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Why am I getting drunk to get a haircut? I reflected as I chugged my beer while sitting on a park bench across from Ai’s Hair Studio.

A better question was: Why did I feel like drinking? The answer was both stupid and serious at the same time.

My hair started thinning prematurely. I first discovered this in my mid-twenties, while scratching the back of my head. I could touch my scalp with a soft, frictionless feel. To mask that spot, I’d comb my hair backward and keep it there with hair wax. That worked until I turned thirty. By then my hair had receded so much that I couldn’t tell where my forehead ended, and when I grabbed strands of hair, there would only be a few between my fingers.

Going to the hair salon became a nightmare. While cutting my hair, I’d feel the hairdresser’s eyes on my exposed skin. Wondering. Judging. Thinking thoughts like, Why does he have so little hair? Poor boy. I wonder if he’ll ever find a girlfriend or a wife. What I dreaded the most, though, were roundabout comments. “Your scalp doesn’t look very ‘healthy.’” “Have you noticed that your hair is thinner on the top?”

To reduce the stress caused by this, I relied on alcohol. It was perfect. Being dizzily relaxed on that chair. Feeling nothing. Fearing nothing. My head filled with nothing but drunken thoughts.

This was my fifth beer from the six-pack I’d bought. I was almost ready. Ready to get a haircut.

After finishing my sixth beer, I threw the empty cans into the garbage bin, crossed the street, and, sucking air as if I were preparing to dive into the sea, ventured into the hair salon.

The place was old and cozy. Small but neat; just the right size to fit four seats with their respective mirrors and tiny TVs on their front right side. The word “homely” came to mind. Luckily, I was the only client.

The hairdresser — her name tag said Aiko — came from behind the counter and said, “Welcome,” bowing with her hands folded on her black apron.

We must’ve been similar in age. When it came to hair, though, we were polar opposites; hers was so long and voluminous that it looked like a lion’s mane. Not in a messy way. Even though she had curls, each strand rested neatly in place, without covering her face. Her features were nondescript: Her eyes were neither too large nor too tiny, her lips neither too plump nor too thin, her chin neither too sharp nor too round. Or perhaps it felt that way because her extravagant hair stole the spotlight.

Aiko waved at me to sit. I complied without opening my mouth so she wouldn’t smell the alcohol on my breath. After I tugged off my knit cap and tucked it into my jean pocket, she draped the hairdressing cape around me and tied it, tickling the back of my neck. Her fingers were a bit rugged, but I liked that. It gave her a motherly aura.

“What style would you like?” she asked.

Slurring a bit, I said, “Not too short.” I always requested this so that I had more hair to cover my bald spots. That was wishful thinking, though, since I barely had enough hair to comb.

“Roger that.” Aiko glided away to get her scissors.

When she returned, she took a chunk of my hair between her index and middle finger and held it in place with a hair clip. No hairdresser had done this before. It horrified me. Now the bare skin on the side of my head was totally exposed. Stripped naked.

“Hope you don’t mind,” she said. “I like to focus on one strand of hair at a time.”

I nodded, relieved Aiko hadn’t commented on the bald spot she’d put on display.

And so she began working on my hair, one strand at a time. Pulling, cutting, wiping. My buzzed mind focused on nothing but her hands. No, also on the swift sound of her scissors. And on her smell — a sweet mixture of shampoo and talcum powder. It was hypnotically relaxing. She’d not only wrapped a hairdressing cape around me, but also a mantle of comfort.

Aiko put down her scissors. Before I could ask if we were done, she came back with a straight razor and started shaving the back of my neck, so gently that it felt like she was using a feather. Once done, she picked up her scissors and resumed cutting. She was putting so much effort into my crippled hair. She might as well have been trying to make a work of art with a dying bonsai tree.

After repeating that procedure two more times, she set down her hair tools and asked, “How is it?”

Harvesting courage, I raised my eyes and peered at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t believe it. My hair was shorter, but it looked — thicker. Could it be an illusion caused by alcohol?

“Do you want to check behind?” Aiko offered.

“No, it’s okay.” Looking at the back of my head was always horrific, especially after a haircut.

“We’re done then.” She untied and unpeeled the hairdressing cape from me, all the while brushing tufts of hair off with a powdered neck duster.

After I paid her at the counter, she bowed and, with a brimming smile, said, “Let me know if there’s anything wrong with your hair. I’ll fix it immediately.”

I gave her a shy nod. My pitiful hair didn’t deserve such a dedicated hairdresser.

I spent the next days wishing my hair would grow fast so I could see Aiko again. Was I smitten? Lovestruck? All I knew was that I wanted to feel her fingers on my neck, her hands and scissors on my hair. Smell her scent of shampoo and talcum powder. Without a single comment on my hair (or lack of it).

It took sixty days and six thousand fallen strands of hair for my hair to grow enough to require a visit to the hair salon.

That day I didn’t have to drink. Or rather, I didn’t feel like I had to drink. I left home and went directly to Ai’s Hair Studio. She was alone again. As I’d hoped.

“Welcome,” she said with a ninety-degree bow. Then, with a candid smile, she directed me to a seat. “What style would you like this time?”

“Longer than last time,” I replied. “A lot longer.”

Her modus operandi was the same as the other day — except for a minor detail. No, a major one. Aiko spoke to me. As naturally as, well, a hairdresser would.

“You’re a quiet one, aren’t you?” she said.

I cleared my throat. “I’m just a little self-conscious.”

“I’m self-conscious too. When it comes to my hands.”

“Why is that?” I asked, almost turning around.

After a prolonged pause, Aiko said, “They’re thick and rough like a man’s. That’s why I don’t like holding hands very much. Or touching someone’s face. Someone’s skin. I’m worried they’d notice that my hands aren’t delicate. Feminine.”

I think you have beautiful hands, I could’ve said — except it would’ve been a lie. Especially because I did think her hands were rougher than that of other women.

“Despite this,” she continued, “I like working with my hands. Cooking, knitting, and, of course, cutting hair. In fact, I’m always changing jobs. Trying new things with my hands. Not sure whether I’m trying to make up for having unattractive hands. Or whether that drawback doesn’t get in the way of my passion. Anyway, if something works, the reason doesn’t matter that much, don’t you think?”

I nodded. As long as Aiko didn’t remark about my hair, the reason didn’t matter either.

As long as she didn’t …

“I know this is none of my business,” Aiko said the tenth time I came to her hair salon. “But have you considering seeing a specialist?”

“What do you mean?” I blurted, knowing — aghast — very well what she meant.

“How to put this … I think your scalp … isn’t in a very healthy condition. I mean, compared to the previous times you’ve been here.”

I half-sighed, half-groaned, wishing I’d drunk a six-pack of beer. “I’ve noticed it too. Maybe I should see a dermatologist or something. Actually, I’ve thought about it before. But I kept postponing it.” The truth was, going to the hospital would be a more dreadful experience than going to the hair salon. It could’ve been a false supposition. However, the fear was definitely real.

“Sorry if I’m being impolite,” Aiko said in a hushed tone.

“Don’t worry. Your intentions are good.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t make me feel good.

Back at my apartment, I buried my head under my blanket, sulking. Why did Aiko have to break the comfortable bubble we’d created? It was so easy. All she had to do was to continue doing what she was doing.

No, I shouldn’t blame her. I was the problem. I was turning innocent comments into negative feelings, as I’d done so before. Besides, Aiko was just concerned about me. Wait, why did she say compared to the previous times you’ve been here?

I slid off my bed, stepped into the bathroom, and scanned myself in the mirror. It couldn’t be … I could barely see hair on the top of my head. Not only that: I had big bald patches on the sides and at the back. Had Aiko messed up my hair? No, she’d followed her usual procedure, which I knew by heart.

How come I didn’t notice this before? Had thinking about Aiko blurred my eyes? Had bliss become a mist around me? That was a good explanation. But why was my hair falling so fast? Because I’d started sleeping less after meeting Aiko? Because of the anxiety of having to wait to see her? I could go on and on without being able to dig up the real cause.

A dermatologist could help me — except I didn’t want to go outside. True, with my knit cap on, no one would be able to see my (lack of) hair. However, only the possibility of being seen terrified me; it’d be like an invisible ghost chasing me around.

The stress caused by this made me lose even more hair. And more rapidly. In the morning, my pillow would resemble a furry animal. In the shower, my fallen hair would clog the drain. After drying my head with a towel — I’d avoid looking at it and just throw it into the laundry basket.

By the time my hair should’ve grown enough to require a visit to Ai’s Hair Studio, I barely had any at all.

It’d be pointless to go. Ridiculous.

I took a month’s leave from my job — saying I’d been sick, which wasn’t very far from the truth — and holed up in my apartment and researched hair-growth products. I tried minoxidil, finasteride, even vinegar and other pseudo-scientific methods. Nothing worked. So instead of finding ways to treat the surface of my head, I decided to medicate what was inside. With alcohol. I’d drink six-packs of beer for almost twenty-four hours. To drown the slashing pain of not being able to see Ai again. It wasn’t that I had fallen in love; I just wanted to sit in front of her and let her handle my hair with her gentle yet dexterous hands, unwind my mind with her soothing yet interesting topics of conversation. That was all I wished.

When a month passed, and I had to return to work so I could keep my job, I dressed in my office attire, put on my knit cap, and left home.

As I passed Ai’s Hair Studio, a realization hit me: True, I wouldn’t be able to go into the salon, but I could look at Aiko from outside. At least for a few seconds.

With this pocket-sized, new-found hope, I hurried until I was in front of …

Ai’s Massage Salon?

I stood there, stupefied. Was this the wrong place? No, it was the same location; I’d been there dozens of times after all. Plus, it had Ai in the name. Which meant Aiko was inside. The same Aiko who’d cut my hair and moved my heart. The only difference now was that …

Pulling off my hat and breathing out a lungful of air, I ventured into the massage salon, a smile cutting across my face.

By the way, I’m writing a novel. If you want to know when it’ll be released, click here.

Writer of fictional words. Admirer of Haruki Murakami. To be notified of his upcoming novel, click here: https://mailchi.mp/6b5f800d7eb0/alexandrochen

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