The barbershop is no place for a woman. Especially a woman with as many curves as Seliece Thornton. Many reverse mohawks were birthed in the wake of her savage strut. The moment she walked onto the floor haircuts were known to be ruined by an impulsive turn of the head. The hypnotic way she swayed her hips was an incantation to all who dared to look.
Per the Unwritten Bylaws of Noah Washington’s Barbershop, a subtle glance is allowed. Maybe even an extended leer, but anything more would be counted as blasphemous and you would be shunned from its halls indefinitely. Of course, none of us really knew this or even said it, but it was just understood: no one goes after Noah Washington’s Girlfriend. The six-foot-four former tight end did not just demand this respect because of his imposing frame (though it didn’t hurt) but because he was genuinely a nice guy.
The best demonstration of his niceness was Jenisa Lane, dubbed “the village crackhead”, who would constantly come in begging for food. With an easy demeanor Noah would always direct her to the refrigerator in the back he bought for just the occasion. One would not even call him a gentle giant because he had this way of making you feel like he was just your size. Even a five foot four computer nerd like me.
The delicate way he handled the clippers against my head made me think he had the ginger hands of a ballerina. But don’t be mistaken, his frame was imposing and even as that frame loomed over me, I devised subtle ways of checking out Seliece’s body. The way her heels accentuated her legs and the perfect curvature of her ass blooming out from a microscopic waist line. It was like watching art.
“What do you think, Lionel?”
I thank god for such ambiguous words as “huh”. The more on the nose “sorry, I was too busy admiring your girlfriend’s ass” probably would have created a little more controversy, but not for the reasons one would think.
“What do you think? Was it wrong for Lebron to up and go to Miami?”
“Don’t answer it, Lionel,” Mack interjected. “Old Noah is just alley-ooping to himself so he can slam dunk it.”
“I’m interested in the young man’s opinion. Was it some vile betrayal for him to leave Cleveland -- essentially his hometown. For the big bright lights of Miami?”
I thought about a little bit as he turned me around in the chair -- because I took his questions seriously. It was like being asked a question in class for your favorite teacher and I didn’t want to disappoint.
“I mean, he didn’t murder anybody. I think people should do what they wanna do,” he turned me once again and my gaze accidentally landed on the one person I was avoiding. Clumsily, I added, “be what they wanna be.”
“I told you this young buck was smart.”
“By smart, you mean he agrees with you,” Mack joked.
Mack was Noah’s personal contrarian. If Noah said the sky was blue, Mack would call bullshit and say it’s yellow. I figured that’s why Noah liked the guy so much. He liked to be intellectually challenged. But of course it was that keen intellect of Noah’s that constantly kept on guard, for I was hiding a secret that he could find out about.
“Young buck is takin’ a deconstructionist view of the world -- just like Lebron was,'' he went on to explain. Noah always liked to inject philosophical concepts into conversation. “The NBA said you don’t leave your hometown. Not like that. But who says we gotta do what the NBA elite says do? Mother fuckin’ Charles Barkley with his no ring havin’ self?”
“And in fact,” I added. “Cleveland wasn’t even Lebron’s hometown. He was from Akron.”
“Exactly, if you break things down and look at it through a set of fresh eyes, confining that poor boy to fight 9 more years to get a championship makes no damned sense. That’s Derrida right there. You ever read Derrida, Mack.”
“I read yo’ momma’s back tattoo when I was hitting her from behind last night.”
Like clockwork, Mack broke us away from deep philosophical quandaries to inject the perfunctory I-fucked-your-momma-last-night joke. At least one is required per visit or it doesn’t count.
I got things back on track, “Derrida was the father of deconstructionism. He broke down binaries and got us to see the merit in both halves by eliminating all societal biases for one side or the other: high class versus low class, reason versus passion, masculinity versus…” there was a slight pause, not detectable by the human ear as my peripheral zoomed in on her looming figure. “...femininity.”
Seliece had this nasty habit of bringing extra clothes to the shop and leaving it around where she couldn’t find it. It was like she was playing hide and seek with herself. Some thought it made her ditsy, but I knew better. To have a mind that can keep up with Noah takes a lot and her mind was always racing with the next poem she was going to create. She was more of the poetic type -- exploring deep racial issues through the flow of free verse. It kind of hurt my heart how they were a perfect yin and yang.
As she revealed what she was looking for, everything froze, “Have you seen my pearl earrings?”
I don’t know why. Sweat began to gather on my brow. There was no way Noah could have known -- but still. I feared his Sherlock level of deductive reasoning. Would he be able to deduce the truth -- that her pearl earrings were at my house, in my bedroom, sitting on my nightstand.
There wasn’t an ounce of scolding in his voice. It was totally playful as he said it, “Girl I told you not to be leaving your stuff all over my barbershop. The sign on the front says barbershop. Not Seliece’s Boutique.”
“Well, what’s the point of having a boyfriend with a barbershop if you can’t leave your shit around now and again?”
I was closing my eyes tightly, straining, as if I had superpowers that could shut her up. As she rambled on, I did the next best thing and asked about one of her poems. She actually recited one about being a woman and having to deal with patriarchal norms. It was beautiful and I said as much.
“Yeah,” Noah commented. “My baby’s talented. Ya’ll should come to one of her poetry readings.”
Then, right on cue, Mack shot back, “If there’s a poetry reading at yo’ momma’s house, I’ll be there.”
“Hold up. Order in the court! You have exceeded your momma joke limit,” Noah proclaimed. “I rebuke you in the name of Jesus.”
That got a laugh from the room, and sure enough Noah smoothly transitioned into the next topic. Something I know he’d been thinking about. “But speaking of mommas,” he went on as the haircut was nearing the end, “Your moms told me you have the pick of the litter for colleges. Duke, Yale, Harvard. It’s like you Tyra Banks and they a bunch of niggas on the stoop. You got an idea of which you’re gonna choose.”
My response took the air out the room.
“I was thinking about staying here.”
Every razor stopped buzzing. Every eye turned. The barbershop equivalent of a record skipping.
“If you look at all of the world’s Nobel Prize winners 90 percent of them didn’t go to a prestigious college.”
“Well, they sure as hell didn’t go no damned Wilcreek. Lionel, we don’t even have a damned football team.”
“I don’t care about a football team. I want to be here with my family. My friends. With --”
I did not say the pronoun that I reached for and definitely not with the passion and intensity hanging on the edge of my tongue. Saying that single word in that singularly tone would have broken all protocol.
Playing off my silence, Noah diagnosed my ailment, “You’re scared.”
But his diagnosis was not perfect. For indeed I was scared, but fear comes in multiple dimensions -- multiple forms, pulling you from differing angles. There’s fear of staying. Fear of leaving. Fear of admitting the truth. Fear of judgment. Fear of loss. The alternate endings to your reality play before you a dizzying mess until you’re frozen, not knowing what to do.
Finally, I managed the courage to respond. “I’m not scared. I’m taking a deconstructionist view. Society is telling me I have to go to a certain college to follow my dream.”
What I said next had such a deep double meaning, “But what if my dream is right here?”
He smiled that infamous pearly white grin that belonged on the cover of a magazine, and replied, “My man. You’re right.”
He of course added, “But think about it. Deeply. It’s the biggest philosophical quandary you’ll ever encounter in life. Husserl spent entire lectures examining the essence of a cup of coffee. This is your life, little man.”
I appreciated both the advice and the warmth coming from his voice. He finished up my edge and all was going well until Seliece sauntered back into the room.
“Honey, this is getting weird,” she said with an ominous voice. “I can’t find my heels. I can’t find my earrings. I can’t find anything. Multiple things are missing.”
“What are you getting at?” Noah commented surveying his girlfriend from the corner of his eye.
“Look, I really hate to say this, but I think that crackhead you let in here has been stealing my stuff.”
“Hey, hey, hey. Her name’s Jenisa, baby.”
“Well, this Jenisa has been stealing, and maybe you should stop inviting her over.”
And in that moment, I saw a hint of something I had barely seen before: Noah was getting irritated.
“You don’t know that!” he snapped.
Every eye in the barbershop grew wide. All the men, like me, were probably in the back of their mind thinking maybe this was their chance. Maybe Noah and Seliece would break up and someone would be able to swoop in and pick up the pieces. Someone who already had a close bond formed.
“I’m just sayin’. It’s OK to be nice to people,” Seliece pled her case, “but sometimes you’re too nice.”
“So you think I’m too stupid to know when someone is takin’ advantage of me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then what are you sayin --”
“Stop,” I interrupted. The forcefulness of my voice was enough to cause a silence in the room, because I’m barely forceful.
Taking a deep breath, I confessed, “I have them. I have her earrings, her shoes, her clothes.”
Noah was confused but a little accusatory too. He turned to me cautiously, “You have them. Well, why?”
I turned to Seliece and looked her right in the face and said, “To teach her a lesson about leaving her shit everywhere.”
There was a brief silence as the room began to process my response. And then there was laughter.
“That’s damned straight,” Mack said, leading everyone in praising me for my prank.
In truth, it was an awful excuse, but homophobia and transphobia does that to men. They would rather believe some half-assed fable than the truth. That I stood in front of a mirror so many nights trying to look like her -- like Noah’s type. So I could be with him and talk Socrates, Wittgenstien, Satr. I spent hours, trying to mimic her walk. Her pouty lips. Squeezing my near non-existent chest muscles together to reproduce her cleavage. Like her clothing was some magic amulet that transformed me into an amazonian princess of some sort.
But what was there to think about? What hallucination was causing me to think that with enough time I could get him to love me like he loved her? I guess a part of me thought maybe if I put on her earrings, walked in her shoes, became well read as her, I could become her and replace her. But when the haircut was finished and I turned to look at myself in the mirror, I saw what the whole world saw: a man. A man with stubble and a misshapen chin, rough chapped lips, and short hair.
“So what do you think?” Noah asked, putting the mirror to my face.
I had to turn toward his beautiful complexion to give a half honest answer.
“I love it.”