by Parth Shah
A frame of white light surrounded the mirror. Staring into it, sitting in the chair, chest and lap covered by a black smock, Riz felt handsome, even though his haircut had yet to begin. The mirror was deceitful, making everyone’s faces and features brighter, sharper. It made Riz question whether or not he needed a new look.
“Alright, so you’re finally ready for this buzzcut,” the barber said, running his fingers through Riz’s dark, overgrown bangs.
“Stefano, I’m nervous.”
“Oh, live a little! It’s just hair. Besides, look at this thickness! Your hair will grow back in like two weeks.” Stefano grabbed a spray bottle and started spritzing Riz’s head. “C’mon, do you want the same old faded haircut I’ve been giving you for the past two years? That look is so played out, babe.”
Stefano crossed his svelte arms over his blue linen short-sleeved shirt. The top three buttons were undone, revealing a gold chain with an emerald pendant seated on a tuft of styled chest hair. Riz couldn’t argue with someone so pretty. He nodded his head and took a breath.
“You’re right. Let’s do it.” Riz had more to say, but his words were cut off by the buzzing of Stefano’s razor.
“Stay still, love,” Stefano said, his ring-covered left hand holding the back of Riz’s head steady. In a matter of a few strokes, the sides were trimmed down to near skin level, and Stefano proceeded to buzz the top. Riz winced his eyes reflexively as stray hairs showered his nose and cheeks.
“You’re gonna look so tough and so hot,” Stefano shouted over the sound of the razor as he mowed the left side of Riz’s head, moving from forehead to crown. Then, silence. The razor stopped humming. Riz opened his eyes and saw Stefano turning the razor off and on, off and on, off and on.
“Ugh, Quincy was supposed to charge my razors at the end of his shift,” Stefano said. He let out a grunt of annoyance. “I need to plug this in. It’ll take a few minutes to get some juice, then I’ll be back to finish you up.”
Riz nodded meekly and Stefano vanished to the backroom of the salon. The mirror no longer made Riz feel handsome; the left side of his head was buzzed, naked, but the right was bushy, unbalanced, unsightly.
There was one other stylist working at the salon, three chairs to the right of Riz. She was busy removing foil from her client’s freshly highlighted hair. Riz turned his head slightly, looking away from his reflection and toward the other haircut-in-progress.
“Marina, I’m obsessed with this color! I look like I did back in college!” said the woman in the chair, staring deep into her own reflection. She spoke fast, her lips moving like hummingbird wings. “Oh my goodness, that reminds me, I have a juicy, juicy story for you. So you know my daughter Eliza is a freshman down the road at State? Anyways, one of her close friends from high school, this girl who she had a falling out with—Madison is her name. She’s cute, kinda gangly—calls up Eliza asking for advice on applying to State. And Eliza is so confused because this girl goes to Yale. She basically ghosted Eliza and the rest of their girlies because she thought she was too smart for them. Anyways, now she’s trying to transfer out because she has a boyfriend here, an older man, and she wants to be close to him so he doesn’t dump her.”
Marina was cutting the ends of the woman’s hair and, without looking up, responded, “She’s gonna drop out of Yale for some old man from her hometown? That’s dumb.”
“Oh absolutely, I agree, I swear it’s the most book smart people who don’t have a clue. Anyways, you won’t believe who her boyfriend is.”
Riz could see the sides of the woman’s face stretch into a sneaky smile as she watched herself speak in her mirror. Her voice dropped to a whisper and Riz strained to keep listening.
“She’s dating a teacher from their high school. She told Eliza they started dating when she took his chemistry class her junior year!”
Marina stopped cutting.
“Isn’t that a mess, Marina?! And apparently, she got into Yale because he has some connections there and wrote her an amazing recommendation letter. And no other students at Germanotta High got into the Ivy League in that year. She was the only one.”
The clanging sound of Marina’s scissors hitting the floor jolted Riz and he snapped his head back toward his own reflection.
“Kelly,” Marina said. “My husband is the chemistry teacher at Germanotta High.”
“What? No, I thought he worked at the private school!”
“All chaaaaarged!” Stefano sang as he marched from the backroom to the chair, waving the razor in his hand. “I’m obsessed with these new government solar charging stations. I thought this would take forever but it was super fast, no?”
Riz ran his index finger through a bundle of hair collected on his lap and looked back up into the mirror. “So, hear any good gossip lately?” Stefano asked right as he turned on the razor, surrounding Riz’s head with its domineering hum.
There’s only one girl I want to kiss.
The short one who always wears eye makeup. I see her every other day on campus.
Her lips are never glossy, nor are they ever chapped. She is always alert, her eyelids sometimes cerulean, sometimes mauve, sometimes cat-like. She is my obsession.
I tell my boyfriend that I imagine her when we are together in his bed after a party. I am sober—California sober—he is not.
“Are you saying I look like a girl?” He is upset. In the morning, he won’t sing along when I play music in the car, but his fingers still tap on the steering wheel.
I wish I was gay. All two of my relationships have been with men. For a long time—since sophomore year of high school—I’ve told people that my sexuality is a spectrum. I am light. I can go anywhere.
Music about sex is my favorite genre of music. Listening is easier than doing it. I don’t have the stamina. I didn’t play sports in high school and came in last when we ran the mile. I spent my days imagining other days. I used to get in trouble for taking twenty, thirty-minute-long showers. The white walls of the tub were blank paper. I’d stand under the hot water, frozen in the script of my future. One of my parents would come banging on the bathroom door, scolding.
No one tells me to take a shorter shower in college.
I am in between lives. And there is only one girl I want to kiss.
I see her in the audience for a presentation on campus given by some famous journalist, a talk assigned by instructors from different departments. When the Q&A begins, she gets up with the bloc of students leaving the auditorium. I grab my tote and join the migration, tetris-ing through the crowd until I reach her side in the lobby of the student union.
“Hi,” I say. “I love your eye makeup.”
“Aw,” she says. “You’re sweet. Cute tote.”
“Thank you! I screen printed it myself,” I lie.
“Oh, really? That looks like a Magritte print though.”
“Are you studying art history?”
“No. Gender studies. And you?”
The conversation falls dead. Her phone rings and she politely disappears.
Her makeup was smudgy. From afar, her eyes looked like the iridescent tip of a peacock feather. Up close, they were puddles of petroleum.
The bagel shop is open twenty-four hours. My dinner is a sundried tomato with garden cream cheese. It tastes like pizza. I sit at my small circle table, finishing my meal, digesting, wondering what I will choose to desire next now that I’ve kissed the girl.
I gave up driving for almost a decade. My life in New York didn’t require a car. I felt transcendent, ignorant to the cost of regular unleaded. Rent keeps me tethered to earth though. Soon, I’ll be in a three-bedroom house by a mountainside, with a window facing golden hills instead of a brick wall, at half the cost of this studio apartment.
“Where are you moving again? Wilmington?” My little brother asks me on the phone. We haven’t talked in months; he’s heard my news through our mother.
“No, Ricky, I’m moving to Wyoming. Out west.”
“Wow. What’s it like there?”
“Windy. No state income tax. I’ve actually never visited.”
“You’re quitting your job?”
“No, they’re letting me work remotely.”
“You’ll probably need a car there.”
“That’s why I called you actually. To get some car advice.”
“Don’t buy it off one of those websites. Go in person.”
“Not advice about buying a car. I want driving advice. Like, how do you drive without getting stressed?”
Ricky is chewing something. I add, “You always made driving look easy.”
“Well,” a swallow. “It’s because I’m a transformer.”
“Like the movie?”
“Yeah. Kinda. Basically, when I get in the car, I turn the ignition and fuse with the car.”
“Yeah. I fuse with the road, too. I tell myself, I am the car, and I am the road.”
“I didn’t realize you liked that movie so much.”
“I’m being real with you. This is what I do and it’s why I’m a better driver than you.” He starts laughing. “You can’t even get to the grocery store without using your GPS.”
The car is delivered to my apartment the day before move-out. It’s a Wednesday; I once overheard a neighbor say that Wednesday is the one day that parking attendants skip our street. The car is a navy color, verging on black. Online, the car looked more blue. My feet make a crisp sound as they come in contact with the protective paper by the pedals. The dashboard is like a spaceship. When I turn the ignition, all the screens light up and whistle, one behind the wheel, one where there could be a CD player or buttons for a radio. There are animal stickers on the inside of the cupholders. I drive a test lap around the block and manage to get honked at, going the wrong way down a one-way street. The driver shouts and spits at me. I don’t attempt to read her lips, but I can clearly translate her hand gestures. I mouth a big “SORRY” as I seven-point turn the car in the right direction. I tell myself driving out west will be quieter. Driving west will be highway and more highway and then open roads with barely a billboard.
I wake up an hour before sunrise to start loading the car. All my furniture has been donated and I’ve shipped most of my clothes; what remains is cookware, paintings, pillows. The Bundt pan collection gets the passenger seat. After adjusting some items to keep the rearview mirror clear, I go back into the apartment to do one last check. The only thing I’ve forgotten is my phone, which is lying on the floor charging. There’s a missed call from Ricky.
“Today is move-out day?” he says when I call back.
“Yeah, the car is all packed. I’ll send you a pic.”
I hear a mouse click and Ricky typing.
“Twenty-seven-hour drive. You’re splitting it up over a week, right?”
“The plan is to do it in three days. Four max.”
“Don’t wait for the gas light to turn on to fill up. Stop and refill when you get to a half tank.”
“Yeah. I’ll do that. I shouldn’t have to fill up too often though. I bought a hybrid.”
At first, I drive in silence, cautious and alert as I exit the city, finally turning on music when the highway widens in the transition to the suburbs. I listen to a shuffle of my saved songs and the road becomes a treadmill. I take one hand off the wheel, tapping along to The Killers.
I stop for a bathroom break after about four hours. I’d forgotten about gas stations, how they feel like being inside one of those claw machine arcade games filled with bright novelty items: plush toys and phone cases and candy and possibly a tablet computer. I leave with a box of coconut water and a lighter.
Later, back on the road, a woman in the car in front of me is singing like she’s on stage. I’m transfixed, watching her perform through her left side mirror, trying to conjure the music that has her so entranced. And then I slam on the brakes, nearly rear ending her. High beams flare menacingly behind me and I grip the wheel with both hands. I almost hit someone again less than twenty minutes later. I can’t focus on the road because I’m hungry, I decide. I take the next exit. I’ve barely used a quarter tank, but I get gas anyway, filling up the tank in less than a minute. Inside, the gas station smells like hot dog water and my appetite dissolves. I go to the bathroom and force myself to pee. The bathroom has brownish gray tiles on the floor and walls. The sink is automatic and so is the towel dispenser, but it doesn’t dispense. I wave my hands wildly in front of the black box. Then, I stop. I take a breath and I tell myself I am the paper towel dispenser.
I wait for a moment before waving my hand again. No towel. I pat my hands on my pants and walk back to the car.
A teenage boy is parked on the other side of my gas pump. He lunges his body over the hood of his truck, squeegee in hand. After a few swipes on his windshield, he dips the squeegee back into the crevice of blue cleaning solution conjoined to the trash bin. A paper towel hangs suspended above the liquid. I pull out three and face my car as I wipe my hands. My blurred reflection watches me from the driver side window. In the city, I basked in my invisibility. But I won’t be able to hide in plain sight anymore. I straighten my posture.
I am the car.
I turn around to toss the used towels and when I turn back my reflection is gone.
All I can see is the inside of the car, filled with my belongings.
Parth Shah is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Wyoming. Prior to graduate school, he produced podcasts for NPR. He logs his work at parth-shah.com.