Today is the 39th day, and I am cutting my hair.
The girl at the salon—her own hair a gelled tousle of improbably maroon curls—exclaims over the length and asks me how long I’ve been letting it grow.
“Twenty-seven years,” I say, and she lets out a sound halfway between a shriek and a gasp.
“My God! That’s, like, six years longer than I’ve even been alive!”
Then, perhaps realizing that the exclamation has been something less than tactful, she draws herself together and becomes briskly professional. Am I sure I really want to do this? Yes, I am. I don’t want to take off maybe just half of it and see how that feels? No, I don’t. Shoulder length, for sure? Yes, I’m sure.
So she unclips the barrette at the back of my neck, loosening my hair so she can comb through the shining brown length with its threads of gray. Her neighbors from the adjoining chairs, clients and stylists alike, neglect their own hair in order to watch as she lets it flow across her outreached arm so she can reach the ends with her comb. Then she begins to braid it. I watch in the mirror as her slender fingers with their green-enameled nails flash deftly through the strands. Her young face, bent to her task, holds the solemnity of a novice priestess or a small child intent on a puzzle.
She finishes the braid, fastens the end with an elastic band, and snaps a second one around it near the top. Then she pulls the plait out sideways to its full length, nearly three feet, so I can see it in the mirror.
“Last chance,” she says, and her reflected image smiles at my reflected image, inviting me to change my mind.
I don’t smile back.
“Go ahead,” I tell her.
She takes a deep breath and reaches past my shoulder to pick up her scissors. Gripping the braid in her small fist, she pulls it out away from my neck until my head rocks backward, then begins to chew at it with her scissors. I feel rather than hear the blades gnawing their way through the thickness of the braid, severing a bit at a time. The cropped strands fall forward one after another, curving past my ears until the ends tickle my jaw. In the mirror the girl’s mouth is twisted with concentration.
Suddenly my head snaps forward as the final tresses separate. The breath I had not known I was holding comes out in a deep sigh at the same time she says, “There!” in triumph and relief. She holds the braid—her victor’s trophy—high for a moment, then drapes it across my lap. I work one hand out from under the smock so I can hold it.
I stroke the glossy strands with my thumb while she finishes her work. Relief loosens her tongue as she trims and evens the ends, parts my hair on one side, shapes and combs it into a sophisticated bob that barely brushes my shoulders. She asks about my job, my children. I answer briefly but with courtesy. She is trying to put both of us at ease after the rite we have shared; the least I can do is respond to her efforts.
“How’s that?” she asks at last, her young eyes meeting mine in the mirror, wanting my appreciation. “It’s going to feel funny for a while.”
I shake my head experimentally, feeling the hair swing across the back of my neck and brush softly past my cheek, hearing the whisper as it sweeps across the nylon smock covering my shoulders. “Yes,” I tell her. “I like it. You did a good job.”
She brushes the hair off my neck and frees me from the smock, and I follow her to the cash register, clutching the braid that she obviously expects me to keep. What am I to do with it? Drape it across my bedroom mirror? Tuck it away in my underwear drawer? I imagine my fingers brushing against it as I reach into the drawer; it would be like finding an escaped ferret among my bras and panties.
I clutch at a dimly-remembered alternative. “Isn’t there an organization that collects hair to make wigs? For cancer patients or something?”
“Oh, sure. We have a cut-a-thon for them once a year. You want to donate it? We can send it in for you.”
By all means. I hand over the snake of hair, and she slings it over her shoulder.
Then it comes, with a bright smile as she counts out my change. “I bet your husband will be surprised. Think he’ll like it?”
My fingers tighten on the handful of bills and coins. “No, he won’t be surprised.”
I fumble for the door handle and go out blinking into the brightness of the day.
My friends will probably think I cut my hair now because Alan had wanted me to keep it long. That I am free now to do whatever I want with it.
If they believe so, they are mistaken. Yes, Alan had liked my long hair, had let its softness flow through his fingers, had tugged gently on the braid I often wore as a shorthand for, “Hey, kiddo, I love you.” But several months ago, when I had brought up the idea of cutting it, he had shrugged. “If you don’t like it short, you can always let it grow back. It’s your hair. Do whatever you want.”
That was the trouble. I didn’t know what I wanted. My long hair had been part of me since high school. It was unique. It was part of my signature. Yet I was tired of the weight of it, the sameness. I thought sometimes it labeled me as the leftover hippie I had never been. So I decided to cut it, changed my mind, waffled, fretted.
Then came the late-night knock and the patrolman at my door with his professionally gentle words. “I’m so sorry, ma’am; there’s been an accident. Your husband’s car . . .” My world shattered around me as I stood there in the robe Alan had given me for Christmas, my hair in its nighttime braid down my back.
Now, 39 days later, that long hair is gone. My friend Sarah always says, “A woman who cuts her hair is a woman in transition.”
Well, Sarah, I tell her in my mind, in transition I certainly am. But after all the indecision and fretting, I know now what cutting my hair really means. You know what, Sarah? It doesn’t mean shit. That’s why I did it now. Because I finally figured out that it just plain doesn’t matter.
I get into my car, stab my key into the ignition, start the engine, pull out of the parking lot toward my empty house. It’s just hair. It can come back.