Growing up in my family, friends at casual dinner parties were like new clothes that don’t fit exactly right. The ones that you try on at the store and they look fantastic, but you realize looking at yourself at home that the department store mirrors deceived you, and the clothes actually make you look worse than your old ones did. The people came and the people went, shuffling through our revolving wardrobe, usually with one person having strong objections to the fact that they were a part of our existence at all.
‘They weren’t really our friends, were they?’ my sisters and I would ponder while cutting into our avocado egg rolls at the Cheesecake Factory. ‘I mean, they collected beanie babies! They had a full room of the ones from the McDonald’s Happy Meals.’ The judges had decided. They were only a passing fancy, an experiment, a look into the weird and awkward, rather than an actual committed relationship. We do this with most people who get close to the family, and usually come down on the side that we are better off just sticking to the select few who have put up with us for long enough to constitute a real friendship.
One of these lasting family friendships is with a hair stylist who we will call Bella and her husband who I have to call Gandhi. Any other name would just be insulting to him, as the amount of patience and energy it must take to keep up with the very loud and very Italian Bella can only be described as saintly, or, as I describe while forking a last fried avocado into my mouth as, ‘Masochism.’
Bella talks as if the world will end if her mouth closes. She sits you down in her revolving chair, straps the black cape perfectly around your neck, and immediately begins the interrogation; one question after another, never stopping to hear the answer, continuing until your hair is perfectly cut and your head is spinning with nonsensical knowledge that you would normally be skeptical of, but in this context seems entirely plausible. ‘You are right, Bella, I do think that a slice of garlic bread would cure my cold,’ or ‘Come to think of it, the last time I had a cough, I did eat a slice of cheese and it seemed to go away.’ Bella was big on this: curing the common aliments with Italian cooking. A migraine was no match for lasagna; the flu couldn’t stand up to meatballs; and pneumonia was just a pest in the face of gelato. To Bella, there isn’t much a slice of mozzarella and a couple glasses of wine can’t cure, and the older I get, I’m more inclined to agree with her.
My mother first met her in a small salon in what would be the modern-day Great Clips. I’m not exactly how the conversation went, or really how Mother became a regular client of hers, but I assume that the relationship progressed supernaturally. To say my mother is socially apt or capable is a gross understatement; she is more of a social machine, able to compute interests and manipulate conversations easily; her demeanor coming off as innocent and bubbly in one line of dialogue, then experienced and wise in another. Needless to say, she was more than able to keep up with Bella’s questioning, most likely having her fair share of questions as well. Watching the two of them talk is like watching Italian opera at the Metropolitan: movements and hand gestures perfectly synchronized for those who can’t understand what is being said, so they can still keep up with the gist of the dialogue. Laughter is never so rich as when my mother and Bella meet, and that is perhaps why my mother took me to her to have my first real haircut, and that is perhaps why I never stopped going.
Until I moved to Iowa City and got poor.
You know you are poor when you are counting calories, not to make sure you aren’t fat, but to make sure you have had enough for the day. If you haven’t, there really isn’t much choice other than a can of re-fried beans or the last of the stale chips with a side of mustard. I don’t really have a problem with this because I don’t believe in exercise, so my diet allows me the ability to wear clothes that I have kept from high school, like my old, extra-small, black tee shirts and the assortment of off-color sweaters I found in a box in my closet back in the Fort. Finding new clothes that I don’t have to pay for is like finding a five dollar bill in my pocket. Yeah. It means a Venti cappuccino and a star on my Starbucks gold card. It’s a big deal. But, having no fluid capital and a paranoia about credit cards, when it came down to it, I decided against the forty dollar salon cut plus styling, and opt for a pound of chuck steak and a six-dollar massacre. If you haven’t seen me, then you don’t understand. My hair is my best feature. By far. I’m not saying that I don’t have an amazing smile or a gaze that makes your soul go soft: I’m saying that my hair could run for president and win; I’m saying that my hair could get an Oscar for best hair and makeup; I’m saying that my hair puts the 1940’s to shame. Call it vanity; I call it truth. This was a crisis of soul for me, to set foot in the La James School for Hair and Makeup, take the risk of mutilation, and having to live with it for two to three months as it grows out into full maturity. ‘It could destroy everything I have worked for,’ I thought as I stepped into the so-called ‘studio,’ and was half-heartedly greeted by a receptionist that I’m sure was twelve and a half.
‘Can I help you?’ she said, but it came across more as, ‘What do you want?’ What I really wanted at that point was somewhere I could hang my coat, but I couldn’t find a rack anywhere.
‘I want a haircut,’ I said, but it came across more as, ‘You run a second-rate establishment and should be shut down for not having a single coat-rack.’
She glanced at her phone, checking her messages, probably from a live-in boyfriend who throws his coat on the floor instead of hanging it up properly. ‘Have you been here before?’ The subtext of this question was, ‘So the pea-coat wearing, upper-class, prick wants a cheap haircut, huh?’
I set my coat on the counter, making sure to take up as much space as possible, and said, ‘Nope.’ She pretty much was dead on with her last subtextual question: I did want a cheap haircut, and I also looked like I walked out of an ad in Men’s Vogue. My hair was combed back in a swooping motion, my patent leather boots were tapping the tile, and my designer jeans pressed slightly against the counter. The prick part was way out of line though, so I took up the majority of her counter and spent a little extra time spelling my name as she entered it into the database of other upper-class pricks who wanted cheap haircuts. I think she had a special file. She told me to sit down and I did, but only for a second as my student came out to greet me.
‘Whad’up?’ she nodded as she pushed her dyed red hair out of her eyes. She was a healthy-looking girl, and seemed nice, but her brash tone made me want to punch one of the fake heads whose fake hair had been massacred from trainees. She had obviously watched too much Jersey Shore. ‘Where should I hang my coat?’ I promptly asked. ‘Yeah, just bring it back and we’ll put it somewhere.’ Put it somewhere? Put it somewhere? No, no, no. Hang it somewhere; she must be mistaken, I thought. I was wrong. ‘Just throw it anywhere you want,’ she said as she motioned to the seat, which I now saw as the electric chair. I folded my coat and set it in my lap, and she flipped my collar inside out. I must have flinched because she laughed and said, ‘Easy there, I’m not going to try anything this early.’ I wasn’t worried about her sexual advances, as they would give me an excuse to leave: I flinched because it took me a good half-hour to iron out that collar the night before. She asked how I would like my hair cut and I began the process of explaining exactly what I wanted.
‘Okay, so, I want it short, but I need it shorter on the sides than on the top, and I need it layered together so it looks like a fade. I’m figuring about taking an inch off the top and three-fourths of an inch on the sides. It’s okay if you use the clippers on the sides, but not on the top, and I’d like it if you texturized everything so I can style it later.’
She flipped me around in the chair so I didn’t face the mirror and chuckled, ‘I think I got it there, guy.’ I would be referred to as ‘guy’ many times through this two-hour period. Apparently, she didn’t feel like taking an interest in learning my name, which was okay because I didn’t feel like taking an interest in learning hers. If I ever get my hair cut by someone I don’t know, I prefer it happen in silence. I don’t like small talk or forced conversation, especially when someone is performing an invasive service on me. I wouldn’t want to carry on a conversation about my dog with a neurosurgeon while he is clearing a clot in my brain: I figure he needs to focus on that one task, just for now.
But her lack of interest went only as far as my name, as she immediately began carrying on a conversation about her studies and pressing me for information about mine. ‘Yeah, I don’t really like to study that much,’ I figured it was a generic answer that sort of said, ‘I don’t really want to talk to you that much,’ but she figured that this was our common ground, something we could both get on board with. ‘I don’t either! I don’t even take notes in class I mean, our teacher gets mad if we don’t, so I just doodle in my notebook, and she doesn’t know the difference,’ she took another chomp out of my hair with her scissors, ‘I figure this is all pretty common sense stuff, anyways.’
This was the point where I began to worry about what would be in mirror when she swiveled the chair around. I began thinking about what hats I had and how much it would clash with my style. I cannot pull off fedoras, or top hats, or baseball caps, or bobbies, or any hat, I thought. How was I going to hide this? I could just shave my head. No, I would look like a vulture. I could cut it myself at home. With what, your three-dollar scissors? Oh, shit that won’t work. Uh…
‘Done!’ As if she had completed the most difficult task of her life, she pushed the chair towards the mirror, dusting her scissors off on my inside-out collar.
I almost had a heart-attack. I nearly died. It was short, yeah. It was cut, yeah. But the bangs were jagged; the side-burns were uneven; the back sat like a premature mullet, just waiting for me to grab a Grateful Dead album and start chain-smoking Parliaments. I could barely get a word out, but I whispered to myself, ‘Ggeeelllll.’ The butcher left to go get her teacher and after ten minutes a short Asian woman came up to me, looking as if I had just survived a plane crash in the Bermuda Triangle. ‘Oh, well.’ She muttered a few things to the butcher and began shaping up my hair. ‘This looks good, yes?’ I left that question hanging in the air. She knew the answer. And I didn’t feel like fluffing the butcher’s ego. ‘Well, there you go,’ which sounded more like ‘Better luck next time kid.’
I got up from the electric chair, rushing for an exit. I gave the twelve year-old receptionist my card, looked at my bill, read ‘$6.00,’ and quickly signed the document, freeing them from any civil or criminal liability, I’m sure. I rushed home and tried to find some order to the chaos that sat on my head, but I couldn’t. I sat down on my couch-bed, tired and beat, thinking about Bella and how all I really needed to feel better was a piece of cheese.