act in haste, repent at leisure: a cautionary tale in four haircuts

They say talking to houseplants helps them grow faster. I want to know: does this work on hair? I’m cajoling it, pleading with it. Occasionally my words turn threatening.

fabric scissors needle needles scissors
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It started innocently enough–just a gateway trim at the place down the street. Four cuts later, I have battle scars, bad memories, and a deep distrust of salons.

Be careful–I beseech you–who you let near your hair.

My parents are visiting, sharing Clara and almond croissants with me for a few weeks. I take the opportunity one morning near the end of their visit to slip out and get a haircut. New year, new me. I’m hoping to rediscover the chic lob I had senior year of college.

I’ve booked an appointment through an app. The place was rated highly, but it’s shabby, with hair all over the floor, despite the fact that I seem to be the only customer. The stylist pops her gum and looks at me listlessly.

“Have a seat.”

A half hour later (the fastest haircut I’ve ever had), I’m staring at my reflection in a dirty mirror. It’s not shocking–I still have lots of hair–but the cut is too blunt, not the most flattering angles. It doesn’t hang well, but I still look like me.

II

A few days later, I hop off the metro with Dad and pop into a salon chain to see if they have a minute to thin out my hair and improve the last cut, nothing major. A tall, friendly woman ushers me to a seat and gives me the once-over.

“Oh lala. Who cut your hair?” She asks.

“Oh, some lady…” I don’t know what to say. “We just moved here.”

“Mon dieu…I’d say she cut it with her eyes closed.” The woman shakes her head.

The back is totally uneven, she tells me, and it’s all too blunt. The cut doesn’t work with my face. She tells me I look like a Playmobil.

A few minutes later, I am walking down the street with a spring in my step and a next-day appointment with Blandine for a complete hair overhaul. I greatly prefer her frankness to the apathy of the first stylist. She’s got a plan.

III

Blandine is snipping away furiously. She’s not slowing down. It’s looking okay, and hey, she clearly has a vision–but then–she keeps going, cutting off more and more hair until I’m cringing at every snip. It seems like too much, but I won’t be able to tell until it’s done. When she gives my hair a final pass with the blowdryer, I don’t know what to say.

“Voilà! This is a vast improvement. Perfect for your face shape.”

My face must resemble Paul McCartney’s, because this shag haircut would be right at home on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

My hair is shorter than ever before in my life, and she has cut about ten layers into my former all-one-length style. This haircut has attitude, a mind of its own. I like my hair to submit to my will, not the other way around. This haircut defies gravity. I look like one of those pouting, dated ladies on a tacky salon poster. I yearn for one hour earlier, when I was a Playmobil.

Blandine is pleased with her work. She shows me off to everybody in the salon, deriding my former appearance and talking about the miracle she just worked. Okay lady, it wasn’t that bad. People compliment the cut, but I detect surprise in their eyes. I just smile back sheepishly, yearning for the privacy of my own bathroom, where I can take stock of the damage.

“You’re not the same person!” she says. “Your husband won’t recognize you!”

I think she’s right. (New year, new me, indeed.)

I have a good husband, however, a kind husband. He assures me I’m beautiful.

I tell him I appreciate it but I really think I look like Paul McCartney.

He bursts out laughing. From time to time he walks past whistling “Yellow Submarine.”

IV

This time Victor makes the appointment. Traditionally, he’s much better at research. He says this place looks classe and it’s worth a try. My family walks me to the salon and  continues on to get groceries. I feel badly to have usurped our plans with my hair. Four times. Then again, it will end naturally soon enough. I don’t have much left.

Giacomo from Rome has longish salt-and-pepper hair and a serious face. He’s exactly who you want on your side in a crisis. He rushes me over to a chair. I don’t need to explain.

“Non, c’est pas bien,” he says in his low, quiet voice. “This is all wrong. The person who did this didn’t consider the texture of your hair. C’est pas possible.

He tells me it’s going to have to get even shorter, but he’s going to do a Vidal Sassoon-inspired thing. I am slightly cheered by the notion that something stylish might still be possible. It is clear Giacomo knows what he’s doing. He cuts hair like Michelangelo sculpting the David.

When he’s finished I want to kiss him but settle for a firm handshake. I tell him I no longer have the envie to hide under a rock.

“Don’t hesitate to come back if you have the least trouble,” he says.

I do have the least trouble. Styling it proves complicated, as I am not a swarthy Italian with flawless instincts. At least I am not too embarrassed to leave the house. At least I am not a Playmobil.

le retour

I wasn’t expecting my first week back from Christmas vacation to be filled with joie. 

Le retour is always difficult, and here there were two: the return from vacation, back to life in small-town France, and the return to teaching.

My first day back didn’t deserve to go so well. I’ve been there before. This time, though, I made the opposite mistake. Instead of turning up a day early, staring into an empty school like a lost freshman on the first day, I almost…didn’t show up at all.

I had planned for Wednesday. Wednesday I could do. It was Monday. I deep-cleaned my room, organized the kitchen, went on an epic grocery expedition, did my laundry. I eschewed nothing but lesson plans, which were to be Tuesday’s focus.

Another morning to sleep in, tranquille. And then I heard a voice from the next room. Mary said slowly, “I think we work tomorrow. Let me show you why I think that.” She had seen something online.

My heart dropped to my toes. I was ready to protest, but instead I rifled through my things with a manic energy for the deceptively casual paper I had again forgotten to consult: my work schedule for the year.

Retour : mardi le 3 janvier. 

Tomorrow. What a nice start to the new year that would have been: unintentionally playing hooky.

My neat, comfortable little plans flew out the window. The stress I felt doubled, which, unfortunately, had no affect on my productivity. What would I teach these children, all 250 of them? What could I plan with no plan? It was going to be ugly.

I procrastinated most of the day, did the faintest bit of preparation, and found myself at 10 pm before an early morning waiting for my glossy manicure to dry as I watched a Patrick Swayze movie.

I walked into school the next morning like a prisoner to the gallows.

My mood was lifted, though, as one teacher after another came up to me and wished me a bonne année. These wishes were surprisingly warm, not a throwaway “happy new year” but rather a list of meilleurs vœux: good health and good luck and a bon séjour in France, all delivered with a genuine smile. I was offered various pâtisserie and asked in detail about how I spent the holidays.

And then to class, the first of seven that day. After a ten-minute rocky start in which I wondered if I had completely forgotten how to teach, I got my groove back and managed to keep it up with every class: from the wriggling six-year-olds to the super-competitive fourth-graders.

Teaching feels to me like an athletic event. It reminds me of when I played tennis in high school. During long, tough matches, I would often manage to get in “the zone,” running after every surprise drop shot with energy I didn’t know I had. Sweat was running down my face but I just cared about the next point.

Teaching is like that. I may be exhausted, with the beginnings of a killer headache throbbing at my temples, but I stand up to start a new lesson and all of that slides away. When I get home I may crash, but in the moment I’m too busy solving the dozens of little conflicts that arise when working with children to think about myself for one second.

It’s kind of invigorating.

I was worried that two weeks away from the job would undo some of the progress I’d made, but it turned out to be a perfect refresh. The lessons, as a whole, went more smoothly than ever before, and I realized I’d really missed those French baby faces.

It’s kind of a relief to have a good start to the year. January to me usually feels like November Part II: the chill of winter without Christmas lights or anticipation. January is malaise, ennui, and other bleak French words. January is a good month for a crisis: existential or quarter-life, take your pick.

This week I saw a cartoon by an illustrator I like, Gemma Correll. She’s jokingly designed a paint palette for January, shades that range from gray to black with names like “Forgotten Joy,” “Frozen Puddle,” and “Broken Light Therapy Box.”

That’s how I might describe the “light” outside my window most days this week here in Montluçon, and most years, how I would describe my hibernal attitude.

But this year is different. It feels good to be working instead of pacing around the house and eating butter cookies on the too-long college break (though I do miss morning coffee and crosswords with my parents).