When my hairstylist Katherine got married and quit her job in 2003, I felt abandoned. She’d been cutting my hair for three years. We never engaged in vapid gossip like I’ve done with other hairstylists. We talked about writing and even exchanged our poetry. Then, without warning, she was gone.
I wandered from one stylist to another, looking for something more profound than just a haircut. I wanted someone like Katherine, someone kindred. Then I found Heather. She laughed at my sarcasm and could translate into reality my bizarre descriptions of how I envisioned my hair. When she trimmed my long locks in 2005, I told her: “I’ve only ever liked two hairstylists. You and this girl Katherine who worked two blocks away.”
“What?” she said, scissors frozen mid-air. “That’s my sister!”
That was the first coincidence. At the time, we were both cohabitating with our boyfriends and dogs. We each sensed our relationships were about to end. After my ex and I split, I asked Heather to chop off six inches and add blonde highlights. “It’s my breakup cut,” I said.
“My boyfriend and I broke up, too!” Heather exclaimed.
While my hair grew, we began dating younger guys. We found their puppy-dog sweetness charming and joked about being cradle-robbers. Soon, I was a brunette again, and our young boyfriends each moved in with us. Tim proposed to me on my 30th birthday. Three months later, I discovered he had slept with another woman. I flung my sapphire engagement ring across the apartment and kicked him out.
Heather and Mike broke up, too, but got back together a few months later. I went a little wild and dyed my hair purple while she became more domestic. After five years, our concurrent paths diverged.
The next time I went in, for some Bettie Page bangs, Heather didn’t seem very spirited. She leaned close while draping a nylon cape around me. “Mike committed suicide,” she murmured.
My heart pounded. I flashed to the relationship I’d had before Tim, remembering how terrified I was that my boyfriend would kill himself.
Heather said she’d left during a fight and returned to find Mike hanging from a hinge in their bedroom. “I don’t think he meant it. I think he wanted to scare me,” she said.
When she told me about how his family blamed her, my skin prickled with rage. I knew then she was not just my amicable “Hairstylist Heather,” but a friend.
We’ve since dated guys with punctuality issues, then guys who swept us off our feet just to dump us soon after. We were born only two weeks apart, so we celebrate our birthdays every January at the same Mexican restaurant, swapping holiday war stories.
When she quit her salon four years ago, she cut my hair in my apartment. She lopped off two long braids to donate and shaped the rest into a short Louise Brooks bob.
Then she took a position at the salon directly across the street from the school where I teach. For three years, I could plunk myself into her chair at 3 p.m. and she’d tidy up my bangs and the nape of my neck in under 10 minutes.
I’ve been growing out my hair since an impetuous super-short pixie cut over a year ago. Heather refuses to layer my hair until it’s reached my shoulders. The dynamic between us is now reversed; she’s calling the shots. “It needs time,” she says. “Trust me.”
On a warm day in April, we drove up together to our Mexican place. We sat in the restaurant’s sunny back yard, drinking mezcal. As usual, our conversation failed the Bechdel test and turned to romance.
My relationship was foundering. “What’s wrong with these men?” Heather said with light-hearted exasperation.
“Do we attract bad behavior?” I asked. “I don’t get it. We’re so cool.”
We laughed and ordered guacamole.
A few drinks in, I finally told her the story that had rushed to my mind when she first mentioned Mike’s suicide. Soon after I met Heather, my then-boyfriend disappeared for six weeks. He’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but wasn’t medicated. He suffered a psychotic break and, convinced the cops were following him, trashed his phone at the Port Authority and took a bus cross-country to San Francisco, where he tried to kill himself by jumping in front of a bus. For six weeks, I had no idea where he was. I was spending hours at the police station, scouring the Web for clues, then trying to sleep before I had to teach. Eventually he called me from a hospital. Medicated, he was subdued, and I went to fetch him.
“Your poor body,” Heather said compassionately.
What an interesting response, but how accurate. The memory of those harrowing six weeks is visceral. My stomach’s acidic tightness, the all-encompassing exhaustion, my eyes swollen from crying. Heather understood it in her own muscle and bone.
I asked softly about Mike’s suicide. She finally told me about the jealousy and aggression he exhibited before the terrible night she found him dead.
“Your poor body!” I echoed, my heart tender for what she had experienced with Mike.
Sometimes when I’m teaching, I picture Heather across the street, chatting with clients, humming along to Portishead. It’s nice to know she’s there.
There’s an inherent intimacy in having someone’s hands in your hair. To entrusting them with scissors, razor and dye. But for me, it’s more than that.
Heather and I used to joke about what we must’ve done to deserve the things the universe has unleashed upon us. But when I sit in Heather’s chair and see our duplicates in the mirror, I know it’s not because I’ve done anything wrong. Heather endures her trials with nothing but humor and grace. She laughs more than most people I know. And if she’s not to blame, neither am I.
As I venture into the uncertain future, I know I will experience abounding happiness, exhilaration and probably more tragedies. And I know that no matter what, my hair will be on point.