This is my story, the story of a true beardsman.
I have worn a beard since I was nineteen years old. At the beginning, the beard only covered my neck, the occasional pubey tuft appearing up over the curve of my chin, a rogue wave at low tide. Still, it was better than the alternative.
I learned to understand facial hair as camouflage at a very early age. My father had a mustache for almost all of my childhood. When smiling, he looked like Tony Orlando; when frowning, Saddam Hussein. In the winter, he grew a full beard. I drew a picture of him, once, in second grade, black marker all over the paper, then two googly eyes. He scratched incessantly. My mother groaned loudly every time he ate a bagel with cream cheese, then moistened a paper towel and wiped him like an infant. It didn’t seem worth it. I asked him once why he always had so much hair on his face. He was an enigma. Shut up, he told me. Just drink your milk and shut up.
I didn’t understand. Then one day he shaved on a dare. I saw his upper lip and I understood.
Time passes. I don’t have to tell you that. Hair grows, and so do nails, but I cut those sometimes. I am in my tenth year of beardiness, or is it more? Who knows? All I know is that days go by and every morning I look into a small mirror in a small apartment in a small city in these United States of America, and my face is hidden.
I like to think that my beard is nearly full now. There are rusty patches in it, which are odd, but my dog has rusty tones in the right light and so sometimes I can watch her walk in the sun, glinting like a penny, and think, She gets that from her dad. I teach part time at a small college in a pine forest outside of the city. My beard is full enough that when I am pretending to deeply mull over a student’s answer, I can stroke it. My beard has grown in tandem with my body hair and I have begun to achieve uniform texture and hair-depth, a gentle, springy carpet that runs dick to nose, keeping me snug. Last summer, at a lake beach, my mother watched me emerge from the water, wet-furred, splashing, and said, “Now, are you what the gays would call a bear?”
Yes, I thought, letting myself feel some pride. Yes, Mom, I am.
It’s November now, halfway through. I don’t leave the house much anymore. There are beards everywhere.
The beautiful, art student barista who grins every time I say, “Just tea,” then wait five seconds and says, “Also a cheddar biscuit” has begun to grow an Amish style beard. It’s meant to be ridiculous, but he is still beautiful. Now, while my biscuit is warming, he gives me hinting looks of solidarity. My face is covered. His face is covered. What a choice we have both made. I look down.
At work, I see cool-dude freshman walk through my campus center while I stroke my beard at the coffee kiosk. They have baby beards of their own now. They finally live on their own, so they can do whatever they want, like not shaving for a month. They talk about the bars they will get into, and older women fooled and then wooed. I snort.
The final affront. A Monday. Two lawyers amble back to the office from lunch—blue suits, brown shoes, black overcoats. The bodies of former college lacrosse players who now have mini home-gyms in the garage. I veer toward them and ask, angry, “What’s with the beards, fellas?”
“Movember, brother,” one says to me. “I had an uncle that died of testicular cancer. Nasty stuff.”
“I’m doing a testicular cancer 5K, too,” the other one says. He grins. He has eyes the color of metal. “I’m not gonna shave until then.”
There is a pause. Then he asks, “You? What you growing for?”
This is when I run.
I want to free myself from these Barbara Ehrenreich’s of facial hair, these tourists. These born groomers who will shave when their girlfriends finally say enough, who will commemorate the experience in a Facebook album titled “Beard!” sandwiched in between “Birthright 2009!” and “White Girl Wasted!”
Air stings my nose as I run and snot trickles into my mustache, but I’m used to that.
I pass a vegan restaurant. Everybody is outside for lunch. I hear a woman’s voice—Trevor, there’s kale juice in your beard, you grizzly man. Giggling. I run faster.
A bus drives by, with a Coolwater cologne ad on the side—that motherfucker from Lost, a millionaire off the way his stubble conforms around a square chin and hollow cheeks, inviting us to think what he might look like if he just let us clean him up.
School is getting out. Children parade into the crosswalk, waddling under their heavy backpacks. All the boys have beards. They turn and wave as one.
“Sweet scruff, bro,” they chirp at me in unison.
“No!” I scream. “It’s impossible!”
“Steve Jobs said nothing is impossible,” one child says. “And he had a beard.”
“And now Ashton Kutcher has a beard and he’s Steve Jobs,” another says. “It’s about synergy.”
“You should shoe polish your beard, man,” another says. “Nobody likes a ginger.”
They laugh when I start to cry.
I try to keep my eyes closed the rest of the way home, and so by the time I get home I’m limping. I hit my face on a brick wall and there’s blood trickling from my eyebrow down into the corner of my mustache. I bust through the front door. My wife looks up from the couch.
“Honey, you’ve got some cocktail sauce,” she says, bored. “Are you on another shrimp cocktail binge.”
“Never mind the shrimp!” I scream.
She ignores me. She’s reading Us Weekly.
“Look at Brad Pitt,” she says. “Look how thick his beard is. It says he’s only been growing it a week. It’s grey, but I think it looks good on him. Also, he stopped using soap because of the toxins.”
I want to yell that Brad Pitt is a goddamn poseur and an under-actor, but no sound comes out as I collapse onto the living room floor.
“Honey!” she screams and leans down over me.
“Get the razor,” I whisper.
“I’m shaving it all. It’s over. I’ll be a regular, clean-shaven man. Call your mother. Tell her to come see.”
I am on my back and she is cradling my head. She doesn’t move. She looks at me and her face is all pity.
“I don’t want you to shave,” she says, finally. “I just...I think you’ll look like a fat lesbian. Is that homophobic? I’m sorry. It’s just what I think. We’ve talked about this.”
She rests my head on the floor. She stands up and shrugs. I don’t understand. I say, “Please, I want to do this for you.” After all, she complains sometimes. She says that it tickles when we kiss, that her earrings get caught when we cuddle, that oral sex looks like two hedges meeting at a property line. I remind her of that.
“The beard is fine,” she sighs. “It’s nice. It’s you.”
I try to tell her what’s happening outside. That it’s not me anymore. That men and boys with beards are everywhere, reveling, winking at me and offering high fives. That I look like everyone else who is just kidding.
“It will be over soon, honey,” she says. “This happens once a year, every year. There’s always an awful article in the style section of the Times. They act like it’s something new. How do you never remember?”
She shakes her head as she walks to the kitchen. Something like sanity returns and I lick the blood at the corner of my mustache. She’s right. Soon they will all shave and they will return triumphant to the world of the smooth-faced with stories to tell. Not me. Some people are not meant to change. Some beards are meant to hide under. I close my eyes. I will sleep until December.