A Cut Above
Contributed by: Joe
I cut ties and said goodbye to an old friend this past winter. First acquainted early in high school, we spent part of four different decades together, but we parted ways just after the New Year. We stuck together — literally — through thicker and thinner, the early ’80s, the 1990s and the ’00s, 2010 another year like all the rest. Sure, we both were showing our age, our once-dark hair becoming more stained with white as the years piled up. The end came suddenly. A few quick turns, and my friend was gone. After twenty-eight years — well more than half my life — I finally shaved off my cheesy mustache.
I washed off the shaving cream, the area above my top lip burning like I’d held a match to it. I should have, you know, trimmed the damn thing before taking the razor to it, but I didn’t even hesitate after shaving the rest of my face and neck. Immediately, though, I had a pang of remorse: My god, what have I done? I had thought about shaving it off for years, covering each side with an index finger to get a feeling of what I’d look like without it — and that’s a damn poor substitute for the real thing, I quickly realized — but to actually do it? What was I thinking? Without my mustache to cover it up, a freakishly large amount of real estate below my nose suddenly was exposed, fish-belly white after not seeing the light of day since I was 14. It’s so big, I bet I could sell henna tattooed advertising on it: Chico’s Bail Bonds: “let freedom ring.” My face looked naked; hell, it looked almost wrong. And, you know, I had no idea just how hard it is to shave that little area just below each nostril. Shit, I thought I was going to cut my nose or my top lip off before finally figuring out how to hack those hairs out of there.
For most of the past 28 years, my identity was tied up in the fact that I wore a mustache. Long after my adolescent peers had abandoned their early attempts to grow a mustache — which is almost the sole milieu of seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade boys — I kept mine, no matter how thin it was. After a while, it became my security blanket. I wasn’t just a guy; I was a guy with a mustache.
I grew a mustache to be like Dad. And I nurtured a drinking problem, just like Dad. I’ve always thought the roots of his drinking came from watching his dad die in a doctor’s waiting room when my father was 5. Maybe that’s simplistic. Or maybe that’s all it takes. He’s been dead for more than 10 years now, a victim of his twin vices, drinking and smoking. As far as I know, he took the answer to his grave, although maybe his former AA buddies know why he drank like he did because if anybody else in the family drank too much, it’s news to me. Yeah, he quit drinking for more than 10 years, and toward the end of his sober time, he wanted me to come to an open AA meeting as he got another yearly coin. By that time I was either in late high school or early college, and I basically told him to fuck off, telling him in no uncertain terms that I would not come. I refused to give him a reason.
As often as he disappointed me when I was a kid, as many promises as he broke so he could go drink with his buddies, as many times as he just wasn’t there, I paid him back in spades after I was out of the house for good. I was at my first job out of college when he and Mom split for the second time, for good this time. I saw him once or twice after he moved out, and he had lost weight and started drinking again. He never quit.
I almost never called and more infrequently visited. No birthday cards, no Father’s Day cards. Our relationship was on my terms, and I twisted the knife with my absence. Payback. Petty.
Four days before he died, he called me at work. He had just bought a boat, one like he always wanted, and he was eager for me to go fishing with him. I was noncommittal, rude. He might have said “I love you, son.” I might have said “Yeah” and hung up. And when my aunt and uncle called four days later to tell me he was dead, my guilt and regret were matched only by my sorrow.
I hung out with them, playing cards and video games and watching TV. Several of them talked in a variation of Pig Latin called “ob,” where you add “ob” in place of every vowel sound. So, I’d be hanging out with them, and Brian and Greg would start speaking in ob: “Chobob mobstobsh,” one would say. “Yobs,” the other would reply. I might have had the vague sense that they were talking about me, but the whole ob thing was just kind of stupid, so I didn’t bother trying to decipher it. Now, I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes: I knew Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” was about sex, of course, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized he was talking specifically, graphically, about the woman’s … well, you know what I’m talking about. And so it was also years later — hell, maybe 20 years later — that I finally realized they were talking about me, specifically the hair on my upper lip. “Cheesy mustache,” they were saying, with the affirmative response. Well, fuck. I’m glad I didn’t care much for those guys anyway.
The next year, a mustachioed freshman moved in across the hall. It’s not that we were great friends or anything, but we hung around some. He later joined a fraternity, and we lost touch. When next I saw him, he was reporting for the journalism school’s television station, the mustache was gone, and he remains clean-shaven today while working as an on-air studio host for one of the sports networks not named ESPN.
I, however, soldiered on, a man with a mustache in a clean-shaven world.
And that’s when it hit me: For 28 years, I defined myself by my mustache — but my mustache never defined me.
April 26, 2011