I woke up with a full-fledged beard. Lush, unruly, reckless. I stood before the mirror, stroking it, trying to come to terms with the man I had ceased to be – the man with at best a week’s accrual of patchy stubble. I nudged the bathroom door shut to the studio apartment outside, muting its early morning smallness, containing myself to the confines of this room with its slick blue slippery tiles, steamy air and an indifferent white glow of the light bulb. With that beard, a smattering of hair on my chest and those idle pecs, I could pass for a married man. A young father.
Neighborhood women peek through the curtains at me, as I walk my daughter to the school, imagining, I’d like to believe, what I would be like in bed. We stay in a quiet locality with broad streets lined with tall trees. In the evening, the kids are often out on the streets to play. My daughter is five. I take her out for a walk except on Sundays when her mother takes her to the park near my in-laws’ place. On Sundays, I smoke. That Sunday, I was up on the terrace, smoking, and getting some fresh air. The sky was open and the air carried a certain chill. I ambled about, panning a dizzying vista of lit windows, watching families at dinner table, or in the living room watching TV.
I reign in over my reverie. There’s a world outside my bathroom, beyond my apartment. There’s a cubicle with my name on it, waiting for me to sit and do my bit. There’s money, bills and taxes.
I put the trimmer to my beard and watch specks of black fall over the sink. I remember that day when I saw Matt – or rather the sound of him scratching his chest with the tip of a pen, over his shirt and over his undershirt, and over the mass of thick hair that rubs against his undershirt. He’d rather stay without it all: the undershirt, the shirt and his hair and rest his back in the sun on a sandy beach but he’s condemned to carry the discomfort around. You sense it in the edge in his voice.
In the days that followed, I observed his hands and grew irrationally obsessed with his calves. He was quite a revelation. He gave me the impression of someone who hadn’t hit the gym in years but whose body had chiseled itself naturally by the sheer force of his raging hormones. He would rock the Foosball table when he played with us and send Nandita into fits of laughter. She saw it as a demonstration of how he’d rock the bed when, in fact, he bore no such fantasies himself.
Over days and weeks since I first saw him scratch an itch, I grew keenly aware of his corporeal presence. I observed his finely arranged teeth when he laughed, his gums, the flesh of his tongue. I became wildly invested in his body and its interactions with the physical world. I could viscerally feel the internal movements of his muscles, the warmth of the air he inhaled and exhaled, and his heart beating stridently underneath it all pumping blood to his skin, to the tip of his nose and his fingertips. He was a moving work of art. If I could, I would’ve paid to watch him go about his daily life – Matt holding a fresh tomato, Matt oiling his hair, Matt rubbing his lower lip with his wrist, Matt resting on a bean-bag in summer in a boxer and just breathing.
Barely had I trimmed the hair on my right cheek when the battery just gave up. The ugliness of it drew me into the reality of the moment. I would be late to work. In the world outside my bathroom and studio apartment, my delay would be duly noted. It would matter.
As I called up every salon in the radius of five kilometers, I pictured the smaller, quainter salons: open but unlisted – privy to those who walked the streets. Most salons opened too late but I managed to convince a certain Mr. Reddy to open his half an hour early. I took a quick shower, booked a cab and snatched the keys to the front door.
I’m in a BDA shopping complex. I run up the stairs to find the shutters drawn over the salon. I can see a school outside. A girl I cannot see is reading something out in the assembly. I call Mr.Reddy. He says he’s on the way. I notice a cat and follow it past closed shops. It panics and I realize that I’m chasing it. I walk back to the salon. The school assembly is almost over. They’re singing a prayer. A boy is picking his nose. A girl is looking at her nails. When the assembly is dismissed, I spot a group of boys guffawing about something mean. I can tell just by looking at them. I don’t have to look all the way out to the kid who’s well out of my eyeshot. Perhaps, he walks differently or isn’t into sports, or perhaps, god forbid, they found out something about him – something true and vital.
I wait for Mr. Reddy, caressing the remains of my facial hair.