I’d know his face in a dream, I’d know it in a thunderstorm. It sets my stupid heart fluttering and my fingers trembling in the scissors, every single time. Even today, when it appears at the barbershop window like a mirage, drenched in the rain, his hair looking like it’s been caught in a lawnmower, my pulse feels like it’s going to burst joyfully from my neck. I don’t know his name.
The way I know him is a long story. It starts with the girl I was a decade ago, in messy pigtails and overalls, the girl who ran wild throughout the shop and through the legs of her father’s customers. My father never sent me upstairs or told me to be quiet. The customers thought I was cute, and he needed any draw he could get in those days; the trickle in and out of our creaking doors was thin, and our scraped-together earnings at the end of each day were thinner. I was aware of this only peripherally. I knew my father’s face was lined and gray when he went to bed at night, and I knew he sometimes set dinner in front of me without setting anything for himself, but I was young enough to think that was normal.
I was that girl when I saw him the first time. He passed our shop humming and tapping a pen on empty air, steps light like he might be about to start skipping. His hair was a mess of dark curls that had been swept into knots by the wind. I pressed my nose up against the glass to watch his bouncing walk.
He looked up when he was directly in front of our store, and his eyes locked on me. For a moment I wanted to recoil, cover my suddenly-pink face and pretend I hadn’t been watching — but a moment after he saw me, his mouth stretched into a wide, double-front-teeth-missing smile, and he waved with the hand gripping his pen.
Tentatively I put up my hand, a shy half-wave as he spun around and bounced away. Even then I could feel something warm flutter in my stomach at that smile. It wasn’t handsome, but it was wide and bright, just like the barbershop’s sunny windows.
That was the first day I saw him. I discovered, in the following weeks, that he came by at the same time every day; humming, smiling, his eyes up at the sky or peeking into shop windows. He was coming home from school, I realized; in those days my father taught me himself in the evenings, but I knew most children in town went to the big brick and plaster schoolhouse several blocks away. Yet I didn’t ever talk to him. I didn’t open the window and call to him; we were a tiny barbershop, and the people I greeted week in and week out had known me all my life. I was too nervous to approach someone who walked on his own out in the wide world.
The only time I ever heard his voice, other than his off-tune humming, was the day he came to the shop’s door with a box of sticky fudge.
It had been two weeks of hoarded nickels and weak soup. I’d hid in the opposite corner when I saw him coming to the door, too nervous to speak with him head-on, but I smelled the fudge even across the shop; dark rich chocolate and sugar, the kind that would melt over your tongue and leave its taste behind for hours. My mouth watered as I breathed it in. My father had come to the door and was listening as the boy explained he was selling them for a nickel apiece.
I don’t know what would have happened if I’d come up to my father and begged him for the fudge; if he’d have rearranged our finances, chosen another tiny luxury he could live without, to get one of them for me. I don’t know whether I’d have used the opportunity to speak to the boy for the first time, or whether I’d have retreated, and perhaps never known anything of him but that he walked by our shop and had the world’s most captivating smile. But I didn’t move or make a sound. And my father, looking weary and sad, shook his head and said we didn’t have the money.
The boy only shrugged and left, that day. I went back to playing in the sunlight and ignoring my hunger. Beginning the next week, though, when the boy came by, he came to our door again. I hid in the back again. And when my father approached him, he presented him, proudly, with a penny.
“I gave my parents the money from the fudge,” he said, “but I kept a penny for you. ’Cause you don’t have enough money.”
The penny looked brand-new; it caught the light and sparkled like a tiny star when the boy handed it over. And when my father took it, I saw his lined face break out for the first time in weeks into a smile.
“Thank you, son,” he said. “That’s very kind of you.”
Even then I knew a penny was too little to change anything for us. But as he walked away, his curls windswept and his hands still tapping the air like an instrument, as I saw the quiet warmth in my father’s eyes as he stared down at the penny, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen anyone do.
I never did talk to him. I never gained the courage to go up and introduce myself. But he began stopping by, twice or three times a week, on his walk home from school, with new pennies — pennies he’d found on the ground, pennies he’d won in bets with his schoolmates, pennies he’d kept back from his earnings when he sold more of his sticky fudge around the neighborhood. Sometimes the pennies were rusty, greenish like the photos I’d seen of the Statue of Liberty, and sometimes they were dark and faded, like they’d been soaking in a gloomy bath for a hundred years. But once in a while they’d be fresh and new and sparkling, like the first time.
“One day maybe they’ll all add up to something,” the boy said to my father. I imagined him bringing us enough pennies to build a towering copper castle.
Years passed like that. At some point he should have become one of the familiar faces, one I could greet casually and charge past and nearly knock over as I played, but it was always different for him, somehow.
The last time he came in, he was six inches taller than he’d been the first time I saw him, and his teeth had grown in large and white. My pigtails had dropped down into braids, my overalls exchanged for jeans, but I still hid when he handed over his penny.
“I came to tell you my family’s moving away,” he told my father. “To the next town over. I won’t be coming to this shop anymore.”
My father put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll miss you, son.”
He seemed to be hesitant to leave. He clasped his hands behind his back, shifting from foot to foot. “And I — I wanted to…”
“What is it?”
His eyes flickered around, and I thought for a moment they caught on me. Just as they had on the first day, when he’d only been walking past the window, unaware of who was inside, unaware of the entire world encompassed for me within this shop. But this time my pulse jumped too quickly, and I did what I’d considered doing then — I retreated, pulling myself out of sight behind the back curtain.
And he left. And that was the last I ever saw of him. I began learning to cut hair from my father, getting the hang of scissors and razors and dyes and polite conversation. Business started to do a little better. We added up larger and larger earnings at the end of each week. The days of sporadic, uncertain meals disappeared behind us; we never became rich, but we stopped having to hoard our cents.
The boy didn’t come back. He’d disappeared from my life like some tiny guardian angel.
I’d know his face for a thousand years, and that’s him outside. My father’s out and I’m here alone. I’ve just been cleaning up after my last customer, but I’m frozen now, scissors still held aloft, mouth agape as he enters. I barely hear the old-fashioned bell above the door chime.
“Hey,” he says, and his voice is a little rougher, a little deeper than I remember, but it’s still got the same cadence. I can still hear his humming in the back of my mind. He rubs the back of his neck, not touching the dripping, slashed-up mess that’s his hair. “Hey, uh — I don’t know if you remember me.”
My own voice is breathless. “I do.”
He stares down at the floor. He looks as though he doesn’t know what to say.
“What—” I swallow. “What happened to you?”
He touches his head ruefully. “My little sisters decided it’d be funny to cut my hair up while I was taking a nap.”
His little sisters. A laugh rises into my throat despite myself at the image of two younger versions of him snipping his hair into its ridiculous current formation as he slept. When I giggle, his smile returns, and, yes — it’s just as I remember it. Memory didn’t do it justice. Under the ugly mess of his hair it’s only more beautiful than before.
“I was supposed to ask this girl I like on a date today.” He spreads his hands. “But I can’t ask her like this.”
“You need a trim?”
His gaze drops. “I don’t have any money.”
Something tugs between my ribs. “Oh.”
I know what those words mean now. I understand, as I didn’t yet the last time I saw him, what it means to not have enough money. I know the shame of it locked around the discomfort. I see it in his posture, and I understand that our roles have been reversed.
“Sit down,” I say.
He steps back. “I really can’t—”
“You brought us pennies for years.” I’m already gesturing to the seat. “I’m sure it added up to at least the price of a haircut.”
Even his briefest smile is radiant to me. He sits, and I take a towel and gently dry his head and shoulders, leaving his hair damp but not dripping. I pick up the scissors again and will my hands to quit their trembling.
After all this time, I still feel exactly how I did.
I settle into the job with a hand that’s long-practiced by now, cutting his hair close and neat; I want to keep as much of it on his head as possible. I run my fingers softly through it.
“The way it curls,” I murmur.
I clear my throat. “The way it curls. Your hair. It hasn’t changed either.”
His eyes meet mine in the mirror. They’re gentle and fond, an expression that makes my lungs feel sucked empty. I don’t know what I’ve done to make him look like that.
The boy that brought us pennies every other day when I was too young to know what poverty was. The boy that looked for them on the sidewalk just to give to us when my stomach was always grumbling. Just to be close enough to him, now, to trim his hair, feels like lying in the sun somewhere soft and warm. Just to see him again, to know no part of him was my imagination, feels like floating.
I put my hands on his shoulders when I’m finished. “What do you think?”
He examines himself only briefly before his mirror-eyes return to me. “Perfect. Thank you.”
“Good enough to ask your girl on a date?” I ask, half-teasing again, half-encouraging.
A little blush rises in his cheeks. “I hope so.”
And I’m in love with him. It’s a simple thing to know, though I don’t know his name, though I never really learned anything about him. Though it’s been so long since I’ve seen him at all and he only ever spoke to my father when he was here before. I’d know his face in a thousand lifetimes, and I’d love it in every one. And I’m too shy ever to tell him so.
That’s all right, though. The love is mine anyway.
I step back. “Then go on.”
He turns to look at me. “I… never got your name.”
“Elias,” he says.
Elias. I like it. Though I think I might like any name attached to him.
And then Elias stands, slowly. His eyes are still on me. I’d expected him to head immediately for the door, but he doesn’t; there’s that hesitation in his face again, the uncertainty in his stance, like he’s waiting for something else to happen. Like he’s working up the nerve to say something else.
“You really don’t have to pay,” I say.
His hand reaches out toward me, then freezes, aborts. It drops back to his side. It was like an unconscious gesture, I think — one he thought better of a second after he couldn’t stop himself from starting it.
I stare at him. Why is my heart suddenly pounding out the rhythm of some crazed drummer in my chest?
“Michaela,” he says.
His gaze is close and tender and tentative, and I’m in love with him. “Michaela, would you want to have lunch with me sometime?”
My breath comes in sharply. I can’t stop staring.
“Your name.” He bites his lip. “For years you were always just — just the girl in the window. It’s weird, knowing it now.”
“You,” I whisper. “You were the boy on the sidewalk.”
His eyes widen. “You too?”
I nod mutely.
The light that enters his face then, the hope, the joy that enters his smile, is entirely new. Nothing has ever been as beautiful in all the years I’ve been alive. He reaches out again, and it’s instinct — I meet him halfway. I catch his hand. My fingers, still shaking as though they haven’t yet recovered from his walking into the shop, lace between his.
“You never came to talk to me,” he said.
I shook my head. “I was too nervous.”
“I should have said something to you.”
“You were too nervous.”
He reaches up and feels the close-trimmed hair on his head, grinning. “When you’ve got a bad hair day like I had, nerves kind of go out the window.”
I want to kiss him. I will, I think with a thrill — when we’ve gone out to lunch somewhere, and we’re alone, across a table from each other, and I’ve put my hand over his and we lean toward each other naturally, easily, as though we’ve always just been waiting for the right moment — it’ll come, I think. It’ll come.
“Remind me to thank your sisters, then,” I say. “If I ever meet them.”
Elias, the boy with the pennies, has a laugh that could grow daisies better than sunlight and rain. It’s even sweeter when I’m the one that makes him do it.