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Forty by 94Smooth

“You’re the same age as him?" the server asked as she refilled our coffees.

We were sitting in our favorite diner, just a few doors down from the apartment we’d shared for the past four years. It was the midpoint of my partner Jerry’s day-long, 40th birthday celebration.

We’d meet when we were 35, after both dating enough other guys to have learned. Jerry’s an electrician, the kind that climbs poles in the worst weather to get you your power back. And he wasn’t my usual type, that being overly educated and overly opinionated, which for some reason made it work. We’ve been together five years now, and I wouldn’t trade him.

What I’d first noticed was his utter lack of fashion sense. Not a lot of look going on there, I thought, taking in the 80s hair band tee-shirt and beatdown jeans he’d sported when I happened upon him one night in a neighborhood bar. My career is in high-end women’s retail. That shadiness goes with the territory. But still there was something.

Luckily for me and my present-day happiness, I looked up and noticed Jerry’s tender brown eyes, his unmistakable laugh, his innate but not showy smarts, and, of course, that exceptional pair of arms that are now mine alone. Not at all vain, he is what my mother would have called “handsome that sneaks up on you" and I think of as completely irresistible.

Jerry also looks maybe a decade older than me with a thinning, almost halfway gray Caesar cut and a trimmed, even more gray, beard. His hair was darker and longer when we met and almost a dealbreaker, as I liked my men shaved clean — like me — or at least buzzed.

But a 35-year-old comes to know that a relationship is not built on a hair fetish. Or figures it out after 15 years of dating incompatible clipped men and enjoying five years with the shaggier right man. And my regular encouragement had at least gotten his wild man beard and afterthought of a mane trimmed down to a length conservatively, if not radically, short.

What was odd this day in the diner was the expression on Jerry’s face when the server asked her unsolicited question. There was a grimace that showed up rarely. Not anger, because that’s not who he is. More disappointment. I see it when his favorite team loses, or I get a little too biting in my critique of someone’s outfit.

I could have left it alone but instead asked, “What’s with the look?"

“Nothing, it’s all good," he said, turning his attention back to his burger.

“No, really, what?" I followed up, genuinely curious now as to what had caused that reaction.

He took a sip of his coffee, and the grimace returned. “The other day, I mentioned to the crew that I had a ‘big’ birthday coming up. Just talking smack about getting older. Tom asked me, totally serious, if I’d gotten my AARP card yet like he did right before he turned 50."

“No way," I laughed, genuinely surprised someone had said that to him. Although, all of our friends had thought he was older than me, too. I’d always attributed that to the fact that he had the big muscles and the butch job and the dad jeans.

“Yeah, maybe it’s turning 40," he said. “But it kind of hurt."

As we walked back to our apartment, holding hands — because it’s that kind of neighborhood in that kind of city and Jerry’s that kind of low-key romantic guy — I decided to take a chance.

“You know," I said. “They may think you’re older because of the gray hair, and it’s getting thinner."

His look told me he already knew where I was going with this. I’m lousy at hiding my hand.

“Maybe it’s time to come on over to my side," I smiled. “I’m just sayin’." It wasn’t the first time I’d made this suggestion.

We rode the elevator up to our apartment. Jerry said nothing but ran his hand over his rapidly graying head the whole way up. He was also pretty transparent, but in a more physical way.

Once inside he settled on the couch, and I went to get us some beers for the pregame show. I’d have preferred a cocktail and a serious movie or maybe a novel, but it was his birthday and he got to choose how we would spend the day. As I sat down beside him, he asked, “What time are we meeting the guys for my dinner?"

“8:00," I said. “At Pirelli’s."

“Okay," was all he said before putting his arm around me and turning his attention to the announcers. I tried to feign interest for a while, until following a bouncing ball on the 65-inch screen Jerry mandated for our home led my well-polished head to drop into his lap. I fell out for a blissful, two-hour club nap.

When I awoke, the game was over, and Jerry was watching me with a mischievous look. “I’ve got something I need you to do," he said.

“Huh, sure," I muttered. At this point, we still had a few hours before we had to leave for the restaurant. And I was thinking he meant something different.

“I want you to shave me bald," he said, his expression now quite serious.

All of me came fully awake in that moment. All of me.

“You sure?" I asked, not wanting to show too much excitement and possibly blow my chance to have my ideal man become that much more ideal.

“Yeah," he said. “Let’s do it." Simple, direct, done.

I quickly got up, and Jerry followed me into the bathroom. “Have a seat, sir," I said, pulling out the retro vinyl stepladder we keep beside the sink. “I’ll go and grab a sheet to catch the hair."

“No need," he replied, stripping off his t-shirt, sweats, and boxers and tossing them through the doorway. There was more than one reason we’d been together so long.

Getting my tools assembled — barber-grade clippers, conditioning shaving cream, new razor — I thought abstractly about how I would approach transforming my man. I’d fantasized about Jerry with a clean dome and figured that I should make it last. Maybe using shorter and shorter attachments before running the raw blades over his scalp. Slowly massaging his bristly pate before and after applying a hot towel. Taking tiny swipes with the razor as I transformed him into the Mr. Clean of my dreams.

My reverie was interrupted by one last bit of instruction. “Take off the beard, too," he said.

Okay, he was serious about a complete transformation. I pugged in the clippers and brought them to life. “You want to watch?" I asked, gesturing toward the open bathroom door. We have a full-length mirror hanging on the back.

“No," he replied. “Let me be surprised."

After that, there was no hesitation. I made a first advance, slowly down the middle, mowing a clean white path from his expanding forehead straight back to his crown. My free hand held the side of his head firmly, keeping him tilted back as the gray and brown fringe fell onto his wide, bare shoulders.

I’d never actually shaved anyone’s head before, beside my own, and it was different for me than watching a video. Those were about the thrill of someone being stripped clean, at times against their will. This felt special, intimate. As I began expanding the first smooth lane I’d carved, each vibrating pass brought my man closer to reflecting on the outside who he truly is — unadorned, strong, and always just himself. I ran my hand over the barest of stubble atop his scalp before gripping his head and pressing it forward.

As I ran my clippers up through the thickest hair on the back of his head, connecting the bare white flesh of his shoulders with the now revealed whiteness at his crown, I took a quick glance down between his legs. A clear advantage of barbering a man without pants is you can gauge his reaction. And Jerry was definitely reacting in the way I’d hoped.

I paused to turn on the hot water in the sink, grabbing a nearby towel and tossing it in the basin. Returning to the reverse mohawk I’d created, I began to clear the remaining locks still clinging to either side of Jerry’s head.

“Don’t forget the beard," he reminded me.

“No worries," I said. “I’ve got you."

I stood in front of him and gently tilted his head up with my hand. The clippers were ready for their final go, and I maneuvered them carefully through the inch or so of hair that spread down from his ears, across his cheeks, and almost to his collarbone. This was the real revelation, as the rumbling shears transformed the bearded man I had known into this young stranger with a blemish-free complexion and a truly impressive set of dimples. With the Caesar cut, I could and did imagine Jerry bald. But these hidden details of his face were wholly unexpected.

I turned off the clippers and set them safely aside. The next stage was the hot towel, which I wrung out not so well, splashing water across myself and Jerry. “Don’t expect a tip," he said. He had jokes, another good sign.

“Just keep quiet," I responded, wrapping the hot, damp towel around his head and face. While that worked on softening up the remaining stubble, I brushed small clumps of hair off him. My approach was slow and meticulous, regardless of where the whiskers had fallen. It would have gotten me fired, or punched, in a real barbershop.

When I couldn’t take it any longer, I removed the towel and began applying clumps of shaving gel from the top of his head to the beginning of the thick brown hair on his chest, smoothing in the creamy foam as I went. Warming up the razor under the spigot, I decided to return to where I began, revealing his smooth porcelain dome first, carefully completing the process of laying Jerry’s head bare.

It was then time to tackle his face, which was a little more challenging. My strokes were slower, smaller, more cautious. But each pass confirmed my initial impression, and I thought, why would you ever want to cover that up with hair?

The final steps were a warm washcloth to clear away the remaining cream, a little astringent to close Jerry’s pores — the sting eliciting a quick, “What the?!" — from my newly shorn man, and finally some good lotion to shine him up.

I stepped back from my handiwork, excited by the transformation beyond what I’d imagined. And hoping that he would feel the same way.

“It’s done," I said.

Jerry got himself up and stretched out. He’d been in that stool for a while, as evidenced by the thick red band across his bare backside. In no apparent hurry, he walked toward the bathroom door, not looking at me or at the mirror above the sink. He was taking his time and driving me crazy. Which may have been what he wanted. The guy does sometimes have a perverse sense of humor. I leaned my hip against the sink for a better view as he finally, finally reached for the door and shut it.

Jerry stood facing the mirror with a gleaming head, a smooth face, those brown eyes, and maybe the biggest smile I’d ever seen. He looked 30, if a day. And before we left he performed like he was 20.

We almost missed his birthday dinner.

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