Text size

I'm sitting in the barber's chair and scribbling on the back of a bill marked "For immediate payment." The barber just stepped out to pray. "Excuse me for 10 minutes," he said, not waiting for an answer from me before going to the sink, splashing his face and hands, and heading across the street to the mosque. The barber may be very young, but his barbershop is strictly old school, and that's why I like it. Plus, he's an excellent barber and charges only half as much as an air-conditioned hairdresser with espresso and fashion magazines. There's a single tattered chair with a cracked headrest, a ceiling fan, a few plastic chairs and plenty of religious literature to help pass the time while you're waiting.

I sit there alone in the usual cape, decorated with horses running on the beach under a red sun. He left me in the middle, after trimming just one side. The mirror here, and in every barbershop I've ever been in, reveals the truth better than any other mirror in the world. In the barber's chair I always look ugly. Maybe when the haircut is finished I'll look a little less ugly, but that's all. "It'll look better with gel," is my mantra each time the barber starts pumping the pedal to lower the chair. I try not to look in the mirror, not now when I've got just half a haircut, when my eyes are bleary from the cut hair that has fallen into them. I'll concentrate on writing.

Today is my birthday. I look at the hair scattered in my lap atop the cape and try to estimate the percentage of gray hairs standing out against the red sun. I like gray hair. I like it when people think I'm older than my real age.

I glance in the mirror. I don't care much about how I look. I'm not one of those people who gaze in the mirror and say "I'm so fat" or "I need a nose job." No, what's disturbing about my appearance is my lack of awareness about it. The fact that in my mind I think I look different, that I'm almost always certain the problem is some optical illusion and has nothing to do with the truth. Except for when I'm at the barber. For some reason, that's when it really hits home. Sometimes, when I'm with friends who aren't in the least good-looking, I'm filled with sorrow and pity when they talk about a pretty girl, convinced she's just as interested in them as they are in her. But I'm the same way.

I always say I couldn't care less that it's my birthday, but I feel a powerful need to commemorate it each year. Not with a party, eating out or a gift that I may or may not receive, but with this unshakable feeling of "what do you know - today's my birthday." I'm not going to engage in any self-reckoning or try to measure my accomplishments prematurely. That's never concerned me. I've never been fazed by the passing of time. I'd love to say something like, "Gee, how time flies!" or "I'm not so young now, it's time to act more like a grown-up." But since age five I've felt exactly the same at every birthday.

For some reason on my birthday I tell everyone I meet, stranger or not, "It's my birthday today." I don't know why. The response usually ranges from embarrassment to phony congratulations.

The barber and other worshipers are coming out of the mosque now. "The imam was slow, I'm sorry," he says, donning his white apron.

"Hey, did you know? It's my birthday today."

"Really? So what do you want to do?"

"Like always. Have it cut."