They shook hands and Misha waved Arik to the farthest of the three swivel stools. “Park your ass anywhere you like.” The snowman, who now came into full view, beamed at the invitation, plunging into the back of an old recliner with goofy joy, like a fat kid into a swimming pool.
Arik was around Misha’s age, though he paraded his like a walking advertisement for early middle age comforts: the aforementioned girth not so much hidden as shown off weeknights and weekends with an array of improbably athletic sweatsuits and one-size-small tee-shirts; one fully grown chin supporting the budding growth of another layer of flesh; the hair line in a gradual withdrawal rather than full retreat ; a thick gold band on the ring finger of his right hand—a gift from a jeweler’s society he belonged to; and a brand new pair of sneakers always transporting his feet from one destination to the next. Presently, he pulled one of legs up to show Misha his new shoes, which had a translucent compartment at the bottom outfitted with what looked like a computer motherboard.
“Computer chip. Changes the cushion based on running conditions. Not bad, huh?” Misha was not oblivious, but tactful to the fact that he’d never seen Arik run, and had only twice seen his friend break a sweat—the time his wife found out about his ventures into a Mexican “pyramid investment fund” and the time a huge English Mastiff chased him off the sidewalk.
With his iPod, iPhone, vibrating weight-loss belt, and the addition of these high-tech shoes, Arik was an eye scanner and brain wire short of joining the Borg collective of hybrid humanoids from Misha’s beloved reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The barber smirked at the thought of Arik not passing the Hive’s physical and getting relegated to a colony of paper-pushing Borg bureaucrats. There was certainly no room for chubby jewelers in the Borg-eat-Borg world of the Delta Quadrant.
Pushing paper, though, was the least of Arik’s ambitions. He was heavyset, around Misha’s age, but doubly accomplished. Arik, having been in the country for a mere ten years, owned two—not one—houses, and a timeshare in Florida; two cars, one of which was a brand new SUV; three kids—a pair of flabby twin teenage boys who played more video games than Arik cared for, but excelled at karate and wrestling, respectively, and an 11-year-old girl who came in second in the spelling bee and won her middle-school science fair. Misha, by comparison, had been a citizen for more years than Arik was a resident, kept his family cooped up in a two-bedroom flat he’d rented since arriving in Queens with no visible ambition for new digs, drove an old jalopy of an Oldsmobile he spent three months hunting down at public auctions throughout the Tri-State Area, and had an 18-year-old daughter whose accomplishments were less clearly defined than her desire to have as little to do as possible with her doting dad. The icing on the cake, Arik’s two dogs, an Irish Setter and a British Bulldog, were a constant reminder of the stout man’s superiority as a caretaker, and Misha’s feeble excuse for their family’s lack of pets—his daughter’s allergy to animals of all species, shapes, and sizes—for which there was never tangible evidence, had ceased to be believable the day she moved out of his home two years ago. In fact, about the only thing Misha “owned” that he could identify—and stealthily collected consensus on from friends and relatives alike—was his wife, Galya, the beacon of his life, a beautiful and remarkably well preserved woman who, at the difficult age of 45, looked better than most wives half her age, as she liked to remind him. There was no doubting this, absolutely no doubting. Misha, who had ostensibly recovered from the immature impulse to show her off every chance he had, still harbored a wonderfully stalwart pride in her appearance and continued willingness to be his wife, and had been clinging to her persisting and wondrous beauty the way a bug clings to the edge of a sharp knife when the torrent of soap and water is doing its best to carry it into the wet, dark, and mysterious void of a drain. But recently, the creeping, cancerous, and compelling conviction had taken over Misha’s mind and grazed those soft spots he continued to reserve for Arik despite the jealousy, unease, and outright contempt he often couldn’t keep at bay—Arik was fucking Galya.
“Wake up, Mishanya. It’s a haircut, not a chess game. Short on the sides, easy on the top. You know how I like it. Make me beautiful.”
Misha forced a professional smile to mask the noxious suspicions his friend’s arrival had brought out. He draped a yellowed hair cape around his shoulders, clipping the back clasp perhaps a smidgeon tighter than he’d intended.
“So, it ends like this,” Arik said in a scratchy whisper, coughing with cinematic exaggeration.
Misha opened the clasp to ease the grip, reacting perhaps a smidgeon faster than necessary. He picked up a pair of scissors and went to work evening out Arik’s chevelure, combing through the thin strands, hunting for disproportionately long outliers and snipping them. “So how’s Nelya?” Misha asked absently, beginning to get lost in his friend’s hair. It was the part he loved the most about his job—not the bullshit jibber jabber that had unfortunately become identified with barbers, but the Zen-like ability to enter a follicular play-land where his imagination could roam unfettered by domestic concerns and petty insecurities. Unfortunately for Misha, Arik’s thinning wisps of hair, or what was left of it, was more of a scorched park than a mythical forest, a drab lookout point at a forgotten historical site on a long and tedious highway stretch.
He knew his suspicions were of the most mundane, run-of-the-mill variety—the anxieties of a former sports hero anxiously guarding his championship cup behind three inches of glass, thinking about that alarm system every time he finds a scratch or hears a sound in the night. But there they were—Galya’s increasing time at the part-time real estate gig she got after passing her license exam and increasingly rare visits to bring him lunch at the shop—the bonus opportunity to show her off to “the boys.”