As a single mother, particularly a single mother of boys, there are several things I particularly dread. They are brought to mind because I experienced one of them yesterday: taking my boys to the barbershop. I hate barbershops nearly as much as I do most any place that services cars. Part of my discomfort over entering such establishments derives from prejudices formed by past experience with them.
My ex had his hair cut at the same barber for nearly all of the many years I knew him. He probably still sits periodically in the same chair. His barber didn’t only cut hair, he also sold pool cues out of the shop. There were many magazines scattered across a table in the waiting area, all of them aimed at people with penises, some at people with erect penises. Few women ever set foot in the place.
I periodically take my boys to visit three different shops, all with barber poles and all of which have what are usually considered men’s magazines, though none has magazines that would require a discrete cover if delivered to a suburban home. Those who use the scissors in each of the three shops are from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and they are mostly, but not entirely, women.
I am sure that not one of these shops (unlike Ex’s old shop) would refuse to cut a woman’s hair, but there are very few female patrons. These are places where men and boys go to have their hair cut. Clippers are usually employed at some point in the operation—often to the exclusion of shears. I sit with the men and boys who are waiting and read Newsweek even though I have already read the issue. I surf on my phone, trying to pretend I am not conspicuous, trying to pretend I am not uncomfortable.
Sitting on the hard bench only reminds me that raising boys without men is a vulnerable endeavor. It makes me think of when I traveled with the kids when they were smaller. I was scared to death that they would be molested in a truck stop while peeing alone. It was especially hard during those first years when the kids and I were back and forth between the East Coast and the Midwest trying to sort things out, at first to keep the family intact, and then to blow it apart. I would embarrass my elder son at rest areas and truck stops by waiting for a friendly-looking dad to come walking in with his kids. I would push the boys toward the men’s room door and say, “Hi, I wonder if you might make sure my boys are okay in there?”
Most dads would say “sure” or “no problem” with either a sympathetic or a puzzled look. I would exhale knowing that if some sick stranger got weird with my sons in the men’s room, there was an adult who knew he had been appointed the one to say something—anything. I hoped the asked dad would think I was a widow and not—gasp—divorced. (Obviously, I’ve since gotten over that.)
One time we were held up by weather and traffic. It was very late, past the hours at which nice people and families travel. I was, however, anxious to get to the place that we had begun to call home although at that time it held only borrowed and cast-off furniture, cots, cardboard boxes, and two van-loads of things that actually belonged to us before we left. I should have stopped to stay somewhere and saved the last few hours until morning, but I didn’t sleep well alone with the kids in hotels in strange cities back then either. I had pressed on, desperately wanting the safety of our increasingly comfortable refuge. The kids would probably remain asleep, I bargained. Two hours before the journey’s end, my son’s head popped up in the rear-view mirror.
“I need to use the bathroom,” he said. I was still afraid of the big city. The bulletproof glass-encased clerks at the gas stations, the emergency call posts, and the signs that advised to beware of purse snatchers in the rest areas all terrified me. It was midnight.
“You’ll have to wait, honey,” I said. “We’re almost home.”
He asked again twenty minutes later, and then five minutes after that.
“Mom, I can’t wait,” he said insistently.
I was alone and afraid. I just couldn’t take my children to an East Coast truck stop or a gas station in the middle of the night. I told my son that he was going to have to go outside as if camping, and that he was going to have to be quick so we didn’t get in trouble because people weren’t supposed to do that. We didn’t have a choice. He didn’t see why we couldn’t just find a bathroom.
“Because we can’t.” I said, shortly. He heard the finality in my voice and I saw him nod in the rear-view mirror.
I pulled off at the next dark exit and jumped out of the van. I went around and positioned him by the door such that he was unlikely to be seen by traffic. I stood behind him to shield him from anyone pulling up.
“Go,” I said, and he obeyed.
I sat in the barbershop thinking about that scene and feeling as vulnerable as I had by the side of a Maryland road in the darkness many years ago.
At least the boys have handsome haircuts.