Bearded Lady: A Memoir

It’s been a while since I’ve written here. I’ve been busy with kids and a pandemic and life in general. But, thanks to an email from a friend, I’m once again looking at getting all of these beard stories down and turning them into a book someday. So, here goes, again, at trying to write.


At the dragon birthday party, it was 39 degrees, and everyone was in masks. I knew most of the kids, from the beforetimes, but one was new to me – the only kid there whose name didn’t start with E. S asked, craning her neck to see me from under her dollar-store foam dragon hat, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I paused, as usual, taking a moment to calculate which answer fit this situation. “A girl, mostly,” I replied. “I’m a girl who happens to have a beard.” S’s eyes widened, startled and confused.
It took me a minute to realize she hadn’t seen my beard, which was hidden underneath my masks, hat, and hood. What was she asking about, then? Maybe it was the mismatch of my voice and my clothes? I’m not sure if my tits are noticeable under all the winter-wear bulk, but they probably are, more than I think or wish. I guess she’d never seen a butch before? Or anyone female person wearing a man’s jacket? It’s not like all the women around here wear skirts, but there is a pretty strict adherence to clothes from the ‘women’s section’ of the store, plus the occasional ‘boyfriend hoodie’, worn extra-big and flirty, hanging loose over skin-tight pants and topped with long styled hair. (See, I don’t even know the fashions around here to know what hairstyle they’re all wearing.) So, I suppose I stand out, even to an 8 year old, since my second-hand jacket came from a male acquaintance.
Other than her widened eyes, I don’t know what else S might have thought about the revelation about my beard, since the ice balloons, food coloring, and road salt grabbed her interest, and that was that.

I knew E in the beforetimes, but she was 6 then, or barely 7. So, by fractions, it would be like expecting me to remember someone from my late 20s. I’d seen her in the intervening time, but only masked. But now that I think about it, she saw me on zoom, unmasked, which changes things a bit.
Anyway, the first time she saw me, in person and bare-chinned, she chirped, “I like your beard!” with 8 year old enthusiasm. She said the same the next time she saw me. And the next. A few times after, she didn’t mention it, instead spending her time chatting about upcoming sleepover plans or what she had sewed recently or what kind of dragon she’d slayed recently. And then she complimented my beard again, saying she liked my recent trim. And then a few times later, she again said, “Nice beard!” as soon as I walked in the door. This time, she added a gesture, almost like she was about to cup my chin. But, from her height, she had to reach upwards, so the gesture looked more like a modified Italian-delicious-emphasis gesture. Then she said, in an equally chirpy voice, “I’m sorry I compliment your beard so much!” sounding not at all sorry. I told her I don’t mind at all.
The first few times, I thought she was reacting to seeing my beard after a long while. I thought it was news to her. But, now that I remembered that she’d seen me on zoom once a week or so for the prior school year, the encounter seemed different. If she wasn’t reacting and complimenting me out of surprise, what was it? What drew her to compliment my beard, so often? I know her well enough to know that she’s not prone to the empty compliment. She’s perfectly willing to dish out a child’s honesty, such as when she first sat down in my car and asked why the floor looked like that and then repeatedly suggested I should clean it. She’s not wrong about my messy car, though I have other priorities and haven’t taken her suggestion.

When someone comments on my beard, it makes me wonder. It’s like a tiny window into their head. Or maybe like looking backwards through a peephole. Trying to guess, from a tiny sliver of information, what’s going on inside. But it’s an opening, a peephole, a crack. It lets me see more about someone’s thinking than the usual small talk reveals.

In March, we locked down. In May, we sewed masks. A year later, we’d switched to KN95s and N95s, now that they were available and increasingly necessary, as the whole world started to go about bare-chinned. But my kids weren’t vaccinated yet, so we leveled up our masks. I explained to relatives and friends the principles behind double-masking and the differences between N95s and KN95s. It comes down to fit. If air comes in the sides, it’s not helping. I read a story about how Sikh doctors were choosing to shave their beards, so that their N95s could fit right. I compromised and trimmed mine close. The curve of my mask follows my chin, but it’s not sealed. Which seemed good enough for the low-risk outdoor settings we were visiting. I told myself I’d shave it completely if I really needed to, perhaps if I ever took an in-person job before the pandemic was over. Or if I ended up in the hospital. A few months later, I realized I needed to tell Kerrick that, to let him know that I expected him to shave off my beard if I landed in the hospital and couldn’t do it myself. It’s not quite standard content for the “getting your affairs in order” paperwork and medical directives, but I felt it needed to be said. Of course, he said he’d already thought about that and assumed that’s what he would do. I’d do the same for him. This is the new intimacy of marriage, in the pandemic era.

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