"I just paid $18 for a haircut!" complained my friend Raul. His hair is rather short and in some places sparse, so such an investment in his locks seem superfluous.

"Why don't you pay $5 and get your hair cut in a barbershop?" I asked. "Why do you have to get your hair cut where women do? Why don't you stay where you belong?"

I don't happen to think a woman's beauty parlor is where a man belongs. Assuming an offended pose, Raul replied, "What? Then I wouldn't be able to get it styled and blown dry!"

I had been to the same neighborhood salon a few years ago and hadn't known if I was in a beauty parlor or a singles bar. The rock music was turned up loud. The receptionist offered me wine or coffee while I waited for a shampoo. When I settled in for a haircut, a good-looking man my age, in his mid-thirties, was in the chair next to me having his hair styled. Sitting there in our brown plastic wraps with dripping wet heads, I didn't know whether to flirt, be embarrassed, or relax and accept this as life in the '80s.

During subsequent appointments there, I would suffer acute life style anxiety -- a condition more appropriate for a human potential seminar than a hair-cutting appointment. Was it contradictory, I would wonder under the running water, not to welcome men into the beauty place with open arms and curling irons, when women were banging down the doors of the American workplace, welcome or not?

I'd gaze into the mirrors at the back of some bearded fellow's head and wonder -- do they really want to be here? If so, why? Are they curious to see what we do behind closed doors? And is there no place else for them to go? Where have all the barbershops gone, anyway?

It occurs to me I'm being too harsh -- possibly a sign of my maladjustment to contemporary life. If I can't deal with men in the beauty shop, how will I deal with computers in the office? With old age? And so on?

Needing perspective, I sought the opinions of two friends. Tom the editor said he understood that women might see the beauty parlor as sanctuary. But when I pressed him on it, he tossed his styled mane and admitted no transgression. My feminist friend Marsha eyed me suspiciously and wanted to know if I really believed women could primp but men couldn't.

Still confused, I quit the neighborhood hair boutique, trekked downtown to pricey Elizabeth Arden, and paid $10 more for private (i.e., women only) hair care. Not a male customer in sight. They'd have to maneuver their way through all the lingerie, evening wear and make-up counters downstairs to find the hair salon on the second floor. No loud music. No wine. No pressure. Just pleasant banter with the hairdresser, John. Clearly a bastion of female prerogative.

Then one day it happened. A man found his way upstairs and sat down in a back corner with a brown plastic wrap around his neck.

"What's he doing here?" I asked John.

"He's here for a haircut."

"What? I thought you didn't allow men in here!"

"Shh. Not so loud. We have to. You know. Equal opportunity and all that."

John massaged mousse through my hair. The other hairdresser massaged mousse through Mr. GQ's hair.

"Listen, John," I whispered. "What if I were getting my hair streaked and you had me wrapped in aluminum spikes with dye dripping down my face? I do not want to be seen in public like that! This has nothing to to with equal opportunity. The subject is vanity."

Women have always been suspicious that men perform similar silly rituals to make themselves attractive to us. I would prefer not to be privy to these rituals. I have experienced humiliation in witnessing these rituals. Back at the neighborhood cuttery one day, I noticed a man having his hair dyed, and happened to glance into the mirror in front of him at exactly the moment he looked up, dye dripping down his face. It was the chairman of the board of my company.

Now this man aspired to a political career. And he did all the things that had to be done to achieve one, including, apparently, dying his hair. But in public? What does one say if one runs into the chairman of the board having his hair dyed? "How's the Harris project coming along?" Or, "Whaddya think of those Mets, sir?"

I assumed that even though he was in a unisex beauty parlor in the neighborhood where the company is located, he would not want to make small talk with an employe as Clairol Brownette dripped down his face. So I averted my eyes, did a 180

from the mirror and made a quick escape. The next month, he and I found ourselves standing in a small circle at a stockholders' meeting. Sure enough, his graying hair was now Clairol Brownette. And someone beside his hairdresser knew for sure. He escaped -- ne'er to speak to me again.

This is my secret wish: In some minor areas of life such as hair care, I would like to stop pretending there are no differences between the sexes. To use an antediluvian phrase, I would like to vive la difference. Let men go to barbershops and women go to beauty parlors. Separately. I think it would make for a happier life.

My feminist friend Marsha will probably disapprove. But that's all right. Anytime she wants, I'm sure she can sneak into the newly revived local barbershop and mousse around with my friend Raul.

Cecilia Cassidy is a free-lance writer living in Arlington.