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American Barbers, Monsters, and Time

by Suzanne John

Some people think traveling means transporting yourself to a different place. I disagree. I think traveling means transporting yourself to a different time.

It’s why I get so sick in airplanes. I feel as if my very soul detaches itself from my body and only remembers to reattach itself when I touch land again. I’m moving in between time, the very grains of it slip through my fingers and I turn back the knob of a ticking clock in my bones.

Obviously, there is a difference between the time parallel to the ground and the time that is perpendicular to it, as explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity. However, when I travel to India, almost a full day spent in an airplane, I am technically traveling in a time difference perpendicular to the ground, and when I touch the Earth again about two days later, I am ten hours ahead of all my friends back in Rochester. Parallel time. It’s why I feel like a hologram when I reach India. Because time is all I think about for two whole days of traveling.

And long after, for that matter. It keeps me up at night, this time thing. I have always had a strange fearful fascination with it. Sometimes it goes too fast, sometimes too slow, as if it travels on a curvaceous path that leads straight to my eventual death. It fascinates me. My parents think I can’t sleep because I have jet-lag, which is a plausible explanation and probably half the reason, but it’s also because traveling reminds me of time.

If I had a superpower, it’d be the possibility to stop time. Everyone else wants to fly or be invisible, but if I could stop time, that would be the ultimate gift. Imagine being able to freeze the moment when you are happy. There are no constructs or constraints on your life, just you and happiness.

The doctors found cancer in my grandfather when I was fourteen years old. It was colon cancer, I learned, which were two words that didn’t mean much to me when I was fourteen. I didn’t know what a colon was and the only thing I knew about cancer was that it was a silent, sad disease that people couldn’t do much about.

But it wasn’t just a disease. It was a living, breathing villain. Cancer dwelt in my grandfather, my beloved Appacha, like a hulking giant, roaring and slamming its fists against the walls of his frail body. It devoured his fat like a ravenous beast, always hungry, always greedy, tearing at the inner part of his flesh with razor-sharp teeth. But nobody could hear the beast except for my grandfather himself. He sewed his lips shut for fear of being a burden, and sat stiffly in his wooden chair, maintaining the picture of tired elegance and soft sternness I had always known him to be.

Because it went unattended to, the cancer grew up to be seventeen years old as well. My age. The cancer and I grew up together, like distant cousins. But time goes faster for cancer. The inside of my grandfather was a different dimension. So the cancer grew to its most mature form, while I was just beginning to escape my childhood.

The doctors told my father that there was no hope for Appacha. The cancer would eat away at him, slow, then fast, until there was nothing left. Like leprosy on the inside of his skin. But my father is one of those hopeful people who doesn’t stop hoping. So, against the will of my Appacha, he signed him up to receive treatment, though he lived halfway across the sea.

But my father made up for it. We visited India once every year for one to two months. Ten months out of twelve, my grandfather ate little, sat in front of his window and seldom stepped past the threshold of his bedroom besides to go to the hospital, but those two monsoon months my father would sit with him in his room and tell him stories of whatever idiotic thing my brother and I had accomplished, or bring him outside to go on walks, or show him the new technological appliances my uncle had installed upstairs. Those two months, Appacha’s eyes were bright, he sat up a little straighter, and he actually tried to eat the food my grandmother left by his bedside, if only for my dad.

But none of these moments held a candle to the tradition that had occurred for the past three years. Even my littlest cousins were fascinated by it. It was my father cutting Appacha’s hair.

That was the only haircut my Appacha partook in. Since the cancer had been discovered in him, he had neither shaved nor cut his hair, just because he knew that the chemotherapy would burn out all his hair anyway. But when the chemo became too much for him, he just stopped─ and the hair grew out straggly and gray and wild. It did not fit his clean-cut grace.

Everyone came over to watch my father cut Appacha’s hair. He always cut it outside, under the sunlight and emerald palm trees, because he knew how much Appacha missed the beauty of the outdoors. He sat my grandfather down in a burgundy plastic chair, gently put a white linen cloth around his pitifully thin shoulders, and pulled out a pair of shining silver scissors. And then he began to cut.

“My American barber!” Appacha would say in his broken English to my brother, patting my father’s arm and beaming. “I have only the best. He comes from America to cut my hair.”

Even the violent monsoon clouds would hold their breath. The day my dad would cut Appacha’s hair would be warm, and the sky would be cut like a diamond in direct light. Those days I would sit outside by my grandfather’s feet, reading a book with my littlest cousin sucking her thumb in my lap. Everyone would sit outside or inside near the window, completely and utterly at peace as my father cut Appacha’s hair. The quiet snip, snip, snip! would be in harmony with my heartbeat, and the vibrant colors of green Kerala and blue sky and the pink and orange and yellow of the family women’s sarees all swam comfortably in my vision like a pool of fish. It was like we had transported somewhere else entirely. But it wasn’t a different place. It was a different time.

Appacha and his cut hair and trim beard were fragments of a different time, of a parallel universe, where he was always smiling and looking adoringly up at my father. There was only happiness there. I wanted to stay there forever, under the diamond, cloudless sky and blinding sunlight. No rain. Everyone sitting on the floor outside and being alive.

I wanted to freeze time there. To rip my most precious memory out of its constraints of time and clean its jagged edges. I wanted to sit there and read forever and ever, with the gentle snip snip snip! of the silver scissors drowning out the roar of the beast that lived inside my grandfather.

But time cannot freeze. I can keep neither Appacha nor my father happy. Time goes on, and eventually, my father went back to America, and Appacha’s hair began to grow out again. And with it, his eyes grew sadder and wearier, he barely ever came out of his room, and he slept through family prayers. The beast’s roar drowned out everything else in the whole house.

We drew nearer and nearer to the end. Appacha was no stranger to the hospital, but the man in the room was a completely different person. He was angry and bitter and looked like a skeleton. Soon, even the carefully crafted language of his country, so filled with music, became just a collection of angry syllables that made sense to no one. My father’s friend said it was because his sodium levels were low, but I thought it was because he was frustrated. The only thing he wrote on his newspapers my grandmother gave him to translate his anger was: Let me die. I want to die.

The cancer climbed greedily up his throat, and his mode of death changed from cancer to starvation. Months went by, and my father, on the other side of the world, prayed for his own father to be taken by God. I never thought I’d see my father praying for his father to die.

He passed away the day he was brought home from the hospital. The time inside my Appacha went faster than it did for anyone else, because of the cramped place between his esophagus and lungs. The cancer took up too much space.

But my grandfather understood that people died. He never denied it. And that is why the memory of Appacha remains preserved in my mind: of my father cutting Appacha’s hair. Of the sweet air and the saturation of the world around me─ of the soft quality of my voice as I read a book to my littlest cousins. Maybe I cannot stop time. Time rushes around our ears and doesn’t care about the windswept world it has left behind. But when it runs too fast for me, I can simply flip a switch in my occipital lobe and view the memory again, as if it was recorded onto the backs of my eyelids. Dreams and memories are of perpendicular time, and so is my grandfather: in a world of permanent haircuts and an India bursting with fruit and flower. He is preserved in my words, and in my heart. Goodnight, Appacha. You have defeated time.

Suzanne John is a high school senior who loves all things poetry and language. She will be pursuing clinical psychology after graduation. This is her first publication, but she intends to publish more pieces in the future.

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