I read a story by Lydia Davis about a woman who, upon turning sixty, began sprouting hair from her ears. Not an outrageous amount of hair—just little tufts at the earholes and along the edges of the lobes. But it was enough hair for her husband to notice and to feel repulsed. He liked a clean look on a woman—no facial hair, or armpit, or legs. Davis didn’t mention the pubic area—it wasn’t a story about that generation.
I showed the story to my wife. She wasn’t much of a reader, but she did enjoy Lydia Davis now and then. Lydia Davis’s stories were short, that was one of their virtues, but more often than not, even when they were literarily cerebral they were accessible. Ordinary events would occur to ordinary people and funny or weird but always recognizable issues would ensue.
My wife read this story. She didn’t like it.
“Are you trying to tell me something?” she asked.
I said no. I said if she had hair on her ears I would tell her.
“So hair on my ears would bother you?” she asked.
Then I realized why my wife hadn’t enjoyed the story. My wife was older than me by six years. We were a long way from sixty, but she could imagine that I might be a youthful fifty-four and she’d be a sixty-year-old woman with hair growing out of her ears.
I said, “I shouldn’t have shown you the story. It’s not very good, and certainly not one of her better stories.”
My wife agreed, but she still wanted to know my answer about the hair that might appear in her sixty-year-old ears.
I said, “Can’t we wait and see? I mean it’s not going to happen for years, if it does.”
She said yes, but this happened. I’d shown her this story about the wife with the hair in her ears, and it must mean something.
It means I liked the story I told her, up until now when I realized its weaknesses, its hollow core. “She’s gone too much up into her head,” I said about Lydia Davis. “Her stories don’t connect on a visceral level.”
My wife disagreed. She allowed that, yes, it’s possible that Davis had become more cerebral—all that translation of stuff like Proust and Flaubert might have gone to her head. I was happy to hear the conversation steered in that direction, in the direction of literary merits, because I felt confident that I could take the first line of thinking and bend it into another, then another, until the first line of thinking was either forgotten or neutralized and we could go to bed without bile or dread. But my wife wasn’t having it. She was all commas, no full stops, because before I could liken the Davis trajectory to the turn in Richard Howard’s poetry—a similar ascent, I would have argued, into the abstract and the remote—she was back on the ears with the hair.
“But this story connected with you on a visceral level.”
And I said, yes, maybe it had, but only up until I’d realized that it wasn’t a very good story.
My wife said, “I don’t believe that you believe it’s a bad story.”
“I didn’t say bad story, I said not very good.”
“Look,” she said, “you’re not telling me the truth and I want to know why.”
I thought back to the time I married my wife. She’d been a completely confident young woman. She’d enjoyed moderate success off-off Broadway, first as an actress, later as a writer for the stage. We married just when she was having her biggest premier, her most prestigious opening, not quite Broadway of course, but between Broadway and off-off, and she’d developed acute anxiety about its reception. I comforted her with a line I’d borrowed from a David Mamet movie: anxiety is interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due. But this debt came due, with a vengeance—reviews had been uncommonly cruel, and personal, and conclusive. The play closed after three shows. She never wrote another. Somehow she associated me with those bad reviews. All along I’d let it be known, unintentionally of course, that I didn’t think that the new, larger, more ambitious work, the work that the critics eviscerated, was on the same level as the less ambitious but completely successful on their own terms off-off Broadway efforts.
“I’m sorry about the play,” I said.
She said, “What?”
“I said I’m sorry about the play. I should have been more supportive.”
“The play?” she said. She said, “Are you fucking crazy?”
I said, “Isn’t that what this is about, finally? Some lingering dissonance from those days of, you know…”
That night I slept on the futon. And the next. In that room, light came in from the street through the blinds and I found the effect appropriately noir. I thought about how little things can lead to huge events and next thing you’re in rooms torn into shreds by light. I remembered the first time I’d ever become aware of hair on ears. Kyle MacLachlan, in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, comes upon a severed ear tossed alongside a path in an empty lot. He picks it up. There’s some decay on it, like mold, some ants, and an isolated hair or two. I think if there had been more hair, a tuft, say, it wouldn’t have been as remarkable, as repugnant. Since Blue Velvet, I check my own ears for hair at least once a week. I use an electric razor to buzz them away the instant I find them.
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