Putting on my shoes earlier that morning, the sense of dread came over me so powerful, I nearly listened to what my conscience told me: Don’t leave the house. I liked the emotion of something within trying to steer me in a certain direction, but I didn’t trust it enough to go along with it. I was on my way towards downtown Chicago get a free haircut at a very stylish, expensive salon. It would be inconvenient to wait a couple more weeks until I went home to Michigan where my mom, an unprofessional hair stylist would cut it like she had since I was a little girl. Hair styling students always needed hair to practice on, and I was a willing participant, never experiencing the feeling of my looks being molded by someone with flashy jeans more expensive than my rent.
On the train going downtown, again, the feeling worsened. I stood up and leaned against the pole, deciding what to do. I’ll get off at this next stop and get on the other train to go back home. I hated that I was giving up on getting something free, something I needed, but the feeling of doom loomed thick in my mind. When the train stopped, as I inched my way through the dense litter of commuters, a flood of new people got onto the train. Rush hour. It was only going to get worse. I got pushed to the back of the train.
Moments later, I sat down in the barber chair at the fancy hair salon. I couldn’t help but compare the atmosphere to that of the fashion model world in the film Zoolander. Music boomed out of mysteriously absent speakers. Everything was either white or black. A stylish model with intense makeup refilled the shampoo stock on the walls, her abrasively high heels clacking on the floor as she reached her boney arms up to the top of the shelf. My hair stylist wore a jet black apron that matched her black, skin tight pants and grey top, her thin belly exposing the only light colors she wore. She didn’t smile when she introduced herself, but expressed her appreciation for my letting her “experiment” on my hair. Of course she was joking. She knew exactly what she was doing, and even though she was still a student, since it was such an exclusive company she worked for, what she did to my hair that day would be the best hair cut I would get in my life.
My phone buzzed. I looked at my hair stylist. She looked back with a blank look, which expressed exactly what she meant for it to say.
“Sorry, I’ll put it on silent.” I put my phone back into my bag on the floor and let the trimming begin.
She stared intensely at the tendrils of my hair as she made her way around my head with her scissors. Once, twice, three times she brushed her comb over the same spot to make sure she got every last piece of mismatched blond string. I sat patiently in my chair, trying to not watch her intense brown eyes as she worked. I zoned out and thought about what I wanted to get done that day. She started cutting my hair at 10 a.m., so that meant I had until 11:30 a.m. to get home before I had to go to work. I absolutely had to be on my bike, riding to work at twelve p.m. I knew I had time until then, but being very punctual is important to me to the point where the only kind of nightmares I have are ones where I’m late to something.
“Okay, I need to have my instructor come here and take a look before I can continue,” she said to me when she was done. The haircut looked great. She waved over to a man who looked about forty, but wore the kinds of expensive jeans (with “naturally torn” holes and big ugly swirl designs on the butt cheeks) that he wore to make him look younger.
“Okay, what do we have going here?” He said to the hairstylist, ignoring me.
“I’ve trimmed her up, and now I’m going to start with a graduated bob,” she informed him. He nodded his head, and gripped the tips of his fingers to the top of my head and turned my head to the side. He took the comb from her hand and inspected the edges of my hair in a way that reminded me of being in fifth grade watching my mother in the mirror search for lice on my scalp with the same precision and attention.
“You’ve got a couple of spots here, and here. Have you done the side swipe test yet?” He looked intently at her, and when she didn’t respond, racking her brain trying to remember what the side swipe test was, he explained it to her. “You need to swipe the comb this way, and then then this way.” He swooped the comb from left to right, and then right to left. He handed the comb back to my hairstylist and she continued with the cutting. And then I realized something.
“So, if what you just did wasn’t the actual haircut, what was it?” I inquired. She had cut four inches off my hair, and spent at least an hour doing it. The detail she put into simply cutting off the length needed for the haircut seemed a little absurd.
“I’m simply getting your hair ready for the haircut,” she stated.
On the back of my neck sprouted one single dot of sweat. I searched for a clock, being careful not to move my head. Blank walls.
“Um, what time is it?” I asked the stylist, trying to steady my voice.
“It’s … (checking her watch) eleven,” she told me. She had spent exactly one hour doing something I could accomplish in fifteen seconds. Snip, snip, snip, snip, snip. Four inches off, just like that. How did it take her an hour do accomplish the same feat? Is this why so many people paid large amounts of money to get their hair cut here?
“I’m sorry, I have to get to w—“ I squeak out.
“Hold on, I need to get my supervisor before I can go to the next stage,” she interrupted rudely. She walked away and when Mr. Fancy Jeans supervisor caught her eye, he held up a “one moment, please” finger to the panicked stylist he was speaking to and walked over to me.
“Yes, the side swipes look very good,” he said to my hair stylist. My heart started beating at a slightly faster pace now.
“It-it doesn’t have to be perfect,” I managed to say. I needed to leave, now. These freaks are terrifying me. The supervisor stopped side swiping, slowly set his hands on my shoulders and look at me in the mirror.
“WE STRIVE ON PERFECTION HERE. IF YOU DON’T WANT PERFECTION, GO TO SUPERCUTS,” he sharply retorted. I stared at him, eyebrows raised. He lowered his shoulders, put on a fake smile, and continued hassling with my hair. “I’m sorry, was that rude?”
“Yes, it was,” I said, looking to the side, avoiding eye contact. He gave permission to continue the haircut after addressing whatever my hairstylist was having a problem with. I watched her now as she cut my hair, seeing bits of frustration in her facial expressions. I can’t tell if she was mad at me or the supervisor for having her go over the same bits of hair over and over.
“How long do you think this is going to take?” I said after some time in silence between us. I wanted her to cool down before I chose to tell to her I was getting worried. She sighed, but didn’t look at me in the mirror.
“As long as it takes,” she answered bitterly. I didn’t say anything. Then, after another block of time, “this salon is very prestigious, you know.”
After a pause, I said: “oh?”
“People spend a lot of money here because they know they’re getting the best hair cut they could ever want. It’s extremely hard to get into the styling school here, and when you graduate—if you graduate—you’ll never have to worry about finding another job the rest of your working career. The students here are top notch, and it’s strict. I’ve been here for two years already, and I have another four before I can graduate. Then, if I’m lucky, I’ll work at this very salon. I’ve already made friends here, and I just love the atmosphere.” Shallow co-workers, no warmth whatsoever in the color scheme, frigid bosses. Sounds nice, I thought. She’s trying to tell me how and why her boss needed to be ridiculous.
I wonder if she sensed my fright. Or could she see my neck sweat? I was as antsy as a little kid on their mother’s lap during a church sermon. What time is it now? I needed to get back home, get my bike, and leave immediately to get to work. I work by myself, so there is never a distinct fear of being late, but just knowing that she could pop in if she wanted to makes me nervous. It seemed like the sort of thing my boss would do on a day like today, knowing my luck. Relax. You’ll just be a little late. Deal with it. I’ve tried in the past to be late to things, but I go a little crazy in the process. I’ve accepted that this is the things that makes me seem crazy to other people.
Sitting in that barber’s chair, my blood raced through my veins. I heard my heartbeat in my ears. The stylist, acting calm since her supervisor hadn’t bothered her for a while, took her good ole’ time now. If I left in the middle of this haircut, would people notice? Would it be that obvious that half of my head is a different length from the other? I don’t have that much hair, so I couldn’t understand why it took so long to cut it. My anxious feelings built up within me until finally, I crashed.
I took a deep breath and I accepted my fate. I’m going to lose my job today, I thought. I will need to look for a new job tomorrow. I’ll have to ask someone to help me out with rent this month, and hopefully I’ll have a job in enough time to pay for next month’s rent. Just like someone who has gone through a traumatic event and has blocked it out of their memory, my own mind shut down and decided that there was nothing I could do. I was surrounded by people who thought my hair is being blessed right now. I looked at those around me. They are in an entirely different world—one where shallow things like this matter, and the place you get your hair cut has a lot to do with your social status. Yeah, this’ll probably be the best haircut I get, but I don’t care. It always comes out looking the same, and in a couple of weeks, it’ll look uneven again and I’ll have to get it cut again.
“Alright, we’re finished,” she stated coldly. She seemed about as done with this haircut as I was. Maybe I was being dramatic when I thought that my boss would somehow find out that I was late to work. At the most, I’d be a half hour late, arriving at 12:30 which is still terrible, but manageable. I’m not going to lose my job, I’m just being overly worrisome. I over dramatize things like this all the time and I’m sure this time won’t be any different. I gave her a brisk “thank you” and ran out the door, heading across the street to the train stop.
I took my phone out of my bag as I waited for my train. I took a deep breath and turned it on.
It was 1:30 pm, and I had 19 missed calls, most of whom were from my boss. My gut instantly turned 180 degrees and I tightened it mechanically as if someone had punched me.
The other missed calls were from my roommates. I had several texts, some from my boss (“Karen, you need to call me right now. I’m worried!”) and some from my roommates (“This phone is lost. If you are the one who found it, please return it to…”).
I got on the train and stared at the floor as we moved through the various Chicago neighborhoods towards my home. Maybe I could tell her that I was just getting a haircut. She’ll forgive me because I told her the truth, and she could see that i’ve already been through so much this morning. I thought about this idea. My boss, in the three weeks that I’ve worked for her, came off as a very unforgiving person. She loves firing people (and telling her other employees about who has been fired) even though she hates interviewing for new positions. In the handful of times that I’ve met her, she had already told me several stories about how people had done her wrong and how she was forced to handle it. I knew that if I told her the truth, that I was held captive by my hairdresser and wasn’t allowed to leave my chair for 3 ½ hours, she wouldn’t lose a breath to tell me I was done.
I hated that I had to potentially lie to my boss. Because once you lie to your boss, at a new job, you’re going to have to carry that lie with you until you don’t have that job anymore. And since I was lying in order to keep my job, I knew it had to be good. I had to channel all the acting lessons I obtained in high school drama class. I thought up the details of my lie for the rest of the train ride back home. I tried to think of little pockets of information that she could possibly think of to ask me about my disappearance.
At my stop, I walked off the train platform and made my way down the stairs onto the street. I took a little alleyway to a parking lot where I’d make the call. It’ll be more believable if I can call from somewhere with noise, so it looks like I called her as soon as I humanly could.
As the phone rang, I felt my anxiety start to pace faster within me. Part of it was nervousness, but anger (at the hairdresser), sadness (at the possibility of my losing my job if this doesn’t go the way I want it to), and tension (at the fact that I was late to something, therefore living out a reoccurring nightmare of mine) all built up in my chest in those last moments before she picked up the phone, and somewhere in that mess of bad emotions I found confidence. And I knew that if I could make this story so ridiculous–so far-fetched–that she might not call my bluff.
“KAREN?!” my bosses voice burst through the speaker on my phone. “Are you okay?!”
“Hi.” I said, in a short, quiet voice. Don’t give it all to her right now. Let her suspect the worse.
“Are you okay?! Are you hurt? Are you in danger?” she itched for more.
Pause, and then: “I’m okay?” I let it out in a squeaky questioned tone.
And then I let it all out of me.
I let that emotion, the tension, the sadness, the anger, and anxiety flow out of my mouth. I started sobbing, but in the way that someone having a panic attack would try to do it. Short, staccato gasps of air between whining and crying for a good ten seconds before I continued. I paced around the parking lot, and hoped that no one was watching me. Being in a big city, people usually just ignored situations like this anyway.
“What happened, Karen? Did you get hurt? TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED!” She stressed. She’s very concerned for me. For a moment, I thought that she was mothering me, like she would’ve held me in her big arms if we were face to face, which thankfully, we were not.
I closed my eyes for a moment, then continued. Here goes nothing.
“I…SAW SOMEONE GET STABBED!” I exclaimed.
I heared my boss gasp on the line. “What!?”
“I was riding my bike this morning before work,” I stuttered. “…there was an alley way…a guy was there, and another guy… I had to call 911…” I paused for a few sobs the way a radio station pauses for station identification. “I had to go in the emergency vehicle, and then the cops took me to get interviewed.” I remembered I had to tell her how I couldn’t get to my phone, too. “And then, they had me in this room and I couldn’t have any of my stuff in there, and so I couldn’t call or anything!” I cried.
I remembered the sort of stories the newspapers were running lately: all stories about how the crime in Chicago is getting worse. Fourteen people had been shot or stabbed the weekend of Fourth of July, so telling this story about witnessing a stabbing didn’t seem that far fledged in my mind. I felt like it could have possibly happened.
“Karen, I’m sooo glad you’re ok! I’ve been so worried about you! I got a phone call from one of our clients telling me that you didn’t show up to meet them, and when I called you and you didn’t answer, I suspected the worse! Oh man, I’m just glad you’re safe!” She seemed better now, and luckily for me, it seemed like she bought the story. The emotional crying, I think, was really what did it. I was actually quite surprised and proud of myself, but now was not the time to think about that.
“I’ve been crying all morning, and I’m just so emotionally drained,” I said.
“You really need to call your roommates. They are worried sick about you. I’ve been talking to them all morning. Neither of them saw you leave the house today, and they don’t know what to do. I just talked to one of your roommates, and I think she might be talking to your mom right now, actually.”
Oh no. This is getting a little out of hand. I knew my roommates must have known something because they had also tried getting a hold of me, but calling my mom was a different ballgame. Now the word is getting out there that I’m missing, and I don’t want my family to suffer because of something stupid I did.
“Take the rest of the day off, and I’ll call you later to see how you’re feeling,” she consoled me. I sobbed some more and said “Okay” and hung up the phone.
I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. The difficult part is over. I dialed my roommate, Lilly’s, number. Busy signal. She must be talking to my mom on the phone still. I hung up and dialed my other roommate, Rachel. She picked up after the first ring.
“Karen! Are you okay?” She yelled.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m not in any danger. I’m in the parking lot next to the train stop but I’ll be home in a minute and then I’ll explain everything.”
As I biked the few blocks back to my house, I debated whether or not I should tell them the truth or the same story I told my boss. It seemed to work on her, but my roommates are my friends. They had clearly been through some emotional toil this morning over my bad judgment, so they will, no doubt, be mad at me. I decided to tell them the truth, because if I can’t, then that’s just another lie I had to keep locked inside of me for as long as I know them.
I parked my bike on the front gate as my roommates opened the front door for me.
“What happened?” Lilly exclaimed.
I quietly walked past them, into the apartment and sat on the couch, making sure not to expose my new haircut by taking my bike helmet off. I decided to go through the drama of the morning very slowly.
“I woke up with a bad feeling this morning,” I started to explain. I didn’t want to give away anything before its proper time, and I definitely didn’t want to flat out say “I was getting a haircut!” because they might have executed me right then and there if I had. I told them about the bad feeling I had on the train, and how the stylist’s supervisor got snotty with me when I tried to tell him that I needed to leave, and how they made me feel like I couldn’t leave because I was very privileged to have them cut my hair. I told them about how I had to sit in that chair for 3 ½ hours, dreading each moment as I became more and more tardy for work.
I saw it dawning on my roommates that this was a story about me getting a lousy haircut, and that I was never remotely in any sort of danger, and that their worrying was for absolutely nothing.
“Your boss called me this morning when she hadn’t heard from you. We ransacked your room, trying to find clues as to where you might have been,” Lilly explained to me. “We were on our way out the front door to go to the hospital to see if any unidentified victims had come in when you finally called us.” My stomach churned out of dread.
After some time, they calmed down enough and our nerves eventually went back to regular functioning. I called my mom and luckily she wasn’t that scared or upset (mostly because I had only been missing three hours). I don’t blame her.
Luckily, my roommates and I (plus various family members and friends who have heard the story) can laugh about the ordeal now. I went back to work the next day, and one of the first things we did as a household was make a list of our emergency contact numbers so that in case one of us actually does go missing, no one’s bedroom will get ransacked.