On a clear, sultry afternoon I call Marcela, the woman who has cut my hair ever since I arrived in the barrio, to ask if she can see me. She seems about to say no, but then agrees. Her voice sounds strange.
When I arrive, the doors are closed and the curtains drawn. From the car I phone again: no answer. Then the door cracks open.
The salon, with its three styling chairs, is dark. The radio, normally blasting salsa and endless commercials, is silent. Not a manicurist in sight. Stacked near the stairs is a mound of boxes.
“I’m leaving,” says Marcela, her face indistinct in the shadows.
“You’re closing your business?”
“I’m going to live with relatives in Arizona. I can’t take it anymore.”
I climb into the same chair as always. The walls are stripped bare except for the large, framed close-up of Marcela when she was young. The expression on her smooth-skinned face is sensual and dreamy and slightly out of focus, like Ingrid Bergman’s in Casablanca.
She doesn’t look like that anymore.
“If I stay here any longer,” she says, “I’ll die.”
I recently left this barrio myself when my marriage fell apart. But I come back to have my hair cut by Marcela. I don’t trust anyone else. Sure, there must be others who could do just as well, but why take the risk? Not that I have great hair; in fact, I have very little left. But that’s the point: one slip and it’s gone.
But it’s more than just the hair.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I tell her.
“Yeah, things have gone from bad to worse.” Her eyes dart toward the window.
When I first wandered into this place twenty years ago, Marcela greeted me warmly, wrapped me in a gown, and fastened it tight. Inebriated by the fragrance of shampoo, the whir of blow dryers, and the melody of voices, I found myself immersed in a secluded female world, as if lured into the lair of Circe or the Sirens.
I was treated like a foreign dignitary. While Marcela’s fingers stroked my hair and her breasts caressed my shoulders, she showered me with compliments – Qué caballero, Qué señor tan interesante – and questions: Oh, I’d just come to Cali from the U.S.? Oh, I was living in the apartments down the street? Oh, I was living alone? The manicurists, young and skimpily–clad, hung on my words like children in school. I sensed that after I left, my name remained on their lips.
But when I told Marcela I lived alone, that wasn’t totally accurate. Cristina, a theater student I met at a party, had been spending nights at my apartment. Things evolved quickly and we moved into a nearby house.
Marcela was interested to hear about this. She said one of the manicurists had seen us grocery shopping. She wanted to know what Cristina did and what she looked like. She wanted to meet her. Would I tell her to come in for a free consultation?
“Sure,” I said, but I never did. When she wasn’t asking me questions, Marcela reminisced about her youth in Bogotá, her voice rising with excitement and self-importance: the big city, the modeling agency where she posed for the photo, the rumba, the admirers . . . until she was snagged by a Caleño and wound up stranded here.
I assumed she was referring to the phantom-like figure that occasionally drifted by, a slender, casually-dressed guy with a shock of black hair and a handsome, boyish face. I don’t think we were ever introduced. Every time he passed we’d eye each other, each expecting the other to speak. Actually, I wasn’t looking at him but at his reflection in the mirror, while being coddled and confided in by his wife.
When Marcela asked about Cristina, I’d tell her about our garden and our dance classes and our car trips around Colombia, leaving the impression that everything was great.
Entering the salon through the sun-drenched tropical garden you’d find, engrossed in a telenovela, several gum-chewing manicurists selected from a continuously-running ad in Q’hubo. They worked on commission, learned quickly that the pay was insufficient, and departed. Marcela distrusted them and complained about them constantly. Sometimes I’d see them back there by the rinsing sinks, talking to her husband.
As the years passed, Marcela gradually revealed more about this phantom, who she never referred to by name. Nominally an electrician, he seldom worked. He had a habit of asking her for money, staying out all night, and returning home broke. Besides running the salon, Marcela had to do the housework and take care of her two young boys. She’d been saving to buy the place to be free of paying rent, but when her husband needed help in starting a used-car business, she took out all she’d saved. And then watched him lose it. Right after that the salon was robbed, and she suspected one of the manicurists of being involved.
Feeling obliged to reciprocate her confidences, I confessed that Cristina and I were having problems.
“What problems?” Marcela was eager to know.
I explained that though Cristina had assured me from the beginning that she wanted to have a kid, she kept postponing it – first to finish her masters (which she never did), then to travel to Europe, then to get married. And though I gave in to all her wishes, she kept dragging her feet. I tried pressuring her, not mentioning it for months, then pressuring again. Nothing worked.
Marcela listened intently. She thought it was a shame. A nice, respectable gentleman like me, sure to make an excellent father, being denied the blessing of parenthood. It wasn’t fair.
Then she confessed that she had followed her husband to a discotheque and caught him on the dance floor with another woman: a manicurist – the same one she suspected of being in on the robbery. She lunged at the woman – tattooed and pierced and far too young – and slammed her to the floor, grappling and clawing as people crowded around. The police arrived.
Marcela’s nostrils flared.
My astonishment gave way to the realization that yes, I’d always known Marcela was capable of this, and perhaps much more.
Her eyes flit back to the window.
“Can you believe it? Now he doesn’t want me to leave.” Her voice drips with irony. “Afraid to kill the golden goose.”
At scissorpoint, I stir uneasily. Beyond the curtains, the intense glare of the sweltering afternoon forces you to squint. Here in the semi-darkness, a clackety fan recycles the stuffy air.
I stare into the mirror I know so well. A barber shop mirror is more revealing than any other. A department store mirror you might glance at in passing. The bathroom mirror at home you have learned to deceive. But this mirror is so sharp and clear it’s alarmingly intimate. Is it the quality? A higher definition? Startled, you look away. But when you look back, you see even deeper.
Every month you must face this reckoning. You can’t close your eyes, at least when Marcela’s speaking, because that would be rude. And there’s no where else to look, except at Marcela, both the idealized woman in the picture and the haggard woman with her fingers in your hair.
But who are you to talk? Look in the mirror.
Every time I came into the shop Marcela would say, “No baby yet?’
And I’d say, no, Cristina still refused to inform me of her ovulations.
“Maybe she’s using contraceptives,” I said.
Finally I issued an ultimatum: either begin fertility treatment or we’d have to split. Her gynecologist appointment was set for late afternoon; I waited anxiously for her return. Around nine o’clock she texted. She was at her sister’s. She hadn’t kept the appointment.
“Then stay at your sister’s.” I wrote.
“You didn’t!” Marcela gasped.
I nodded. Marcela steadied my head before snipping. “She’s still there,” I said.
The next time I went in, after securing me in a gown, Marcela said she had someone for me to meet. Visiting from Bogotá was her older sister, Rita, recently divorced. In no position to decline, I watched the woman slowly descend the stairs. Her resemblance to Marcela suggested a common bloodline but that was about it. She sensed at once my lack of enthusiasm. Her look of dejection pierced my heart. I struggled to feign interest throughout a haircut that seemed interminable.
Not long after that, Cristina informed me she was pregnant.
Marcela, hearing this, looked stricken. “What are you going to do?”
What else could I do? I let her come back. She suffered through an excruciating pregnancy: nauseous, irritable, fragile, needy, while I spent the whole time petrified that she would lose the baby.
Throughout that period, Marcela was especially attentive. She seemed as concerned about the pregnancy as I was. It was the first question she asked when she got me in the chair.
When Samantha was born, I filmed the whole thing. Miraculously, I managed to keep my hands steady. At fifty, I’d finally become a father. Soon I was pushing Samantha in a stroller. I felt a growing affinity with the barrio now that I shared it with her. It was comprised of closely-huddled red-roofed houses with decorative wrought-iron gates and an occasional business thrown in: a hardware store doubling as a lock smithy, a produce market where they pealed the melons, and a bakery with delicious oatmeal smoothies. The warm tropical air scented with citrus buoyed my spirits. The acacia and mango trees provided shade for the sword plants, elephant ears, and one plant called mother-in-law’s tongue. There were humming birds and azulejos and those little yellow canaries that always go in pairs, and the loquacious bichofué, ceaselessly calling its name. And you’d hear vendors chanting, “Cocadas! Soldering! Shoe repair!” and the little slow-walking knife sharpener who never said a word, but was known by his plaintive two-note whistle.
Sometimes out of the silence you’d hear a roar and remember that this was the day of the soccer match. The yellow jerseys you’d unconsciously observed suddenly registered. People saying, “Hello, neighbor,” to all who passed. But sometimes the cheerful surface cracked. One day the two boys who parked cars at the panadería were gunned down, word was by Gota a Gota, the sinister money lenders. Other times you’d hear gunshots and learn from the watchman that the neighbor on the corner, whom you’d never suspected of being involved in “cosas raras,” had been “diced” by motosicarios.
Our protector was Pedro, the eighty year-old watchman, always singing:
Tú me dejastes
Con la puerta abierta.
Tú me dejastes
Con la puerta abierta.
He carried a scarred wooden nightstick which he brandished when recounting the occasions it had served him. But when our house was robbed at gunpoint, he was “up the street drinking coffee.”
On Christmas, the barrio was lit up like Las Vegas. And on Halloween the streets teemed with zombies and Spidermen; eight or ten at a time would ring your bell: What a fright! But my favorite holiday was La Noche de las Luces, with the candles all aglow and everything serene, no one hounding you for candy or presents or raising a ruckus like the Yuletide devils with their infernal drums. Just peaceful silence as people strolled past the luminescent yards, repeating, “Bonitas, bonitas.”
One Noche de las Luces, strollering Samantha around to see the lights, I swung past Marcela’s salon. She was sitting outside with the manicurists sipping beer from a plastic cup. She made a big fuss over Samantha, said she looked just like me. The manicurists agreed. She gave her a bonbon and pink barrettes for her hair. It occurred to me that I was sharing something with Samantha that I didn’t share with Cristina. But I’d also calculated that Samantha was too young to snitch. At least for now.
Admittedly, Marcela had certain regrettable qualities. Her physical aggression, for starters. Her inability to detect boredom in her listeners. Her belief in such things as witchcraft and the notion that ironing after washing dishes will make your hands shrivel up.
Nonetheless, I felt an undeniable attraction to her. She was always so interested in my life and so anxious to tell me about hers. After quarreling at home, I could count on her warm smile and sympathetic fingers.
But there was something else, something more visceral. An earthiness in her voice, a firmness in her grip, and a sensuality in her shape which was, from where I sat, quite palpable. Though she no longer possessed the figure of a model, it was still pleasing and, judging by the way she moved, willing. Sometimes I could feel, under my gown, a swelling.
During this time I started to frequent the clubs. Twice a week I would escape from my suffocating house and stay out deep into the night. I’d arrive for my haircut floating on the fumes of the night before, bags under my eyes and rum on my breath, smelling of bar smoke and motel soap, wearing, unwittingly, the yellow plastic wristband from Flores Frescas.
One of those hangover days, feeling prickly after another fight with Christina and running behind on my errands, I called Marcela to see if I could swing by.
“Hola, don Richard,” she said. Rather stiffly, it seemed. “I can’t see you right now.”
“When can you see me?”
“I’m going to be busy this afternoon. How about tomor . . . ”
I hung up. Just like that. Click. A tap of the thumb. Hard, aggressive. And satisfying. But then it began to bother me. Why did I hang up on her? It wasn’t like me to do that. Okay, I’d done it a few times with Cristina, but still.
Should I call back and apologize? Wouldn’t that be admitting I did it on purpose? Maybe I’d just pretend we’d gotten cut off.
But the next time, though I greeted her extra cheerfully, she was sullen. As I was leaving, she said with a cracking voice, “That really hurt me, don Richard. I thought you were different than that.”
I tried to play innocent but it was no use. She knew. With one impulsive act I had revealed my true opinion of her: a service provider and nothing more, expected to be at my beck and call. I had toppled from my pedestal. I’d proved unworthy of her respect.
In the months that followed, Marcela remained cold and distant. Something had been damaged. I thought about wallowing in contrition but it was too late. There are some acts – the ones which reveal who you really are – that you can’t take back.
My punishment, and Marcela made sure I received it, was having to look in that mirror.
A short time later, Marcela traveled to the States for the first time. Some distant relations in Miami. Her eyes shone mischievously. “If he can run around and have fun, so can I.”
While she was gone I suffered. I went to several different barbers and the results were disastrous. I had to steal through the mall to avoid being seen. When I called, the manicurists claimed to have no knowledge of when she’d be back.
She returned with tales of travels up and down the coast. She’d met someone in New Jersey, “A younger man. He’s coming to visit.”
But the next time I saw her, she was in tears. The man had canceled and she had fought with her husband. Turns out that while she was gone, he let everything go to hell. The house was a wreck, the electricity was cut off, debtors were banging at the doors. He’d been living the whole time at his moza’s house, and now, it turned out, she was pregnant.
Marcela sobbed. “I threw him out. Twenty years I put up with his crap, and now I’m left with nothing.”
The next time I called, her voice sounded strange. But not until she had me strapped in the gown did I understand why. It was her sister.
“Wait . . .” I said.
“Marcela’s ill. I’m taking over for now.”
She spoke in a monotone. “She’s ill. How should I cut your hair?”
Once again, Marcela glances at the window. She looks emaciated.
“His baby was born yesterday.”
“I can’t believe you’re leaving.”
“The worst part is how he co-opted the boys.”
“Aren’t you going to miss the barrio?”
“They knew about this for years and never told me.”
“I guess I won’t be coming back anymore.”
“So now he’s living with her, her mom, her other kid, and the new baby.”
“You’re the last connection I have to this place.”
“Now he actually has to work.”
“My wife and daughter are living somewhere in the north.”
“That’s why he’s panicked that I’m leaving.”
“I only see my daughter on Sundays.
“We got into an actual fight, my oldest boy and I.”
“I take her to the pool sometimes.”
“His father was there and didn’t try to stop it.”
“I miss her a lot.”
“I’m getting a lawyer and I’m pressing charges.”
“She has a birthday coming up.”
“He robbed me of the best years of my life.”
Outside, a car door slams. Marcela looks unshaken. There’s a knock at the door. She peers out through the curtains.
“A customer,” she says, closing them.
“I’m going to miss your haircuts.”
“What will you do up there?”
“I don’t know.” She sighs. “A fresh start.”
I offer a large tip I think she might refuse.
“Thank you,” she says, squeezing my hand.
“Good luck to you, Don Richard.”
“Same to you, Marcela.”
Leaving the barrio, I pass the produce market and the panadería and the apartment building where I started out. Then I pass the house where I lived all those years, now dismantled and awaiting reconstruction. As I drive through the acacia-shaded streets where I used to push Samantha in her stroller, I feel like my chest will burst.
There are other barrios, I tell myself. There are other beauticians.
But she was the only person who really understood me.