I texted Branson to reschedule my appointment. There had been an ice storm which seemed a good enough reason to cancel, but the truth was I didn’t feel like getting my hair cut. It could wait a few days so I asked if he had an opening later in the week.
“Sorry,” he texted back. “We have rules about cancelling on the day of your appointment.”
I was startled by this, embarrassed, but I remembered reading on his website about the cancellation policy. There was a price to pay, a surcharge added to the next haircut, a required timeout, shaming, some kind of punishment. One cannot just capriciously cancel one’s appointment. It wasn’t done.
When I was younger and always in a hurry and convinced that my time was more precious by miles than anyone else’s, I would have pitched a fit about Branson’s scolding. But I’m mellow now, an old lady, increasingly conflict averse, so I texted back in the cheeriest way, “Ok! See you soon!” I considered adding the sweet little emoji of me wearing a hoodie that my daughter created but it seemed too apologetic.
Branson was watching through the salon window as I stepped and skated across the solid sheet of ice that was the street. Shaming works, I thought, as I slid through the door.
“Hey. You were right to call me out on cancelling. I respect that.” Saying things like this was part of my new persona, the kinder, gentler, mentoring person I wanted to become now that I was in my seventies.
Branson nodded, smiled slightly. He then embarked on a long explanation of why cancelling is bad. He couldn’t fill a suddenly empty hour, he would just be out that money, and, plus, he said, if you let people start cancelling on you, they do it all the time and it’s horrible! I wanted to hug him and tell him it was okay to have reasonable expectations, that I was working on the same thing myself.
This was the fourth time I’d come to Branson for a haircut. The first time was a month after I’d received my Covid vaccination. It was my first haircut in two years, my normally short hair collected up in a wee ponytail, the effect being that of a woman coming to town from the farm after two years of relentless drought and failing crops.
Branson wore a black mask. His hair hung in a long wiry halo around his face. He wore a black t-shirt that showed the tattoos running up and down his thick arms. On one wrist was a diamond tennis bracelet, silver rings were stacked up on all his fingers. He seemed a mystical figure – not clearly male or female – the first human being besides my husband to come near me for months. When he reached across my face to snip and arrange, I studied his arms, so close to me, and I felt encircled, embraced ever so gently by a long-haired, tender stranger.
That first haircut was transformative. When I got back to my car, I took a picture of myself, posted it on Facebook, and waited for the likes to come pouring in. It was a new me. I had come to town from the farm and triumphed.
Today, Branson looked different, so much so I wondered if it was really him. He’d cut his brown hair very short and bleached it white on the top. He’d added a diamond necklace and tiny hoop earrings to his jewelry and though it had been raining ice all day, he wore just a white t-shirt, thin cargo pants, and slides with no socks. He showed me to his chair, fastened the cape around my neck, and looked at me in the mirror.
“And how are we feeling about this cut? Did it work out?” He studied me in the mirror, admiring his last cut when he’d swept my bangs forward from the crown of my head. The effect was startling and wonderful. “And what are we thinking about this time?” I loved this conversation. I loved sitting in the chair, looking at him in the mirror, all of the fancy products in the open cupboard, metal flowers in a grey vase, a tiny box holding his cards “Branson’s Beauty Room” on the counter in front of me. The salon was empty except for us, no other customers or hairdressers, everyone apparently spooked by the ice storm. But I was there, I had braved the weather for this, for Branson to worry about my hair and my hair alone, for him to cut my hair like it was his art, each strand shaped to take its place on my head. It was worth all the time and the money and the careful stepping back across the icy street to my car.
The week before I went to Branson for the first time, I walked out of an appointment with Sal, the woman who had cut my hair for twenty years, because she wasn’t wearing a mask. I saw this through the glass doors of her salon as she was fluffing the hair of a customer, also unmasked. I turned around, went to my car in the parking lot, and texted her. “I have to reschedule. I’ll call.”
She answered. “Is it because I wasn’t wearing a mask? I’ll put one on.”
But right then, after a year of the pandemic and just have been vaccinated and feeling still every nerve in my body attuned to the risk of disease, it wasn’t enough. I knew, too, that there was more behind her not wearing a mask, there was politics, differences that we’d had for years but never discussed. I drove away.
Thus marked the end of two decades of haircuts, color, and eyebrow waxing. And the end of the cushioned respite of her salon – the floor to ceiling windows reflecting the late afternoon sun, the greenest, most robust plants, the old prints of Hedy Lamarr and Ginger Rogers in the bathroom advertising lipstick and shampoo from the forties.
I’d met Sal when she was pregnant with her youngest son, now a high school graduate. She knew about my kids’ accidents and accomplishments, she told me about her husband’s health problems and her business challenges. She talked so much about her life that I felt like her best friend. I knew she talked to all her clients that way. She was gifted in creating girlfriends.
Sal was tall with stiff bleached blond hair. She wore short black skirts with black tights and knee-high boots. When the bell rang on the salon door to announce my arrival, I’d hear her boots clicking on the tiled floor as she came to greet me. “Hi Jan!” she’d say, and then ask if I wanted a soda or a glass of wine. The salon shelves held candles smelling of peppermint, balsam, and rosemary, and expensive containers of mousse and hair spray and mysterious products that I would sometimes buy at her suggestion.
Sal studied my hair – its shape, texture, and color. After every haircut, she’d stand back to admire her work, especially during the years of the very short spiky cut that made me look hip and fearless. I’d say it was a great cut and she’d agree. “Just perfect. Beautiful.” I admired her faith in her own abilities, her lack of self-doubt. When I was in Sal’s hands, she owned my head, I ceded to her judgement and almost always left glad.
Sal had large hands with long fingers and beautifully manicured nails. Her hands would smooth my forehead when she inspected the state of my eyebrows. Once she determined what needed to be done, she’d apply hot wax, position the waxing strips, and pull hard. After waxing, she searched for renegade hairs to pluck, intent on creating the perfect arch. Laying in the waxing room, Sal’s hands tending to my face was my indulgence, of being with someone whose only concern was how to make me look better. I loved being with Sal. Even now, I can’t believe I threw her over because of a mask. But it would be hard now to leave Branson to go back to Sal.
Before Sal, in the years after I was married for the second time at age 35, there was Elvin. Elvin was his made-up name. He told me what his actual name was, it was a secret he shared with me, but I’ve forgotten what it was. He was so emphatically Elvin.
Elvin was a kid from the south side of Milwaukee who found his way to an elite suburban salon but kept his streetwise ways, his hipness, his so obviously self-aware dark good looks, his black t-shirts and tightest jeans for all the north shore ladies who missed the old days when they were out looking for fun or want to remember that they were.
Elvin was very popular. He scheduled client simultaneously so he would run from one chair to the next, snipping here, coloring there, checking the heat in the hair dryer on another. I came for a perm. This was a long, complex, and very smelly process that involved constant checking to make sure the perm didn’t go overboard and fry my hair. I loved Elvin’s perms because when I walked out of the salon, I had an enormous mass of red curls instead of the long straight hair I’d had for years. Elvin untamed my hair and it was liberating, identity-changing, and wild-making. So, whenever my hair gave the slightest hint of straightening, of my identity weakening along with my perm, I’d call Elvin to see if he could restore me any time in the next few weeks.
Elvin and I talked a lot. Mostly, we talked about how he wanted to go to New York and work in a big salon there. He longed for famous clients and making a name for himself among the stars. He was biding his time doing perms and flirting with the north shore ladies. He was meant for bigger and better things. He knew this deep in his heart as he told me at every visit.
The last time I saw Elvin, he told me he was heading to New York in a few weeks. “This is our last time,” he said, waiting for me to be sad and I was and said so. I wasn’t ready for anyone else to perm my hair. On this last visit, Elvin decided I should shorten up, get rid of all my split ends, so he cut off several inches, and then proceeded with the perm. He fluttered among his many simultaneous clients as I sat stewing in my perm juice for what seemed a dangerously long time.
When the perm was done, rollers unrolled, hair dried and fluffed, I looked like a TV mom from the fifties. I blinked at myself in the mirror, near tears, while Elvin shrugged about having miscalculated the perm’s timing. In the car, I pulled on the curls but they snapped back like rubber bands. That night, standing in the shower, the third soaping up and hot water pouring on my steel wool head, I knew Elvin had left me in the rear-view mirror. It was my last perm.
The person who washes your hair, who massages your scalp with exotic smelling shampoo and rubs your temples like they were taught in beauty school knows you, knows your head, how your hair still has red highlights and how it naturally parts on the left or right. They know what you need to feel beautiful in the world, and because they know this secret, buried thing, they become dear to you and unforgettable no matter how much time has passed or how much hair is swept off the salon floor.