For whatever reason, my barber had employed some new techniques with me today. Mostly with my shave.
I do not recall him having used a brush to foam my face with shaving cream before. I always assumed he had been using his hands. I am never sure because my eyes are closed every time.
This time around, he also decided to provide me with a gentle face massage, rather than pounding my neck and back with his palms after my haircut — which always served as a welcome sign that he was through.
The barber shop I go to is a nondescript room, adjacent to a residential property along Jalan Sungai Kelian. It is not right alongside the road, but rather, further inside the property, at the end of a driveway leading into a house.
There are two swivel chairs in the room – the kinds with built in head-rests designed precisely for holding your head back for a shave. There is only one barber, however, so customers sit on the same swivel chair furthest from the door when receiving their cut. I’ve never seen anyone sit on the other chair.
There is only enough room for about four customers to wait their turn for a cut and shave. When I arrive today, an old Chinese man was already seated before me, ready for a trim. There was another man waiting, presumably Indian, with whom the barber was conversing. Between the three of them, I hardly understood a thing. Most of the conversation was either held in Malay or in Tamil. Naturally, I took out my phone.
When the barber had finished trimming the Chinese man’s hair, the man then paid him a little extra, and the barber took out a DVD from one of the drawers. Perhaps it is a side business, I had thought. I couldn’t get a good look at what sort of film he had handed him, but I stopped myself from assuming.
It was my turn. The barber already knows me, by face anyway, and so he gave me a welcome smile. When I come by, he usually attempts to guess beforehand what sort of haircut I want, which isn’t that hard to guess, since it’s almost always the same – short on the sides, long on top. He gets it right, usually – I’m the one that can’t seem to make up my mind on what I was hoping for.
Today I told him I wanted something different. Short on the sides, but higher, I instructed him, but leaving the top uncut. I mumble another direction, something to do with getting it blended in, but I mutter it mostly to myself, thinking neither he, or I, might really know what that even means.
This was a new cut for him, and me, and I figured to keep the expectations low. He started off with a bigger guide comb attached to the electric clipper and got it all even, all the way around the sides and back of my head. He switched down to a smaller guide comb to fade it in for a boxier look, and as I requested, he hardly touched the top. It was a quick cut, and reasonably good for the first time around. I felt relieved and satisfied, and he wore the look of something of a proud stylist, pleased with his own handiwork.
As is often the case with my visits, he assumed I wanted a shave. He was right — my facial hair had gotten scraggly and I was too lazy to give myself a close shave. I often am. It gets to be a messy, sweaty endeavor here in Malaysia.
I find shaving to be a rather intimate experience. When else is one examining his own face so closely. Is there not any sense of fear at the prospect of discovering features you hadn’t known existed? A mole here, a wrinkle there, a zit you forgot to pop until your razor brushes over it and the sharp pain of the blade scraping against your pimple feels like fire…
Shaving for me, is in large part, acceptance. It is the admission that my face continues to change in ways I cannot fully fathom, even though, in my mind, I feel as though I ought to be able to control. It is one of those activities that signal to me my own age – not simply the mere act of shaving as symbolic of adulthood, but rather, the residue of time, leaving behind its inevitable trail on my face.
Mainly, around my neck. Especially there. There I have all sorts of extra baggage, a true testament of time. I once had a jawline and I miss it dearly. I fear I may not ever see it again.
Only my wife caresses my face, and even with her, I feel a tinge of shame, for not having maintained the same sort of face she fell in love with years ago. My hope is that only I really think this, and she could really care less. The face she has before her is, close enough to the original thing.
But my barber – he gets special privileges. He’s the only other person who touches my face in ways no one else would. Today, he decided it best to pinch my cheeks repeatedly, after he had finished with the razor, as if they needed to be assuaged from the trauma of metal. That was a first, and a welcome surprise. It got my mind slightly distracted from the sting of the aftershave that would soon follow.
This is a man whose hands touch dozens of face shapes and head sizes throughout the course of the day. He is entrusted with a special task.
As his hands and fingers held my face and head, I sensed that, he too, has placed himself in a vulnerable position. His hands are exposed to our senses. We can smell what he might have had for lunch, as I did today – it was curry. We can see whether or not he had trimmed his fingernails before coming into work.
My barber gets to share time with me at my most exposed, and in turn, he too, exercises his own level of vulnerability. Perhaps, it’s all business for him, but I want to believe, that with time, he’d be just as willing to carry the burden of our secrets, as he would, cradle our heads.
I finally asked him for his name, which is a bad habit I have — always putting that exchange last.
He told me it was Jodhit, and how you see it is how I think I had heard him spell it. I had to ask him to. I learned that he’s been a barber for 24 years. In his current shop, he’s been cutting hair and shaving faces for 14 of them. The man has earned the right to be trusted. The least I could do is reward him with my loyalty – that he can trust I’d always keep coming back.