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Comfort Zones by Deke Cutter

“Look Max, I know that Grace is a great woman and you two have really hit it off well, but from everything you’ve told me, that kid of hers is going to destroy you or the relationship." Tom Edwards said this to me in my office at the university where we were both tenured professors, he teaches geography and I teach history. We had met Grace when we were part of a team from the university that gave a seminar on cultural geography and how the interplay of cultures in Europe needed to be understood by American businesses trying to work there, especially post-Brexit. This was before Putin started his mad war against Ukraine, but we also got into that part of Europe, as well. Grace worked for a software company that developed online applications for banks and other financial institutions that worked in multinational markets across Europe. Tom is happily married, while I am happily divorced. My former wife and I married while studying for our respective doctorates, too young and financially stressed to realize the hard road we faced to building a successful marriage under those circumstances. We parted as friends and even collaborate occasionally. But back to me and Grace, there was an immediate mutual attraction. She looks like Marissa Tomei, a real beauty. Her Italian roots obvious. At six feet tall, I am about six inches taller than her. I am decent looking for a man in my mid-thirties. While her brown hair is wavy to curly and reaches her shoulder blades, mine is nearly the same shade and I’ve always worn it in sort of a medium to longish “academic" style. It’s parted on the side, but reaches my collar totally covers my ears. I get it trimmed when the bangs get too long or before a summer vacation, but generally, I like the look.

Gee, I’ve been rambling, I don’t have that luxury in the lecture hall. Let me explain about my developing relationship with Grace and what Tom’s concern is all about. Grace and I seemed to share some interests. I had taken her out to dinner, and she invited me to a concert that her company had tickets for in one of those sky suites. We’d also gone to a couple of museums together on the weekends. She had slowly opened to me about her life. She had married right out of college and become pregnant almost immediately. Her husband had been in a Navy ROTC program and had been commissioned into the Navy. He was training to be a U.S. Navy aviator, but he had been killed in a crash 6 months after their marriage and four months before their son was born. Consequently, young Roger had grown up without a father. Fortunately for Grace, both her parents and Roger’s dad’s parents lived nearby and had been generous with their time and anything else that mother and son needed over the years. The compensation Grace received for her husband’s death from the Navy and the insurance he had wisely arranged meant that she and the baby could live independently. The grandparents both loved the little child and never turned away an opportunity to watch him when Grace had to work late or go out of town. But mostly, it was Grace and Roger. Grace was the center of Roger’s life. And, Roger, from childhood, was fixated on the military. He had a child’s belief that his daddy died a hero and that any man in uniform was a “real man." From the time he was four, he had demanded that his hair be cut short “like daddy’s" in the pictures of his father in uniform. He never wanted his hair to be longer than an inch or two. As he grew, he designated himself as “man of the house," and his mother’s protector. Of course, everyone in the family thought this was ‘adorable,’ and Grace was so busy being a mom and building a career that she really didn’t think much about how this might turn out down the road.

Well, when Roger turned 10 years old, Grace thought that since he would be heading to middle school in a year, it might be time for her to put her toe into the dating scene again since Roger would be more involved in extra-curricular activities and sports that would not require her intensive involvement as much as the club activities of his younger years. At first, she did not tell Roger that she was going out on a date. She would just say she had work meetings or was going to a woman friend’s house, but she did not like prevaricating. So, finally she sat him down and told him that she was going to have dinner with a nice man that “Aunt Sylvie" had introduced her to. Sylvie was her best friend and someone that Roger liked and trusted. She had her parents come over to stay with Roger. The date went well, but Roger was not happy. Her parents reported that he was surly, unable to concentrate and could not settle to sleep, all very unlike him. This pattern continued and the strain began to spill over into her relationship with Roger. He became “mouthy" and disobedient in small ways. When that man she was dating came to pick her up and to meet Roger, Roger was tightlipped, almost to the point of rudeness. Grace apologized to the man and the following day tried to have a serious talk with her son. Roger exploded. “That guy, he is not squared away at all, his clothes were sloppy, and his hair is way too long. He would never make it as an officer in any branch of the service." None of what Roger said was objectively true, and try as Grace did, he could not be moved. This resulted in the man losing interest as Roger made it impossible for the relationship to grow. The same thing happened a few more times before Grace and I met.

So back to the current situation. Grace had been very hesitant to introduce this shaggy college professor to her son. I, however, had a few years under my belt of dealing with young men and women and finding out how to reach them. In this case, I was going to have to take some proactive steps, and I thought I had come up with a good way of approaching this situation. According to Grace, my first meeting with Roger had been better than most because of my knowledge of military history and current events. She quoted him as saying, “he’s scruffy looking but at least he knows what he’s talking about. Not the worst you have brought home." That last remark landed him in the doghouse, and he knew it and apologized profusely to his mother for “saying the quiet part out loud." I laughed it off and told her that I had a plan to move things forward with Roger.

The academic year was coming to an end, as was Roger’s school year. Grace had me over for dinner so that we could start the wheels rolling on my plan. Grace and Roger usually took a vacation trip at the beginning of the summer. Then he would spend the days with one or the other set of grandparents if he wasn’t in camp or a sports program. When I arrived for dinner, Grace poured us both a glass of wine and an iced tea for Roger. “So Max, you have an interesting summer planned."

“Yes, I’ve been invited to be a visiting scholar at the National War College in Washington, D.C. The Department of Defense wants me to give some lectures on how American society reached its social breaking point in the years leading up to the Civil War and how that compares to the turmoil during Viet Nam and today. I’ll be working with a team. The neat thing is that I will also be able to call on military experts who can discuss how the military prepared and changed as the result of each of first two eras and how it is changing today." Roger’s eyes were bulging. I’ll be down in D.C. for most of the summer. A friend who is going abroad for a sabbatical is loaning me his apartment near the Washington Nationals Ballpark."

“So, you’ll get to go to the Pentagon and stuff," asked Roger."

“I expect so. Although there is a lot more military history to be seen in the D.C. area. In fact, I was talking with your mom and thought you might like to come down with me for a few days to see some of the military sights and then she could join us to take in the Smithsonian and the monuments. If that is something you might like."

Roger looked at his mother, looked at me, and was clearly having a moment of cognitive dissonance.

I was thinking we might even be able to sneak over to Annapolis and tour the Academy."

As I expected, that broke the dam. “May I go mom?

“I think it sounds like a fine idea," Grace said.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind. Grace and I had worked out our plan to a tee. She had kept Roger busy so that he did not have time to get his regular haircut before we left. So, on the morning I arrived to pick Roger up, Grace casually asked if we had time to stop so Roger could get a haircut before we hit the interstate. I said that would be fine. We both said our goodbyes to Grace and said we would see her in 5 days. Roger gave me directions to the shop. As we were driving, I said to him, “Roger, it gets awfully hot in Washington in the Summer, do you think your barber could give me a good short haircut for the summer? I figure I’d fit right in with all the military guys I’ll be teaching. What do you think?"

He got a big grin on his face. “You just leave it with me," he said, my barber’ll have you squared away in no time." Then he got this concerned look on his face, “this isn’t some kind of trick to get me in trouble with my mom, is it?"

“No, I promise. It is hot down there. I did kind of think that my having a short haircut for the summer might help tear down the wall between us a little more and help me show you that I’m one of the good guys."

Roger continued to smile as we arrived at the barbershop. A traditional looking place in a strip mall. It was a three-chair shop and, as it was early on a Wednesday, all three barbers were free. Roger introduced me as his “mother’s boyfriend Max," a first-time acknowledgement of my status. His regular barber, a young guy named Mitch, noted that Roger was late coming in. Roger explained our upcoming trip and then explained that I, too, was here for a haircut. Jesse, in the middle chair, asked me to take a seat. Roger said that I was looking for something short for summer and something that would help me “fit in" with the military guys I would be teaching, “a big change," he concluded."

Jesse, looked at me and said, “if that is what you are looking for, I can set you up with a regulation cut that I give to some National Guard officers who are regulars here." I agreed with the provision that Roger was my expert. By this time Roger’s haircut was under way. I heard him say “high and tight" to his barber but was so consumed with thoughts of my own impending change in appearance that it didn’t really register. The next thing I knew, Jesse had me caped up and said, “OK Max, I’m going to start with the clippers here in the back. Are you ready?" I managed to shake my head yes and I heard the clippers begin to buzz. I felt the comb lift the hair off my collar and the blades slowly move up the back of my head. He seemed to be pushing them about halfway up the back of my head and then bringing them out and starting again at the bottom. Both Roger and I were facing the waiting chairs, but the shop had mirrors on both walls, so I could see Jesse working, but not what kind of damage was being wrought. When he finished with the back, though, I got the first look at the shorn back of my head. My hair hadn’t ever been that short! He was into his rhythm now and was quick at stripping away most of the hair on left side of my head, where my part was. The same was done on the right side. I guess there is nothing sillier than a man or boy at that point in a major haircut when all that is left is the long hair on top. My forelock had flopped down into my eyes and everything else looked like a big wedge. I glanced at Roger whose sides and back were basically bald and he glanced at me and nodded his approval. Next Jesse took out an odd-looking pair of scissors. I guess he saw my expression and explained, “these are called thinning shears." Your hair is very thick and full bodied. I need to thin it out a bit for it to lay right with this shorter cut. Don’t worry, though, you have so much hair, that you’d be able to get a nice full flat-top in a month if you wanted to." (I thought to myself, ‘thank goodness Roger won’t be with me all summer, or I might end up with one’). He then went to work slashing away at my remaining long hair, stopping to clean out the shears and going back to work. When he was done, my hair did seem much flatter. He then took a regular pair of shears and cut my remaining bangs at an angle, above my eyebrows and made sure all the hair on top was no more than three inches or so long. Then he put another guard on the clippers and made sure the sides and the top were blended. Then he put shaving cream around my ears and on my neck and cleaned up where my sideburns used to be and gave me a crisp new neckline. He combed my hair into place and said: “there you go, I’d say this would meet regulations."

I looked in the mirror and saw a clean-cut, short haired version of myself. I rubbed my hand up the back of my head and felt the bristles there where my thick, soft hair had been. It was a very different feeling. I wasn’t sure I liked it, but I reminded myself that I was doing it to build a bridge. So, I looked over at my nearly bald companion, Roger and asked, “what do you think, Roger?"

He had a big smile on his face and said, ‘major improvement, I can’t say your scruffy anymore, but, as you can see, I’ve still got the better military cut."

I went over and rubbed the stubble on top of his head and said: “that you do." And we both laughed. I paid for both haircuts and we were on our way. We got down to Washington by late afternoon. The apartment, a rather stylish condo in a newly developed part of town, had two bedrooms and two baths, so we were set. We both wanted to take showers after the long ride. I was surprised how much easier it was to quickly towel dry my hair and comb it into place now that it was so short. We found a nice place to eat nearby and even a grocery store for a few essentials. We got back early and talked about what Roger wanted to see the next day. As we talked, I could see Roger kept staring at my haircut. I had taught long enough to know that sometimes, it was better to wait and sure enough, this was one of those times.

“Max, when you told me you wanted to get a short haircut, I figured you would just get a trim or something. When Jesse described what he thought you should get, I figured you would ‘wuss’ out, but you never even flinched once. I guess I just wanted to tell you, I think that you are O.K., for a civilian."

“Well, Roger," I said as I rubbed the stubble on the back of my head, “before I met your mom and you, I wouldn’t have imagined myself sitting in a barbershop getting this kind of haircut. But your mom and you mean a lot to me, and I thought that the stars were sort of aligned for it. Besides, short hair is really a new experience for me. It is always good to try new things, so I have you to thank for trying this out." Who knows, maybe you and I can be good for each other. What do you say we call it a night? I got us an early tour at the Pentagon tomorrow morning, so we’ll have to get breakfast and figure out the Metro to be there on time."

“Oh, cool, Max! Night"

By the time Grace arrived at the weekend, we had been on the Pentagon tour, to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery, to see some of the Civil War Battlements around DC and its suburbs, and with Grace’s help, I had been able to arrange a memorable lunch with a Navy officer who had trained with Roger’s dad. Luckily, we had messaged pictures to her, so she wasn’t too shocked when she saw me or Roger with our new short haircuts. She did comment that we both looked nice but added that ‘you both always do.’ When Grace and I finally got some time together, (one of my neighbors was a divorced dad who Roger and I met and his 12-year-old daughter invited Roger over to play video games) Grace said, “that is one heck of a short haircut, Max, but it seems to have worked. You and Roger seem to be best buddies."

“That seemed to have opened the door.," I said. “We’ll have to see, though. Let’s see how things go this summer. I’m thinking we may want to arrange another trip at the end of the summer to solidify things" And so that was the plan. Grace and Roger returned home, and I started my teaching assignment. I have to say that I did feel like the haircut helped me fit in during the first week or two. Truth be told, I even got my neck and sides cleaned up after I dropped Grace and Roger at DCA for their flight home. I really missed both Grace and, surprisingly, my new buddy Roger. Unfortunately, I was so busy teaching and researching that I couldn’t get a weekend home until the middle of the summer. My hair was filling in on the sides and back and even the top was starting to get some of its fullness back. I was looking forward to being with Grace and to seeing what the temperature was like with Roger. Grace picked me up at DCA and we stopped at my place to make sure all was well there. Since Roger was at a baseball camp, we had the afternoon to ourselves and indulged in a little “afternoon delight." After equally delightful shower, we shared my hair dryer, an implement I had all but forgotten about, and headed off to pick up Roger. I had been playing on the War College staff’s intramural softball team and the team had got me a ball cap with the logo on it. I pulled it out and brought it with me, putting it on when we arrived at the park where the camp was held. A few parents were already there and told us that the boys were inside showering. A few minutes later, Grace spotted Roger before I did. He appeared to have grown an inch or two and his hair was back to its normal length but was still neatly trimmed. He saw me and came running up to the car.

“Hi mom, MAX, he called out, then remembering he was a cool 12-year-old, he said, nice hat, I see you are returning to your shaggy ways." But he said it with a big smile on his face.

“As have you, Mr. High and Tight," I replied as I rubbed the stubble on the back of his head. “So, who is up for pizza?"

The three-day weekend went much too quickly, and I realized that I wanted to spend my life with Grace and that I felt very comfortable with Roger being part of the package. When they drove me back to the airport to head back to Washington, Grace and I asked Roger if he would like fly down to DC in 6 weeks for a weekend with me in DC before he and I drove home together. He was delighted.

For me, the summer continued to go well. I learned so much from the men and women of our armed forces. They were the most engaged students I have had the honor of teaching. I often found myself thinking of Roger, as I looked at these “squared-away" men and women. I also remembered something Jesse the barber had said to me back in late May. The softball season continued too. I didn’t realize how competitive I could be, but these folks were out to win (just what we want from our military). Dave, one of the guys on the team who taught Asymmetrical Warfare had one of the best flattops I had ever seen. It was boxy-looking and not quite skintight. He and I were grabbing some beers after the last game of the season, and I told him I was thinking about getting a flattop and asked him where his barber was. He got this big smile on his face and said, “I rarely see a civilian with a flattop these days, has hanging around with us turned your head?" I laughed and told him the whole story and how I wanted to get the flat top as an object lesson for Roger who I had high hopes of becoming my stepson before too much more time passed. As it was Friday evening and I would be picking up Roger the next Thursday after classes had ended, Dave suggested we meet in the morning at his barber that was quite close to where we worked.

I must admit, I tossed and turned some that night. Mostly, it was the thought of showing up on campus for the Fall semester in a few weeks with a flattop, but it was too late to worry about that now. So, at 0800, as Dave put it, we were the first customers at Amato and Son Barbers, a small shop in an old building that appeared to be in outstanding condition. Dave ushered me in and introduced me to a man in his 50s who was Amato, ‘call me Motty.’ His son Giuseppe would be later (baby with colic, it was explained). “So, who is first in the chair." Motty asked.

“My friend Max wants a flattop just like mine, Motty. I knew you were the man who could tell him if it could be done."

“After all the years I cut your hair, you even must ask. Come over here, Dave. I kick you in the butt." The way these two laughed, I took it that they were good friends. So, I sat in the chair, was caped up and Motty began examining my hair. “Max, you have great hair for a flat top. You are obviously not in the military with this much hair on your head, are you sure you want to cut it all off?"

“Yes, Motty, I am sure. Let’s get this done." Dave sat down in front of me, eager to see the show. Motty knew his craft. He combed down my bangs and quickly snipped them off about mid forehead, straight across. Then he combed the hair over to the left and started running the clippers up the left side of my head, leaving some stubble behind. As he went around the back, I felt him going higher than Jesse had gone on my last major cut. Then he combed the top over to the right and cropped the right side down. He did a little more cleanup work with the clippers on the sides and back. Then, he stopped, took off the Sani strip, loosened the cape and proceeded to spread shaving cream around my ears and neck. He cleaned up my neckline and around my ears, leaving only very short sideburns at the very to of my ears. Then, he wiped everything clean and sprayed my hair on top with a water bottle, took some substance rubbed it into my hair and turned on a blow dryer, brushing my hair straight back. Then he started cutting down the top, first scissor over comb to get the bulk down and then switching to the clippers over a long flat comb. Motty was efficient with his time and movements, but this was “a first flattop" so it took time. When Motty was satisfied, he took some wax applied it to all the remaining hair and, brushed it up and asked, “so, you like?"

I looked at myself and was stunned. The flattop was a perfect duplicate to Dave’s. I lightly touched the top. It was a strange feeling. The stubbled sides were not unpleasant. “It’s great Motty. Thank you!" He removed the cape and I stepped out of the chair. He quickly cleaned the hair from the chair, wiped everything down and invited Dave to the chair. Dave’s cleanup didn’t take long, and when he was done, we took some pictures. From behind we could have been twins! We paid Motty, both of us tipped him well and left the office. I couldn’t stop touching my head. I couldn’t believe I had a flattop. My class gave me some good-natured teasing about having “been commissioned" over the weekend. The class ended and I got some fun gag gifts from the students, including more butch wax than I will ever use (I gave most of it to Dave). I spoke to Grace, and we agreed that if all went well with Roger, we would be ring shopping soon.

Thursday, I took the Metro to DCA early, wearing my war college hat over my freshly waxed and brushed flattop. Because I was meeting an unaccompanied minor, I was permitted to go through security and meet him at the gate area. Roger came out of the door with a flight attendant after most of the passengers had left the plane. He had his carryon bag and sunglasses on. “Hey buddy," I called.

“Max!’ I was surprised by the warmth and strength of his hug. He assured me that his carryon was his only luggage, so, we rushed out of the terminal and hiked over to the airport Metro station. I could see Roger eyeing my cap and, presumably my haircut, but he said nothing until we got to the apartment. I told him to take his suitcase to “his" room. I went into the bathroom, removed my hat and made sure my hair was looking straight. I was waiting for him in the living room when he came in. His eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw me without the hat. “Holy cow, Max. I thought you got another regulation cut. Did mom tell you?

“Did mom tell me what?"

Roger removed his hat to show his own flattop. “I made the Middle School Fall Baseball Team. The guys all decided we would get flattops for team unity."

I started laughing. First, congratulations on making the team. I am proud of you. “Sit down, and I’ll tell you my story." Getting my haircut back in May made me realize that sometimes it is a good idea to move out of your comfort zone. For me, I think it helped you and me get to know each other better and it helped break some ice with the people I was teaching and working with. One of the guys on my softball team down there had a flattop and it got me to thinking about how you had got that high and tight. So, I was thinking about you, and I said, to myself, what if you step out of your comfort zone and get a flattop? It might just be something that Roger will remember in the future. What if there is some cute girl in a few years who asks you to grow your hair out for her. Maybe you’ll remember me, the hippy professor, going back to the college campus with a flattop. It will be Christmas before my hair is anywhere near my comfort zone again and close to the end of the year, before my flowing locks are back."

I looked at Roger and saw that he was trying to hold back tears. “Max, I gave you a hard time when you first started seeing mom, but I realized quickly that you were different, and I could tell you made mom happy. You also treated me like a person, not just a kid. I was blown away when you got your haircut at my barbers back in May and now, I understand that you will be going a whole year before your hair will be back the way it was. Your “long hair" (he made air quotes) was what you had when you and mom met. I shouldn’t have made you feel like you needed to cut it short, and then really short! Max, I am glad you and mom are together, and I want you to be part of our family, long hair and all, if that is what you and mom want."

And that is what happened.

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