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When is a haircut more than a haircut?

Home from the Barber’s

by Yoon Chung

The flash of confusion on his face is not off-putting. I had prepared myself for it. Smiling, I ask the barber for a haircut.

“I’m sorry, but this is a barbershop.”

“Oh, I know.”

“I only do men’s hair.”

You could hardly tell mine apart from a schoolboy’s. I keep on smiling. 

“That’s what I want. A soft undercut?”

He waves me away.

“Go see a hairdresser.”

I hadn’t expected him to be this stubborn. Somehow, though, his tone doesn’t hurt me. It can’t. I’d spent one too many days gathering up the courage to step into his shop to turn back now. I make him look up from his scissors.

“I’ve tried hairdressers, but they don’t really get what I want. I want the kind of haircut you give the other customers here. See?” I gesture at my cropped hair. “It’s practically the same thing.” 

“Well . . .”

He hesitates. He hadn’t expected me to be this stubborn, either.

“Well, I’ll give it a try. But I’m warning you, I don’t do women’s hair.”

The big guy with the tough crew cut isn’t a prick. Just nervous. I’m not. His thick sausage-fingers are gentle as they comb through my hair. I’m more comfortable here than at any chatty salon, clippers buzzing across my scalp.  

Money makes strangers kind. After all, I’m paying customer. Even though barbers are taken aback at my soft voice and pink eyeshadow, I get my way with a few dollars and a polite smile. This one does a fantastic job. I go home happy.  

Mom isn’t.



Little Mary

by Cathy Fiorello

We had a secret in my family when I was growing up. Her name was “Little Mary.”

Little Mary was born before I was, to an aunt I never knew. Her mother, my Aunt Mary, died in childbirth. This aunt’s life was, and still is, a mystery to me. The few photos I’ve seen of her reveal that she was the prettiest of my mother’s sisters, but give the impression that she was more reserved. She appeared to be neither as flamboyant as Aunt Anna, nor as feisty as Aunt Grace, and certainly not as formidable as Aunt Susie, whose edicts neither child nor adult dared defy. When Aunt Mary was spoken of, it was in whispers, cloaked in sadness. When we kids asked, “Where is Little Mary’s mother?” the only response was, “Be kind to your cousin.” We did as we were asked and we shared our beds, shared our meals, shared our toys, but our cousin’s history was never shared with us.


Losing Streak

by Joshua David Laine

“It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of your life, like busboys in a restaurant”

– the Writer, Stand by Me

I have spent the past 1,545 days communicating with a woman I barely know.

She sends me a picture of herself every day at a random time. Her phone is held at an angle, obscuring the specifics of her surroundings. I do not recognize the room, and her choice of a sepia filter makes the environment even more indistinguishable. She wears a blank face—an expression on the border of disinterest and indifference. A slightly wrinkled UMass crewneck adorns her torso, and I struggle to recall if she attends that institution. Hell, I struggle to recall anything about her.

Regardless, I respond like clockwork; without a moment’s hesitation, I send her a blurry, low-effort selfie without a word of accompanying text. No pleasantries or small talk. I won’t communicate again with this stranger for another twenty-four hours.

Okay, perhaps “stranger” is a misrepresentation. The woman in question, Kristin, is an ex-girlfriend of an old friend (to whom I hardly speak anymore). I reckon they were still dating 1,545 days ago, but the exact chain of events grows hazier with each passing year. Yet, our streak remains. It’s an odd, superfluous ritual, one with no apparent value or justification, but I stay committed to it, nevertheless. Four years’ worth of commitment. Hell, come to think of it, that’s the longest I’ve ever been reliable for anything.



by Pamela Kaye

Cairo, Egypt. July 2005. 98°F

I was in Egypt during the hottest and most humid time of the year. In Egypt, I had experiences unlike any I’d known before. I struggled to find a way to write about them.

“Collage” is a term derived from art and refers to a picture made up of pieces of found objects: scraps of newspaper, bits of old cane backing, a gum wrapper, lengths of string, and tin cans. [Writers] perform a similar act.[i]

My guide, Ramez, was a young man who graduated from American University. His English was good, and he had connections to people I wanted to interview for my research on the status of Egyptian women and girls. He told me he had wanted to be a guide since he was seven.

As we walked through a traditional market in Old Cairo, Ramez said, “Those three policemen have been following us. Let’s buy a slice of watermelon for each of them for protecting you.”

“Why are they protecting me?”

“Last week, a bus of American tourists was bombed.”

I dug my Canadian flag pin out of my backpack and pinned it on.



by Michelle Cacho-Negrete

Today, driving down I95 in Portland, Maine, I heard Nancy Griffith’s wistfully nostalgic song, “Dancing at the Five and Dime” on the radio. Ages ago, her words had transformed a low-income palace of necessity into an after-hours location romantic as a South Sea island. I drifted back to sixth grade and dancing with a friend after school, also at the Five and Dime, but in our Brooklyn ghetto, a different kind of island. Our single mothers were at work, and since nobody worried about where we were, we stayed at the Five and Dime as long as possible. The latest rock music echoed through the store when we swung open the door. We’d stand a moment admiring the cheap treasures lined up like offerings to the gods of want, then jitterbug down the aisles, immature bodies weaving together, hips shaking, fingers snapping, twirling each other as we mouthed the words or boldly sang out loud.

My immigrant mother always bought plants here, examining each leaf, holding up the plant to look beneath it before finally deciding. Periodically, she tried on lipsticks, though she always bought the same one, a Revlon bright red; I don’t remember its name. We, however, examined everything as we spun past it: underwear, plain white cotton back then, make-up displays of powdery eye shadow, clumpy mascara, off-toned foundation, glittering jewelry, neatly stacked candy bars, toys we were contemptuous of now that we were graduating elementary school, brightly colored house dresses with varied designs, even cleaning products. We danced until the glare of the counter girls warned us they were out of patience, sick of worrying we’d bump into the counters and break something. We usually had a dime each, although it didn’t matter as long as one of us did, and we boogied our way to to the high stools and refreshment counter and ordered hot chocolate, briefly lifted from poverty by the rich dense beverage, the swirled whipped cream that topped it, but especially from swirling down the aisles, our worries briefly transformed to joy.


Nights with E.B. White

by Sally Carton

Shortly after my mother died, I started reading Charlotte’s Web. Or, I should say, listening to E.B. White read it to me on Audible. His reading is a marvel: gentle, playful and shot through with his affection for his characters—for Wilbur and Charlotte; the irascible rat, Templeton; and for a little girl’s love of a pig. There is a deep humanity in each character and a love of place and time that can break my heart. The feel and smell of the barn are particular pleasures and took me back to a friend’s barn in rural New Jersey: the magic of a barn swing, the delight of a hay loft. I could carry on for pages. Suffice it to say that I love every morsel of that book because I have savored every morsel of it probably over 250 times.

I had not thought about Charlotte’s Web since my seven-year-old daughter (who is now an adult) wandered into the kitchen and told me that she had just seen Templeton in our back yard. While not enjoying the arrival of a Chicago alley rat, I adored her report. As our children grew up, I lost my connection to the poignant magic of children’s literature. Then Covid hit, and I was separated from my mother, who was dying in an assisted living facility in Boston. Little did I know, Charlotte’s Web would call to me.



by Sydney Lea

I smacked my foot against a table leg this morning and scolded myself: Watch where you’re going! A blood-bead stood below the nail, whose jaundiced color puzzled our grandson, here for the weekend. He asked, “Grandpa, how come you’re gold?”

But he quickly turned his attention to that little globe of blood. Our interest in pain, or so it seems to me, develops early. We may take whatever measures we can to avoid it and yet it intrigues.

I recall, for instance, a hornet’s stinging that child’s older brother a summer ago. The two still speak of the incident now and then. The pains, or rather for the most part griefs, that hold my own attention now tend to be psychological rather than bodily, however hard they often are to identify exactly.

This grandson of ours owns a little plush dog named Oko for whatever reason, and the child loves to say he’s been stolen by what he calls billains. Or sometimes the dog’s simply lost. I know it’s feigned, yet I still wince at his look, precisely, of pain.

Oko’s never gone for long, however, and I rejoice with the boy when he’s found.


A Cuban Kitchen in Greenwich Village

by Dina Alvarez

At eighty-two, my Cuban mother complains her taste buds are off and that she doesn’t know what to eat anymore. She has a host of health issues including a thyroid condition and high blood pressure that she manages, but the one she speaks most about is her lack of appetite and frustration over enjoying food. “One of the true delights of life,” she says. 

Most phone conversations are a blow-by-blow description of everything she managed to eat that day and any hints of flavor that came through that reminded her of a dish she used to make when cooking didn’t feel like such a chore. Although she goes out less after a recent fall, she never misses visiting the farmers market at Abingdon Square on Saturday searching for the freshest ingredients. She may not be able to fully savor those market finds, but her Greenwich Village kitchen, the same one since 1966, still manages to serve up some of the best Cuban fare when she’s feeling up to it. Just as if she was back in Cuba. Muscle memory.


2020: Volume 10, Issue 2

2020: Volume 10, Issue 1

Don’t Forget to Check
out Our Anthologies

Encounters features fifteen eclectic essays originally appearing in bioStories magazine, all focused on some of those chance encounters that can transform our lives.