Bill Sommer is the co-author, with Natalie Tilghman, of the novel A 52-Hertz Whale (2015, Lerner Publishing). His short fiction has appeared in The Whitefish Review and the New Libri Coffee Shorts series. He is also the screenwriter of the feature film Tony Tango, winner of the Chairman's Award at the 2012 San Diego Film Festival.
The bit of skin between the hairstylist’s eyes plumped up skeptically.
“Okay, hon. It’s your money,” she said to my reflection in the mirror, but she looked doubtful about what I’d just requested. Also maybe doubtful I had the money. I wasn’t looking overly kempt.
Since my hair was about fifteen inches long, save for a couple of layered spots, the haircut I wanted would take about three hours. I had stated this math to the stylist and said I would compensate her accordingly. This was not the sort of place where three-hour hair appointments were common. It was a place for kids and balding dads mostly. My Pawpaw even came here sometimes for a quick trim of the tufts that rimmed his scalp.
My last real haircut had been at around the time my sister Camille got cancer a couple of years ago, but I didn’t shave my head out of solidarity. I’d done it a couple of weeks before the cancer made itself known, rendering the haircut something about which we could laugh darkly, ha ha. We’d stand in front of the mirror together and stare at our bald heads. Sometimes she’d lean into me and rub her head against mine so she could feel the soft prickles on her scalp. I felt it, too.
She’d always spent a lot of time looking in the mirror, even before her hair fell out, but it seemed to be caused not only by vanity—though there was some of that, for sure—but by something else. You know when someone’s freaking out and people say Get a hold of yourself? That’s what it seemed like Camille was doing when she looked in the mirror: getting a hold of herself. Not because she was freaking out. Because she needed to be held.
My hairstylist actually had three different haircuts at once, which is a ploy that stylists at places like this use sometimes in an attempt to flaunt their skills. They don’t realize that a single good ‘do would be more impressive than harvesting parts of three, Frankenstein-style. Hers was a mishmash of textures and angles—spikes and waves and bends and bobs. I’d had all of these haircuts, just never at one time. Chaotic hair often accompanies a chaotic life. I wanted drastic simplification: for things to be short, even, and just about the same under any conditions.
It would actually be very easy, I explained to her. There was no need for precision along the way. Every ten minutes, just cut off an inch of my hair. If that took two minutes, she could piddle around on her phone for the other eight if she wanted. Go have a smoke. Microwave a Hot Pocket in the Employees Only area. I just needed to stare at myself in the mirror in the interim.
The hairstylist cut off the first inch of my hair. Some of it fell on the rust-colored vinyl smock that covered my ratty clothes, and some fell on the floor. I looked at myself for a while. Before anything could happen, though, another customer walked in, and the draft of cold air that tagged along pissed me off. It took very little these days. The stylist looked towards the door then at me, her eyes asking permission to go greet the customer. With my eyes and a nod, I granted it. She went to the front desk to welcome some man and tell him one of the other stylists would be with him in a few minutes. They accepted walk-ins here. I second this policy. It is important to respect whims.
Mine was to once again shave my head, even though we live in a town where young women don’t shave their heads. When I did it the first time, male passersby on the street yelled, “Dyke!” This was rude, in addition to being inaccurate. One time I yelled back, “Straight guy!” The guy looked confused. Two or three inches of hair later, the men reverted to, “Hey, baby.” They’d grown out of their dyke phase, I thought, another humorless ha ha. With this new haircut, they’d probably return to it, silly boys.
I wanted another inch gone, gone right then. I looked at my phone: No. Only six minutes had passed. The idea was to stare continuously into the mirror because there were things I needed to discover about my face. Stare as the vanishing hair changed the way it was framed, accessing many versions of my face in a condensed period, noting which of its features claimed attention, which parts stepped into the spotlight to take their solo.
We were twins. Identical. Not that anyone ever mistook Camille and I for one another. The way we carried ourselves and yes, even our haircuts most of the time, made us easily distinguishable. I’ve been called sexy but never pretty. That was reserved for Camille. It made sense. Pretty is for things like flowers and sunsets, luminous and short-lived.
I became further distinguished by habits like not laughing at people’s jokes but laughing heartily at my own, whereas Camille laughed at everyone’s jokes and only told her own to me, in whispers. They were often pretty good. Both family and friends considered me “quirky,” like a three-legged dog, or menthol cigarettes. Which made Camille something like a strapping pit bull who smoked Marlboro Reds.
So, in a move low on originality, I cut off all my hair. I was twenty-three, admittedly a bit late for this sort of rebellion and claim of identity. My Pawpaw actually slapped himself in the head when he first saw me, the way you might if you were at work and just realized you’d left a stove burner on at home. I might have done something like this earlier, except everyone liked me when I was younger, or at least pretended to because I was Camille’s sister. But I don’t think they were pretending. I was much nicer back then, truth be told. As time wore on, being nice tumbled pretty hard down my list of priorities. I think it came naturally to Camille.
I could have taken pictures of my hair at all these different lengths, but storage for posterity wasn’t the point. Nor was it to observe my face later, frozen in a photograph. The method I’d decided on was to stare at my living face in a mirror in real time. I needed to gain some power over my face.
Camille survived the cancer only to collapse her car against a tree, drunk—her, not the tree, ha ha—and die on impact. Fucking bitch. I loved her. She was so nice.
What was particularly unfair was that in the aftermath I began to hate my face. Mine! As if I’d been the one doing the drinking and driving and pointless crashing. She’d wrecked, recklessly, and here I was suddenly offended by my own mug.
“Another inch, please.”
The stylist had poached a chair from the waiting area and was sitting in it. Now she stood up, tossing the US Weekly she’d been reading on the vacated chair.
“Girl, you got a lot more patience than me,” she said. “That, or you’re really scared.”
“Not how you mean.” I disliked her accidental correctness. And her hair. “Another inch, please,” I repeated.
I stared harder at the mirror as she gripped sections of hair between her index and middle fingers and snipped away. I tracked the path of the scissors around my head by the sound of their mechanical jawing.
I was scared of a life without my sister, if you can accept such sentimental mush. I had trouble accepting it myself at the time. What if, I wondered, I’d never gotten a haircut my whole life and cutting it took me back in time to whenever my hair was that particular length? I could go all the way back into the womb because I was born with a thick layer of down. I could make various stops along the way, uncommit various life mistakes, ask Camille more questions. Why, when we were kids, did she never use more than three different crayons to color? Why did she agree to make that porno with her old boyfriend? Why didn’t she break up with him after he showed it to everyone? It wasn’t that I hadn’t wondered these things before. I’d just never asked.
I took notice of my nose. I have an almost perfect nose, I said to myself. How had I never realized this? Had Camille known this about her own nose? The tapering from the bridge, the spread leading down to nostrils round as green peas. Noses aren’t much, though. They can only subtract from a face, not add. One of those features whose functioning is taken for granted, noticed only when it’s messed up. Like a tortilla that’s dripping out the guts of your burrito. Or worn brake pads on a car whose driver’s bloodstream has been mostly replaced by Fireball shots.
“My daughter put a big-ol’ streak of green in her hair,” the hairstylist said, the places her voice jumped suggesting a bunch of things: she thought what her daughter had done was silly and immature but mostly harmless, that what I was doing was too, that my mother probably thought so as well. She thinks she knows all about me, I thought. That we’re old fucking pals.
“My mom lives in Arizona,” I sneered. The woman looked up from her scissors and into the mirror, confused, concerned. I realized what I said couldn’t possibly make sense. I’d sounded as childish as her original comment had presumed. I tried to get back to figuring out my face, the way the edges of my forehead met my eye sockets.
“Never been out there,” the hairstylist said.
“Don’t talk. Just cut.”
She finished removing the inch hastily, a little anger in the speeding scissors, a little pull when she took hold of the next section of hair. She wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Give me the scissors,” I said.
“Oh. No, honey, I can’t…”
“Yes you can.”
“What’s—? Why do you even—?”
I didn’t, really. I just wanted to see if I could get her to give them to me. I’d never done anything like this before. Her dry lips mashed together in alarm, and I took delicious pleasure in it. But it was a dirty pleasure, like years ago when I watched that porno Camille’s boyfriend had made, like weeks ago when my uncle started the phone call by saying, “Your sister got all wasted and tried to drive home last night...”, and I’d immediately felt superior because she’d been stupid enough to get pulled over for DUI.
* * * * * * * * * * *
I leave. Just get up and rip off the smock, wipe wispy hairs from my neck and shoulders, pull twenty-five bucks from my pocket, lay it on the shelf, say Here, sorry. I’m sorry and leave with most of my hair still on my head. I wasn’t sorry, though, only regretful. Sorry is for the other person. Regret is for yourself, and I only felt bad because abusing her hadn’t felt as good as I must have suspected it would. All I’d wanted was a little power. Wanting, however, is not the only, maybe not even the main, qualification for getting.
I rush through the parking lot and onto the road that heads out of town to the duplex where I live—currently an unoplex because of my dead sister. I’m self-conscious as cars pass, realizing that my hair is still ten or eleven inches long, approximately the same length as Camille’s. I let out a banshee scream that at its peak feels like it might rip open my throat. Because what if people on this road see me and think it’s her? People are prone to see what they want to see. They want to see her. They always have.
I grab tufts of hair in both hands and try to rip them out. When Camille was alive, no one looked at me and saw her, because there was a her. Now there’s only a me, and it’s too much pressure to have her face. My scalp skin stretches farther and farther away from my skull until I can tell the follicles are about to burst through, but I stop. I don’t like pain. And I don’t hate my hair. I need to get a hold of myself. I remember that duh I have a hair tie with me. I use it to tie my hair up in a cattywampus knot on top of my head. It probably looks crazy but it’s something Camille would never do.
I don’t want to go home, I realize. Going there is merely a habit. Instead I turn on Butterfield and head toward my pawpaw’s salvage yard twenty minutes down the road, where the car that Camille and I shared rests. It is beyond me that Pawpaw was willing to take it. Like being nice, there are far more important things than being practical. Camille died in this car, and he’s willing to let it sit there among the other junkers and strip it for parts so he can make a few bucks. What happened was a total loss. Treating it as anything else is an insult to Camille, and also pointless and pitiful. There is use in crying over spilt milk, just not for licking it off the floor. Selfishly, I’m glad Camille wasn’t an organ donor, that she’s not being reused.
No one’s in the office when I walk in, and I go straight through the back door into the yard and walk through the rows of damaged cars. Their crushed bodies and missing parts remind me of a VFW for vehicles. At the very back of the yard, it sits. The blue Ford Fiesta with the left side scrunched up like it’s giving an exaggerated wink, saying, Get it? I don’t. I go to the passenger side and open the door and get in and sit there. I usually drove when we went places together. Camille would be checking her makeup and lipstick and hair in the visor mirror as I drove, so now I check mine and imagine she’s behind the wheel. Somehow I’ve already forgotten putting my jaggedly cut hair up into this weird ponytail, a ponytail if their tails were in the middle of their backs. I look grotesque, but not in a bad way. Just ridiculous, exaggerated. I immediately begin laughing, the unironic kind, and I look over to what remains of the driver’s seat because I know Camille would be laughing at me too, and I want to apologize to that hairstylist and thank her too, much as she bothered me, for her role in crafting this crazed look. I laugh harder. Blinking away tears I hadn’t known I was crying, my face comes into focus in the mirror, framed by my gnarled hair. In the side mirror, I see Pawpaw coming towards the car at the closest to a jog he can muster.