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The swarthy barber approached my husband and me. He wore a white short-sleeved jacket littered with evidence of hours spent cutting hair. ?Tony? was embroidered in dark letters above his breast pocket. It was nearing closing time and he seemed to be in a hurry to finish his day?s work.

Phil and I were the only two potential customers remaining in the shop. When we entered there had been two other clients. The lone barber was busy attending to an elderly gentleman and barely looked up at us. A young man sat watching television in a row of chairs facing the barber. We found two empty chairs and waited our turn. Before long the barber finished with the old man who paid for his haircut and shuffled out of the shop. The next customer then took his place. I studied the barber?s method and the young man?s reaction, searching for cues on how to act in this unfamiliar environment. I listened to the easy banter back and forth between the two men. They discussed the fortunes of the local college football team, the upcoming hunting season, and stock car racing at the local speedway?subjects I know absolutely nothing about. I wondered what topic I could possibly talk about when I occupied the chair.

In less than fifteen minutes the barber had finished with his next to last customer, clipping his dark hair close to the scalp. The young man rose from the chair, inspected his new look with evident satisfaction, and paid for his haircut. As his freshly shorn customer was leaving, the barber turned toward Phil and me. One of us would be his next victim. ?Who?s next?? he said. These words, so ordinary, yet ominous, signaled the beginning of the end.

The barber?s gaze shifted back and forth between the two of us. I?m sure he expected Phil to answer, but my silent husband just sat there, glued to his chair, waiting for me to move. He was not making this any easier. The barber fastened his gaze on Phil, but he just shook his head and nodded in my direction. Soon I realized that both men were staring at me. I was reluctant to answer the barber?s call, yet I had no choice.

Somehow I mustered the courage to rise unsteadily from my seat. ?I guess that?s me,? I smiled, straightening my light summer skirt and looking the barber in the eye. I tried to project an air of confidence that I did not feel. I searched his face for some sign of surprise but his expression remained calm and matter-of-fact. He acted like he serviced female clients every day, but I knew differently. Phil had told me that women almost never entered this all-male bastion. Yes, an occasional mother would arrive with her young son in tow for a summer clipping. Once in a while a girl tagged along while her boyfriend had his hair cut, but women almost never came as customers. There was an unwritten understanding that this place was off limits for females and I was violating that rule.

Tony?s Barber Shop had been an institution in our neighborhood for the twenty years we lived there and probably for many years before that. Generations of fathers and sons made monthly pilgrimages to the plain brick shop with the red, white, and blue barber pole out front. They entered shaggy haired and emerged half an hour later with their heads neatly clipped. There used to be two barbers, Tony and his father, Gino. But the elder man had retired and now Tony presided alone. Many other establishments had gone out of business or converted to unisex hair salons. Tony?s was one of the last real old-fashioned barbershops.

The barber shifted his weight impatiently. It was nearly six. He probably had been cutting hair without a break since early in the morning. He looked anxious to close up and head for home. I would be his last customer. He wanted to begin my haircut. I couldn?t stall any longer.

I reached down to give Phil?s hand one last squeeze. He looked into my eyes and mouthed the words, ?I love you.? It was time to go but my legs had turned to Jello. Summoning all of my will power, I forced my feet to move. An enormous red leather barber?s chair stood waiting for me. I stepped over piles of severed hair that littered the linoleum. Gray, brown, and blonde locks lay mixed together beneath the soles of my sandals. I cringed to think that soon my hair too this would find its final resting place on this floor.

The barber held the chair as I climbed into the throne-like seat. Its welcoming embrace engulfed me. I felt the leather seat, still warm from its previous occupants, through the fabric of my skirt. The chair?s chrome arms pressed cool against my sweating palms. I placed my sandals on the metal footrest, crossed my legs, and pretended to be at ease as I waited for my haircut to begin.

Across the room, Phil was beaming in anticipation like a young boy on Christmas morning. He was enjoying this far more than I was. He had tried to assure me that my first visit to a barbershop would not be the ordeal I envisioned. ?Consider it an adventure,? he encouraged me. ?You?re going someplace few women have gone before.? But my fears remained. There were good reasons why women didn?t come here. Nothing about this place was comforting. It reeked of bay rum and stale cigars. The ancient sports magazines stacked on the table by the door and the ball game on the television reinforced the masculine atmosphere. Yellowed pictures on the wall showed male models displaying outdated haircuts. There were no curtains, no flowers, no music playing, none of the homey touches I recognized in my salon. No privacy either. I looked out the window and prayed that no one I knew would see me sitting here. Even though only the barber and my husband would witness my shearing, I felt like I was on public display

Frantic questions flooded my brain. What was I doing here? How did I allow myself to be talked into this situation? Was it too late to back out? What would Phil say if I decided to leave? I hovered on the verge of panic.

I might have felt differently if this haircut had been my own idea, but it wasn?t. My husband had persuaded me to come here. For deep-seated reasons that I will never understand, the sight of women?s hair being cut fascinates Phil. Soon after we married I discovered his fetish for short hair. I caught him checking out other women and accused him of being unfaithful. He explained that he did not desire their bodies; he was just admiring their haircuts. The more he explained his obsession, the more intrigued I became. I never realized that men could become so attached to women?s hair. He assured me that this condition, although not common, was not that unusual. There probably were thousands of men, he said, who shared his fixation. Like him, they led perfectly normal lives with this one exception.

I was curious to learn more about his strange condition. Did he want me to get my hair cut, I asked. He confessed that seeing my hair cut short was his favorite fantasy. If this would happen in a barbershop, he explained, it would be even more thrilling. He urged me to give up my shoulder length hairdo for one of the radically brief styles he favored. I told him there was no way I would ever contemplate such a sacrifice. He swore he would respect my preference for long hair, but he was not easily discouraged.

For years we battled over the length of my hair. Sometimes he said nothing about it for months at a time, but I knew the subject was never far from his mind. From time to time, while at the mall or during a concert, he would point out a woman with a hairstyle he found exciting. Every three or four months, when I made an appointment to get my ends trimmed, he faithfully inquired if I planned to convert to a shorter style. Each time I informed him that I had no intention of parting with my long locks. Despite my continued rebuffs, he never abandoned the hope that some day I might give in.

Without warning the barber spun the chair. I looked into a huge mirror and studied the woman reflected there. In her mid-forties; still slender after three kids; reasonably good looking, but no great beauty; I was satisfied with my appearance. Unconsciously, I reached up and brushed a stray wisp of hair away from my face. I tucked the errant strand behind my ear and critically examined my style? parted down the center, a little longer than shoulder length. Straight, without a hint of wave. For years I had worn a blunt cut with no layers and no bangs. I tried to remember the last time I had worn a different style.

With a few minor variations, my hair had looked the same since high school. During the late 1990s a stylist persuaded me to try a modified Jennifer Anniston look, with the sides angled to frame my face instead of hanging straight down, but that didn?t last for long. Some of my friends liked to experiment with their hair, trying a new style every few months, but not me. Over the years I varied the length a bit, but not the basic cut. When it was shorter, slightly above my shoulders, I sometimes wore a flip. When it was longer, like now, I occasionally wove my hair into a thick braid that hung down my back. When I was busy around the house I pulled it back into a ponytail. For formal evenings at the theatre I pinned it up. But usually I wore it hanging freely as I did now. I pondered my image and conceded that perhaps I was overdue for a change.

In my youth my hair had been my pride and joy. Everyone said it my best feature and I agreed. I used expensive shampoos and conditioners to keep my dark brown mane clean and glossy. I spent hours brushing it until it shined. Eight years ago, however, the first gray hairs began to appear. At first I plucked them out, but they reproduced like rabbits. It seemed that the more I removed, the more quickly the pesky interlopers multiplied. Before long they had become so abundant that my hair color could be described more accurately as ?salt and pepper.? My girlfriends urged me to hide the gray with coloring as they did, but I?ve never seen a dye job that I really liked. Sure, some bottle blondes look fantastic, but I couldn?t picture myself as a blonde and none of the darker shades looked completely natural. Plus, I knew that once I started coloring my hair there would be a never-ending series of touchups. No, I resolved to keep my natural color even if it made me look older than I felt.

In recent months I found myself spending more time in front of the mirror trying to decide what to do about my hair. It wasn?t just the color that was a problem. The gray hairs grew in coarse and wiry. They refused to coexist with the brown hairs. For the first time in my life, my hair looked frizzy on damp days. No amount of brushing or conditioning could tame it. I started wearing hats more often. Rather than displaying my hair for all to see, I tried to hide it. I was growing desperate.

I knew something had to change. My trademark hairstyle no longer worked. Naturally, Phil was quick to pick up on my distress. He happily offered his very predictable advice. ?If you?re going to let your hair go gray, you should cut it short,? he urged. ?For most women gray hair doesn?t look good in longer lengths.? As much as I hated to agree with him, I knew he was right. A shorter hairstyle seemed to be the best answer to my problems. For the first time in our married life I began to think seriously about getting my hair cut to the length he wanted.

Still, I could have had my hair cut in a salon. That would have been the easy solution. It would have been so simple to surprise my husband by coming home one day sporting a short new haircut. Yes, that?s definitely what I should have done. Instead, I made the mistake of telling Phil that I was planning on cutting my hair. Of course, he was delighted?overjoyed would be a better description of his initial reaction. ?That?s great, Fran. I?m so glad you finally decided to do it,? he exclaimed. ?I know you?ll look great with short hair. You won?t regret it.?

But his approval was immediately followed with a crucial question, one I should have anticipated. ?Where will you have it done?? he asked.

?I was planning on going to the Beauty Nook, you know, the salon where I usually go,? I informed him. ?Barb, my stylist there, has been after me to try a new style for years. I know she?ll do a good job.? Instantly, disappointment registered on Phil?s face. His enthusiastic support turned to dejection. I dreaded what he was going to say next.

?Is there any chance that you would consider a barbershop haircut, Fran?? he said. ?You know how I feel about that. If you?re going to get you hair cut short I?d really like to see it happen in a barbershop.?

Of course I knew his feelings on the subject. Hadn?t he told me hundreds of time? One more time I patiently explained how I dreaded going into a barbershop; how getting my hair cut short was going to be trauma enough. I saw no need to compound the agony of parting with my locks by submitting to a barber?s shears in front of an audience of leering old men. That was my worst nightmare.

?Just this once, Fran,? Phil begged. ?You know how much this means to me. You can go back to your salon every other time. I promise I?ll never mention it again.? He didn?t threaten to leave me; he didn?t issue an ultimatum or throw a big fit, yet I knew our relationship would be weakened if I ignored his pleading. He looked so pitiful when I told him ?no? that I postponed making the appointment at my salon. I told him that I?d think about his request.

Phil and I continued our discussion for the next week. He thought of every possible argument in favor of a barbershop haircut. When persuasion didn?t work, he tried bribery. He offered to buy me the diamond earrings I wanted if I came with him to Tony?s. He addressed all of my fears. ?We can go late one afternoon in the middle of the week when there are few other customers,? he argued. ?I will be there for moral support. It will only take fifteen or twenty minutes. How bad could that be??

I began to consider his arguments. I noticed how aroused he became when we talked about cutting my hair. This might be a way to add some excitement to our love life, I thought. Things had become rather routine in bed. Phil obviously was turned on by the thought of me getting a barbershop haircut. Perhaps it would pay romantic dividends.

Eventually, he wore me down. Against my better judgment, I gave in to his pleading. Monday evening, at the dinner table, I informed Phil that I was willing to go with him to have my hair cut at Tony?s. He was jubilant. ?You won?t regret this, I promise,? he declared, but already I was beginning to have second thoughts.

That was two days ago. Phil wasted no time. He said that Wednesday afternoon was the time when the fewest customers were in the shop. He recommended that we arrive about quarter to six, just before closing time. ?Can?t we make an appointment?? I asked. Phil explained that Tony didn?t take appointments. You came and waited your turn, first come, first served. Apparently this was the custom at barbershops.

I fretted over what to wear. Jeans and a t-shirt was Phil?s normal attire when he went, but I wanted to look like a lady. I selected a short summer skirt and a sleeveless silk blouse. I made sure my nails were freshly painted. I applied my make-up carefully?deep red lipstick, a touch of mascara and eyeliner. I was determined to look my best.

Phil paced the floor like a nervous cat waiting for the hour to arrive. When our living room clock struck five-thirty he practically shoved me out the door and into the car. He drove the three miles to Tony?s shop, chatting excitedly. I said very little. I was contemplating what lay ahead.

?You ready?? the barber practically shouted, interrupting my reverie.

?Yes, of course,? I replied. I steeled myself for the haircut that was about to begin.

Tony reached for a dispenser on the counter in front of me and withdrew a long strip of white tissue. ?Hold your hair up so I can put this round your neck,? he said. I reached behind my head and lifted my hair as he ordered. He pulled the tissue tight. Next he reached into a cabinet and withdrew a fresh red and white striped cloth and unfolded it by snapping in the air. This he spread over my shoulders and fastened securely behind my neck. I noticed that he didn?t reuse the same cloth he had used with his previous customers. It seemed that I was getting special treatment.

I dropped my hair and stared again at the woman in the mirror. Now my blouse and skirt were completely hidden by the cape. Only my head and manicured hands remained visible. My eyes were large and my expression was worried. I looked frightened and vulnerable. I wished Phil were standing nearby, providing reassurance. But he sat across the room. I was alone with the barber.

Without warning, he pumped a pedal beneath the chair and I began to rise in the air. In a moment he and I were looking at each other face to face. His dark brown eyes betrayed no emotion. If he sensed my nervousness, he gave no hint. I wanted him to be kind and understanding, to show some sympathy for my plight. Instead, he acted as if this were just another haircut. He seemed determined to treat me just like every other customer.

The barber took a large black comb from a jar on the counter and began running it through my hair. He slowly circled the chair, spending more time combing my hair than I thought necessary. He hummed an indistinct tune and seemed to be enjoying himself. He probably never has an opportunity to get his hands on hair as long as mine, I thought. Finally he stopped.

?What?ll it be today?? he asked in a gruff, matter-of-fact voice. I?m sure he repeated the same question to his male customers thirty or forty times each day, but it caught me by surprise.

?Pardon? What did you say?? I stammered. I was at a loss for words. I didn?t know how to respond.

?What?ll it be today, lady?? he repeated more loudly with emphasis on the ?lady.? He seemed mildly annoyed. I?m sure he wondered about this woman who sat in his chair; this woman intruding in his masculine domain; this woman who didn?t know what she wanted. ?You want me to cut your hair or what?? he demanded.

It was obvious that he considered me a total idiot. Perhaps I should bolt from this chair right now before he can inflict any damage, I thought. This whole scheme is a bad idea. I never should have listened to Phil. I have no business being here. ?Run away as fast as you can,? my brain screamed. But it was too late. There was no dignified way out. My pride wouldn?t allow me to admit that I had made a mistake. I couldn?t just get up out of the chair and walk away with the cloth hanging from my neck. I wanted to scream and tell him to take his hot hands off me. But that kind of a scene would embarrass both Phil and me. No, I was trapped here in the chair as securely as if steel cables bound my arms and legs.

?Yes, of course,? I answered with false confidence. ?I?m here for a haircut.?

?What kinda haircut?? he asked next, making me feel even more stupid.

How could he have know the kind of haircut I wanted? I wasn?t even sure. He waited for me to provide some instruction. My throat was dry and the nervous words came hesitantly from my lips. ?A short haircut,? I managed to reply. There, I finally had uttered the phrase that sealed my fate. There could be no retreat now.

?Good,? he joked, ?that?s about the only kind we do here.? He seemed almost pleased with my answer. Now I was sure he would make me pay for trespassing in his shop. He would show me who was boss. ?How short you want it?? he demanded.

I knew Phil was waiting anxiously for my reply. I will not chicken out, I resolved. I would utter the words my husband wanted to hear. ?Short, very short,? I replied with emphasis.

?Short all over?? he said, continuing his interrogation.

I hadn?t really planned on having my hair cut that way, but I didn?t have an alternative to offer. ?Yes, short all over,? I answered; trying to convince him I knew what I wanted.

?You want I should cut it all off?? he asked again. For the first time his voice betrayed a note of disbelief. It was clear that he never expected me to voluntarily submit to such an extreme haircut. It sounded like he never had given a haircut like this to a woman.

?Yes, cut it all off,? I repeated casually, trying to sound cool and relaxed, as if this haircut were no big deal. I couldn?t believe what I heard myself saying. How could I agree so calmly to part with my crowing glory? And without uttering a word of protest! I must be crazy.

For the past two days I had wracked my brain trying to find the right words to describe the type of haircut I envisioned. I didn?t want to wind up looking like a chemotherapy patient. I hoped to retain some semblance of style, but lacked the vocabulary to tell this barber how to cut it properly. I searched for words to convey my vague ideas to him. The brief yet feminine look I was seeking probably was not among his limited repertoire. ?Not too short,? I cautioned. ?I don?t want to look bald, but something very short would be nice.?

?Sure, I can do that,? he said. I knew he didn?t understand what I had in mind, but that didn?t seem to concern him. I could tell that he was in no mood to waste any more time with idle chitchat. Although I was hoping for more dialogue about my new hairstyle, our conversation was over. Tony had all the instruction he needed.

There would have been much more consultation at the Beauty Nook. Barb would have offered me several alternatives. She probably would have brought out stylebooks for me to study and sought the opinion of other stylists. We would have debated and discussed every detail. But Tony?s shop was a far cry from my salon. The man who was preparing to cut my hair, called all the shots. He would decide what style I received. I had to accept whatever he would impose.

Tony stepped beneath the mirror and selected a pair of gleaming silver scissors from an assortment spread out on the counter. He opened and closed them several times as if testing to see if they worked properly. When he returned to my side he placed his warm hand on my quaking shoulder. On his face I detected a look of concern. ?You okay, lady?? he asked in a caring, almost tender tone. Of course I wasn?t okay. My insides were churning. My heart was pounding and my brain was spinning. I felt tears welling in my eyes. But what good would it do to share these feelings with this impatient barber? No use delaying the inevitable. Best to get this haircut over as quickly as possible.

?Sure, I?m fine,? I lied.

I doubt that he believed me, but what could he do? ?You got a lot of hair,? he observed. ?Tell me how short I should go.?

He selected a lock of hair from my forehead along the center part and used his comb to lift it above my head. He took the strand in his fingers and inserted his scissors about six inches above my scalp. Our eyes met in the mirror. He was seeking approval of the length. I was too choked up to speak. I shook my head no. He lowered his scissors two inches and again looked for my permission to cut. No, still too long I said with another shake of my head. Finally, they were poised two inches above my scalp. Yes, I nodded, that?s short enough. I watched as Tony slowly closed the sharpened blades; I heard the harsh sound of metal grinding against metal as they sliced through my hair. I watched as a long lock floated free of my head and dangled from the barber?s thick fingers.

He held the severed hair in front of my face. I didn?t want to see it, but there was no way to avoid it. ?You want I should save it?? he asked. Still unable to speak, I nodded a yes. He gently laid twelve inches of brown and gray hair on the cape. I looked in disbelief at the limp lock in my lap and the bare patch above my brow. I couldn?t believe this was happening to me. Yet, here I was, sitting passively as a strange man clipped nearly all the hair from my head. I couldn?t protest because I had ordered him to cut it all off. I had only myself to blame. Now I watched in anguish as he carried out my command.

I swallowed hard as the barber continued his work. Slowly, deliberately, he continued removing hair from the top of my head, one lock at a time. He sliced a succession of long strands from both sides of my center part. A pile of dark hair mixed with gray began accumulating in my lap. Before long there was nearly as much hair in front of me as remained on my head.

The cutting continued for five agonizing minutes. When Tony reached the back of my head he paused. In the mirror I saw a ridge of short hairs sprouting along my crown where my part used to run. They pointed toward the ceiling at unfamiliar angles while long hair still hung from the sides and back. I was a curious sight indeed. If Barb had seen me I?m sure she would have gone ballistic. The barber, however, smiled broadly, apparently amused by my ragamuffin look. Playfully, he rubbed his heavy hand across the uneven stubble on top of my head, trying to erase all evidence of the part that used to reside there. The short hairs sprang back as his fingers passed over. I couldn?t tell whether his gesture was intended to reassure or humiliate me, but it didn?t help.

?Sure looks different, don?t it?? he observed in an amused voice. He seemed to be enjoying my embarrassment. Not only was I being scalped in a barbershop, I was being humiliated by a heartless barber. At this point something inside me broke. The tears I had been holding back began flowing down my cheeks. A muffled sob escaped my lips.

?You okay, lady?? he asked again.

?I?m fine,? I said between sobs. He handed me a tissue and I tried to wipe away the tears.

?You want I should stop?? he offered. But there was no way he could stop after going this far. He knew that as well as I did. The only alternative was to proceed with the haircut as quickly as possible. Anger began to replace my fear.

?No, get on with it,? I ordered rather crossly. When he didn?t respond immediately, I added, ?Well, what are you waiting for??

His chastened expression told me that there would be no further conversation. Without a word he resumed with his scissors, clipping the left side of my head shorter than the top. Now he was working more quickly. It took only a few cuts to reveal the outline of my ear. I watched as he stepped behind the chair and began lopping off thick handfuls of hair from the back of my head. These he casually tossed into my lap. As he neared the base of my skull I felt the cold steel of his scissors sliding along my neck. I realized the hair in back was now less than an inch long.

Soon, only the hair on my right side of my head remained in its original condition. Mercifully, he wasted no time reducing that patch to the same length as the rest. Finally, he held the last long strand in front of my face. ?There, that?s done,? he announced. He opened his fingers and it drifted down to join the large mound already resting in my lap. Now no hair on my head was longer than two inches and the back and sides were much shorter.

The barber rested as I assessed the damage he had inflicted. I reached my hand out from beneath the cape and rubbed it across the ragged tufts that remained on the top of my head. Tentatively, I explored the area around my ears and down my neck. The short hairs pricked my fingers. My touch confirmed what my eyes had seen. This was going to be a very short haircut.

I couldn?t believe the change. The gleaming locks I had carefully tended for so many years were gone, replaced by a shaggy crop of gray and brown bristles. It was worse than had ever imagined. In less than fifteen minutes I had been transformed from a graying, but still fashionable, middle aged woman to a poster child for bad hair. I resembled an inmate in a prison movie or a concentration camp survivor. I should have been prepared for the change in my appearance, but I wasn?t.

?Oh my God,? I sobbed as more tears trickled down my cheek. I dabbed at my streaked mascara. I was a pitiful sight.

?Don?t worry, lady, I?ll clean it up in a jiffy,? he assured me. I didn?t know exactly what he had in mind, but I knew his solution would involve cutting my hair shorter still. As much as I wanted this haircut to be over, I knew I couldn?t go out in public looking as I did now. I had no choice but to continue with the shearing.

Tony set his comb and scissors down on the counter and picked up an ominous looking black instrument attached by a long cord to an outlet on the wall. I realized these were his electric clippers. Soon I would be on the receiving end of their cutting edge. He dropped a small amount of oil on the blades. Next he selected a plastic device and snapped it over the blades. Then he flicked the switch and the clippers began to buzz in my ear. The sound sent chills down my spine. When I agreed to Phil?s request for a very short haircut, he explained that it would require having my hair cut with clippers?most men?s haircuts did. I dreaded the prospect of being shorn by this tool, but there was no alternative. I was trapped in a web of my own design.

The barber approached from the rear and placed his free hand on the back of my head, forcing it forward till my chin rested on my chest. I felt the clippers vibrating at the base of my neck as he slowly pushed them up into my remaining hair. I listened as they buzzed up toward my crown. I couldn?t see what he was doing, my view was limited to pile of clippings in my lap, but I imagined thousands of tiny hairs falling from my head as he mowed it shorter still. He made a dozen passes up the back of my head, many more than I thought necessary. When he stopped I knew that very little of my hair remained.

The barber grasped my chin and returned my head to an upright position. Now I could watch as he removed the hair from the sides of my head. He guided his clippers into the hair around my ear and up towards my temple. Fine dark hairs rained down on the striped cape covering my shoulders. He bent back my ear and ran his clippers around the side till the short hair in front merged with the back. When he finished on the right side he shifted to the left. Again he ran his clippers up the side of my head and around my ear until the left side matched the right.

Now my hair looked even more bizarre than before. The sides of my head were neatly clipped, nearly to the scalp, while the top remained a ragged mess. My head resembled a hairy mushroom. I expected the barber to continue mowing the top as he had done the sides, after all, he had promised to ?cut it short all over.? The result I expected was a short ?buzz cut??the kind of haircut often observed on young boys. I imagined the feel of the clippers as they passed over my crown, reducing the top of my head to a furry dome. Instead, he paused and offered me an alternative. ?You want I should leave it longer on top?? he asked. ?It would give you something to comb.?

I was surprised at his consideration. He was offering an option to the extreme haircut he had started. I knew the style he had in mind. My young secretary wore her hair this way?very short on the sides and spiked on top. I was shocked when she first appeared in the office with her hair cut so radically short, but the style looked good on her. With lots of gel, the right makeup, and some good earrings it could be a very sexy look. For a moment, I considered his offer. It would give me a way to salvage some semblance of feminine pride from this haircut.

Then I looked into the mirror and saw Phil sitting across the room. He was waiting for the final stage of my transformation. This haircut had been his idea. The main reason I was sitting in this chair was to satisfy his desire, not to salvage my vanity. I knew what he was expecting. It would be cruel to get his hopes up and then dash them. Then I had an inspiration.

Perhaps there was a way I could make him happy without submitting to a buzz cut. I recalled a conversation in which he described his vision of the most exciting female haircut of all time. He showed me a collection of photos, each one picturing a woman with her hair cut perfectly flat across the top. Some were longer and some were incredibly short. They all looked strange to me, but Phil said they really turned him on. Watching a woman have her hair cut into flattop was the most wonderful thing he could imagine. ?You would look so sexy with a flattop,? he told me on our way to the shop. He obviously hoped that I would follow his suggestion. I had remained noncommittal. ?Don?t get your hopes up, buster,? I cautioned. Yet his words stayed with me.

I don?t know what form of madness came over me. It may have been sympathy for my husband or the atmosphere of this barbershop. I?ll never know what made me do it, but I decided I would grant Phil his fantasy. I had come this far. I could go a little farther.

I gathered the nerve to speak. I heard a small, shaky voice ask the barber, ?Could you cut it in a flattop??

?What?? he asked, as if he hadn?t heard me correctly.

?A flattop,? I repeated more confidently. ?Can you give me a flattop??

The barber sounded almost amused. ?You?re kidding?? he replied. Obviously, Tony didn?t think I was serious. But I wasn?t joking.

?Can you cut it in a flattop?? I said again, more firmly this time. I prayed that Phil was listening to this exchange. I hoped he appreciated how difficult this was for me, how much I was sacrificing for him.

?I don?t know,? he answered.

?What?s the matter? You know how to do a flattop, don?t you?? I pressed. The dynamic in our relationship suddenly had shifted. Now I had him on the defensive. I was questioning his competence.

?Sure, lady, do ?em all the time. But I never give one to a woman,? he explained.

?Well, that?s what I want,? I insisted. I would force him to give me this extreme haircut.

?Why you want to look like that?? he continued, puzzled at my determination.

I could think of no plausible reason, at least none that he would accept. ?Can you do it?? I demanded.

?Sure, if that?s what you want,? he said, still sounding doubtful.

?That?s what I want,? I commanded.

?What will your husband say?? he asked, obviously hoping the Phil would veto my request.

?Why don?t you ask him?? I replied smugly. Of course, I know what his answer would be.

The barber turned to Phil. ?Mister, your wife wants a flattop. What do you say??

?If that?s what she wants, give it to her,? Phil answered. ?Just make sure you do a good job.?

The barber shook his head in disbelief. I?m sure he never expected Phil to go along with my request. ?Okay, lady,? he answered. I could tell he didn?t really want to do this, yet I had been adamant and Phil had given his consent. Now he had no choice.

He went to the counter again and returned with a spray bottle in his hand. He pumped a fine mist of water over my head, soaking my hair. He grabbed a stiff brush and began briskly stroking the short fringe back off my face. He attacked the top of my head, coaxing the remnants of my hair into an upright posture. His rough approach soon had the desired effect. When he stopped all of the hairs on top of my head were standing erect?a ragged thicket of brown and gray.

I watched as he exchanged his brush for the clippers. He removed the plastic attachment that had shielded the blades and flicked the switch again. The silver blades began sliding back and forth. He returned to my side with the clippers humming ominously. He inserted his comb above my forehead, exposing about half an inch of hair. He held his clippers at the side of my head. This time he didn?t wait for my permission. Using his comb as a guide, he ran the clippers straight across my head. Clumps of short damp hair spilled from the blades onto my forehead and landed on my nose. I wanted to brush them away, but knew I dare not move. One sudden motion would spoil the look he was creating. He removed the comb and inserted it further back on my head. He executed another horizontal swipe, then another, and another, drastically lowering the surface of my hair. After each pass he flicked his comb, carelessly tossing the severed hair to the floor. No more effort to save the clippings; we were past that stage. His cuts were slow and precise. He concentrated to make sure each one was perfectly level.

I watched in amazement as the barber reduced the length of my hair by almost an inch. As the clipping progressed I beheld a neat horizontal surface replace the shaggy mess that had stood there minutes before. As he reached the back of my head his cuts moved closer to my head. On his last passes I felt his comb only a fraction of an inch above my scalp. I realized here would be very little hair left when he was done. This haircut was going to be shorter than I ever imagined.

When Tony finished with the top, he used his comb and clippers on the sides of my head. This time he carved sheer vertical walls that intersected with the flat top in sharp right angles. He repeated his upward strokes, each pass shaving another fraction of an inch from my hair.

After what seemed like an eternity Tony switched off his clippers and rested them on the counter. I thought my haircut was done, but he reached into a jar on the counter and withdrew a generous dab of styling gel. This he vigorously massaged into my hair. Then he returned with the brush and a blow dryer. He attacked the top of my head again, stroking it repeatedly, making sure each hair was in the proper position. Finally he paused and critically studied the top of my head. Every hair stood stiff and straight. A hurricane couldn?t budge them.

Evidently, a few hairs still were still too long because he returned with his clippers, this time without the comb, and lightly skimmed them over the horizontal surface of my new hairstyle. With each pass he removed a minuscule fraction of an inch from my hair. At last he decided that my head had reached his vision of tonsorial perfection and switched off his clippers.

Next he used a small silver clipper to trim around my ears and down my neck. He carved my sideburns into sharp points. He clipped around my ears and down the back of my neck. Then he put the clippers away and took a soft brush to dust the clippings from my forehead and nose. Finally, he loosened the cape and tissue surrounding my neck and dusted there too.

I sat paralyzed, looking at myself in the mirror. A strange woman stared back at me. Her salt and pepper hair was clipped in a precise military haircut. The sides were so short that white skin showed beneath the dark stubble. The top stood perfectly flat. When she tilted her head forward, I could see a bare patch running down the middle of her crown. For the first time I fully realized why the barber had been so reluctant to give me this haircut.

So this is what a flattop looks like, I thought. You better get used to it because you?re stuck with it.

Tony held a small mirror in front of me so I could inspect the haircut from every angle. ?Well, lady, is this what you wanted?? he asked brusquely.

?Yes, it?s fine,? I answered meekly. What else could I say?

?Is it short enough?? he asked. ?I can take it shorter if you like.?

I couldn?t imagine anything shorter. ?No, it?s fine,? I repeated.

?I guess, we?re done then,? he announced. ?You should come back in a couple weeks to keep it looking sharp.?

The last thing I wanted was to return to his shop for another haircut, but I nodded in acknowledgment. The barber removed the cloth and the tissue from my neck. He gathered up the remnants of my hair in the cape and said, ?I?ll find something to put this in.? As he departed for the back of the shop, Phil got up out of his chair and came over to where I was sitting.

When he reached my side I asked, ?Well, Phil, you finally got your wish. What do you think??

?Fran, I think you are one incredibly brave woman,? he gushed.

?Yes, but how do I look?? I pressed for reassurance.

?You look fantastic,? he exclaimed.

?You really mean that, don?t you?? I said.

?Yes, you look incredibly sexy,? he declared.

?Was it everything you hoped for?? I demanded.

?Oh yes. It was perfect. I couldn?t believe when you told Tony you wanted a flattop. I never thought you would do that,? he said.

?Neither did I. It was a special gift for you, honey,? I answered sweetly.

?Can I feel it?? he asked eagerly.

?Sure, go ahead.? I should have known this was coming.

He reached out and cautiously passed his hand across the top of my head, letting my short hair tickle his palm. He repeated the motion a second time and then a third.

?Enough already,? I stopped him. ?You can play some more when we get home.?

?Fran, this is something I?ll always remember,? he said with great sincerity.

?You realize, that I?ll begin growing it out tomorrow, don?t you?? I reminded him.

?Yes, I know that, but today I?m going to memorize every short hair on your lovely head,? He answered.

The barber emerged from the back room with a plastic shopping bag stuffed full of my severed hair. He handed it to me and I passed it to Phil.

The barber turned the chair away from the mirror and I stepped down. My husband reached in his wallet and extracted a twenty-dollar bill. ?Keep the change,? he said as the barber placed the bill in the till.

I turned to my barber. ?Thanks Tony, you?ve been great. I?m sorry if I got a little emotional.?

?That?s okay, lady. You did fine.? A big smile lit his face. We had gone through an ordeal together and both of us were relieved that it had turned out all right.

I looked at myself in the mirror one last time. I turned my head to the side and inspected the level surface of my head. The effect was striking. I was a completely different woman than the one who walked in half an hour ago.

My look used to be coy and demure. I hid behind my long hair. I would peek out and flirt with men. I used it to impress other women. Now my look was strong and confident. My chin was firm and my gaze was resolute, almost defiant. My ears showed, but they were small and graceful. The gray hairs were still there, but they weren?t as prominent. Phil had been right; they looked much better short. Although this was a man?s haircut, you could still tell I was a woman. ?You don?t look so terrible,? I thought. ?This might not be such a bad style after all. Hold your head high and don?t be ashamed.?

I marched toward the door with my trotting husband close behind. ?Come back any time,? the barber called as we exited his shop. It sounded like he truly meant it.

?Bye, Tony,? I answered. I doubted that I would be back, but you never know.

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