For almost as long as we've been together, my wife has maintained an intimate and fidelitous relationship with someone else.
Their liaisons used to take place in the city, but now they meet up at the woman's suburban home, in a garage converted specifically for the purpose.
I seldom ask, yet always know when the pair have spent time together because my wife returns transformed for the encounter. Seemingly walking on air, she radiates a quality eclipsing even the effortless vibrancy which attracted me to her 20-odd years ago.
She glows in her altered state for about a week, sometimes longer. I marvel at this physical and psychological enhancement, so happy for my wife, yet, as a partner, envious a third party can elicit metamorphosis of a type I could never be responsible.
Leonard Cohen seems to be exploring a similar love-triangle resignation in 1971's Famous Blue Raincoat, when he admits to his rival - who the singer always insisted was an alter ego and not a real person - Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes. I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.
Like my wife, I too have been in a long-term relationship with a hairdresser but had to end the affair because it became one-sided and exploitative.
For years, I followed him from venue to venue, swapping messages and organising hook-ups. In the honeymoon period, he treated me well, very well. Our get-togethers always began with a warm, sudsy wash and a gentle scalp massage, during which we'd both disarm via things we shared in common - smoked meats, chainsaws, Leonard Cohen. The haircut itself was long and thorough. He was an attentive tradesman, responding to my cues; a raised (egregiously unmanicured) eyebrow, a barely perceptible grimace, an uncomfortable shuffling in his mock vintage chair. When it was all over, we'd shake hands and promise to do it again. He always wanted to lock in a date but I wouldn't commit, suggesting I'd just call when I felt the time was right. Given all this seemed, to me, at least, a friendship, it always felt strange to actually pay my hairdresser but I was proud to do so because he was dedicated and talented.
Then, things began to change.
Whereas once he would reply enthusiastically to my random requests to meet (Great stuff, see you then, mate!) those replies would become distant, formulaic (Text Y or N to confirm your appointment).
He began demanding more money, even though the service seemed, incrementally, to diminish.
Once upon a time, he would use a pair of scissors and a cut throat to assiduously shape my unremarkable yet recalcitrant thatch into something, if not fashionable, at least presentable. But after a few years, he dispensed with this time-consuming tapering and simply began attacking my back and sides with clippers, deciding unilaterally I was to be a No. 2 man and that was that. I let this slide, convincing myself it was just an aberration; that he still cared.
My conviction and appearance suffered another blow when, uninvited, he brought out the thinning shears; a quick-fix, crocodile-toothed tool that chomps through fibres such as mine with all the nuance of a bent-bladed slasher being towed behind a Soviet-era tractor. Putting paid to the saying "The difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut is two weeks", when my own hair is subjected to this blunt instrument, it sprouts back so misshapenly, within a fortnight I resemble Sloth from The Goonies and am forced to seek another appointment.
Yet, still I persisted with this rapidly devolving relationship; still I gave my hairdresser the benefit of the doubt, still clung to the notion that perhaps he didn't even realise what he was doing and that things would return to normal as soon as he'd worked through whatever issues were no doubt causing this hiccup.
When the shampooing and conditioning ceased, any sense my shabby treatment was accidental vanished. Furtively, he ushered me past the basin, plonked me down and velcroed the claustrophobic cape so tightly around my neck, it felt as though I was literally being gagged from asking why such an important component of our ritual had, apparently, been overlooked. As he went through the motions, it dawned on me I was now paying more for a 15-minute, bare-bones barbering than for what was once a 45-minute, platinum operation complete with a couple of drinks. This revelation was confirmed when we caught eyes in the mirror and shared the understanding I had become the submissive in this relationship. A No. 2 man, indeed.
But because a fool and his hairdresser are not easily parted, I returned one last time and my inferior status was cemented when I was thrown, without mercy, to the new apprentice, who, given what she did to me, probably should've turned up for work that morning at the neighbouring butchers.
The break-up was hard to take because, just like the person with whom you entrust your heart, the person with whom you entrust your hair is supposed to be special, magisterial.
For many of us lucky enough to have a bit of it left, hair embodies our essence, the most important part of us which can be given away.
The Victorians put dead hair in keepsakes and fashioned folk art from the gross medium; O. Henry's 1905 Christmas fable, The Gift of the Magi, has an impecunious wife selling her ample hair to buy her husband a chain for his pocket watch. Meanwhile, in a twist, the husband sells the beloved watch to buy his wife a pair of combs to complement those sacrificial tresses. In modernity, people shave their heads to raise money for cancer research; an affliction so insidious, to fight it we must often lose our hair, lose ourselves. Throughout the pandemic, people have grown, cut and removed their hair in accordance with how the crisis has affected them; meagre protestations, celebrations, ruminations using our most personal of bodily resources.
Leonard Cohen understood the power of such gestures. Again, in Famous Blue Raincoat, the complexity of that love triangle is articulated with the stunning lyric: Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair ...
These days, without an appointment, I sit in line with all the other middle-aged men who've wisely given up on caring about what they look like. When called upon, we sit in the chair, mumble something like "Just a bit of a clean-up, thanks" and swap banalities with a barber in whom we have invested nothing.
We watch our greying tufts tumble to the floor.
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