He often told his wife about his twenty-first birthday. He and his father had sat under a bright red canopy on a dark, starless night. They were at some nameless Chinese restaurant in one of the metropolitan corners of Atlanta, just a few blocks south of Terminal Parkway, where commercial airplanes stitched long blinking lines across the sky. A half block away, he remembered, a street cleaner inched across the asphalt, brushes spinning in a lopsided, broken rhythm.
He told her, mostly, about the gift. It had come in a long, black box with a bow taped imperfectly to the lid. His father had said something—preluded the present with some paternal words of wisdom that later echoed into the silence of forgotten idioms. When he thought back, he only remembered the feeling he had, and the preface that it gave. He had been told for months—even years—what an important birthday this would be. It was the one where he became a man: work harder, play harder, put away childish things—all of that. And where this was the scheduled day for the switch of boyhood to be, for some indistinct reason, flipped—(it had something to do, he gathered, with legality and tradition), so was this moment, sitting at a sticky, vinyl sheeted table, the time when those childish things were to be trunked away at last, the padlock fastened, the key discarded forever. That day he had a powerful, crammed up feeling—one that demanded release. The black box—matte and manly looking—was an indication of the terminal moment. The sublime finale to his adolescence. When he placed his hand on it, he felt a terrible excitement that had nothing to do with the present itself. Because, really, it wasn’t the actual gift that meant anything to him—it was the symbol that it held. He’d almost not cared what it was in the box.
Inside was a pearl-handled straight blade: the kind that Al Capone used in the movies. Sharp and shiny, rounded on the edges, wide and shafty down the spine. It was heavy—but far from graceless. His father flipped it open at the table to show him how it took the light, just as he flipped it open for his wife when he told her the story. He told her that the first time he’d held it in his hand he’d felt the weight of many things.
Later that night he was fitted for his first suit (an off-black single-breasted piece with a notched lapel and some half-breaks), which he wore in the car as they drove to the first bar to have his first drink. When they got inside, he undid the top button on his jacket and let it hang open over the corner of the counter, and his father clapped him on the back.
“Beer and a shot, waddaya got?” His father called to the tapster, pounding his palm on the table, beaming. The phrase rung in his mind for weeks, and for decades in his dreams. Beer and a shot, waddaya got? Then his father had bought him a Jonnie Walker and a Lime Corona to suck on.
He’d gone to bed full of dizzying light, staring across his small bedroom at the place on his door where his suit hung from a hook. He felt that he had become something new. That he had found his final iteration. The one that he had been waiting for long before that birthday. It would be a polished, dignified path he would travel—he had decided as much when he was young. His father had taught him to do so. Not down the sloppy, forgiving road of generic American masculinity would he trod. He would never have an excuse to be unimpressive. In making this decision, he secured himself to a higher path. One that guaranteed—absolutely guaranteed—that the weary, overcast seasons of his life would be easily tolerable. Even in the face of ambiguity and mortgage (inevitabilities, he was assured), he would prosper. If the objects in his life at some time went sour, then what would that mean to him, really? Even under the most unfavorable of conditions, the worst thing he could ever become was a gentleman down on his luck. It was his lot to work hard—yes—but also to tie a full-windsor and sign his name in dark blue ink; to rotate his own tires and keep them clean, and to keep a shelf of dark and light cooking oils above his hooded stovetop. He attempted to put it into words for his wife on more than one occasion—it was about more than the way he looked. It was about more than the way he felt. It was about who he was—who he was willing to be. And it all really started on that first day, in that first moment, with that first present.
He liked to sit in the shower and polished the blade with a shaving cloth. It was good to keep his hands busy when he was having a pensive morning, or when his wife was lecturing him from the other side of the curtain. In many ways, she was like his father. She was possessed of a dense set of tastes—dense enough not only to appreciate him and the man he had decided to become, but to explain to him what more he ought to be. For her, he made himself intelligently cultured. When they spoke to each other they spoke of detailed things—cinema and politics and articles they had read—sometimes for only a few minutes, and sometimes for entire Sunday afternoons. She taught him about teas and gelatos and scoffed at him when he could not remember a journalist that she was familiar with or mispronounced the name of some hormone.
She disliked Gillette and Schick and did not understand how anyone could buy from such companies; ones who proposed such a strange version of manhood to the public. They, with their gunmetal locker rooms, their shovel jaws, and their sideways messages. Their suggestion that a deposit of eleven dollars and seventy-nine cents at the local superstore somehow reserved a future full of white towels and beautiful women with fetishes for smooth necks. She liked his razor. She believed that his was a genuine tool—not the child of some scheme that built itself on a foundation of convenience and sex appeal. It was not some blunt instrument to get the job mostly done in almost all hands.
He admired her mind—a mind that was bulging with strong opinions on local laws and economic entropy, and the implications of Tolstoy’s grammar in the original Russian. Almost as often as she spoke, he felt like a child before her. She often chided him. Corrected him. Reminded him how little he knew of the world. Lesser men would have been tempted into rebuttal or anger, but not him. He loved her for it. He forced himself to feel pride—gleaming pride—to have her sitting there on the lid of the toilet next to him, her legs like a pair of honeydew sticks crossed over one another.
He was, however, an imperfect man. Sometimes, in bed with her, his feet and body carefully position away from hers (she was a light sleeper), he wondered if she loved him. When his energies were spent, and his mind was like a puddle in his skull, he told himself that he could not feel her. That he could only feel the chill of the sheets, and—ridiculous as he knew it was—the coldness of her back turned to him. She was a Goddess of a woman. As massive and bright as a distant star. He understood it, and he knew better than to fault her for it. He paid little heed to the thoughts he had on those rare, restless nights: the juvenile notions that most couples of their age had a miles-thick bond between them, while he and his wife for some reason had only one long, cutting thread linking their hearts. There was no thread. There was no miles-thick bond. His father had taught him about such things. A man should not define weakness in his life by strength in others’.
Once, years into his marriage, he was working out of a coffee shop he enjoyed. His computer was hot to the touch, and his eyes were dry and stung by phosphor-light. When he took a moment to drink, he saw himself in the mirror by the café. He ran his fingers across his chin, and felt the afternoon stubble there. He turned his body to face the mirror and could see the shadow that had developed under his nose and on his chin throughout the day. And, suddenly, against his will, he thought that he would go home and see a second shadow. He did not know what he meant when he thought that, but he reminded himself of his wife, and how she was the kind of woman he had always wanted, and that she still somehow did so many things he did not want. He thought of the way she jutted her lip and smiled with a weary insincerity. How she would not turn around when he entered a room anymore. How she would not answer his question if she didn’t like the way he’d asked them. And somehow, stupid as he knew it was, he felt that if he could get rid of one shadow, the one growing on his face, he could get rid of the other. The razor did both jobs—it cleaned his face, and it reminded him who he was. It reminded him why he loved her, and why she did not hurt him. At least for one more day. For one more morning. He remembered and was not hurt.
It was a fleeting thought. A blink in the mind. It lasted less than a second before he understood it, and then he crushed it in his mind. When he looked down at his hands, he saw that they were folded in his lap, tight, like military linens. His fingers were shivering. He stood from his chair, took his things, and abandoned the thought there, murdered, sprawled out on the level-loop carpet. For the rest of the day, he worked and did not allow himself to escape from the tunnel vision of the task at hand. He went home that night and watched the news with his wife. He put his arm around her cheerily and told her that she was mistaken—a cold front moving in from the north did not mean rain. Not with the inversion already in place over them. She’d turned a wintry eye down at him and said that if he’d ever taken the time to learn his meteorology, he would know that the inversion would clear. He told her, voice level, that it would absolutely not, and they had an intelligent discussion while he stroked the whiskers on his chin and did not let them remind him of anything.
A year later he dreamed of the cafe. It was a long year. A hard year. He started from his sleep. The night was black, and the blackness of the night had entered the house. It was thick enough to swim. They had fought in the evening, he and his wife. He did not understand why he was sliding out of the sheets. Why he was creeping out of the bedroom. Why he was moving to the bathroom and passing his hand through the cold air that hung a millimeter above the chilled counter. His hand found it in the place he knew he kept it. He flipped it open in the darkness, then looked in the pool of the mirror, eyes guessing in the dark. They had fought, and he had not shaved in the evening. His father had taught him to keep the stubble off of his lip. He pumped oil into his hand without heating a rag and held the razor up to the edge of his jaw. He could feel its fin against his bone. A line of distinct, heavy cold. He held it there for a while, then removed it, feeling unfocused and dreamy. Instead, he placed it on the plump of his cheek—the easiest place to start. But when he pulled downward, the blade nicked him—it bit into him and drew blood from his face. He jerked it away quickly. He touched the place and pulled his fingers away, warm with blood.
He held the razor in front of him, eyes wide in horror. He had not cut his face in years. In more than a decade. Longer than he had been married. He held it to his face again, but the technique was gone from his hands. He felt swollen. He was crashing. Something terrible inside of him was stretching out and out and out. His hands had always been true. A centimeter to the left, a centimeter to the right, a degree in that direction, a degree in this one. But then had come that jutted lip, and that insincere smile. She almost never said his name anymore. She did not stroke his chin when they kissed. He wiped his face dry and tiptoed into their bedroom, thinking.
His wife did not move in the expanse of blue sheets. He turned the razor over in the silver light that fell through the window in a long crack. His razor was a promise. It was a promise he made to himself. He tried to remember as he sat in the darkness with his wife. He wiped his bloody cheek with his hand and found his face was streaked with water. He felt his body begin to shake and pressed his tongue into his throat as he reached out with an open palm. His wife started awake at the touch. She sat there for a moment but did not move. Something unspoken passed between them. Something that neither could put to words, despite their vast vocabularies. He grabbed the razor tightly in his fist and felt the weight of it. She had always understood him. She understood him now. She did not need to tell him so.
A week later he shaved alone in the bathroom. There was no picture to the scene. He shaved with his pearl handled razor which he held in a hand that was lonely and tight. Then he looked at his drooping, clean image in the mirror. He tried to hold the gaze, but could not bear it, and so hung his head and flipped the blade into the handle. He did not know—he could not even begin to explain—why he felt so tired.
Banner Image: Livrustkammaren (The Royal Armoury) / Jens Mohr / CC BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons