'Cut or trim, Madam?' The Chinese girl in the dress with deep pockets asks me.
'Trim, a quarter of an inch,' I say. 'Just a quarter, I'm growing my hair!'
'Okay, Madam. Eyebrows, upper lip?'
'Yes, eyebrows, but same shape, okay?'
I plunk down into the high hydraulic chair that jumps back up in protest. Someday I will understand why they deflate it only to inflate it again. You feel the same terror in the dentist's chair, both are hydraulic. I am ready for execution by electrocution. They all get you in the end, some your hair, some your teeth and some everything. It's no laughing matter.
All of a sudden she rudely pushes my head back, pushing my forehead back with the flat of her palm. My neck obediently over-extends backwards. Three days of the spondylosis collar, I am afraid. But I am the picture of nonchalance and determination. Satisfied that my neck has gone as far back as it humanly can she commences threading. Her fingers move fast and with the confidence of someone whose pet subject at school can only have been Chinese torture. Now she uses the Morse code as she taps on my eyelid. It means, ' hold down the eyelid, you klutz!' I oblige. By now I've learnt it well. I am no longer too gauche to know how to simultaneously hold one eyebrow up while holding an eyelid down. Two pulls in opposite directions. I never protest, never complain. I am nondescript at parlors. A pair of scissors, a comb, a thread and a pair of tweezers can sometimes do more damage than an acid bomb flung towards your face.
'Look!' she commands with a simpering smile, pushing a mirror in my face when the ordeal ends.
'Hmmm'okay,' I say, my heart sinking. The left eyebrow is longer. I'll have to do damage control at home. I smile wide, 'Very nice!' I say encouragingly but she doesn't hear my words. Her eyes get wider as she takes in my lifeless hair.
'Where you got haircut? Hair splitting!' She is about to laugh as she calls out, 'Suzy!'
I have been caught. I'm the miser who did her own hair. I want to tell her it wasn't the money, it was my fear of losing my long hair but it might make her laugh even more. Suzy saunters over with a perfected twisted smile. She flicks through my hair and they exchange smirks. A shudder runs up my spine.
'Please,' I say with guilt and speed, trying hard to distract them, 'not too short, I'm growing my hair.'
'Yes, yes,' she replies but I am saved by the bell. Suzy turns away to answer the phone. Now she picks up my hair from the back and goes through it with the speed of a Ferrari on a smooth road. And then she speeds to the front like a Ferrari going downhill. I catch a glimpse of my back, three precious inches (six months' growth) gone. I am still smiling albeit weakly now. I want to kill her.
She snips away as she tries to balance the front with the back; but now she stares at the back and shakes her head. Then she decides to cut the back a bit more to balance with the front. Once again the front looks out of step with the back and she's dissatisfied. She snips some more. Finally she gives up not because she's happy with my hair but because there are four heavy ladies with annoying ring-tones on their cellular phones waiting for their turn. I stare at my reflection. A plucked chicken looks back at me. One year's growth all gone, all on the floor. A girl with a listless broom sweeps it into a crumpled pink, non-recyclable plastic bag. I am now subjected to three minutes of blow-drying for which I never asked but am too chicken to refuse. It singes my ears. When I finally ease myself out of the high chair they tell me what I must pay. I remember not to raise my arched uneven eyebrows because somebody set fire to my wallet. I am smiling a lot more now.
'Come again!' she says to me with precision as I place a generous tip in her large pocket. She is so busy raising the hydraulic chair that she must soon deflate that she forgets to thank me. As I step out of the parlor I am stared at by the fruit-vendor. I try not to look guilty. And so I smile.