There was only one other guy there. He was unkempt. His shirt hung untucked over his gut. The mop on his head hadn’t been cut in some time and it was obvious he’d combed it in a way to hide an ever-receding hairline. We looked at each other, but said nothing. There hung in the air an unspoken unease with how we were handling this particular ugly necessity. We were both there to satisfy something that was embarassing. If we actually went through with it, we both knew it would give us a certain amount of pleasure. We also knew that if we did it, we wouldn’t want anyone else to know.
I didn’t nod at him and he didn’t nod at me as we looked at our choices.
I turn 33 years old today. As I said to a friend the other day, birthdays have reached a point at which they are no longer exciting, but neither are they all that depressing. Thirty-three, I’ve come to accept, is not all that old. Sure, my life has changed a lot in the last decade. Sure, I look and feel older than I once did. But, when it comes down to it, barring bus accident or an unfortunate run-in with a billiards gambler and a pool cue, I stand a chance of living for a good long while if I can take care of myself.
“Condolences,” my friend said.
I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was looking. The other guy left me alone. I knew I’d been standing too close to him. If someone had done the same thing to me in that situation, I would’ve left, too. I was sure there was some protocol for these situations, but I’d never been there before. I didn’t know. At that point, I just wanted to make sure I didn’t see anyone I knew.
I feel dirty, I thought.
The wife had sent me out to pick up a few things for our only child and I ended up considering something that, if I actually went through with it, I would never tell my spouse about.
A man’s needs change, the rationalizing part of my psyche assured me. It’s okay. What happens here, stays here.
I saw Tracey over the summer. She’s as tall as me and is humble about how beautiful she is. No one who has ever met her, least of all me, can deny that she is one of the most striking and approachable people you will ever meet.
I hadn’t seen her in a long time. We’d parted ways under good terms many years before. This summer, she came into town for a mutual friend’s funeral. Many of the mourners retired to a bar after the service. Though I knew we were in a crowd, I had to say something to her. After an hour, I walked through the crowd and waited for her to finish a conversation. Finally, she turned to me with a small smile and pulled me into a warm embrace.
The last time I saw her, she had dressed and done her hair differently. In the years that had passed, she’d worked in the big city. Now, she was startlingly cosmopolitan. She told me she was going to work for a boutique PR firm in the city.
I looked different, as well. Five years before, my hair was longer and made-for-TV. I had no facial hair and I weighed 15-20 pounds more.
“You look good,” she said. She reached out and fingered beard on my chin. “I love how you’re not doing anything with the gray.”
Vanity is a bitch.
What’s weird about it is, back when I was regularly in the hunt, I paid litle attention to my appearance. My hair grew to my shoulders, my weight was directly proportional to the amount I was drinking (a lot), and I would go days without making the acquaintance of a razor. Even when I was still working in television (the time of my life when appearance was pretty important), I didn’t take exceptional care of myself. I could’ve looked better than I did.
Since the kid was born, I’ve found msyelf inordinately concerned with how I look. Though a wedding ring is welded to my finger and I rarely go to bars where women hang out, I spend a lot more time in front of mirrors. I trim, scrub, and preen. I found a fancy, bald man who knows how to cut my hair and does it with precision (if a little too much time and proximity).
It’s all a little sad.
This is sad, I admitted to myself. I shouldn’t be doing this.
Now alone, I could satisfy this male necessity. It would cost more than I expected, but if I paid in cash, my wife would never know. Ever since Tracey had returned to the city, I couldn’t think of anything else. My wife couldn’t help. As much as I loved her, she was powerless.
You know, spoke my reasonable side, she’ll know. She’ll either smell it on you. Or she’ll find some sort of CSI-trace-transfer scientific bullshit. She’ll know.
I couldn’t argue. Chances are, even if no one saw me, even if I paid in cash, even if I was able to be sneaky around my wife, she would figure it out.
Alone, I was forced to make a decision. I wouldn’t likely have this chance again any time soon.
I can’t believe this, said my rational brain.
And then everything went silent.
Later that night, I sat on the couch next to my wife. She looked at me adoringly, like she loved me and would love me regardless.
“I have a confession to make,” I said.
The look on her face was one of controlled worry. She’s put up with a lot in our ten years together. She knows I have a tendency to flirt with the deep end. However, I’ve never given her any reason to believe I would go where I’d been in the past 24 hours.
“Okay…” she said.
“I spent a little time in the Just For Men aisle at the grocery store today.”
My visison was clouded with relief. I’d said it. Now it was out there and I couldn’t take it back.
But, the look on her face was more than I could bear and I looked away.
In the end, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to buy Grecian Formula, Just For Men, or any of the other products on the shelf. It wasn’t just the embarassment that went along with it. It was the fact that, if I had actually gone ahead with it, I would’ve be admitting that I’m actually concerned about not only getting old, but looking old.
Some people might suggest that even walking into the aisle is a tacit admission of defeat.
Me? I’m just proud of myself for walking away with what little pride I have left still intact.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to exfoliate.