Soft core: breaking up with your hairdresser is hard to do

Pin-ups and gender politics at the salon

 Woman at a salon with a poodleIt was vanity that kept me going back to him. For much of my life, I’d endured haircuts worthy of their own humiliating nicknames: the Mushroom, the Pyramid, the Cougar (John, that is—remember that sweaty wedge of bangs?). Then came a man … let’s call him Aldous. And this Aldous, he knew how to cut my hair.

When we met, he was working out of an irritatingly hip salon. He showed me to his chair, confronted my months overdue mop without judgment and picked up his shears. His patter was refreshing—light on the holidays and condo prices, heavy on the underground Super Colliders. Aldous was weird, but in a good way.

More to the point, I walked out of there with the best haircut I’d ever had. Of course, I went back. For two, three years, I braved the bored girl at the desk and the thudding house music for the knowledge that lay in those hands. Then one day Aldous announced he was leaving. Stylist no more, he was taking over the barbershop where he’d been moonlighting on his days off. The old devil who owned the place had finally decided to retire.

“But Aldous,” I whined, “what about me?”

“Oh, you can still come. I’ll do appointments a couple of days a week.”

The idea appealed. I’d darkened more than one barbershop door in my youth—the pixie-cut years, the occasional Sinéad free-for-all fuzz cut—but a barber who could finesse a bevelled bob? Jackpot. I’d be back among the Barbicide jars and philodendrons where I belonged. Or so I thought. It turned out the barbershop’s previous owner really was an old devil. I arrived for my first appointment to find Aldous kitted out in a white barber’s smock, surrounded by pictures of naked girls.

He brought up the decor before I could, invoking his wife’s name as a clumsy post-feminist shield. “Katy helped me decide what to keep—you know, the retro stuff, the kitsch. Here, take a seat.” He gave the chair a couple of swift pumps. “You should’ve seen the place before.”

Aldous had downgraded the salon from X-rated to R-rated, and maybe that was enough. Porn is normal, after all.

I nodded, my eyes travelling the walls. I’d never realized the “soft” in soft porn was descriptive: hands lay like feather-fans across crotches; nipples peaked in a pinkish blur. A few scantily clad icons rubbed shoulders with the nameless farm girls and biker babes—Bettie Page and Rita Hayworth, the incomparable Marilyn, so sexy she even offed herself in the nude.

While Aldous worked his magic, I lifted my gaze to take in an illustration of a chesty Anime girl. Pink frilled panties, curlers in her white-blonde hair. She was a mess: raccoon-eyed from weeping, crawling on her belly as though she would escape the frame. The curlers made it clear she wasn’t going anywhere. She’d put on those panties to please someone, and clearly, he wasn’t pleased.

It turned out the hard stuff was there, too. I didn’t notice the magazines until my second visit, though they lay in plain sight among the Sports Illustrateds and the Times. There were copies in the cramped bathroom as well—the idea being, I guess, that while a guy waits for his short-back-and-sides he might feel moved to let off a little steam. “Aldous,” I said, pointing to a Penthouse, “what the hell?”

Again, he directed me to the devil who came before. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff I got rid of.” He let out a low whistle. “Stacks and stacks of it in the john. You couldn’t put it out with the recycling. I filled a couple of garbage bags, and even those I drove out to the dump.”

For weeks I turned the matter over in my mind. Aldous had downgraded the place from X to R, and maybe that was enough. Porn is normal, after all; the regular, red-blooded stuff has been mainstream for years. So what if increasing numbers of men and teenage boys require screen-lit stimulation to keep up their end of the bargain. (Impotence? Teenage boys?) Who cares if porn-inspired surgeries including breast implants and labiaplasty are on the rise.

A friend rolled her eyes when I brought up these and darker concerns.

“Good grief,” she said. “It’s not as though he’s nailed up a bunch of crotch shots. It’s kitsch.”

There was that word again—a term I associated with lawn flamingos and dewy-eyed Christs. Was I missing something?

“Relax,” my friend added. “Where’s the harm?”

By my third visit I was starting to relax. I was sitting with my chin tucked down, Aldous working the clipper at my nape, when Bonnie Scott popped into my mind. Short and muscular with bright blue eyes, she was a long-time driver for a local bus company. I’d only met her the once, at a dinner party years before, but she’d left a lasting mark. I was her junior by a couple of decades, which might have been why she told me the story she did.

“I was your age when I got hired on,” she said, meeting my gaze across the table. “My first day on the lot, I go into the drivers’ trailer to grab a coffee and you know what I see?” She shook her head. “Women. Naked women. The whole place was papered with porn.”

There were other drivers in the trailer, but Bonnie didn’t greet them, didn’t even nod. Five-foot-four and twenty-some years old, she reached up and began ripping pictures from the walls. When the men protested, she paid them no mind. She went on tearing, making her way around the trailer until every one of its walls was bare. Only then did she address her fellow drivers. “If I ever,” she said, “see so much as a single tit on these walls, I will burn this fucking trailer to the ground.”

“Chin up,” Aldous said, circling around to check my sides were even. I did as he said, meeting my own gaze in the mirror, and with it a wave of shame.

Even in fantasy, I stop short of threatening arson, which isn’t to say there’s no fire.

Believe it or not, I went back. Not until I’d suffered another lamentable haircut from another pretender, but I went back. Aldous was neatening up my bangs when the cops stepped into his shop. They were a pair of clichés in uniform—a young Dudley Do-Right and an old bruiser with a bulldog’s grin. Dudley was the one in search of a haircut; his partner was just along for the ride.

“Hey,” the older one said, gesturing to a blonde on a hay bale, “isn’t that your mom?”

Dudley’s laugh was strained. “Forgive my partner, he’s old school.” It was the wrong thing to say. The bulldog, ugly to begin with, became ugly with something to prove. He stooped over the magazines, snatching one up for a closer look.

“This one scratch-and-sniff?” He caught my eye in the mirror and held it. Dragging a finger over the page, he brought the model’s bare crotch to his nose.

I considered breaking it off in person, but in the end I fell back on the written word.

I’m sure you remember the cops who came in the last time I was there. You laughed at the older one’s joke—maybe in discomfort, I don’t know. What I do know is how I felt. Offended doesn’t begin to cover it. Aldous, I felt unsafe.

I expected no reply and I got none. I told myself writing the email was what mattered, yet I couldn’t help returning to the incident, wondering what more I could have done. What Bonnie Scott would have done. The first female hire, shop steward by the time I met her, steel-grey hair and those eyes as clear as a 12-year-old girl’s. Not what I did, that’s for sure. Which was to fish a couple of bills out of my wallet with trembling fingers, pay for my haircut and bolt.

In my mind, I begin with the weeping girl in her curlers. Paying the men no mind, I stand up on the barber chair and lift her down. From there I make my way around the room, gathering up redheads, brunettes, blondes—Marilyn and her unbeatable cleavage, and behind it, her faltering heart. Even in fantasy, I stop short of threatening arson, which isn’t to say there’s no fire. I carry the pinups out into the street. I carry the cover girls and the centrefolds, making sure to go back for the stragglers in the john. No need for a lighter—these are hot women, their collective presence enough to generate sparks. One after another, they curl up into the carbon they came from. One after another, they rise.

* Nominated for best short feature at the 2016 National Magazine Awards

• This story is from the winter 2015 issue of Eighteen Bridges. Subscribe here, or order a digital edition.

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3 Responses to “Soft core: breaking up with your hairdresser is hard to do”

  1. ST
    Saturday, May 14th, 2016 at 9:58 PM #

    Thank you!

  2. Christy Barnes Mackintosh
    Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016 at 1:32 PM #

    Love this piece. Thank you for writing it, and thanks to 18 Bridges for publishing it.

  3. Deborah
    Tuesday, May 15th, 2018 at 3:13 AM #

    Superb piece.

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