I’ve been lugging it around for years… rolled up and stuffed in my gym bag… tucked in the hollows of old sneakers kept under the bed. For the longest time I “hid” it in my sock drawer wrapped in plastic like an unopened 3-pack.
There were times throughout my life I’d take it out, unfurl its aging countenance, and try it on. But it always looked too severe… too old. It apparently kept pace with who I should be. But I wanted no part of it. I wanted to stay young. Stay innocent. Naive.
Without it I was able to succeed in areas I never thought possible. After a long absence, I returned to school and fit right in. I secured a well-paying job that would have gone to an applicant ten years my junior. I met a beautiful girl as effervescent as a soda fountain (and I love soda) who later became my wife. We raised a family. I tried my best to be a good father. My youthful exuberance helped in this area. My children loved me, accepted me as one of their own.
But like a phantom limb, my fifty-year-old face was always there. Nagging me with doubt. Whispering of the day I would succumb.
My wife was oblivious; believing the face I wore was the one I was born with, the one that hardly aged, the one she fell in love with. But my fifty-year-old face had been removed by then, ferreted away like an embarrassing photograph.
Until yesterday, when my wife decided to surprise me with a new bedroom set.
I guess I had become careless. Maybe I wanted it to be found. She was waiting for me when I came home from work, my fifty-year-old face lying like a rumpled crepe on the couch cushion.
“I can explain,” I said.
Her eyes were filled with betrayal, and something else. Curiosity. What else have I been hiding?
“Go on,” she said, the face lying between us, an obstruction, a hurdle to get past before we could move on. I stared at it.
She persisted. “Well…?”
I told her the truth.
It happened on July 21, 1971. The day of my father’s fiftieth birthday. He still lived in the raised ranch our family had lost. At the time, I didn’t know how you could lose a house — after all, it was still there. But my mother had taken my brother and I away — away from the arguing and the threats, and the sadness — to an apartment in the city, leaving the house and my father behind.
But it was my father’s birthday, and my mother wasn’t cruel. She suggested a surprise visit. My brother wanted no part of it, so it was just my mother and I. We stopped at the local pharmacy to pick up a birthday card. I remember choosing it myself. Instead of something funny, I picked one that offered words like “the best” and “proud” and “I love you.”
When we pulled into the driveway, we heard polka music filtering out from the open garage. When my mother and I walked through the garage into the rec room we saw a strange lady lying on the basement couch. It was mid-afternoon. She wasn’t sleeping. She was mumbling. Perhaps trying to sing. A boy about my age played on the floor near her with a toy truck. My mother called out, her voice shrill. “Pug?” My father’s nickname. He lurched around the corner and I recognized that face. It wasn’t my father’s face, but the one he wore when he was drinking.
The face blanched, then grew red. “Get out of here!” he shouted.
My mother stood her ground, forgetting I was there. She pointed to the woman and began yelling. The woman lifted her head and slurred, “Who is she?” Her son simply moved his truck to a more distant place and continued playing. My father said things, mean things, calling my mother a bitch and a whore, and then he turned to me. I held out the card I had picked for him for his birthday, and he grabbed it. Read it. Out loud. The face mocking every sentence. He then tore the card in two and said, “I don’t love you anymore.”
I ran back to the car, overflowing with tears, so many tears they had nowhere to go but under my skin. I felt my face loosen, lift from its moorings, and slide off into my hands…
My wife looked at me. There were tears in her eyes. She picked up the face and held it out to me. “Put it on,” she said, “you’re not like your father.”
I stared at my fifty-year-old face. If I scrunched it just right I could almost make it smile. I closed my eyes and pressed it to my skin, smoothing the corners until it was seamless.
“Happy now?” I said, feeling old.
“Yes.” She kissed me then, and I felt the same tingle I always felt. She traced her finger along my age lines as if they were magical. “Distinguished,” she said. When she saw I was in fact relieved for not being rejected, she smiled. But there was sadness in her eyes, something she couldn’t mask.
Then she led me into the bedroom and on our new bedroom set we made love.
This morning, as I lay in our new bed, I heard her rummaging through the attic.
At the breakfast table, I ate the bacon and eggs she cooked for me, and drank two cups of coffee. We talked about politics and the sorry state of the world, thankful for our little corner of heaven. She pretended this was the way it had always been, and will always be. And I pretended not to notice how much she had aged overnight.