Salem Shaves Off His Moustache
By Craig Loomis
One of the first things he did was shave off his moustache of some 38 years, and one of the first things she did was say, “What’s the matter with you?”
When he answered, “Nothing,” he really meant to say everything.
At 59, one Wednesday morning, with the sun dusty and red-eyed over the city, Salem stepped to the bathroom mirror, and giving the steamy glass a good wipe, took a hard look at his face and decided he had one last chance at love. Running his hand over the mirror yet again, and yes, at 59 years old he had one last chance. Of course he had a wife and they had been married for 30, no 31 years but that was different, ask anybody, that is different.
Thanks to an uncle, along with a friend who knew a friend, it took only two years, two months for Salem to become an assistant manager at one of the important insurance companies on Soor Street. His children, two girls, were grown, one married, the other not because she had other ideas. But never mind that, because one day in the office, not too long after he’d taken that extra-long look in the mirror and shaved off his moustache, as he headed for the elevator, his supervising all done for the day, two doors down and to the right as he was on his way home, he, for no special reason, glanced right and saw Reedah at the copy machine. She didn’t see him because making copies was more important than looking up to see who was standing in the hallway. Reedah had always been that way. Right then, Salem stopped, and running his fingers over his once-moustache thought about saying something to her, but then changed his mind and continued on. But he didn’t forget about Reedah, and the next day he spoke to her once, then twice, and then he went out of his way to say Hello and when she Helloed him back, she said it in such a way that he was certain she meant something more. Later, when the others only smirked at his wasta jokes, she giggled, her cheeks opening to dimples; and he was convinced she really meant something bigger and better.
Salem remembered love, and that was the problem –the remembering. At 59 and an assistant manager, remembering the sweet ache of love. It followed him about like a shadow, and now he saw it everywhere: arm in arm, the swish of a skirt, a red lipsticked smile, the gentle slope of a neckline. It was everywhere but just beyond his fingertips.
He started singing the love songs of his youth and when he couldn’t remember the words, he hummed. He sang and hummed for weeks and when nothing happened he laughed at himself. Actually, it wasn’t really laughter but he made it sound like it was. He went to the bookshop and bought the poetry of his college days. He wore shirts that had once been in fashion, but no longer. He dreamed of long-ago lovers who in his in dreams refused to age, who owned the same smooth skin, the same blonde hair, only he had changed, had aged. Salem had moved on without them.
As the days became weeks then months, and nothing happened, Salem began to worry in earnest. But she hadn’t been married to him for 30, no 31 years for nothing, saying, “What’s wrong with you?” He shrugged, answering a question with a question: “What?” In the past the waiting had been enough, things happened—the telephone rang, someone knocked at the door-- people changed their minds. But now, waiting brought nothing but more waiting, and even more disturbing, a big emptiness. Secretly Salem knew that desperation was not the answer either; in fact it would only make it worse, scaring love away. He’d seen it, heard stories, watched enough movies. Perhaps he wasn’t trying hard enough. He decided to hum his love songs longer, harder, re-reading those college poems, watching more TV. Of course this was something one did not mention at the diwaniya. If he did, they would laugh, smirk, blow shishah in his face, or, worse, say nothing. No, Salem was alone in this.
After two months, one week, four days, Reedah’s boyfriend of two years proposed, and she accepted. Salem was happy for her. That’s what he said, “I’m so happy for you.” Of course he wasn’t, he didn’t even know she had a boyfriend. He couldn’t believe she would leave him like that, after all they had been through. That night Salem couldn’t sleep. However, his wife, like always, could; and once the sheets and pillows were correctly arranged, she would not move until morning, all the while snoring manly. In the end, with the gray of early morning at the window, Salem found a residue of sleep, a slowly spinning sleep—from side to back to side to stomach, to side to back, to. … He awoke for work exhausted.
By payday, Reedah said her good-byes, shook hands, the occasional hug, a hint of tears, until finally, cradling a bouquet of white roses, she left the office to marry, to live in Salwa with his parents. It wasn’t long after that that Salem decided to grow his moustache back, but it wasn’t the same. His going back to his moustache caused her to tilt her head, beetle her eyebrows and ask, “What’s wrong with you?”