I usually avoid barbershops because, like locker rooms and comic book stores, they’re masculine spaces where I do not fully belong. My clothes are tight, a v-neck t-shirt and cuffed jeans. I am not a barbershop person, but I sit in the cracked leather chair regardless.
The haircut I ask for—number two razor on the sides and back, trim the bangs above the eyebrows—is deemed acceptable, so I sit and the cape is drawn around me. The man who’s going to cut my hair asks if he can take my glasses, so I take them off, fold the arms, and hand them to him. They’re set on the sink below the mirror. I’m spun around, facing the shop. I can’t see myself, only the empty orange chairs sitting under a wall covered in NASCAR paraphernalia, fragments of cars and posters. There’s a display case to my right full of painted models as well as pictures, groups of smiling people standing by racetracks. There are two barbers. The man who isn’t cutting my hair sits in his chair, looking at his phone, while the man who is cutting my hair begins.
The man’s hands are cold and smooth. He’s older, at least in my eyes, because I’m nineteen and everyone seems old, or at least older than me—old enough to swill beer in college bars, old enough to teach instead of learn, old enough that a Grindr profile makes me uncomfortable. He’s probably 40, far younger than my parents but still older beyond my true comprehension. Twice my age, these years doubled and then some; how does someone exist for that long in one skin?
He ties the paper scarf around my neck, and fastens the button on the back of the cape. I’m too hot. It’s early spring, the end of spring break, and the daily pendulum of Midwestern weather settled on a warm day. I parked two blocks away and although I’m young, I have not treated my body kindly. I’m sweating a little in my armpits. I wonder if it smells.
The man starts to cut my hair. He uses the clippers first, carefully trimming around my ears. What I like about this barbershop, even though it is a barbershop, is that they don’t try and make small talk. My roommate recommended the shop to me. It’s in the heart of our college town, underneath a Skyline Chili restaurant. There are two businesses under the Skyline. Both cut hair. The advertisements for the other place are in pink and white, with pictures of thin, chic white women with trendy haircuts. That’s probably where I belong, with those women who are probably supposed to live in New York or California instead of where their pictures hang in southwestern Ohio. I imagine that they have fabulously trendy lives. They own many shades of lipstick and live in neighborhoods that used to be “ethnic,” in small, clean apartments lit year-round with white Christmas lights and that are the perfect temperature for raising succulents in the windowsill. They have boyfriends, but only when they want them. They are entirely in control of their lives, which is why their faces can be stolen by a camera and slathered on a basement wall in Ohio and they lose none of their allure.
I grew up outside of London, Ohio, in a farmhouse passed from son to son for a hundred years, and now live in Oxford, Ohio, a college town holding the public university I attend. Both cities are named for somewhere else across an ocean, far-away cities criticized for their expensiveness by liberal think-piece articles and lambasted for elitism by their conservative counterparts. Of course, all of the writers, liberal and conservative alike, live in the cities anyway, or in suburbs outside of the cities that cost almost as much and are thick with perhaps more pretension. I think of cities a lot, not London, but New York, or Los Angeles where I will go in a few months for a research project funded by my university. I will go to a different university to watch unknown sexy gay films lost to the public memory so I can come back to Ohio and write about how their uninhibited sexiness compares to the decidedly inhibited sexiness of popular films for popular Americans in Ohio where the sexy gay men die of AIDS or kill themselves or are beaten to death or whatever. I don’t know why the university in Los Angeles can’t just put the rare films on the Internet so they won’t be rare anymore, but, of course, if the farm kids could see all the secrets from their bedrooms above cornfields, the city lights they see on the horizon at night would lose their faint shimmer and become light pollution instead of something beautiful.
The man cutting my hair is gentle as he turns my head, checking his work as he sets down the clippers. He hasn’t clipped long enough, I don’t think. The hair in the back is probably still too long. I don’t say anything. He picks up the scissors. They’re small, but I can hear the metal slide against itself as he moves slowly, cutting around my ears again and then down my neckline.
The door opens; someone my age walks in. He’s roughly my age. He has a picture on his phone to show the other barber, who has stood from his chair, and when he speaks I know he’s an international student. There are many of them at my university, mostly from China. They have an incredibly contentious relationship with the domestic student body, who are mostly from upscale Midwestern suburbs. There’s a joke that every student at my university comes from one of the 5 C’s: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Chicago, or China. There’s an incredible amount of racism, of course, but there’s also something more Marxist that plays across the white faces when an international student drives down Ohio streets in a Maserati or shops at Wal-Mart in Versace, the ugly sting of classism laced with the uncomfortable reality for many of these students that even with their suburban home and their finance degree, they will probably never be that rich, not rich enough to live as these outsiders dare. I imagine it’s difficult to be an international student, but I can’t deny that I too balk at the Moschino shirts, or when plates of nearly untouched food are left at the restaurant where I work at for minimum wage.
I don’t think this student understands the word sideburns, but he sits in the chair next to mine anyway. His barber grabs his clippers and black hair falls to the ground.
We want the American dream, but a dream wiped clean of dust, free of clinging to dirt or high school sweethearts or old haircuts that were ugly anyway...
My barber is still on the scissors and I’m getting worried that this haircut will look terrible, too short or too long or somehow different than how I’ve worn my hair for the last few years. I’ve only worn my hair short since leaving high school. Before college, I had worn my hair long since elementary school. It was ugly and I was ugly with it, but it was simple, predictable. A family friend cut my hair at her salon outside of London on the state route that led to the freeway. Her posters were black and white, but the images of trendy women were the same as those in Oxford. These women were accompanied by men, usually rough-hewn men with tousled hair and bearded faces who held the women on the beach as their son played nearby. I used to watch those posters, seeing how the man’s arms would curl around the woman with her long hair draped around her long neck, a blanket caressing their tanned limbs as a gray-scale sun beamed on a gray-scale beach. I didn’t understand the pull I felt towards those pictures, but I understood that when my chair was turned to show my hair in the mirror I was looking at something different than the perfect gray-scale family safely tucked behind their gloss.
...it’s in our nature as white people or rural people or Americans or humans to be fearful of our situation in the world, to reach and grab and hold onto something that might otherwise slip away.
A man opens the door. He’s older like the barbers. He has the look of someone who lives here, which is to say that he is white-skinned and rugged, his t-shirt tucked into his boot-cut jeans, his cap bearing a feed store logo. This is what my father looks like, and what the men he works with look like, but I shirk slightly as he looks between the two chairs, filled with myself and the international student, and he says I’ll come back later. The barber says I’ll stay late if you need me to, just send a text. We’re imposing, the international student and I. Maybe this man is in one of the pictures on the wall, or maybe he’s married to the barber’s cousin, or maybe they went to the high school down the road together, but we’ve filled the only two chairs and he’s busy, he needs to go. I almost want to say I have a job too, I start my shift in an hour, because school isn’t even in session, it’s spring break. That’s probably why the man came today. It’s why I came today, to avoid the press of students who crowd the small shop on Friday afternoons, filling every waiting chair and stretching the wait for a haircut to an hour or more, but the man leaves and I’m still in the chair, the scissors slicing around my neck.
Before college, I had worn my hair long since elementary school. It was ugly and I was ugly with it, but it was simple, predictable.
The haircut is taking a long time and my concern gradually melts into sleepiness as I disconnect from what might happen when my chair is spun around and instead let my eyelids dip. It’s warm. There’s no noise except for clippers, scissors, and soft breath. The scissors continue to move carefully, precisely around my head, only taking small snippets where the pointed metal bit. The barber occasionally tilts my head for a better angle, touching at my temple, the base of my skull, and I think of Austin, the first boy I ever touched with intent behind my fingers. It was the summer before this spring, which was a pitifully late entry to the business of touching. We had gone to high school together, although I was a year ahead of him and thus had been able to escape our hometown and exchange one Ohio cornfield for another a year sooner. We had fallen out of touch, as I had with everyone from high school, but we had fallen back into touch suddenly as two people who had always wanted to fuck each other but never gotten around to it frequently do. He suggested I come over to his house, to spend the night so we could watch the new season of Game of Thrones. I had stopped watching a few years before. I had only started watching to try and sleep with him, a goal partially achieved in the strictest sense. We were at the home of a mutual friend who suggested we all watch the first episode together, squeezed together in her bed, and Austin watched with his back pressed against my front, our bodies touching from our thighs to where his head lay on the pillow inches from my face, from my mouth, from my nose which smelled his hair, but nothing happened then. No such compunctions existed the second time, when we were a bit older and a bit happier. This time, we never even started the show, just turned the TV on because his parents were home, and then we did what we had to. It was terrible, not just the act of going down on each other until he came and I didn’t, but also the certainty that this was the end of the road, that a box had been ticked with mechanical cruelty and although I drove home with a bruise on my neck and a sense of satisfaction, that feeling would sour as I realized that the gaps between us were greater than could be bridged by touch, and that I actually didn’t like him very much, and so I said I wasn’t interested in a relationship and stopped texting him back. I was interested in a relationship, maybe, but definitely not with him, but commitment has never been my strength, something I realize when my haircut ends.
The barber occasionally tilts my head for a better angle, touching at my temple, the base of my skull, and I think of Austin, the first boy I ever touched with intent
The scissors are set down, but the chair isn’t spun around and I don’t see myself. Instead, the barber coats his hands in sticky hair product and begins working it into my hair, his fingers rubbing at my scalp. I use product in my hair, so I’m not offended by the twisting movements of his hands as he spreads the stuff through my hair, at least not until he pulls out the blow dryer to push my hair into a style that I didn’t ask for, that I can’t see, and I realize that I’m trapped with this haircut. I can’t ask for shorter bangs or a little off the back. Next to me, the international student is complaining. This doesn’t look like the picture, he says. Shorter, he says, touching the sides of his head. Hot air blows across my neck, but I say nothing. The international student pays and leaves, his haircut fixed, but I’m still seated. The other barber sits back in his chair. Worry surfaces as I realize I’m alone with these men in their shop, the fear ludicrously shifting into something more primal, a fear that I’m being hunted, that something is not right with where I am and that soon the trap will be sprung. I’m still in the chair, still swaddled in the cape. His hands are still on my head, but those facts have lost their comfort. I haven’t seen my hair since I sat down, and on some level I understand why rural Ohio is the country of polite smiles and hushed whispers, a region lauded for its friendliness but that fawns for a national doctrine of harshness dictated by Ronald Reagan, George W Bush, or Donald Trump, how these smiling cashiers and chatty grocery store baggers can cheer bombs raining on rural Syria or farm workers in California being deported, because it’s in our nature as white people or rural people or Americans or humans to be fearful of our situation in the world, to reach and grab and hold onto something that might otherwise slip away. We see the posters on the wall and know who we should aspire to be: the New York woman with the chic bob who eats Asian-Mexican fusion thrice a week at pop-up restaurants in closed storefronts. We know she is no more authentic in her home than anyone else in theirs, except for us proud folks who can point to a room and say my great-uncle died there, came in from the fields and took a nap and never woke up. We are authentic because of the history we can touch and feel the dust on our fingertips. I attended elementary school in a building that once was a high school, and hanging on the wall in the back of the gymnasium was a composite photo of the Class of 1942 with my grandfather’s face in it, before he met the woman from a farm town one county west who would marry him and move into his house to raise their children, one of whom became my father. That was the same house where I was raised, the same land where I learned to ride a horse and came out to my parents and smoked cigarettes down by the barn, hiding my butts under heavy rocks, and so I understand that when you tell these people, who may include me but also might not, that they must empty a chair for someone whose dust lies beyond an ocean or across a river, they are immediately distrustful of anyone who could leave their history so far out of touch. We don’t like when change is thrust upon us but we’re spun away from the mirror and told to watch the racecars while our scalps are massaged, and the fear that I feel around them because I am different is undoubtedly the fear they feel when I walk through the doors of their shop and sit in a chair and ask for a haircut of questionable sexual inclination, or when an international student who doesn’t understand the word for sideburns sits in the chair next to me and through his presence and mine, through our bodies occupying the space we wouldn’t if not for our aspirations to be on the poster ourselves someday, we claim something that we might not deserve. We want the American dream, but a dream wiped clean of dust, free of clinging to dirt or high school sweethearts or old haircuts that were ugly anyway, and so when the haircut is finished I stand, look in the mirror, pay and leave.
Sam Hunter is a graduate student at Miami University of Ohio, from which he also holds a B.A. In academia he primarily writes on queer film and was a 2017-2018 Geoffrion Student Research Fellow at Miami University’s Humanities Center. He is currently working on his master’s thesis, an investigation into the expressive style of coming out films, and lives in Oxford, Ohio, with his cat, Greta Gerwig.