It’s time for school pictures again. That means haircuts, which means considerable whining and negotiation. It’s a necessary chore, but the barber always makes it look easy.
“I could teach you how to do it yourself,” my own stylist told me. I just shook my head. If she only knew that my husband had the same thought 10 years ago. It just looks so darn easy. Each time he got a haircut, he took mental notes and calculated how much he was spending for the maintenance of a very basic hairstyle.
The day he came home with clippers happened to be our son’s fifth birthday. In fact, it was only an hour before we were due to leave for the party when he pulled out a black pouch with the word “Wahl” stamped on it and said, “Hey Laura, can you come here for a moment?”
That phrase almost always triggers an internal alarm in my head. When Shawn last uttered it, he’d mowed over a garden hose. For the fifth time. When our youngest, Ben, said it, he’d pulled the sink off the wall in our bathroom. (He’d been climbing it like a mountain goat.) When Ben’s teacher said it, Ben had pulled the bathroom sink off the wall in the boys’ room at school. (Again, he’d been climbing it like a mountain goat.)
So, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I watched Shawn sit on a stool in the kitchen, take off his shirt and hand me a shiny pair of electric clippers.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” I asked.
“It’s easy,” he said. “It’ll save so much money. Just do what the barber does — a one on the back, a three on top, and blend the sides with a two,” he said.
So I did.
I’m not going to lie: that first haircut was a bad one. It was lopsided. I was so nervous that I accidentally shaved what looked like the state of Vermont into the crown of his head. But he was thrilled that he no longer had to spend his lunch hour every third week at the barber.
“You’ll get better,” he assured me. And he showed off his free haircut at the party while I hid my face under a towel and slugged back a few margaritas until it all seemed a bit funnier.
I did get better. Well, marginally better. But he’s an easy cut because his hair is wildly curly and he likes it really short. That’s not the case with our kids’ hair. Andy’s is poker-straight, and cutting straight hair is quite different from buzzing curly hair.
Once, I came home from the store to find Shawn giving Andy a trim. He’d shaved off Andy’s bangs in an uneven line against his forehead, while leaving his sideburns untouched. The boy looked as though he’d been shorn by a raccoon. I rushed him to our regular barber, who did her best to cover Shawn’s tracks, but Andy’s head took on a rhomboid appearance that no amount of skill could fully correct. Before we left, she ordered me never to leave the kids alone with their dad and a pair of clippers again.
She should have extended that warning to the kids cutting their dad’s hair, because I’ve walked in on that, too. One day when Shawn was feeling particularly overgrown and I was at a meeting, he got out the clippers and asked our then-9-year-old to give him a trim. When I got home, there stood Andy, excited that his father had trusted him with a haircut. And there stood Shawn, with three bald spots on the top of his skull.
He told me Andy had done such a good job and genuinely meant it. He was so proud that the boy had been up for the challenge, and he whispered to me that it would grow back. I agreed it was important to instill confidence in our son, but I couldn’t help but wonder why this esteem-building exercise had to revolve around an electrified hair saw.
To avoid a repeat disaster, every third week, I alone would cut Shawn’s hair. In turn, he promised to leave the children out of the process and let me take them to a proper barber. He received the same haircut from me every time, and everything settled into routine. And then one day, Shawn found his way onto YouTube.
“Look at this!” he shouted from his desk. “It’s a video on how to do a fade.”
“A fade?” I asked. “What is that?” He showed me a photo, and it looked exactly like the cut I was already giving him. Short on the sides, longer on the top and blended. Apparently, the difference was in the technique.
“The guy in the video said it’s really easy,” he said. “I like this haircut. You can follow the YouTube instructions, step-by-step.”
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“I don’t want to,” I said. But he told me what a great job I always do, how I’ve never given him a bad cut (the man is either devoted or deluded), and that he knew I would nail it on the first try. And when someone has that level of confidence in you and pumps you up so heartily, you start to believe that yes, maybe you can give him a perfect fade on the first shot. After all, that yokel on YouTube did it.
I watched that yokel on YouTube. I watched him give the cut to his buddy, and then I watched him do the cut on himself. And the more I watched it, the more I agreed that the process seemed simple and easy. I even got a little excited that I was taking Shawn’s regular cut up a notch. This wasn’t just some nameless buzz job; it was a fade. The same thing that they were doing in Stradwick’s Fade Cave, downtown.
Thus, brimming with confidence of my own, I sat him down on a kitchen stool and laid out my tools.
“Now, press the edge of the clippers into my hair to make a starting line above my ears and go around,” he instructed. So I did. I made a semi-circle around his head to designate the spot where I’d do the fading. He wanted it totally shaved on the sides, so I didn’t use a guard.
Then I began to remove all the hair from the lower part of his head. It wasn’t poetry, but I understood the basic idea. Next, I attached a number three guard to the clippers and began hacking away at the hair higher up. Finally, I put on a number two guard and began to blend what was left. As the hair fell away and pale skin of his scalp began to show, I noticed it actually wasn’t so much white as it was red. Not sunburn red, exactly. More a shade of crimson. It was pretty damp, too.
“Uh,” I said. “I think you’re bleeding.”
“I doubt it,” he said, as I looked closely.
“No, you’re really bleeding.”
“I didn’t feel anything,” he said. “Did you nick me?”
I hesitated and examined the oozing red ribbon that ran all the way around the back of his head, from his left temple to his right. The blood started to come a little faster and ran down his neck.
I said, “Well, it’s a little worse than a nick.”
Before I go any farther, know that my husband’s a bit of a bleeder. He clots, but not efficiently. If I cut my finger, it bleeds for 37 seconds. If he cuts his finger, it bleeds for a day and a half, and that’s not hyperbole.
So yes — technically, I slashed a homicidal horseshoe into my spouse’s skull, but the tiny geysers of blood erupting from his tender head made it look worse than it actually was. I mean, it’s not like he was going to bleed out in the kitchen. He did clot. Eventually.
In the moment, though, I was horrified by what I’d done. To make it worse, we were headed to an appointment with one of the kids’ doctors. I know pediatric specialists are trained to look for signs of parental abuse, but what sort of action does one take when the kid’s mother has clearly been performing some kind of Dr. Frankenstein reanimation stuff on her husband?
To his credit, Shawn was as calm about my blunder as he had been when Andy shaved him a trio of bald spots and when I’d given him that first terrible butchering.
“It’s OK,” he said. “It’s not noticeable. You didn’t do a bad job.” And he actually thanked me.
“It looks like I’ve taken your brain out!” I wailed, as he tried on hat after hat to find one that came down far enough to cover the lacerations. None did.
Everywhere he went for a few days, people stared.
“The wife tried to extract my brain,” he’d explain in elevators and checkout lines. He thought it was hilarious. And in the end, I had to give him credit for knowing what’s important in life and what’s just worth chuckling about. A bad haircut is temporary; family is forever. Just this morning he asked if I was ready to give him another buzz.
I said no. The day I carved up my spouse like a pumpkin in our kitchen was the day I hung up my shears. Nobody in this house is allowed to cut anybody’s hair unless they’ve been licensed by the state of West Virginia to do so.
That includes dog grooming, too. But that’s a story I’m not quite ready to tell.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is an environmental writer and humorist in Wheeling, West Virginia. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Chatham University and serves as the Northern Panhandle representative of West Virginia Writers. Her hobbies include hiking, travel and rescuing homeless dogs. Visit her at laurajacksonroberts.com.