Andrea is a writer, teacher and researcher based in London. She comes from the Midwest of America, an area considered by the rest of the world to be “flyover country.” Like any good Midwesterner, she knows this is ridiculous, but would never tell you so to your face. Wouldn’t want to be unpleasant. Her writing has most appeared in Popshot, Like the Wind, and various online literary magazines. Litro magazine recently published her story, “The Lover,” which took second place in the 2020 Orwell Dystopian Fiction competition.
Annie strides through the door of the salon. “Hi!”
The receptionist turns her head away from the computer to assess Annie. Her hand rests on the mouse, one finger hovering, interrupted mid-click.
“I have an appointment with Luca?” Annie says.
She squints at the screen. “Anne Louise Mitchell.” She speaks in monotone.
“Well yes,” Annie says. “But I prefer Annie?”
“That’s great, have a seat.”
Poor thing. She must be so bored. Annie has always thought this about salon receptionists. She wonders if this one has ambitions of doing hair. Or saving up to go West to LA or East to New York. She herself dreamed about this once, years ago. Though she didn’t really know why. Simple as somewhere different, she supposes. That’s all. The receptionist isn’t pretty enough for either city. Interesting geometry in her face, maybe. She might play a role in a sci-fi film.
“Have a seat,” the receptionist repeats. Her eyes are large and outlined in rough navy blue pencil. It looks like crayon.
She isn’t that pretty. Just young.
Annie smiles and sits. She reminds herself you’re only as old as you feel. She summons a youthful feeling, strokes her purple fingernails. She’s soothed by the smooth, glossy feel of them. She feels fine.
The salon is one narrow L-shaped room, and from her seat in the corner, she can see every part of it. Along the long edge are three hydraulic-pump chairs and some metallic sinks for washing at the far-end . Beyond that is a door to a room Annie has never been inside, a room where the staff relax and store their personal items. It is from here that Luca now appears. Annie snatches up a magazine from the table and smooths the pages on her lap, slouching a bit and crossing her leg. Her legs do not easily drape one over the other as easily as they once did, but rather than uncross or adjust her position, Annie clenches her thighs together and tries to appear relaxed. The magazine is for men. Fashionable, edgy men. Men who have never appeared in this town. One model wears a thin collar with stumpy silver spikes. She flips the page. Nipple piercings. Little silver hoops with colored beads and bars.
“Anne Louise?” Luca. That voice. That accent. She freezes, poised over the nipples, feels the ballooning behind her throat and chest, swallows. “Are you here for a cut or a piercing?”His voice is soft, so sotto voce.
“Ummmm…” she draws it out, high-pitched and playful, as though she just can’t make up her mind. She knows the salon doesn’t offer piercings. She knows he’s flirting with her. “A cut.” She snaps the magazine shut, tosses it on the table, and smiles widely, showing all her teeth.
Luca waves for her to follow him. He’s as slim a fifteen-year-old boy, his gold-brown hair, longish on top, is swept messily to one side. His dark blue shirt is buttoned all the way to the top, the sleeves rolled up neatly to the elbows.
Annie sits as he whips the black cape from behind like a toreador. He lifts her long hair to fasten the velcro tight at her nape. The cape drapes over the arms of the chair leaving her amorphous. He works the pedal with his foot. Their eyes meet in the mirror as she is pumped upwards little by little.
“So,” he says. “What are we thinking today?” He runs his fingers through her hair, tousling it at the top. A shiver scurries up her spine.
“Annie,” she says.
He tilts his head at her in the mirror.
“Annie,” she says again. “Not Anne Louise.” He’s grown out his facial hair, trimmed it into a neat little strap from one ear to the other.
Luca looks puzzled. “Just a trim?”
“My name is Annie,” she says again, laughing a little. “Remember?”
“Okay, yes. But you are Anne Louise? This is your appointment?”
“Yes, but please call me Annie.”
“Yes, okay, you are Annie.” He is nodding, as though he remembers. Annie relaxes back into the chair. “So a trim?”
His skin does look nice with that dark strip of facial hair. Luca was never the kind of man to grow stubble a few hours after shaving, though she’s always thought those men were the most attractive. He has lovely skin though. She can’t imagine it ever gets blotchy or overly porous.
Her hands clench the metallic armrests. For a moment, they make eye contact in the mirror. She squints at him, mole-like. She steadies, unclenches.
Breezy. “What do you think?”
“I think it looks quite good as it is,” he says. “Yes, maybe just a trim” He holds up a section of hair between his second and third fingers. “Some split ends, but it seems fine, otherwise. Healthy.”
Healthy. “I might want to change things up a bit, though, you know. Be a bit adventurous? What do you think of that?”
He pouts his lips. “Do you have a picture of what you want to do?”
“How about a wash to start off?” he says.
“Sure.” He spins the chair around. “In the back.”
“Yeah, I know,” she says. The words come out snotty, but he is cool, doesn’t raise an eyebrow. He leads her to the back of the salon. The sinks glitter in line.
The last time she saw him, he was clean-shaven and wore a salmon button-up, the top four buttons undone with nothing underneath but pure, clean skin stretched over bone.
She had come in for the same old service, a trim and that time, a color to cover the few grays that had begun to sprout. They’d engaged in simple chit-chat, talked about the weather of course. It was winter then. Annie told him winter just wasn’t what it used to be. That she remembered snowbanks seven-feet tall on the edge of every parking lot. That driving down Hwy 35 at night, the whole countryside was blue-lit, everything covered in a thick layer of snow.
Luca had seen snow only in the mountains of Italy. He told her about winter in Rome. Rome, unbelievably, was his home town. Where the white-stone streets were washed clean nearly every day from the winter rains.
Annie had never met a Roman. She hadn’t even considered such people still existed until she met Luca. To her, Romans were a part of history class and Hollywood movies about gladiators. People in white sheets and leather sandals. Of course, it made sense that a person from Rome would be called a Roman. It seemed silly that this information felt new. But even now, when she thought of Luca, her mind put him in a toga, a thick golden belt, a crimson cape. It put a sword in his hand.
The gush of the water. On the ceiling, a poster of a poinsettia. “Tell me if the temperature is okay,” he says. The water is so tepid, she barely feels it, though the pressure is strong.
He rubs shampoo into her scalp. She closes her eyes. “So, what do you like most about doing hair?” she asks.
“Yeah.” She raises her eyebrows, looks at the part of the ceiling closest to him.
“I guess the art of it,” he says. “I don’t know. What do you like about your job?”
She suppresses a smile. “Oh, I can’t really say.”
“Ooh, mysterious.” Yes, she is mysterious. His hands in her hair, the little circles, the suds. It smells like…
“What’s that smell?” she says.
She’s tried jasmine tea before, hates it. Too perfumy. “My sense of smell has really improved,” she says after a brief period of silence.
Last time, as soon as she’d sat down, he commented on her skin. He said her “complexion” was radiant. Immediately, she saw what he was talking about. She was rosier in the cheeks, and her eyes sparkled in the mirror. It must have been the cigarettes, dulling her natural gleam. She was thrilled he’d noticed such a subtle change. She told him she’d quit, two weeks before. He confessed that he, too, had been a smoker, that his partner had asked him to quit.
“I didn’t want to do it,” he’d explained. “I had just moved all the way here from Rome, and then I’m supposed to quit smoking too?” He’d laughed, his white teeth perfect.
“Why’d you do it?” she asked.
“For love,” he’d said, and laughed again. “No, no. Not for love. For money. Cigarettes are too expensive here.”
Annie wanted to know more about his partner, why they’d settled here instead of Rome. She didn’t know why anyone would want to settle here. Maybe his partner didn’t speak Italian. A safe bet, probably. She wondered if the resentment had yet mounted between them.
She gazes up at the poinsettia, focuses on his fingertips moving in slow circles from her temples, over and over. “Do you ever feel tempted?” she asks.
“Tempted. You know. To have a cigarette.” He isn’t following. “Remember, I quit?”
“Oh, congratulations!” he said. “That’s marvelous news!” He claps his sudsy hands together a few times in applause. “I also quit, some time ago. I did it for love, you know.” He whispers this close enough to her ear that she can feel his breath. His tone is conspiratorial. Annie is annoyed.
“No,” she says straining her gaze upwards trying to see his face. “You did it for money, you said. Remember, it’s too expensive?”
Luca says nothing.
“You did it for money,” she says louder.
Gary didn’t notice when she quit smoking. He had never smoked himself. He said, “A good Lutheran would never smoke,” which was ridiculous. He made a joke about his body, the temple he filled with bacon every morning and beer every night. She’d removed the ashtrays from the house, hadn’t even stored them away. She threw them in the garbage can right before she rolled it to the curb. She’d placed potpourri on the end tables in their place, little bowls of red and brown bark, cinnamon sticks and wheels of dried orange. “What’s this?” he’d asked, picking up a piece and holding it to his nose. “Don’t eat that,” she snapped.
Someone had told her to freeze grapes and eat them every time she wanted a cigarette. She and sat crunching on them while they watched the nightly news, each in their own armchair.
“What’s that?” he’d asked.
“Frozen grapes,” she’d answered. He only nodded, his gaze on the screen unbroken. “They’re loud.”
Annie imagined launching one at the side of his fat head, but didn’t want him to think she was being playful. She thought of the ashtrays in the bin at the end of the driveway. The heavy one, the dark amber glass.
Luca and Annie again consider her appearance in the mirror. “You still feeling adventurous?”
“You want to do something adventurous?”
“Oh, yes.” During the wash, she’d decided to go dark, something purple-y. Dyed hair required more maintenance, more frequent trips to the salon.
“Maybe something shorter?” he says.
She hasn’t thought of that. “I hadn’t thought of that,” she says. “But yes, maybe.” A short style would also require frequent upkeep.
“Maybe something a little angled, like this?” With his finger, he draws a line from high on the back of her neck down to her chin.
“Really? Do you think that jives with my personality?” She studies him. “Maybe I need to break out of my shell?”
“I don’t want to push, but I think something like this would complement your face shape, make you look younger, bring out your beautiful complexion.”
She looks at him in the mirror. He must remember then.
“Can I get you a coffee or a tea?” he asks. “You want a magazine to look at for inspiration?”
“No, no I’m fine…I just don’t know if…I mean, what do you think about something darker? In color I mean?”
“I can do what you want,” he says with what she thinks is a sigh. Boredom. She hears it. “But for color we should not wash the hair beforehand. I suggest a cut today, and make another appointment for color.”
He stands behind her, arms crossed. She feels a familiar strain in her chest. “Yeah, ok, let’s just go for the cut then. I know you wouldn’t make me look bad. I trust you. Be an artist.”She lifts her hand to kiss her fingertips in the way she thinks of as Italian, but the cape comes up with it. She abandons the gesture.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“Yeah, fuck it.” He raises his eyebrows. He is impressed. She bites her lip to keep from smiling.
“Okay then. It will be a sorpresa.”
He has spun her around, away from the mirror. She feels the tug of the comb stretching her hair up, high above her head, the single crisp snip. The cool air on her neck. She feels hot and sticks her tongue out the corner of her mouth. Salty, sweaty upper lip. They are silent as it happens, and she mostly keeps her eyes closed.
A wet clump of hair hangs over her face, the tips of a few stray strands tickling the inside of her nostril. She sneezes, her hands flying up to catch the spray, but again the cape is in the way and she winds up holding the fabric to her nose. A large wet glob of yellow mucus sticks to it. Seeing this, she flies up out of the chair and bundles the fabric in her hands, pieces of hair thrown up around them, glinting like confetti. Luca stands back frozen, a silver scissors open and held up high in the air. “Are you okay?” he asks.
“Yes, sneeze, so sorry!” she shouts. “Bathroom?” He points with the scissors. She has used the bathroom many times before. “Oh yes, I know!” She tiptoe-runs through the hair to the door. Inside, alone, she looks in the mirror, her hair a mess of angles and clips. She looks terrible and wishes she’d brought her purse in. A bit of lipstick, maybe a reapplication of concealer. The bright lights around the mirror make her look wan and older than she is. She wipes the mucus off the cape with a bit of toilet paper and flushes.
He is sweeping up the hair around the chair when she emerges. “Please,” he says to her, a calm hand held out to the chair. “You are okay?”
“Yes, yes. Just a little cold, maybe. Carry on. Continue.” She doesn’t meet his eye.
The receptionist has approached. She stands behind Annie, staring, her lower lip lax and droopy. Annie shifts and adjusts her posture. “Luca,” the receptionist says, “Alex is here.”
“Okay, just a moment.” He turns to Annie. “You okay here just one moment?”
“Yes, yes,” she says. “Go ahead, I’ll wait right here.”
Luca strides off to the waiting area. From Annie’s position, she can’t quite see what’s going on, but she hears voices. She thinks she hears Luca exclaim, “Yahtzee!” She squirms to try to see who this Alex is. She hears the voices, the kind murmuring, the word “amore,” multiple times. Then the door tinkles brightly, closes, and Alex is gone. Luca returns with a glass container filled with colorful food.
“Look what amore mio brought to me,” he says, holding it up. “Lunch.” He places it on the shelf by the mirror and picks up the scissors. He is luminous.
“Lucky you,” Annie says.
“Yes, you are all so nice here,” he says. “In Rome, nobody brings me fresh lunch, nobody thinks of this. This is why I love this place.”
Annie mumbles he must be joking. This Alex was the one who forced him to come here, who forced him to quit smoking. Alex was a trap, and this, colorful bait.
“Tell me more about Rome,” she says. “I’d just love to go there.”
He tells her Rome is not like any other city in Europe, that the ruins are everywhere, so many ruins they’re not even marked in some places, jutting out here and there in public places, lying flat under the rail tracks. He tells her how the Spanish steps are always crowded with tourists and men hawking long-stemmed red roses.
“You told me this the last time,” she snaps.
“Americans are everywhere. They buy the roses, they eat the terrible pizza in the center of the city and rave about how delicious Italian food is. It is so easy for them to be happy.”
Annie folds her hands over her belly beneath the cape and does not respond. For a while they don’t speak.
“I think it is done,” he says. He has removed the heavy clips from her head, tousled and re-touseled the wet hair. He has pulled the strands on either side of her face to meet beneath her chin, his face so close to hers she could smell mint on his breath. He blow-dries her hair, asking her to change positions often, to stand up and bend over, so he can get some volume in her waves, he says. Then, she sits, still facing away from the mirror. “One more little thing.” He rustles through a drawer behind her. Then, she thinks she hears him say: “What do you miss about home?”
She isn’t sure she’s heard him right. She doesn’t understand the question. She has lived here her whole life. Maybe is is asking about the house she grew up in? Her parents still live in that house, she could walk there this instant in less than ten minutes. She can name all the streets, the numbered ones running west to east, the others, mostly named for trees, running north to south in a small grid, cut through by Main Street. Is anyone here from elsewhere? Anyone besides Luca? Some people brought in through marriage, some students at the little university famous for agricultural studies and nothing else, students who quickly leave after graduation.
“Home?” she asks, but an electric hair clipper turns on, its wild buzz loud and close to her ear. At first she is annoyed by his lack of manners, the way he did not wait for her answer, like he didn’t even want to know. Then he delicately applies it to her neck. She has never felt such a sensation, has always had long hair. He runs the clipper up and down so gently, she has an urge to slap at her neck, to bat it away. Instead, she presses both hands between her knees and squeezes. It’s like someone else’s breath on the skin, the tip of a tongue in the ear, a cold hand in a warm place, “Don’t stop,” she whispers, and then he does.
He spins her around and she is so startled she lurches forward, gasping and gripping the armrests.
“What do you think?” He is still tousling, always tousling. It is her face, but not her. She looks ridiculous, she thinks, a fake. Luca stands back, beaming. He is beautiful and proud. He expects her approval. He thinks this is what she wanted from him.
“It’s different,” she says. She swallows. “I love it.”