An Unrecognizable Messiah
by Shaun Terry
“I’m old again, today,” he said. Years of wear and diligent ironing had softened the pleats in his brown, woolen pants.
She sat, cross-legged, reading her book.
If I could see what it was, I’d probably think that it’s pretentious, he thought. He cleared his dry throat of nothing but air, as he glared in her direction. He repeated, a little more loudly, “I’m old again, today.”
She grabbed her bookmark, and gently placed it between the supple pages of her beautiful, sweet-smelling book, and laid the book next to her. She wriggled her nose, as she pushed the bridge of her glasses up, slightly, to look at him more clearly. With all the enthusiasm of a limestone wall, she uttered, “Happy birthday.”
Feeling a little foolish, his glare softened, and almost-inaudibly, he responded, “Thank you.”
She smiled, but if you only saw her from the cheeks, upward, you wouldn’t have known that any part of her had moved, at all. He knew that fake smile, but what could he say? She continued to look at him, wondering if he’d continue to molest her with his demands for attention.
But she loved him. She loved his face. Even when he was irritating her like this, she could look at any part of his face, and feel instantly gratified; relieved at all the wonder that continued to be discoverable, simply upon looking at the skin and bones that made up this grouchy old neurotic. The easiest thing for her to do, though, was to pretend to be indifferent and unimpressed, so as to avoid encouraging all his whines for attention. When she was good and intoxicated, or otherwise in some emotionally vulnerable state, she would let just enough information out that he might guess how she generally felt about him. But normally, he was in a constant state of paranoia and absolute insecurity about how she saw him.
It wasn’t just her, though. He was simply unsure about most of these sorts of things. And how could you blame him? He’d been given a life filled with privilege, and, with equal half-steps, each, he’d pursued every avenue he could think of to find happiness, only to be left feeling vindicated in his mild self-loathing. “Milquetoast, even in my melancholia,” he’d once said. He was in his mid-forties, and fast-approaching middle-age, he thought. He was, indeed, an attractive man, but maybe mostly to just the right sort of quirky person. And no one would stop in the street to admire this sort of attractive man, although he didn’t look nearly his age. His head was filled with shiny, white hairs, and tiny wrinkles ruled over his face, and still, no one would guess that he was much older than in his mid-thirties. Once in a while, a kid at a convenience store, or tending the bar, would ask him for his ID, and this delighted the vain, old fool.
The funny thing, though, was that for all his misconceptions about himself, and his, at-times irritating obliviousness, he’d lost all the energy to fight with people that he’d fought in his youth. He’d given up on winning arguments, trying to dominate people, and trying to impress people, and he’d resigned to simply appeasing people, and benevolently tricking them into temporary contentment and even glee, where he could. That is, unless he was feeling needy. He seemed to vacillate between being the most thoughtful, emotionally-clairvoyant man, sweeter than rose water and honey, and being a self-centered, whimpering lapdog.
He’s lucky that he has all the things that no man ever has, she thought, because he doesn’t have any of the things that so many men do have. But she knew that what he had was far more valuable than what all the conventionally-attractive suitors had to offer. Sometimes, she thought that she’d love to be with a handsome, responsible, confident young man, and then, she’d meet one, and realize how shallow he was, how hollow and uninspired he was, beneath his impenetrable façade.
And she could have most of these men. It’s probably true that no one can be what everyone wants, but nearly everyone did want her, at least until the most persnickety preferences came to bear.
But in fact, she’d made her choice. Maybe he’d chosen her, too, and sometimes, she wondered that. The fact was that he had so much power over her, emotionally, and that scared her. She tried to keep the fact from him, even though she knew that he was far too gentle to ever be inclined to use that information to hurt her – a neurosis of her own. But he made her happy. She wouldn’t want any other man, and she usually didn’t at all. He was quite special, she thought. He’d lucked into a beautiful, intelligent, generous woman, even if she could be belligerent and self-preserving.
He never forgave her because he never blamed her. He’d stopped blaming people, even if he hadn’t quite figured out how to stop blaming himself. Only that he had nothing to blame himself for. Not really. Of course, he wasn’t perfect, but most people, by his age, had done far worse things than he’d ever even thought to do. He was far too afraid of the repercussions of defying any social mores, and he was too terribly afraid of hurting anyone to ever do anything particularly damaging.
And she knew all this about him. How moronically, delusionally immobilizing that is, she’d thought. She wished that she could punch him, sometimes, right in the face, right in the mouth, even, or maybe in the nose. They say that the nose hurts more, but punching that stupid, pretty mouth might be more gratifying. And then, she felt awful for thinking these things. She tried not to show him how angry he sometimes made her. What if he wouldn’t put up with it? Probably, he would, but what if not? She might never forgive herself, if that were the case. And she’d been terribly mean to him, as it was. And she’d done awful things without his knowing. Sometimes, she wondered if she deserved him, but she never let her mind reside with this thought for too long. She was afraid of where it might lead her.
He spilled his tea, and began to quietly sob. He turned away from her, holding his face in his palms, looking directly at the floor. He hated how annoyed she got, sometimes. But now, in an instant, she went from irritated to worried. The skin between her eyes began to bunch up, and formed thin lines where her eyebrows curled up at their ends. She set down her book, and briskly walked over to him. She wrapped her arms around him, and began to rub his upper-arm. He’d slumped his shoulders, and hung his head, making himself appear far smaller than he actually was. He turned his face away from hers, and she asked, “What’s wrong?”
He gasped, and exhaled, loudly, forcefully. “What am I even doing? What am I doing to you? I’m so afraid of you, and you could be with someone who could make you so much happier. I’m all alone, apart from you. I mean, sure, there are plenty of people who know me, and seem to like me, but if they knew me, if they actually knew me, what would they think? I mean, surely, people look at us strange, and surely, people recognize that there’s something wrong in this. People look at me, and they think, ‘That’s that failure of a weasel of a man. He had so much potential, and he had everything that he ever needed.’ What about poor people? God, if I were poor, and I knew someone like me, I’d absolutely hate that guy. I’d want to punch that guy. Or maybe, I’d just want to shake the hell out of him, so that he’d realize that he had everything. How old am I today? Do you know?”
She felt guilty now, and she paused, not sure if he really expected a response. “Oh – uh, 44, right? The sexiest, loveliest, most pleasing forty-four year old, insecure, whiny bastard I know,” she said with a huge, mischievous grin. You couldn’t see her eyes when she smiled like this.
He looked in her eyes, the corners of his lips drawn up, and tight to his face. “You think you’re so damn cute.” She smiled at him, playfully. “I’m being serious,” he said.
Her mouth grew wide – “So am I!” Her mouth didn’t seem to move, despite the varied sounds coming from it. He feigned disgust at her. “Look –,” she said, “I know that you feel that you’ve failed, but the truth is that you’re really not so bad. Not at all. Beautiful, wealthy men hit on me all day, every day, and for some stupid reason, I still come to bed with you. Whatever reasons I have might be stupid, but at least they’re something, you know?”
Perturbed, he pulled away from her, and asked, “Beautiful, wealthy men, huh?”
“Well-endowed, too!” she responded, with a little, exuberant hop.
“You’re such an ass.” He started to pace to the other side of the room, stopping in the middle, and turning back toward her.
“You love it. You love my ass!” She turned, briefly, to demonstrate.
“How would you know if they’re well-endowed, anyway? And has feminism dictated that it’s alright to punch a lady, if she’s being particularly bratty?”
“Nope! Sorry! If this were earlier times, then you could probably slap me, and no one would make much fuss, but according to the old movies that you make me watch, it doesn’t seem like it’s ever been in vogue to punch a lady.”
“I guess that we’re calling you a lady, huh?” He started to pace to the other side of the room, stopping in the middle, and turning back toward her. “And happy birthday, to me, I suppose.”
She made a deliberate, sarcastic frown, “Oh, poor you! You’re getting so old, and no one will ever marry you! I highly advise that you just keep sleeping with me. I’ll tolerate all your whiny, annoying behavior for at least a few more weeks, I’ve decided, and it’s not like you’ll do any better any time soon. Further, I really love that chair against the wall, over there, and I’m right in the middle of this book, so, as long as you’ll keep feeding me, I’m happy to keep you company, assuming that you don’t demand too much of my attention.”
“What book are you reading?” he asked.
“How To Annoy Your Cute, But Pathetic Boyfriend, by Jean-Paul Sartre,” she responded.
“Sartre, huh? Even your sarcastic, made-up self-help books are pretentious?!”
She laughed. “Oh, you…”
“Why do you love me?” he asked.
“You’ve never loved a stupid, sheepish puppy before? A little cast-off mutt? You’re like this bourgeois, entitled, little, pathetic man-mutt, who never knew that he was a bourgeois, entitled mutt; one that did all he could to wash himself of his white guilt, but never washed off any of the white or any of the guilt. Here you are, having spent all this money, trying to save the world, trying to save yourself, and all you did was throw it all away. You didn’t learn much of anything, except how to not be arrogant, and how to be deferent. A lot of people would find it unappealing, but I’ve never been too into the macho sort. Macho guys can make for a nice dream, here or there; they’re a good fantasy, but then, you wake up, and their brains are all filled with limp noodles, tits – always big, stupid tits – and things like cars, gold, sports. I mean, they’re cute, but dating them would be like dating kitten videos on YouTube.” She paused.
“The benefits are limited, and then, of course, on the other hand, you realize that there are dim, unaware, old men, with wrinkly balls, and just enough money to always leave you wanting more. It’s enough to make any girl swoon. As a matter of fact, I do like your vast collection of incredible books, though. Maybe your mother had good taste in books. Surely, you’ve read five or eight of these.”
“So what I took away from that was that I’m not as stupid or shallow as some other men, and that I treat people better than a lot of others do. That is why you love me?”
He looked resigned. Maybe he’s losing motivation in this quest for validation, she thought. “Why do you have to make it sound so moderately appealing? I like it that you’re not arrogant; let’s try to not ruin that, okay, sugar-dumpling?”
“You know, I wonder if you’re good for me, in any way, at all.” He frowned, slightly, but still appeared vulnerable beneath his expression.
“Oh, stop… you love me. I tease you, but you like it. I’m sorry that you’re having a bad day. I dread this day each year.”
“You’ve only known me for twenty months!” he exclaimed.
She looked at him with exasperation. “What?! So because you don’t have any children, you have to infantilize our relationship? Who the hell keeps up with the number of months they’ve been in a relationship with someone?!”
“I’m like the relationship Rain Man – it’s both a gift and a curse.”
At least he’s finally showing some sense of humor, she thought. “What kind of gift is that? What’s its use, but to annoy and creep out your girlfriend? Maybe we’re moving up our breakup date. Let me see…” She looked up, as though to count.
“Josie,” he pleaded.
She couldn’t resist anything when he said her name. She couldn’t defy him, couldn’t even tease him, when he did that; she turned all soft and gooey. She could always feel it on her face, and she wondered how obvious it was. It felt, to her, like the surface of her face got ten degrees warmer, and sagged and smiled at the same time. Surely, he knew the effect that this had on her, but she couldn’t be even slightly mad at him for it. She loved it; she actually, very badly wanted him to exploit it.
“Yes, dear?” she said, in a voice that was several times smaller than the voice she had spoken in, up to that point. Suddenly, her voice seemed, to her, like an immeasurably small squeak, and not the commanding, brazen voice of the character that she so-often portrayed. She was a fearful lady, a vulnerable woman; sensitive, and apt to incurring pain, but her behavior so often demonstrated something quite contrary to that.
“Will you please just hold me? I love it when you hold me, and I could really use it right now.”
“Of course I will; anything you want.”
He grabbed her hand, and she slid her shoes and stockings off, as she followed him to the bed.