In the battered barbershop chair, Faris sits slightly camouflaged and crumpled, as though he is a mystery even to himself.
At no time did I contemplate the realities of parenthood as much as I did on that afternoon when, during a brief moment alone together, I brushed my lips against his now-naked head and whispered my affections. With me was this amazing, miraculous person, and I had helped bring him into the world.
Having a child changes you completely, but most of all it makes you love in a more profound way. I looked at Faris and knew that I wanted to protect him, to pick him up in his low moments and tell him everything would be okay. I wanted to tell him stories from my childhood, share with him my fandom of Tottenham Hotspur, and introduce him to the music of Oasis. Most of all, though, I wanted him to know that he was loved.
By the time Faris was four years old, he was a regular at the barber’s, each visit slowly settling him into the wider world. The barbershop has always been more than a place to get a shave or a haircut. Instead, it stands as a repository of time which pieces together an individual through the small, active milestones that mark the passage of life. A person enters the barbershop for both renewal and resolution, every visit a kind of coda to the last.
I grew up in an overprotective cocoon, fashioned for me by my parents in a manner typical of first-generation Pakistani immigrants settled in England. My world consisted of our home, school, the mosque, and little else. Modest freedoms were gleefully snatched up in those moments when I was left alone in the house, or allowed to walk to the shops unaccompanied, or when I was briefly able to escape their presence on family trips. The rest of the time I was invisible to the world and belonged mostly to myself. Within this limited space, it was my visits to the barbershop that gave me my first sense of empowerment.
In the early years, I would go with my dad and watch silently as the contours of my face were redrawn according to his preference. I may not have had any choice in how I was to look, but being able to sit alongside all the various layers of the population formed within me a sense of my own self-understanding. Everyone was different and so was I, and the more I realized that I was a person apart, the more I resisted subletting my existence to the authority of others. Eventually, my father faded from my side; neither of us knew when or how—through the barbershop, a space emerged for me where my parents would not be so dominant.
A person enters the barbershop for both renewal and resolution, every visit a kind of coda to the last.
I remember, when I was sixteen, I got one of those bowl haircuts, with the sides completely shaved off, that only an unmoored teenage boy from South London could find trendy. It didn’t matter to me that no one liked it, least of all my mother and father; what was important was that it influenced the way I felt about myself and how I wanted others to see me. Several years later, at university, I went to a Toni & Guy and paid forty pounds for a “restyle.” It was unlike any haircut I had ever received, and seemed to distill the conflict between my past and my present within its fashionable spikes.
One of the great contradictions of parenthood is that the more it consumes you, the more your children draw away. As time passes, the life of the child you thought would belong to you forever expands until it is out of your reach, their flourishing presence a reminder of the oldness and newness of the world and its restless transience. I look at Faris and know that one day he will outgrow me. His feet will settle on their own ground, and he will define reference points for himself that are completely independent of me. I also know that this is right; that this primal urge for freedom is what makes us who we are; that I also traveled the same path and he will too.
But this does not stop me from being overcome by sadness at the thought of his breaking away. I begin to miss things that will never be: the many words I still need to say to him, the moments we should have shared but will not, the journeys, the memories, the laughter, the song unlistened to on the car stereo. He will have his chance again, but I will have missed mine. The older I get, the more aware I become of the retreating opportunities for the possible.
I pull out of these thoughts as the last bits of residual hair are brushed from Faris’s face and he is done. With what resembles a hop, he extracts himself from the barber’s chair and comes to join me. His face is lit up by a shy grin, which tells of his relief. Every time I see him happy—every single time—it jolts my memories back to an evening when he was about two and I bought him a set of helium balloons. As soon as he started to play with them, they escaped his hand and floated to the ceiling. He laughed and jumped and fizzled with excitement. I brought the balloons down and gave them back to him. Again he let them go, and laughed some more. Something of my heart broke at seeing his happiness—it was his joy, and I did not know how to inhabit it. But still, we were in it together, father and son, always moving away yet returning to ourselves.
I pay up and we leave on my bicycle, with Faris plumped on the holder at the rear. On the way home, he asks me if he can buy some sweets. I say yes and we stop at a nearby utility store, where I give him enough money for some things for himself and his sister.
I look at Faris and know that one day he will outgrow me. His feet will settle on their own ground.
He takes his time; he always does—overthinking is one of many traits the two of us share—before returning with a plastic bag clutched in his hand. He cannot stop talking now of everything he has purchased: He has biscuits, chocolate eggs, and other sugary confections I once promised myself I wouldn’t let my children indulge in. But as his own essences increasingly begin to reveal themselves, the choices I once made for him become melancholic footnotes to the brutality and grace of being his father.
A few minutes later, we arrive home. I look back over my shoulder to tell Faris to get off so I can dismount, but he is not there. Both the gate and the front door gape open, and from inside I can hear him telling his sister of the treats he has brought with him. The sound of his joy moves deeper into the house, and then it melts away. Just a second ago he was with me, and in the blink of an eye, he is gone.
Usman Ahmad is a British freelance writer and photographer based in Pakistan. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Vice and Quartz among other publications. Find him on Twitter at @usmanahmad_iam and on Instagram @usmanahmad.iam