Butterfly Nat – DLBARGILL
I still remember Natalie fondly, or Nat as I used to call her. I suppose my interest started the day I met her, during her freshman orientation. I managed to use a connection so I could move in with the freshmen, even though I was a sophomore. My friends claimed I wanted to bird dog the naive freshmen girls with no competition.
I suppose that was partly true, but it wasn’t like I was jumping every girl around. This was the mid-80s and we were at NYU. Though the AIDS epidemic had yet to reach much of the country, everybody knew about it at NYU. The Village had a large homosexual population, and everywhere they let you know that heterosexuals were susceptible too. As a result, people were not as free with sex as they had been a few years before. That was fine with me, I wasn’t the bed-hopping type.
One night about eleven of us went out to a club and Natalie was among them. I have no idea who she knew among the group, it never came up. I do remember her at the club and wondering why I hadn’t noticed her before. She had delicate features, beautiful blue eyes, and a smile that could melt any man’s heart. The thing I noticed most was her thick, straight chestnut brown hair down to the small of her back. I talked to her a little bit that night and danced with her some. Mostly though it was a non-starter, just a group out to have some fun.
As I went to sleep that night, I was a little wasted, I’m sorry to say. In those days, I drank to get drunk, I suppose most college kids did. All I could think about was how much I wanted her, however. In the morning I believed I’d thought about her for hours, but I was usually asleep when I hit the pillow after that much alcohol.
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Thus, I was determined to get to know Natalie a little better. She was from an average suburban family in Connecticut and her parents treated her wonderfully. They were loose with the rules, she never had to work, and money wasn’t a problem. As a result, Natalie desperately needed to leave home for college. She wanted the freedom to do anything and NYU was definitely a place for that. I’d seen classmates drop out with an overdose of “freedom”.
Nat and I spent a lot of time together. In college, we didn’t really date much, we just hung out. That’s not to say that Nat and I didn’t fool around after she got to know me, we did, but we infrequently went places just the two of us. Whenever we’d lay on her bed studying, go to a museum or go out with friends dancing, my hands would always be in her flowing mane. I loved playing with it, brushing feeling it against my cheek. I don’t think she’d loved my indulgence as much, but she accepted my pleasure.
Whenever we did stuff, it was usually with Nat’s roommate, Jacqueline. I liked Jacqueline, but we were never good friends. She had such a different background from Natalie and me and I couldn’t relate. Jacqueline was your classic belle from North Carolina, talking with that sweet southern accent about her dad’s mansion and boys named Bobby Joe and Billy Bob. I had no idea how a girl whose conservative Baptist parents arranged some sort of coming out ceremony for her allowed their daughter to end up at a loose school like NYU. Jacqueline wanted to be an actress, and NYU had the best drama school in the country. I suppose her “daddy” couldn’t deny her anything she wanted. That was NYU, kids from diverse backgrounds flung together.
Jacqueline had long curly blond hair down to her waste. I suppose it was neither blond nor curly. The blond was all Miss Clairol and the curly was from time spent with her curling iron.
Jacqueline changed a lot in the first couple of months at school. She was doing all the “Yankee” things we did, and took special revelry that her “daddy” wouldn’t approve of any of it. There were long conversations back to North Carolina about the hours she was keeping and the things she was doing. She told everyone to call her Jackie instead of Jacqueline. This was another thing which angered “daddy”, since Jackie was a “tart” name to him, not the name of a southern lady.
Jackie obsessed over cutting her hair short, something I’d seen a lot of girls do during my freshman year. I suppose this epidemic was part of a combination of two factors. In college, no one wanted to take the time to do their hair but mostly because NYU was an off-beat environment and brought out the funkiness in everyone. NYU changed you. I wasn’t the same suburban kid who’d entered and I could see Nat changing too. She was tentative and repressed when she arrived, but quickly became open and impulsive. I dug her more as she underwent the metamorphosis.
I hated hearing Jackie talk about “chopping it all off”. It wasn’t because I cared what she did with her hair, I didn’t, but I didn’t want Nat to get any ideas. She always assured me that her hair belonged to me to play with and I shouldn’t worry.
It was a week before Thanksgiving when I dropped by Nat’s room. They were on their way out, but invited me along. When I asked where we were going, Nat told me, “Astor Barber.”
I gulped. Astor Barber was the trendy barbershop on Astor Place, just off 8th. There was an endless supply of chairs, always filled with customers, and each manned by an Italian haircutter who barely spoke English. They turned over the chairs quickly, because they never used scissors, only electric clippers. Their haircuts weren’t always even and they usually cut your hair shorter than you wanted. It didn’t matter. Everyone went at least once. Maybe it was for the experience or maybe it was because, now that you were away from home, you could. Some people never went back, some went as often as twice a month. We often went by and watched. You’d see some guy come out with something close to a buzz or some girl with a shaved nape.
I wondered why we were going, since neither Nat nor Jackie had gotten their hair cut in the 2 months since we’d been at school.
“Daddy is being so unreasonable,” Jackie said in her southern drawl I won’t recreate here. “I want to stay and see the Macy’s parade. He insists I be home for Thanksgiving. I can’t do both. He’s daddy, so I’ll be there. Except he’ll get Jackie, not Jacqueline.”
Nat and I joked as we watched the barber put the cape on Natalie and slowly brush out her long curls. This was a blast. We never met Jackie’s father, but that didn’t stop us from ragging on him and on Jackie. Both of us thought she would look awful.
One of the great things about Astor Barber was that these guys had no fear of cutting hair. As Jackie told the barber what to do, he didn’t look in horror or try to talk her out of it. He just nodded, picked up his clippers and went to work. He pushed her head down to her chest and inserted the clippers at the base of her head. With each pass, more 3 foot blond locks floated to the floor, although they didn’t seem to be doing a lot of damage to Jackie’s belle hairstyle. After 6 passes and more swaths of hair on the floor, the nape of her neck was finally visible. There was still waist length hair on both sides. The hair left was uneven and no more than 3/4″ in length.
I made a joke, but Nat didn’t respond. She was mesmerized watching Jackie’s haircut. By waving my hand in front of her, she snapped out of it, and I went back to watching. Several more passes resulted in more hair floating to the floor. Jackie would never need a curling iron again. Her hair was still long on the sides, but the back was falling in line at about a half inch as the clippers kept moving. Anyone who saw Jackie from the front wouldn’t have known anything was different. The barber gave her a hand mirror to show her the back and asked if he should stop there. Jackie laughed and told him to continue.
Inserting the clippers first at the right temple, then at the left, the barber quickly reduced the rest of Jackie’s hair to a 1/2 inch. In the front, he buzzed in short bangs.
Nat and I were dumbfounded by the transformation. Jackie wasn’t your stereotypical southern belle anymore, she looked like the person she now was, a funky Village girl, the ones who dressed like Madonna in “Like a Virgin”. That her hair had once been blond was no longer apparent either. The dark brown roots were all that was left.
Someone called for “next” and Nat was in the same barber’s chair. She moved so fast, I didn’t notice her leave my side. “Nat?”
“Don’t worry,” she called over. Then she whispered something to the barber, pointed to me and whispered again. Of course I was worried. That was my hair on her head. I’d been assured of that. I complimented Jackie on her new look, and asked her what Nat was doing. She didn’t know either.
The barber powered up his clippers. Before the sound was enticing, now it was loud. I didn’t want to look. I had to. The barber took his clippers and inserted them at Nat’s chin. It seemed like they barely touched her hair, but the long, soft, satin locks fell to the floor. He continued in the back along the same line, taking small sections while pushing the rest out of the way. The process seemed so quick in my mind, but I later found out 20 minutes passed.
Once the back was clipped to just below the nape area, the barber continued on her far side. I couldn’t see what was going on here, all I could see were the last of Nat’s carefully washed, conditioned and maintained hair fly to the floor. When all that was left was one 2-foot strand, I hoped it wouldn’t be cut, as if Nat keeping it would cause the rest of her hair to grow back. My prayer was in vain. A swipe of the clippers and that too was gone.
The barber continued with the clippers, clipping off the side I could see, so it exposed the bottom of Nat’s ear. In the back, he buzzed it up a little, leaving a loose underneath fringe, below the all one length style. This was very popular back then. He continued on the far side, but I couldn’t watch any longer. I just saw the vast amount of hair on the floor being swept up and wondered if what I loved about Nat was her or her hair.
My mind must have wandered, because before I knew it Nat was in front of me holding a brown paper bag. I saw the results of her spur-of-the-moment foray. I wouldn’t call it a bob, because I think bobs curl under. Nat’s new do loosely fell to just above her ear on the right side and in the back. It wasn’t that well done, as I could see a few places where it was uneven. What surprised me was the side I couldn’t see before. That was buzzed to about 3/8″ in length, with the ear exposed. With her part on that side, Nat had one of the more asymmetrical haircuts I’d seen.
“You hate it, don’t you?”
I was only 19, hardly the most diplomatic of ages. My experience with women was limited to say the least. I still knew enough to answer this question right. “No. It’s you.” I did hate it, but it was her. This hairstyle reflected the personality she now had. She was no longer the sheltered suburban girl who read teen magazines.
She handed me the paper bag and said, “I promised you my hair belonged to you and I feel bad about not being able to keep the promise the way you want. This is the best I can do.”
I opened the bag and saw a huge pile of soft touchable hair. It felt like Nat as I held it in my hand. I thanked her, but she knew this wasn’t what I wanted.
Nat and I had sex that night for the first time. My sense of disappointment dissipated. She wasn’t exactly how I wanted her to be, but I liked this girl.
Our relationship fizzled and flamed over the next few months. We were involved, everyone knew that, but we were never really boyfriend and girlfriend. The next year Nat moved out of the dorm into a sorority and we didn’t see as much of each other after that. She let her hair grow a little, but would usually go back to Astor Barber to maintain something funky.
It has been years since I’ve seen or talked to her. Someone told me she became a lawyer. I wonder if she grew her hair out or went with a conservative short hairstyle to fit in. We all needed our college days to be free, to expand who we were.
I still have the contents of the paper bag. I’ve never shown it to my wife, who is now pregnant with our first child. I’m not sure I could explain it. From time to time, though, when no one is around, I remember Nat by running my hand through her hair. As she said, it belonged to me to play with.