Tea or water

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 2:12pm

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Christine Jegarl/Daily

Whenever I realize I need a haircut, it always takes me a few days to get around to booking it. First, because I always have something to do and often forget, but also because it takes a certain amount of courage for me to decide that I want to go to a place where I will be expected to make small talk with a stranger.

Growing up, I always got my haircut with the same person. My mom’s best friend. We went to her house, I told her how to cut my hair and then she and my mom talked while I sat quietly, getting layers or bangs or whatever the style was that I felt like experimenting with, which almost always ended up being mostly the same, but a little different — anything to make me feel innovative.

My taste for safe innovation extends to my social interactions. Small talk is not bad as long as I am free to leave whenever I deem the conversation over. Strangers are not bad as long as there is a possibility that we will eventually move on from small talk onto something less circular. But being forced to have endless small talk with a stranger, while being stuck on a rotating chair? That’s a no from me.

The entire experience is curated. The moment I open the door, I am hit by the smell of a perfectly pungent lavender eucalyptus oil, and then I turn and make eye contact with the receptionist. She smiles as if she’s known me for years and asks my name. “Did you have an appointment?” she says, her voice trailing off as she looks for my name in the system and some indecipherable last name matches her search.

“Would you like some water or tea?” she asks. I say tea and she turns to get it, but another customer is already at the door. She promptly forgets her offer and goes on with her day searching names on a computer, offering tea and smiling to an endless flow of strangers.

When my stylist comes downstairs and calls my name, I realize she was the woman who cut my hair last time I was here a few months ago. However, she greets me again like a stranger, says her name and locks my eyes with hers in a more-than-brief moment.

Once she seated me in the chair, my cape on and hair wet, she asks me again if I would like some tea or water. I say tea again, and minutes later she comes back with a mug of room temperature water, explaining they have just run out of tea. I say it is ok and she proceeds to cut my hair in silence.

With every cut I expect her to initiate a conversation, but she never does. I’m secretly grateful and pull out my phone, but her head placement directions quickly prove scrolling impossible. Then, with no other options and a lot of intrinsic curiosity, I start looking at and listening to what is going on around me.

The music playing overhead is happy but unrecognizable over the myriad of voices and hair dryers functioning on the floor. After a second of silence, while the queue organizes itself, I hear a customer behind me recognize and start singing the new song playing through the speakers.

“Uh, let's go to the beach, each…”

“Let’s go get away.” The stylist continues while swaying his hips but keeping his steady hands at bay. I recognize the song too, a 2012 hit I remember from high school dances. Suddenly, from my omnipresent mirror that somehow, through one reflection or other, can observe almost everyone in the room, I see heads bobbing, mouths moving and feet tapping to the song.

“Starships were meant to fly.”

The customer behind me gets more excited as the chorus comes for the first time; “Hands up and touch the sky,” she sings. I can tell the words came out louder than she intended because she and her stylist let out a nervous laugh afterwards.

In the station next to me, the stylist, whose name remains a mystery, as she is referred to differently by almost every person who addresses her, has a light up crystal plugged in at her station for “good vibes.” She is cutting another girl’s hair while talking about her own engagement and Netflix habits.

“My fiancé and I just started watching ‘Breaking Bad,’” she says. “It is such a good show, but depending on what kind of shows you’re into.”

Thanks to my mirror, I can also see a girl and her stylist working away two rows behind me. I am not sure how I can hear them, but they’re talking about the woman’s love life.

“He’s 38 and I am 23,” the girl says. “I kind of like the age difference. It has never been a huge problem.”

The stylist’s eyes widen as he registers his customer’s situation and then he says something along the lines of giving her a discount on a blow out, for extra confidence on her date with an older man.

Next to them is a stylist with an older customer, seemingly the oldest in the salon. Her hair is short and gray and her face is beautifully drawn in with wrinkles. I can’t piece together what she is saying, but her lips never stop moving and her and her stylist let out a laugh once in a while. She leaves before me, with a perfectly inert and spiky pixie cut.

My hair is being dried now, and my stylist asks if I have a preference on how to style it. I say no and she proceeds to dry and curl my hair to her liking. By this time, I can already feel the hairs that, despite the cape, got stuck to my neck and sweater. As a distraction, I continue to let my ears and eyes wander into other stylists’ stations.

The customer who loves “Starships” is gone and a long-haired, brunette, middle-aged woman has replaced them. The stylist has gone to fetch her tea and she sits on her chair talking on an old flip phone.

“I think you should buy the chicken for tonight,” she talks into the phone. “I will probably be here for another hour. Would it be too much to ask? The store is on your way back.”

My hair is almost all curled now and my stylist remains quiet, biting her lip every time she takes a new strand onto the curling wand. It just started snowing outside and I hear one or two people comment on the weather in the background. I let my imagination fill in the gaps between the conversations.

The girl with the blow out went on a date with the 38-year-old man and she discovered he was married. The woman and her fiancé finished “Breaking Bad” and started binging “Game of Thrones” in their gold and teal decorated living room. The brunette lady’s significant other didn’t only buy the chicken, but they also cooked it and served it with accompanying romantic candles and chocolate cake for dessert.

I exit the salon with a slightly crooked bob and new bangs, but also with a found love for haircuts and a few semi-imaginary, new acquaintances.