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Joanna Pearson

The Haircut


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 happen.

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 experiencing London.

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, manorexic men.

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 now."

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 made beautiful.

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 bowed.

"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, 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, no English!"

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 translator.

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 hairspray.

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 evening.

"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 away.

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.

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