It’s late in the evening when Aban pushes Lenny back into the big chair. The barber’s shop is closed, the lights dimmed down and the blinds pulled down, but he has one of the small lamps on for this counter. Looking at himself in the mirror, it almost feels like a spotlight, or like they’re somehow isolated from the rest of the world, what with the rest of the shop dark behind them — all Lenny can see is himself in the chair, and Aban behind him.
Lenny lets himself be pushed into place, the gown fastened around his neck and smoothed down over his arms, his body.
“Been busy?” asks Lenny, as if on autopilot. His voice is suddenly huskier than it was, and he’s surprised by it: he clears his throat as Aban pours hot water into a bowl, and with another whips together a mix for the shaving cream.
It’s good for the skin, he always says, made to his own specifications.
Aban doesn’t do this regularly — he has another handled razor for moulding sideburns or complicated fades, but this, this is a ritual just for the two of them, with the folding blade that’s actually an antique and has pink roses carved into its ivory handle, so old that the dye that colours them is almost faded, so that you almost see the pink only because you already know it’s there.
Later, they’ll go out for dinner, go home, have sex, do the normal couple things. It’s how they welcome one another back, how they reacquaint themselves with the other, after Lenny’s been gone a while, but this first part of the routine is the most important one, shaving Lenny’s face.
It’s like —
Lenny thinks Aban would laugh at him if he called it a baptism, especially because Lenny’s not religious and has never been religious in his life, but it’s something like that, some kind of purification.
It’s a different beast than anything else in their relationship, anything else entirely. It’s —
Aban still hasn’t answered the question. He doesn’t need to, and he doesn’t want to break the silence. He’s rolling the brush through the bowl, lathering the rose-scented cream onto the brush’s bristles, his lips pressed together, his gaze focused.
When the brush touches the side of his jaw, the cream only a little cooler than room temperature, Lenny’s eyes close shut before he can even think about it, feels the spongey patter of the wet brush through his beard. He does shave when he can, when he’s travelling, because he hates to have a full beard, but he’d let it grow out a bit for this, for the last week or two.
For Aban. For Aban’s hands, Aban’s concentrated focus, Aban’s keen blade sliding against his skin.
He wonders if he can feel Lenny’s heart pounding.
“I miss this when I’m gone,” says Lenny.
The straight razor, blade so sharp it could cut through universes, rests cool against his cheek and slides slowly downward, dragging smooth and easy under the stubble there and shearing it away. The skin underneath feels lightning-sensitive and vulnerable, which is part of why he sighs when the blade returns.
“I miss it too,” whispers Aban, all but breathes out the words. Lenny loves his voice, thinks he could drown in it, even when it’s whispered like this — Aban always sounds so, so perfect, his voice all careful and controlled. Aban has a voice for reading poetry. Lenny had never liked poetry, before he met him. “Quiet, Len. Let’s enjoy it.”
“I’ll try not to enjoy it too much,” mumbles Lenny, knees pressed together under the gown.
The blade moves against his skin and the sound of it fills Lenny’s ears, his head, his whole self to the brim and over, that impeccably smooth scrape that cuts right through him and makes its home inside his soul, like it always does. Like this in the barber’s shop, Lenny’s eyes closed, his body relaxed back in the barber’s seat under the nylon of the gown, the world begins to narrow down to nothing, just like he saw in the mirror.
The world outside fades first, until the shop is all that’s left — there’s no traffic outside, no noise from the late night café downstairs, no hum from the neon lights on standby. He’s suspended in blackness, reclined in a barber’s chair that’s just hovering in space.
Nothing else remains.
The sounds are even, a sort of mystic rhythm, the sort of thing he’d pray for if he was the sort of man to pray, the sort of thing he’d nod his head to at a poetry reading, although now he keeps his head completely still: the sliding scrape of the razor on his skin is better than any other touch, and the sound of it better than any music, the quiet shhk of the blade in the hot water as Aban rinses it, the sliding sound of the blade being wiped.
He can hear Aban’s breathing.
Slow, even, something to set his watch by, a star to set his every journey by, Aban’s breaths in, Aban’s breaths out, perfect, calm control. He doesn’t need to open his eyes to see Aban’s artful grip on the blade, his beautiful fingers holding it steady like any artisan with their tool.
Lenny knows it’s coming, but he still gasps and then softly exhales when Aban grasps him firmly by the hair and pulls his head back, and then the shining sharpness of the straight razor’s blade kisses the place where his neck gives away to his jaw.
“Will you do it, this time?” asks Lenny breathlessly.
If Aban couldn’t feel his heart before, he must feel the beat of it now: like this, head leaned back, the skin on his neck stretched and taut, Lenny feels as if he can feel his veins pulsing visibly with it. The blade presses harder against the skin to leave a momentary imprint, and Lenny’s heart flutters even though it’s only the flat of the blade, even though it couldn’t cut like that.
Aban shaves the underside of his jaw.
He feels lighter, when it’s all stripped away from him, feels lighter, younger, feels stripped naked and vulnerable, more so even than he’ll feel later tonight, when he and Aban strip off their clothes.
“Thanks,” says Lenny.
Aban leans in, kisses one cheek, and Lenny feels his lips against the sensitized, electric-thrilled surface of the newly shaved flesh, feels Aban’s own stubble thrill right through him. Lenny almost giggles, unable to hold it back, and Aban’s own laugh is soft and warm.
He kisses the other side.
Kisses lower, on the side of his chin, then tilts their faces together. “I missed you,” he says against Lenny’s mouth, their noses touching.
“I love you,” replies Lenny.
The real kiss comes then. He can’t move, can’t focus on anything but Aban’s smooth lips on his, the coconut taste of his lip balm and the tickle of his neatly-trimmed beard. His skin is on fire and tingling under the gown, under his clothes.
He says it: “I can’t move,” and Aban laughs, strokes his hand through Lenny’s hair.
“Proper cut, too?”
“If you don’t mind,” says Lenny.
Aban cuts his hair, and it’s nice, but the magic is broken: the world widens out again in increments, letting other things into its focus — a car goes past and the light filters in under the blinds; there’s an ambulance siren in the distance; downstairs, he hears a clank from the coffee shop as they open or close the big dishwasher. Lenny no longer feels dizzy and drowned in the infinity of the universe, reliant on Aban alone, and he misses it, but this is nice too, the two of them still alone together.
“I hate when you go,” says Aban quietly, snipping away some uneven tips at his fringe. “But I love to welcome you back.”
“It’s the only reason I travel at all,” says Lenny dreamily, and reaches up to stroke his palm over his clean-shaven chin.