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A Better Man by Zero
'brain surgery', ‘craniotomy’.
Hank typed the words in the search engine with ice-cold fingers and clicked the 'images' tab. Despite himself, he was unable to look away.
He was alone in his room, studying the photos of surgeons and bloodied, gloved hands digging with steel in open skulls. Then, his eyes gazed at the patients in his laptop screen.
He stared at the horrific, gigantic scars that marred half their heads. The ends joined together by staples, holding the incision in place. His mind flashed back to the neurologist holding an artificial cranium in one hand and explaining to him the procedure, tracing with one finger a curved line, mimicking the way the surgeon's would cut the skin and bone.
In the pitch-black darkness of his room, the laptop clock read 3:45 a.m. Hank shut it and placed it on the nightstand. His eyes were sore and dry from the exposure to the screen light.
He knotted his fingers in his hair tightly, running a hand through his locks.
He would be in the operating room in 48 hours.
Out of all the scarce seventeen years he had lived so far, this was by far, the f***ing worst.
Hank had started the year with high hopes.
In the last eleven months he had all seen all of them come crashing down.
It had started with his dad having an affair and cheating on his mom, and it had only gone downhill from there.
But the messy divorce wasn’t the prize winner.
No. That was for the day he discovered his constant headaches and vomiting he attributed to pre-college stress and lack of sleep turned out to be a tumor in his temporal lobe.
From all angles, it looked like God’s plan for him was f***ing up with him as much as he could humanly endure and godf***ingdamnit if he made it out of everything.
He tried to fall asleep, with images of an invisible, disembodied hand placing an oxygen mask on his face flashing through his mind.
Hank woke up exhausted, with his mom’s light knocking on his door. Her voice came through telling him it was almost noon. He rubbed his eyelids hard and sprang out of bed to shower. He felt the water on his hair, the way it hugged the back of his neck closely.
Today was going to be the last day he would be able to lather it with shampoo.
As he got rid of his barely there peach fuzz in the mirror, he tried to imagine what he would look like without his shoulder-length mane.
Hank didn’t consider himself good-looking.
In fact, the rare compliments he got were about his long, soft, wavy hair. He knew how to take care of it. He learned to do it. He liked his lip-length bangs and his auburn shade. He liked himself and the way he looked when he peered in the mirror.
Juvenile narcissism and teenage vanity or whatever it was, at the moment he had received the diagnosis and heard he would be having surgery the first question that sprung out his mouth hadn’t been ‘what are the risks?’ or ‘will I recover?, how soon?’, or ‘what about college admissions?, will I have to wait?’.
Instead his first concern was if he would have to cut his hair.
Hank wanted to kick himself for that. Life-threatening condition be damned, his automatic neurological path made a synapsis between: ´brain surgery´ and ‘haircut’. He had never felt so stupid in his life. He was seventeen and he had made a question fit for a four-year-old.
Luckily for him, his neurologist had decided to interpret the triviality of his question as a sign of bravery or perhaps he took it as a compliment that his patient’s biggest concern about having a surgery performed on by him was cosmetics.
And that was when he had, out of complete impulse, told his mom he wanted to shave his head before the surgery. And that was when, a couple days later, his mom told him he had talked to his dad about everything and that he was going to take him to his barbershop on Sunday.
He could already imagine his dad's 'I told you this', 'you never listen', 'what did I tell you about this' face when he saw how long his hair was at the moment.
Hank got dressed and ran a hand through his hair. He wondered for a second if the tumor was to blame for all his terrible life-decisions.
He guessed he was going to find out pretty soon what he looked like without hair anyway.
"Your dad’s already here, he’s waiting outside in the car for you" his mom told him as he went down the stairs.
"I don't want to do this" he groaned.
"This was your idea" his mom reminded him.
"Fine, but I don't want to have it done by him. Tell him to leave".
"Hank, he's your dad and he’s a barber!" she argued back "Who else would you rather have it do it?".
"A cheating bastard is what he is" he scoffed "Why don't you come along?"
"A barbershop is a gents' place, it's a men thing and I have no business there".
"Mom, there are like five girls at my school that get their hair cut in barbershops" Hank rolled his eyes "Times have changed".
"He cheated on me and I forgave him, because of you… why can’t you do the same?" she cupped his face on her hand "Now go".
The teenager took a deep breath and crossed the doorway. He saw his father standing outside in a white shirt, with his hands inside his pockets. He looked his way. Hank averted his gaze and marched forward. He didn’t need to see his expression to know he probably disapproved of how long he had gone without cutting his hair.
His dad was a professional barber. He knew it must be hurting his pride that he had let himself gone so ‘unkempt’ or ‘shaggy’ or all the kind of adjectives he threw around when a customer went missing for a long period of time.
"Hey" his dad said.
"Hey" he replied back dryly.
Quickly, Hank had climbed in the car and they were on their way.
Soon, far sooner than what he wanted, his dad was parking outside his barbershop. It was an old shop; he had inherited from his grandfather. However, it was hard to tell its age, since his dad believed in keeping it looking vintage yet modern and minimalist to attract customers of different generations.
His father fumbled with his keys for a bit as he knelt down to open the lock. Hank remained away from him, admiring the shop that he had been to so many times before.
"Roy! I didn't know you'd be open today!" he heard a voice near them.
"Hey, Mark..." his father looked up from the floor at a middle-aged man standing near them in jogging clothes "No, I'm not opening today, actually, I'm just going to give Hank a haircut today... He's having surgery on Tuesday and he has to shave his head".
Hank buried his face in his hand. Leave it to his father to spread the news about his... (he thought the word ailment, but it didn’t seem right) medical condition to everybody they came across.
He would have rather gone any other place.
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that" the man, Hank guessed a customer of his father’s.
"Don’t be" Hank whispered.
"It's going to be fine, it will grow back".
His dad managed to open the glass door "Come in".
He stepped inside and followed his father. The smell of witch hazel hit him right away. There was the line of red leather chairs with chrome bases. He was familiar with each of them, with every corner of the barbershop.
He had played here, gotten changed here, eaten here, done homework here, even fallen asleep here at times. It had been a second home.
Hank had never wanted to come here again. The same way he had never wanted to see his dad again after what happened.
He dreaded the whole thing, really. Being back here, with his dad, cutting off all his hair.
He watched himself in the continuous, huge mirror on the wall in front of the seats. He tried to keep in his memory what he looked like then. With his locks down to his shoulders. With a head full of hair and without a huge, angry scar on the side of his head.
"You can sit wherever you like" his father closed the blinds "You know I've told you that you can come here anytime you want to".
The teenager appreciated the privacy they provided. He didn’t want onlookers watching.
"You know I don't" Hank crossed his arms "And you don’t have to do this, to bother with this. You should be with Angelica today in a motel; I know you’d have a great time with her".
"Okay, first off, I know you're still mad, no need to rub that in my face again. Second, you know I broke up with her. And third, you’re my son, of course I have to, I want to" his father buttoned up his coat and glanced at his tools on the counter "Come on, sit down so we can get started with this".
It had been a year since his dad last cut his hair. He was sixteen. Or was he still fifteen? Hank wasn’t sure.
He solved that the sooner they were done, the less time he would have to spend here.
With reluctance, he moved into one of the chairs. He saw his dad produce a tissue neck strap out of a box and felt him securing it around his throat. Out of a reflex, he leaned forward as he did so. Immediately after, he placed a towel over his shoulders.
Then, his father extended a cape in the air. He wrapped it in a firm knot around his neck. He had done it at least a thousand times before. This had been routine for him. Hank didn’t know why he started to feel sick at the sight of himself caped and sitting in the barber chair. It was like his reflection shoved him in his face the imminence of everything.
It was all really happening. He wasn’t going to walk out of the shop with a short-back-and-sides like he used to. He was going to lose his hair. He was going to be in an operating room in 48 hours. He was going to have surgery performed on his brain.
His breath became swallow and heavy. Hank fought back the urge to jump out of the chair, and clawed at the armrests. He tried not to think. Not to let the thoughts chain to each other.
It’s just a haircut.
He wanted to do this.
His dad raked a comb through his hair softly; he felt the waves move to the command of his hand. He became all too aware of its weight, of its warmth, knowing it would soon be gone. Once his dad had finished detangling his mane, he watched him go back to the counter and open a drawer.
"Have you figured out which blade you’d like?".
"No" Hank answered back, bitterness showing through his voice.
It wasn’t like he had been planning on shaving his head with all the meticulous details included. He was being forced into this by an oncoming medical procedure. But sure, he should have decided on that with anticipation.
What was next? Maybe he will get asked on what clippers and razors would he prefer? Wahl, Andis or Oster? Schick, Philips or Gillete? How careless of him not to have everything figured out, including the brands.
Perhaps he should call his surgeon and ask for his opinion on the matter, while he was at it.
"Well, how close do you want it shaved?" his dad asked instead.
Hank felt his throat thickening.
He should have let a nurse do this while he was under anesthesia. Save himself the additional trauma.
And f***, it bothered him that it affected him so much.
"I… I don’t know" his voice was small.
"From what I’ve researched, surgical clippers seem to cut very close to the skin" his father examined the contents of the drawer for a while "I think the equivalent is a #00000 blade".
He felt out of breath.
Hank didn’t know what he was expecting.
He really didn’t.
But it wasn’t that his dad would use balding clippers.
He had never used them before on him. Not even when he faded his backs and sides when he was younger. Back then, he did a low fade from a #0, at most. It was back when he wore his hair short. That had been a long time ago.
He eyed the machine his dad was holding with unease. He had seen it many times before, had seen his father use it in military cuts and bald fades.
He had never had them used on him.
His stomach clenched. It looked huge and heavy, even in his dad’s rather large hands. His father sprayed the blades and oiled them. Then, he turned on the hair clippers and inspected the whirring blades.
He seemed to sense his discomfort, because he switched them off almost immediately and turned to him.
"If you want me to, we can cut it with scissors first. I think it would be better considering your hair is that long, and make it easier to use the hair clippers" his father stared at him.
Hank thought hard about it. He ran a hand through his locks, pulling his bangs back "No, do it at once".
He looked straight ahead. Despite his misdoubt, he braced himself. His father came closer to him. Then, Hank left him raking his fingers through his bangs a couple times. Touching the locks on his head softly, just an instant. The teenager closed his eyes and heard a quiet sigh escape from his dad’s lips.
The click of the power switch of the clippers was drowned by the noise they made when they came to life. His father nudged his head to one side. Hank saw him approach his tool to him in the mirror. He did so slowly. It wasn’t long before he could feel the blades landing on his cheek and then his dad angling them to his sideburn.
The pitch lowered and the noise heightened when the metallic teeth crashed against the first locks. Hank could only feel its cold steel vibrating against his scalp and his hair coming off.
First, it was a stream of sparse, isolated locks detaching themselves from his head as the hair clippers went higher. Then, as the machine reached the top, it was a single mound dropping on his shoulder and then sliding down the cape to his lap.
Hank couldn’t keep himself from cringing when he watched his hair fall.
As his dad started to make a second pass, he caught sight of the path of bare skin on his temple. There wasn’t a trace of his hair left. Not even a grayish shadow. Not transparent stubble. The balding clippers lived up to their name.
Hank saw a second handful of his dark waves dashing past his shoulders in a blur.
He wished he wasn’t facing the mirror.
The machine was loud, deafening even in the silence of the barbershop. It didn’t sound like the other hair clippers his dad owned. It was a harsher, growl-like sound, as angry as a mechanical noise could be. It was like they didn’t buzz. They shrieked.
Hank watched as his father finished shaving the right side of his head. This was the side where the malignant mass of cells was growing, underneath his skull, on his temporal lobe. This was the half they were going to operate in 48 hours. This was where the scar was going to be.
His father pulled his bangs back. He secured them softly in place, out his face. Hank saw him adjusting his grip on the clippers. Next, he saw the metallic teeth ascending to his hairline. The cold blades touched his forehead first.
Then, with gentleness, his dad started to push them further back. A couple of strands trickled down his face as they were shaved off. They moved all the way past his crown. His dad released a fistful of locks and dropped them on the floor. Soon, the balding clippers were back on his forehead, plowing through the top of his head, shearing all his hair down to nothing.
The knots of his stomach twisted almost painfully.
Hank felt the urge to cry and fought it back.
He didn't cry at the neurologist's office. He didn't shed a tear in the privacy of his room. But when he felt and watched his hair being shaved off, it was like the weight of it all hit him with all the force it possibly could.
He swallowed hard and forced himself to keep looking straight ahead.
"Are you okay?" his father’s voice brought him back.
He just nodded. His dad continued working; he grazed his shaved hairline lightly with his fingertips, in a soothing gesture.
Hank tried to calm down.
Not long after, his father’s hand anchored on his crown. Hank felt him push his chin to his chest. His grip on his head was solid, but not forceful.
His dad’s barbering experience showed in every move he made. In the certain, steady way he held the clippers; in the resolute, yet gentle touch of his hands as he angled his head one way or the other.
"So, this is what takes to see your face?"
"What are talking about?" Hank saw a large clump of his hair rolling down to the cape and landing on the floor.
"What am I talking about? I’m talking about the fact that you’ve been ignoring me for the last ten months…" his father placed the clippers on his neck again and moved them towards his crown "Did it really take a tumor in your brain so I could see you?".
Hank frowned "Can’t we do this without this whole talk thing?".
Another mound of his hair joined the growing pile on his lap. The volume was alarming. Hank knew his hair was long, but seeing its entire six, almost seven inches coming off at once was still hard for him to process.
It showed he had gone long without a haircut. He thought for a second that maybe he had grown it out to spite his father. Maybe his dad was getting back at him for that.
"I thought that talking would help you relax while I work".
He felt the clippers shaving the back of his head bare, biting into his scalp "Sorry I'm not excited and happy to get my head shaved".
"And I am absolutely delighted to be here shaving my only son’s full head of hair, because he needs to have brain surgery to have a malignant tumor removed" his dad answered back with lashing sarcasm.
Another pass of the clippers sent his dark hair flying to the floor. His head had become considerably lighter and cooler. He could feel the air hitting the back of his neck. Hank’s initial shock had given in to a dream-like state. It was all surreal. He felt numb now.
Without saying much, his father placed his hand on his chin again and made him straighten his head. Hank was confronted with the mirror once again.
"Your mom said you wanted to do this" there was a questioning tone in his dad’s voice.
"I did" the teenager replied.
His father proceeded to tilt his head to the right. The clippers shaved a first portion the left half of his head. Hank saw his hair pouring down with that pass. His eyelid twitched. He filled his lungs with all the air he was capable of. His father continued working.
He wanted to do this.
He needed a way to feel he still had control. This was how he was doing it.
His father ran the machine around his ear, folding it down. He did it a couple times more. Then, for a while, he inspected the entirety of his scalp, with the clippers still buzzing in his hand. He ran the machine across his temples a couple times more. He moved behind his ears again, pressing the blades against his hairline.
Hank knew he was looking for imperfections, tossing his head from side to side. Until, finally, his dad’s hand abandoned his jaw. He heard him turn off the machine.
"Are you done?" Hank asked him, with relief washing over him as his father removed the neck strap.
His eyes followed his father to the counter, where he retrieved a brush with white lather and a straight razor.
"The doctor said that I shouldn’t get a razor shave" Hank told him with his heart pounding.
"I know, Hank" his dad replied "I’m just going to clean up your hairline. Now, please, bend your head forward".
That seemed unnecessary. Not that Hank would tell that to his father out loud. He would probably give him a long winded speech about personal appearance or whatever.
His father lathered up his neck, spreading the white, warm cream across his hairline, and around his ears. His fingers traced the borders deftly. He could probably do it blindfolded. Hank felt the stark nakedness of his scalp as he did.
Gently, he held his head in place. The coolness of the blade contrasted with the warmth of the lather. Their temperatures collided on his sensitive skin.
Hank didn't think he had any hair left for him to shave, but the thin, disperse dots of microscopic stubs proved him wrong.
The touch of the blade made him imagine the scalpel on his scalp.
He shuddered when he felt it.
The razor produced a soft, rhythmic rasp as it scraped the lather. With his free hand, his dad inspected his handiwork, sliding his thumb softly along the place he just shaved, making sure he hadn't missed anything.
"We're finished here" with the towel he had placed earlier over his shoulders, his dad cleaned the excessive bits of lather.
Before he removed the cape, his father took a hand mirror from one of the drawers. Then he placed it behind his nape. In the larger one, he could see the reflection of the back of his head.
"There, take a look" his father smiled, Hank didn’t know if it was pride of his handiwork or if it was meant to elicit a response from him.
In retrospective, Hank would think that maybe all that his father wanted at the moment was some sort of approval from him, even the astonished, shocked kind, to feel like he had done what he asked for. Because, he told him he had wanted to shave his head before the surgery and he just tried to help him out.
He didn’t give him any of those.
He didn’t say anything.
He saw how thoroughly bare his scalp was.
Hank looked into the mirror. He just stared at the bald teenager in the mirror, sitting in a barber's chair, surrounded by the remains of his mane. He had a full head of hair until just moments ago. He looked pale. He felt vulnerable.
He still had clumps of his glossy hair over his shoulders. The rest was on the floor, circling the base of the chair. All of it.
His mind conjured the image of chemotherapy patients, and the thought shot anxiety through his veins again. You are an oncological case, you idiot. This is why your hair has to go. This is why you're here getting your head shaved in preparation for surgery. They are going to crack your skull open and then staple it back together. Hank tried to shut down the voice inside him.
"Can we go now?" he ushered.
"How much do I have to pay you?" Hank shot a hand up to undo the cape around his neck "It's still 20$ for a haircut, right?".
"Hank" his dad called him again "Breathe. Calm down".
He felt tears stinging in the back of his eyes. He repressed them. He took another breath. He let his father untie the cape. He watched the locks fall down to the floor and then peered back in the mirror. His dad placed both his hands over his shoulders.
"It suits you..." his father’s voice was paused and soft "See how your jawline looks defined… Your scalp it's a little white, but it will match the tone of the rest of your skin in no time. I’m going to apply a bit of witch hazel and moisturizer and then we’ll be going".
Hank saw his dad sweep the shorn remnants of his hair into a pile. He kept thinking about the surgery. Two days more and he would be in the hospital. What if they did something wrong? What if the scalpel slid and damaged something in his lobe? What if he didn’t wake up?
"Did you eat already?" his father’s voice cut his line of thought.
"I’m not hungry".
He removed his white coat "I'm going to stop for lunch, then I'll drop you off at home".
"Just drop me off at once. You must be dying to go meet Angelica or whatever slut you’re sleeping in with".
"I had it with this" his dad hung the coat and turned back to him "Hank, I told your mother I was sorry. She forgave me and said she didn’t want to continue our marriage. We got divorced. Can you quit this already?"
"How could you cheat on mom!? She’s always been this faithful, caring, wonderful woman!"
"I’m not talking about this with you".
Hank scoffed "And you say I’m the one that’s been avoiding you".
He had been waiting to hear those words.
His father knelt down again in front of the door and locked the shop.
He was tired. He wished he could arrive home, sleep, and then wake up with the whole surgery thing already over.
If all that could happen in the following 5 minutes, it would be great.
"Roy! How’s it going?"
As if on cue, yet another friend of his dad had to show up then. This one even crossed the goddamn street to get to him and say hi.
"Is that Hank?" his bulging eyes examined him closer.
"Yeah, this is him".
"Oh, I didn't recognize him at first without his hair! What’s up with that, kid? You took the plunge with your dad and shaved it all off?".
A second later, Hank felt an uninvited and unwelcomed hand rubbing his head, back and forth. As if needed to verify the fact that he was indeed, bald. It was the most infuriating thing ever. Thank you.
Hank decided he liked this friend less than the first.
"Yeah, I just got it done" he stepped back defensively. The guy had been pretty rough, his scalp was all sore now.
"Ha! Get used to people touching your new chrome-dome, kid!" the guy let out a big belly laugh "At least, when they get over the shock! You’ll love the shaved head if you don’t already".
"He’s not keeping it" his dad clarified "It's only temporary thing, he's having surgery pretty soon".
"Oh, kid" the guy was appalled by the news.
Not this s**t again.
Hank couldn’t stop the scene that was set in motion. But he wished he could. His dad’s detailed explanation was followed by an FAQ session directed at him about his condition. Including his favorite one: Is it… -gulp- cancer?
Then, it all ended with the person in question rambling about cancer in their family and their physicians. In the best cases, an offer of help, food, aid would be added. This had been the case with this friend of his dad.
"If you need anything, Roy…!"
"I’ll be sure to let you know, don’t worry".
Finally, after what seemed like forever, they waved goodbye. Hank got inside the car with his dad. He really wanted this day to be over now.
"Would you stop telling everyone about my surgery?" he put on his seatbelt "I don't want to see my feed full of posts or a Pray For Hank hashtag, I just want this to go on as quickly and quietly as possible. It's bad enough that the school knows".
His dad turned on the car "These people care and worry about you, that's not bad".
"It's like saying a tumor in temporal lobe isn't bad" he crossed his arms "For anyone who asks, tell them I joined an extreme right neo Nazi group, instead".
"I’m sorry, it’s just that I thought that talking would help normalize this whole deal, I thought it would help".
"Stop trying to help! You don’t know anything!" the teenager yelled back at him.
"You’re right I don’t" his dad gripped the wheel tighter "I’m not your mom. She’s tough as nails, and she's smart, she knows what's going on. But I don't understand anything, except that my only son is going to have a brain surgery on Tuesday and that has me worried sick, Hank! I'm scared s**tless about all this!".
Hank stared at his father. He thought about what he was saying. He was right. His mother was a nurse, she had gone to college. He, well, he was a barber. A professional, one, running his own business. And he couldn’t grasp the situation as well as she could. All he could offer him aside from money to pay for the expenses was his work.
He raised a hand to the back of his head. Despite the bitterness he was harboring for him, Hank appreciated the familiarity of his father’s touch. It seemed to make it if only a bit more at ease. He knew deep inside that his dad had been gentle, he had done his best for him. Because he really wanted to make things easier for him, even if that meant opening his shop on a Sunday so it wouldn’t be a show of him being sheared down.
His mom told him he had to forgive his dad’s infidelity to her. He wasn’t her husband anymore, but he was still his dad. Hank could recognize that.
"I'm scared too" Hank said "I’m terrified, actually".
His dad didn’t reply right away "I think your mom isn't".
"She probably is too".
"Nah. She's always had nerves of steel" his dad stopped the car "You and I, well, let’s admit it, we're a pair of sissies".
"I’m dead serious!" his father looked at him "Your mom is the kind of person who would catch a grenade with her bare hands!".
"She totally is" he agreed.
"Well, here we are. Tell her I said hi" his father talked to him one more time.
Hank could tell he had meant it.
The day of the surgery, he arrived early to the clinic with his mom and his dad.
The doctor had been impressed when he showed up with his head shaved, and he complimented him, he had told him he looked great. Hank thanked him and felt his father beaming with pride.
A couple hours before the surgery, his dad had set him aside and spoke to him "I'm proud of you. You’re going to make it and I know that you'll be a better man than I am".
He hugged him tightly. He felt his dad caressing the back of his head lovingly. He welcomed the gesture. He felt safe in his arms. This time, he let a couple tears fall. To his surprise, when he broke off the embrace, his dad was also tearing up. It had followed yet another exchange of how they were both sissies for crying over this.
He laughed and a couple hours later, he was entering the operating room.
He knew then that he was going to be fine.
Hank studied his wound in the mirror. It looked just like he had imagined. It was a huge, horrific incision on the right side of his head. He hoped it would look better in time. Or at least that he could cover it up later on. It had been ten days since his surgery and he had finally gotten the staples removed. The last week had been long, painful and tiring.
But he guessed that despite his constant tiredness, things were looking up. The procedure had gone by perfectly.
His hair was growing back. His head was covered by prickly stubble like thousands of needles. His scalp had itched like hell. It looked like he had gotten a very short buzz cut. Hank found that he rather liked it. He didn’t think approaching clippers to his incision would be a good idea, though.
Both his mom and his dad had agreed with that.
At the moment, it was better to focus on growing it back. Once it had scarred and healed, he could decide on a hairstyle, and he felt confident he had the best barber in the country to help him out with that.