A few weeks ago, some of Jon’s employees started giving him a hard time about his graying beard.
“They make beard dye ‘for the distinguished gentleman,’ you know,” one told him. “Just for Men: Beards!”
These are their terms for years of friendship expressed by mutual teasing. The harder the joke, the greater the love. On his wedding day, one of Jon’s friends sent him a bouquet of black roses. The bride was furious. A year later, they divorced.
Recently, we hosted a barbecue and invited the guys. Before everyone arrived, Jon dyed his beard. He applied the stuff, left it on for five minutes, and tried to wash it off in the kitchen sink. In short, it didn’t. The dye had soaked his skin. To my glee, he looked exactly like a little kid who’d painted on an Abe Lincoln beard with shoe polish. For the next four hours, he scoured and scrubbed and scowled, while I tiptoed around him, half-crying, half-laughing. I haven’t laughed so hard since Jon ran his four-wheeler over a fresh cowpie and stuffed his shorts with steaming poop all the way up to his crotch.
Finally, he got it to look like this:
He meant it as a practical joke, but when everyone saw him that afternoon, they only half-laughed, and only very briefly. A few expressed an odd discomfort, but couldn’t explain why.
Later, when Jon and I talked about it, we came to the conclusion that perhaps openly dyeing your beard is a public admission of age, of looming mortality. The expression conjures tragedy, not comedy.
Jon is twenty-two years older than me. It’s a detail that makes people shift their feet and turn away, or turn it into a joke. I’m in no mood to ramble on about age-gap relationships, and the subject is so boring and tired anyway. We see it all the time on Oprah and Jerry Springer and other gossip shows. Hollywood celebrates it when couples get it right — Calista Flockhart and Harrison Ford come to mind — and pins people to the stake when they do it “wrong” — Woody Allen and Soon Yi Previn.
“Age is a terror,” wrote Franklin Burroughs, and it’s true.
If you haven’t been there yourself, let me tell you: Once in a so-called “Age Gap” relationship, you will talk and think about age more than you ever have in your entire life. It’s not an arrangement you walk into lightly. (My conclusions are contained in this Salon advice column: I’m 49; she’s 23: Strangers give us looks; friends fear she’s a gold-digger; but we’re in love.)
Youth is no protection against disease or accident. — Cary Tennis
The only other things that bother me about our age gap is that his age equates more experience, and there’s a lot that’s new to me but old to him and that he’s unwilling to experience again. Like music festivals. But that’s really not a big deal, because I have friends and, knowing Jon, he probably wouldn’t have been much fun at a music festival no matter the age. There’s also the question of mortality and, statistically speaking, which of us will die first. Jon likes to point out that the cost of death is much more expensive for me because I’ve “had such a short little life,” whereas he’s “had a shitload of fun so it’s okay to go.” Jon’s words, not mine.
Morbid, but it makes us laugh, and we need that. So much of what life forces upon us needs a measure of its opposite in order to be made bearable.
“I love you,” Jon told me recently. “I am a tough old boot, but you’ve broken me down and beaten me up and now I love you.”
I laughed and thought of the Michael Ondaajte line: “I would never let a chicken into my life, but I have let you though you squeezed in through a screen door the way some chickens do.”
I clutched his bearded face in my hands and kissed him.
The next day, he shaved.