A rite of passage for Riley and Shawn's son turns out to be a very different experience than Shawn expects.
"What's the matter?"
"I don't want him to be scared," Riley said.
Shawn looked over at his wife, trying not to smile. "Why would he be scared?"
"I saw all these videos on YouTube of kids flipping out when they got their first haircut. I don't want Cullen to be scared like they were."
"He's not going to flip out," Shawn said with conviction. "It'll take more than some clippers to make my little man . . ."
"Whenever you call him that, it makes me cringe. He's a baby, Shawn."
"No Riley, he's not. He's almost three."
"And that's a baby. He's not even completely a toddler yet." She rolled over and ran her fingers through their son's still long, curly and somewhat unruly hair, much of it falling into his face. "Maybe I'm not ready. Maybe we should wait awhile before we do this." She pressed a kiss onto Cullen's forehead and he sighed, making an almost impatient mewing noise in his sleep, as though complaining, 'Mommy stop kissing me.'
Cullen was sleeping in their bed, like he did most nights. The baby, Cass, was in her room, sprawled out on her back in her crib. She was still too young to realize the inequity of her brother being able to sleep with their parents, but Riley had this ridiculous notion that one of them would smother the baby if she slept with them as well. Shawn didn't argue with her but he knew that was an impossibility. From the moment Cullen had taken his first breath and then later, Cassidy, it was though a very slender thread, invisible but unbreakable had tethered him to them.
It sounded crazy but even in sleep, Shawn was completely aware of his kids, where they were, the pace of their soft baby breaths, the beating of their tiny hearts. Even on those rare occasions when their son didn't sleep with them, Shawn would awaken if Cullen stirred or was too restless all the way down the hall in his own room. One night he sat up in bed for no apparent reason and upon going down the hall to check on him, found Cullen suspended partway on and partway off his bed, trying to get his little legs to stretch down to the carpeted floor. Upon hearing Shawn enter his room, he looked over his shoulder, unsurprised, and smiled at his father as though he'd been expecting him.
"I don't want him to be scared either," Shawn said. "But he won't be. I'll be there."
"Are you sure we have to do it now? Maybe we should wait until . . ."
"We're getting it done tomorrow," Shawn said firmly. "People keep thinking he's a girl with all that hair."
"And god forbid people should think he's 'pretty' like his Dad," Riley teased.
Shawn gave her a look. "I'm not pretty. I'm rugged. Hard. A bad-ass . . ."
"You're a bad-ass, alright," Riley said.
And she gave him a look. It was the 'take-Cullen-back-to-his-room look'. The 'get-naked-and-make-me-scream-your-name' look. Leaning across their son's sleeping form, Shawn kissed her, feeling the tip of her tongue press between his lips. She tasted like Domaine De La Romanee Conti La Tache, the pricey cabernet sauvignon Chris brought to the small anniversary gathering they'd had earlier that evening. Only two couples besides them were there, for whole Maine lobsters on the grill (a luxury at this chilly time of year), oysters, and endive salad. Their best friends Brendan and Tracy came with their new baby, and Chris with the woman he was thus far claiming was nothing more than a friend. Shawn watched his wife move about the family room, serving their guests, a glass of wine in hand, their daughter balanced on her hip.
Her hair long and tousled about her face, at one point she'd stuck out her lower lip to blow it from her face when their eyes met. Shawn smiled at her and she smiled back, raising Cassidy a little higher on her hip. With that smile, Shawn knew this moment would come, when they would, if only for a few hours, think not about their friends, their work or their kids, but only about each other.
Now, after they broke their kiss, Shawn got off the bed and bent to pick Cullen up, gently, careful not to wake him. In his sleep, his son hung slack in his arms, head lolling backward, arms and legs limp.
"Hurry back," Riley said, her voice a whisper.
Hurry back. That's all it took, and he pitched a tent in his pajamas.
As he made his way down the hall to Cullen's room, Shawn pulled his son up so that he was partially slung over his shoulder. Unable to resist, he buried his nose in the mass of unruly hair, reminiscent of his mother's. It smelled like baby shampoo, little boy perspiration and a scent that was uniquely Cullen--a mixture of freshly-baked bread and something almost sweet like cinnamon. Shawn might never admit it to his wife, but he was going to miss this too. Not the hair itself, but the babyhood it represented. Before long, Cullen wouldn't let him hold him like this anymore, and would be too big to carry. And soon enough after that, Shawn would have to remind himself to stop babying him altogether and set about the important business of helping him become a man.
But tonight at least, his son was still small enough to be comfortable in his arms, and to rest soundly, knowing even in sleep that if he was with his father he was safe.
Positioning him in the center of his bed on his back, Shawn moved Cullen's pillows to the edge of the bed, forming a barrier that, although clearly inadequate to the task, gave him a small reassurance that his son would not roll over the edge and break his neck. Taking one last look at him, Shawn backed out of the room and headed back to the master suite and his waiting wife.
"He a'ight, man. He a'ight . . ."
Shawn bit the inside of his cheek, steeling himself against his son's agonized wails and shoving his hands deep into his pockets to avoid grabbing him up from the barber's chair.
This had to be the longest damn haircut in the history of haircuts, he thought. As soon as he sat in the chair and had the cape arranged about his shoulders, Cullen had given him a suspicious look and Shawn's confidence waned slightly. But he smiled at his son and nodded.
Then Smalls had taken out the scissors.
At the sight of them, Cullen's brow had creased but he looked more curious than apprehensive. When Smalls took the first lock between his fingers and snipped, the first scream had gone up. A casual passerby could be forgiven for thinking the barber was removing tiny fingers rather than hair with the racket the kid made. And it only got worse with each snip, all the while Smalls keeping up his chant of 'A'ight, little man. You a'ight . . .' And for the first time, Shawn understood Riley's objection to the moniker. In these moments, Cullen wasn't a little 'man' he was his baby boy and all he wanted was to grab and console him.
But they weren't in the barbershop alone, and many of the curious onlookers were watching him, watching his son, riveted for some unknown reason by the sight of a rap star and his son getting their hair shaped up.
If the scissors weren't bad enough, Cullen really got started once the clippers came out. The buzz made his liquid brown eyes go wide and then he opened up and hollered, looking over at Shawn with a look of pure, undisguised accusation and betrayal in his eyes. In his pockets, Shawn dug his nails into his thigh, willing Smalls to hurry the hell up, willing himself to hold it together, long enough for the ordeal to be over. Finally, Smalls turned off the clippers and took out the brush, cleaning the edges.
"What you think man?"
Shawn took a moment to respond; he was too focused on the quiet, hiccuping cries that Cullen was making now, the way his son's lower lip stuck out, the tears still brimming in his--and his mother's--dark, beautiful eyes.
Walking closer to take a look at the barber's work, Shawn finally pulled his hands out of his pockets and noted that Cullen now had one of those fly modified Mohawks. He managed a smile and nod.
"Looks good," he said to Smalls. "Thanks, man."
Smalls grinned. Shawn had been coming to him for a couple years now, and knew that if anyone would take care of his boy, Smalls was the dude. So why did he feel like knocking him the hell out?
"You a'ight?" he said looking at his son.
Cullen whimpered a little and then after a moment nodded. Shawn smiled wider. He was a little souljah, alright.
"C'mon then," he said. "Let's go get some ice cream."
Riley didn't like to feed their kids too much dairy, telling Shawn that the only milk they needed came from her, so every once in awhile Shawn broke her hippie-code and snuck Cullen out for a treat she wouldn't have let him have.
Cullen reached up to his neck, tugging impatiently at the cape and Smalls obliged by unsnapping it.
"Handsome young man," he said.
"Thanks again, man," Shawn said slipping him a hundred.
Smalls grinned again, exposing several gaps where teeth should have been. "Anytime, man. You know I got you."
Almost before he could get ahold of him, Cullen was trying to get out of the seat, lifting both his arms toward his father.
Outside, once Cullen was strapped into his car seat and he got in himself, Shawn was surprised to find that his hands were shaking. No one told you about this part, he thought. The part where you realized that you were a slave to the love you had for your kids. The part where the very idea of their discomfort caused you pain. Taking a deep breath he turned the key in the ignition and glanced back at Cullen who had reached up and was tentatively exploring his new haircut.
"Ready to roll?" he asked.
Cullen offered him a terse nod, saying nothing, almost as though undecided about whether he would ever speak to his father again.
Before heading home, Shawn drove to a neighborhood cafe and ordered his son a large bowl of ice cream. Vanilla, because the evidence of chocolate would be difficult to conceal. Across the table from him, sitting in the kid's chair, Cullen stared at him, the neck of his shirt gaping open where he'd earlier yanked at the barber's cape and loosened the buttons at the neck.
With the new haircut, his little man looked like . . . a little . . . man. Shawn stared at him awhile longer, committing the image to memory. He considered taking a picture but no doubt, Riley would when they got home, a tireless documentarian of their family life. Even now Shawn saw her in his son's face and his heart was full.
Riley was in the kitchen when they got home. Shawn put Cullen down and he immediately ran toward her, hugging and grasping her leg tight, looking back at his father like, thank god, I have at least one parent I can still trust.
Riley picked him up and looked at him, turning him around to check the new haircut from all angles.
"Hi, baby," she cooed, kissing him all over his cheeks. This time, Cullen seemed to revel in it. He didn't always.
"Mommy," he said, milking it for all it was worth.
"Shawn, why does he smell--and taste--like vanilla ice cream?"
"I have no idea," Shawn said, turning away and pretending to need something in the fridge.
"So how'd it go?" Riley asked.
How'd it go? There was no way he was telling her how it really went. Shawn grabbed a Corona. After that ordeal he needed a goddamned drink.
"Fine," he said, turning to look at his wife. "Piece of cake. I don't know what you were worried about."
And then he made his escape before she could say another word.