“Do you have the clippers?” I asked.
She reached into the case and pulled out the heavy Wahls. When she turned them on, they emitted a low electronic buzz.
“Cut it all off,” I said.
“I want you to buzz it all off.”
If I didn’t have any hair, it wouldn’t matter that I no longer had her to cut it.
“Go on,” I said. “Do it.”
I watched the hair tumble onto the cape. Her breasts pressed against my shoulder as her hand brushed the hair from my head. And then I felt something wet fall on my cheek. I heard a sound, like a hiccup, and then I heard it again, but it was more like a sucking noise, like someone trying to catch a breath. Her tears began to fall.
“Shh, it’s O.K.,” I said.
She stood back, her face red and blotchy. “It’s just that you look so different now.”
She held up a mirror, and I winced. “Oh man,” I said. There was something honest and bold about the look. “Shave off the rest.”
“But you’ll look like a cancer patient.”
“It’s just hair.”
She finished. As if my thoughts had been laid bare, too, she said: “You know I’m stronger now. I can make it on my own.”
“I know that,” I said.
For two months, ever since I moved out, we had been engaged in a weekend dance of me visiting to keep contact with our girls, staying in our home in Virginia as if nothing had changed. But everything had changed.
She rubbed lotion on my neck and pulled out the straight razor. I felt the cool metal on my skin as she nudged my head forward and down with her fingertips.
I closed my eyes. I could hear our 14-year-old daughter chattering on the telephone and laughter coming from the TV. Our dog’s claws clicked across the floor.
“I didn’t cheat on you,” I said, keeping my head down and my eyes closed.
The blade stood still for a moment, then skimmed down the back of my neck.
“I had to get that H.I.V. test,” she said, “because you were acting so out of character.”
I was offended when she had first told me this. How many times had we made love? Was it greater or fewer than the number of haircuts? Of course the test was negative. I could count on one hand the number of people I had been intimate with before her.
The first was my childhood neighbor in Greensboro, N.C. He and I were too young to understand our dark fumbling during sleepovers. In college, I lost my virginity to Sally, a red-haired flute player, in a rite of passage that I simply wanted to get over.
When I was 20 and in Colorado for the summer with my aunt Sheila and her psychic girlfriend, I stumbled out of a bar on the edge of town walking arm in arm with Don, my aunt’s handsome young friend. Under the shadow of Pikes Peak, he and I kissed. I heard Sheila’s voice in the distance calling out, “He’s not sure if he’s gay yet, Don!”
But I knew.
When I first started seeing Elizabeth, at 21, I told her about Sally but not Don. That part of my life was supposed to have been erased by conversion therapy, which involved me praying with my mother at the dining room table every day not to be the way I was.
The first time Elizabeth and I had sex was on a sofa in my brother’s off-campus apartment in Raleigh, N.C. Neither of us was a virgin, so there was no awkward fumbling, just as there was no passionate taboo. I recognized it for what it was; this was as good as it could get.
For more than 22 years, after our daughters were born and as my hair became grayer and Elizabeth’s body became softer, I kept my secret locked away. Then, on a Wednesday night 10 years ago in a Walmart parking lot, Elizabeth saved me. “Are you gay?” she asked.
“I don’t want to be,” I said.
Shortly after, our marriage ended, but while I was still making my weekend visits, there was Ray. On our second date, I ripped the clothing off his body. Afterward, he held up his pants and examined the broken zipper and popped button.
“Those were my favorite pants,” he said. I laughed. He did not.
Elizabeth brushed the hair from my shoulders and removed the cape. I stood up, put on my shirt, and pulled the broom from the kitchen closet to sweep up.
When the girls went to bed, I wandered the house taking stock of things that were no longer mine. There on the dining room table was the blue metal pitcher we found in an antique shop in New Hampshire. This painting, above the brick mantel, was my 20th wedding anniversary gift to her. Here was the sofa where Elizabeth and I used to lay side by side with a sleeping dog at our feet. The wooden floors creaked as I passed.
When I reached the top of the stairs, Elizabeth stood motionless in the dark hall.
“Can I sleep with you, just sleep, this one last night?” I asked.
“Don’t wake me in the morning,” she said.
She removed her nightgown. I took off my shirt.
That was her side of the bed, and this used to be mine. Here was the blue comforter where we cradled our newborn girls. These were the pillows flattened with use.
I lay awake on my back. She rested her hand on my neck. I turned to my right side, and she to her left as we twisted in our bittersweet ballet of goodbye.
In the grainy morning light, I closed the bedroom door and tiptoed to my daughters’ rooms. This was Sophie’s. Those were the boxes filled with her dolls. I tucked her dark hair behind her ear and kissed her warm cheek.
Here was Marisa’s. These were her glasses. I picked them up and cleaned them with the tail of my shirt.
“I’m just going to work now,” I muttered, a half-truth in the half-light.
This, behind me, was the house full of secrets, and here before me was the path that lay ahead. This is what I left: an empty chair at the table, the scent of my skin on the sheets, an old painting, a sleeping dog, a blue pitcher, my lingering shadow on the front steps before I let go.
Modern Love College Essay Contest
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