The boy’s mother is sick and has lost all her hair. In solidarity, he decides to cut his off too. He thinks this is the least a son can do for a sick mother. The first person he tells is his girlfriend of one year. I’m going to donate my hair to my mother, he says, and is worried to see tears rise in her eyes. She had told him soon after they met that the first thing she liked about him was his shoulder-length hair, how it lay wild and free on top of his head, caused people on the street to glance back at them when they walked anywhere together. The boy worries that she is actually horrified at the idea of him cutting off his hair. But it’s my mother, he thinks to himself, it’s my choice. Before he can make a case the girl, a nice girl from a middle-class family who knows how to drop meaningful hints coyly (my parents are looking for a boy for me) finally says, I think cutting your hair for aunty would be a wonderful thing to do.
The mother is in bed with the smooth baldness of her newly shaved scalp, a scarf loosely draped across her neck. She does not know her son has gone to donate his hair, and is not the sort of mother who would approve if she did know. She does not believe one person being ill is the reason for another to act ill. And anyway, if she did know, she would have had enough faith in the girl to stop her son. She likes the girl. She thinks she is a good choice for her son, and maybe in a few years they will marry but the mother does not know if she will be alive for the wedding. A pure-cut line of steel runs through the mother and she knows the world moves on and on, so there is no need for theatrics, no need really for anything while she is so tired and in bed, staring up at the ceiling for hours on end, something she has only recently discovered is strangely meditative. Odd now to think that when her husband built the house she found the textured cream paint a little creepy, even said so to him then, The texture is a little creepy, a statement which the husband in his usual overbearing style, overrode. But now she understands why he chose the paint, maybe. It’s easy for her to fall asleep while trying to follow the pattern it makes on the ceiling.
The salon is unisex. The boy and girl unclasp their hands when they enter and the boy explains at the counter what he wants. He says, I want to make sure my hair can be donated. His hair is tied up in the usual bun and he loosens it when he talks so the curls fall to his shoulders. I want it to be a wig for my mother. The woman behind the counter calls her associate’s name and they descend on the boy and touch his head gently, with some sadness, as if he is their pet and they are about to say goodbye. Behind them, the girl stands with her own long, straight hair shining down her back, almost down to her knees. She rubs her arms as if she is cold, feels herself rising to the middle of this story and floating in the very center of it.
The husband watches the wife sleep. The house is nicest whenever she is asleep because he worries less about her and knows for a fact that she is resting, and for a little while at least he manages to forget that she is dying. This is more bearable than watching her lie awake and worry about dying. The husband is unsure if he has loved anyone in his life, at least in the way he thought he would love when he was younger, but now he thinks that maybe this is what love is supposed to be; you build a life around a person and when they threaten to go, you worry and worry that they will take you with them. If this is it, then he would prefer to go back to being a stranger to his wife.
The hairdresser winds his fingers through the boy’s hair. He stretches out the curls, wets them with a spray bottle and combs through the hair with his fingers again. The boy looks at the man’s face. Will it be possible? he asks. The man tries hard to look matter-of-fact, I’m sorry, he says, your hair has to be at least twelve inches long when the length is taken from the nape of your neck.
The girl feels her heart squeeze. The thing is – the thing is, she knows already that she wants to be with the boy, and while mostly her heart is compassionate for his family, some part of her is also thinking about how to make sure the boy will stay with her, This is my time, she thinks. The boy is nineteen years old this year, and like most nineteen-year-old boys seems not to know what he is doing and the girl is worried. She is eighteen, almost nineteen, and most of her friends are dating the men they believe they will marry. Surely a man she is here for right now in the most impossible moment of his life will want her by his side forever, the girl thinks. She rearranges her face so that it resembles a scissor, like something about to cut herself or the boy, and says, I’ll do it. The boy looks at the girl’s hair and says, You don’t have to do this, but it is weak. They switch chairs and the hairdresser is swishing the towel around the girl’s neck and spraying her hair with water and tying it in a ponytail at the nape of her neck.
Are you ready? he asks and she nods. Then he cuts it all off in two quick strokes. She closes her eyes for a second, but really she feels like a saint. She feels quite amazing, as if she has finally transcended petty relationships and is now in the midst of the truest, greatest love she is capable of.
The watching boy realizes he has made a big mistake. She looks terrible.
The wife does not open her eyes even though she feels she must get up soon to cook. She drifts in and out of consciousness during the day and the night, which the doctor had said was quite common at their last appointment, but even so it is easy to imagine that she will be better after this day passes. Maybe even in a few moments. I would love daal chawal, she says sleepily, actually wanting to get up and make it herself but her husband sitting by her side stands quickly. If you’ll just go back to sleep, he pleads, I’ll make it for you. He heads to the kitchen and pulls down the lentils from the top cupboard, pulls out the rice and looks at the two things for a moment. He wishes for a second that his son was home. It would be so lovely to have him here, both of them healthy and men, which sometimes feels like the natural order of things or if not the natural order of things at least some order of things.
The girl feels freer with the short hair. The hairdresser has not let the cut hair fall to the ground. He is still holding it in his fist so it descends like a black ribbon toward the floor. It can’t touch the floor, he says, that’s a no-no for wigs. We’ll send it away and they’ll mail you the wig in a week. The girl looks in the mirror at the boy’s face and he seems ashen, absolutely wrecked, and again the girl feels triumphant. This is it, she thinks, what a small sacrifice for him to fall in love with me! The girl bargains in her head all the time about the boy – if I do this he will do that, and if I do that he will do this – so sometimes it can feel like he is lodged like a small, sharp rock in her head. The haircut has made his presence in her head lighter, as if a little bit of him has also been cut away with her hair.
The hairdresser puts the hair on a shelf, labels it with the boy’s mother’s name and he comes back to the girl. Her hair looks uneven. Would you like a bob-cut? he asks and she says, Sure. Riding on her high, she decides to try something fun. She gets an asymmetrical bob with the longer side touching her chin and the other side riding up to her ear. She does look a little experimental, like someone who could break up with the boy now, like she could live alone for a few years. The hairdresser asks if he can take a picture of her and she says, Yes, so he takes the towel off and swivels her around and uses a phone to take a picture. You’ll find this online by this evening, he says and the girl beams. The girl and the boy hold hands out of the salon, their path lit up by the smiles of the salon staff.
Actually, the boy’s hand feels like it is crawling with ants. These ants are coming out of his pores to protest. The girl looks horrible, he thinks, and he remembers how last night he had kissed her on her stomach and her back had arched a little off the bed and when it did her hair had lain thick under her, half on the mattress and half stuck to her spine, where he had brushed it off carelessly. The thing is the boy knows it is a terrible thing to like people based on their looks, and she is an amazing person. Which is worse, he wonders, to like someone less because they are ugly, or because they have become better than you during what is supposed to be the most character-building, mother-losing year of your life?