The Last Time I Was Beautiful

Submitted into Contest #164 in response to: Write a story where a local takes a newcomer under their wing.... view prompt

46 comments

Speculative Friendship

“I hope you don’t mind me asking,” I say, “but aren’t you a little old to be a new hairdresser?”

The fifty-something woman in the reception area looks up expectantly, holding her job application and freshly-minted beautician's license in her hands. 

“I earned a perfect score on the cosmetology exam,” she offers almost apologetically, with a thin smile. Her feet are fidgeting underneath her chair. 

I stand with my callused hands on my ample hips. I audibly sigh. 

Finding experienced hair stylists is hard enough, but breaking in new ones? Hard pass. I’ve trained plenty of would-be hairdressers who have left me to work across town for a dollar more an hour. Besides, with no visible tattoos, nose rings, or piercings, she will not fit in with our crowd. 

I look her over again, now standing stoop-shouldered and unsure. She tugs at her beige cardigan, a decade out of style. 

I’d be doing her a favor by dismissing her out of hand. 

I shake my head. 

My other beauticians don’t say a word. They are used to my blunt style. They continue dyeing gray hair into golden coppers, rich auburns, and buttery blondes. The sharp staccato of their scissors sends snippets of hair sailing through the air. Later on, I’ll have to sweep the floor myself since Millie the Shampoo Girl called in sick, using the twenty-somethings' chief complaint: “I have too much anxiety to come into work today.” But she is not anxious enough to keep off social media, as I watch her Instagram and Snapchat light up with new adventures. 

I’ll have to fire Millie. I hate firing people almost as much as I hate hiring them. 

“I’m a fast learner.” The older woman interrupts my reverie, waiting for me to take her seriously. “I’ll come in early and stay late. I don’t mind working weekends.”

Working weekends. She’d have the shop to herself! No one under the age of forty would consider working Saturdays and Sundays. It’s usually just me. 

“And I see you’re shorthanded. I could start today—on a trial basis,” she proposes, accompanied again by her small smile, the one that didn’t quite reach her eyes. 

“All right,” I reluctantly agree. “You can work here. I’ll teach you what I know. But you need to promise to work here for at least a year and a day. Does that seem fair to you?” 

“Absolutely.” 

“Fine,” I mutter. “Let’s get you started.”



She spends most of the morning cleaning parts of the salon that haven’t been scrubbed in years. I watch her effortlessly greet customers, offer coffee, answer phones, make appointments, and cashier. In between helping the front of the house, she manages to shampoo customers before their cuts and carry on polite conversations between sweeping up piles of hair. I see her organize the hair dyes in the back and lug black bags of trash into the dumpster.

For lunch, she takes out an apple from her purse along with a few soda crackers. 

“We’re getting some cheesesteaks from next door," I say. "You want one?”

She shakes her head no.



Months later, the two of us are closing up the shop. I ask her if she wants to work at her own station.

“Do you think I’m ready?” 

“Only one way to find out.” I plop myself down in her chair. “I’m your first customer.”

She pumps the chair up to the appropriate level, draping a cutting cape around my neck, fluttering it as elegantly as a queen’s robe.  

“So what can I do for you today?” She mimics my southern drawl, standing directly behind me as we look into the mirror. 

“I want what all our customers want.”

“And what’s that?”

“To feel special.”

For a moment a dark memory crosses her face, but she quickly prepares to work. 

“How about a shorter cut with tons of layers?” she suggests. “I’ll add in loose waves for volume and dimension.”

“Perfect,” I reply. “So, I bought you a gift for all of your hard work this month. It’s in your top drawer.”

Curiously, she opens the drawer and pulls out a new texturizing iron, festooned with a big bright red bow on top.

“It’s got titanium-coated plates,” I brag. “Only the finest.”

She doesn't reply.

“It’s yours now, but be careful,” I warn. “Crimpers can be good for styling but bad for hair. Make sure you use heat protection spray before you—”

I notice she is crying.

“Are you all right?”

She nods. 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” she replies. “I don’t.”

I get up from her chair. 

“Sit down,” I order, and she complies. I take off the cutting cape and place it around her shoulders. 

“So what can I do for you today?” I ask her.

She buries her face in her hands. 

“All right,” I sigh. “What’s his name and how long were you together?”

“Forrest,” she whispers. “Twenty-seven years.”

“Probably twenty years too many,” I mutter. I hold up a long strand of her hair. “We’re going to darken this a bit, then give you a shaggy mid-length cut. Then I’ll do a foilayage in a caramel mocha.”

She looks up. “I can’t afford all that. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, I need to work on my technique, so you’re my test dummy. I’m going to practice my makeup application skills, too.”

She says very little while I work. At the end, I spin her chair around. 

She looks a decade younger. We are both staggered by the transformation.

“I don’t remember the last time I was beautiful.”

“You were beautiful before all this paint and powder. Forrest doesn’t get to take your beauty from you. You get to keep that.”

“I get to keep that,” she agrees. 

“And he can go straight to hell.”

“With his ugly girlfriend.”

“Who probably has frizzy hair,” I add.

Before she leaves, she flashes a dazzling smile, one that lights up her whole face, one that makes her absolutely beautiful. 


September 18, 2022 14:22

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

46 comments

Michael Regan
03:34 Oct 02, 2022

I am never disappointed with your stories. Another great one.

Reply

12:19 Oct 02, 2022

A lovely comment 💐 Thank you 🙏🏻

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
A.R. Eakle
19:23 Sep 19, 2022

This was a really cute story!! I would like more of a story on their relationship though. It seems to go from newbie to bff in about 2 sentences haha. I think you could do a lot there!

Reply

20:09 Sep 19, 2022

Old ladies stick together. We don't need a lot to bond over :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Lily Finch
19:08 Sep 18, 2022

Great story, Deidra. So true, unfortunately for so many. We need more of the shop owner's voice around in real life. Good read. Thanks, Deidra. LF6

Reply

23:15 Sep 19, 2022

It's always good to find someone in the crossroads when you need them :)

Reply

Lily Finch
23:20 Sep 19, 2022

yup :) LF6

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Tommy Goround
05:47 Sep 30, 2022

Yep. Clapping.

Reply

12:58 Sep 30, 2022

Appreciate the kudos. *stage bow*

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Michele Cooper
05:07 Sep 30, 2022

Hello. I am new here. I absolutely love this story and your writing style! Thank you for sharing

Reply

12:57 Sep 30, 2022

Welcome. Join us on Discord (check my bio) for some Reedsy writers chat.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Davie McGuinn
00:20 Sep 27, 2022

I'm currently reading my copy of "The Medicine Girl." It's really good. Your stories are soulful and sincere.

Reply

00:52 Sep 27, 2022

Davie, You've absolutely made my day. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for being such a supportive and a lovely writing colleague. How about joining us over on the Discord channel? Lots of your favorite Reedsy writers are there. Come chat about the joys & frustrations of writing: https://discord.gg/bxTWQw3HJR Onward :)

Reply

Davie McGuinn
02:19 Sep 27, 2022

That'd be great! I tried getting on Discord over the summer on my Honeymoon in Alaska.. We both got sick with COVID and I think my fog brain just couldn't figure it out at the time, haha! I'll give it a second go!

Reply

08:18 Sep 27, 2022

That’s quite a story — honeymoon, Alaska, covid. That’s like three stories— 😧

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Zack Powell
18:45 Sep 26, 2022

D, this is beautiful. A masterclass in economy of language. THIS is how you tell a complete, meaningful, well-rounded story in just 1,000 words. If I could like this twice, I would. Everything about this piece resonated with me. Fantastic, realistic dialogue (“I want what all our customers want.” “And what’s that?” “To feel special.”); an interesting setting that we (or at least I) don't see too often; strong female friendship. This ticked all my boxes. Also, bonus points for fitting in the word "festooned." And I appreciate the intimation ...

Reply

19:06 Sep 26, 2022

Zack Powell, you know how to make an (old) girl blush. Best comment to date: "I love haircut stories in general" --> You are right! They should be their own genre. :) Your words are manna from heaven, much needed on this gloomy Monday afternoon. Thanks for your generosity of spirit.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Aeris Walker
17:28 Sep 25, 2022

I could imagine these two women so clearly. The new hire probably shops clearance at Belk's and makes fantastic cheese biscuits--a sweet soul who was so over due for a makeover. My mother tried out a new hairdresser lately, and about half way into her head being covered in foils, the girl tells her she did nearly all her cosmetology training through zoom due to covid/2020. Needless to say, my mom wasn't crazy about the results...

Reply

17:43 Sep 25, 2022

Cheese biscuits are a thing? OMG. Must find out where to buy. Cheese + Biscuits. Yes...

Reply

Aeris Walker
18:02 Sep 25, 2022

Might have to go further South. Follow the Geese ;)

Reply

18:19 Sep 25, 2022

Noooooooo I just moved north. If anything, I'd go farther north.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Keila Aartila
14:32 Sep 24, 2022

This was such a lovely story- brought a smile to my face. I really enjoyed reading it - I feel you captured the characters well, their personalities shone through delightfully. Nice job! 🌺

Reply

14:52 Sep 24, 2022

Thanks, Keila. Sometimes characters just conjure themselves up and say what they need to say. I just try to transcribe it as best I can. :)

Reply

Keila Aartila
14:57 Sep 24, 2022

It was a refreshing read - and I love it when characters come to life in your own head like that! 😎

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
H L McQuaid
10:13 Sep 23, 2022

I've been watching Queer Eye (Brasil edition), and it's amazing what a little pampering and make-over can do for our mental health and sense of self. And I agree, hairstylists are some of the keenest observers of the human experience. Ps. I am NOT crying.

Reply

14:00 Sep 23, 2022

Love you HL. And I admire your infinite talent :) As for our middle aged hair dresser? I think we all need a week at a day spa at this point in the 21st c.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Michał Przywara
20:56 Sep 19, 2022

A sweet ending for a story with some bitter notes :) It's happy because the owner took a chance on the new hire, and it looks like she's working out. Getting the job is of course happy for the woman. It's less sweet then, because of Forrest, but also because the woman looks like she has to start over late in life. Why? Was she dependent on Forrest, in whole or in part, and now she's struggling to make ends meet? Or maybe it's unrelated to him, and the job market is just taking its toll? Or perhaps it's not so dire, and she just decided to ...

Reply

23:30 Sep 19, 2022

My boy Michal here with the next level analysis... :) Yes on the bitter. Yes on the sweet. Can't have one without the other... I was going for an older salon owner, world-weary, as in the words of the Farmers Insurance slogan: "We know a thing or two, because we've seen a thing or two." In my 30 years of going to hair salons, I can attest those beauticians understand the human condition better than the entire Harvard Arts & Humanities Department. Yes on dropping the baggage, or the need for external validation from anyone. That's what mak...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
15:31 Sep 19, 2022

Great writing. The first person voice of the shop owner, learning something about being a beautician, and the tension of an outsider intruding into this world makes this flow really well. Some lines I liked.. "accompanied again by her small smile, the one that didn’t quite reach her eyes. " “I want what all our customers want.” “And what’s that?” “To feel special.” One suggestion,"every twenty-somethings' chief complaint" feels like a bit of an over generalization, perhaps a "common twenty-somethings complaint" might be better. I'm sure ...

Reply

18:53 Sep 19, 2022

Thanks, Scott. I appreciate the read and the commentary. As for the "tough" Gen-Z'rs? .........

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Graham Kinross
23:49 May 08, 2023

What are soda crackers? “Then I’ll do a foilayage in a caramel mocha.” sounds delicious. “makes her absolutely beautiful,” she was beautiful anyway, reveals her beauty?

Reply

13:58 May 09, 2023

Saltine crackers — also called saltina or soda crackers — are a popular and versatile snack. Made with white flour, a leavening agent like baking soda or yeast, shortening, and coarse salt, saltine crackers are noted for their dry texture, crispiness, and distinctive perforations that make them easy to snap and enjoy.

Reply

13:58 May 09, 2023

Works Cited https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/are-saltine-crackers-healthy#:~:text=Saltine%20crackers%20%E2%80%94%20also%20called%20saltina,easy%20to%20snap%20and%20enjoy.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Tommy Goround
11:50 Feb 02, 2023

Memorable story here. I was looking for the Nazi/iconography story. Don't see it. It has really remarkable prose. Full immersion. The words lull and the character , teacher, is memorable. But I don't see it.

Reply

13:13 Feb 02, 2023

What are you going on about, Mr. Goround? j I am always impressive by your output. Time to write your novel. Let me know if you want to swap chapters. It helps keep one accountable :)

Reply

Tommy Goround
13:57 Feb 02, 2023

The store you had about a teacher that found Nazi stuff?

Reply

14:32 Feb 02, 2023

Oooooooooooooooo. True. Here you go. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/kzz4r6/

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
17:53 Jan 22, 2023

I am new to the site, and have been reading so many stories. I have read several of yours, and I really enjoy your style of writing. This story made me tear up. Thank you for a good story.

Reply

17:56 Jan 22, 2023

Thanks for reading :) We look forward to reading your stories, too!

Reply

03:45 Jan 24, 2023

I've got one up! I am excited to add to the stories. There are so many great ones here! Thanks again for the encouragement.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Marty B
06:17 Sep 29, 2022

Who probably has frizzy hair! Love it!

Reply

15:11 Sep 29, 2022

Fun fact: I have hella frizzy hair. Submitted as evidence: https://deidrawhittlovegren.com/about-2/

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Danika J
01:44 Sep 27, 2022

Top three favorite things: the title. Struck me. What an outstanding title! "Buttery blonde." I don't know why I loved it so much - I get it put the most satisfying image in my mind. & "fluttering it as elegantly as a queen’s robe." That made me feel like I was in the salon! This story was fun to read. It gave me goosebumps and frankly, I want to hear more of it! Well done!

Reply

13:58 Sep 27, 2022

"Wanting to hear more" is the greatest of compliments. Thanks for your kind remarks, Danika!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Stevie B
20:57 Sep 19, 2022

Excellent work, Deidra!

Reply

23:17 Sep 19, 2022

Mister B, always a pleasure :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply