Rudy’s nostrils flared and his rotund, powerful form advanced as he arched his shoulders back. A sheen of sweat seeped out onto his balding, domed head, and his eyes glittered. I would swear his ears twitched. Curling chest hairs that sprang out of the top of his starched, white barber’s jacket seemed electrified.
“I can do it,” he said.
I believed him.
Today was the day.
Bud had not had a haircut in a year.
Last time, it was also August, and Bruce had brought Bud home with half his head clipped neat, half left summer-shaggy, by a barber one block away who Bud had been to three or four times before without incident. This time, however, Bud squirmed, screamed and wept in the chair, and fought off the scissors and the clipper so violently that the barber nicked his ear, then refused to go on. It was just as well. Bruce reported that by then, Bud was hysterical to the point of near vomiting, which had become our barometer, that unraveling year, for just how badly things were going.
Still, I couldn’t quite believe what walked in the door. Bud’s sandy colored, straight, slightly doggish hair, which had gown down over the top of his shirt collar and begun to get in his eyes, remained that way, on one side; on the other, he had a clean buzz, almost perfect to his natural part, marred only by one bloody lobe, with bits of hair stuck to it.
I recall making some useful remark like, “No freaking way.”
Bruce had developed a gesture of submissive renouncement, I’d noticed; palms up in self defense coupled with an I’m done shake of the head. He went into the kitchen for a cold drink. Moopy was napping.
I sat in the big chair and Bud climbed up on top of my lap. It wasn’t that I wanted to care about nice haircuts, but he couldn’t start kindergarten like this; moreover, something was happening.
“Would you like to go for ice cream?” I asked Bud.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice scratchy from screaming, as a last weeping shudder phantomed through his slumped body.
“Why don’t you sit in the stroller and take a break,” I said, and he nodded gratefully, and climbed in, and I got my purse, and we walked out.
Heading down 79th Street toward 37th Avenue on that sunny summer afternoon, I felt a tingling in my hands; it was either pins and needles or a heart attack. Something was emerging. It was a different kind of thinking. I was aware of myself hanging my rage at Bruce on a hook; he was making me do this because he couldn’t, but that didn’t matter right now. And my fear for Bud, of what it meant that a 5-year-old child who once enjoyed haircuts suddenly acted like… well, an Autistic kid, screaming in terror at the utterly innocuous; I also had to set that aside, for the moment. It was a new part of me, this rage and fear combination, mechanical and organic at once, like some kind of collapsing alien arm.
But I had a big, gangly boy sitting in a stroller getting stared at because he looked like a brain surgery patient or the victim of a cruel joke, and I had to do something about it, right then.
Obviously, Bud couldn’t go back to the same barber. So instead we went to ‘Heads Ain’t Ready,’ a hip-hop-styling-shop on 37th Avenue decorated with rugged graffiti and plastered with pictures of elaborate designs carved into young men’s buzzed scalps, a place peopled only by young men, giving and getting haircuts, posturing and smoking on the sidewalk, spilling out the door of the place mid-cell-phone-argument, white undershirts and silver neck chains everywhere, the blare of four different television channels flooding the block; soccer, rap music, Spanish language news, and movie gunfire.
I got Bud an ice cream from the truck, and parked him with it, in the stroller, in front of Headz. Though he’d begun a scary new habit in recent months of spontaneous running away, I was reasonably sure that just then, wiped out from crying and busy with a cone, he’d stay put long enough for me to corner a young barber inside with the threat of tears and the promise of a twenty dollar tip. I approached the first guy with an empty chair; he was wire-thin, with stylish drooping jeans that made the front of his body concave, and he wore a hand-painted t-shirt of graffiti designs around the word ‘Damn!’ His thick, stiff, long-grown hair was pulled back in a tight pony tail, half of it braided out, half a cloud at his neck; the weird coincidence of that motivated me.
“Listen,” I said to him, my face a little too close for his comfort and he reared back, “I need help. My kid just freaked out at another barber. My husband said he was screaming. I don’t know what’s going on. Now his head is completely fucked up. He can’t go to school like this. I’ll hold him in the chair and you buzz it off, okay? Not bald, okay? Like a crew cut. But no scissors. The other guy cut his ear. I’ll tip you twenty bucks.”
The guy nodded, and stood on tiptoe to peer over the window posters, out at Bud, who sat ridiculously placid in the stroller, licking ice cream off his hands, oblivious to his half-shorn head. Then the guy looked at me and said with a shrug, “Okay, bring him in.”
Outside, I stood Bud up, and doused his hands with bottled water and wiped them on my shirt. “We’re going to get your haircut finished now,” I said, and he froze, staring at me. “We have to,” I said. “But it will be fast. I’ll help you.” His shoulders drooped and I picked him up, and carried him inside.
I put him in the chair. The barber put the plastic cape on Bud, who was then fine for one minute. The barber was quiet with confusion, sneaking looks at me; what was the big deal? He firmly rubbed the cut half of Bud’s head, then tried to run his fingers through the long side, and they snagged, tugging Bud’s head sharply to the left. Bud whirled around and gave him a dirty look, growling, “Hey!” and the guy jumped back, then recomposed himself.
“Relax, little man,” he said.
He picked up the clippers and turned them on and Bud gripped the sides of the chair, howling “Nooooooooooooo!” As the clippers neared his head, he began to writhe and twist, and that’s when I got between him and the barber, and put my arms around him. The tighter I held him the more he squirmed, and the closer the clipper got to his ear as the barber sheared away sheets of his tangled, overgrown hair, the louder Bud got, crying “Noooo! No! NO!” By the end of five minutes, I was squeezing Bud with all my might and Bud had all but given up, bent in despair and full throated crying, tears streaming out of his eyes, whimpering, “No… no…” but the haircut was done.
If I had doubted Bruce’s report, I now had my evidence, but was shocked anyway. During previous haircuts, Bud had been twitchy, but giggly-twitchy, tickle-irked, yet he’d enjoyed it. He had liked getting haircuts. Now, he acted like an altogether different child, a child with amorphous, unmanageable problems, a child I didn’t know.
We pulled off the cape and Bud bolted from the chair. I lunged after him and caught him by the arm, just to keep him from escaping enraged to the street. I held on to him as I paid with my free hand, with exact change for the hair cut and a crisp twenty as promised for the tip.
The barber nodded in thanks and did not look me in the eye, and he turned around and proceeded to clean up. Bud and I left.
On the sidewalk, I pulled Bud’s shirt off him and brushed away the cascade of hair that had stuck to his tear-streaked face and neck and sweating body and sat him back down in the stroller. His head lolled back in exhaustion. We went to Starbucks and I got ice coffee, and he got juice, and a bagel he was too tired to eat. He fell asleep as I slowly pushed him down the avenue, slowly to lull him, and because he was so big. At a Korean belt-and-backpack store with a display of toys on boxes out front, I bought Bud a school bus, and a helicopter, and a sports car, and put them in his sleeping lap so they’d be there when he woke up, and we made our way home.
In the next few weeks, Bud experienced an emotional and behavioral crisis to which Bruce and I responded with a sequence of actions entirely familiar to the parents of almost every special needs child; removal from situation, evaluation, documentation, pursuit of services, placement, therapy, and then you wait; will it work?
It worked. The constellation of diagnoses Bud received, centering on Asperger’s Syndrome and Anxiety, indicated a school and range of therapies we were then able to access in totality; but we were very lucky. Some children with similar disparities, high cognitive scores with intensive behavioral management needs, are often more difficult to identify and thus end up less well-placed. But our stunning good fortune with the team of professionals we encountered resulted in Bud’s acclimating beautifully by late winter to special education with related services. Treatment repaired him from trauma, and we witnessed a transformation; Bud’s obsessions returned to the scale of intense interests, his violence receded completely, his pragmatic and relatable language improved a great deal, compassion, consideration, and flexibility emerged in his personality, he became able to sleep through the night again, stopped running away, made friends, and was happy.
But he wouldn’t get a haircut.
At first we didn’t even notice it; we had bigger fish to fry, as they say. We had all those evaluations, and research to do, had to find him a school, get him squared away in there, used to taking the bus; we kept a close eye on our daughter during all this and her reactiveness to her brother’s struggles. Once the kids did get settled, Bruce and I experienced crashes of our own, from which we emerged with a feeling of diminished resilience. But by late spring, when the dust began to clear, we looked at Bud and saw a taller, stronger, scruffy surfer dude only missing a necklace of puka shells; his hair was nearly to his shoulders again, and everyone thought it was adorable.
It was, except first thing in the morning when it had to be combed, and then it was a nightmare. He has my hair, only lighter in color; it’s straight, but a little coarse, just enough to knot up over night and ideal for cultivating dreadlocks, if one so chose. It is not hair that cooperates with a comb, not without being soaked through with detangling spray or globbed with conditioner. Bud was getting out of bed each day with gnarled hives of hair on the back of his head, and, given his Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety, the sight of the tangle spray and soft brush threw him into running, leaping paroxysms of screaming and hysterical crying; it was like being catapulted backward in time to the worst moments of his crisis, for fifteen minutes, every morning.
He needed to get a haircut; I needed him to get one. But consistent with his history, no amount of bribery was worth it to him. And while we had seen with his OT and swimming lessons how profoundly well non-verbal approaches to learning and regulation worked with him, on the haircut, it seemed we’d have to appeal to his intellect, because we wanted the haircut now, and we hoped he would listen to reason.
Over coming weeks, I’d walk him past Headz and other barbershops, and have him take a look inside to see how no-big-deal it all was. Sometimes barbers “got it,” what I was doing, and handed Bud an unsolicited lollipop, which he accepted with his characteristic suspicion. I’d say, “What do you think? Is today the day? You wanna hop in the chair and get it over with?”
“Nope!” he’s respond, turn on his heel, and march out.
At home, the combing process improved marginally when I started speaking to him very quietly during it, about how we wouldn’t have to go through this for at least six months if he got a haircut, or, if he got them often enough, ever again.
“No more combing ever again? Not ever?” he’d ask, his eyes darting toward me and away.
“Never,” I’d say, controlling my urge to roll on the floor and beg and cry because in spite of his somewhat calmer participation, now I’d become the Pavlovian victim, sweating through the bulk of the combing sessions during which Bud wailed and wept like a two-year-old or bolted from the room to hide in the closet or under my bed, my heart racing with resentment, and panic; how bad would it get? “Stop screaming,” I would say as he screamed, “Stop screaming! STOP SCREAMING!” I was certain that if I had to go through it with him even once more I’d have a massive coronary event.
On the less horrible comb-days, I’d venture, “So what do you think? Go for a haircut later today? We’ll get a big ice cream afterward?” My bribery mechanism was so primed it was automatic, despite amassed proof it never worked.
“Nope,” he’d say, hopping off the bed, “Not today.”
“Here’s the thing,” I said to Bud in July as I doused his head in the bathroom sink, then slathered his hair with Blonding Tones Conditioner which had been recommended to me by the mom of a girl with a Rapunzel-grade mane. “This hair thing is hurting us. It’s horrible for you. I’m screaming at you. You’re screaming at me. Why are we hurting each other? Don’t you want it to stop?”
“I do want it to stop,” said Bud, wincing and writhing, his shoulders jammed up into his ears, his arms extended crucifixion style, his fingers twitching, tears welling up in his eyes. “I just don’t want to get a haircut.”
“Why?” I whined.
“Because it’s going to hurt!” he shouted back at me.
“It’s not going to hurt! It’s hair!” I yelled at my son, my son with Autism and Anxiety, because deep down, I too, often just don’t want things to be the shitty way that they are.
“RRRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!” he screamed at me, and ran into his room and slammed the door, and threw himself on the bed and cried.
Meanwhile, speaking of Rapunzel, my daughter Moopy had turned 4 over the winter, become highly alert to princess-culture, and fallen in love with the movie ‘TANGLED.’ She had also not had a haircut since the previous summer, her intention being “to grow Tangled hair,” which she certainly did. She, too, underwent intense combings every morning, but like me, she has an obscenely high tolerance for pain, and didn’t really care; it just annoyed her; sometimes a lot, but not enough to scream about it.
Through spring and on into summer, we combed and marveled at her lengthening ‘Tangled’ hair, the inverse mirroring of our ongoing hair-gatory with her brother, which she watched each day with growing curiosity. Moopy began a kind of call-and-response reaction to Bud’s combing meltdowns; the worse his fit, the more blithe and obsequious she’d be when the spray and brush were turned toward her. She was showing him up but good, and he knew it. There developed a resurgence in his striking out at her, grabbing her by the shirt, yanking her arm, during or after her exemplary grooming session, gritting his teeth and growling at her as he walked by; she’d smile and clutch her hands in self-satisfied glee.
I wanted to point out to both kids what a nice job Moop was doing, how her cooperation helped everyone, but it would only have made things worse. I was certain that Bud’s aggression about the issue had as much to do with his own shame as it did with his actual fear and discomfort. Appealing to his mind was not working, which really should have been no surprise to me. The horrible morning combings continued.
Then one morning, Moop unfurled a stunningly complex and subtle coup of sibling rivalry showmanship for which I can never fully repay her. She walked out of her bedroom for her hairbrushing and said, “I’m sick of this stupid Rapunzel hair! It’s a pain! I want to get a haircut! I want to get a haircut right now!”
Bruce, Bud, and I were stupefied.
That afternoon on the way home from school, I took her into the beauty shop I go to by the subway, and she marched straight to the back, climbed up into the chair, and told the stylist, who had given her a darling little chin-length cut the year before, “I will like a short haircut like I used to have, please. To make my face look like a beautiful flower.”
I nearly drowned her in kisses and lollipops, but I still had no clue as to what would follow. In that moment, all I knew was that $15 and a tip cut away a whole layer of dynamic jealousy in our household and stripped ten grueling minutes off our morning routine of getting the kids up, dressed, fed, shod, jacketed, backpacked and out the door by ten after seven, bless her Moopy little heart.
She strutted home from the beauty shop looking for any neighbors or pals we might run into for a chance to show off her frankly perfect Little Rascals style bob; it made her round head look rounder, her rubbery pink cheeks glow, and her blue eyes pop like stars. She posed and pivoted past the mirrors in our lobby and marched herself into our apartment, planting herself in front of Papa, her grandfather, and said, “Papa! Look at my excellent haircut! See how short it is? And it didn’t hurt or anything!”
“You look beautiful,” said Papa admiringly, but in low tones, trying not to crow about his grand-doll in front of Bud.
Bud walked over to Moopy and studied her head, brow furrowed.
“Look at my hair,” my daughter said to my son. “Look,” she said more quietly. “It didn’t hurt at all.”
We all seemed to breathe in carefully at once. Then Bud went into his room and lay on his bed. I followed him.
“What if we,” I said to him, “brought the little DVD player that we take in the car, and we go to the movie store and you can pick two new movies; one to watch during the haircut, and one for after dinner, and we can buy a nice desert for later on the way home. Let’s do it. Come on. What do you say?”
“I say okay,” he said, sitting up on the bed, already weary, but stalwart, and ready. “But we have to take the stroller.”
“You’re six years-,” I started to say, then didn’t. “Okay,” I said, “let’s take the stroller.”
And we did.