Red in the Face

Posted on September 14, 2010

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The intent here was to tell you a heartwarming story of my teenage years, brimming with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The result is this disjointed collection of pointless memories, filled with junior high school locker room scenes, scowling gym teachers, hairy legs, and blood-soaked bathroom sinks. Anyway, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

For many of my friends, the far-off land of adulthood seemed to be a place where they would drive Corvettes and drink beer and stay up all night if they felt like it. For me, it meant I would be able to shave.

I watched with a mixture of envy and anticipation as my father and older brothers performed this daily ritual of masculinity. They were in control of their appearance; to a twelve-year-old sporting pimples and hand-me-down sweaters, this looked like paradise. And then there were the television commercials, which always featured shirtless men gently coaxing razors across their faces while having their backs massaged by women in bathing suits. It appeared to be the most fun you could have, at least to me.

When I was twelve and in the seventh grade, I learned that gym class involved taking a shower. I also learned that these showers were wide open, with no curtains or sliding glass doors. On my first day in the locker room, overcome with self-conscious nerves, I headed to the shower with towel in hand and my gym socks still on my feet. Mr. Axtell, the teacher, stopped me just in time. (I’m using his real name here, because Mr. Axtell was an old man even then, and this was more than forty years ago. He had pure white hair and his face turned bright red at the slightest exertion. You could see through his thinning hair that even his scalp turned red. I was also pretty sure he smoked cigars with breakfast.)

“What are you doin’?” he said. His voice was a raspy attempt at a scream, his face glowing like some freaky Halloween lawn ornament. “Where you goin’ with your socks on?”

“I don’t know,” was the best I could come up with.

The incident lasted less than a minute, but I had to hear about it until at least the ninth grade. I also had to hear that mine were the hairiest legs in the class. The other boys liked to point this out to me, I guess because I had neglected to remove my socks on that one occasion, and so they thought I had somehow failed to notice both of my legs for the past five or six years. One night I decided enough was enough. I locked myself in the bathroom, lathered up my legs, and grabbed my father’s razor. Then, starting near the ankle, I pulled the razor up the middle of each leg, stopping at the knees. At this point, I paused to think. A little late, but at least I did. Standing back and bending over, I could see that my legs now closely resembled a four-lane highway. I could also tell right away that if I finished shaving them, I would look even more ridiculous because my upper body and arms were still covered with hair, and I’d likely remind people of the cartoons in those books with the split pages where you could match up different heads, bodies, and legs, often with hilarious results. But if I kept going and shaved my upper body too, I might be mistaken for one of those creepy hairless cats I had seen in magazines. So I put down the razor and resigned myself to the stares of disbelief that came my way in gym class for the next several weeks.

The following year I had begun to grow some serious facial hair, and so it was time to start shaving. My face, I soon learned, did not like the idea. Every shave left me a tormented mass of cuts and scrapes. I studied the television commercials, trying to figure out why I bled so much. The guy on TV never bled. He seemed to barely grip the razor. It just floated across his foamy face, leaving a clean, smooth trail behind it. He never had to go over the same spot twice, and he never cut himself. I eventually figured out that either this guy shaved right before the commercial, or he had no facial hair to begin with.

I gradually reduced my shaving schedule to every other day, and then, every third day. I had to do this because when you lose the quantity of blood I lose with each shave, your body needs time to replace it. Sometimes my wife stands behind me and massages my back while I shave. This is not the realization of an adolescent fantasy. This is so I don’t lose consciousness and hit my head on the ceramic tile floor. Even now, shaving every three days, my bathroom looks like the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

I’ve tried everything: electric shavers, gel for sensitive skin, baby oil. Shaving in the shower, shaving in the morning, shaving at night. Cold water, scalding hot water, soapy water. And I’ve listened to endless advice. “You have to go with the grain,” my brother-in-law told me. My skin doesn’t have a grain. It bleeds in all directions.

I even tried growing a beard once. I kept it for a couple of months, until one cold night when I went to bed with my socks on. I fell asleep and dreamed that I was running the wrong way down the middle of a four-lane highway. All of the cars were Corvettes being driven by hairless cats. One of them hit me and I fell to the ground, unconscious. When I opened my eyes, I looked up and saw Mr. Axtell standing over me. He had a cigar in his mouth and his whole head looked like it was on fire.

“What are you doin’ with all that hair on your face?” he said.

“I don’t know,” was the best I could come up with.

With my heart pounding like a nervous twelve-year-old, I ran to the bathroom and shaved off the beard. Then, after the bleeding stopped, I got into the shower.

Well, first I took off my socks.

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