Steve Axelrod got a haircut. And what people say to him about it—or don’t say—says it all.
I got a haircut a few days ago. I do it twice a year, whether I need to or not. I go to the most expensive barber on the island, who also happens to be the best. I’ve known him for twenty five years—I painted his salon, back in the nineties. We catch up, and chat about local news and ten minutes later I’m out sixty dollars but I feel five pounds lighter and look ten years younger, and after a shave and a shower, I’m ready to face the world. I know customers prefer the well groomed professional presentation to the ‘deranged homeless guy’ look I tend to acquire in the fifth month away from a haircut. So that’s all good. But this time I noticed something else.
The haircut creates a stunningly accurate litmus test for my attraction—or lack of it—to the opposite sex. It has to do with what they say, and more to the point, what they don’t say. Let me be clear: it’s a drastic change of appearance and by any standard I look much better now. I might not look good, I’ve never thought of myself as particularly good-looking…but the improvement is pretty much objective. So the question becomes: who comments on it, who doesn’t, and why.
Women over sixty generally take a semi-maternal satisfaction in the change, which is related to my daughter’s prim irritable amused relief when I finally “lose the mullet” in her acid phrase.
But it’s the other women, the ones I might be interested in, the ones who might be interested in me, who show their feelings most clearly in that first newly shorn moment. An unspectacularly pretty, very nice and helpful, forty-ish mother of two who works at the bank flirted openly with me about my improved appearance yesterday, and I flirted back, and some low-grade electrical connection was made, some simple atavistic communication that might be put into words as: “I find you reasonably desirable in a neutral manner which we both know will never be acted upon; but the brief flicker of animal connection brightens the humdrum day.” Other women, closer to my age, are willing to be more frank: “looking good!” one might say or “Wow, that is a great haircut.”
But just when I might be feeling a jaunty spark of self-satisfaction, I cross paths with the twenty-something barista I banter with from time to time over the steamed milk and espresso. Am I attracted to her? Of course. You would have to be profoundly damaged, mentally or physically or both, not to find this girl attractive. Is she attracted to me? I always wondered, but of course I know better: if you think a woman “might just be” into you, she isn’t. Hard to accept, I know, but it’s an ironclad law: if there’s any question at all, the answer is no. In my experience, women make it stunningly obvious when they really are interested. I remember painting a house with my dashing ladies-man pal, and listening as he talked to the gorgeous cleaning girl who was working on the job. “My car broke down again,” He confessed. “Oooo,” she responded,. “What a bummer. I hate it when that happens. Did you fix it yourself? You look like the type who can just fix things with his hands.” He went on: “Worst part is, the trunk lock is jammed and I got a pile of rotting bluefish in there.” “Wow,” she gushed. “Really? You’re a fisherman too? I think that is so cool, being out on the water, no boss, like a pioneer kind of, you know? Doing a physical job like that.”
Just as an experiment, I said, “Hey, that lottery ticket paid off. It looks like I’m gonna win ten million dollars.”
Her chilly, dismissive response, without missing a beat:
”My boyfriend says money is the root of all evil.”
Of course women never use the ‘boyfriend’ ploy around someone they’re interested in, so I had tricked her into a calamitous admission. But she covered perfectly, turning back to my friend and confiding in a sultry whisper, “We have an open relationship.”
I got the message; so did my friend. But it turns out there are more subtle, non-verbal ways of communicating the same information.
That’s where the haircut comes in.
I went for coffee yesterday, after leaving the bank, and found myself alone with my favorite barista, We gossiped about some local scandals, praised the unseasonable weather, jeered at various loony politicians, shared book and movie recommendations. Then I paid for my latte, grabbed the cup and left.
Not a word about the haircut. And she noticed: I saw the slight widening of her eyes as she registered the change in my appearance, the flicker of a smile tamped down as you might step on an errant coal that popped out of the fireplace onto the rug. The decision was instantaneous, feral, maybe even subconscious; but the intent was clear. To comment on my hair would be to indicate—even in a neutral, non-suggestive, bank-teller-ish way—that she felt some speck of attraction, a message I would pick up instantly, leading to what? You name it, anywhere along the scale from some stupid embarrassing comment to an appallingly inappropriate invitation, all the way down to the dreaded stalker scenarios. It doesn’t take much of a spark to cause a fire in the tinderbox wood frame houses we live in around here, and once a fire is out of control, everyone gets burned.
It was a sobering rebuke, bitter as cold coffee, but informative and clarifying—like that unguarded glimpse at a mirror that confounds your twenty-years-out-of-date body image. But you can diet and exercise to close that gap. You can flay yourself into a slimmer physique, correct your posture, work your muscles, watch your carbohydrates.
This other problem, this being absolutely and unanswerably too old for the cute barista, and all the other girls like her, and all the extinct world of possibilities embodied in that unshared flash of desire?
There’s nothing to be done about that.
Except possibly…reconsider the semi-annual haircut.
When it comes to the dose of stark reality your new appearance reflects back at you from all those fresh, lovely ever more distant and unreachable faces…once a year is enough.
Photo, courtesy of author.
Originally published on Open Salon