snip snip
3 July 2001
When the wind blows his hair across his ears, he cries as if in pain. When his sweaty bangs attach themselves, strand by strand, to his high forehead, he swipes them with an irritable gesture. When I soap his hair, I have to push it up and back, gathering a ponytail in the palm of my hand and making sure to fan it out as I rinse. Old women peer at him and smile, cooing, "what a cute little girl!" His hair hangs in uneven ringlets framing his face, making him look like a cherub in a Renaissance painting.

For some of these reasons, mostly the first two, it’s time to make Damian’s life easier. It’s time for a haircut.

Until today, he’d only ever had one haircut. We went to a kid’s salon in Santa Monica last November. We thought they’d have fun toys, maybe videos, and gentle hairdressers. No, no and not even remotely. The woman was brusque and just this side of rude. She ungraciously allowed Dan to seat Damian in his lap. She threw the smock on Damian without a by-your-leave and seemed surprised when he wailed in response. She sneak-attack-sprayed his hair with a mister. He screamed louder. Dan tried reading a picture book to him. It didn’t help.

He withstood the actual snipping better than the smock or the mister, but all in all it wasn’t exactly the kind of milestone you look back on with a wistful smile. More like a wistful sigh, an "if only we knew then what we know now" sigh.

But now we do know. It’s becoming my mantra: Knowledge is Power. So we made an appointment with a guy in a nearby beach town. He specializes in kids with special needs. The director of Damian’s preschool told us that Hugh’s a little odd but he’s great with the kids. So we didn’t know what to expect. A gruff-but-kind sixty year old, maybe, who ignores anyone over the age of six? A musty cavern of a storefront with toys scattered over the floor?

When we got there, he was on the phone, telling a resort manager that they should clean up their act, they’ve been getting a lot of bad press lately. He gestured us in.

I suggested Damian pick up a green plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex from the floor. He did, and then put it down on a chair. Dan plucked a yellow brontosaurus out of a barber chair. Damian was decidedly disinterested in roaring like a dinosaur. So we sat and waited, looking around the small room, the messy desk, the hair snippets on the floor, the blocks and picture books and the video game console in the corner.

When he got off the phone, Hugh the haircut dude suggested Damian try a video game. With Dan’s coaching, Damian climbed up onto a stepstool and steered a car around a racetrack. Did better than I’d have thought. He only crashed a few times per minute.

While Dan and Damian were playing, Hugh explained how he’d found this niche. He’s in his forties, intense and serious, his balding hair cut no-nonsense short. Not exactly the sort of person you imagine when you hear the word "hairdresser." He said his girlfriend had gotten into a serious accident and needed him to cover her store while she was incapacitated. She sent him to hairdressing school. (He probably terrorized the teachers.) He did well enough to open his own shop after a while. He hated the chemicals, so he specialized in children -- not too many kids get perms or streaks. Why special needs kids? He likes problem solving, thinking his way around a dilemma and finding the answer. Chess, haircuts for oversensitive kids, one and the same, don’t you think?

After Damian had acclimated with the video game, he sat in my lap. Hugh knelt on the floor so he could be the subordinate one, making Damian feel more secure. I had my arms wrapped around Damian to keep him securely on my lap. Hugh suggested I not hold Damian so tightly, that body language sends a signal. He's right. I opened my arms. He then laid out the game plan for my little guy, treating him with respect. Then he sprayed his own hand and wet his own hair. He sprayed my hand and had me sweep it onto my hair. Then he asked Damian to wet my hair. Damian held his hand out mutely for the water. Then, and only then, Hugh asked Damian to wet his own hair. Damian refused. He accepted my wet hand on his head, though. He got a little discombobulated after the second or third wet swipe but he recovered quickly. He was thrown again by the sight of his slicked-down hair in the mirror, as if seeing made it feel more real. But the deed was done and the cutting could begin. Hugh showed Damian the smock and talked about how cool the color (purple) was, then put it on him backwards so his hands were unencumbered.

The cutting proceeded smoothly while Damian and I flipped through board books together. I asked Damian to label the images in the book for me. He wouldn’t, not until I gave him choices: "is that a cat or a dog?" Words seem to slip away when he’s feeling out of his element. And he was definitely out of his element sitting in that barber’s chair.

He periodically fixed on the mirror, watching the process with anxious bemusement, acutely aware of exactly where he was and exactly what was happening to his head. But he wasn’t scared, not quite. He didn’t cry, he didn’t retreat into himself. He was very present and just a little on guard. When I told him how proud I was of him and how well he was doing with his haircut, he beamed into the mirror at me.

Hugh tried cutting the hair around Damian’s ear. This marked the first real panic in Damian’s face. Hugh immediately stopped and suggested another round of video racecars. Bully for you, Hugh. When Damian was engrossed in careening his car into other racecars, Hugh slid up next to him and snip-snip, lopped that flop of hair right off.

And that was that. Haircut all done. Damian said goodbye to Hugh with a little backwards wave and a smile. When we asked if he’d had a good time, he said "yes!" in a breathless but enthusiastic tone, and sauntered out the door into the sunshine, a shorn but happy boy.

He looks different with less hair. Hugh said he looks older, and maybe that’s so. I don’t see it, though. What I see is the boy I see when I wash his hair, a boy with cheeks defined and eyes bigger and brighter, a boy as fey as he is handsome, as strong as he is shy, as smart as he is uncertain in the world, as happy as he is...happy. It shows on his face more now, his transparent face, fully revealed.

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