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The Beard
By Doug Gordon

Last year, my wife Leora and I went to New Zealand for a month's vacation, a trip of such duration that we easily settled into new routines. Commutes, meetings, and social commitments gave way to hikes, beach picnics, and scenic drives. Less than one week into our sojourn, I decided to use the time away to buck still another daily routine: shaving.

With the exception of an unfortunate-looking goatee grown during my junior year of college, I had lived most of my adult life as a clean-shaven man. In the twelve years since that first ill-fated facial hair experiment, I had probably spent as much money on disposable razors as some people spend on their first car.

Kiwis are renowned for their adventurous spirit -- for jumping off bridges with a rubber band attached to their ankles and bodysurfing head-first through whitewater rapids -- and I reasoned that the adrenaline-charged atmosphere of New Zealand might be just the place to give growing a beard one more post-college try. To top it off, I was about as far from home as one could get and still be on this planet, meaning that consequences of failure were nil. If I didn't like the beard I could shave it off and look like my passport photo again before boarding the plane home. If Leora didn't like it, that was her problem. I was the only authorized driver of our rental car.

Two weeks after stuffing my razor into the deepest recesses of my luggage, I found myself sporting a fairly respectable beard. Nary a patch of skin was visible as my whiskers completed their journey from my sideburns to my chin, and the hair above my upper lip connected confidently to the hair below. Even Leora approved, opining that the beard made me look rugged, an adjective not typically employed to describe a man who eschews the fluorescent-lit aisles of Duane Reade to buy his moisturizer at Kiehl's.


At home in New York, getting used to the beard took as long as getting over my jet lag, and I still didn't recognize my own reflection in a mirror for a few days after our vacation ended. While going through hundreds of pictures from our month away, I thought, more than once, what the hell is that guy with the beard doing with his arm around my wife?

One morning as I peered into the fridge contemplating breakfast, I found myself stroking my beard. The act was subconscious, as if the beard itself wanted to help me decide, and it wasn't long before the mere touch of a thumb and forefinger to my whiskered chin helped me adjudicate other ordinary choices. Paper or plastic? Venti or grande? Unlimited-use or pay-per-ride MetroCard? Let's ask the beard.

When I stopped shaving, I hadn't anticipated that wisdom -- or dare I say maturity -- would be a fringe benefit. Nevertheless, I had joined the esteemed fraternity of Abraham Lincoln, Moses, and Obi Wan Kenobi, heroes to any child of the suburbs, synagogue, and the seventies. I was thirty-three years old. Didn't Jesus, bearded and Jewish just like me, do some of his best work at my age?


"So, do you like it?"

It was the first question I asked my mother after arriving in Boston for a quick visit a month later. She paused before answering, but the strained look on her face and her stiff body language said it all. If it was possible to hug someone close and keep him at arm's length, my mother had figured it out.

"Well," she said. "You look like your father."

Your father. Ever since my parents had divorced two years ago, my mother had been very careful in how she described the man who had been her husband for over three decades. His affair had been such a betrayal that she could not bring herself to use names that kept him close. He wasn't Neil anymore or even Dad. Instead, he was "your father." When parents divorce in their golden years, their children are the ones who get custody.

For years, people had pointed out that I had my father's nose, his smile, and up until recently I had exercised enough to keep my inherited predisposition for a potbelly at bay. (If not for the miracles of modern prescription medication, I'd probably have his hairline, too.) How could I have thought, even subconsciously, that my beard would defy Mendel's laws of genetics? Suddenly I didn't feel wiser. I felt guilty. There may have been some strange Oedipal complex at play that fueled my guilt, but all I remembered from my college courses was that Freud had a beard.

The divorce had upended my mother's world, and she had landed on her feet in a new condo, the consolation prize for over thirty years of marriage, thanks for playing. There was our dining table, still a place to share dinners, even if our dinners would be smaller by one person from now on. Two floral-print couches, placed at right angles to each other, remained as a place to watch rented movies. Still, there were hints that something was not right. A tall wooden armoire, too big to fit in my mother's new bedroom, stood at attention against a wall in the living room, as if it was so unsure about its new surroundings that it couldn't relax for even a second.

Neither of us mentioned the beard again for the rest of my visit. Instead, I focused my energy in the way a concerned parent might when moving his child into a first apartment out of college. I bought her a gallon of emergency water, a flashlight with spare batteries, and a small fire extinguisher for the kitchen. When my mother wasn't looking I took two twenty-dollar bills from my wallet and surreptitiously slipped them in my mother's purse. It was the kind of thing my parents used to do for me: cash stuffed into a palm after a hug at the airport, a check mailed to me for no good reason, other than because they thought I needed the extra help. My beard wasn't white, but playing Santa Claus made me feel a little better.


Had my parents divorced when I was a child, splitting time between two households would have felt normal. But coming late in my life, it was hard to get used to the concept of truncating a visit with one parent to spend time with the other. Thankfully, I had plenty of time to think about it as I searched for my father's building in a garden-style apartment complex in Waltham, Massachusetts, thirty minutes from my mother's condo, and light years away from the life he once had with her. I circled endlessly on roads named to suggest the woods torn down to make way for the residences that stood in their stead: Brown Bear Road turned into Grizzly Bear Lane, which led to Kodiak Drive, which inexplicably intersected with Kodiak Way. Had my father not been waiting for me outside his unit, I might have circled the woods forever, although part of me might have been more comfortable doing that, nervous as I was to see his apartment for the first time since the divorce.

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