I spent the summer that I turned twenty working in London. I
spent my free time alternately disciplining myself (with
day-long audio tours of museums) and indulging myself (with
cones of soft ice cream, Cadbury chocolate bars, shimmery
lavender clubbing pants that I’d never dream of wearing and yet
somehow seemed momentarily essential). My behavior was just how
I imagined that of a despondent divorcée to be, or an elderly
lady whose adult children never call or visit. I wandered that
too-huge city, seeing ghosts of faces I recognized in the faces
of strangers and speaking to no one at all for long intervals.
When I saw solitary older women sipping small white mugs of
cappuccino in coffee shops and pulling in their shopping bags
towards them with hug-like gestures, I cast glances of
solidarity. I carried books with me and sat reading at
lunchtime, alone, eating sandwiches as the anonymous,
undulating, well-dressed crowds shoved past. I was lonely.
When you’re a shy, small-town-North-Carolina kid in London,
after you’ve seen all the museums and grown tired of your books,
you become preoccupied instead with staring at people and
wanting things. London is a city of wants, both material and
metaphysical. There’s the feeling that you’ve reached the axis
of the cultured world, the swirling jelly center where things
must happen, and so logically, something should happen to you.
Maybe it’s the old dream of leaving home plain as a
wooden plank and then returning from your time abroad lovely and
new, a dandelion magically transformed into a rare orchid. Or
maybe it’s just that on London’s every corner, there’s the smell
of delicious curry and naan, glossy purple fliers for DJ nights
at the trashy Hippodrome, the click of chopsticks at the
lunch-time sushi conveyor belts, good-looking men and women in
deep gray suits clinking glasses at happy hours, the huge red
letters of a theater billboard, the clutter of books in a second
hand shop smelling of old yellow papers, and heaped rainbow-hued
pyramids of shoes piled high during the mid-July sales. London
is a city full of things to be desired, a place that inspires
hungers and dissatisfactions, a place where something must
My flatmates Ian and Laurie both hinted delicately that I
might not be experiencing all that London had to offer. We lived
together, eating nutella and watching Ali G episodes in a grungy
little flat that smelt of sausages in Ladbroke Grove. Ian, a
jolly, drunk, lascivious Brit ten years older than I, and
Laurie, an American college student my age well-schooled in the
ways of frat parties, suggested I rev my London experience up a
bit by going to more pubs, consuming more beer, and reading less
Middlemarch. Being a skittish Southern girl, alcohol
still made me nervous, and venues devoted to people consuming it
were a foreign land. So instead of taking their advice, I
continued to make imaginary appointments for myself at Charles
Dickens’ historic home and take day-trips with no one in
particular to Cambridge. I wandered Oxford Circle, bought
cheaply printed one-pound copies of classic novels, and spent my
free time reading them in what I hoped were atmospheric places.
Every now and then, just to assure myself that I was truly
soaking in the British culture, I’d put aside Thomas Hardy,
deeply inhale the polluted air, reminding myself—ahh, I wasn’t
just back in a dorm room in Chapel Hill but I was really here,
with my book right here, truly experiencing something new, truly
But they had a point, Laurie and Ian. Laurie was having a
considerably more eventful summer abroad than I was. She met up
with her coworkers after work, got a part-time job in a pub
herself, and managed to leave her bra strewn around our flat a
few times after entertaining a male visitor. The only book I
noticed her reading all summer was Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Ian found her far more amusing as an American summer-flatmate.
He delighted in kidding her about the sorority to which she
belonged. This involved Laurie fielding many queries as to the
sexual predilections and "knicker"-buying habits of her sorority
sisters. Laurie may not have been beautiful, but she smiled at
jokes, held her liquor, and generally had a good time with every
person she met. She did not go upstairs to her room to
finish writing a letter when Ian and his friends invited her
around the corner for pints. She did not go on guided
tours of ancient abbeys and befriend retired couples from
Minnesota as her excuse for fun. And when Laurie went out, she
certainly did not allow herself to be dragged exclusively
to London’s gay bars with her one-and-only male friend while he
flirted desperately and she glumly nursed a glass of ice-less
water, a single buoy of a girl bobbing in a sea of preening,
Naturally, when forced to consider why our London experiences
differed so dramatically, I hit upon the obvious answer:
Laurie’s haircut. This was the root of our differences. Near the
beginning of the summer, Laurie had gone to the Vidal Sassoon
training school in London and had her locks chopped by some
trendy-bopper student hairstylist. There were often coupons for
a free haircut at Vidal Sassoon. Laurie had seen one and, on a
whim, used it. She had started the summer with shoulder-length
blonde hair. It had been cute, but in hindsight, too young—the
ponytails and hairbands of a sunny, athletic, late adolescent.
After her visit to Vidal Sassoon, her hair was cut short so that
it softened her face, making it prettier, more mature. Laurie
had walked into that salon and told the students, "Do whatever
you want. I want something new." She had walked out a new woman.
Faced with the prospect of spending yet another Saturday
afternoon with George Eliot and a group of retirees from
Wisconsin, I knew something needed to happen. I would get a
haircut. It would be the daring, farewell nod to the
rinky-dink-skating-rink provincial that I was. When I found a
free haircut coupon in the papers, I seized it in my hot little
palm as if it were a golden ticket. Making my way to the Vidal
Sassoon School, I passed my usual wistful route, eyeing
beautiful men and women clicking briskly through the heart of
the shopping district. Vidal Sassoon occupied a large
shampoo-scented building filled with women all clutching similar
coupons in their hands. The room was bare and sleek, and the
student stylists bustled around in tight black t-shirts and
black pants. The men wore their hair in carefully gelled spikes,
and the women had pierced tongues and faux-hawks, or elaborately
rhinestoned black-rimmed glasses. The other customers were as
visibly intimidated by the Vidal Sasson students as I was, and
this at least gave me some sense of reassurance.
"Alright, over here if you willing to have a dramatic change,
and over here if you just want a trim," one baby-blonde man with
a high-pitched woman’s voice said, sweeping his tattooed arm
with a god-like gesture. We did not know it at the time, but
this would indeed be the moment where the goats were separated
from the sheep, the bold culled from the limp, mousy, and bland.
I could see a look of nervousness fall over some of the
women. Clearly, a few had come intending to metamorphose from
their old husks, but now faced with these stylists with blue
forelocks and lip studs, they were faltering—as was I. Who
among you tame dumplings is willing to submit themselves fully
to the mercy of the angular, terrifyingly trendy woman with the
raven tattoo on her forearm? the blonde man’s look asked. He
tapped his fingers with impatience and muttered, "Hurry along
Perhaps if I’d been Laurie at this moment, I would have
strode forward, but instead I found myself submerged in the
crowd of middle-aged woman who clustered desperately into the
"just a trim" corner. Perhaps I should have realized that in
order to be seen by the most advanced and skilled students, one
must be willing to undergo more than a mere trim. But I
faltered. I told to myself that once I actually sat down with my
stylist, I’d negotiate a middle-road, something far more daring
than a meager trim, and yet less severe than spikes or a pixie
cut. I watched a handful of daring younger women go forward to
meet the black-clad hipsters (the most advanced hairstyling
students, it turns out) as I hung back along with the plump
ladies in pleated pants.
"You," the blonde man said to the just-a-trim crowd with a
dismissive wave, "You all may go out that way. You’ll not be
seen here, but at our auxiliary site."
I followed the just-a-trim group as we retreated into the
hard July sun. Half-following directions that someone had been
told and half-following herd-logic, we meandered down a series
of streets. I couldn’t help but noticed that we were wandering
farther and farther away from the Vidal Sassoon school, and
farther and farther away from London’s fashionable district. We
walked a long time, passing uniformed school children and a
series of small green parks. In a residential neighborhood, we
finally came to another small training salon. At this point, I
had not yet realized that this was something of Vidal Sassoon’s
b-list school, sort of the hairstylists’ equivalent of a prep
academy like the ones for students who need an extra year of
disciplined attention from ex-marines in order to ready
themselves for college. No, as we each took a seat in front of
the long wall of mirrors, I was still excited. I was ready to be
It was only when I heard the sound of many girls chattering
in Japanese that I began to worry. Out from the back came a
Sanrio-cute crew of tiny Japanese girls, clearly no older than I
was, talking fast and giggling. They held scissors and combs
with the giddy wonder of space aliens investigating new
earth-technology. I shared a worried look with the woman next to
me—where were our terrifying hipsters now? Where were the people
who spoke English? A Japanese woman who seemed to be the leader
strode to the front.
"Hello," she said, "Students very pleased to be here for
week-long course at very famous Vidal Sassoon," she smiled and
"These students have very advanced hair training in Japan—
very high, very advanced. They come here for weekend course at
very famous, very advanced Vidal Sassoon. Ahh, yes, I am
translator, and this is teacher of very advanced school of
Japan," and here she pointed to another small woman who nodded.
The other just-a-trim ladies’ eyes had grown big.
With this, the teacher began lecturing authoritatively in
Japanese, shoving each of her students behind the salon chair of
a different customer. Towards my seat, she thrust the very
tiniest of all of the Japanese girls. Even while seated, my head
was higher than hers. I looked down at her and smiled, slumping
cooperatively in my chair so that my long limbs were splayed out
like a foal’s.
"Miyoko," she said, which she followed with something that
sounded like, "hidayaki seezuko yoshimini miyoko. Miyoko,
I assumed she was telling me her name was Miyoko, so I shook
her hand and replied, "Hello, Miyoko, my name is Joanna. Do you
speak any English?"
She seemed to recognize the word English, because she shook
her head furiously and giggled.
"No English! Miyoko hadayazeeko seezuooko suzushimi hadako,
She smiled again, half-apologetically, and then she and the
girl next to her had a rapid-fire exchange in Japanese and
erupted into peals of laughter.
The teacher began instructing the students in a loud voice.
The Japanese hairstylist students smiled and cooed in response,
inspecting their hair scissors and tools with the
inquisitiveness of bright animals. For students described as
being very advanced, they seemed to require lengthy instruction.
Eventually, the translator and teacher went around to each
student and client, asking the woman what she had in mind. Part
of the barrier here, I realized, would be that there were some
thirty English-Japanese pairs in the room, and only one
The teacher/translator duo came to Miyoko and me to ask what
I had in mind. I felt the simpler the instructions, the better,
so I said simply, "Just an inch trim. That’s all." which the
translator translated into a suspiciously long string of
Japanese words. The teacher, in turn, gave additional
explanation to Miyoko that involved broad hand gesturing and
elaborate pantomime. Then they all three smiled and nodded at me
with a ready-for-take-off look.
At the sink washing my hair, tiny Miyoko struggled to reach
my head. She was truly the smallest there, petite even by the
standards of Japanese women, whereas I was the tallest. It was a
pains-taking process. She fumbled bottles and massaged the
shampoo into my hair tentatively. By the time she began combing
out my wet hair, most of the other students had already started
cutting. When Miyoko picked up her scissors, her strategy
required her to clip mere microns per strand per minute. This
technique seemed based partly in beginner’s caution and partly
in the fact that we didn’t have a stack of phonebooks on which
Miyoko could stand.
"From London?" she asked, a desperate attempt at that easy
confidence between hairdressers and customers that is so
facilitated by a mutual working knowledge of the same language.
"No, from America. United States of America," I replied.
"Ahhh, America. The Backstreet Boys!" she yelped, grinning.
"Yes," I nodded, "the Backstreet Boys."
The teacher continued to circulate around the room, observing
and offering words of encouragement to each student. I could
feel Miyoko’s hands tremble whenever she neared us. The first
time she came over, she spoke harshly, apparently chastening
Miyoko and causing her to adopt an even more cautious pace.
Miyoko swept more of my hair forward onto my face, and I could
feel the shaking in her hands. I felt bad for her, but I was
also relieved that I couldn’t really see her handiwork. Slumped
as I was in the chair, Miyoko found it easier to work with my
hair spread Cousin-Lurch-style entirely in front of my eyes. The
price was my added physical discomfort. The salon had a fan but
no air-conditioning, and sweat was beginning to roll down my
back and beneath the curtain of hair covering my face.
When an hour had passed and she was still working, I felt
that this was perhaps a bad sign. At this point, many of the
other stylists had finished cutting and blow-drying their
clients, and sent them on their way, accepting much praise from
the teacher. The teacher had returned to Miyoko several times,
usually talking in a tone that indicated disapproval, and one
time using what appeared to be the universal hand-gesture for
"You’re cutting this unevenly—look!" When Miyoko had been
steadily clipping for an hour and a half, the amount of hair on
the floor was so negligible as to be barely noticeable. My hair
had dried out completely, and so we had to pay another visit to
the sink to re-wet it. I saw now that only one customer besides
myself still remained, and she was getting finishing spritzes of
Finally, I was the only customer remaining, and Miyoko was
still hard at work. Out of pity, it seems, the teacher came over
and indicated to Miyoko that she could just abort mission and
surrender. My hair appeared to be exactly the same length as it
had been pre-trim. Only now it was slightly uneven at the ends,
like crenellated curtains. I was sweaty and wanted to leave, but
the teacher and translator had rushed over, excited by a new
idea that they shared in Japanese with Miyoko. She became giddy
too. The translator spoke to me:
"In Japan, no one has curly hair. Can she use diffuser on
your hair today and work with curl?"
Although the word that might most accurately describe my hair
is not "curly" but rather "frizzy" or "pouffy," I couldn’t say
no. Miyoko found a hairdryer with a diffuser attachment. I
slouched even lower in my chair so that teeny Miyoko could reach
my big corn-fed American head. Slouching so low my shoulder
blades had actually moved from the backrest and now touched the
seat of the chair. Miyoko set to work, and I could see the
fluffy cloud of my uneven mane grow bigger and bigger. I was
already hot and the hairdryer air was hotter, so my face was
growing tomato-red beneath its cloud-puff of Bozo hair. Miyoko
kept chattering to herself, obviously very pleased.
When she finally finished, three-plus hours from when the
whole process had started, they made me take a picture with
Miyoko for her portfolio. There I stood, hulking and red-faced,
a wild mass of diffused hair bursting around my face, and there
Miyoko was, her head at my waist level, smiling proudly. I
hurried out of that salon just as my eyes were welling up with
tears—frustrated, petty, dull-and-ugly-person tears. Walking
back against the late-afternoon crowd, I tasted hot saltiness
running down my cheeks and watched my hideous twin reflection
move along with me in the department store windows. The only
difference from before was that I now looked slightly worse. I
jerked my Bozo-puff hair back into the same old ponytail. There
were thousands of microscopic hair clippings sticking to my face
and prickling my neck and back. It was one of those times when
you are sick to death and irritated with your own company,
company that, unfortunately, you cannot abandon.
Back in the relative cool of our flat that evening, I sat,
yet again, reading in the living room. I could still smell the
leftover kidneys that Ian had let rot in our trashcan. Laurie
was out doing something youthful and fun, surely, perhaps with a
guy she had met at the pub where she worked. Ian was probably
out with his friends. I planned to read and then reward myself
later, maybe by watching this documentary series about
seventy-year-old women planning big life changes that came on
one of the BBC channels. It was a very depressing series that
followed feisty little tea-drinking widows who were trying to
open the small businesses they’d always dreamed of or were
re-entering the world of dating online. I found it strangely
appealing. Just as I had prepped myself to relish the sanctity
of being desolate and alone along with the elderly ladies on
t.v., I heard the door open and the thump of Ian’s heavy tread.
He was singing badly a song from one of the U.K. soap operas,
loosened up from the pints he’d had with his friends all
"Well, what are you doing here this Saturday night? Shouldn’t
you be out with Laurie finding some bloke or other?" he asked,
tossing his jacket on the couch and heaving himself on it. He
was in good humor, as he usually was after a pint or two.
"I’m tired," I told him, and then explained my disastrous
attempt at getting a glamorous haircut like Laurie’s. He
laughed, laughing to the point of merry tears. Deliberately, he
rose, still chuckling, and poured himself a glass of whiskey
from his stash. Ian was truly English to me in that he ate
Marmite and played cricket on Sundays and actually did seem
somewhere between drunkenness and sobriety all the time. He
worked in an investment bank, a job that paid well and kept him
inside for long hours. These working conditions combined with
his lifestyle had contributed to his pale doughiness that I
would later come to associate with the British Isles as a whole.
The hair on his crown already thinning and his waist thickening,
but he could be charming and affable, particularly when
drinking, which was most of the time.
He drank his whiskey and poured himself another. Then he
turned to me and said, "I’m fixing you a drink with whiskey too.
Whether you like it or not."
For whatever reason, I didn’t say no. I took the glass and
grimaced at the burning stuff. Ian mocked my haircut and
recounted stories from his evening with the blokes at the pub.
We laughed over the differences between Laurie’s misadventures
compared with my own. He paused to refill our glasses once. And
then again. And then his face turned serious,
"Can I ask you something?" he said, and I nodded. My face was
warm and my head was faintly humming. I felt content, peaceful,
and sleepy. What a nice flatmate, I thought, we were really
bonding. The haircut wasn’t even that bad, really.
"Have you ever wondered how it might be if you lived your
life with more confidence?"
The question fell like a cold stone. I didn’t know how to
respond. Although his voice had been kind, this was like a dull,
humiliating blow once again to my stomach. The warm feeling
coursing through my limbs left me tongue-tied and slow and
unable to respond. My eyes stung once again, and so I looked
Ian rose from where he sat on the other side of the room. And
then, his scruffly mouth was on mine. He was kissing me. His
thick, yeasty face loomed immense and his whiskey-smelling lips
bore roughly against mine.
"Wha—What are you doing?" I asked, and again he laughed,
pausing momentarily before his mouth pressed against mine again.
It was either an indulgent laugh edged ever so slightly with
scorn, or the laugh of someone amused by the willful naiveté of
a child. In the background on low volume, I could hear a
seventy-six-year-old lady was describing for the BBC
documentarian how she was ready to go for it with her triathlon
training, no longer let her life just happen to her as other
people might expect.
Ian shushed me with one moon-pale, chubby banker’s finger,
leaning towards me again and ignoring my expression of frank
bewilderment and repulsion. He brushed my uneven hair back
behind my ear. And little could I do but kiss him back, moved
not by romance but simply by this strange upset of my inertia.
He fell forward against the torn olive couch where I was wedged
awkwardly, pressing his sturdy, unappealing lips against mine. I
felt myself receive them, like a character in my own English
novel, strangely inured to action, watching— and still waiting
to be transformed.
Joanna Pearson has had work published
in Yemassee, The 2River View, StorySouth,
and The Raleigh News & Observer, and work forthcoming in
The Journal of Medical Humanities.