By K. McGee
After I explain in my halting Japanese what I want, the woman in black has one question: “Would you prefer a man or a woman?” I pause to run her question through my head and then tell her it doesn’t matter. She waves me into a chair and breezes away.
I have chosen this salon by walking away from my apartment toward the main boulevard, determined to enter the first place I notice, like jumping from a plane.
The one I find is named “Mod’s,” conjuring Beatlemania and go-go boots. Perched on the second floor, it is surprisingly spacious for Tokyo. The glass front of the shop overlooks University Avenue with its 140-year-old university, its galleries and thrift shops, and its miles of old cherry and gingko trees. Dramatic in every season, right now the trees are in full leaf, sturdy survivors providing a dense green awning over the brick walk.
Inside Mod’s it is starkly white—white walls, white furniture and white floor tiles—with mirrors everywhere. Maybe I should have walked another block. There’s a small salon called “Aphrodite” tucked into a narrow basement a few blocks away. Maybe I’m more of an Aphrodite than a Mod.
I am pondering escape when the receptionist returns, a young man in tow. At first glance he could pass for one of my college students, but he’s slicker than my students, his hair sharply asymmetrical, his black clothes fitted and creaseless. The receptionist introduces him as Mr. Asano. He offers a flimsy smile and an excruciatingly formal greeting. He leads me across the room to a station next to the glass wall.
“Would you like to change into a gown or will this cape suffice?” he asks.
I sense the right choice is the gown, but I’m impatient to get this over with, so I opt for the cape. Once covered, I sit in the high chair facing the mirror.
Asano hands me a magazine full of hairstyles. “Can you please show me the style you have in mind?”
So the receptionist didn’t understand, or else hadn’t bothered to explain to Asano. Or maybe Asano just doesn’t believe her.
I suppose my request is unusual. Plus I’m a foreigner, my Japanese poor enough to confuse natives. And even now, after a week of watching hair clog the shower drain and come out in clumps in my brush, I still have plenty left. It is thick and curly and past my shoulders.
I’ve been imagining that scene from G.I. Jane for weeks, the one where long-haired Demi Moore enters a barbershop after her first day of Navy SEALS training, picks up the electric clippers, turns to the mirror and shaves her head while Chrissie Hynde belts out “The Homecoming.” The song is playing in my head as I look up from the magazine to meet the gaze of Asano in the mirror. I point to a picture of a man with a short haircut. “Like this,” I say. “Very short.”
“No problem,” he says in one of those standard “customer is always right” phrases, and shows me a little white case for my glasses. I take them off and set the case on the white counter, where it blends so well it disappears. My face in the mirror grows vague but I can still see the salon behind me clearly.
“Let’s wash your hair,” he says, waving toward the row of sinks in the middle of the room.
“I just washed it.”
“Yes, but a shampoo is required before cutting.”
I follow him meekly across the room to the row of white sinks. Asano takes his time, asking if the water temperature is comfortable and if there is any place in particular that needs attention. He shampoos and rinses my head, giving my scalp a thorough massage. His hands pause abruptly for a moment during the first rinse and I wonder if he’s watching the clumps of hair circling the drain. The second shampoo and rinse is gentler. I grow sleepy as I wonder how much this haircut will cost. Not that it matters. I won’t need another one for a long time.
Asano drapes a towel over my head and ushers me back to my seat near the window. In the mirror I can see two black-clad stylists across the room, huddled in low discussion. One of them turns her head and glances in our direction. A moment later they drift quietly out of sight.
Asano combs and sections my wet hair, clipping most of it to the top of my head.
“Have you seen the movie GI Jane?” I ask him.
“Sorry? No, I haven’t seen it.”
It probably has a different title in Japan, something like “Girl Soldier.” Or maybe he’s not a Demi Moore fan. “I was thinking . . . are you going to use clippers?”
“Sure.” He nods. “After a while.”
He looks nervous as he picks up the scissors. I wonder if I’ve used the right word for electric clippers. I should have looked it up before I charged out of my apartment on a mission. I probably asked him if he was going to electrocute me. I’d thought about buying clippers and doing this alone, but I don’t know where to buy them, and besides, I would only use them once.
Asano begins cutting. Dark curls hit the floor. I look out the window at the trees. I think about my father, the ultimate stoic. He died of cancer a few months ago. I didn’t tell him my own news.
I think about my daughter. She is across town celebrating the end of her sophomore year in high school with a series of overnights and parties. She will be relieved that I’ve gone ahead with the haircut, I think. I wonder if it will scare her, seeing me bald. She lost her other parent two years ago, so I’m the last she has.
My cheeks are dripping, tears running steadily down my face, as I stare at the lush tops of trees. I cry easily these days. It could be a side effect of chemotherapy, except I cried the day the oncologist told me I would need chemo as well as radiation. I hate crying in public. I want to be stoic like my father and like most Japanese of my generation. There is no reason for self-pity. I have good doctors, I am getting good care, my chances are good. Good, good, good. My friend Elaine had breast cancer twice in her thirties. Twenty years later she is still an over-achieving dynamo. Think of Elaine, I tell myself as I wipe at my face with the back of my hand. Asano clips away with the concentration of a neurosurgeon.
“Could I get some tissues, please?” I ask.
“Yes, of course, just a moment.”
By the time Asano has returned, I’ve spotted another group of black-clad figures in the mirror. One of them leads to a sink a middle-aged woman in a red gown with “MOD’S” printed across her chest. Three other stylists stand together, determinedly not looking in my direction.
Asano unclips another section. The floor is now covered with curls, but he’s still only cut the lower third of my hair. If he took the clips out, my head would feel lighter, but it would look more or less like it always does.
My tears have stopped as suddenly as they started. I feel a burst of impatience as I watch Asano measure the ends for evenness. “It’s all going to be gone in a week or two,” I want to tell him. “Just get on with it.” Instead I tell myself to be patient. It’s not like there’s some other place I have to be.
My friend Tomoko told me once, “We Japanese love to wait. If we see a long line, we get into it and then find out what everyone is waiting for.”
I let out a long breath and imagine myself sitting at the window in the hospital room at St. Luke’s, watching boats glide past on the river below. The room costs $300 a day. I’ve spent a few peaceful weeks there recently. The nurses are friendly and the food is gentle and bland. Sometimes I long to return.
Behind me the customer in the red gown rises from her shampoo, a towel wrapped around her head. Against all the white of the salon she looks like a bull’s eye on a target. She glances at me and her face flashes with fear. Maybe she’s afraid Mod’s has a policy of giving middle-aged women crew cuts. Or maybe it’s just a visceral response to seeing any woman so thoroughly shorn.
Asano has progressed to the top sections. He is meticulously measuring and combing. Finally he takes a half step back and meets my gaze in the mirror. “How’s this length?” he asks.
I grope for the little case on the counter and put my glasses on. He has tried to give me a style by leaving it long enough to curl on top. I shake my head. “Still too long. I’m sorry.”
“No, no. That’s fine.” The scissors come back out as he moves in. Still no clippers.
In the mirror I can see another gaggle of stylists. There are four of them now. News of the Foreigner Who Would Be Bald has obviously spread. The other customer is out of sight, no doubt being reassured in some far corner.
“How’s this?” Asano asks.
I’ve left the glasses on and my reflection is clear. My throat tightens as I try to smile. The egg-like shape of my skull, the long forehead, the slant of my eyebrows . . . it is my father in the mirror now. I run my hand over the top of my head. My hair is about a half an inch long. My head feels like its floating above my body, and the air conditioner blows against my newly bared nape, sending chills down my arms. I wish I had a scarf to wrap around my neck.
“It’s fine,” I say.
Asano leads me to the sinks for another thorough shampoo, then back to his station. As we move across the room, I turn and glance behind me. Five black-clad stylists turn their backs.
The blow drier comes out. Usually driers make my curls frizz and turn my head into a big mushroom cloud. Today what hair I have left dries in seconds and the comb travels through it effortlessly. I can tell Asano thinks there should be something more he can do.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I won’t have hair until next fall. Perhaps then . . . “
Asano nods and whips out a business card. “Please come see me again in the fall.”
After a few disastrous haircuts many years ago, I’ve learned to be wary of salons in Japan. Most can’t seem to deal with my fine hair and curls. But my oncologist says my hair may come back straight. Chemo changes you in unexpected ways.
I reach for my purse, find the cloth cap I brought, and pull it over my head. It is purple and green. The rim cuts my long forehead in half. My father’s face recedes, and I recognize my own. I adjust it on my head. “How’s that?” I say.
Asano nods and flashes a wide smile for the first time. The lines in his face make him look older. “Good,” he says. “It looks good.”
He walks with me to the desk where I pay. The receptionist takes my money but won’t look me in the eye. Asano accompanies me outside to the patio. We bow and thank each other. His Japanese is no longer as formal as when we met. I descend the stairs, leaving Mod’s behind, returning to the welcoming shelter of the trees.