The Most Important Relationship You'll Ever Have
Some say the most important relationship in the world is the one you have with your mother. Others might argue that your spouse or significant other should be at the top of the list. But for me, that special, superlative place belongs to my hair dresser. It has to. They can make or break your spirit with a pair of scissors and a dime of hair gel.
I moved from Paris to New York City in the late 2000s. Although it was hard to find unpasteurized cheese or decent croissants, there was no shortages of hair dressers in the Big Apple. And given the city's reputation, I did not think it would be hard to find a good one. That was my first mistake.
Over the course of 8 years, I can't tell you how many times I forked over more than $100 on a haircut and left the salon in tears wondering how long I would have to wait for it to grow out.
In Paris, where haircuts are roughly $60, I would just walk into the salon and tell the hair stylist I wanted a haircut and they had the scissors so they could decide what kind. This was partly due to my limited French and partly due to the fact that I learned my haircut would never be identical to the model's hair in a magazine no matter how amazing my stylist was. But in New York City, communication was key. And it seemed that my communication skills were faulty because I kept getting such horrible, and horribly expensive, haircuts.
Case in point (and I caught a walleye):
By my 9th year living in the city, I was traveling 40 minutes from my home to get what I thought was a decent haircut. And I knew that there had to be another way.
One day, a friend raved about a great hair salon just down the block from my apartment and I decided to give it a try. I had been through so much at this point so how bad could it be?
A few weeks later I walked down the steps into the basement salon, brimming with floral arrangements and happy customers and stylists. I asked for Michael and he instantly made me feel like royalty, offering me chocolates or tea before cloaking me in a plastic smock. He handed me off to one of his star stylists, Claudia, and I never looked back.
It was, in my opinion, the perfect relationship. I told her what I wanted and she did exactly that.
From there I kept a pretty consistent routine, visiting every 4-6 months for a shampoo, cut, and blow-out, and I was never disappointed. But one day, when I called to make an appointment, I was shocked to learn that Claudia had gone out on maternity leave, and wouldn't be back for months. My palms began to sweat and I could hear my heart beating loudly in my ears.
"Hello?" the receptionist said.
I was speechless, in shock. But before the woman hung up the phone I choked out a reply.
"Would you like to see someone else?" the receptionist said.
I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. My hair had grown so long and unruly between cuts that I was starting to look like the kid in the Jungle Book. And unfortunately for me, that look was out of style. Tears started streaming down my cheeks and in a moment of desperation, I acquiesced.
"Ok, great. You can come see Nastya."
"I'm sorry, who?"
"Nastya," the receptionist said.
Again I wasn't sure if I heard the woman correctly, but I didn't want to be insensitive and prod further about this odd choice in names. "Does Nastya do good short haircuts?" I asked.
"Oh yeah, great," the receptionist said. Although the response didn't set me at ease, I kept the appointment. I didn't know what i was getting myself into, but I was desperate for a haircut.
The day of my appointment I entered the salon armed with a stack of haircuts that looked similar to the pixie cut or bob Claudia always gave me. I also had photos of myself with previous haircuts. Anything to help this new woman along. Nastya, a young, pretty Russian woman, asked me to take a seat in her chair and started to examine my hair.
"So what are we doing today?" she asked.
I launched into the same spiele I had given to hundreds of NYC stylists and started to show her pictures of the cut I wanted. Nastya cut me off a third of the way through the pictures and waved a hand in my face. "That won't look good on you," she said. I wanted to protest, but the look on her face said, don't cross me. And she carried the scissors in the relationship so I kept my mouth shut.
"Your hair is wavy and you need to let it be free," she continued, fluffing my short brown locks. "I will give you something much better," she said, and then sent me off to the shampooing chair.
What did I get myself into, I wondered as another woman lathered my hair in floral scented shampoo. I knew my hair was wavy. And I hated it. In fact, one of the reasons I kept my hair short was because I didn't know how to tame the strange waves that take over if I let it get too long. And now this woman wanted me to embrace them?
Once my shampooing was done I begrudgingly sat down in Nastya's chair. I was trapped. What was I going to do? I needed a haircut and she could provide that exact service. Were it my mom or husband or even daughter, I might've fought back, insulted their intelligence, or just ran away. But this woman, a professed expert in her field, was not to be crossed.
While Nastya hacked away at my haircut I started to think of new salons I'd try out in the neighborhood. I also wondered where I could get a wig, if needed.
Thirty minutes later she completed the cut and explained how I was to care for my hair. She placed a dollop of hair product into her palms, rubbed her hands together and began working it into my hair. She gathered clumps of my locks into her hands and scrunched them together to create curls. "And that is all you have to do," she said, removing the smock and wiping away any remaining hairs from my clothes.
I was uneasy at first, but the moment I left the hair salon I started getting compliments. Everyone loved the haircut.
And I grew to love the new do, too. It was easy to care for and I always seemed to look good.
The next time I scheduled a hair appointment I was giddy with excitement. I couldn't wait for Nastya to do my hair again and hoped that my old stylist was still out on maternity leave to avoid the awkward moment when she saw me with someone else in the salon.
I sat down in Nastya's chair, commended her for her previous cut, and asked for the exact same thing. Nastya looked at me, straight-faced, and said, "I don't like to do the same thing twice."
So there it was. My hopes and dreams for making this new hairstyle my signature look were dashed. Trapped, once again, I begrudgingly sat down in her chair after a shampooing. There was a sinking feeling in my gut, like when you start to realize that your relationship isn't working. I should've ended it right there, but I couldn't. She made me so happy the last time I came in and I was desperate to reclaim that feeling. Besides, I had been through the revolving door of hair stylists for long enough: it was time to finally settle down. And maybe she did come off as very controlling the first time we met, but I was so flighty when it came to hair styles. I needed structure and discipline in my life.
I decided it was my fault and let Nastya have her way with my hair once again.
Everything seemed to be going well during the haircut, and then she pulled out the blow dryer. I cringed. It was like she had forgotten me and all that we had been through. She liberated me from the chains of blow dryers and here she was holding me captive again.
Once the haircut was over, I thanked her, tipped my usually 20 percent, and ran home to wet and scrunch my hair to see if it would go back to the way it was. It didn't look exactly the same as the previous time, but it was good enough. I figured I had another 6 months before I had to see her again.
At the end of the following summer, I moved to Chicago and thought the relationship would just peter out. But I was still drawn to Nastya. I posted on message boards asking for a recommendations for a stylist in the city that cut short hair, and was disappointed with all of the results because none of them were Nastya. The next time I traveled back to NYC for work, I called my old hair salon and booked an appointment with her. As confusing as our relationship might have become, I needed to see her one more time. Despite all of the problems we had had together, deep down I knew that she was right for me.
But when I got to the salon, I soon realized that something had changed in her. She was not at all interested in learning that I moved to Chicago, which I expected. But after asking me what we were doing today, I shrugged, hoping she would take the reins of the relationship as always, and she didn't.
"You need to tell me what you want," she said. I was nonplussed. Did she forget that she was in charge? Did someone from HR have a talking to with her about American ethos and how the customer is always right? Her boldness, her sass is what I loved so much about her, and it was gone replaced by a submissive corporate yes woman. I stumbled to take control of the conversation and managed to say a few words that sounded like I knew what I was talking about: trim, grow out, layers. She rolled her eyes then went to work on my hair. But the whole time I felt uncofortable in my new role as the dominant one. I wanted things to go back to the way they were.
Near the end of the haircut, I mentioned that I was thinking about getting bangs--a bold move I hadn't tried since the 90s. Nastya seemed to brighten at the remark and I thought, yes, she is going to once again help me get out of my comfort zone. "If that is what you want," she said, almost in a whisper. But I knew deep down that she wanted to have her way with my hair. For the first time in our relationship, I took control, and said, "Yes, that is what I want."
A few snips later and I was a new me.
And I knew that Nastya and I had reached a new point in our relationship. I can't say what that point is exactly, but you better believe that I'll be going back for more the next time I need a haircut.