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Untitled Short Story


Here in San Francisco, we are so far west that we are almost east. We are overflowing with borrowed slogans and ecstatic visions distilled for the popular palate. The replacement of our stubborn causal carbon with a more synchronous one is a slow work in progress, and we are inching as bit players, with leaps forward and leaps backward, all calendar marked. I have staked part of my identity on the transition, while the other part of me watches.

During all of this, my hair grows sideways-out and balds in the front. For fear of looking like a helicopter, I’m always due for a trim. Going to a second floor salon would be a slow bankruptcy and I would have to endure some hip dialogue as a preamble to my own cut, when all I really need is a side trim. Instead I go to a Chinese salon near work where I pay eighteen dollars and relax into an experience that while cordial, requires only one’s physical and not mental attention. I can then do the important work that we’ve all signed up for: dissolving my ego or the repetition of a mantra, with the hum of the hair clippers concealing nam myoho renge kyo under my breath. San Francisco smiles as she watches the marriage of her two naive children, meditation and time management, in a carefully designed ceremony of self congratulation.

The commander of the salon is a sharply dressed man from Hong Kong, or is it Kowloon? He communicates best, and delegates the clients with friendly gestures to a few women. We sit and wait for one of the Chinese women to leap up in between imported magazines and unfinished nails. Around us, products line up to the edge of each shelf, threatening to close in on the room. Onto every spare space of wall: promotional hair posters, and in them lean laughing women in form fitting skirts, with their mouths open to show impossibly white teeth. One model is dressed in a variation of a 17th century French madame, with a climbing, twirling hairstyle, bleached barrister grey. Jutting, posing, while some nightclub girlfriends look on in admiration. The awful posters reveal no time, but they are clean with lamination, and so we can place them somewhere in the two-thousands. What foreign countries were behind these posters? The United States wouldn’t allow the production of this vague propaganda, too back alley for us to digest.

She was irreplaceable, forbidden, and finally, intersected by no one outside the limits of her life. I’ve forgotten how to say her name now. I heard it twice: once when she told me on the train and then again in her bedroom as I listened to her talk on the phone. She forced the phone against her ear and reached upwards towards the ceiling in a variation of schoolgirl yearning, and I’d never seen a more unselfconscious pose. The times we met she was always on the phone. It was a Chinese authenticity portal in which through she could hold on to herself, texting or calling up someone at inverted hours.

The first time she cut my hair I practiced the little Mandarin I knew with her. “Peeyow-lian”, I said when she revealed the back of my head with a hand mirror.

You speak Chinese?

No, I just know a few words. I have a co-worker from there, she’s teaching me some Mandarin. One day I would like to travel to China.

Do you know someone in China?

No. But I like travelling alone, it’s fun to explore by yourself.

I drifted to an undetermined altar fixed in the wall. There were still gods and guardians I didn’t know. He was snarling white porcelain draped in eternal red, with offerings of fruit surrounding him and tall stalks of incense clustered, meeting near his mouth. There seemed to be a lighting feature that would have illuminated the base but the bulbs had burnt out. His origin was too obscure to have made it onto any divinely curated bookshelf. He had none of the bold self promotion of the Buddha. Maybe he was a house deity, or the protector of barbers. Whatever his name, he wouldn’t integrate into our minimal living spaces. This was back alley.

You have a very clean apartment. You don’t have too many things. You keep them very clean.

How can you tell? I don’t have too many things. I think when you have too many things you have too much anxiety. It’s better to just have a few things.

I can tell you. You are very neat.

Sometimes I’m neat, other times I can be very messy. It comes and goes. I am very extreme. But it balances out. Like the Tao, the balancing of energies. You know?

You are very good.

I am trying. I can be very reckless sometimes. Now I am being very disciplined.

I looked at her from all the angles that the mirror would allow. She was solidly built, with squarish hips and a lean torso. I could tell that her stomach was flat underneath a denim shirt, in fact she was entirely in denim. Her behind was firm and boxy and it fell easily into robust legs. She moved around the chair with a few confident steps, taking only the ones that were necessary. The rest of the time her feet were fixed on the floor in a wide stance. She held my neck with one hand and clipped the edges of my ear.

You want neck massage?

Well, no. No thanks.

Very stiff.

Yeah I hold a lot of energy up here, in my neck and shoulders.

You want wash?

Yeah OK.

Midway through the wash she gave me the neck massage. I gave my neck into her secure, unlicensed hands and it gave easier than usual. Her touch was intuitive. She seemed to have an ancestral understanding of the smaller tendons and ligaments. The healing she gave was quick and concentrated and without the pretense of second floor masseurs. Over the black basin, I closed my eyes and invoked the images of the archetypical mothers. Here was the earth goddess, trimmed according to the proportions of our time, but not our country. Dressed unfashionably in clothes she could afford or care to afford. Living quietly. Carrying quietly the feminine burdens of understanding and compassion. Caring quietly with her hands and hardly any words that I could understand.

I wrote the tip in on the credit card receipt and thanked her:

Shae shae

Boo ka chi. Bye Bye.

I found Lauren at the water fountain after yoga class and I was instantly turned on. I watched her mouth when she talked to me about where she was in her practice.

I’m getting more into the devotional thing you know. Thats why I love these Bhakti classes. Something happened a few weeks ago that totally turned it around for me. I was in shavasana. Then John, do you know John? Berlinksky? He teaches here sometimes. You should definitely check him out, his classes fill up really quick. John is so great, he said: “make your practice an offering.” I realized this entire time that at some level I’ve been focused on cultivating my own thing you know, and it’s good, it’s a good thing, to expand yourself, but I never really connected with completely offering my practice as a service until then. Now I see it that way, its why I keep showing up to these Bhakti classes. Lily is great isn’t she?

Everything on Lauren was contained, nothing seemed misplaced or spilled over. She fit together solidly and I wanted to worship her in that way, as a complete, unchanging statue, held in place by pale skin and composed enthusiasm. I could tell she was both excitable and restrained, qualities kept in balance by constantly checking in with herself. She was a few ticks below calculating, but maintained the requisite openness. Still, she struggled and was aware of it moment to moment, careful to not reveal too much of herself until she was situation sure. She learned, then applied afterward.

Lauren was also very beautiful, with a delicate, freckled face and small features. We could place her in a lifestyle magazine as a styled springtime silhouette against clean, acceptable pastels. Her presence alone stood in for our own special brand of California cool. Lauren was yoga, she was nutrition, gratitude. She was joy, carefully sculpted from years of cynicism.

We walked together into the shoe vestibule and I laced my shoes slowly so I could take more of her in. My mind set to work unraveling her closely guarded sexuality, which was hidden under scarves, boots, leggings and hanging bags. Had she fully unfolded in front of someone?

The haircut was good, but as usual it didn’t last. The sides crept out at an alarming rate, and soon I was back at the salon. This next time I was paired up with a different girl. Young and flighty, she didn’t practice with the same care as her colleague. She made quick, improvised adjustments with nervous hands. I watched with some jealousy the businessman who was overflowing out of the seat to my right as the my usual hair cutter touched up underneath his flaring nose. He took for granted how nurturing she was. He hardly knew that she was the heir to unlimited feminine strength and creativity. Now her divine power was concentrated on the few thinning strands of a fustian aggressive. He would have been better suited to the girl that was cutting my hair. The commander from Kowloon who assigned the barbers did not take into account any factors of personality. The books of his ancestors, I thought, would have something to say about these haphazard pairings. Then I remembered the I Ching. This arbitrary salon constellation held in it the truth of how our inner and outer experiences blend, meeting each other at each moment. It had to be this way, I told myself. I began to direct loving kindness towards the young hair cutter as she hastily clipped my sides.

The haircut and a rugged new pair of boots I bought gave me the urge to call Lauren and ask her out. We talked briefly on the phone that night and planned to meet for tea in a few days. She was excited, having just signed up for a yoga teacher training in India and was eager to share the details. Neither of us had been to India, but we both felt that our commitment to the Eastern path had ripened our understanding of the land of Gods. Colorful, innumerable, worshipable and waiting for us.

You should check out Louis Malle’s documentary on India. Have you seen it? It’s incredible. He went there in the sixties and stayed for almost a year. It has this really cool sixties feel to it you know? The faces, oh my god, the faces are so beautiful. He gets these amazing close-ups of Saddhus and holy men, also just regular people. It’s like seven hours. I love the meandering French tone he brings to it. You feel as if you’re moving through the country and just taking it all in you know? Its actually more of a meditation on India.

Lauren spoke to me from her violet room. Dozens of chains, necklaces and accessories hung from her dresser down like binding strands of ivy. The jewelry was made from exotic woods, turquoise, silver, onyx, tumbled stones, roughly formed beads. Tall standing rock of Gibraltar rings filled up a woven tray. Above the dresser, canopies formed from scarves of variable translucence. Gods of bronze, wood and stone gathered around her room with their backs close to the wall, as if they were honoring her. This was a curated space, in step with the approximations of the admissible exotic.

I was waiting for the train and a new text from Lauren when I saw her. I tried hard to get her attention with my eyes. She was walking towards me but her gaze was down. When she did pull up, I waved hello and pointed to my hair.

The haircut. You cut my hair.


You do a very good job, thanks.


Do you..are you waiting for the train?


Which train do you take?

T train.

Oh. I take the J train. I like it, its very relaxing. After work, its nice to sit on the train.


Where does the T train go?

My home.

I’ve never been on it. Maybe I’ll take it sometime. I love these trains. You can see new areas of the city by riding different trains. We don’t have many trains in California, not like they do in Europe, or India.

You want to take T train?

Yeah maybe. I’ll wait with you.

We walked over to her side of the platform and began to wait for the train. It showed up almost immediately and I was unclear on what to do. She looked at me and smiled as the automatic doors parted.


Just after I said this, I jumped into the train before the doors closed. She had nearly taken her seat and I stood in the aisle next to her.

Maybe I’ll take the train. It’s nice.


What’s your name? It’s very good to meet you.

She told me her name. Did it begin with an s or a x? It ended sharply with an -ie. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where exactly the T line ended up, but the particulars were clear: I was riding the train home with my Chinese hair cutter. She seemed not to register any of the strangeness in what was happening, and this was comforting. I began to view her as my guide, that I was meant to follow her somewhere to find something out, being that the material and symbolic worlds function in a cosmic unison. In the heroes journey there is a guide, strange looking or unusual, some symbol deep from the unconscious that makes clear our purpose. After my internal inquiries burned themselves out and I returned to the present, I began to worry that some of the passengers on the train would think we were a couple. A wave of nervous energy swept over me. I was embarrassed to be seen with her and ashamed of my embarrassment, and interested in why I was either. Like any good Beatrice, she recognized my worry and told me with her eyes that she knew something I didn’t. The ride was short. She motioned when it was the right stop and I moved aside as she got up and walked towards the door. I followed her out.

She lived somewhere in avenues that I’d never been before. Short squatted houses lined up with variations on a foggy, wood-splintered theme. Her house had a turquoise trim and a few cypresses rooted in lawn rock. The door was unlocked and I walked in close behind her. Here the clutter of her workplace continued into her living room. More than one couch set at indiscriminate angles fought each other for central gravity in a room with none. The eyes, washed over by countless objects spanning countless generations, went nowhere in particular except to detect movement. There was some in an upholstered rocking chair. Her mother, grandmother, aunt.


The older woman responded to me by lifting her fingers a few inches above her lap. She didn’t seem to be doing anything in the chair. A fellow meditator, I thought. We kept moving through until we reached her room at the end of a dark hallway. Along the way in another room, I saw a man playing a video game in the dark. Her bedroom door opened to reveal a space that was different from the rest of the house. The only two items in the room were her bed and a white Victorian dresser. Walls undecorated except for a Chagall lithograph above her bed. Below the image in bold Helvetica: Marc Chagall a Palazzo Pitti. The poster offered the only color in the room, his mythical Paris coaxed from bright blues, greens and reds. On the dresser was a simple Buddha carved from wood. She almost immediately left me alone and I carefully sat on the corner of her bed and waited for her to return. She had to check in with her mother or the man in his room I thought, they might have wondered who the caucasian was. After a few minutes she came back into the room with two cups of tea. I took mine and thanked her, then she sat down next to me on the bed. We drank our tea in silence. She stared straight ahead and my eyes kept moving around the room, then falling on her, with them sheepishly asking her what came next. I finished my tea quickly, taking the frequent and declarative sips of a man who doesn’t know what to do with his hands. She took the cups and placed them on the dresser then opened the top drawer and removed a white candle. It was dark in her room, and the lines of the Buddha’s face became sharper with the candlelight, his upturned mouth dancing slightly. On the bed I still didn’t know what to do. If she had been one of my peers, the situation would have been obviously suggestive and my body would have taken over in an as seen on T.V foreplay. Was this something else? It did have a mythic tone to it. She had played the role of guide and water-giver. What was left to receive from the divine feminine? I flipped back and forth between the inner and outer meanings. Would I have sex with her? I wasn’t even sure she was attractive.

I’m glad to be here, this is nice. Thank you for the tea.

Yes. It’s nice. You think very much?

I do. How do you know? I make things so complicated for myself. I don’t know what I’m doing. I see things always on too many levels, and it makes action difficult. Do you know what I mean?

No. Are you warm?

No I’m fine. I mean, I’m feeling good. My neck though, I’m tired.

Yes. Here.

She patted on the bed and this meant I was to lay down. I placed myself face down, with my head in between two pillows and my new heavy boots dangling over the edge. She sat on top of me and massaged my neck with one hand, planting the other on my back. After a while she stopped and I turned back to see that she was removing her clothes. Her bra was very plain, inexpensive black with large straps, the underwire poking through the side.

Do you like me?

Of course I do. You are very beautiful. Mae-lee.

I committed myself to her and turned over. She stayed on top the entire time and it didn’t last long. We took turns using the bathroom after we had finished. I encountered the man in the hallway, her brother or father or uncle, and he smiled at me crookedly. This made me nervous and I started to ask myself questions. Had he seen other caucasians in the house before? This might be something that she does often. Was it possible that she was a prostitute in addition to cutting hair? I had never been to a prostitute before, vowing to avoid sex for money during my lifetime. It could be that this was God’s roundabout way of forcing me have sex with a prostitute, laughing at the opinions of my hardened ego. I walked back into her bedroom and she was talking on the phone in Chinese. She hardly looked at me. I got back into bed and curled up next to her, but the conversation kept on. I rested my hand on her thigh and and did some deep breathing, waiting it out. The language was impenetrable and I became impatient. I kissed her when I sensed there was a gap in the conversation. She kissed me back and let the phone drop a little. I whispered to her:

Maybe I’ll go?


I really enjoyed that. Amazing. You are very beautiful.

You. You are very good.

Lauren and I met the following day when I was off work. It wasn’t clear if she worked at all. We ordered green tea and it came in two separate pots accompanied by white handleless cups. Next to each pot was a small folded paper that gave steeping instructions and named the type of tea, Gyokuro from the Yame region of Japan. Lauren was beautifully layered in purples and browns that concealed her body. Her head alertly popped out from all of this decoration and she spoke in bursts of excitement, cutting in, retreating.

This is lovely isn’t it? Its so nice that we can enjoy this sort of thing here in the city. A lot of hard work goes into setting up a place like this you know, giving it this authentic feel, picking out the tea, they’ve got the whole tone of it down. People like you and I appreciate it too. Like these beautiful cups. These are handmade you know, its the details. Do you want you to come chanting with me sometime?

I went chanting with her that week, and then again the following week. We saw each other nearly every day and we were propelled by that early momentum of discovery and recognition, when you’ve seen just enough of the other person to anticipate some behavior. We remained excited as we slowly unfolded.

On the nights when Lauren and I weren’t out in the city, I went to the avenues after receiving texts containing only a few honest words. The front door of her house was unlocked and I would walk in without knocking. Neither of the two people she lived with took even the smallest notice of my presence in their house. I came to know the bareness of her room and her incidental, themeless wardrobe. Every time I left her I felt restored and gently warmed. Her particular warmth was strong enough to recognize its rarity among more manufactured warmth. Hers was deeper and immune to the styling of our time. She gave it openly, not tucked beneath an assembly of layers and composition. She gave love indiscriminately and purposefully, as if it were her duty. Receiving all of this, my guilt eased, my fear eased. I felt more confident expressing my own love.

Lauren made it clear, during a suggestive phone conversation, that on our next date, I would be spending the night with her for the first time. When the day came, I went into the salon for my trim. The young hair cutter was without a client and I was directed to her empty chair. I walked halfway, then stopped and turned to the man.

Would it be possible to wait for her?

The man seemed fine with my suggestion and when someone else walked in, he ushered him over to the girl. I turned to her and explained,

I’m sorry, she knows my hair very well. She always cuts my hair.

When I sat into her chair, all of her routine touches were more significant and I could hardly separate the haircut from another sexual experience.

You want wash?

Yeah thanks.

My eyes were closed to shield them from soapy water and my head was suspended over the basin. She held my neck up gently from underneath, easing the strain.

I can’t come over anymore. I met someone.

You met girlfriend?

Well I don’t know, I think so. I mean it’s looking that way.


I love being at your place.

I know you. You are very good.

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