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Haircut

I watch you from behind, heading into Junior's. You tower over everyone you pass on the sidewalk, but your relaxed stride stays just this side of a swagger. You hold the door for a couple coming out all hugged up and I realize you didn't kiss me when you got in the car tonight. I'm not going to say anything to you about it this time because you'll just say, "Let me make it up to you," and kiss my neck. But it will be too late. And you'll probably get cherries on my cheesecake when you know I can't stand cherries. Last time you got cherries on my slice and scraped them off so you could have extra, forcing me to eat around the residual cherry film.

Every Friday night I drive in from Connecticut to see you. Through the Bronx, into Manhattan where I pick you up, and on to Brooklyn where we stop at Junior's for cheesecake, to go. The cars double-parked in front of Junior's reflect the diaspora of black socioeconomic status—hoopties mixed in with Beemers. I add my Camry to the pack and wait, people-watching, as you go inside. Junior's is always packed, but Friday and Saturday nights are the worst.

You come back to the car with the cheesecake. I check mine: sans cherries. I reach for the ignition, but you grab my hand, pull me to you and kiss me. All is forgiven.

We drive into Park Slope, to your apartment across from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which is all shadows and dark towers. At your kitchen table, I unload a bag of White Castle burgers. My colleagues, who love New York City, can't believe I've never had a White Castle burger, so I decided to get some tonight, to see what all the fuss was about. The burgers taste okay, but really, they're just like Krystal burgers from back home—square mystery meat on square buns in little square boxes.

"I'm surprised you stopped in the Bronx. At night, too," you say.

"Why? Aren't I allowed to be spontaneous once in a while?"

"It's not that. You're terrified of the Bronx."

"I am not terrified of the Bronx. Did you know that the workers at White Castle stand behind a thick wall of glass? You pay and get your food through this mini revolving door contraption…"

You are not listening. You are stealing my fries.

I go to the kitchen to get hot sauce for the fries I have left. In the cabinets, your roommate Craig has alphabetized the spices. I move his basil to the very back of the cabinet, just for spite.

When I return to the table, you have a big silly grin on your face, and I know what you want. "No," I tell you. "Don't even bother to ask." I slide the fries back to my side of the table and shake on the hot sauce.

"I don't want any more fries," you say, still grinning, and lifting your eyebrows.

"The answer is still no. I am not cutting your hair again."

Two months ago you bought a set of electric clippers in different sizes and handed them to me. I asked if you remembered our favorite cartoon—the one where Bugs Bunny works over Elmer Fudd as The Barber of Seville plays in the background—but you were unfazed.

The first time, my hands wouldn't stop shaking. We faced the mirror on your dresser. "Okay, now just go straight back," you said. "Here. Use the smaller ones near my neck." When I finished, you said, "Thanks," and stared in the mirror, frowning, for five minutes, looking at your head from different angles. Finally, despite all my mistakes you declared it "not bad."

My goal the second time was to raise your sideburns, but hopefully not your expectations. I studied the tiny sideburns carefully. I'd have to just barely touch them with the clippers. I fought the urge to close my eyes and lifted the clippers to the spot.

"Uh-oh."

"What?" You turned around and looked at me. "What do you mean, ‘uh-oh'?"

The entire tuft had disappeared. "Nothing," I said. "Just stop moving, and maybe I can fix it." I fixed it by removing the other sideburn as well. I figured, they were so small, it wouldn't be noticeable.

You noticed. I considered suggesting you shave it all off. I find bald black men very sexy, but your head shape is questionable. Some heads are not meant for baldness.

You don't have a faulty memory, and your sideburns still haven't fully grown in, so why do you want to subject both of us to this a third time? You even try to make me feel guilty. "You're going to let your man go around looking like this?" you ask, pointing to your wooly head.

"That's no reflection on me," I say. I get up and clear the empty bags from the table. "I've told you, you have to make time for personal grooming." Hundred-hour work weeks on Wall Street leave you no time to get to a barber. Or so you say. I am a consultant, at the beck and call of Fortune 100 companies striving to maximize shareholder value, and I still find time to get a manicure every week.

You beg. You wrap your arms around me from behind and whisper promises and favors in my ear. We go into your bedroom, and you make good on those promises, so of course I agree to cut your hair again.

You fall asleep afterwards, but I lie awake listening to night sounds through the open window. I hear music coming from the building across the courtyard below. Janet Jackson croons, "anytime, anyplace, I don't care who's around" over the throb-throb of bass.

Nature calls, so I lift your arm from across my chest and get up. The sound of Craig puttering around out front reminds me I've left my overnight bag in the living room. I grab your bathrobe from the floor, next to your discarded suit. I drape the suit across your desk chair before heading for the bathroom.

My brother, the mechanic, admires your fine suits. He calls you the Brooks Brother. He thinks he's so clever. When he heard we were engaged, he called me, acting like I'd won the lottery. "He's a good catch," he told me.

"And I'm not?" We laughed. He compared you to my previous boyfriends. "And that one joker, the one who wore the sweater tied around his shoulders. What was his name? Poindexter?"

"Dexter, and you know it."

"Well, Kevin could take Dexter with one hand tied behind his back."

"Hm. That may well be, but pugilistic skills are not on the top-ten list of traits I look for in a man," I said. "Kevin is not perfect, you know."

"He's good people, Simone." And on and on he went extolling your virtues, as if I needed convincing, as if I hadn't already agreed to marry you.

"James," I said to him. "Pedestals are not our friends."

"Then why don't you get off the one you're on?" He laughed. I didn't speak to him for a month.

I manage to avoid Craig and his chatty girlfriend and make it back to the bedroom. From the sound of it, they are watching a French film, probably impressed with themselves for not having to read the subtitles.

You are still asleep, but answer, "No," when I ask if you are. You say, "Hey, Southern Gal, we've got cheesecake waiting in the refrigerator." You think this little nickname you have for me is endearing, but it's not. First of all, my great-grandmother used to call me "gal," as in "that gal is too grown." And it's been years since I lost my southern accent, though not on purpose. It just happened. But you say that you can still hear it, that the South is in my blood, my attitude, the way I make love. "Skin brown and sweet like pecan pie," you like to whisper, sounding like Spike Lee imitating Rhett Butler.

I send you to get the cheesecake and ask you to bring my laptop while you're at it, but you say, "Work can wait."

I take your cheesecake, you take mine, and we feed each other. Between bites, you announce we're both going in and quitting Monday morning. The plan is to drive west, sight-see, and eat cheesecake until our savings run out, and never venture east of the Mississippi again. You joke about this every weekend, and I allow you the indulgence. After all, this city bore and raised you. You are entitled to this lack of gratitude. I let you fall asleep without hearing any objection from me. There will be time enough for that tomorrow.

On Saturday morning, I change the subject when you mention the haircut. I suggest grocery shopping followed by lunch at that new Jamaican place we passed on Flatbush last night. Or maybe a stroll through the Botanic Garden, it's a gorgeous day. But you say I bring out the homebody in you, that I'm all the sustenance you need. We make love, postponing the haircut for a little while at least.

When you ask if I've given any more thought to where I want to have the wedding, I rattle off, "The Caribbean came to mind, but that's so typical. How about Bali?" like it hadn't just occurred to me that minute.

"You don't want to have the wedding back home? Bring Uncle Bird to Bali,"—you chuckle—"and Bali won't know what hit it."

I suppose I should relish the warm way you adopted my family and my hometown after visiting last summer. At the cookout thrown in honor of our engagement, I introduced Uncle Bird to you as "Bertram Frazier."

"No need for all that!" Uncle Bird said in his slack Geechee tongue. "We family now. You call me Uncle Bird." You whispered, asking me to translate this little invitation for you, as soon as Uncle Bird rushed over to the lower the flames on the grill no one is allowed to touch but him. You obliged when Uncle Bird's son, Bo—who doesn't have two nickels to rub together—asked you for stock tips. Later, Uncle Bird abandoned the grill in favor of an impromptu dance showcase for your benefit—the Watusi, the Camel Walk, and a near-perfect James Brown impersonation. You found this all very charming.

You liked Mrs. Daley, my high school English teacher, who served us sweet tea and asked if you shared my fondness for Russian novels. You beamed when my cousin Renee's husband, Nate, called you "homeboy" at the crab boil they hosted for us. I've kept up with Renee over the years via my mother's enthusiastic reports: Renee's latest pregnancy, the beautiful table Renee set on Thanksgiving, the number of bathrooms in Renee's house.

Our last morning in town we sat on my parents' front steps with a stalk of sugar cane. I showed you how to take a knife to it and suck away the liquid sweet until nothing but tasteless strings remained. You kept saying, "Everyone is so down-to-earth, so real," and you can't understand why I left, why I rarely come back, why I don't appreciate my family's realness. "It takes all kinds to make a world," you declared, parroting Uncle Bird in your newly acquired drawl.

You were drunk on sugar and sunshine, so I didn't bother explaining this: If back home fits too tightly, New York floats about me like a poorly-tailored suit, highlighting my inadequacies, reducing me to a little girl playing dress-up. But in New York at least I have plenty of room in which to move around.

Around dinner time, Craig knocks on the bedroom door and invites us to join them for dinner at Joloff's and a rooftop party later in Bed-Stuy. We accept, for lack of better prospects. I love you, but after twenty-four hours cooped up in your bedroom—read, eat, nap, make love, talk, rinse, repeat—the walls start closing in. Still, this party better not be a stand-around-and-compare-portfolios affair. I want to dance. You say, "If there's music, we'll dance."

And we do. I swear, the DJ raided my CD collection. Chaka insisting her man tell her something good, Marvin before he needed sexual healing and rehab, Ron Isley's honey-coated tenor making "For the Love of You" irresistibly sweet. All night we dance above the city; the moon is our disco ball. We dance even though no one else does. You say we're so good, the others might think we've been hired for the occasion. I agree, but the Merlot keeps me from caring.

You are the perfect dance partner. I study the other men on the rooftop, assured by the false notes of their laughter and the starch in their spines that none of them can do better than you. I choose you again and again, unkempt head and all.

This is who I want us to be. Moving to the same beat, but surprising each other. Cutting loose when the mood strikes, but always spinning back to each other's arms. But I suspect you want a life-long slow-drag, belly-to-belly for eternity, a laminated dance-card with my name on it.

The DJ slows things down with an extended set featuring Barry White, the O'Jays, and Teddy Pendergrass. I stand on tiptoe and whisper in your ear, "Conception music," to make you laugh.

"You make life more interesting," you say, pulling me closer. The Merlot makes you prone to hyperbole and generalizing.

"Well…what if I only have three-years' worth of tricks," I say, "and you've already seen them all?"

"Then we'll crack open the Kama Sutra on our wedding night."

"Is that all you think about? Seriously, marriage does strange things to people."

"Like what?"

"Like Renee and Nate, for example. The whole time we were at their house, they never touched, not even accidentally, did you see that? Keep in mind, these two used to get caught going at it in my aunt's den on the regular. Renee showed me one of Nate's love letters once, and Browning had nothing on this brother. Now? They're about as intimate as you and Craig: ‘Where's the bottle-opener?' ‘Do we need another bag of ice?'" I shake my head. "So…sterile."

"So…we'll just make sure that doesn't happen to us." You say this so matter-of-factly, as if my concern is how to keep cut flowers fresh, and not our relationship.

Our dancing settles to little more than a sway as the party starts to break up. When the night air cools, you rub the goosebumps on my bare shoulders, and I stop wishing I'd brought my sweater. Touching instead of talking frees me to imagine myself better than I am, bolstering the fragile love I feel for you. Not that I don't love you, just not the way you think I do. Not the happily-ever-after way you love me.

Early on Sunday, I awake to you sliding my palm across your almost-‘fro. I acknowledge our agreement, but first I have an Excel model to update. I've put it off long enough.

By mid-morning you force a trade: my laptop for a plate of pancakes. You scan my spreadsheet and ask, "One more underperforming cost-center sold off, one recommendation to go global after another, and for what, for whose good?"

"Well aren't we just Ralph Nader," I say. "Hypocrisy is really unattractive on you."

"Student loans keep a brother enslaved. I don't want to do this for the rest of my life."

"Then don't."

At this point, cutting your hair is preferable to following where this discussion will lead. I take a final syrupy bite and ask for the clippers.

The initial buzz of the clippers startles me, but the moment passes, and something resembling confidence takes over. I've learned from the sideburn mistake; things can only get better.

The nape of your neck seems as good a place as any to start. I need you to keep your head lowered, but you lift it every now and then, watching me in the mirror.

"Head down," I say, disturbed to hear my mother's voice emerge from my mouth. "Head down," "sit still." Constant refrains from my own early childhood hair-combings—from my childhood in general—demonstrating ignorance of human development (four-year-olds embody narcissism and unbridled movement), demonstrating complete disregard for my burgeoning wanderlust.

More gently, I say to your reflection, "I don't want to hurt you."

For the duration of the haircut, we follow each other's directions, and the result is nothing short of perfection. Shorn hair drifts to the floor from the towel draped around your shoulders. While you admire my handiwork in the mirror, I kneel down and pinch a soft clump of clippings between my fingers. In a drawer somewhere in my mother's house, a lock of my hair is taped to a yellowing page in my baby book. I rub my fingers together and your strands separate and scatter from the pressure.

We argue over who will sweep up the floor, but I get to the broom first and that settles it. You thank me again for the cut and ask what you owe me. "This one's on the house," I say, mindful of debts I have left unpaid.

We skip lunch. You do crunches and military push-ups while I finish updating my model. By late afternoon, Craig and his girlfriend vacate the living room, so we curl up on the couch for the tail end of a Marx brothers' marathon. At dinner time you look in the refrigerator and regret not going to the grocery store yesterday. We order pizza and eat it standing at the kitchen counter.

On our first date we ate pizza. You had lost your wallet earlier that day, but insisted on paying for everything with the $18 in crumpled bills you found in your suit's jacket pocket. So we went for pizza instead of sushi. I remember something about that night put me in the mind of high school for some reason—not because I was giddy with hormones (not yet anyway), but something else I could not name at the time. In retrospect, I realize that night took me back to high school graduation, to the words of the commencement speaker. She reminded my classmates—who'd danced the Alf and the Roger Rabbit down the aisle to their diplomas—that the beginning (hence, commencement) of their adult lives was far greater cause for celebration and reflection than the anxiously-awaited end of their high school career.

Your coming into my life felt more like an ending, the fulfillment of a dream, than a beginning. I reveled in this concrete achievement, giving the intangible future far less consideration than it deserved. Meanwhile, here we are years after that first date, and you say today is not good-bye, rather it starts the countdown to next Friday when we'll see each other again. With the pizza reduced to crusts and less than an hour of daylight left, I tell you I need to get on the road. I have a breakfast meeting tomorrow morning. You carry my overnight bag downstairs and then lean against the door of my car.

"So it's Bali instead of going home?"

I picked Bali out of thin air, yet here you are willing to give it to me. You kiss me before I can answer, and we linger there amid the revving and honking chaos of Eastern Parkway. I want to tell you: This is as close to home as I'm going to get, this city where only crazy people look you in the eye, a city which I fled after only one year for nearby suburban pastures. Home is this city which fails to keep its promises, and home is you who shames me by always keeping yours. Home is not "back home," that past-tense place which loves me because it too doesn't know any better.

But I don't say anything. I can always count on you to kill the silence.

"You're just afraid Uncle Bird might pop his teeth out during the reception," you tease. "He might drag my mom onto the dance floor and teach her the Georgia Slop."

You think I'm ashamed of the South, of my heritage, but you are wrong. I love books by Faulkner and Alice Walker, and I prefer sweet potato pie to cheesecake. I love Uncle Bird, too, with or without his teeth.

You love the idea of me, of who you think I am, or who I can become. But I know who you are, and I take you for granted like the palm of my hand. I should give you back this ring, and tell you it would never work. But then James and my parents and Uncle Bird and you would ask me why, and I would look like the fool that I am, scrambling for excuses for throwing back my good catch.

I suppose this is what my mother means when she speaks of what we take with us and what we leave behind—we get them mixed-up sometimes in our rush to go.

After brief tours of duty in Corporate America and elementary school teaching, Deesha Philyaw Thomas chose writing as her next and final destination. In addition to short fiction, she also writes personal essays and is at work on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master's degree in education. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, she currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter.

Copyright © 2003 Deesha Philyaw Thomas