Matt Martin


            After a few months of teaching English in Nizhnevartovsk, Russia, an oil-town outpost deep in the Siberian plains, I need a haircut. My hair sits as heavy as a woodsman’s, sideburns around my ears, fontanel hairs pushing themselves into frequent cowlicks.

            Unfortunately, barber’s shops are as anonymous as all stores in Nizhnevartovsk, not designated by any exterior signage whatsoever. Most stores are lotteries: walk inside and find out what they have, and this is no way to find a barber.

            I ask around my school about a barber shop and Ted, a fellow teacher, recommends one. Ted fills his pockets with hazelnuts, sleeps during his classes, and never laughs, but he does have a dapper haircut. I follow his instructions.

            The barbershop has no sign, only a listing of hours, 8:00–20:00, which seems like a long day for barbers. I walk in. I don’t know whether to announce my presence, sign a check-in book, or what, so I just sit down in one of two waiting chairs. There are two women barbers, both middle-aged and stern, both engrossed in a shrill soap opera. They’re snipping the hair of two other middle-aged, stern women. The waiting chairs are right under the coat rack, and as I sit in one, I push myself back against the women’s fur coats until I’m enveloped in them. I wait until I’m told to come.

            On the way to the barber, I practiced saying the words for “haircut” and “shortly”—not “short,” which would confuse them. I wrote down the words on a scrap of paper. Sitting in the barbershop chair, I take the scrap out and read the words over and over again, testing inflections.

            “OK!” a voice says. I look up and am invited to a third chair in the back. I hustle on over and sit down with perfect posture. I expect one of the women to walk over and start cutting my hair how she sees fit, knowing what’s best for me. But neither of the women move. Instead, a third barber emerges from the back: a gorgeous, coy young woman with a bob of black hair and a fickle smile. I say, voice breaking like a teenager, “Koryatka streeshka, ya.” Haircut shortly, I. She shakes her head, grinning. I say it again. She holds out her hand and I give her my scrap. She reads it and understands. “OK!” she says. “Hello!” She motions for me to sit.

            The haircut begins: it’s hypnotic, therapeutic, thorough. The barber takes pride in every movement, carefully combing, snipping, and clipping—even before beginning, she wields my barbee’s bib like a matadora, finding just the right place for it. As she cuts, she considers every move, analyzing the hair before making the next clip, as careful and meticulous as a sculptor. I don’t think my hair’s worth it.

            We don’t speak: Because of the language barrier, there’s none of the usual chatter of the barber chair, which always seems especially banal. I let myself fall into a trance, the shrieking soap opera becoming white noise.

            I feel an electricity when she folds my ears over to trim my sideburns, when she holds my neck to tilt my head, when she leans in close to inspect my hair’s symmetry. It sends a circuit through my spine and back up, and I fall deeper into my trance. The feeling is the same as giving a speech in second grade, boarding a plane without a return ticket, or falling in love. It leaves me completely relaxed. When I look in the mirror, I see her concentrated, smile fluttering the edges of her mouth. I wonder what her name is. I can’t imagine how she does this for each customer, fourteen hours a day. I hope she doesn’t.

            Forty-five minutes later, it’s over. She brushes away extra hair with a tickling horsehair brush—a final thrill—and I’m done. The price, twelve dollars, seems criminally small, so I double it, pretending not to understand the quoted price. I say goodbye in Russian, one of the few words I know, and she says the same in English, and that’s all there is to say. I stand there a moment until she vanishes into the back again.

            “Feenish!” one of the middle-aged woman yells, awakening me. I say “Da, okay,” and hurry out.

            After that day, I will my hair to grow after that so I can get another haircut. I plan to go back as soon as I look the least bit shaggy. When that day does finally, finally come, I go back on the same day of the week and at the same time.

            My barber isn’t there. I arrive in time to see one of the stern middle-aged women’s chairs open up. She sees me come in and says, I believe, “You sit here! Now!,” and I do so. She’s fierce and practical, clipping with military cadence. In ten light-quick minutes, I’m done. Later that day, when people compliment me on my haircut, I tousle it and mutter I don’t really like it.

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Matthew Martin currently proofreads financial documents and writes and produces videos at He's been published in the2ndhand, the North Carolina Literary Review, Burnt Bridge, A: The Colorado State University Literary Review, and the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, among others. He's the creator of the Whited blog ( and a moderator on the website RapGenius. He lives in Englewood, Colorado with his English bulldog Orson.