Hair Like a Cactus Needle

Yollotl Lopez

Tin House is proud to partner with the Writing Our Lives Workshop to bring our readers a series of Flash Fidelity essays from their alumni.  

There are two types of hairdressers: those who obey the clients and do as they ask and those who think they know better than their clients and cut off three inches when they said, “Justa trim.” My sister is the latter. After one bad haircut, my father never let her touch him again. It didn’t matter that she had always been his favorite; this was a matter of his hair.

When I began my cosmetology training, my sister mocked me and said if Dad didn’t trust her with his hair than he would trust me even less. However, my father still refused to let my sister touch his hair even as it grew shaggy and long, losing it’s Ricky Ricardo shape.

One Sunday, he came up to me and asked if I’d be willing to try his haircut.

I set up the stool in the garage, shook out the cutting cape and wet his hair down, moving the water through with my hands. Like me, my father has pin-straight black hair that doesn’t obey or hold any shape unless chemically altered and beaten into submission. “Hair like a cactus needle” my mother calls it. It required a perm every three months, a color-touch once a month, and a cut every two weeks, and today he was trusting me. I combed his hair out and asked what he’d like; as if he was just another client.

“Half eeench ohhhl overrrr,” he said in his thick accent circling his head with his index finger.

I knew he meant business. He only ever spoke to me in English when he really wanted me to pay attention. I told him to sit up straight and patted his back. Told him to put his feet flat on the ground. I held his head in my hands and tilted him left, then right and down as I snipped away nervously. Finally, I combed his hair into his usual hairstyle: a Ricky Ricardo swoop. I put my hand on his shoulders and spun him around to look in the mirror. He ran his hands through his hair inspecting just like he had inspected my sewing at age seven, my planting at age twelve, and my oil change at age fifteen. Finally, he released his hair and declared,

“Yeah, thaz goot bebita.” He hadn’t called me bebita since I was eight.

After that, I took over his routine: cut, color and perm. My sister was shocked and infuriated that he had chosen me as his designated hairdresser. Every so often she’d run her hand through his hair and find small mistakes.

“Did you use the clippers on him? This looks so uneven!”

“No, just scissors over comb, as usual.”

“Geez, look, this side is uneven. Dad, you should let me do it next weekend.”

Dejame!” he told her exasperated. “Me gusta como ella lo hace. Tú me lo dejas mochado como burro!” Like a donkey! I couldn’t believe it. He had insulted her with the worst Mexican insult known for hairdressers. He said her haircuts left him looking like a donkey had chewed his hair! She stormed off as he giggled.

Another time my sister criticized how long I took doing his hair.

“When you’re in a salon you’re going to have to be faster you know,” she snapped her fingers at me repeatedly, “Time is money.”

But she never knew why I took so long. It wasn’t so much about being careful. Over time, I perfected the routine to where I could get done with a cut and color in thirty minutes. No, with him this was the only time where I had prolonged contact, alone, just us. When I was growing up, his hugs never lasted more than two seconds and consisted of tight little pats when he hugged me at all. But here, in my chair, I could hold him as long as I wanted. In the name of perfection, I took my time moving his head and making sure his hair was even on all sides. I doubled cross-checked my sections and cut stray hairs carefully. We never talked much during these haircuts, but I was able to take my time, look him in the eyes, tilt his head and touch his face.

Here, I was able to do something right. Here, I was the trusted one. Here, I was the loved one.

Now, years later, I sit my father down on the little stool one last time before I leave California for New York. He’s loosened up on the rules over time. He lets me open the garage door now for fresh air while I cut, color or perm his hair so long as I keep his back turned, so the neighbors don’t see. He’d still like everyone to think he’s naturally this youthful-looking despite being fifty-nine.

“What would you like?” I ask in Spanish.

“Haf eeench all overrr. Como siempre.” Like always, he says. It’s a private joke by now. Eight years I’ve been cutting his hair, but I always ask, and he always says the same thing. Same haircut, same stool, same routine, same house, same room. New York will be such a change from this.

After we finish, when he’s not looking, I pick up a curl and put it in my pocket.

“Que va pasar con mi pelo cuando se vaya mi Yoyita?” he asks.

It’s the same question I’ve been asking myself.

Yollotl Lopez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and was born and raised in the Mojave desert of California. She is currently a writer and a doctoral student at New York University.