There are many ways to shave. In or out of the shower. With or against the grain. Standing beside your dad as you are initiated into the world of adult responsibilities, or dripping foam onto the keyboard of your laptop as a burly man on YouTube guides your strokes, wishing you had the kind of father who would teach you how to change a tyre or ask for a girl’s number. How to be a man.
In 2010, you can learn most important life skills by watching old American sitcoms, those shows that ran for so long it was statistically inevitable they would eventually cover all the essential topics, like a room full of monkeys finally deciding that Romeo and Juliet should end on a double suicide. For more precise answers to your queries, you may consult online forums, where you will find threads soliciting advice on how to talk to that girl in your class or crowdsourcing ideas for first dates the OP will never go on, threads started by anonymous posters who, at some point in the next decade, will begin to refer to themselves as ‘incels’.
Shaving is an incredibly intimate activity. It requires a profound knowledge of the contours of one’s face; the specific way the skin needs to be pulled taut over the jawline; those regions, plagued by acne, which demand caution. Is it any wonder your father never suggested a demonstration, preferring not to have an audience for an activity which he has always undertaken alone, staring at his ageing face and sagging chest in the white light of the bathroom mirror? The quiet splashing of his razor in the water affording him the time to contemplate the worries of the day.
Maybe your dad was recently let go. Maybe he’s a good man. A hard worker, who’s never taken a sick day in his life and who, even now, has found a way to provide for his family, to ensure you have everything you need. Maybe that’s enough.
It’s important to practice. It is not a good idea to shave for the first time the night before your end-of-year prom, even if the younger kids have been making fun of your moustache and you want to look good for Lauren, even though she’s not going with you and barely knows you exist. But this is the last time you’ll see everyone before going off to sixth form, and so you asked your mum to pick something up, because you’re sixteen and you live in the countryside so you have no way of getting yourself to a supermarket, and she came back with a five-blade razor and a can of Gillette shaving foam for sensitive skin and so here you are, leaning over the sink, hoping your parents didn’t see you taking the laptop into the bathroom and get the wrong impression.
Maybe he wanted to teach you. Maybe he lay in bed at night thinking about how to bridge the gap which divides you. You can understand that, now. Your dad is a real man. He built the very bed you slept in until you were fourteen and decided you needed a double bed and now it’s sitting in the garage. But he’s also a prude for whom many things go unspoken – sadness, difficulty, love – and so maybe he feared that sharing this moment with you would also have meant having ‘the talk’, and giving you advice about how to deal with bullies, and telling you something, anything, about his childhood. Of course, you could have asked him to show you, but that’s not how it’s supposed to work. You look back on your childhood now, and the chasm which once seemed unbridgeable you have filled with affection, but in 2010, as you rinse your razor in the foamy water, you cannot help but wonder what is lost when a child is raised by the internet.
Forget that first piece of advice. You tried going against the grain, and now blood is dripping down your cheek. You ball your hands into fists and take a deep breath because you know it’s too late, getting angry won’t change anything, but if he had just taken a few minutes to show you how, then… Then you wouldn’t be going to your prom with a scar on your face. You reach over for the toilet paper, tear off a small square and stick it to your cheek like you’ve seen people do on TV. You close your laptop while waiting for the blood to dry. That’s when you notice. Behind the laptop, next to the toothbrushes, another can of shaving foam. Your dad’s. But this one is in a plain, silver can, with the name of a supermarket written across the top.
This is the week you will enter adulthood. But in the years to follow, it is not the act of shaving you will remember, nor the failed attempt to speak to Lauren as you stand outside the Holiday Inn, sweating under your suit (you’ll think about Lauren far less frequently than you imagine). It’s this moment. That pit digging deeper and deeper into your stomach as you stare at the can – this is when you become a man.
Maybe you thought you would do things differently. But it’s difficult. To be open when you’ve only ever been taught how to be closed. Maybe that’s why this is coming back to you now, as you watch your own son through the gap where the bathroom door doesn’t close. You’ve been meaning to call someone to come and fix that. Maybe you see your son going against the grain. You hear a muffled yell as he cuts his cheek.
Maybe you knock on the door. Maybe he tells you to go away. Maybe you enter anyway.
Originally from the UK, Martin Greenacre currently lives in Lille, France, where he works as a freelance journalist and English teacher. His fiction has been published in Goat’s Milk magazine and Here Comes Everyone, and you can find him on Twitter @MartinGreenacre.