My wife wanted me to grow a beard.
“If I could do it myself,” she said, “I would.”
“But I thought women hated beards.”
“Maybe I have beard envy.”
The next morning I didn’t shave. I didn’t look much different. My wife kept touching my face.
“Just checking,” she said.
We went to the supermarket. I was the only adult male there without a beard. How long had this been going on? I asked my wife about it. She said it had been that way for a long time now, for as long as she could remember.
My beard grew a little everyday. I couldn’t feel it growing, but it was growing. It started to itch. I wanted to shave it off, but I didn’t want to disappoint my wife. I didn’t want to make her angry, either.
“It’s really itchy,” I said.
“Man, you don’t know what itchy means unless you’ve had a vagina.”
“I’ve never had a vagina,” I said.
“Maybe you had one in a dream?”
“No, I’ve never had one, not even in a dream. I think I would remember that. Have you ever had a beard?”
“You know I haven’t! Why do you bait me like that?”
We could argue about anything.
We were eating breakfast in the kitchen. It was a bright morning and both of us were unemployed. We had some money in a shoebox, but not much.
“What do you want to do today?” she said.
“I want to shave my face.”
“No! Just do me this one little favor.”
“I really don’t understand what your deal is here.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? You’re enjoying this little touch of power you have over me. Something so simple and you use it to manipulate my feelings. You lord it over me. You turn into Stalin and Chairman Mao rolled into one. You’re ruthless. Ah, always a power struggle with you. From day one. Sometimes I think you have the capacity to turn everything into a weapon.”
I took a bite of my toast. I was stunned.
“Fine, OK. I won’t shave. Have it your way.” Then I said, “Maybe I’ll never shave again.”
“God, you’re such a dick,” she said. She got up and went to some other part of the house.
After a few days the itching stopped, just like that. I wondered about the science behind it. It was like the end of a drought or a plague. If I were a village I would have declared a holiday, celebrated, propitiated my gods.
But now I had another problem. My beard had entered its adolescence. It was awkward and oily-looking. Half-formed. Kind of creepy. When I left the house I felt like everyone was looking at me. I normally felt like that, but I knew it wasn’t true. With the beard, however, I believed in my own paranoia. People really were looking at me.
“I look crazy,” I said.
“Ah, nobody gives a shit about you except me.”
“What the hell?”
“I mean, nobody cares what you look like. They don’t know you. I know you. I love you.”
“Then why are you doing this to me? Why are you torturing me like this?”
“You are torturing yourself – as usual.”
“Is it some sort of test? Am I failing?”
“I think you are maybe losing your mind a little bit?”
I looked at the cat and said, “How can you stand it? How can you tolerate this?”
He didn’t say anything. He never said anything.
My wife developed a new habit. At any moment of the day she might suddenly rub her face against my beard. She did it in the middle of the night, waking me up. She did it in public. It didn’t matter where we were. She had no regard for strangers while I was terrified of them. Who knows how we ever came to be together?
One afternoon we were riding the train home – we had gone out to the mountains – and it was so crowded we had to stand on opposite ends of the car. I wrapped my arm around a pole and closed my eyes. I could smell every passenger on that train. The breath of the guy next to me was like methane. Someone farted nearby. I tried to go to sleep, and I was halfway there when my wife rubbed her face against my beard. I reached up out of reflex and slammed her head into the pole. It was an impossible accident that probably looked very deliberate. She started to cry. I thought some large passenger might storm over and pummel me. No one did. Maybe they thought she had it coming for rubbing against my beard like that. I thought we would probably get divorced.
When we got home, I said, “I’m shaving!”
“Oh, no! Not after what I just went through. You can’t back out now.”
“This thing is destroying us! How much longer?”
“Holy shit, do I literally have to do everything in this relationship? Do I have to shoulder this burden too?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’d have me grow your beard for you if you could.”
“You are deranged,” I said.
“Right, resort to name-calling. As usual.”
“OK, yeah. I know what’s coming next. I’m the asshole, and everything is my fault, right? I’m always the asshole. It’s always my fault.”
“_That_ old line again.” She laughed.
“Now you’re going to widen the argument. Go ahead. I know how you operate.”
“You don’t know jack shit,” she said.
I started laughing, then I stopped. I didn’t want to laugh. I wanted to stay angry. I wanted to inflict pain on my wife.
I wanted to shave off my beard.
“Let’s not bicker,” she said.
I grabbed her and dragged her onto the bed. We had sex as if it were a continuation of our argument. She used the same tactics in both fields. I probably did too. It’s not the sort of thing you notice about yourself.
We fought for dominance. I pinned her down and got in as many thrusts as I could before she toppled me over and tried to smother me with her breasts. It went on like that. I let her have her way for a while, then I took charge again. She speedily deposed me.
I lay back and watched her. Suddenly I could see my mustache. I had never noticed it before, but there it was, at the bottom of my vision. It was attached to my face and I couldn’t get it off.
My wife touched my beard and moaned. I pushed her away.
“For God’s sake, don’t eroticize it,” I said.
“It’s too late for that.”
We shifted from fucking back into arguing. Sometimes we even managed both at the same time.
“I feel like I’m in disguise,” I said.
“I barely recognize you. I’m looking right at your face and you seem sort of like a different person. You seem — bolder.”
“Don’t you hear what you’re saying? This hair on my face has unhinged you.”
“I like it. It’s got its own personality.”
“You have this way of insulting me with compliments. It confuses the hell out of me.”
“Ah, stop gibbering in my ear about it.”
“This beard is coming between us.”
“It’s between us right now.”
“It’s almost like you’re having an affair. Cheating on me with — me.”
She looked at me.
“That is insane,” she said.
She kept looking at me.
“You may shave your beard off now.”
“You grant me permission? You give me your blessing?”
“Let me put it this way: Get that thing off your face now!”
We lay there without any clothes on. The sun was shining on us through the window. The mailman was standing in the window, stuffing bills into our mailbox. He looked at us for a moment without any particular expression on his face, then he walked away.
“He probably sees this sort of thing all the time,” said my wife.
“You liked it,” I said.
“Well, no. But I guess I didn’t mind it.”
She kissed me on the forehead.
We got dressed and had something to eat. I felt too lazy to shave. I put it off for another couple of weeks.