I have never cared about my boyfriend’s hair. He has a classic cut—tapered sides, natural back, and just enough on top to push it to the side. That’s not to say I don’t pretend to care about his hair. Every month-and-a-half or so, Paul earnestly asks me whether he needs a haircut, or if he should let it go a week longer. He’ll stand facing me, frozen like a model in a life drawing class, and then slowly turn, presumably so that I can ponder the question from all angles. I put on my “Hmm, let me think about this” face, but what is generally going through my head is: Your hair looks exactly the same as it did a couple of weeks ago, and as it does immediately after you get it cut. “I definitely think you should get it cut,” I say out loud.
But as with most things over these past few months, my feelings about Paul’s grooming rituals are no longer normal. So last week, when he asked me if I thought he needed a haircut—and what I would think if he grew a beard—I couldn’t even muster my “let me think about this” face.
“No, no, no, no! You know I hate facial hair!” I said. “If you do grow a beard, it’ll be the end of sheltering in this place for one of us.”
“So you wouldn’t mind?” he said.
If he promised to keep shaving, I’d cut his hair, I told him.
I considered hiding the scissors and telling him new ones were backordered until 2023. (By the way, it is a tribute to Paul and me that after a 13-year relationship, and at this stage of our quarantine, neither of us has yet locked up the scissors and sharp knives.) But a deal is a deal, so: I ordered a Conair Home Haircut and Grooming Kit, and a set of thinning scissors from Sally Beauty and waited with an exceeding amount of patience, hoping they’d never arrive. A few days later—oh, no!—the Conair box turned up at our door with a hair clipper and ten attachments called “guide combs,” a.k.a “guards.” This may be obvious to those of you who have caved to pressure from your partner before, but these are combs of varying lengths that snap onto the clipper; a higher number guide comb means that the teeth of the comb are longer so that the clipper is further from the scalp and will therefore cut less hair than it would with a lower number guide comb. “The guards are really there to help you, the hair pirate, from cutting too much off,” Brooklyn-based barber Mike Sposito, tells me when I seek outside consultation. The kit also includes scissors, two combs, three styling clips, oil for greasing the blades before use, and a barber’s cape, which is a close cousin of the giant trash bag. There is also a nose and ear hair trimmer. (Sorry, Paul; I do not love you enough for that.)
Sposito’s namesake salon, which is dotted with plants and blonde wood details, has been closed since New York’s #stayhome orders went into effect almost two months ago. He is therefore guiding me through a virtual haircut via Zoom, as one does during a pandemic, with the forbearance of a medicated Buddhist. Before we begin, he gives me a pep talk and cautions against being overly zealous. “Go slow and have a plan,” he says. “If you are too speedy, you’ll get sloppy and the next thing you know, someone’s bald and the other is bleeding.” I nod along, visualizing this scenario, which feels entirely plausible. “A lot of barbers and stylists are telling their clients not to do home haircuts, but that’s like telling me not to cook dinner because I’m not a chef,” Sposito continues. “People want to feel good right now. And if you fuck up, oh well. It’s hair. It grows back.”
It was time to inflict damage. On Sposito’s advice, I start by clipping the sides and the back of Paul’s head with a #8 guard (which leaves 1” of hair), later using a scissors to trim the top. Since you always want to use the clippers against the grain of the hair, it’s best to start at the base of the hairline, Sposito suggests, and move the clippers upward until you reach the point at which the head shape starts to slant toward the crown. When you arrive at the crown, move the clippers up and away, almost as if you’re scooping the hair. It would be a lot easier if you were cutting someone’s hair who didn’t have ears, I quickly realize; but unless you are Mrs. Vincent Van Gogh, you’re just going to have to work around that obstacle, trying to keep the hairline curve around the ear. (Paul holds his ear down while I tackle that area and it helps somewhat.) After the #8, I graduate to a #6, then I use a #5 on the bottom section so that it is shorter than the section of hair above it. (Try to make the lines of demarcation from different guards blurry so the cut seems tapered, rather than resembling a staircase.)
Now for the top. To misquote the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm up there.” Or as Sposito puts it, “damage can be done to the sides and fixed on the next haircut, but the top is a different story.” I proceed with caution, using a comb or two fingers to pull up strands of hair, a section at a time, trying to cut the same amount of hair in a straight line each time, as per Sposito. If you’re dealing with bangs, comb them down onto the forehead and then make short snips across; unless your boyfriend is a monk or a piece of paper, you’ll want to avoid a line that is too crisp or blunt. (You can soften the edges by holding the scissors vertically at an angle and making slight cuts as you move from one side to the other.) Finally, clean up the neck by using the clippers without a guard, and apply a light-hold styling product, such as Reverie’s Natural Rake Styling Balm.
As I gingerly remove Paul’s giant trash bag, and direct him towards our bathroom mirror, the haircut is finished—as is our relationship, I worry momentarily. I scan his face for a reaction, and a smile telegraphs what I have already deduced: the haircut is good—too good, perhaps. Paul now wants to hire me permanently, a development that could seriously cut into my Netflix-watching, and dinner-cooking schedule. An end to our lockdown can’t come soon enough.
Originally Appeared on Vogue