Winter sunlight streamed in through the plate-glass windows at the front of the salon; it was early still, and Eric’s new client Cara—naturally chestnut, ivory skin—sat swathed in a black cape, watching him in the mirror as he sectioned her hair. Her lips were immaculately rouged, her nails were polished to match, and her boots, which poked out from beneath the black cape, were a perfect blend of quirky and chic. A copy of Vogue was spread across her lap.
“So sorry to interrupt,” the receptionist murmured, holding out the phone. “It’s Renée’s client Mrs. Swenson. She says she can’t wait until next week.”
Renée had spoken to Eric about Mrs. Swenson before she left. He took the call over by the desk, adjusting the arrangement of fresh stargazer lilies as he spoke.
“She explained the situation to me. She was terribly sorry that she had to cancel your appointment. A family matter. She had no choice.”
“Understood. But the thing is,” Mrs. Swenson replied, “I need it done.” Mrs. Swenson was one of Renée’s regulars, but Eric had once or twice cut her hair, which, he remembered, she wore in a knot at the back. She was maintenance rather than style—middle-aged, very low-key. And now this. He adopted a soothing tone, promised to contact her if an earlier appointment became available, and explained that, in any case, Renée would be back in a few days.
“I need it done today,” she told him.
“We’re fully booked,” he said, and heard a gasp at the other end. “But perhaps one of the juniors—”
“Please,” Mrs. Swenson said, her voice quiet now, but all the more insistent. “Please. Would you do the deed? I don’t mind how late.”
“But surely you’d be more comfortable with a woman? ”
“I know you,” she told him, and he could not refuse.
Back at the mirror, he apologized profusely, misted Cara’s hair, unclipped the top section, combed, then paused with the scissors poised.
“You’re sure? ” A brief nod: she was absolutely certain.
He liked that, and he liked the way she watched his hands go about their work—interested, expecting the best. No anxiety. He knew already that she could carry off the bold asymmetrical cut she’d chosen, and this, for him, was what it was all about: creating a splendid surface that gave pleasure, enhanced the face, drew others in. Something that emphasized the best points of a personality and served as a status symbol—armour, even, if required. The dramatic statement. The perfect product. The finishing touches. This he was good at. Not social work. Not—
“Let me guess,” he said to Cara. “Media? ” Her eyebrows leaped up, and a fresh smile formed.
He might be useless with sickness, crying, or babies, but he could do chat. Also gifts, surprises, places to go. He always knew exactly what to buy for his sisters’ kids at birthdays and Christmas: jackpot every time.
“You spend too much,” Emma said to him once, taking him aside in the kitchen. “What are you trying to make up for? ” She put the flat of her hand on his chest. “It’s okay. You don’t need to.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
Sprigs of hair gathered around their feet, and the junior swept them away. Cara talked about an art gallery event she was organizing, and Eric nodded, his comb gliding through the damp, well-conditioned hair. Periodically, his eyes flicked up to meet hers in the glass. Eight or more hours a day he talked in the mirror like this. After work, if he went straight into some kind of social situation, he missed the mirror, felt at the same time not quite there and overexposed.
Was there something missing in him? Even though he had been busy, he could have gone home—and, later, to the hospital—more often during his mother’s last months. But he hadn’t known what to say. He sat by the bed, and within an hour he was desperate, tense with the desire to leave. He didn’t like seeing her that way. He felt terrible, sent flowers regularly, the very best.
“Jo and I just did what was in front of us,” Emma said to him that time in the kitchen. “We were there and glad to do it. You had just bought the salon.”
Though he was his mother’s favourite, of course. They all knew that.
Short layers on the right. The long swoop to the left. “It’s a really strong structure,” he told Cara. “Looks great on you.”
His throat and eyes ached. His chest, too. He wished he had found a way to say no to Mrs. Swenson.
He pumped up the chair, combed again, changed scissors, and leaned in close, aware of the different sound the new pair made—faint but very sharp and pure. Soon would come the blow-dry and shoulder brushing. The showing of the back of the head. The nods, smiles, compliments, and thanks. The final removal of the cloak. It was silly to let the thought of Mrs. Swenson get in the way of these things, all of which he enjoyed. But it did. He was already thinking that he must check the room at the back, make sure it was properly set up, clean and warm enough. Anger washed over him, then guilt, which he struggled to repudiate: So that’s how it is. We’re not all the same. What I do is worth something.
He reached for the finishing spray. Cara closed her eyes, and the air filled with a delicate rosemary-scented mist.
“There,” he told her, and she tossed her head to see the way it moved.
At the end of a cut, he liked to shake hands.
He called the number Renée had left. Given the time difference, she was probably in bed, but he left a message just in case she was able to get back to him. He asked Tasha what approach he should take.
“I’ve never done it,” she said. “But at college, they said start from the back, take it bit by bit, and talk a lot. And, Eric, it’s obvious, but remember, she is feeling worse than you.”
At the end of the day, he let the others go, checked the till, and retrieved Mrs. Swenson’s card, upon which Renée had noted her cut and colour (dark honey) and preference for English breakfast tea (with milk). He filled the kettle and then settled in the leather chair behind the reception desk to read about the spring styles. When he put down the magazine, it was half past six. This whole thing, he thought, as he listened to the ringing tone on Mrs. Swenson’s home number—apparently she did not have a cell—could have been more or less over for both of them by now, but no. Here he was, in suspended animation; there she was, god knew where. Perhaps she had changed her mind. Perhaps she had forgotten.
“Eric,” he told the answering service in a carefully neutral tone, “from Hair Design. Calling at 6:30.” He could quite legitimately leave now, but, just as he was considering it, a small woman in a much-too-large coat pushed in through the big glass door.
“I’m afraid we’re closed,” he said.
“Sorry!” she said in Mrs. Swenson’s voice, “I lost my keys. Thank you for waiting.”
She surrendered a claret-coloured scarf along with her coat but did not remove the matching beret and kept a tight hold on her canvas tote bag.
“I’ve set up the room at the back, Mrs. Swenson.”
“Please call me Susanna,” she said.
In the backroom, boxes of stock reared up around them, and there was no window, but it was at least warm, well-lit, and private.
We will be here until after seven, he thought, as he jiggled the bag in the cup. He felt a little nauseated. When it was done, he promised himself, he would go to the gym and afterwards pick up a movie and takeout.
He noticed a faint tremor in her hands as he passed her the tea.
“How long is it, now, that I’ve been coming here? ” she asked.
“Since before I bought the business,” he told her. She hadn’t yet removed the beret, so he perched on the stool nearby. “You were here when it was still Chez Claire. The whole area’s rocketed, hasn’t it? ”
She sipped, looked back at him. Her eyes were large and clear, though the skin on her face looked dry and inert. It was shocking how little she resembled the person he remembered.
“Thanks for fitting me in. Next week,” she said, “after my next chemo, I’ll be feeling very bad, so it had to be now.”
It was every bit as difficult as he’d imagined. Every bit. He swallowed back the sour taste in his mouth. If he could have run, he would have.
“Actually, Mrs. Swenson—Susanna,” Eric told her, as brightly as he could, “you’re looking very well.” He aimed to go on from there to say that she might be surprised, when the hair was gone, by how interesting the face can look. Then he could have suggested removing the beret. But something—something that came from Mrs. Swenson rather than from him—prevented all this. He remained perched on the stool, and for a long moment she studied herself in the mirror, examining her own image carefully, as if to remember it. Fronds of grey hair peeked out from under the edge of the beret.
“I’ve lost weight,” she said with a shrug. “Do you have kids yet? ” Eric explained that he wasn’t the settling type.
“Try not to think that way,” she told him. “And don’t leave it too long. It’s the best thing you’ll ever do. My two are busy with their own lives now, of course. I don’t want to worry them. I don’t tell them all the details. And I was putting this off because once I’ve had it done everything will be much more obvious.” Her eyes settled on his face. “The thing is,” she continued, “it’s like there’s a wall of glass between you and everyone else, even your nearest and dearest, except, of course, for people who’ve got it too. But they can want to get almost too close, and it’s not them, somehow, that one needs.”
Eric groped for words, found none, stared back at her.
“I’m sorry,” he began.
“Ach—it’s only hair,” she interrupted, suddenly looking away. “Please start.”
So there it was: the once long, dark honey hair, now in a short greyish bob, thinning in patches. He stood behind her. Their eyes met in the glass. Out of habit, Eric ran his fingers through the hair and smiled at the mirror woman looking steadily back at him.
“I have some hats in my bag,” she said. “I don’t normally wear one, and I didn’t know what to get. I trust you’ll help me choose the best one afterwards? ”
He managed a nod, picked up the comb, explained how he would approach it in stages, and then made a pretense of sectioning the head. It was as if he were onstage, in a play.
He flattened some of the thin, dry stuff between his fingers and snipped off a bare two inches. The hair shed as soon as it was touched. He worked fast, looking down at the gleam of the scalp, the stray hairs, and then up into the mirror to check. The shorter hair did actually look better—less untidy, more solid, stylish almost—though also more severe.
“Go on,” she said. He combed again, cut it a finger’s width from the scalp, then wished he hadn’t, because this way it was definitely far worse. The uneven distribution of the hair accentuated the hollows of her bone structure; it made her look like a person who had been institutionalized or abused, some street crazy. In the mirror, he saw her flinch.
“Please, get rid of it!” Her papery lids sank protectively over her eyes. He turned on the electric razor. Lightly, he pressed the crown of her head until she had lowered it enough, then he worked up from the nape, exposing the entry of the spinal cord into the skull, the curves to either side, the broad plates of bone.
Some styles involved shaving the sides only, or thin bands and patterns across the entire head, but a whole head, plain as an egg—he’d never before had a client who wanted it (though, of course, in this situation, wanted was not the right word). The cleared area was a bluish white, cold looking, like some kind of stone. But at the same time, as he worked, he could feel the warmth rising from her scalp.
The shaver hummed busily as he pushed the last of the soft fuzz aside, first one side and then the other. He noticed how her skull was deep from front to back, squarish at the sides, and gently domed on top. Shaved, it looked oddly larger than before. He switched off the shaver, slipped it in its pouch, and ran his fingertips lightly over her head, checking for anything missed. Her skin, stretched over the dome of bone, was warm and slightly oily. Where the hair had been growing more strongly or had been protected from the razor by dips in the skull were rough patches, like velvet rubbed against the grain.
Her eyes were closed, her forehead pulled down, her eyebrows bunched tight. The whole face was tight. It was not what he planned, but Eric’s fingers found the right place, just above the pivot of her jaw. Slowly, he rotated the skin there and the tissues beneath until he felt them, and then her entire jaw, loosen. He progressed downward, little by little, along the lower ridge of the skull. He supported her forehead with his left hand and continued with the right, pressing firmly into the muscles and tendons at the top of the neck, where her spinal cord entered the skull—a smooth column suddenly lost, like a train swallowed by a tunnel. He raised her head again, let her balance it, then worked slowly all over the side and top of the scalp, moving the skin infinitesimally this way, then that. She let out a sigh. He placed his hands, the fingertips just separated, on her hairline, and then moved them very slowly back over the entire head. When he reached the neck, he brought them closer and then kneaded the muscles there. At the end, he cupped her head in both hands before resting them gently on her shoulders.
Looking up, he saw in the mirror his neat and familiar self standing behind an older woman who seemed half space alien, half baby.
“There,” he said. “There. It’s done now, Susanna.”
Her eyes were still closed. He waited.
When Susanna saw herself, she put her hand to her mouth to catch the shriek that leaped from it. She turned to face him, breaking the mirror’s spell. He wiped the moisture from under his eyes with his forefinger.
“I don’t see why you’re crying,” she told him. “It is a shock, but I feel . . . not too bad. I feel better.”
“Excuse me. I’m sorry!” he said. “Very sorry.” There was nothing to apologize for, she said. “Please,” she said again. She did want him to help her with the hats. It would only take a minute.
Eric retreated to the washroom. He closed his eyes and surrendered, allowed the sobs to work their way through him, to amplify themselves in a room made of slate and glass. When he emerged, red-eyed, exhausted, Susanna was waiting calmly in front of the mirror, wearing a purple knitted hat that rose to a point above her head, with plaited strings that dangled down the sides. It was like something an elf might wear.
“So? ” she asked, tilting her chin, pouting a little. Exposing her bald head again, offered the hat to him, reached into her bag, and brought out an Elizabeth Taylor turban affair—purchased at a charity store, she said. She sat up straighter, raised her eyebrows.
“What do you think? Is it me? ” she asked. “Or this? ” She handed him the turban, pulled on a pilot’s hat with earflaps, and then a checkered cap.
“Susanna,” he told her solemnly, but half smiling, as he lowered the turban onto his head, “the thing is, Susanna, with good bones like yours, you can probably carry off any of these.”
He sat in the backroom of the salon, wearing the turban, and watched her try on the other hats. What he’d said was true. The oversized cap, the skullcap, the striped bobble hat, the felted wool helmet with a peacock feather on the side, the fine-knit toque, the white fluffy synthetic fur, the astrakhan: every one of them suited her. The first cut of the day seemed like something that had happened in a film or a dream. He had no idea what time it was.
This appeared in the September 2015 issue.