concentrated on trimming her remaining hair to a uniform length of two and a half inches.  This cutting continued for several minutes.  Sam watched in silent amazement as pieces of damp hair dropped from her head, littering the cloth around her shoulders.  She still couldn’t believe this was really happening to her.  

When the barber was satisfied with the top he aimed a blow dryer at her shortened locks and brushed them into place.  This gave more volume to the top and eliminated the plastered down look.  At last he stepped back.  “Well, what do you think?” he asked.

She gazed into the glass for a long time.  Her shaggy bob had been replaced by a very traditional-looking businessman’s haircut.  It was a no-nonsense cut, the kind she had seen on her father and hundreds of other men.  The pointed sideburns were the only concession to her gender.  She extended her hand from beneath the cloth and felt the short hairs on the back of her head.  “It looks very nice,” she said noncommittally. 

“Is this what you wanted?” he asked, sensing that she was not entirely satisfied with the result.

“Could you cut the top shorter?” she inquired cautiously.

“Sure, if that’s what you want, I can always cut it shorter,” he said with a note of irritation evident in his voice.  “Why don’t you show me how short I should cut it?”

“About like this,” she said, holding her finger and thumb less than an inch apart.

“Wow, that’s almost a buzz cut,” he exclaimed.  “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Not exactly,” she answered. 

“Well, what do you want?” he demanded with his frustration beginning to show.

“I believe it’s called a flat top,” she answered nervously.

“You’re kidding, aren’t you?” 

“No, I’m perfectly serious.”

“Well,
if you’d told me at the beginning you could have saved both of us a lot of trouble.” Now he sounded annoyed.  She knew she should have told him what she wanted at the start.  It was clear that he didn’t appreciate the delayed revelation; she was taking more of his time than any of his other customers.  

“I’m sorry, but I had to see how it would look this short before I decided to go shorter,” she lied.  Actually, the flat top had been her goal from the beginning; she just didn’t have the nerve to make the transition in one big step.  Somehow it seemed easier to accomplish the conversion gradually.

The barber snapped a different attachment over the blades of his clippers and started them for the second time.  He placed his hand on the top of her head, forcing her chin toward her collar bone.  She felt the clippers press against her neck again.  Now he shoved them toward the top of her head in a series of firm quick motions.  It seemed like he was punishing her for wasting his time.  It took only a few minutes to reduce the once neatly tapered back to the same uniform length.  She couldn’t see what he had done, but imagined it now must be awfully short.

“Okay, you can lift your head,” he ordered.  With only a momentary pause he directed the clippers into the hair on the right side of her head.  They buzzed angrily in her ear as the barber plowed through her sideburn and clipped up toward her temple.  Now she could witness the shower of severed hair falling from the hungry blades.  With a few swift strokes he shortened all the hair around her ear.  When he shifted to her left side she could see that the remaining hair was barely a quarter inch long.  The sight of her white scalp glistening beneath the dark bristles sent a shiver down her spine.  She knew from the start that this haircut was going to be very short, but actually seeing it appearing on her head was a chilling sight.  She had put her fate in the hands of this unsympathetic barber and now she was powerless to stop him.  For better or worse, she was committed.

The barber wasted no time buzzing the left side so it matched the right.  When he paused she had to smile at the odd-looking woman she viewed sitting in the big barber’s chair.  With the sides of her head cut so short and the top still relatively long, she was a comical sight.  However, she knew this was only a temporary condition; before long the top would be nearly as short at the sides.

The barber removed the attachment from his clippers exposing the unshielded blades.  He held a long-toothed black comb in his left had as he instructed her to sit very still.  “Don’t move at all or you’ll mess up the top,” he gruffly directed her.  Actually, his instruction was unnecessary; she knew this was the most critical part of the haircut.  Many barbers lacked the skill or experience to get the top perfectly flat.  Somehow she believed that this barber was not one of them.  She held her breath in anticipation of what was coming next. 

The barber inserted his comb horizontally into the shock of hair above her forehead.  He passed his clippers across the comb slicing off the inch of hair that was protruding above its teeth.  Bits of damp hair tumbled down her face and landed in her lap.  She fought the urge to brush the short clippings from her nose and cheeks; she knew she had to remain motionless.  He repositioned his comb and a second pass quickly followed the first.  With a flick of his wrist, the barber sent more severed hair falling to the floor. He continued mowing the top of her head, quickly reducing its length to about half an inch.  As he worked toward the back of her head she could see the distinctive horizontal surface emerging.  It was still rough; a long way from the finished product, but her transformation was now in its final stage.  This was what she had asked for; what she had been dreaming about.  Yet she still couldn’t tell whether she had made the right decision.

After he had removed the last long hairs from her head the barber switched off his clippers.  He picked up a stiff brush and attacked the top, forcing each hair to stand erect.  He paused for a moment, critically examining the short bristles now sprouting upward from her head.  She could see that he was not satisfied; more clipper work would follow.  He resumed buzzing the top of her head, this time lowering its level surface by only a fraction of an inch.  Now he worked more carefully; he was determined to get it absolutely flat.

There was no other sound in the shop besides the steady drone of his clippers.  All conversation had stopped.  Sam sensed that every eye was focused on her.  She remained sitting perfectly still as the barber concentrated on finishing the haircut she had requested. 

Finally he stopped, apparently satisfied at last.  He reached into a blue jar, scooped out a large glob of styling gel, and worked it into her shortened hair.  Once again he brushed the top of her head until each hair glistened and stood perfectly straight.  At last he was finished with her.  He assumed a stance behind the chair and brusquely asked, “Well, is that what you wanted?” 

She peered into the mirror with wide eyes.  The person she viewed bore only a faint resemblance to the woman who walked in the shop half an hour earlier.  Her dark hair was cropped to an almost microscopic length.  Her brown eyes seemed much larger and her ears were fully exposed.  Her shoulders and lap were littered with the remains of her long locks.  The short bristles on top of her head stood up vertically in precise military fashion.  Without a doubt, it was a man’s haircut.  But that’s exactly what she had requested.

He handed her a small mirror.  She moved it behind her head to inspect the haircut from every angle.  Whatever the view, it was short, much shorter than she had imagined.  No longer would she blend into the crowd.  This haircut would set off a chorus of questions from the women at work.  She had to be prepared to deal with that, she knew.

Samantha sensed the barber was growing impatient waiting for her reaction.  “Yes, that’s what I wanted.  You did a fine job,” she said.  For the first time since she entered the shop he smiled.

The barber unfastened the cape from around her neck, brushed away a few stray hairs, and unceremoniously dumped her severed locks to the floor.  She glanced down at the pile beneath his feet.  She felt a small twinge of regret, realizing that her hair probably would never be that length again.  She stepped down and made her way to the cash register.  “That’ll be fifteen bucks,” he informed her. “Flat tops cost two bucks extra.”

She handed him a twenty dollar bill.  “Keep the change,” she said. 

“Come back any time,” he called as she headed for the door.

When she reached her car Sam pulled down the rearview mirror to inspect her new haircut more closely.  She ran her hand up the back and across the top.  She marveled at the strange sensation.  Her shortened hair would take some getting used to.  She would have to come up with a plausible explanation for her new look when she returned to work tomor
row morning.  For the present, however, she was going to retreat to the privacy of her apartment where she could surprise Debbie and together they could celebrate her coming out haircut. 

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