It’s 9:34 on a Saturday night. I’ve showered. I’ve gargled. I’ve buttoned my flannel shirt three quarters of the way and rolled up the bottoms of my jeans a little. I’ve even done ten quick push-ups to pump some blood into my frail biceps, a desperate attempt to mask inferior genetics.
I send out a mass text to my friends: “What’s the plan?”
For a few seconds, Xboxes are paused, YouTube windows are left unattended, and Gchats are interrupted. Three sets of preoccupied fingers type hurried responses.
I’m awaiting the inevitable. Watered-down gin and tonics, sweaty, rude crowds, and scantly informed discussions between twenty-two-year-olds about how “different real life is from college”. We’ll probably also talk about Kanye West’s tweets and how early we all have to get up for work during the week and why time seems to go faster when you’re out of school. It will be cool to ironically brag about how past our primes we are, because it’s not ironic. We really feel that way. Or do we? Or something. I’ll attribute our fleeting lives to the lack of any new experiences. (“We’ve kind of done it all. Except for marriage, I guess.”) Then someone will start talking about The Office and I’ll go to the bathroom, slicing my way through scattered conversations about American Apparel going out of business and how good Mario Batali’s Eataly is and how there’s no other place on Earth like New York City.
But that’s later.
Now, I’m in the bathroom staring at myself in the mirror. After all my careful preparation, I notice a pimple below my left nostril. God. Dark circles under my eyes. Ugh. The florescent bathroom light in my overpriced, disappointing apartment flickers. I take a step back. For perspective. Maybe my whole will be better than the sum of my parts. Then, I see it. The biggest problem. My most glaring inadequacy: the long, dry mop on my head. Unruly wisps spilling over my ears. Rampant cowlicks hastily matted down by Duane Reade pomade. It dawns on me that there’s nothing I can do. I’ll look bad tonight no matter what.
I need a haircut.
Two full days of compulsively checking my reflection in storefront windows lead me to Tuesday, when hairdressers start their week. I call and make an appointment and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I have a plan to improve my life, I think. I’ll be a better human once I get a trim. I’ll call my parents more and tutor a local elementary school student, maybe. I’ll definitely cut out fried foods and start to spend more time outside. The sun is good for me.
I blink and it’s Saturday at 12:10. I’m late for my appointment. I rush into the salon and nearly pass out from the smell of acrylic nail polish. I wipe the crusty yellow sleep out of my eyes and tell the receptionist my name. She’s horrifying and beautiful all at once. I never thought orange skin and Juicy Couture sweatpants could make me feel so insignificant. I apologize for my tardiness. I’m fixated on her perfectly waxed eyebrows and I stumble over my words.
She gets up from her desk. “Let me see if Kendra is ready for you.” The receptionist walks over to a hairdresser and I see them look at me from across the room. I glance down at a stain on my shirtsleeve and notice that the elastic is stretched out. My wrist looks frail inside the floppy fabric. Why don’t I take better care of myself? I should start to work out again. I should’ve showered this morning.
“Kendra will be with you in a minute,” my spray-tanned goddess says upon her return. I pretend to be reading People magazine but keep sneaking looks at her while I wait. I imagine us getting away from here, from all this. We could move to Brooklyn. She could write children’s books like she’s always wanted. We would be happy there. Sunday dinners. One week at her family’s house. Mine the next. But, nothing’s set in stone. We’d go with the flow. Her dad would understand how it is and he would like me so much. “I know how it is,” he’d say to me when I called to tell him we were staying in. “I like you so much.”
I snap out of my fantasy and I begin to worry about how expensive this place is. I can’t muster the courage to inquire about the price. I’m embarrassed by my end-of-the-month poverty. I hope they take credit cards.
Kendra yells to me: “Lou, come on over!” I don’t tell her my name is actually Luke. She asks me to sit down so she can wash my hair. My neck cranes back over a porcelain sink and, for the first time in a long time, I’m relaxed. Kendra drops a cool dollop of shampoo on my scalp. I’m lulled by an unlikely melody of running water and her smacking bubble gum.
“You want an Aquafina?” she asks.
I do want one. I haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day. I’m weak and thirsty, but I can’t bring myself to say yes. I don’t want to trouble her. Never am I more considerate than when I’m in the company of complete strangers whom I’ll probably never speak to again.
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
Like ten tiny knives, her fingernails gouge my sopping skull. Suds seep into my tearing eyes and I grit my teeth in agony. I wonder how a one-hundred-pound woman with pink highlights and four-inch heels could be so mercilessly strong.
“Is this too hard?”
“No, it’s perfect. Just what I need.” Then I make some comment about how long my hair’s gotten and how amazed I am at how fast it’s grown. She doesn’t respond, but what did I really expect her to say?
Kendra rinses me clean and taps my shoulder. “Lean up and come over to my chair.” The sharp pain in my head subsides and I let myself sink into her swiveling, black leather throne. I try to explain what look I’m going for. She finishes my thought: “Professional, but you could still go out on a Saturday and get the ladies, right?” I think she’s mocking me. Or does she think I’m handsome?
“Exactly,” I say. She’s like a babysitter or an older sister who understands what I go through and knows what’s best for me. I’m comforted.
Now, it’s silent. She clips away.
Then, she asks: “So, are you in school?”
“I just graduated this past May.”
“Where did you go?”
I tell her. She doesn’t recognize the name. I pretend it’s not that well known.
“Did you like it?”
“Yeah, I mean school is school. It was fun to party.” Suddenly, I’m the Fonz. I don’t tell her about the four years of obsessive studying and meticulous extra-curricular preparation. I don’t tell her about how I perseverated over the modern-day validity of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and argued with people about the real meaning of Utilitarianism. I don’t tell her that I went out maybe two nights a week and spent the rest of the time panicked that I wouldn’t ever be able to find a job.
“Are you from Manhattan?”
“Yes,” I lie. “Born and raised.” It would be too much to explain my divorced parents and stepsiblings and patchwork of suburban Connecticut teenage angst.
Kendra takes a break from chewing her gum and lets out a grumbling moan. “Luuucky.”
I wish to be the person she thinks I am.
Silence sets back in and I notice my hair for the first time since I sat down. It’s drying and I’m realizing she’s doing a terrible job.
“How’s it looking, hon? Still too long?”
“No, no. This is fine. Great, actually. You’re good at what you do.” A dumb, semi-patronizing comment that makes me feel important and suave, for a second. She smiles. I smile back.
She unclips my smock and starts brushing loose hairs off my neck. “Want to see the back?” She hands me a mirror and spins my chair around.
“Looks fantastic! Wow.” I respond like she’s just cured AIDS. I’m such an unbearable fraud. I look worse than before. I stand up and begin to feel queasy as I anticipate paying handsomely for this butchery.
“How much do I owe you?” I’m disappointed in myself at how crass that sounded.
“$55 is fine, hon.” She says it like she’s giving me a deal. I feel like I’m her best customer. I have an urge to be very loyal to her, despite the way she’s made me look. I’m a victim of stylistic Stockholm Syndrome.
“Is credit card okay?”
She pouts. “Sorry. Only cash or check.”
I have neither cash nor check. I tell her this and hand her my wallet and phone. “Let me run to the bank. Please keep these as collateral. I’m sorry.” I run faster than I have in my whole life.
When I come back from the ATM, she’s already with another client. I scurry over and give her $65 of the last $92 in my checking account. “I’m sorry. Thank you for waiting. I’ll see you soon.”
“Thanks, hon,” Kendra says.
I pass the receptionist. She’s reading the People magazine I pretended to thumb through earlier. “Looks nice,” she says reflexively, without looking up from her page.
“Thanks. She did a great job,” I say.
I walk out.
I never go back.