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Shoe by 94Smooth
His name was Walter. Not Walt, or Wally, or some completely unrelated nickname. No, Walter. You would think that pocket-protector of a name would have rendered him somehow harmless, the sheer old fashioned nerdiness of it leaving the barer incapable of being anything but meek.
But names mean nothing, I’ve come to realize. People make them what they are.
And Walter was anything but meek. He was my RA, a senior, ROTC, with a giant build and his dark, bristly hair shaved into a regulation recon. Was he 6’3", 6’4"? I don’t remember, only that he towered over me and consumed my attention whenever he approached.
I was a freshman, just a few weeks in. Introvert mostly. Social work major — not a pacifist but a pretty drippy bleeding heart. And no friends on campus yet to speak of. Suitemates, yes, I had four of those — five if you counted my split-second roommate. A first week detour to rehab for him meant I had a single for at least that semester.
I sat with them in the dining hall, "the suitemates," my first few days on campus. I never really got to know their names. And then I was mostly by myself. I’d never needed to travel in a pack, and it took too much energy to try to do it with a set randomly assigned. Plus, by myself, I could spend each meal searching the tables surrounding me for him. As it turned out, I didn’t need to work that hard.
"Why are you sitting by yourself?" Walter asked one day, tray in hand, feigning curiosity. Me not knowing that being alone and separated from the herd made me exactly his type.
It was a lunch I’d spent silently looking with no reward, ready to head back to my room for the relief of mindless studying. Then he was beside me, less than a foot away, and I couldn’t speak, not really, so shocked to have him looming there, my dream becoming real. School hoodie, jeans, almost bald, he wasn’t handsome really. But whatever he was overpowered any ability my mind had to make sense of his effect on me. He was all I could see. And perceptive to his quarry, he knew it.
When did I agree to come up to his room for help with a project I’d already completed? Did I even remember to breathe in the hours between his appearance in the cafeteria and my timid knock on his door? I do know that studying was impossible. So, I showered, put some gel in my nondescript hair, found sweats that I hoped would tone down all the effort I’d made, and sat on my bed only able to focus on trying to slow the pace of my heart.
We did no work in his room, but it wasn’t our "first night." Instead I sat on the floor while Walter reclined on his bed, wearing only shorts and a wife beater, his muscular, hairy legs pushing against the end of the frame. He asked me questions in his confident, seemingly offhand way, about my family, friends, who I was close with. Probing that I thought was genuine interest, leading me to share my hope for finding just one "someone," gender intentionally left vague, to be with, who would "get me."
After I shared this, Walter rose and took the back of my neck with one of his massive hands, firm, as if a given that he owned the right to do it. Tilting my face up toward his, far above, he said. "I need to get some shut eye." He smiled at the intentional anachronism. "I’ll see you at 8:00 for breakfast."
I was, of course, there the next morning at 7:45, waiting, unable to be anywhere else. The smile on his face when he arrived told me he was pleased. I had passed the first of his tests.
The next test came two weeks later, a Saturday morning. By then I spent every night with him in his more private single, unmissed by the suitemates I’d ignored. There was so much about Walter that was wrong for me — his politics, his jocular, dismissive attitude toward the few opinions I expressed, and his inability to name what was happening between us each night in his bed. I was also far too young to know that his treatment was not common, to be expected, deserved.
We’d gone to bed late, after some Friday night disaster movie I’d consented to, followed by a couple of beers back in his room and my continued exploration of his captivating body. Whatever was warped about his character, together in his bed he was equally assertive and generous, fully present. Maybe that was where he felt safest, in complete control and possession. And I chose to be there, secure in the cage of arms and legs that locked around me as we slept.
On that morning, I was unaware that he’d left the bed, still soundly asleep. His stern voice directed at me was a new experience.
"Get up," Walter commanded. "We’re going to get haircuts." He was already dressed, including a jacket to repel the early October chill. "Let’s move."
"What?" I asked, warm in his bed and not comprehending his words. They made no sense. After age 12, no one had ever told me when to get a haircut. And this was nothing we’d talked about. Plus, it was still more dark than light outside.
"I said, let’s roll." He tossed my clothes from the night before onto the bed. "Now."
I could have resisted, but our pattern was already well on the way to being established. Walter set the agenda. I went along. Yet this felt different, I couldn’t say why. But I complied. Grabbing my baseball cap off his dresser was something I did without thought as I followed him out.
The barbershop was well beyond the campus and the college town to the east. I have no idea how Walter found it. Probably his ROTC buddies or their commanders. It wasn’t even 7:00 when we reached it. There was no one around, and the sign on the door still read "Closed."
"See, it’s not even open," I said, allowing a moment of mild annoyance that Walter had dragged me out of bed. "Let’s go get breakfast somewhere and then come back."
Walter didn’t move, hands down at his sides suddenly formed into solid fists. "After we get you cleaned up," he said.
"If you’d let me take a shower first…" I quipped, trying to leaven his needlessly fierce response, a half-smile in his direction.
That was when he flipped the first time. Grabbing the back of my neck hard he jerked me toward him, his face pushed down into mine. "You’re looking shaggy and you need to get cleaned up," he said, slowly. "I’m not going to tell you again."
I was too shocked by this unprovoked force from someone I’d already come to trust with my body that all I could get out was, "Okay."
The door sign now read "Open," and who knew what the barber inside had seen. The door itself jingled as Walter’s firm grip pushed me through, his hand sliding down into a brotherly resting place on my shoulder once inside the threshold.
"Hey, John," Walter said. Big voice, charming now, a fine, strapping young man making whatever may have been seen outside a mere prank.
"Walter, good to see you," the barber said, complicit, reveling nothing about what he had most likely witnessed. "And you’ve brought a friend."
"Yeah," Walter said, smiling at me, his good buddy. "And he’s going to make you work this morning. He’s wanting his first shoe."
The barber smiled. "It’s been awhile since someone’s asked me to do one of those," he said. "We’ll all enjoy this one." He patted the arm of his chair. "Come have a seat. This won’t hurt a bit. You can hang your jacket over there."
I hesitated but then took off my coat as instructed and sat myself in the big chair. A paper collar appeared around my neck, followed by a heavy cape. "Too tight?" the barber asked, seeing my grimace as he secured the clasp. I shook my head no. "You may want to take that off," he added. The cap was still on my head.
I looked at Walter, seated directly in front of me, as I removed my cap and slid it beneath the cape onto my lap. "What’s a ‘shoe’?" I asked him, unable to imagine the kind of haircut that word might describe. Throughout high school and up to now, all I had ever said to a barber maybe every few months was "short back and sides, not too short, and longer on top." Only scissors and a comb were required.
Walter gave up nothing. "You’ll find out," he said.
I heard some type of preparation taking place on the counter behind me. "Now, are we shaving him clean?" the barber asked Walter. "Up top, too?" Somehow I didn’t figure in this exchange. I was the little boy, anxiously waiting as Daddy negotiated my first haircut far above my head. Only much later would I confirm that Walter had made an arrangement with the barber well before that Saturday morning. Who knows what story he had told and what he had paid to gain the barber’s trust and compliance.
And Walter played his part well. "You bet," he said, a big grin on his face directed my way. "He’s going all the way."
The barber turned me around in the chair and caught my eye in the mirror. "You okay with that, son?" he asked, more out of formality than as if I had a choice.
What caught me was being called "son." I never liked that. I already had a father, and he never called me "son" or told me what to do. Why was this barber who didn’t know me taking the liberty of calling me "son?" It was a flare of resistance that almost brought me back to myself.
Almost, I say, because I then glanced over at Walter, also reflected in the mirror, monitoring me closely. The expression he wore said, if you don’t tell this man to get started right now, you’re going to pay in some way you’ll regret when we get back. I wasn’t scared or thinking anything bad would actually happen. The pathetic truth was that all I wanted in that moment was for him not to be angry and instead be pleased that I was acquiescing to his wishes, without question.
"Sure," I responded, finally, the petulant child ready to be obedient.
With that, the barber took a large set of clippers off of a hook beside him and switched them on. Listening to the high-pitched whirr, I wondered if they would hurt, like getting a tattoo — not that I had experienced that either. He set them at the base of my neck and was about to drive them up when Walter said, "Wait. I want him to face me."
The barber seemed surprised, but Walter played it off. "He asked me to record the big moment on my phone," he lied. "Since it’s his first shoe."
"You kids," the barber chuckled, turning me back toward Walter. "Filming everything."
I don’t believe that Walter cared about the video. He wanted to enjoy the control he was taking over me, which would soon be manifest in my appearance.
Positioned properly now for Walter’s benefit, the barber began his assignment. "Head down," he said, taking a firm grip on my skull. I felt the warm metal travel up the back of my head, an involuntary shiver raking my body. I saw only the old linoleum and Walter’s boots as the back of my head was stripped bare. The barber came around beside me to take off the hair on the right side of my head and then the left.
All I could think was how foolish I would look for a few weeks until the sides grew in. But that wouldn’t be so terrible, I was already rationalizing. The barber stepped behind me again, raised the clippers above my head, and set them down maybe an inch behind my hairline. He drove the clippers back over the center over my head, leaving a clean white furrow. My face must have registered the shock because Walter began to laugh, barely able to hold his phone steady.
The main damage done, the barber squeezed some gel from a tube on the counter and rubbed it in to the little hair left atop my head. A brush followed, lifting the remaining hairs to attention. He then picked up a strange, rectangular comb and held it level against my scalp, making pass after pass with the clippers until satisfied that no stray hairs had escaped his assault.
The clippers went off, and I sat in the chair dazed as to what had just happened. A moment later a warm towel covered my head and began to calm the pulsing in my temples. "This is the best part coming up," the barber said to me. "Relax and enjoy it."
The towel came off and the rush of cool air against my scalp started me. I then felt the barber applying warm shaving cream down the center of my head all the way to my crown and around the back and sides. With meticulous strokes he completed my transformation, each swipe of the shining razor bringing Walter closer to his victory over me. A cool towel, another application of gel and brushing, and a final dusting of talc ended the process. "How does that look?" the barber asked Walter.
"Perfect," Walter replied. "Let him see."
The barber spun the chair a final time, and I faced someone I did not at all recognize. I looked like I belonged in middle school, a nearly bald tween with a single level line of dark blonde hair, not even half an inch high. But it was worse. The barber lifted up a mirror behind me and set his cool palm against the now shaved skin on the back of my head, pushing it forward. "Look," he said, reveling the dark blond "U" that have been carved atop my head. "That’s why they call it a ‘shoe." It’s a flattop in the shape of a horseshoe."
It was far beyond how bad I ever could have imagined. How was I going to go to class looking like this? What would I tell my parents when had our weekly video call? I looked like a complete freak. And what was the deal with Walter wanting me to look like this?
The cape was barely off me before I grabbed my cap and jumped out of the chair. I didn’t even look at Walter as I pulled my jacket from the hook and walked out to the street. I got halfway down the block and then stopped. Walter needed to explain what this was about. I turned back toward the shop just as he came out.
Walter saw me but waited a moment, and then slowly walked in my direction. There was nothing about the way he moved that suggested contrition. And before I could even begin to question what had just happened, he spoke. "Why did you want to embarrass me like that?" he asked. Calm, waiting.
I could not have been more surprised by the question, and it took me a few seconds to respond. "What do you mean?" I asked, my voice rising. "I look like a complete freak!"
"Don’t be so loud," he hissed, his eyes surveying the street to see if anyone else was around. "That’s the problem with you," he continued. "You’re out of control all the time. I’ve been trying to show you that, bring some structure and order to your life. And you act like a complete ass."
"What do you mean?" I repeated. "You never even asked me if I wanted my hair cut. And then I end up looking like this."
Walter just looked at me as if I were pathetic, beyond redemption. "If you don’t trust me," he said, finally, "there’s no need for us to keep hanging out." He turned and walked back to the barbershop, disappearing behind the jingling door.
I returned to campus, my hat pulled low and avoiding eye contact. As if looking into other people’s eyes was something I sought with anyone but him. The sun had risen high enough that it began to tingle the now exposed skin covering much of my head, a novel sensation rendering me that much more exposed. It was unfair, what he said. And wrong. His too cool anger, my responsibility for what had been his actions, and how I had disappointed him were all clear signs. In hindsight I understand how textbook it all was. I was being groomed, inside and out. Yet by the time I reached my own neglected room, I was already twisting my thinking to his words.
Still, it was two days before I saw Walter again.
That wasn’t true. I saw him all the time. Walter was all I could think about, as I sat once again alone in the dining hall, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a freak branded with a horseshoe shaved atop my head. This symbol of submission and abandonment hidden beneath my cap as I wanted him, begging in my mind for one more chance to right what had led him to go away from me.
I returned from the dining hall, crossing through the empty main room of my suite, the suitemates presumably engaged elsewhere as a collective. I punched in the code to the lock on my door, swinging it wide and finding Walter, sitting in my desk chair, facing me. An RA has a key that fits every door.
My gratitude for his presence overtook any shock or surprise, and I simply stood there before him.
"Shut the door," he said. "And take off that stupid hat." I immediately complied.
Walter looked at me, Dad in his armchair I realize now. Home from work and not angry, just very disappointed. Ready to mete out an appropriate punishment and then forgive.
"You know you disappointed me, right?" he said, and I nodded.
"You do that again and I’m done," he continued. I nodded a second time, afraid any words I might say would be turned against me, making him go away.
"Come here," he said.
I stood before him a moment, and then his firm hands were on my shoulders, pulling me down between his legs. But it wasn’t intimacy he wanted just then. With me crouched down on the floor and locked between his thighs, he began to run his hands over my bare scalp and u-shaped fringe. "I like this," he said at last. And from where my head rested I could see clearly what that meant.
Less than two weeks later we were back in front of the barbershop, not so early this time. The shop was already open, with someone in the chair and another waiting. "Every two weeks we do this," Walter had said that morning. "That’s how we maintain discipline, Shoe." He had taken to calling me by that name, "Shoe." The name he’d chosen for me. Like marine recruits, shaved and called "boot" while in basic training. I’m sure Walter knew that, clever enough to rework the idea for his own ends. And I had signed on, shaved also and submitting to his authority, too aroused and too afraid of his withdrawal.
By the third shearing I ceased to be who I was before. I was "Shoe" as much to myself as to him. Walter made most of my decisions now. The cap I’d used to shield my nearly bare head from cold and scrutiny was no longer allowed indoors. "Lids come off, from now on. It’s about respect." What I wore, where I went, and increasingly how I thought all became his call. I have no idea how I made it through my classes and would no doubt have dropped out had I not gone to my own room one night, without Walter’s permission, desperate to not flunk another final.
I’d been at my desk for hours, past midnight, trying to will a semester’s worth of biology facts into my exhausted brain. My phone had been off since my last exam late that afternoon. I had been so shaken by that debacle that I’d come straight to my own desk to begin cramming, not remembering to turn his tether to me back on.
There was no need for Walter to knock. He’d let himself in once before. And his rage, whether real or practiced, was not hidden.
As soon as I saw him, I panicked. I had wronged him, that was clear. "Walter," I said. "I’m sorry."
He grew visibly calmer. "Sorry for what, Shoe?" he responded, closing the door. "Why don’t you tell me what you did wrong?"
"I just bombed my philosophy final and if I didn’t study all night the same thing would happen with…." I paused, seeing my words were having no effect. "I’m sorry," I repeated. "It’s just that. I should have come right back to your room. It’s my fault. I’m really sorry."
By then he was completely calm, my subservience to his control restored. "Yes," he said at last. "You will be sorry." Reaching into a side pocket of his camo cargo shorts, he pulled out a cordless electric clipper. It was the one he’d begun to use for edge-ups on me between visits to the barber. "Kneel down, Shoe" he said. "You’re getting a little shaggy."
"No, Walter, please," I said, knowing intuitively that he had in mind a punishment cut, bowed down before him, my head shaved completely bald. For everyone to see my failure and my humiliation. "I said I was sorry."
His rage returned instantly, my lack of unquestioning compliance too much of a challenge. Before I could comprehend, he’d lunged toward me and locked my neck in his elbow, the thick hairs on his arm scraping against my chin, his body pressed up behind me. He thrust me onto the floor, face down, and I heard the clippers come to life as less and less air reached my lungs. My head jerked back, and the metal blades dug into my skull as he removed the shoe that I suddenly more than anything wanted to preserve. It took just seconds.
The clippers went off and he spat on the exposed scalp where my shoe had just been. "You don’t even deserve to be called Shoe," he said, disgusted. His free hand reached down and began to pull at my belt.
What saved me was the most mundane of all college experiences, a staple of many a dorm and frat house. A drunken suitemate burst through the door — truly burst, an explosion of sloppy energy — tequila shots rendering him bold and stupid as to which room was his. "Holy crap," slurred out of his mouth, and his bewildered expression must have been enough to scare Walter, or at least redirect him. He released his grip on my neck, though his thick arm still surrounded my reddened flesh. I drew in deep breaths, seeing the light from my desk lamp flash off the glossy sweat on his head. His eyes were locked on the drunken boy at the door, calculating. Then Walter was gone.
I got myself up slowly before guiding my inebriated savior to his actual bed, wondering if he would remember any of this. "What’s his deal?" he muttered, falling against me as we walked across the common room. "Nothing," I responded. "We were just playing around." Stunned, ashamed, and protecting him still.
Walter stayed away from me after that. Whether he feared my drunken suitemate reporting him or imagined that his absence would somehow draw me back, like after my first shoe, I don’t know. And I helped by remaining invisible to everyone on campus, including Walter, for the remainder of the year. I’d learned well my first semester how to disappear.
So why do I still think of him, knowing now how wrong it all was? That his intensity and control had nothing to do with love. Or didn’t excuse what he did, how he treated me, how he saw me as belonging to him.
"I’m ready for you," he called.
I shook my head to clear it of Walter, of the ways he’d had me and changed me.
"Pretty hot out there today," he said casually, making the small talk that people do when they see you all the time and know nothing at all about you.
"Yeah," I said, taking a seat. "Real hot."
"The usual, I expect?" he asked, looking directly at me now, a cordial smile in the mirror. I nodded.
"The shoe’s getting a little shaggy," I said, my voice trailing off.
The barbering cape tightened around my neck. "No worries, son," John said. "I’ll take you right back to where you started."