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Severing Ties by Zero
"Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"I have my doubts as well, but Todd is so excited to meet Henry for the spring break".
"I’m just saying, considering his previous record as a father…"
"I know, David".
"Besides, you’ll be leaving for that conference in Netherlands tonight. Aren’t you just a little stressed and panicked over this whole thing?".
Still sitting on the border of his bed, with his luggage open in front of him on the floor, Todd heard his mother and his stepfather talking downstairs early that Saturday morning, when they think he’s still asleep. He couldn’t believe any of them.
He got up and took a final look inside his bag, pushing the bangs that fell just to his chin away from his face and securing them behind his ear.
It didn’t matter what they said downstairs.
He didn’t care about what they thought. He had been looking forward to that trip for weeks now and he knew this year it was going to be different.
But especially, he didn’t care about what David said. He and his mother had been married for ten years now and he’s constantly questioning his dad’s parenting which was none of his business and besides, if he was such an expert at that, how come he didn’t have children of his own?
He was boarding that plane tomorrow to finally see his dad.
The next morning, his stepfather drove him to the airport. It was the first time he would be travelling on his own and he was both a mess of excitement and anxiety when he heard his flight’s number being called. Todd couldn’t believe he was hours away from his dad.
"Take this" David handed him a couple more bills folded neatly. "Just in case".
"In case of what?" Todd raised an eyebrow at him.
"Just take them, Todd" his voice tone changed.
"Fine then" he tried to resist the urge to roll his eyes and failed. When he held it in his hand, he noticed his stepfather’s credit card was also inside them.
"Remember to call when you arrive!" his stepfather told him at the security checkpoint.
"Yeah, sure" Todd didn’t look back at him as he stepped forward in line.
Just before he boarded the plane, Todd sent a message to his dad to let him know they were going to take off soon. He could hardly contain his own excitement over it all.
After six long hours, at noon, Todd arrived in his destination, itching to get off the plane and stretch his legs for a while. He picked up his luggage and went to the exit. It was crowded and noisy, and he couldn’t wait to get away from there. He connected to their airport’s Wi-Fi and he texted his dad once more.
He saw his previous message didn’t have a read confirmation. His dad didn’t seem to be online, either. Maybe his dad had been busy.
He stood for a while and looked at the people who were expecting others, waving and greeting them. Some of them holding hand-made signs. The ones who came on their own rushed past them, tending to their own business or on their phones. He scanned the crowd for his dad’s face, with his heart full of excitement at the thought of meeting him again after more than a decade.
He continued walking forward, searching for him with his phone at hand, just in case. He wondered if his dad would recognize him right away or if he would recognize him first, if he was as tall as he expected him, as he remembered him to be.
His dad surely knew what he looked like, right?
He walked to the terminal and looked through the glass. Maybe his dad was waiting for him at the bus stop, or near the parking lot. He felt a vibration in his hand and checked his phone again.
Todd was disappointed to discover it was a message from his mom and another from David.
‘Did you land already? Everything alright?’
He sent her a thumbs up and continued his way. After half an hour of waiting, he decided to try getting in touch with his dad again. He raised his phone to his face and recorded a voice message "Hey, dad. I just arrived in a while ago. I’m still at the terminal, where are you?".
Todd felt the strands from his bangs coming loose and tucked them behind his ear again. He was starting to get hungry but figured he should wait to eat lunch with his dad and took note of the shops at the food court, wondering if he should get a snack in the meantime.
He ran his hand through his thick forelock. Over the course of the teenage years, he had grown his hair to his shoulders, in emulation of an old picture of his dad he had from back when he was around his age.
Once, after studying the photograph, his stepfather had told him he looked just like his dad when he was younger, and the remark made him delight with pride.
His dad was a journalist and hearing his voice on the radio, seeing him on TV, watching interviews with him Todd always felt like he was a celebrity of sorts.
He figured that maybe that was the reason why he hadn’t gotten any messages or calls from him yet. Maybe his dad was at an interview and would get in touch with him as soon as he was done. It had happened before, he just had to be patient.
He tried to kill time browsing his social media feed and ignore the growls of his stomach. Occasionally, he tried to reach his dad again. A couple hours later, after trying to fend off his hunger in vain, he sent him another voice message to let his dad know he was going to buy something to eat. Then, he realized he was almost out of battery.
He must have seen a thousand-different people as he waited for a sign from his dad, sitting on the floor, trying to charge his phone.
Todd watched as night fell and his excitement had given way to anxiety and tiredness. He whipped out his phone one last time and then, finally, he received a chain of text messages from his dad.
‘Couldn’t make it’.
‘Out of the state’.
He felt a crushing desperation when he read it and sent him another voice message "Dad, please, I’m here on my own at the airport! I’ve been here for hours! When did you leave? Where are you? Maybe I can make it there! Just give me some time to…!" he fumbled with the words, to translate the thoughts rushing through his mind "I’ll figure something out! Dad, please I…"
Todd stopped. He slid his finger across the screen and discarded the message. His head ached so badly, he felt like it was going to explode. He rubbed his eyelids hard.
Who was he fooling?
He’s just a kid.
What was he going to do?
What could he possibly do?
He looked at the time. It was past midnight in Netherlands. No way he could reach his mom at that hour. He looked at his contact list, trying to think of something and saw his stepfather. Swallowing his pride, he swiped his finger across the screen to call him.
As he heard the waiting tone, Todd laid his back against the seat he had been in for hours now and tried to remain calm, tried to figure out what he was going to say to him when he heard him pick up.
He felt his vocal cords freeze and could only pronounce his name "David?"
"Todd, what’s up?".
He felt a lump in his throat and for a minute, he heard his stepfather’s voice on the other side of the line asking him with increasing urgency to talk to him.
The following morning, as he brushed his teeth in the airport bathroom, he stared hard at his reflection. He was his father´s spitting image. Round ears and straight nose, and thick eyebrows, and hazel eyes and prominent Adam’s apple and his squared jawline and his jet-black hair that was all him.
He scanned his reflection, desperate to find his own face in it. The cracks that set him apart.
"Looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a couple days, until they can find plane tickets for us" David put his luggage on the bed of the hotel room "I’ll see if I can rent a car or something to get around".
After a long day of touring for hotels and inns, they had finally found one downtown with a room available for the two of them.
Todd laid in the opposite bed, running a hand through his hair, without producing a sound. He seemed happy ignoring him and every single word that came out of his mind, though. Or rather, too consumed in his own thoughts to pay attention to him.
He couldn’t believe he had flown all the way here for him. Though, at the same time this had been more or less… (if he was honest, exactly), what he and his wife had expected to happen.
Henry was the kind of guy who would abandon a seventeen-year-old at the airport.
Not to mention his own f***ing son.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Todd sitting up from the bed and reach for his wallet. That was odd. He thought he would want to sleep in, considering he spent the past night at the airport. The teenager took out the bills he had given him and his credit card and placed them on the nightstand where he could see them and headed for the door with resolute pace.
"Where are you going?"
"None of your business".
David grabbed him by the arm and stopped him "No. Listen up, kid. I had to cancel all my meetings for the weekend, find a flight and pay a ridiculous overpriced plane ticket last night to come here, all because of you. I think it is my business and I have the right to know where the hell are you going?"
"To the barbershop across the street for a haircut" Todd glared daggers at him "Now, let go of my arm".
He looked into his eyes and he could see that the teenager was hiding something from him, he didn’t what it was, but he didn’t trust him to leave anywhere on his own "I’m going with you".
"Fine" he huffed and crossed his arms.
Their trip down the elevator was a slow, uncomfortable one. David stared at his stepson. Todd had been on the verge of breaking down in tears last night when he called him to tell him that his dad wasn’t coming. He knew his pride had been the only thing that had kept him from doing so, but he also had the feeling he had cried when he hung up.
The disappointment, the fury in his eyes was just frightening. He knew he was temperamental and prone to mood swings, he had too been like that at his age, but this wasn’t his normal hair-trigger anger episodes. This was deeper, and David didn’t know what to do.
He left the room’s electronic key in the lobby and they walked out. The barbershop was right there, in plain sight and David wondered how he hadn’t seen it.
"I don't know what's possessing you to do this, but I really think you should postpone this and wait until we're back home" he told the teenager when they stood on the sidewalk in front of the shop’s window "I'll take you to my barber, if you want" he offered.
And Todd marched inside the barbershop without even looking at him, because of course that was what he was going to do, despite anything he said.
David tailed behind the teenager. The barbershop was a modern place, impeccably clean with a minimalistic flair and comfortable looking black leather chairs. For a second or so, he thought about the fact that he hadn’t had his own hair cut in a while, but David was the kind of man that stuck to one barber and didn’t feel like venturing to leave his hair in a stranger’s hands.
"Good afternoon, how can I be of service, gentlemen?"
One of the barbers approached them. He was a young, sturdy looking African American with tight, curly hair in a buzz cut and a very polished beard, neatly trimmed. He wore a completely black uniform with an apron of the same color.
"I want a haircut" Todd answered.
"Good, take a seat, please" the man motioned him to the first empty chair.
Soon enough his wife’s only son had climbed into the chair and caped by the barber. David spent a couple minutes admiring the place as the barber untangled his stepson’s hair with a comb.
"So, what did you have in mind, young man?".
Todd replied almost before the man had finished asking the question "I want it all off. A buzz cut".
What? David felt his heart stop for a second when he heard him. This was not what he had expected when Todd told him he wanted to cut his hair.
"What number?" the barber continued, he also sounded doubtful.
"Four/Zero" they both replied at the same time.
Hold on a second.
What did Todd just say? Was he out of his mind? He has never had a buzz cut! Not even his hair cut with clippers before! Was that brat even aware of…?
David stepped in right away "Todd, a number four leaves about an inch long, a number zero..."
"I know what a number zero is" his stepson replied in a harsh voice tone.
"Todd, I don’t think you should…".
He couldn’t even finish this time "Don’t tell me what to do! I’m not a kid!".
That little piece of…
He stopped himself.
Anger management, David. Remember to breathe in. Count to motherf***ing ten.
The young barber, clearly uncomfortable with the confrontation brewing and just wanting to get over with the job decided to weigh in "I don’t mean to get my nose in this and I’m sorry to meddle, but since your hair is this long, I suggest you listen to your dad and buzz it to a number four first and we’ll see where to go from there if you want it shorter…".
He’s not my dad. Todd didn’t say it, but David heard it, read it in his face.
"No, I want it all off, a zero all over" he answered, running a hand through his hair.
"Is that okay with you?" the barber shot him a glance.
David struggled to silence the protest and looked at Todd’s caped figure.
He bit his tongue and choked with the shout he suppressed.
Okay, David. Todd’s not your son, remember? Your responsibility. But not your child. He’s constantly reminding you that.
He shrugged in defeat. If that hothead didn’t want to listen to him, then he would let him have it his way then "It’s his hair, it’s his decision".
He saw the barber reaching out for his hair clippers and cleaning them.
"You have a pretty cool dad" the barber told Todd as he sprayed the steel blades of the machine "For him to let you do this, make your own decisions".
Then, he gave one last look at his stepson sitting in that chair, with his shiny shoulder length mane intact and sighed quietly.
Todd was so going to regret this.
Giving up at last, David looked behind him to find a huge, inviting couch against the wall and tables with magazines over them. He leaned closer and was happily surprised to find they were recent numbers and decided to sit down and kill time with one of them.
As his hand reached for a Popular Mechanics, he heard the buzzing noise of the hair clippers and looked up for a second as the African American man approached his stepson holding them in one hand.
He hoped the barber went easy and slowly, gave him time to change his mind.
Then, David watched him plow the hair clippers right on the top of Todd's head and the first locks slide down on the cape.
Yeah, maybe not.
He battled to avert his eyes from what was happening and focus on reading the magazine, as the clippers shaved off the entire right side of his wife’s son’s head and the hair piled on the cape grew with each pass. On their path, the whirring blades left only a dark shadow of stubble.
The machine made a furious, mechanical noise when it clashed against the locks and cut them off almost completely, reducing his long, thick mane to nothing, exposing his pale scalp underneath. The teenager maintained his eyes looking forward the whole time. There was still so much rage in them. Black blurred and dashed past his face as eight or nine inches of hair tumbled down to his lap and shoulders.
The black locks littered the floor beneath the chair and formed a pile. David was alarmed at how quickly the man was shaving all his stepson’s hair off, his speed could rival a military barber’s.
He tried to stop thinking and reclined in the chair, finally he began to read an article, with the clippers’ buzzing as background noise creeping inside his ears, reminding him what was happening.
Whatever. This had been Todd’s decision and he would have to let him live with it.
He glanced at his wristwatch. It was past four o’ clock already. He still hadn’t gotten a response from the agency that was helping him find a plane tickets for their return home. He decided he should try to contact them.
He peered above the magazine and saw there were only a couple long locks left on Todd’s head, hanging and sticking out awkwardly on his left side, behind his ear, surrounded by a gray sea of fine stubble.
"I have to make a call, I’ll be back in a minute" David told the barber and got up with his phone in hand. The man stopped for a second and nodded back at him. Todd’s haircut was almost over anyway.
He walked out the barbershop and dialed the number. Then he waited.
And gave it another try.
And waited again.
Until he gave up after a seventh time and decided to try with a text message instead. He began typing as he opened the door to the barbershop again, imagining the man had finished shaving his stepson’s head now and he was probably waiting for him to pay for the haircut.
He returned to a different, louder, noise than when he left. A buzz with a high and angry, ferocious pitch.
David looked up from his phone and saw what was going on.
The barber was erasing the light gray shadow of millimetric hair from Todd’s head, and running a different pair of clippers over his scalp, peeling away all the stubble that remained, leaving bare skin after each pass of the blades.
He knew he should have fought harder to keep that kid from shaving his head.
He took a breath so deep, it was like he had left the rest of the barbershop in total, absolute, space-like vacuum.
Todd just stared hard into the mirror in front of him as the man exchanged the clippers for an electric shaver and went all over his head with it. He didn’t have hair at all now. Not even stubble. His eyes were still flaring. David stepped forward when the machine was turned off, fearing the teenager would ask him to rip off his scalp next if he didn’t stop him.
"Well, we’re done here, young man" the barber announced as he started to dust him, removing mounds of long black hair from his shoulders, letting them slide from the cape to the floor. Then he removed the cape from his neck.
"Thank you" David forced himself to smile in courtesy and speak in his regard "How much do I owe you?".
Todd didn’t get up right away and inspected his shaved head in the mirror, turning his face from one side to the other, sliding his fingers slowly across the back.
It didn’t long take for regret to set in inside him.
The cold was merciless on his exposed, hairless head.
It was then that he recognized that he did it in a fit of rage. He had walked inside that barbershop obsessed with one idea and had stared in the mirror intently, as he watched his father's jet-black hair disappear, feeling he never wanted to see it again, to have anything to do remotely with him.
He had been desperate to do so.
He had been all fury and disappointment and betrayal and pain when he did so, when he wanted every millimeter of stubble removed from his head as well.
Todd had never felt so hurt in his life before.
Had never felt so stupid, so angry, so betrayed.
Now, as he sat down in the stairs in front of the hotel’s pool, with his neck and ears itching and covered the shortest stubs of his hair, with the rush of his rage dead and gone, he was exhausted and now he felt alone and broken like back at the airport when he got that message from…
Could he even call him his dad?
After all that happened?
He looked at the conversation on his phone.
‘Couldn’t make it’.
‘Out of the state’.
Todd deleted it and put it away.
He wondered if that was even true.
If anything he had ever said had been true.
He massaged his shaven neck and raised his fingertips to his occipital bone, searching for a trace of his hair, for at least microscopic stubble. He only found skin, he couldn’t even tell where his hairline was. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his stepfather approaching with a bag and a glass in his left hand and his phone in the other.
"We’ll be here for ten days" David informed him "Guess we’ll tour around the city, ask what people do to kill time here, ask for tourist destinations, I guess… like a mini, improvised vacation of sorts" he took a sip of his drink, he guessed it was rum.
Todd didn’t reply to him. There was a pause in the conversation, until the man finished his sip and filled it with his voice.
"So, what were you thinking?" David questioned him, moving the ice of the half-full glass "Coming here on your own, what was the point? What were you trying to prove?"
Todd sat up to leave "You can keep that speech to yourself, David".
"Todd, he never shows up!" his stepfather raised his voice "He’s never showed up for anything!".
"I know!" he replied with fury.
David took another step towards him "Then why did you think this time would be different?".
"I…" he couldn’t find an answer "I don’t know" he lowered his voice.
His stepfather took a second to finish his drink. He handed the empty glass to a waiter that passed by with a tray full of empty plates, cans, and dirty napkins.
"Listen, Todd, I get that you’re angry and rightfully so" he heard him say in a softer tone "What I’m trying to say is, you deserve better. Don’t forget that".
He remained silent again. He was so tired. He just wanted to lay down and sleep. Wake up in his bed, in his room back home, with hair on his head again and find out this had all been a long nightmare.
David rummaged through the plastic bag he was carrying "Here, you might want to wear this for this a while, until your hair grows back".
Todd saw him produce a plain, navy-blue baseball cap out of it.
Now he was mad again.
"I’m really not in the mood for this s**t, David".
"Okay, don't wear it then, don’t put on sunblock either" he replied sarcastically "Just get your scalp sunburned, that's cool".
Todd just stared at him "I didn’t know you were a dermatologist".
"I’m not a dermatologist, however, I was a swimmer, Todd. I shaved my head all the time for competitions back then" he told him "I know what I’m talking about".
"And I already looked into a mirror" he locked eyes with him "I know I look awful, thanks for the thought".
His stepfather hesitated for a few second, studying him and measuring his next words "It doesn’t look so bad".
"Don’t lie. You can say it out loud if you want to" Todd rubbed his eyelids "I know it looks terrible".
"Hey, it’s just hair, it grows back".
His attempt at comfort didn’t have an effect in him, he had been repeating the same thing to himself for a while to no avail "At least I no longer look like my dad" he thought out loud.
Henry. Todd didn’t know why he kept referring to that man like that. It happened out of habit. It had been ingrained in his system for so long he couldn’t stop himself from doing it.
"You know you could have gotten a short back and sides" David pointed out.
"Well, maybe I didn't want to look like you either!" he yelled at him without realizing it, took out his anger on him again "I'm sorry".
"Don't worry. I get it" David put his hands inside his pockets "You want to figure out your own thing. That's normal".
"It's just that for so long, my dad was my hero", yes, he just called him that again and Todd felt so stupid when he heard the word come out of his mouth "I thought he was the coolest guy ever, I wanted to be him" he clenched his fists "Now I see he's just a huge dick... and I know you’re going to say that I shouldn't talk that way about him, but…".
His stepfather cut him off "No, he's a f***ing idiot and he doesn't deserve your admiration or your respect, Todd".
Why did it take him so long to figure that out?
"I kind of want to see him, just to punch him across the face" he said through clenched teeth.
"I would hold him for you if that happens".
Todd laughed and looked into his stepfather’s eyes "Really?".
"Come on, kid" David smiled and paused "I mean, you're seventeen, after all, you're supposed to do dumb stuff you'll regret later like shaving your head, for example".
He smiled back at him "Thank you for letting me do dumb stuff" he explored his naked scalp with his fingertips again "My mom is going to be so mad I shaved my head".
"Todd, that's the least thing your mom is going to be mad about" the man paused "But yes, she's going to freak out when she sees you".
Todd thought about what he had done to his hair. What had possessed him to shave his head to the skin. He was severing ties with the man he had considered his dad but had never considered him his son in turn. It was his way of letting him go, cutting him off from his life.
"You must be tired. We should go back to the room".
He nodded and followed his stepfather.
The following morning, Todd woke up satisfied with the night’s rest. He finished dressing up and tried on the baseball cap David had bought for him in front of the mirror. The fabric felt so strange against his bald head. He checked in the mirror for a sign of stubble on his temples, of his black hair growing out again. He rubbed his fingertips against his head and sighed.
Then he just said it without thinking "Why did I do this? How am I supposed to get laid now?"
"Todd!" David called his name out loud.
"What?" he adjusted the cap on his head and turned to face him "Okay, sorry, that just came out".
There was a pause in the conversation, where the man just stared at him with concern "... if you’re doing that, please tell me you are wearing...".
Now it was Todd’s turn to be uncomfortable "Geez, David".
"Hey. I'm sure you'll still..." his stepfather stopped and rephrased what he was saying "…that there will be girls that find you attractive, just maybe they’ll be a different kind of them…".
"Hey, write to your mom, please. Let her know we’ll be going back in ten days".
"I’m all out of mobile data and the Wi-Fi in the room is still down".
"Don’t worry, use my phone and maybe try to find a good place to eat today while you’re at it. I’ll be doing the payment for the additional days at the lobby, meet me there" David handed him his phone.
Todd muttered an ‘okay’ and unlocked the screen and opened the chat with his mom. He typed quickly the message he had asked him to give her. Before he put it away again, he couldn’t stop himself from glancing at the previous texts they had sent each other that morning.
'BTW, Todd shaved his head. He's pretty self-conscious about it. So maybe try not to give him a hard time about that and make a huge deal out of it?' he read what David wrote to his mom earlier.
Todd locked his stepfather's phone again with a smile crossing his face and headed out of their hotel room.
After a month or so, he could feel the stubble of his hair growing out, sprouting in his head. He observed a gray shadow that darkened every week covering his head. David wouldn’t leave him alone and rub it every time he came across him, jokingly telling him he needed another haircut. His mom was not amused one bit by that, but he knew he couldn't do much but laugh it off and brush his hand across his scalp covered with prickly bristles.
Todd discovered he wasn’t mad about it or anything, that he could let his stepfather make fun of him once in a while and that was how he knew he was going to be okay after all.