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Edwin uses a cigarette holder. A black lacquer cigarette holder. Shiny. Hard. When not in use, it rests in the breast pocket of her tailored men's suit astride a narrow cigarette case of bulletproof silver.

Edwin smokes exactly one cigarette between each and every client. Every hour on the hour, she sets down her scissors, unwraps the hair-specked white mantle of towel from the client seated in the leather barber's chair before her, and brushes a bit of scented talc along the scruff of the client's neck with a soft blue towel. Grasping the client's chin between thumb and forefinger with territorial self-assurance, she directs the client's gaze toward the mirror, away from transfixing Edwin and toward his or her own unavoidably transfigured self. Then Edwin saunters down the aisle of industrial-strength hair dryers, indigo Barbisol bottles, and low porcelain sinks, toward the coat and supply room. Saunters down the aisle as if toward to a podium to accept an award. Saunters like the hero in a 19th century novel who has just rescued a drowning child or untied a damsel from the railroad tracks. Saunters like the saunterer she is and always will be 'til the day she saunters right into the grave.

 
 

Edwin leans against the far wall of the narrow coat and supply room, a dark room stacked with folded towels, safety-sealed bottles of lotions and shampoos, old appointment ledgers, skin bracers and electric razors -- one-part apothecary, two-parts phone booth. Alone in this sanctuary, Edwin plucks the cigarette holder and case from her pocket, smoothly twists the filtered tip of an imported cigarette into the O-shaped lip of the holder, and ignites it with a thin gold lighter and a forceful intake of breath, quick as mint. Closing her eyes as if transported to the arms of a long-ago lover on the shore of a pine-laced pond, she tips back her head, exhales a leisurely slit of smoke, and lets the world slither away like a serpent of sleet.

Right about this time Edwin's just-cut customer, having shucked her blue robe but still enshrouded in talcum powder and tiny shards of hair, will appear in the doorway, meekly waiting to make eye contact with Edwin so she can give her her tip. Edwin, still facing the ceiling, but aware of the client's presence, will languidly open her eyes, staring momentarily at the shreds of grey smoke hanging like hammocks in the air around her. Then she'll turn slowly, indifferently, in the direction of her client, the cigarette holder set firmly between her teeth. She'll settle her flashing black eyes on her client's timid ones, a cynical smile creeping across her dark lipsticked lips. She'll extend her hand, as if testing for rain. And money will fall into that hand, a wad of it -- five or seven or ten dollars -- every single time.

Edwin moves through the Ectopic Hair Salon as if life were something to be depended on. She loves it there -- the smell of Clubman talc, the vaguely sinister hum of electric razors, the combs and scissors and anthropological piles of hair haystacking the four corners of the floor, and most of all the seamless square of mirrors that ribbon the entire room and render Edwin's every working moment an act of performance.

She sees herself as a performer, in fact, a card-carrying member of Gender Theatre. Her jet black hair is short in the front, slicked down like Joel Grey's in Cabaret, and tapered in the back to a tightly wound braid that hangs between the shoulder blades of her suede Armani men's jacket. When Edwin speaks, which is often, it is in a voice rutted by years of smoking and drinking and sauntering in all the wrong parts of town. Edwin's voice is a power tool. Her face is angular and pale, except for the matte, blood-red lipstick that gives her the look of a recently-sated vampire. Her small breasts are invisible under tailored men's shirts she buttons to the neck, buttons to the neck quite deliberately to conceal her smooth throat, to accent its unavailability, intimating dangerous secrets of desire and repression. She considers this the most overtly erotic of her many erotic telegraphs -- a kind of direct deposit to those who can decipher the language of Morse code, pinky rings, smoke signals bursting in ruby hot air.

Edwin likes to scare her clients, especially those she calls "the straight girls." She knows they wonder whether she's a woman or a man -- that this thought haunts and arouses them as she pours cold placenta shampoo on their soaking scalps, rinses the slippery suds from their heads, runs a velvety towel along their necks, and lets her cool scissors pause against their vulnerable earlobes as she casually discusses with them what kind of look they'd like. It amuses her to imagine herself the cause of their confusion and fear. It amuses her, as she puts it, "to no end."

Her lesbian clients are both another matter entirely and more or less the same story. With them, too, Edwin plays a shell game, though in their case the game is not gender and sex, but sex and gender. She knows the dykes recognize who and what she is, and that it makes them nervous as much as it made them hot. She flirts with them so coolly that they think their imaginations are playing cruel tricks. She sinks her pelvis into their arms as they sit bound to her high leather chair by a huge black bib that snaps just a bit too tightly around the throat. And while they sit, Edwin circles them with scissors, her hard-edged voice regaling them with tales of erotic adventures in unexpected places.

Yes, Edwin loves her work, the house of mirrors she calls "the office," and the livelihood that allows her to play all day long at what she likes to describe as "fabulous head games."

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Tonight, I am Edwin's client. Tethered to her leather throne, it is I who watch her red lips move as if disembodied from her face, I who shiver at the touch of her scissor's bright blade, inhaling her smell of aftershave and cigarettes, sour balls and suede. Tonight it is I who believe my imagination has run amok when her insoluble hips press into me, exerting their influence on my sense of composure, perspective, and proportion.

"Did I ever tell you about my first lover, Kid?" she cocks her head and shoots a ninety-proof pout my way, resting her sparkling shears up by her shoulder like a cigarette between drags. "It happened in jail," she lowers her voice to a confidential whisper because, she says, the queens who run this place are out to get her -- "Pony-tailed boys who hate girls in pants," is how she puts it, "you know the type."

"Once upon a time, a very long time ago," she purrs, trailing the cold scissors slowly along the nape of my hypersensitive neck, smiling as the path of goose bumps rises in its wake, "there was a time called 'the Sixties.' Ever heard of the Sixties, Kid? All the drugs you could eat and sex hanging off the chandelier. Sometimes I really feel for you babies of the Eighties, you don't know what you missed. Keep your eyes closed a minute, Hon, that's a girl."

Closing my eyes for Edwin is, in the words of my masochistic old English teacher, an "exquisite agony," for without the benefit of sight, I've found, Edwin's voice produces an even more potent effect than that of her voice and appearance combined -- the way sensory deprivation renders monuments out of even the most insinuated tactile experiences.

"I worked for one of guys in the Weather Underground -- before it went underground," she whispers in my ear as tiny splinters of hair begins to settle on my nose and mouth. "We'll call him 'Lefty.' I came on as his bookkeeper, if you wanna call it that. Tilt your head back a bit, Kid. I guess it was more of a secretary thing, since he didn't really have any books to be kept. Anyway, I helped out however I could -- answered Lefty's calls, sorted mail, paid his dealer, bought his condoms -- in those days, we called that 'bookkeeping.'

"One day, there was a bust. Lefty was gone for the day, and I was on my way out. To the gynecologist, I think. When you sleep with boys, Kid, you're always in and out of the doctor's office with an overpriced prescription for something or other." She lays the scissors down, picks up her black electric buzzer and aims it at me like a revolver, grinning sardonically. "I know how you love this part, Kid, so I'm gonna give you a thrill. Hold your head straight, pardon the expression, and don't move a muscle."

When Edwin tells you to do something, you do it, even if you are not inclined toward the -- how shall I put this? -- submissive arts. I don't move a muscle, except that certain parts of my -- how shall I put this? -- anatomy -- are beginning to throb of their own accord. Edwin speaks the truth: I do love electric razors, with their impersonal, mechanical hum rubbing right up against that most vulnerable and sacred area -- the skull. In India, the casual touching of someone's head -- even a child's -- is considered a grave disrespect. The head is holy, the highest part of the body, the crown, and is only to be touched in a highly ritualized context. Being here with Edwin is a highly ritualized context. The razor buzzing along my sideburn reminds me of the vibrating monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and carries a similar sense of power and suspense.

Edwin raises her voice to compensate for the loud hum, having forgotten for the moment about the enemy queens lurking about. "So, the cops asked me for I.D. and then brought me in for questioning. Wanted to know where Lefty was. How the hell was I supposed to know where Lefty was? It's not like I was his mother. Or like everyone went around with cellulars the way they do now. So I told them to drop dead. Well, they thought I was acting smart, acting smart and protecting Lefty so they went after my ass. They told me so. They said, and I quote, We're goin' after your ass but good, little lefty girl. Not that I was political in those days, it's just that I needed a job and this was a job. Anyway, they got me convicted, believe it or not, and to tell you the truth, it still pisses me off to think about it. I said hold still, Kid. Let's just say the charges were drug-related. Let's just say they were trying to get to Lefty by going after me.

"Well, cut to the car crash and I'm sentenced to a year in scenic upstate New York. It was no picnic, I can tell you that, but I learned a lot while I was there, and came out a different woman, if you get my drift. I learned to fight in jail, and I learned how to cut hair, and how to make love to a woman. There's nothing like prison sex, Kid -- all that passion and violence and secrecy rolled into one -- at least back in those days. Made a hell of an impression on me, prison sex did. Took awhile for the rest of the world to catch up with me, sexually speaking, but all good things to those who wait, right? All in all, I can't say I regret the experiences I had there, not that I'd go back to save my soul."

The buzzer slides from the area just above my left ear to the back of my neck, the scruff, that quintessentially animal spot. It's here my paramour often grabs me -- with her hand or teeth -- when we're having sex and calls me her "little cub" before tearing me limb from orgasmic limb like a panther in the dark. The razor's like little teeth, testing the soft skin before coming in for the kill, and I can almost feel each and every hair there pressed back and sheared away as the razor mows inexorably along. I bend my head forward to increase Edwin's access, a supplicant in the Church of Our Lady Schick. The Barbisol Shrine of Edwin the Conqueror.

"The thing about the Sixties, Kid, is that sometimes it feels like all that stuff happened about a million years ago. It was like another planet, another world. You don't know what I mean, you're still too young yet. But give it another ten or fifteen years and you'll see. You 'Eighties pups will never know how hopeful things seemed back then, like somehow or other, everything would turn out okay, or better. Like things were gonna come out different. It's hard to imagine that now, with the end of the world breathing down our necks, isn't it? But that's what it was like.

"So once upon a time about a million years ago in upstate New York, I met a butch named Ruby. She was in for minor stuff -- illegal gambling, I think, maybe assaulting an officer, resisting arrest. She was what you'd call a stone butch, the toughest dyke on the floor, though you couldn't drag her away from a mushy T.V. show -- she was a big Andy Griffith fan, and everyone joked about it behind her back. Ruby had some kind of deal going with the guards -- special treatment all the way. She got to pick the T.V. shows, had a serious cigarette stash going, got to wear her three gold rings, and was always first in line for meals. Two weeks after I got there, she seduced me with lilacs and Moo Shoo pork -- seemed she could get whatever she wanted out of those guard ladies, especially Jane, the head guard. Well, the truth of it was that Jane had a thing for Ruby, so Ruby made her a deal: Jane could be in love with Ruby, even fool around with her a bit, in exchange for a certain amount of 'flexibility' in Ruby's comings and goings. Okay, Hon, that's it for the buzzer, hope you got your kicks while you had the chance. Let's wipe some of that hair off your ears -- that's better. Now shut your eyes again and don't inhale. I'm gonna even up the front."

"Don't inhale" always strikes me as the most entertaining of Edwin's commands, a patently impossible task, but one which I think amuses her for precisely that reason. It makes me smile to think of all the men and women who have probably passed out in this very chair after taking Edwin at her word -- the hundreds of men and women who would, in fact, follow Edwin's directions to the letter -- or die trying. I compromise with shallow breathing, which seems to satisfy Edwin as well as prevent suffocation by hair inhalation. With eyes closed and breathing restricted, every ounce of my attention narrows down to my sense of smell...the material of Edwin's suit -- a bit musty and mysterious as if it has hung for years in a closet with other interesting suits, in a room where strange, perverted acts are promised, plotted, performed...or the lemony sour balls she sucks to suppress her smoker's cough and the scent of tobacco on her breath, the citric candy sweetness mixing with the acrid cigarette smell: an aromatic embodiment of the cycle of absolution and sin....her waxy lipstick's deep magenta scent...her cologne: masculine, florid, nonconsensually French.

The sensation of a million tiny hairs dropping onto my cheeks, my chin, the top of my nose, and my eyelids is distracting, uncomfortable, a little like being in a sandstorm; nothing's protected from the itchy tease. I want to rub my face with my hand, but it goes without saying that Edwin would hardly approve of that, would view it as a breach of our unspoken agreement, the "head game" for which I pay her every bit as much as for the haircut itself. I don't move a muscle. I let the weightless daggers fall on me, suffering in silence. Just as Edwin expects it to be.

"So like I said, Ruby had, more or less, run of the place, especially when Jane was on duty, which was a lot of the time. Ruby had a girlfriend named Sheila, but from the day I arrived, Ruby pretty much forgot about her. She told Sheila I was her cousin and that I needed protecting, and -- can you believe it? -- Sheila bought the story, hook, line, and sinker. At first, anyway. Sheila was a gorgeous creature, but no genius, I can tell you that. Body of a doll and brains to match. By the time she caught on to what was happening and got ready to do something about it, I was almost out of there. Anyway, Ruby started hanging around me, protecting me from the crazies, the violent ones, the angry ones, and the ones who cried when they came, slobbering all over sex, making it squeamish and sad. Ruby had a healthy sex drive, and she let me know it and though I told her girls weren't my cup of tea, I made an exception in her case, and well, the exception kind of became the rule.

"The first time Ruby showed up in my cell, she played Romeo. Two white boxes of something smelling good. A fat bunch of dark lilacs. A six pack of bottled beer. I'd been behind bars for three weeks and in that short time I'd pretty much given up on thoughts of flowers, beer, or decent food. I'll tell you a secret about jail, Kid: it's tough in there for sure, but the food'll demoralize ya twice as fast as the confinement will.

"It was all so -- I hate to use the word -- romantic. Here's this tough butch with a bunch of flowers in one hand, a six pack under her arm, and two little white Chinese food boxes swinging like wedding bells from her pinky finger. A big bright smile on her face, expectant eyes. No woman had ever looked at me that way before. Or done the things she did -- no woman and certainly no man. She fed me Moo Shoo pork rolled up in those little white pancakes like cigars. Fed me beer from the bottle, dipping my head back against her arm. Nuzzled my neck and called me her girl. And fucked me hard and slow with her big gold rings still on.

"It still gives me chills to think about it. Ruby was a lover from the old school, not an amateur like all these little fuzzy-wuzzy novices running up and down Avenue C nowadays chanting "We're here, we're queer, get used to it." Or whatever it is they're chanting this week. No offense, Kid, but your generation hasn't got a clue when it comes to sex -- today it's all New Age parboiled with a sprig of parsley -- Lean Cuisine -- or store-bought clips and whips. Not like the old days when being a dyke was hard and desire was something you could cut with a knife, not some figment of the imagination drummed up in the dark of a fancy club with a twenty-dollar cover charge. Sometimes I think you kids have it too easy, there's just no edge anymore, so none of you know the difference between a sharp blade and a dull one."

I wouldn't half mind Edwin teaching me the difference. I spend entirely too much time wondering what she does when she gets off work, where she goes, who she goes there with. I imagine her cocktails gleaming in the half-light of some obscure edge-of-the-city bar, where other women with cigarette holders and Armani suits and electric razors go to play. I wonder where such places are and if someone like me will ever find them. I somehow doubt it. And it makes me sad.

"Just a few more minutes, Kid, and you're a free woman. We'll finish off the sides and set you loose on the town. Anyways, from that night on, I was Ruby's main girl, and we were pretty much attached at the hip, if you get my drift. After a few months, though, I got bored, restless, and I wanted to break it off. Something about Ruby made me so sad I could hardly stand her touching me. So I started acting up, hoping she'd break up with me. It had to be that way. You don't just come out and tell your protector you want to break things off, it's not like high school. Prison's not the real world, Hon, it sure as hell's no Andy Griffith re-run. I had to make it seem like breaking up was her idea, like it was something she wanted. It was like juggling with one hand tied behind my back, a matter of timing, luck, and concentration -- no point even trying if you can't keep your eye on where those balls are going and how they're gonna fall. Turn toward me a minute, Kid. That's right.

"I could tell it hurt her to do it, but Ruby finally did call it quits with me. She seemed confused about why she was doing it, and she apologized and cried, saying over and over that she just wasn't happy with me anymore, and besides, Sheila had figured everything out by then and wanted to get back together with her. This was just a few days before I got released. It was a coincidence, cause like I said, I was sentenced to a year but some connections came through and I got out early. Lucky me, cause who knows what would have happened without Ruby's protection. Not that I cared much by that time. I'd toughened up a bit by then and I was bored to tears with her and with that place. They'd become one and the same to me. Ruby was prison and prison was Ruby. Got something in your eye, Kid? Here's a towel -- like I said, we're almost done."

"The last time I saw her was my last day inside. She'd heard I was being released before anyone bothered to tell me. She came up to me in the T.V. room that morning and told me I was getting out soon. Of course, I didn't believe her, and by then I was in no mood to make small talk. I could be such a bitch when I wanted to -- still can -- and I was a bitch to her that day. But Ruby took my hand, and put something in it. Something small and cold. One of her gold rings. She told me it was for making her time a little sweeter, for saying goodbye with. I told her to keep it, that I wasn't going anywhere, and that her lucky charms didn't interest me anymore.

"Sure enough, I got out of there that day, and when I left, I never looked back. I don't know what happened to Ruby or Sheila or any of them, but I think about them a lot. Especially Ruby. You ever wonder why some lovers really get under your skin and most never do? Well, you're young yet, you'll see. It's not the smartest or the prettiest or the best you remember, it's the odd ones, the ones who were there at a certain time in your life, the ones you went through things with, and the firsts. I've had more lovers -- or flings, or affairs, or whatever you wanna call them -- than hairs on your head, and I can't remember half their faces. But if I close my eyes, I can see Ruby clear as a bell. And when I see a lilacs or Andy Griffith on T.V. or a jewelry store with gold rings laid out in the window, I get this twitch in my heart, a long slow pull like there's something real important I've forgotten to do, except for the life of me I can't figure out what it is. I think about it, but I can never put my finger on it. I guess that's just how life is, Kid, full of mysteries, huh? Okay, I'm through with you. Not half bad, if I do say so myself. Now go hit the City, go paint it red."


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