March 2, 2010

The Unkindest Cut

 January 11, 1995
Dear Chuck,

You don’t know me. I only know your name is Chuck because that’s what your stepdaughter called you. It’s not the name I would have chosen. I would have named you jerk, or asshole, or even bastard. You see, I was at The Hair Force today, seated in the salon chair next to the one holding the little girl you left on her own while you did who knows what. She handled herself just fine without you. In fact, that’s what snagged my attention -- the voice of a child unaccompanied by an adult.

That’s not the way things usually work, Chuck. Usually, Chuck, children arrive in groups of two or more, their appointments scheduled back-to-back with that of the attending parent -- typically a mom -- who oversees and sometimes directs the stylist’s movements, while not literally wielding the tools of beauty herself. So when I heard your little girl chirping away at the next station, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

How old is she, Chuck? Seven? Eight? I know a lot about her. Getting her hair cut was her idea. She thought about cutting her hair short, but decided that would be too short. She used to have a boyfriend but he dumped her for a kindergartener. I drifted into the half sleep that I fall into whenever someone works or plays with my hair. Then the stylist said, “Does your mama know you want to cut off your hair?”

Your little girl said, “Oh, yes. She said it’s my hair, and I can decide what to do with it.”

I abandoned the unspoken dictates of beauty parlor etiquette, which require that patrons pretend we can neither see nor hear each other, and opened my eyes, thinking, first, Where is your mama? and second, How old was I before I could decide what to do with my hair? Nightmare visions of pixie cuts and Toni home perms and butchered bangs flashed before my eyes in the time it took the stylist to glide her comb through the thick, dark blonde tresses that cascaded over the back of the chair. “Are you sure you want to cut it? It’s so pretty .”

“Oh, yes. I figure it will be easier to take care of. It pulls when Mom brushes it.”

So the stylist set to work, Chuck, her clipping and snipping a percussive accompaniment to your daughter’s chatter about boys and school and hair and boys until the blonde locks just brushed her delicate shoulders. After consulting your daughter, the stylist used a curling iron on each lock, turning the ends under just the right amount. It was magical, Chuck. Even the stylist was entranced. Your daughter turned her head, admiring from every angle the self she saw in the mirror, and that hair swung softly.

And then you showed up, Chuck. Do you remember what you said? I do. You said, “Is that how you’re getting your hair cut?”

I know that tone of voice, Chuck. It’s my father, during the intermission of Crimes of the Heart, the very first community-theatre play I directed: “Couldn’t you have picked a better play?” My mother saying to my sister, about the dress I wore: “Bill hates it; he thinks she has no taste.” My sixth-grade English teacher, about the eight-page story I had just read to the class: “I didn’t tell you to write a book!”

Your little girl, Chuck, that lovely, sparkly child, completely deflated.

You said her hair wasn’t short enough. Told the stylist to take off some more.

The whole time the stylist quietly re-wet those pretty curls and cut them all off, and didn’t even ask the girl to sit up straight, you talked. This was her idea, you said. The trick is to teach her to take care of her long hair, you said. It won’t kill her to lose another two inches, you said.

Your little girl said nothing. For ten minutes, Chuck.

When the cutting finally ended, she said, “It’s too short,” and tugged on the still-wet, chin-length hair, as if she could make it longer.

An hour later, I saw the two of you outside the Hallmark Store at University Mall. I spied on you from behind a bookshelf at Printer’s Ink, and heard her say, with more than a little anxiety, “Do you really think Mom will like my hair, Chuck?”

Chuck, if it hadn’t been for you, she wouldn’t have had to ask. I won’t forget this, Chuck. I bet she won’t, either.


  1. 1995? I am consistently amazed how you can remember things - and word for word, even. (I'm assuming this is a true story, maybe not.)

    I'm not sure how I feel about the little girl. I think kids are more resilient than we give them credit for. I bet her hair grew back and her mother broke up with jerkface and they lived happily ever after. (At least, I'd like to think so.)

  2. True story. A journal entry from the day of provided the details, and one of last night's prompts (write a piece in the form of a letter) provided the way in.

    But yes, I am amazing, aren't I? :>

  3. I so enjoy reading your stories Barbara. This was lovely; tugged at my heart strings. I've seen that little girl, I've been that little girl. Words hurt, words heal. Thanks for sharing your words.

  4. Thank you. And speaking of words that linger and heal... There were years when I didn't write, years when I struggled to rekindle a dream of childhood, years when I worried that people would say/think, "What makes you think you can write?" I have held on to and will never forget that you once said, "I've always thought you had a way with words." Thank you for that.

  5. wow... Barbara, you're really an amazing writer, and a truly amazing person for remembering and caring about this little girl.


  6. great story...really enjoyed it. It's amazing how things to write about are everywhere...even at the beauty parlor.

  7. Anon--

    Maybe especially at the beauty parlor. :>