“Cut it all off,” I say.
“Yes,” he nods, as he lays the drape over me. He hums and tightens the snap collar around my neck.
“My hair doesn’t grow out well,” I say, hearing my voice that sounds small inside the overly bright place. I keep talking, just to talk, as I settle into the chair, words just tumble out: “it doesn’t lay flat or flop, or hang in my forehead, it doesn’t sweep, it just grows up and out, I have cowlicks all over.”
“Yes,” he says. Without further ado, the clipper buzzes pleasantly, it vibrates through my skin, into my skull. The physicality of body sensation grounds me. I’m sitting in the chair, my feet just touch the metal rest, I tap a toe softly to test the hardness, the realness of it, my hands grasp the armrests. I breathe.
Soon, the scissors are snipping. His gentle hands smell clean and pepperminty, they move briskly, efficiently around my head. I watch the silver accumulate on the scarred linoleum, a snowfall of hair.
“How are you today?” he asks. His English is as good as my Arabic. His words are spiced with hard consonants and resonant vowels. Over the years of our acquaintance, we’ve developed a comfortable repertoire. Sometimes I catch his soft brown eyes, but he is shy and looks away. He has that swarthy skin, the look from the Fertile Crescent, the thick dark hair and Mesopotamian brow of his people. He is beautiful.
“I’m ok,” I say, “how are you doing?”
“Ok, I’m ok too.”
For the moment, we’ve exhausted our usual topics of conversation, so I look at the rain streaking down the plate glass window. It’s a wet, windy November day. It feels like the day when the last tree has shed its last leaf, when all seems naked and cold. It is that lonely late afternoon hour, yawning and blank and vast, when time feels heavy, when I need to find those little things to do, errands to check off my list: buy lightbulbs, mail that check, pick up some shirts at the dry cleaners, get a haircut. These small islands of activity make the day seem a little less empty. Already, the darkness is creeping in.
“Night comes so quickly these days,” I say out loud.
“Yes,” he says.
“It’s hard to believe we’ll be in a new millennium, in just a few weeks.”
“A whole new time,” he nods.
His thumb lingers on my cervical vertebra as he deftly, gently strokes a quick razor over my nape. My skin tingles in the cool air of the place. This slight touch surprises me, I cannot remember the last time I was touched, my flesh craves and cowers, but then the moment is gone. Again, briefly, I catch his eye in the mirror. He looks away.
Two other guys await their turn, one riffs through a men’s magazine, the other sways to music on his Walkman. NPR drones, crackling on the old sound system, a story about a breakthrough in AIDs medications, a new cocktail, a story that breaks, too late for us. Too late for you, too late for me. The story is over, but here I sit still, the last widower of a plague. I am the survivor, left to stumble through the days with no guiding star. An icy finger nettles my insides with a tickling fear, a dread quiver of animal panic. If I closed my eyes now, I might be lost. The small shop’s walls are covered with sports posters: the Sox, the Pats, the Celts. In the periphery, lurking in the shadowy shimmering edge of tangibility, just beneath the smooth hum of the ordinariness of things, out of sight of the others, something I cannot name stirs. That dread sensation makes me jump in the chair.
He pauses, the blade lifts off my cheek. “OK?” he asks.
“Yes, Ok, sorry,” I say from far away. I am not unmoored, not yet, but the knot that once held, gently slips a bit. I feel the unraveling begin, that fraying of the tethering cord.
In the other chair, a handsome Harvard boy is getting a neat trim. His hair does flop and sweep, it hangs in his forehead with that casual smugness that will never be mine.
“OK?” says my barber.
I look at myself, newly shorn and clean, I run my hand over my scalp. It feels soft, velvety, smooth.
I smile, a tiny twitch of my upper lip.
“Good?” he smiles back.
“Good.” I nod.
He brushes me down with soft bristles, shoos away pesky hairs off my sweater. He sweeps up the pile of dead hair to make ready for the next customer.
At the register I pay and hand him his tip, he thanks me and holds something out to me.
It’s a lollipop, red, the kind they hand out to little boys after their first haircut.
“See you next time?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
Outside I bundle up, zip up. Mass Ave is loud with traffic. Buses rush by, cabs and cars and bikes all jam the street. The rain has stopped. I trudge through wet leaves that clutter the sidewalk. My battered keds are damp. In a coffee shop the tables are crowded. People are warming up over steaming mugs tea. There are scones and cakes and delicate blue plates full of crumbs. Laughter and jazzy music comes from the place. In the window, I catch my reflection: the lollipop in my mouth, my slivery cropped cut, the face that looks back at me.
I slip again into that empty space, that voided place, adrift. The night will be fathoms deep, and cold, a little death that waits for me. Once more I fall into it, into the depths of a lone, starless sky.