Why another man’s back hair makes me happy.
My ex-wife’s boyfriend has back hair. A lot of it. I know I’m not supposed to take pleasure in such things, and follicle-ly speaking I’m certainly no prize. My scalp stopped supporting life in my early thirties and since hitting 40 my ears have become disturbingly fertile. Still, I like that my ex-wife’s boyfriend is hairy.
The back hair presented itself in a photo, tacked to the wall amongst the snapshots and greeting cards in my ex-wife’s foyer. I was standing alone, waiting as my kids gathered their things for our weekend together, and there it was: a photo of her boyfriend with his two sons, posing on the beach in matching Outer Banks tank tops. It was sunrise on the beach, and aside from the exposure difficulties posed by backlit subjects, the morning light had created an unfortunate glow around the arms and shoulders of the adult in the picture. As I leaned in over the hutch for a closer look, my 10-year-old daughter entered the foyer, dragging her backpack behind her. I felt embarrassed, as though I’d been caught snooping or she could somehow read my mind and see my petty glee.
“Mr. Dave is really hairy,” she said.
This brand of pettiness is nothing new for me. In my twenties I was involved in a long-term relationship with a woman who, like my ex-wife, eventually saw fit to break up with me. From what I remember, her reasons were valid and there was no animosity after the split. Over the years I’ve run into her a couple times, each time in the company of her latest boyfriend.
I first focused on her and how she looked, hoping that age hadn’t been kind or she’d “let herself go.” But my attention shifted quickly to the boyfriend, and each time I realized I was more interested in him. How handsome was he? How self-assured? How interesting? Was he wearing cool shoes? Did he seem to be a good fit for my old girlfriend? My first impressions, judgments formed through a filter of insecurity.
I recall exchanging a few pleasantries, but there was never enough conversation to let me peek inside these guys. A good thing, as it limited the unhealthy comparisons I’d surely have made.
As I now close in on 50, I wish I could say I’ve matured over the years, but the same holds true today with my ex-wife: I can’t help but compare myself to her boyfriends. I may only get a first impression or a description from a friend, little information about who they are, but because my adult life seems to be a pale extension of high school, I maintain a long list of qualities these men are simply not allowed to possess.
They can’t be well read. Can’t be quick with a witty comment or clever reference. Can’t have more than two pages stamped in their passport. Can’t run up a set of stairs without panting. Can’t have a fascinating job or even love what they do for a living. Can’t donate to public radio and television. Can’t have a large, close-knit family that lives nearby and gathers for festive holiday dinners. Can’t belong to a tight group of interesting friends. Can’t be masterful in the art of cunnilingus. Can’t regale people with tales of antics from their youth. Can’t unclog a toilet without the aid of a snake. Can’t be inherently attractive to both pets and small children. They can’t, in a nutshell, be more than me in any way.
Despite acknowledging my shortcomings and even agreeing with why I was dumped, I still need to think I outshine these new men in some way. I can’t let go of my desire for the women from my past to pause, even for just a second, and think “Hmmm, maybe I fucked up.”
But what muddies the picture now with this woolly man on the beach is that he’s not just a passing encounter. This is a man who now shares a home with my two kids, someone I can’t so quickly judge and dismiss. Despite my ex-wife’s insistence that he moved in strictly as a “renter” rather than “boyfriend”—a charade that didn’t fool the cats, let alone the kids—it was obvious he could play a significant role in my children’s lives. The first step toward stepfather has been taken. This time, I need the guy to possess great qualities.
I’m not talking about him being witty or aerobically fit or anything from my list. Rather, I need him to be a good man. I need his relationship with my kids to be positive. I need him to possess the qualities that actually define who a person is and convey positive character traits like integrity, and compassion, and devotion.
As incongruous as it feels, it’s also important that he make my ex-wife happy. I’d like to claim altruism here but I can’t. Rather, should he and my ex-wife continue to live together and perhaps one day marry, I want that marriage to be a loving example for my kids. The argument that parents should stay together for the sake of their children is not one I support, and the affectionless, withered union of my ex and I was not the illustration of husband-and-wife I wanted our kids to grow up with.
That being said, do I still want my ex-wife to second-guess our divorce, to feel that maybe she made a mistake by calling it quits? I suppose. But we both know it wasn’t a mistake. Really, I’d be happy if she just occasionally revisited the man I was in a kinder light: if I felt acknowledged for the qualities I do have, despite knowing that she needed something and someone more. It’s complicated business, this wanting a happily-ever-after for the woman who asked me to leave my home, but there you have it.
Standing stiff in the foyer, blankly staring at my daughter, I tried to craft the appropriate, Parenting Magazine-worthy response to her comment about the new man of the house.
“Sweetie, you really shouldn’t say that about Mr. Dave,” I told her. “You should never say anything about someone that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying directly to them.” I patted myself on the back for that one.
“But I did tell him he’s hairy,” she replied. Her expression seemed to be searching for a comfort zone, never quite settling in on one.
“Well, it’s not nice to make comments about someone’s appearance like that,” I said. I reached over and tousled her hair. I wanted to high-five her.
I glanced up at the photo again and then back to my daughter, feeling the conflicted but not unsatisfying mixture of shame and pride. I made a mental note to remember what I just told her. Some day she’s bound to mention his gut.
Image credit: Bengt E Nyman/Flickr