If a Mustache Becomes You, Don’t Cut It Off

It was my wife's idea to take it off. Every few weeks she'd drop another hint. "I've never seen you without it," she would say. The "it" was my mustache, a luxurious hedge of salt-and-pepper bristles that had hidden my upper lip for 22 years.

That's a long time — long enough for it to have become the essence of how I saw myself, the equatorial line that centered my self-image. Around it my razor showed deference. Like some topiary artist, I was careful not to diminish it by so much as a single hair. Daily I combed it out with an old toothbrush and weekly I tamed it with an electric razor that tickled my lip. A fetish? If you like, but I didn't see it that way, at least not until my wife started dropping hints.

In the end, it was not her prodding but my own curiosity that got the better of me. I couldn't help but wonder who I was in its absence, or what it was I feared. At 46, I looked in the mirror and remembered the line "a face like an unmade bed." Whether it was the false lure of youth, bald (excuse the pun) curiosity or some perverse narcissistic urge, I decided late one night that it had to go.

First I pruned it with a tiny pair of nail scissors, exposing a delicate coastline unseen for years. So far, so good. Then I turned on the tap to lukewarm, filled my palm with lather, and dabbed it onto the sylvan terrain between mouth and nose. For this, I would need a fresh blade. It was, after all, a ritual sacrifice.

One swipe, then another. I was stunned how many white whiskers hugged the sink. And then, within seconds, my blessed mustache was gone, coursing through the pipes on its way to the great sea beyond. With a splash of water and a pat of the towel I slowly raised my eyes to the mirror.

There, staring out at me, was the kid from high school, the one I'd spent more than a quarter-century trying to escape — that adenoidal nerd, the one who never got the girl or caught the pass. My lip was a naked enormity on the scale of Mount Rushmore, a sickly white like the gilled underside of a toadstool. I was looking at a freak of nature, a weird kind of Dorian Gray, reduced to all I thought I had outgrown.

"Ridiculous," I told myself. "I'm overreacting." But each time I passed a mirror or saw my reflection in a storefront I got a jolt, wondering who was shadowing me. My friends just stared, cocking their heads and smothering a laugh. "Something's different," mused one, relishing my torment. "Have you been sick?" asked another. For days I talked through a cupped hand or an index finger curved above my lip.

Well, I had promised my wife I'd give it a "reasonable time," and if I was still in agony I would grow it back. Three weeks and still my teeth scrape my upper lip, searching for the wiry hairs that once collected cookie crumbs and strained the pulp from my orange juice. Like a legless Ronald Reagan in the movie Kings Row, I find myself asking, "Where's the rest of me?"

My 7-year-old thought I looked great without it — but then, he's into Transformers and Goosebumps. My 6-year-old wouldn't let me near him for a week. My wife? She likes it. No more wild hairs up her nose when we kiss, she says. (So that's why she winced.) But the other day a woman friend of mine suggested another reason my wife so eagerly embraces this new me. She said it's like being with another man. That did it!

I'm tossing this stranger, this imposter, this home wrecker, out of my bed, my house and my life. I'm reclaiming my old self-image. I'm growing my mustache back.

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