Noah bounces on the balls of his feet as he and Elliot wait at the crosswalk.
He’s going to get a haircut today, which he usually doesn’t really enjoy, but this time it’s different because, this time, he’s getting it cut at a barbershop . When he was little his mom would take him to a special kid’s salon that had chairs shaped like cars and trucks and animals. Now she takes him to her salon which is loud, crowded, and smells weird. Luckily, and thankfully, Elliot helped him convince Mom to let him go to the barber for once.
“I can take him to O’Henry’s on Saturday. It’s where I take Eli and I used to take Dickie when he was a kid,” he told her over dinner a few nights ago after Noah begged and pleaded to not go back to her hair salon.
She had looked at Noah with those eyes that told him she wasn’t seeing a nine year old but a toddler in his stead.
Elliot reached across the table and clasped her hand in his. “He’s a boy, Liv. It’s only a matter of time before he goes to the barber.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and gave in with a forlorn, “Okay, fine.”
That’s how Noah and Elliot end up at O’Henry’s Barbershop on a crisp Saturday afternoon.
Immediately, Noah is struck by how quiet and oddly calm the place is. There is still the buzz of hair clippers and the smell of disinfectant, but there is only one blow dryer going, and there is no yucky nail polish smell, and no loud old ladies gossiping about who knows what. There are a handful of men there and a kid about Eli’s age getting a fade in a corner. The TV in the front corner of the shop is playing a baseball game.
“Well, that is not Eli,” the white-haired man behind the counter says as soon as they walk in.
Elliot chuckles, placing his hands on Noah’s shoulders. “No, this is my friend Noah Benson. He’s my partner’s son. Little Man got tired of going to his mom’s salon all the time.” He squeezes Noah’s shoulders. “Noah, this is my old friend Danny O’Henry. This is his shop.”
“Nice to meet you, son,” Danny says with a kind smile. “I don’t blame you one bit for wanting to get away from those salons. Those places give me migraines.”
“Nice to meet you, too, sir.”
Danny looks at Elliot approvingly. “So polite! Don’t get that very often anymore. Well, come on through Noah.”
He ushers them through his shop, past the counter and a few chairs to a man who looks like he’s about Dickie’s age. He looks a little like Danny, but younger and blonder.
“This is my son, Liam. He’s gonna take care of you today.”
Elliot hands Liam the picture Mom gave him, his last school picture with the hair exactly how he and Mom likes his hair to be, and let’s Liam get to work.
“So, Noah, how old are you? Eleven?” Liam asks as he sprays his hair with something that smells not nearly as flowery as the stuff from the salon.
“No, I’m nine. I’m a tall nine.” That’s what his doctor said last week.
“Whoa, you really are.” He grabs his scissors and comb and starts snipping. “Do you play any sports? That height’s gotta help win some games.”
Noah bites his lip. Sometimes he hesitates in telling people about dancing. He’s proud of his dancing, he knows he’s good at it, but some grown ups tend to have weird reactions when they find out that a boy likes to dance ballet and sometimes it’s hard to tell which grown ups they will be. But, Elliot is here and Liam is his friend’s son, so he tells the truth.
“I dance ballet.”
“Oh yeah? My brother dances.” Liam spins him around so he faces away from the mirror and towards the front of the shop where he can see Elliot talking to Danny, showing each other pictures on their phones. “He used to do ballroom dance competitions and stuff, but since the ‘rona he’s been stuck dancin’ solo.”
They talk about dancing and school and video games, and before he knows it, it’s over. His hair is cut and styled and he’s got a blue lollipop in his hand.
Elliot inspects his hair, comparing it to the picture, saying, “I’ve gotta be sure it’s right or she’ll kill me.” Once he’s satisfied he pats Noah on the back and climbs into Liam’s chair himself.
Noah watches in sheer confusion as Liam throws the black cape over him.
There’s nothing for Liam to cut!
“Um, Elliot, what are you doing?”
Elliot chuckles, clearly finding the boy’s bewilderment amusing. “I’m going to get a shave,” he explains, rubbing the stubble on his face. “It feels nice, kind of like when your mom treats herself to a facial.”
Noah watches intently as Liam pulls a lever and leans Elliot almost as far back as the chair can go. He watches Liam wrap Elliot’s face with a hot towel and then put a white foam all over the hairy parts. Then, Liam picks up the longest and sharpest looking blade Noah’s ever seen and Noah can’t help but hold his breath as he watches scrape across Elliot’s face. When he’s done, Liam pours some kind of lotion on to his hand and gently pats it onto Elliot’s face. When Liam pulls the chair back upright, Elliot looks like he’s just been awakened from the best nap of his life.
He climbs out of the chair and crouches down for Noah’s inspection.
His face is definitely smoother than ever before, smoother than even in the mornings at breakfast, and he smells a little different. He smells like cinnamon and leather and The Ramble in Central Park. It’s the dad smell, Noah realizes, the smell most of his friends’ dads at morning drop-off and at dance recitals. This is where it comes from.
“You smell good,” Noah tells him and Elliot smiles wide and bright.
“Do you want to try some of it?”
Noah nods and Liam drops a little of the cream into his hands and pats it on his face like he did Elliot’s.
He smells like Elliot now and it makes him feel something funny and new in his chest. He feels proud and loved and happy and safe and something else, something big that he can’t name or describe but he knows is a good feeling because it’s warm and soothing and makes his heart flutter in a nice way. Noah finds himself wishing he could somehow box up all of these feelings he’s having right now, both old and new, and take the box home to show his mom.
He can’t. Instead, as Elliot pays Danny at the counter, Noah leans into his side, and takes a deep breath, closing his eyes when Elliot squeezes him closer.
When they walk out of the shop, Elliot directs them to a little Italian bakery down the block.
“This is almost exactly as it is in Rome,” Elliot tells him.
Noah takes note of the rows of wrought iron shelves full of cans and jars and the many, many pastries on display. He hopes this isn’t the closest he ever gets to Rome. He hopes he can go there one day. Maybe with Elliot and Mom and Eli. He thinks that would be cool. It would be like the trip he took to Paris with Mom and Tuck, but better because now he’s bigger and he’ll actually remember all of it.
“So, what do you think of your first trip to the barbershop?” Elliot asks as they take their drinks to a little table by the window.
Elliot got him a strawberry cream soda that he claims is different from the one they sell at the bodega.
“It was nice. Quiet,” Noah tells him. “Well, quieter than the salon, anyways. And there were no old ladies telling me how cute I look.” He scrunches his nose. “That can get annoying.”
“Is that why you wanted to go to the barbershop so bad?”
“Part of it.” Noah looks down at his drink, swirls it with his straw, watches the bubbles and cream and strawberry syrup whirl around in his cup.
Elliot is quiet, watching him, studying him, waiting. Noah knows what he’s doing. It’s the thing that Mom does when she knows something is wrong but is trying to wait and see if she should push or if he’ll come out and say it himself. It doesn’t matter how long he stays quiet, though; she finds out eventually, one way or another, and Noah is sure Elliot is the same way.
“Some boys at school were talking about going to the barber with their dads and tried to make fun of me for going to the salon with my Mom. My friend Joshua, he goes to the salon his grandma owns and he stuck up for me, but it still kind of bothered me, though.”
“Joshua sounds like a good friend.”
“He is.” He takes his straw and pushes it through the hole in one of his ice cubes, stabbing a stray chunk of mussy strawberry at the bottom of the cup. “Elliot, can you take me the next time I have to get my hair cut?”
“And can you teach me to shave and stuff?”
“Yeah, if that’s what you want. We’ve gotta wait ‘til you’ve got something to shave off, though,” Elliot says with a smile that almost looks grateful. He takes a sip of his espresso. “Noah, I’ll be here to help you with that stuff. I know I’m not your dad, but you’ve got me. And you have your Uncle Fin and Uncle Sonny and Dickie, too. If you want to know anything about guy stuff, you just come to any of us.”
Noah drops his straw back into his cup, pulls his sleeves up over his hands and grasps the cold, wet cup, letting the condensation soak into his cuffs.
“Would you want to be my dad?”
Elliot’s smile turns a little sad, a little wistful, or maybe it’s wishful.
“Noah, I would love to be your dad.”
“But it’s up to my mom, right?”
Elliot nods. “You and your mom.”
“Well, I want you to be, so I’ll put in a good word for you.”
Elliot laughs and gently pulls Noah’s soggy sleeves away from his cup. “I appreciate it, but you don’t have to do that. Your mom and I are doing pretty good. Just focus on being nine, all right?”
Mom is folding laundry when they get home and Noah can smell the soup in the crockpot the moment they walk in. When she sees him she drops the sweater she was folding and pulls him into a tight hug before running her fingers through her curls and dropping kisses on his cheeks.
“You look so good, my sweet boy!”
“Thanks! Are we eating soup? What kind?”
“It’s broccoli cheddar,” she tells him and he can’t help but bounce just a little because it’s his favorite.
“Yes!” He spins to face Elliot, his curls flying, his smile bright. “Elliot, are you staying for dinner?”
“Sorry, bud, I can’t. I’ve got to go to work for a little bit.” He bites back a sigh as he watches the bounce leave the little boy. “But, I will see you tomorrow at Sunday dinner.
“You do?” Noah asks with a frown, the bounce leaving him quickly.
Elliot nods his head almost sadly. “Unfortunately, bad guys don’t keep regular hours. But, I will see you tomorrow for Sunday dinner. Maureen says she’s making coconut cream pie.”
“That’s okay, I understand. Thanks for taking me today” Noah says, stepping towards him and slipping his little arms as far around his waist as they’ll go, burying his curls into Elliot’s chest and breathing him in deep. “I love you, Elliot.”
Noah can hear Elliot’s breath do a funny thing through his chest, and for a moment he worries he’s said something wrong, but then Elliot squeezes him close and kisses his head.
“I love you, too, Noah.”
When he pulls away and turns to the kitchen, he catches sight of his Mom’s teary eyes. She’s smiling, though. They must be happy tears , Noah thinks. Although, he’s not entirely sure what she’s so happy about. Broccoli cheddar is great, but it’s not worth crying over.