by Sara Levine
The block had changed. Money, of course. New demographic. The check-cashing place was now a baby boutique. Ed's Plumbing, in whose window a dusty clock-face toilet seat had, for fifteen years, told the time wrong, now sold gelato. She tried for indignation, distaste, a rueful sense of loss, but a smile played over her lips. Where to go first? Her eyes scanned the new shops.
Issue #108 soundtrack: Magnetic Poetry "Not Alone"
On an impulse, she stepped into the salon, hypnotized by the oxblood walls, plump black leather chairs, gilt-framed mirrors. Stylists glided up and down the narrow corridor, self-contained and subdued, like servants in an enchanted castle.
No, she didn't have an appointment, she had only been walking by on her lunch hour, but if by chance—
"One of our junior stylists is available," said the receptionist.
The stylist was fifteen years younger than Helen, blunt-cut bangs, hooded eyes, cheeks lightly spangled with glitter. Helen shook her hand as if they were about to begin a life-long partnership.
"I don’t know what I want," Helen said brightly. "Something different."
Mandy washed her hair with a reticence that was almost truculent, then led her to the station, where she began to pull a comb through Helen's hair.
Non-conciliatory, Helen thought, trying to find reasons to stay in the chair. Exactly what I need. Unforgiving. She’ll make it better.
"I’ve worn it this way since I was twenty," Helen said.
Mandy combed and combed, examining each section so carefully Helen feared that she had found a nit.
"Is it way too long? I want a surprise, so whatever you do is fine. I’m due for a change. I’m not sure he really sees me anymore. My husband. Of course a man doesn’t have to look at you to—. Oh, never mind. You're probably too young to even know what I’m talking about!"
"You’ll have to take those off now," Mandy said, meaning her glasses.
With her glasses off, Helen could only make out a blur in the mirror. She heard the shhh-shhh-shhh of the scissors and listened sleepily to the techno music, which stringed the air with beads. Minutes passed, Helen didn’t know how many. Mandy’s hands put something in her hair, a thick waxy styling product that smelled like grapefruit, the stringent smell wafting up, the girl’s hands rough as she pulled the wax from root to end, so hard that tears sprung to Helen’s eyes. Abruptly, without warning, came the brash heat and nerve-shearing sound of the hairdryer, the nozzle close enough to burn her ears. Then Mandy said, "All right, take a look," and, as if roused from sleep, Helen fumbled for her glasses.
There she was. Mandy stood behind, her face impenetrable. The bulk of her hair was gone, and what remained had been tweaked into a spiky landscape around Helen's face, which momentarily looked like somebody else's face, shock-eyed and pale. Mandy unsnapped the cape and pumped down the chair with her foot.
"How do you like it?"
Helen instructed herself to be calm. Don’t say anything. You asked for it. Be gracious!
"It's very nice," she said. "It's certainly different."
"Six inches," Mandy said, nodding at the damp nests of hair on the floor.
Face hot, legs faint, Helen paid the receptionist, stuffed a tip of thirty percent—there! that’s fine—into a tiny envelope, and slipped out.
Her lunch hour was over. Newly blind to the charms of the neighborhood, she reeled down the sidewalk like a drunk, shaving a little too close to other pedestrians, bumping into baby strollers, confounding shoppers exiting the doors. At a bank she paused to look at her reflection in the black-tinted windows. Ungodly! She laughed, the barking laugh of a seal, her face breaking into a thousand points. Abruptly she sobered up, patted the hair, its stiff waxen texture unfamiliar, like a plant, and hurried along. As a girl she had loved to pull the head off her Barbie and put in its place other heads, the head of Ken, or Skipper. This was a perfectly plausible head, she mused, just not mine. But why should a change of hair change everything? A sob rose in her throat and she stopped again, retreated into the doorway of a kitchenware shop, and rummaged in her purse for a pocket mirror. She peered, aghast. I don’t know my own face, she thought.
At the office, she settled immediately at her desk, and others came with papers to sign, questions to settle, complaints to make about the speed of their new wireless. She waited for a remark, but the others gabbled on as usual. For years she had done nothing more than trim her hair two inches, and still somebody would say, "Get a haircut?" as if to acknowledge that Helen was an object of consideration. With this haircut had she removed herself from the range of their concern? When Cynthia, who noted when Helen wore a new shade of lipstick, leaned over Helen’s desk to discuss brochures and made no mention of the hair, the question was settled. The haircut was worse than she'd thought. Like a goiter, or a rash of acne, the world politely conspired not to mention it.
At two o’clock Helen called her husband. He didn't answer his cell. He never answered his cell anymore. She left a brief, casual message, and hung up. At two thirty she called again, as if seized by a great event. Then she called his office. The new receptionist answered, a young woman who had been hired just for the summer, who spoke in a tight and garbled voice as if she had just drunk lighter fluid. She was competent, Jason said, but nervous.
"He's with a client. He's at lunch, I mean. I believe he went to lunch with his wife."
"This is his wife."
"Shit," the receptionist said. "I’m a terrible liar."
Helen pretended not to have heard.
"Thanks, I'll call back," Helen said.
She hung up.
What I need is to really look at it; I didn’t look at it when Mandy first showed me, only because the hair seemed, oddly, at that moment, to belong to her.
She left her desk and went to the office’s private bathroom. On the way she passed Cynthia's desk, but Cynthia, pretending to be busy, didn't look up.
Her fingers stiff, her breath audible, she produced her pocket mirror, stippled with face powder, and held it up to study the angles. What had she done? Her hair, her perfectly fine hair, gone, gone, and for this! She groaned, pinching and pulling at her cheeks. What did this haircut reveal to the world, if not that she hadn’t a clue who she was? That she wanted something different but had no idea what? Battering herself with such thoughts she seemed to swell, like a tick filling with blood. You idiot, she thought, what self-respecting person gives a teenager with scissors carte blanche to their hair; you might have just as well have made an announcement to the world: I am unhappy, I am desperate, my husband is having an affair!
This thought brought her a sense of shock and relief— as if she had been choking on her own saliva and finally swallowed.
She slid to the cold tile floor and wept, her head dizzy, her voice absurdly hoarse and whimpering, a child’s cries. At last she quieted, smoothed her clothes, washed and blotted dry her face—impersonally, as if she belonged to someone else—and tugged a bit on the hair to see if it might be arranged. The haircut was lousy, but she could compensate, of course. She would get in shape; she would dress better; she would treat this unfortunate haircut as a release, as if her former style were in fact a crutch. I’m a constitutional liar who has decided from now on, I’ll tell the truth, Helen thought. This god-awful hair, she said aloud, with sudden affection. Why not be free? I'm not old, I could leave him. Wouldn't it give Jason a shock if she made a scene? She would pack up his things and when he came in, cut him cold. I know about your stupid affairs, she would tell him. It had been in the back of her mind— the hushed phone calls, the new email account, the long hours with clients about whom he never had much to say. Hatred rose in her throat. That morning, after her alarm clock had gone off, Jason had flung an arm over her torso and trapped her in a neuter embrace, his mouth half open, expelling little gusts of bad breath. Kick him out.
Oh god, she said and laughed aloud at her own dizziness, fragility. What on earth was the matter with her today?
A haircut does not have to change everything. She tugged again on the bangs and smiled to herself. Hats, she thought.
Sara Levine is the author of the novel Treasure Island!!! and the story collection Short Dark Oracles. She teaches at the The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and sometimes remembers to post at Sara-Levine.com.