I wasn’t always an ugly man. When I was nineteen and living over in Springfield, my parents’ house was struck by lightning. I survived the fire. My parents did not. My face, which an old girlfriend had once compared to Robert Redford’s, didn’t really survive either. Well, it did, but most of it looks like the crust of a pizza, so if you want to call that surviving, fine. But that was all a long time ago, and I don’t much care to talk about it. It doesn’t bother me, not any more than where you come from might bother you. It’s just that I don’t see the point in talking about it.
It was so long ago anyway. It was way before I moved in with my cousin here in Cambridge, just outside of Harvard Square. He manages a restaurant in the Square, a Mediterranean joint set down from the street next to the Brattle Theater. The jukebox in the bar there – all soul tunes and Sinatra – is the only thing that place has going for it, and I tell Denny that all the time. He tolerates me. I live in the basement of his apartment. I give him some of the insurance money every month for rent. We eat one meal a week together, on Sunday evenings.
The good thing about Denny is that he can understand me. When I talk, it comes out pretty jumbled, the words all stretched out like when you’re listening to a record that keeps slowing down. For most people, I have to write down what I’m trying to say. My handwriting’s terrible, because my hand got all mashed up in the fire, but if somebody has the patience to read through my scribbling, they usually figure out that I’m a whole lot smarter than I look. I’m really a pretty witty guy. At first I thought that’s how I fell in with Apala. I wanted to believe she was attracted to my wit.
I was at my cousin's restaurant having a beer when she walked in and took a stool diagonal from me at the bar. It was a warm day in September, around four in the afternoon, and I had just come from sitting in The Pit, over by the T, where that crazy Asian guy with the weird stringed instrument that looks like a cross between a violin and a bong was going mad on the thing, ripping up the air with all those crazy notes of his. I get a kick out of listening to that guy. But then some kids I didn’t recognize showed up and started staring at me, so I decided to come grab a beer. Fabian was working, and I liked him. My cousin always did a good job of hiring really patient bartenders. Anyway, I was writing to Fabian about the Red Sox and the pennant race when this girl came in and ordered a glass of white wine and right away I thought she was beautiful. Golden copper skin, straight black hair, green eyes. But she had an air about her, like either she didn’t know she was beautiful, or she worked hard to make you think she didn’t know she was beautiful. Which basically means she looked you in the eye when she talked to you, and seemed to care about what you were trying to say more than how you were seeing her. And let’s be honest, I’m not an easy guy to look at.
She pulled a huge book from her bag and set it on the bar and flipped it open. A minute later she took the wine glass by the stem and lifted it to her lips and that’s when she caught me staring at her. I smiled. When I smile, I can never seem to get the skin around my mouth to pull my lips up and show any of my teeth. She understood what I was about though, and smiled back. I tried to ask her about her book, but she couldn’t understand what I was saying. I set to reaching for my pen, which had rolled to the inside lip of the bar, out of my reach. She looked like she might have been about to come help me, but Fabian came by and placed the pen in the crook of my right hand. "What are you reading?" I finally wrote. I slid my notepad toward her and she leaned over to read. She smelled like rain, even though it hadn’t rained in a week. I thought of her taking a shower, which gave me a flicker of excitement and then a faint pulse of shame.
“Oh this,” she said. “Behavioral psychology. It’s a real page-turner.” Again with the smile. We were the only two customers in the place, and her voice seemed almost too loud.
“What?” Fabian said. He was pulling the stems off of mint leaves at the other end of the bar, and had thought she was talking to him. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, and went back to his work.
“What’s that you have on your hat?” she asked me. My favorite hat was sitting next to me on the bar. It’s this red baseball cap with a big marijuana leaf on it. I get a real kick out of it. Nobody knows what to think of me when they first see me, and then they see the hat and they really don’t know what to think of me, but at least then they usually lighten up.
I just laughed and wrote: “Hey, it’s from the earth.” She laughed too. We introduced ourselves and I kind of wished my name was exotic like hers. It’s Jim though, the same as my dad.
It took a little while, but before long, Apala was able to understand me when I talked. She did most of the talking at first. She told me how she had come from India to get a graduate degree in psychology. She had funny stories about her family, about how her mom, who was only four and half feet tall, used to sometimes chase her dad around the house with the filleted skin of a fish whenever he made her mad. He was terrified of blood and Apala said he would run away like a scared little girl.
As she talked the bar began to fill up. Older couples, businessmen, and a handful of college kids bellied up to the varnished wood all around us. Some of the clientele recognized me and said hey; Tom from the theater gave me a slap on the back as he passed. Brent the other manager asked me if I wanted to hear anything in particular on the jukebox. Apala beamed at all this. Then she suddenly turned her body to face me. Her eyes changed; they seemed to exhale as she studied me. “Jim,” she said, her voice sounding less loud amidst all the new noise. “What happened to you to make you look like that?” It was the question that most people wanted to ask but almost no one ever did. Apala was as direct as anyone had ever been about it without being malicious.
The few times anyone had ever asked me anything along those lines, I either ignored them or I scribbled something about being born like this. People don’t believe in lightning strikes. They think it only happens in the movies. But with Apala, like I said, she was really looking at me like she cared and she was beautiful and I couldn’t help myself. I leaned in and told her everything. It all came pouring out. How the fire seemed to come out of nowhere, how it was raining from the thunderstorm but that didn’t stop the flames, how I was trapped in my room because the door was swallowed by the blaze and I could smell my own flesh burning but there was nowhere for me to go and then the floor gave out and I blacked out and when I came to I was in the hospital all bandaged up and listening to some doctor talk really slowly about how my parents didn’t make it. Then I told Apala something I had never told anyone before, how, when I heard that my parents had died, for a few minutes I felt almost relieved, because we’d never got along that well before anyway, especially me and my dad. He never hit me, but he used to get drunk and spit his chewing tobacco at me sometimes, then call me a baby if I complained about it to my mom.
I was staring off toward all the bottles of booze behind the bar, off at nothing really, while I was telling Apala all that. When I finally got done talking, I brought my eyes back around to her, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was writing furiously in her notebook. “What happened after that?” she said, still writing, still not looking at me. I glanced at her notebook on the bar. I could make out the word “Subject” at the top of the page, followed by my name.
I pushed my stool away from the bar and struggled to fish a five-dollar bill out of my wallet. But I couldn’t seem to get my fingers around the money.
“Jim, what’s wrong?” Apala said. She had stopped writing, but was still holding her pen. It’s hard for people to tell when I’m upset, because the one side of my face is twisted in a sort of permanent smirk, but my disgust must have traveled to my eyes because Apala finally put the pen down. I put my five on the bar and stood up slowly, holding onto my stool for support. “Hey wait,” she said. “Let me buy your beer.”
For all the words colliding in my head at that moment, I couldn’t seem to make any of them fit through my mouth. “No” was the only thing I could get to come out at first, and then “I’m not a monkey.” It sounded about as stupid as I felt, but blistered with anger as I was, it was the best I could come up with. Fabian shouted something as I limped through the bar, but I was outside past the theater and up the stairs to the street before I could even hear anything again.
The Square was crowded. On the other side of Brattle, near the flower shop, that one lanky old guy had set up his plywood booth and was singing show tunes in his creepy high voice. I had an urge to knock him over as I moved past. In between his warbling, I could hear Apala calling my name from off somewhere behind me, but I didn’t turn around. She caught up to me near the entrance to the T, where she put her hand on my elbow and said: “Please stop.”
Her fingers were small. Her little nails dug into my skin. I stopped.
Right then, a well-dressed man and woman came up from the subway. “Apala! How are you?” the man said.
“It’s been so long!” the woman said. She moved in to embrace Apala, but saw me and took a sort of stutter step back again. Then they were both watching me, the man’s eyes cut in a glare as if I might suddenly start drooling and take a bite out of his wife.
Apala took her hand off my elbow. “This is Jim,” she said. “He’s…” And as she trailed off, searching her mind for whatever I was to her at that moment, I smiled at the beautiful couple then swiveled my mangled face in Apala's direction, moving in to kiss her.
But my feet caught on the bricks and I fell into her instead, knocking both of us to the ground. I felt her smooth skin against my scars and still I tried to kiss her, but then the man kicked me hard in the ribs. I curled away as the couple helped Apala to her feet. They put their arms around her as if to comfort and shield her.
“It’s okay,” she kept saying. She looked at me on the ground, where I was slow in getting up. “It’s okay,” she said to me, even though we both knew it wasn’t.
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On War and Remembrance
Spectacles of the Mind
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The Lonely Freedom
The Missing Person
Upon Revisiting the Birthplace of the Preacher Billy Sunday
One Way of Looking at a Poet
Notes on Joan Crawford
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For Our Time
THE MOOR DANCES
The Lonely Story
out back by the rabbit pen
Saint-Michel: A Moment in Six Forms