The Safety Valve

What is it about a hair salon that makes women confess their most intimate secrets?

Published April 16, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

What is it about a hair salon that makes women confess their most intimate secrets? I don't know, but I do know that the woman who cuts my hair, Marie, has been on the receiving end of every personal communication under the sun, from sexual dysfunction sagas to marital discord dilemmas to amazing-but-true reconciliation stories to down-and-dirty revenge plots.

"Why do you do this to yourself?" Marie asked, inspecting the ends of my hair as distastefully as possible. "You girls with long hair. I hope your life is going better than your ends."

"As a matter of fact," I said cheerfully, "I am grateful to my split ends. They remind me that I get to talk to you." I settled into the bright purple leatherette chair. "Just the usual," I said as she secured a towel under the neck of my orange smock and some atmospheric tunes began to waft out of nowhere. "Is that the pygmy music I've been reading about?"

Marie ignored me and got right down to business. "Are you still seeing that guy that wasn't right for you? The one that hated Valentine's Day?"

"No," I said.

"It was never going to last," she said. "He didn't understand your needs. Also, never trust a straight man who sells flowers." She began tugging a wide-toothed comb through my hair, and pinned half of it to the top of my head. "I could have saved you a lot of time and heartache."

"I know," I said. I added, "There wasn't that much heartache." She was right, though. That was the thing: Marie is always right.

I've often thought about the vast sums of money my friends and I would save in therapy bills if we'd just come talk to Marie once a month. Like most hair cutters, she's heard everything. And like most hair cutters, she seems far more sane and level-headed than any of her clients. She knows her own mind and she speaks it. At the same time, she's probably the most diplomatic person I've ever met. I'm just waiting for the day when the U.N. snatches her away from her multicolored, pygmy-music playing salon in San Francisco and plops her into a leather armchair as Annan's right hand.

Her relationship with her boyfriend is also one of most stable and committed I've seen in a couple in their 30s. Marie is very open about it, and I'm always quizzing her, trying to find their secret. "We could make a lot a money, Marie," I say. "Just one little bestselling self-help book. I'm telling you, it could be our Yellow Brick Road." She always laughs in my face.

"So, are you and Gavin having sex again?" I asked.

"Nope," she said, with an expert snip. "It's been about five months now. Before Davia was born. Just wait until you get pregnant. Sex will be the last thing on your mind."

"I can imagine," I said, although I couldn't at all. "How does he feel about it?"

"Oh, he hates it. And I feel bad, really I do. But in the seventh month, you know, it just wasn't something I wanted to do. I told him, 'Hon, I really just don't want you inside me right now. I feel full up as it is.' And then in the eighth month, I said, 'Hon, I really don't want you to touch me. No, I really don't want you to kiss me.' He looked hurt, but what could I do? Just the thought of his hand on me gave me the heebie-jeebies. It's all physiological anyway."

"What happened in the ninth month? I'm almost afraid to ask."

"I said, 'Hon, you really should think about sleeping on the sofa. I can't take another body next to me in bed.' So he moved to the sofa. And then I had the baby, and we still aren't having sex. I'm just too exhausted, and really I don't miss it."

I thought about Gavin, Marie's tattooed, pierced and motorcycle-riding boyfriend who is also just about the friendliest and most polite person I've ever met. He owns a rowdy bar in the Haight that routinely hosts fistfights and homicide threats. When things get particularly hairy, Gavin can often be seen talking calmly to the offender at a dark corner table, trying to reason with him, while everyone else is screaming about calling the police. He's been with Marie for more than 10 loving years, but I had a hard time imagining how even he was handling this.

"But I know he misses it," she continued, "so the other day, I sat him down. He'd been jerking off about five times a day, so I just said, 'Look, here's the deal. Why don't you have an affair? There must be some cocktail waitress or bartender that wants to sleep with you. I want you to be happy, and I just don't want to have sex right now.'"

"Jesus, Marie," I said. Maybe I'm more conservative than I thought. "What did he say?"

"At first he was shocked. Then when he got used to the idea, I think maybe it seemed like a good option. We started to go through a list of all the possible women. Karen, the one with the red hair? Or Raven, the Goth girl with the tongue pierce? We couldn't make up our minds. There were a lot of good possibilities."

"Wow," I said. "Talk about modern."

"The only thing I insisted on," she continued, frowning as she measured two ends, "was that he tell me who it was and that he use a condom. I mean, of course. I just didn't want him sneaking around, you know? But I want him to be happy, and I know he likes sex, so ..." She began snipping methodically. "You'll see. You might encourage the same thing."

"I don't think so, Marie. I don't think I could do it. I'm not that secure."

"Oh, he didn't actually do it," she said. "I knew he wouldn't. I just wanted him to feel that he could. I mean, the whole point of having a sexual dalliance is the sordid sneakiness of it. And I guess, once we talked about the whole thing, it kind of took the wind out of his sails. Maybe if I hadn't told him he could, he would have. Or if I told him he couldn't, he would. Who knows?"

"What if he did have an affair? If he actually took you up on your offer?"

"I'd probably kill him," she said cheerfully. "Knowing me. This is all hypothetical. I'm sure we're going to be having sex soon again. It's just a matter of time." She spun me around in the chair and held a hand mirror so I could see the back. "Just wait till you have a baby. Everything changes, but sex changes the most. You'll see." She hummed a little bit.

"I can hardly wait," I said.

By Courtney Weaver

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