Issue 36 Friendship Winter 2009/10

Trust Me, I’ve Never Done This Before

Richard Fleming

As a youth, I never imagined that shaving involved 
much technique. As long as no blood was spilled and the offending hair successfully removed, what did it matter if one pulled the blade up, or down, or sideways? But my friend, the editor of this magazine, with whom I shared a bathroom and a suite of rooms one year in college, disabused me of the notion. One day in our sophomore year, his anguished cries echoed through the “quad.” He was prone to mild hypochondriac episodes, and to exaggerating the consequences of minor but actual ailments, as on another occasion when he presented a planter’s wart on the sole of his foot as if it were a mortal wound. But what are friends for? We gathered, and asked what was the matter. “I’ve just discovered that I’ve been shaving all wrong,” he announced, deeply troubled. He lamented that the growth patterns on his face had been irremediably perverted; he had ruined everything with his amateurish, autodidactic wielding of the razor.

His fears were unfounded, for I saw him recently, sporting a full and symmetrical beard. He explained somewhat proudly that during the hectic production phase of the magazine, he neglects to shave. This issue of Cabinet has been delayed so catastrophically that my friend looked a bit like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We were at the Cabinet holiday party, and I pointed out that if he had the time to relax with a glass of wine, there 
was nothing but fear to prevent him from shaving. I declared his hirsute habit a superstition, and offered 
to shave him myself the very next day, without disturbing his workflow.

I’ve written elsewhere that “reclining in a stranger’s chair and closing one’s eyes as the barber strops his razor implies a particular sort of trust in one’s fellow man.” The perennial fascination with the story of Sweeney Todd resides in its ghoulish violation of this delicate contract between barber and client. To offer up one’s throat to the blade of the unknown other is an act of submissive optimism, of faith in goodness. But what of being shaved by a friend? This is certainly worse. We know too much about one another. While in the professional’s chair, we excuse the occasional nick or pinch, for it is nothing personal. Being shaved by a friend cannot be like that. The trembling hand of Freud pulls the razor across the contours of the face, tracing the history of minor indignities, disagreements, peccadilloes, and unresolved tensions that stain all friendships, like a drop of blood on the page.

Richard Fleming is the author of Walking to Guantánamo (Commons, 2008), a travel narrative about Cuba. He lives in Brooklyn.

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