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 silver leafing across its face and 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 chosen moment 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 when his father handed it to him.
Inside had been 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 had flipped it open at the table over the General Tso’s and the sweet rice to show him how it took the light. It was a bright red canopy and black sky, with white sparkles from the fairy lights that hung in low w’s over the windows. Everything was slightly elongated and warped in the polished chrome. He’d 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 he would ever drink in. 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. He thought, during the coming decades, that he would most probably remember that night forever. He had a small fantasy that when age had taken him and his mind began to fade, he might shamble along the breakfast bar in some home for the useless and mumble it to himself (beer and a shot, waddaya got? Waddaya got? Beer and a shot…), grinning, stupid and toothless. 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, like so many others. He would never have an excuse to be unimpressive. In making this decision, he felt that 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 (which were both going to find him eventually, he was assured), he could feel confident and secure. 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 her 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. From that time forward—forward until forever—he was to be the man of high caliber he had long ago decided to be. Practice had ended. And the razor was there, every day, to remind him of that promise he had made to himself.
Years later, he still sometimes sat the shower and polished it with a shaving cloth, contemplating that promise. Gently, cradling it, thumb moving in slow circles, reminding himself who he was. It was a good way to keep his hands busy when he was having a pensive morning, or his wife was lecturing him from the other side of the curtain on something he ought to know more about—which often was the case.
She was a woman of small stature and of a dense taste—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 a hormone he should be familiar with at this point in his life.
In many ways, she was like his father. 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; she complained how they tried to sketch out some vague equation where plugging in eleven dollars and seventy-nine cents at the local superstore somehow equaled a future full of white towels and beautiful women with fetishes for smooth necks. His wife understood him. She understood the sentiment he held for his razor. His was a genuine tool—an object that required skill and character to understand. It was 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.
For this, and for many other reasons, He thought that she was an amazing woman: A Giant, eve. A Goddess. An Amazon. He admired her mind—she had a mind bulging with strong opinions on local laws and economic entropy, and the implications of Tolstoy’s grammatic structure in the original Russian. Almost as often as she spoke, he felt like a child before her. He knew that another man would be tempted into rebuttal or anger at how often she chided him, and corrected him, and reminded him how little he knew of the world. But not he—he who had decided to forgo jejune emotions like shame and inferiority. 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 felt that she was especially lovely when they were together in the bathroom, and he was shaving. When he was remembering the man his father had taught him to be. (Beer and a shot, waddaya got?) Those mornings were the finest parts of his days. They were the happy, warm beginnings, just as much as the evenings were the tired, whimpering ends. He wished at night, as often as he thought about it, that he could dive more quickly into sleep and fast forward into that moment with the razor and his wife. In bed with her, his feet and body carefully position away from hers (she was a light sleeper), he craved it. That closeness. That warmth. At the end of an exhausting day, when he had learned once again how heavy a cross it was he bore, it was the only thing he wanted, besides sleep. But he could not conjure the emotion—he could only feel the chill of the sheets, and—ridiculous as he knew it was—the coldness of her back turned to him. In her grandeur, she could be cold sometimes. He understood it. He did not fault her for it, and 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. His father had taught him about such things—over-sensitivity. A man should not define weakness in his life by strength in others’.
Once, years into his marriage, he had been taking a break at work in the café by his office. He had been sitting at a gray table, slowly sipping a coffee, tapping casually away at some project on his laptop. He rubbed his weary eyes for a moment and saw himself in the cafe mirror on the opposite side of the room. He ran his fingers across his chin, and felt the afternoon stubble there, and, suddenly, without meaning to, craved something. 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 he thought, for the briefest instant, that he would go home and see a second shadow. He did not know what he meant when he thought that. But he pictured a weighty darkness in his home. He thought about 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 nowadays. 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 said it. And somehow, stupid as he knew it was, he felt that if he could get rid of one shadow, 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 he did not feel hurt by the way she acted. 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 of the reflected version of himself. It lasted less than a second before he understood it, and then he crushed it in his mind. Before he forced it to go to pieces and lathered its shards in the affection that he knew he had for his wife. But it was a difficult thought to smother. It took him longer than it should have. When he looked down at his hands, he saw that he was no longer typing. That his fingers were shivering. And then he stood from his place across from the mirror, picked up his steaming cup of Irish Crème, and abandoned the thought there, shattered, 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, evenly, 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.
That night, he could not sleep. He could only feel that same craving he had felt in the café. He found his fingers stroking his chin whenever his mind began to wander, and he tightened his teeth when he saw his wife’s back turned to him. He felt that craving for a long time, deep into the night. He felt it until he suddenly sat up in bed, and it went completely away.
He did not quite understand why he was doing it, but he slowly slid out of the 1200 count sheets and moved towards the bathroom on the tips of his toes. The door opened silently—he kept it well oiled. His feet made no noise on the floor—his wife had insisted on the large, fluffy rug. He knew where it was on the counter. His hand found it without difficulty. He flipped it open in the darkness, then looked in the mirror with guessing eyes. His father had taught him to keep the stubble off of his lip. It was there, on his face—he could just feel it there—and for some reason, this night, he decided that it would be inappropriate to wait until morning to cut it away. 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, biting edge against his head. It was thin, and cold, and heavy on his face. He held it there for a while, then removed it, feeling unfocused. Instead, he placed it on the plump of his cheek—the easiest part to shave—and pulled it down toward his chin. But the blade nicked him—it bit into him and drew blood from his face. He jerked it away quickly, feeling the place with his fingers, and pulling them away when he sensed the cut.
He held the razor in front of him, feeling betrayed. He had not cut his face in years. In more than a decade. Longer than he had been married. He held the blade to his face again, but the technique was gone from his hands, which he found were shaking again. When he thought back, he realized they had been shaking all day. He felt a swollen feeling—one that demanded a sublime release—though he did not understand what it was or how to use it. He felt frustrated. His hands had always moved in the ways he wanted them to. A centimeter to the left, a centimeter to the right, a degree in that direction, a degree in that 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. Now he could not steady his hand.
He tiptoed into their bedroom with lather on his face, thinking.
He sat there in the dark, and his wife did not move in the expanse of blue sheets. In the silver light that fell through the window in a long crack, he passed the glinting razor over his face slowly, both hands holding it until it was a mostly smoothed surface. His razor was a promise. It was a promise he had made to himself. He tried to remember as he sat in the darkness with his wife. Eventually, he wiped the oil from his face with his shirt. His cheeks were wet, though he could not remember wetting them. Then, against his own will, and against his own understanding he felt his body begin to shake and pressed his tongue into his throat surprised to feel a lump forming there. He put his hand on his wife’s back, and she started awake. She sat there for a moment but did not return his touch. 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. It was the weight he had felt all those years ago. The weight of many things. She understood. She did not need to tell him so.
A week later he shaved alone in the bathroom with a brown towel around his waist. There was no picture to the scene. He shaved with his pearl handled razor, which, he decided, had always been his best and most charming friend. He scraped the face in the mirror smooth. Then he looked at his drooping, clean image. He hung his head for a moment, freeing himself from his own gaze, and flipped the blade into the handle. He did not know why—he could not even begin to explain—why he felt so tired.