Quit the tomfoolery – I’m sure I don’t know you

Side view of woman with blue and purple hair

Listen to Brenda tell the story

It has become commonplace to talk about how many changes the pandemic brought about. Masks in particular went from being something confined to news reports on TV showing people on crowded Tokyo streets, scurrying to work between skyscrapers, to something you see on every train.

Now, of course, they’ve disappeared again, and life has returned to normal.

But what I didn’t realize is that “normal” changed during the pandemic, and not just in the far-reaching political ways that appear on the news. I had met many new people during the most severe periods of lockdown. All wore masks and many had learned to “oversmile” behind them to ensure that the smile was visible in their eyes, the only part of their face the other person could see.

The new people I met included my hairdresser, Barbara. She was extremely courteous and professional, with just the appropriate level of chattiness for a hairdresser. An obvious topic for discussion was her blue hair. And like everyone else, she always wore a mask.

“I love your hair!” I said, launching the conversation. “It’s hard to get it right, isn’t it. My daughter also colors her hair blue.”

“Yes, you have to bleach it first.” And so on.

This conversation was good for the first half of my haircut, at which point we switched to U.S. politics, since by that time she had detected my accent (darn it! Still can’t pass myself off as German). This conversation pattern was so successful that we repeated it for my next two haircuts. Once this small talk routine is established, I see no reason to change it. As a serial chatter, I find it physically impossible to sit in a chair for longer than five minutes while someone fiddles with my hair without talking.

And, of course, all of this was done with masks. I never thought I could have my hair washed with a mask looped behind my ears, but I was proven wrong. I also felt like I had established a solid hairdresser relationship with Barbara, a comforting thought. Such routine relationships in my life make me feel anchored. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see half of her face.

At least that’s what I thought.

At this point, I should mention a characteristic that I share with Brad Pitt – aside from my incredibly good looks of course – namely prosopagnosia, a neurological condition that makes it difficult to recognize faces. This has always haunted me, particularly when I was teaching English and had to call on people whose faces I couldn’t for the life of me remember.

I’m back at the hair salon for my first appointment there since the mask mandate had been lifted.

“Golly gee,” I think. “I didn’t know there were two hairdressers here with blue hair!”

I announce: “I have an appointment now with Barbara, at 9:00 a.m.”

The lady with blue hair says: “No, it’s at 10:00 a.m., in an hour.” She sounds a little agitated.

“Oh, I got the time wrong. I’ll be back in an hour. No problem; I live right around the corner.”

10:00 a.m. arrives. I walk back into the salon.

The same blue-haired lady greets me with a big smile.

“Come with me!” she says, and turns on her heel for me to follow.

As you will probably have guessed by now, dear reader, it is in fact Barbara. The only blue-haired hairdresser in the whole place. My innards convulse with embarrassment but I ignore this, hold my head up, and act normal. I pretend that I didn’t just look straight at Barbara and say “I have an appointment with Barbara.” I assume she is also pretending that she didn’t notice that I did that.

I am astonished at how different she looks without her mask. It dawns on me that in my mind, I had invented the rest of her face based on her eyes. In my brain she was much younger, probably because of the hair, so this middle-aged Barbara simply seems like the wrong person.

As we begin chatting, and my horror begins to subside, I begin to doubt my sanity. What if there were someone with an eye patch and then a second person with an eye patch appeared on the scene? Would I assume that there were in fact two pirates – or Madonna impersonators – in the same establishment?

And how about a man with a bushy red beard? Would this also lead me to think that not just one, but two Leif Ericssons were running around?

I look away as Barbara asks me how I’d like my hair done, and without the face confusion, I realize that I recognize her voice. So it really is her after all. I won’t have to leap out of the chair, tear off my big plastic bib and yell:

“Fie on you, imposter hairdresser!”

It’s just as well; the plastic bib puts a rather large damper on the dramatic turn of phrase, and I don’t like my drama dampened.

Maybe I should just walk around with my eyes closed. After all, my track record of identifying voices is a lot better than my history of recognizing faces. But at least for future haircuts, I know to just head for the blue hair. Heaven help me if one of the other salon employees ever decides to dye their hair a similar shade.

Brenda Arnold

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