EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
A Short Story by Laurisa White Reyes
(Now Available on Amazon)
Chester Van Breuer is obsessed with Maureen, the drop dead gorgeous woman who lives in the apartment across the hall. With his scarred face and uncontrollable stutter, he is no match for the men who come and go through her door. To rectify the situation, Chester seeks an unconventional "cure" from a Chinese herbalist shop, but soon discovers that lust and beauty are only skin deep.
A tale-twisting short story from the author of CONTACT, THE ROCK OF IVANORE and THE LAST ENCHANTER.
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Chester Van Breuer licked his lips, taking pleasure in their dry, cracked texture. Curling his bottom lip inward between his teeth, he carefully tugged at a flap of skin until it came free. He spat it out and set to work nibbling at his upper lip.
From his bedroom window he had a clear view of the entrance to his apartment complex, two stories down and across a small flagstone courtyard. He spent each morning there, sitting at his table warming his hands against a mug of steaming peppermint tea while waiting for Maureen to leave the apartment and hail a taxi. Each day at precisely 7:52am Maureen, his neighbor from across the hall, would emerge from the building, wearing a calf length white overcoat belted at the waist, a pair of black leather knee high boots, and a handbag to match. Her hairstyles differed from day to day, her platinum blonde hair sometimes fastened into an attractive bun or braid, sometimes left free, allowing its natural waves to bounce softly against her shoulders as she walked.
Chester knew what time she returned home as well. Monday through Wednesday she arrived at 5:23pm, paid the cab, and hurried upstairs. She never took the elevator. Approximately six minutes later, Chester would listen for the sound of her door opening and closing, his signal that she had safely arrived in her apartment.
Thursdays she didn’t come home until seven and she always carried a paper sack brimming with produce and a fresh bouquet of white carnations. Fridays were more difficult to predict. Sometimes she came home at the regular hour, while other times she wouldn’t arrive until well after midnight, and never alone. Some man or another would climb out of the cab behind her and follow her upstairs. On these nights, Chester couldn’t help but open his door just a crack to catch a glimpse of her. She usually smiled and giggled as she flirted with her companions. Chester rarely slept well on Friday nights and would, more often than not, be watching at the window when these men left Saturday morning –alone. He never saw most of them more than once.
It was late Saturday night now and Chester couldn’t sleep. He sipped his tea and let the steam warm his sinuses, which were giving him a great deal of trouble lately. Below him along the sidewalk the shops were all closed, their neon signs dark, their doorways abandoned. Only the door to the herbalist’s shop stood open, the large, red Chinese lettering on its marquee beckoning to the absent passersby. Chester had been in that shop once before, to buy an elixir for that odd birthmark on his thigh. He hadn’t been sure whether he was to drink it or rub it on, so he did both. In any case, the birthmark vanished and he was satisfied. He knew they sold other things as well, remedies for all sorts of ailments, things Chester wasn’t so sure were legal.
Chester carried his mug to the kitchen sink and slowly poured the weed-colored tea down the drain. He thought of the man in the tweed coat that had come last night, and the fellow with the round silver-rimmed glasses the week before. In fact, he recalled, with vivid detail, each man that had stayed with Maureen for the past three months. They all had one thing in common. They were all, each and every one of them, devastatingly handsome. They weren’t just good looking or simply attractive. No, they were the sort of men one might see on the cover of a magazine or in underwear ads. Of course, this was not unexpected. They were the kind of men to which women of Maureen’s caliber were naturally attracted. But it sickened Chester that so few of them made repeat visits. Oh, there were some on occasion, but it was clear to Chester that these men, if Chester could really call them that, preferred to use his Maureen to satisfy their sexual cravings without the entanglements of a proper, respectable relationship.
His Maureen deserved better than that.
Chester rinsed out his mug and dried it with a dish towel before hanging it on its hook beside the microwave. He used the dish towel to wipe out the sink, and then folded it in thirds and slipped it through the refrigerator handle.
The time had finally come, he decided, to announce his intentions to the woman of his dreams, the woman who occupied every thought that passed through his head. Never mind that he had never spoken to her or that they had, only on two occasions, merely passed each other in the lobby. Surely she would understand the sincerity of his heart once he made his desires known to her.
He stepped to the front door and paused at the full length mirror there. He was dressed well enough in his finest blue suit and a power tie of red and yellow diagonal stripes. His hair, or what was left of it these days, was combed neatly to one side. He leaned forward a little and studied his face. Well, there wasn’t much he could do about that. He was well aware that his nose was a little too long and his ears a little too big and that his skin was scarred from that bout of acne he had had as a teen. But he wasn’t altogether bad looking. Not really. No, he was quite ordinary, actually. Ordinary and average. Nothing wrong with that.
Chester straightened his tie, turned out the light, and exited his apartment. After closing his door and checking to make sure he had locked it securely, he turned and rapped his knuckles against Maureen’s door.
“Just a minute!” came a melodic voice from somewhere deep in the apartment, followed by some muffled sounds of movement, and finally the clinking of metal as the lock on the door was unlatched.
The door opened wide and Chester found himself gazing on a vision of pink loveliness. Maureen leaned to one side, her right arm resting gracefully against the door jam. Her nails were painted hot pink and she wore a delicate negligee of rose-colored lace through which the two dark circles of her breasts were visible. All this Chester absorbed in a split second, and then he turned away.
“Oh God!” said Maureen, quickly retreating back a step. She snatched a robe from a nearby chair and slipped it on, pulling it closed around her with those pink-tipped fingers. “I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I thought you were someone else.”
Chester smiled sheepishly and ventured a quick glance in her direction to make certain it was safe. Of course, the image of her nearly naked would make a welcome vision to replay over and over later in his mind at his convenience.
“I’m Chester,” he began. “I l-l-live—” He gestured behind him.
“Oh! You’re 2B. Right, I remember you from the lobby a few weeks ago.”
Chester nodded. “We’re n-neighbors.”
“Right,” Maureen replied. There was a moment of awkward silence. “Well, can I help you with something?”
“Yes, you c-can.” He tried to smile but his lips felt like rubber. He wrestled with his voice which had decided to resist him. “I have t-two t-tickets to the m-movies. I thought, m-maybe if you weren’t busy…”
He paused waiting for the reply he hoped would come. He had rehearsed this scene over in his mind a hundred times. Her eyes would light up and she’d fling her arms around him, telling him how she’d waited months for him to finally ask her out. They would, of course, have sex on her couch and maybe they wouldn’t even get to the theater at all. The rest of their lives together would be blissful, nothing short of Eden.
“You’re so sweet for asking,” he heard Maureen’s voice break through his reverie, “but I am busy, actually.”
At first, Chester wasn’t sure he heard her correctly.
“Sure,” he replied, hopeful, yet wanting this humiliation now to come to an end. “M-maybe t-tomorrow? Or next weekend?”
Maureen grasped the robe more tightly, and tilted her head in a way that seemed disappointed and even a little apologetic.
“That’s really nice of you, but I’ll have to pass.”
She started to close the door and Chester realized that in just two seconds his chance at making this woman— this goddess—his would be gone. He gathered his courage and grasped the edge of the door with his hand.
“Wait,” he said, his voice fighting against him. “I just w-want to know w-why?”
Maureen’s eyes softened and for a moment he thought she might take pity on him.
“Why?” she repeated with a tone that reminded him, oddly, of his Sunday School teacher when he was a boy. “I appreciate your coming over here, Chester. I’m sure it took a lot of courage, but the truth is I just don’t date men like … you.”
Here she focused her eyes right on his face and the silence that followed said more than words ever could. In Maureen’s eyes, Chester was ugly. Not like a man is ugly, but like one of those horribly deformed lap dogs that women love to kiss and swoon over. He was nothing like those men that came in and out of her life, the living mannequins with perfect hair and perfect tan lines and perfect teeth. He was out of their league and out of hers.
He didn’t wait for her to close the door. He turned and quickly slipped back into his own apartment, like some feral creature retreating into its hole at the first sign of danger. The room was a dark void, gaping open to swallow him whole. Chester leaned back against the door and let his body slide to the floor. He sat there with his head between his knees for several minutes and let his heart return to its normal rhythm. It had taken every ounce of courage he could muster to ask her out, but it wasn’t enough. Somewhere between his brain and his mouth, the invitation had gotten mangled. His words came out sounding like Morse code, all the stammering and stuttering made him feel like he was in third grade again.
Of course Maureen had smiled politely enough, the way someone smiles at a child stumbling over its first step. He was certain that if he hadn’t fled when he did, she would have reached out and patted him on the head.
What a moron! He chided himself again and again. He felt the cold darkness around him and wondered if anyone had ever died from shear humiliation.
After a while Chester stood up. He groped the wall beside the door until he found the light switch. A second later the void was gone. The room lit up like the sudden flash after a nuclear detonation. He closed his eyes a moment, allowing them to adjust slowly. When he opened his eyes, he realized that he was standing in front of his full length mirror. He sized himself up, noting the gaunt, unattractive face that stared back. So this face didn’t have the balls to take on the likes of Maureen, he thought, but maybe, just maybe some other face would.
Chester mopped the sweat from beneath his collar with a handkerchief, and once more straightened his tie. Then reaching for the doorknob with his right hand and switching the light off with his left, he exited his apartment for the second time that night.