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Fiction

Emily Post, the oracle of etiquette, based her good-manners advice on three tenets: respect, consideration, and honesty. “Put these three principles together,” she wrote, “and act on them in your daily life and you will be the soul of graciousness and have excellent relationships as a result.” 

Mrs. Post’s insights kind of make sense if you’re planning a wedding or trying to figure out when to send flowers after a friend’s mom dies. But, really, you can summarize everything you need to know about etiquette with one rule: Don’t Stir Shit Up. Most people are already pissed off when they get up in the morning. The last thing you want to do is kick a hornet’s nest when it’s down. I guess in this way, I agree with Mrs. Post—be tactful and avoid conflict. 

I disagree with Emily Post when it comes to honesty. The truth can be cruel and, at times, downright dangerous. When I ask J.J. if I look fat, I know the answer. I don’t want to hear that I’m 20 pounds heavier than I was when we met three years ago. Yes, I now have thighs that look like cottage cheese in the wrong light. Yes, I don’t wear tank tops anymore because my back fat sticks out of the arm holes just enough to make me feel uncomfortable. But, see, I want that white lie—the comfort of knowing that J.J. knows when to not tell me the truth. 

15 months ago, J.J. went on a backpacking trip. He and Felix walked a section of the Appalachian Trail for two weeks. The leaves there had turned all crimson and tangerine. It must have been a charming footslog, as far as footslogs go. 

I was so excited to see him when he returned, partially to hear about the leaves, but mostly to kiss his face. I love his clean shaven face, his chiseled look. I buzzed him in and he ran up the four floors to my apartment. He’s tall and skips two or three steps on his ascent. I can tell it’s him by the sound. He rang the doorbell. I opened the door and I kissed him hard on the mouth.

“Ouch!” I said.

“What’s wrong?” J.J. said. 

“Your stubble. I wasn’t expecting it, that’s all.” 

“Looks good, right!”

“Yeah, I like it.”

Except, I didn’t like it. I hated it. It looked fucking horrible. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike facial hair. Hercule Poirot, for example, wouldn’t have been half of the detective he was if he hadn’t had those fabulous mustaches. And yes, they were so awesome that he referred to them in the plural. “Hastings, I must prepare my mustaches,” he’d say. What a sex pot. Poirot could pull off the mustache all day long. By contrast, J.J.’s upper lip looked like iron filings were clinging to it, the way iron filings cling to magnets on that day in science class when you talk about magnets. 

Ernest Hemingway had a great beard. His lumberjack look imparted a sense of authority and wisdom. J.J.’s stubble was spotty at best. It filled his chin and jaw line, but he had patches of hair and areas of bare skin on his cheeks. And, near what should have been his sideburns—he had no side burns. How does he not have sideburns? How could he possibly think a beard would even look good without sideburns? There’s like an inch of bare skin where there should be facial hair. 

“Felix and I are having a contest,” he said.

“Yeah, what kind of contest?”

“A beard growing contest!” 

I hadn’t seen J.J. this excited since he got a Nintendo Switch.

“First one to shave loses and has to pay the winner $10,000!” he said 

“Oh, oh, that’s wonderful, sweetheart.”

“I’m so glad you like it! This is just starter stubble, but the itchy part is done. Wanna grab dinner?”

We went to Won-Jo for Korean BBQ . He told me all about his hike. Well, I’m pretty sure that’s what he talked about, but honestly I don’t have a goddamn idea what he was talking about because all I could do was look at his scruffy, spotty, patchy, lame-ass excuse for a beard. 

For a while, I was happy for J.J. He and Felix were hanging out more, which was good. I mean, for like six months, he was just coming over after work and falling asleep on my couch while trying to watch Game of Thrones. Since the trip to the mountains, Felix and he started playing basketball at the YMCA in the evenings. We’d still hang out on the weekends though—you know, Friday night dinner, Saturday excursion, Sunday breakfast, and maybe a roll in the hay somewhere in there. 

Every weekend, his beard grew in a little more, but it never looked great. After a few months, it started to look like someone had taped black cotton balls to his face. Did you ever see One Crazy Summer? Remember Uncle Frank, the stressed out guy who is trying to win the radio contest all summer? He’s so tense that he starts to pull his hair out in clumps. Imagine that look, but on an 28 year old dude’s face. Seriously, what the fuck, J.J.?

Around the holidays last year, J.J. and Felix wanted to do a double date. It was after Thanksgiving, but before Christmas. Sheila, Felix’s girlfriend, wanted to meet me. J.J. had an idea for us to all go to Won-Jo together. 

“Viki! It’s been a while,” Felix said, entering the restaurant. I didn’t recognize him at first because, I guess, he’d lost a little weight, but mainly because he had a red, patchy, scrag on his face. “What do you think?” he continued, stroking what I suppose he thought was a fantastic beard. What made it worse than J.J.’s was that his eyebrows and hair were dark brown and his beard was bright red. Shouldn’t these parts match?

“You must be Viki,” Sheila said to me.

“Yes, it’s nice to meet you. J.J. has told me all about you.”

After we sat for dinner, Sheila told me all about herself and what she did for a living, something in sales. I probably told her about being a dental hygienist, but really, all I could focus on was how bad both J.J. and Felix’s beards looked. I know they were having a contest, but damn, they looked horrible.

“What do you think of their beards?” Viki asked.

“Well, I—”

“I love them,” she interrupted. “They both look so handsome and grown up.” 

Yeah, if being handsome is growing a spotty animal on your face, or if your beard is so bad it looks like you sheared your pubic hair and glued it to your chin, sure. Maybe when J.J. was asleep, I could just shave it off. I’d have to drug him, maybe after sex. Also, around this time I started faking it because I couldn’t help but think there was a third person in the bed with us—him, me, and his fucking beard. 

When I met J.J., he had just moved to the city. He was a new trial lawyer from down south. His firm had a New York presence and they transferred him up here to handle white collar defense litigation. He was a skilled litigator and quite slick in the courtroom. To me, part of his charm had always been his clean shaven look. 

When court picked up again after the holidays, Mr. Mandinkos, his boss, transferred him to discovery review. Mandinkostransferred Felix, too. J.J. was so bummed for a few weeks, because moving from the courtroom to the basement is a serious demotion. J.J. would stoke his beard in my kitchen and ponder out loud why Mandinkos did what he did. Wasn’t it obvious? Mandinkos didn’t want two dudes with shitty beards representing the firm in public.

J.J. is smart, though. When he started doing document review—in all of its repetitive glory—he programmed an algorithm that automated certain tasks. After a few months, he had chained several programs together and he was able to do the work of ten lawyers at once and twice as fast. He showed Felix his system and, after some Felix tweaking, the two of them wrote the proprietary code for a lucrative artificial intelligence program. They were saving the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. And then, Mr. Mandinkos was patting them on the back for a job well done while their shitty, spotty beards billowed in the wind.

Around the end of summer, J.J. invited me up to his office for lunch. I grabbed a slice of pizza from the break room. Everyone was a-buzz about the upcoming sale of Pro Bear A, J.J. and Felix’s software. What was weird was how every attorney in the entire building was now trying to grow a beard. Maybe the firm was under some collective hallucination that facial hair would increase productivity and profits. Even Mr. Mandinkos, the most clean shaven of all, was sporting stubble and the makings of a mustache that would would probably one day rival Quirot’s. 

The Christmas party was when things really got out of control. Walking into the posh upper east side reception room made me remember why I loved the city so much. But then, once I saw that every creature with a Y chromosome had facial hair or was trying to grow a beard, the horror of it all vested me with sufficient justification to hate humanity. 

“Viki!” Sheila said from across the room. She ran over to me and showed me that she and Felix were engaged. 

“I’m so happy for you, Sheila,” I lied. God, I hope Felix shaves before the ceremony, whenever that is. I would hate to have wedding pictures with a husband who had a shitty beard.

Dinner began. People eat more during the holidays. This was the first holiday party for many of these guys with their new beards and most of them had crumbs and food bits nestled in their facial hair. Gross. 

Mr. Mandinkos got on the microphone and made a special announcement. “On behalf of Mandinkos, Mandinkos, Mandinkos & Ramsey, I would like to welcome everyone to this year’s holiday celebration. We are very fortunate to offer our employees robust bonuses this year, thanks to J.J. Redding and Felix Franz Freilig. Their innovation with artificial intelligence has taken us to new profits and has brought a new focus for our firm. They say correlation isn’t causation, but I have to say that if it weren’t for those amazing beards you both grew, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today. And, a very special thank you is due, to someone who without whom our new direction wouldn’t be possible Viki Dolenz!” 

All eyes were on me. Don’t put this on me, Mr. Mandinkos, please. 

“The story, as I understand it, is,” Mandinkos continued, “J.J. and Felix came back from their vacation with their full, robust beards. J.J. told me recently that if Viki didn’t like it, he was going to shave it right then and there. But, no, Vikisaid she loved it and here we are, $100 million in profits in a single year, and a nice pay out for everyone. And, it’s all because of Viki’s love of J.J.’s beard. Viki, I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but would you mind coming forward and telling us what’s going through your mind right now?”

I didn’t walk up to the podium. I was pushed. My hairy boyfriend, his hairy best friend, and his hairy best friend’s fiancee pushed me forward. I never really heard Sheila giggle before that night, but damn I hated her shrill voice. I hated Mr. Maninkos’s mustaches. I hated this party.

I reached the podium. Mr. Mandinkos handed me the wireless microphone, which squealed for a second as I fiddled with it. 

“Um, yeah, so, my name is Viki. Viki Dolenz. I’m J.J.’s girlfriend. And, yeah, Mr. Mandinkos, you’re right. That’s what happened . . .” I stopped and felt the room’s stare. I felt my chest tighten as my heart began to race. My head went light and dizzy. I rubbed the back of my neck. I wiped beads of sweat from my forehead. Then, I did what I should have done over a year ago. I told the truth.

“But, I gotta say, everybody, I . . . When J.J. asked me if I liked his new beard, see, really, I lied. I’m sorry J.J., but your beard looks fucking horrible.” 

The crowd wafted a collective gasp. 

“And, it’s not just you J.J., Felix, Jesus Felix, have you looked at yourself? Your beard doesn’t match your hair and eyebrows. Dye one. Dye the other. Dye them both, but for the love of God, please, you gotta match that shit.” 

The din of the crowd turned to a groan of disbelief. Sheila but her hands on her head, interlocking her fingers on top of it. 

“And, Sheila, wait . . . Sheila? Are you growing your armpit hair? What the fuck Sheila?” 

Sheila shrugged her shoulders and looked at the other women in the room. I hadn’t thought to look until now, but all the women in the room were growing their armpit hair and leg hair. 

Mr. Mandnikos approached me, took the microphone, and whispered in my ear, “Yes, Viki, we consider it a firm policy to not shave . . . well, it’s not official, we can’t make our employees not shave, but its our culture, our livelihood, and our luck. And, we encourage the spouses of our associates to shave as little as possible.”

My mouth fell open. I wanted to hide. I walked as fast as I could to the exit. 

I was almost to the door when I heard the mic squeal again before hearing a familiar voice.

“Viki. Viki Dolenz,” J.J. said on the microphone. I turned. His beard seemed to have swallowed the mic, but he was actually holding it to his mouth. “Viki,” he said, getting down on one knee, “Will you marry me?” J.J. held a rock the size of Jupiter in his right hand. 

I threw up in my mouth. I walked slowly back to just in front of the podium where J.J. was kneeling. I took his mic. 

“What the hell is going on J.J.?” 

“Well, will you?” J.J. asked. 

I felt my blood boil. 

“No. No, J.J., I won’t marry you. You, me, and your beard are breaking up.” The crowd gasped again. My hands began to shake. I dropped the microphone. I began to cry. I ran out the door and into the cold city night. 

A week later, my phone rang. It was J.J.

“Hey, Viki, it’s me. It’s, J.J. Can we talk?”

I paused. “Look, J.J., I’m sorry about making a scene the other night. It’s just that I didn’t know what to say. I . . . everything got so out of hand.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have sprung that on you.”

Somehow J.J. was much more appealing when I couldn’t see his beard. 

“Hey, maybe you can come over later and we can talk about it?” I asked.

“I’m outside.”

I blushed. “C’mon up.”

I heard his leapfrog jumps up the stairs. He knocked with a shave-and-a-haircut cadence. I opened the door. 

“Two bits!” I squealed. It was J.J., but he shaved his beard. He wore a baseball cap and a KISS t-shirt. He looked 10 years younger. I kissed him on the mouth, feeling is hair-free chiseled face against my cheek. 

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” he said.

“I don’t know. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

“Honesty is the foundation of lasting relationships. Be honest with me from now on, OK?”

“Maybe Emily Post was right?” I said under my breath. 

“Huh?”

“It’s nothing.” I kissed him on the mouth again. I ran my fingers up under his baseball cap to run my fingers through his hair. 

He took of his hat and smiled. But something was terribly, terribly, terribly wrong. 

He shaved his head. 

It looked awful.

August 20, 2021 18:30

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