Last month, I made my biannual visit to the hair salon. The infrequency of my visits has less to do with any particular attachment to how my hair looks sans style, and more to do with the fact that the whole experience terrifies me. Through the years I have picked my cautious way through the wilds of personal grooming, learning to speak more or less casually of lowlights and brow pencils, but the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land has not abated.
This particular salon, which I visit only every two years or so, keeps drawing me back like an ill-groomed moth to a flame. It's an urban-chic, modern minimalist sort of place, with concrete countertops and light fixtures that look like sets of false teeth. The sneer factor of the receptionists is high (I would rather show up naked than without an appointment), and they always ask sullenly if I "want anything" when I come—to which question I am apparently supposed to have a ready answer. Brownies? Milk? I'm too embarrassed to ask for a complete catalog of what, exactly, is on offer, but since there is occasionally a bottle of Evian sitting on the desk, I usually ask apologetically for water—feeling somehow that already, I have let someone down.
Any salon has its horrors: the potential for mind-numbing catalogs of the stylist's boyfriend's latest offenses; the uncertainty about if or how much to tip; the moment when you are shown the finished haircut and are expected to formulate a suitably approving comment on the spot. But this particular salon is the type of place that carries exorbitantly-priced hair "product" (a bit of hairstyling jargon toward which I nurture an unreasonable hatred) with names like "Abyss" and "Manacle," and where the black-clad stylists saw angrily at the hair in front of them with razor blades. There is an unapologetic sign on the door banning children of any description, and the selection of photos on the wall follows a formula: square frames and large mats surrounding grainy black-and-white images of one bicycle wheel or half of a bleached jawbone. All the spine-stiffening, affirmative pep talks I give myself before I arrive, about how with age comes confidence and how fashion is more about pleasing oneself than flowing with the whims of society, melt away as the atmosphere of the place washes over me.
The tragedy of it is that this salon's haircuts are invariably flattering. Perhaps I am simply fooled by the sense of relief as I emerge, but I always leave feeling stylish and able to face nearly anything. And so I continue, every so often, to return.
With the graceless self-absorption that I like to think I left behind in high school, I always assume that all the other customers (or "clients" as the salon refers to us, no doubt thinking it sounds more upscale) are regulars, setting up their next appointments for "the usual time" and calling the receptionists by name. The lady next to me on this visit reinforced this view. She was elderly and extravagantly blond, and her painfully-thin stylist (Zax, his nametag read) was asking in an over-emotive voice if her husband ("Frank") was an absolute terror to have around now that he was retired. The lady told an anecdote about said husband and his brother going out to lunch and then playing golf together. The stylist said, "Isn't that the truth," which is a phrase I had never before heard issuing from a non-actor's mouth.
I was so caught up in their conversation that when my own stylist appeared and asked what kind of style I was thinking of, I was taken by surprise and unable to manage the casual tone I'd been planning. I felt relieved that he had not asked me what "we" were wanting done today, but as he immediately began fingering and kneading my hair like someone choosing a watermelon, I was still not much at my ease. The discussion of the haircut and color is a delicate dance that must be handled with great finesse. Too jocular, and the stylist may come away with a disastrously inflated sense of your "up-for-anything"-ness. Too focused, and his artistic sensibilities may be wounded. I had rehearsed my speech in the car, but shaken by the continued sifting and hefting of my hair (now like someone hunting for rocks in a bowl of lentils), I stammered a bit on the part about how I no longer wanted to look like a college student with sun-kissed highlights. I managed to sound fairly firm about not wanting any style that would look half-baked if I didn't make it back to the salon for another two years. Then, gaining assurance, I told him casually that I liked my greys but I did wish there were something a little brighter around my face.
Letting my hair fall back down, the stylist narrowed his eyes.
"If I could have a blank…"
"Slate?" I put in helpfully, and immediately regretted it.
"…canvas," he continued, austerely; "I would make you a redhead…"—pausing for effect—"…like that. But I don't think you'd be happy with the maintenance."
I made encouraging noises, distracted by the fact that I had also never in my life heard someone in real life say "like that" while snapping his fingers. It was a day of milestones.
After more discussion, the work ensued, and with it, the conversational purgatory one enters voluntarily at the salon. We skirted through our respective childhoods and I got through the "how many children" question with minimal upheaval—just a momentary faltering as the stylist stopped crackling the foil to say "Seven!" and I managed not to make a self-deprecating comment about how "crazy" it all was (something which, though true, I try to avoid saying, as it misrepresents the complex reality). My heart rate rose when he brought up politics, and when he remained undeterred by my repressive "Oh, I can't stand to think of it"—I really thought all was lost. It was clear from his first few sentences that we weren't going to continue without discomfort, but then he asked about what had influenced my views and I lit into Basic Economics with a vengeance. I suppose he could see the fervor in my eyes because he subsided and we fell again, blissfully, silent.
That just left the hair-washing to get through, which is a sort of torture chamber for a tender-headed person like myself. I tell my daughters all the time that girls have to be very brave, and I like to think that I am. At home I brush briskly and ruthlessly through my hair no matter how tangled it gets. But something about the vulnerable position of lying in the neck cut-out of the sink, as someone grimly massages your scalp with an air of "my manager said you must enjoy this for at least three minutes, so help me"—leaves me clenching my hands together and trying desperately to keep the tears from leaking out the corners of my eyes. But it eventually came to an end, and I sat up with the dignity of someone who has looked into the great deep, and come away unscathed. Later, I didn't even flinch when the stylist said "hopefully we can see you back a little sooner next time!" and showed me the back of my head in a hand mirror. "How lovely; thank you," I said airily, avoiding commitment.
I approached the front desk with such relief and joie de vivre coursing through my veins that I even responded to the receptionist's offer of "product" with a breezy "Why not?" Light, happy, and free, I almost flew out the doors to the car, glancing at my new shampoo bottle as I went.
It was called "Oblivion."