The Beholder

Brian was driving around aimlessly that Friday night.  It was the anniversary of the day he met Judith three years ago.  It wasn’t reason to celebrate since Judith had left him almost six months ago.  On weekends, Brian barely left his apartment, especially at night.  The break up had left him very depressed.  Something this night made him jump in his car for a spin with no destination in mind.  Maybe something would happen to break him out of his funk.

He was driving through a seedy district of tattoo parlors and liquor stores when he noticed the bright red neon sign: “Palm Reader - $10 per reading.”  Under normal circumstances, he would never consider wasting his time and money on a quack but he was feeling sorry for himself.  And, he was desperate.  So in a slightly dangerous maneuver, he swerved the car across two lanes to park in front of the dilapidated building.

He tentatively knocked on the door.  There was no answer.  He wondered if the place was open.  He pushed on the door and it opened revealing a dark, smoke-filled room.  “What do you want?” The piercing raspy voice belonged to a short frail woman whose features he could barely make out.  “I wanted to have my fortune told,” replied Brian, very meekly.  “Sit down! On this chair over here” she ordered pointing to a plastic fold up chair next to a small table.

The palm reader sat opposite Brian.  He could make out her features now.  She was an elderly woman whose many years had imprinted a permanent scowl on her face.  She had a cigarette precariously hanging from her lower lip.  “Let me see your palm,” she demanded and then pulled roughly on Brian’s hand to bring it closer.  She examined the hand for a few minutes without making a sound.  He was startled when she finally grunted and pushed his hand away.

Nonchalantly she declared, “You are lonely and want to know when you’ll meet your true love.”  She leaned over so that her face was now uncomfortably close to his.  “I have a solution to your problems.”  With that said, she got up and went through a door that led to another room.  She soon came back with a glass of water.  “Give me the money!”

Brian was at first confused, but then fumbled awkwardly for his wallet.  He finally delivered a crumpled note.  He then asked, “So what’s the solution?”  She handed him the glass of water.  In her other upturned hand was a red pill. 

“I want you to swallow this pill!” 

Brian paused for a minute.  He had come here expecting a fortune, not a prescription.  “I just want you to tell me my fortune. There’s nothing wrong with me.  I don’t want a pill.”

“Do as I say or get out,” she ordered in an irritated tone. 

“At least tell me what the pill is for.”

“The pill is harmless.  You will be no longer be lonely after you take it.”

Now Brian would have normally just walked out.  But he was feeling desperate.  “You say the pill is harmless?”  Her only reply was that permanent scowl.  He took the glass and pill, swallowing it with just one small sip. 

“Now what?” Nothing magical had happened and he was definitely still feeling lonely.

“By the end of this night, you will find your true love!”

Brian sat on the chair dumbfounded.  The palm reader continued to stand where she was.  He then realized that she was ready for him to leave.  He left the room scratching his head.  That was probably the worst ten bucks he’d ever spent!  He got back in the car and headed back home.

He was almost half way back when he noticed a car on the side of the road.  A woman was standing by the hood looking quite distressed.  She waved as his car approached.  It was then he noticed that this was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life.  Although there wasn’t much light, he immediately noticed her smooth glowing skin.  She had long wavy hair and her large brown eyes looked very concerned.

He slowed down and rolled down his passenger-side window. “Do you need any help?” he asked.

“Yes please!  My tire just exploded and I don’t know how to change it.  I’ve been out here for almost an hour and you’re the first person to stop!”

Brian pulled over.  He got out of the car and surveyed the damage.  Her back right tire had completely ruptured.  This was probably because she had driven on her tires way beyond their normal life.  “You should buy a new set of tires as soon as you can.  The other tires look like they will go any minute.”

“Really?” she replied.  “I’m so dumb when it comes to cars.  I never noticed that they needed replacing.”

By now Brian had located the jack and wrench and had begun changing the tire.  Her spare was almost completely flat but he had a foot pump in his trunk.  As he started to raise the car, he asked: “How come your boyfriend didn’t tell you about your tires?”  He was fishing.

“I don’t have a boyfriend.”

He couldn’t believe his luck.  He would steal a glance at her as she hovered over him while he worked.  Her simple light blue dress would look very ordinary on another woman.  On her, it subtly revealed the curves of her body.  “This was a phenomenal looking woman.  How in the world did no red-blooded male stop for her?”

“You are very kind,” she said, quite embarrassed. 

Brian was startled.  He didn’t realize that he had been thinking aloud.  He quickly finished the job feeling quite foolish.  “I’ve probably blown it!” he thought to himself.  He put everything away.  As he tried cleaning off his hands on an old rag, he told her: “It’s all done, you can get going now.”

She walked up a little closer to him.  “I’m really grateful to you for helping me out.  Please will you let me show you my gratitude by having dinner with me tomorrow?”

Brian was so incredulous that he couldn’t find any words to say.

“Please.”  She was now touching his dirty hand mistaking his hesitation for refusal.

“Yes, of course.  You don’t have to because it wouldn’t be necessary.  Which is not to say I don’t want to.  I would want to but you shouldn’t feel obligated.  But it would be nice...”

She interrupted his awkward stammering.  “So you will go to dinner with me?”  She was smiling now, looking ever so beautiful.

“Yes.  I mean yes.  I mean definitely yes!”

She laughed – a very pretty, almost musical sound.  “My name is Maria.”  She shook his hand.  Her smile reassured him that the grime that must have rubbed off onto her hand didn’t bother her.  They exchanged phone numbers.  She would call him the next day.

Brian drove off feeling euphoric.  He would go home with her smile etched in his memory and would go to sleep with the sweet lullaby of her laugh sending him off to dreamland.  It would be the first night in a long time that he wouldn’t lie awake in bed for hours thinking of Judith.

As Brian drove up to work the next day, he began to worry that Maria would not call.  He didn’t get to worry for long because he hadn’t been at his desk for five minutes when she called.  They made plans for dinner. 

Brian spent the rest of the day on cloud nine.  He even caught himself whistling.  Jason, his office mate, gave him a quizzical look.  “What’s up with you?  If I didn’t know you any better, I’d say you got some last night!”  Jason, who was quite a crude character, had tried in vain for months to cheer up Brian and had by now, completely given up.

Dinner was wonderful.  Brian told Maria his sob story and she listened.  She understood.  She comforted him.  As beautiful as she was, these seemed to be her most wonderful qualities.  She was patient.  Really interested in what he had to say.  She empathized.  She made him feel like he was okay. 

She didn’t have much of a story of her own to tell.  She had never had a real boyfriend.  “How is that possible?” he asked. 

“I don’t know.  No one has really shown real interest.”  She said this as she played with her fork.  Then she looked directly at his eyes to emphasize her sincerity: “I’ve been waiting for a man like you.”  Those words would echo in his mind for a long time.

The next week was magical.  They spent every single day together.  They went to the movies, took walks in the park, hung out at the mall and even played billiards.  No matter what they did, they had a great time together.  When she finally invited him up, his mind, body and soul were filled with anticipation beyond belief.  Their love making completely consumed him, making him so overwhelmed with emotion that tears came to his eyes.  He held her ever so tightly and told her he loved her.  Judith was now a long ago, distant memory.

Brian couldn’t wait to introduce Maria to his parents.  He had told his mother all about her on the phone.  His parents were thrilled.  They had really been worried for him and were excited about meeting this woman who had turned his life around.

It was a Sunday evening when Brian brought Maria home.  He was anticipating a great night.  His mother would serve her amazing meatloaf with roasted potatoes.  His father would probably embarrass him with his childhood stories.  Most of all, he knew his parents would love Maria.

When he rang the doorbell, both parents came to the door to answer.  “Hi Mom, Dad,” Brian announced with a smile, “This is Maria.”  Amazingly, their faces seemed to drop in unison as they looked over his woman for the first time.  His mother was the first to break the awkward silence: “We’re pleased to meet you.  Please come inside.”

The evening didn’t go very well.  There were a lot more awkward silences.  His mother asked some polite questions.  His father didn’t say much all evening.  Brian and Maria left not long after dinner.  As they drove off, Maria said: “You have nice folks.”  However, Brian was seething inside.  “What in the world came over them?” he asked himself.  Maria could tell Brian was upset but she didn’t know what to say.  Neither one said anything more on the rest of drive back.

As soon as he got to his apartment after dropping Maria off, he called home even though he knew his parents would have already gone to bed.  His mother answered the phone.  He didn’t waste time with pleasantries.  “What happened today!” he asked in an accusatory tone.

“What do you mean son?  We enjoyed meeting your young lady,” his mother said very unconvincingly.  “We liked her.”

“No you didn’t.  I could tell that you didn’t.  What did you not like about her?”

“Well Brian, we love you and you know that we’ll be happy with any woman you choose to be with.  Your happiness is the most important thing to us.  If she makes you happy then that’s what matters.”

“Of course she makes me happy!  You know I haven’t been happy in a long time.  What do you not like about her?  Just tell me!”  Brian was getting more frustrated.

“When you described her to us, we thought she would be more…” His mother’s voice trailed off.

“More what?”

“Well, more attractive.”

Brian couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  Maria was the most beautiful woman in the world.  What is his mother talking about?  “You’re kidding me Mom, she’s gorgeous!”

“If you like her, then that’s what matters.”  His mother said this in a more matter-of-fact tone in an obvious attempt to conclude an uncomfortable conversation.  He heard his father grumble something in the background.  “Oh honey, it’s really late.  We were already in bed.  Call us next weekend.”

Brian was still quite upset.  His parents were very loving and open-minded.  They certainly wouldn’t do say anything to hurt his feelings.  Why would they think Maria was not attractive?  This question would continue to bother him.

Later at work, he was sitting at his desk staring into space.  Jason walked up to him and shoved him on the shoulder.  “What happened to Mr. Cheerful?”  Jason could be quite an annoying character but Brian tolerated him for his friendship.  Then Brian remembered the photo in his wallet.  At the mall, Brian had told Maria that he wanted to have something about her that he could carry with him to help him feel less lonely when they were apart.  They had then taken photos at the automatic photo booth.

He took out the photo and showed it to Jason.  “Do you think this woman is pretty?”

Jason took the photo, took one look, and then dropped it like a hot potato.  “Whoa, man, it’s too early in the morning to scare me with a freak show!”

“What are you saying, you think she’s ugly?” Brian asked, trying to mask his anger.

“Ugly?  She’s beyond ugly man!  She looks like her head caught fire and someone tried to put it out with a machete!”

“Thanks, that’s all I wanted to know.”  Brian’s irritation was quite obvious now.

“Who is that anyway, that’s not your sister, I hope?”  Jason asked now realizing he may have needed to be a little more tactful.  Then he became horrified when the realization dawned on him.  “Oh man, that’s not your new lady, is it?”  Brian hadn’t said anything to Jason about the new woman in his life but it had been obvious to everyone at the office and the source of good gossip.  “I’m sorry man.  I didn’t know.  I’m sure it’s just a bad photo.  You’ve got to understand…”

“Don’t worry about it, okay?” Brian’s look made it clear to Jason that it was best to drop the whole matter.

Brian would show the photo to a couple of other friends.  They were much nicer about it but it became clear that everyone thought Maria was very unattractive.  It was difficult to understand because he still thought Maria was beautiful. 

Then he remembered the palm reader.  It may be hard to believe, but all this time, Brian hadn’t thought about how the palm reader’s prediction that he wouldn’t be lonely had come true.  His thoughts had been all wrapped up in Maria and the wonderful love they had found.  Now he began to wonder what was in that red pill.  It had to be some powerful hallucinogenic that had impaired his visual senses.

This realization made him extremely angry.  He had to find the palm reader and have her set things right again.  Even though it was the middle of the workday, Brian decided to leave the office without saying anything to anyone.  He jumped in his car to seek out the palm reader.  It took him a little while to find her store because he couldn’t exactly recall how his aimless meanderings had led him there on that first night.

The sign in the window said the store was closed.  He tried to turn the doorknob but it was locked.  Undeterred, Brian began to pound on the door.  “Open up!” he yelled.  He had never been as angry as he was now.  After knocking for five minutes, he was pretty sure there was no one inside, but he continued to bang just to release his anger.

He was completely startled when the door opened a crack.  The old woman peered through with a very nasty glare that temporarily made Brian forget his anger.  “What do you want?  Can’t you read that we’re closed?”

“I want you to fix me!  That pill you gave me has made a mess of things!”

“Really?” she asked with a disbelieving expression.  “Weren’t you the pathetic miserable, lonely man who came to me for an answer?  Didn’t you find a lover that made you happy?”

“Well yes, but she’s ugly!  I didn’t know that in the beginning but I know it now.  And I know that it’s the pill that made me think she was beautiful!”

“You are a sad, pathetic, superficial man,” the palm reader said in disgust.  “You deserve to be unhappy.  Get inside now!”

With that, he followed her in.  She motioned at him to sit on the same chair as before.  “One hundred dollars!” she said.  Brian gave her a confused look.  “This time it will cost you one hundred dollars.  Pay or get out!”

Brian rifled through his wallet.  He didn’t think he had enough.  He counted out eight-three dollars.  “This is all I have,” he said as he offered her the bills.

She snatched the money and went into the other room.  She reappeared with a blue pill and a glass of water.  “You know the drill, swallow up!”  He quickly swallowed the pill and as he walked out the door she said: “Don’t come back again, there’s nothing more I can do for you!”

He drove off wondering if he had been suckered.  He headed for Maria’s apartment and parked the car.  He would have to wait there for her to come home from work.  He had been waiting for almost an hour when he saw her drive up and park.  He knew it was Maria because he recognized her car.  However he wasn’t prepared for his horrified reaction as she got out of the car.

This was truly an ugly woman.  Scraggly hair, bad skin with acne scars and all her facial features seemed out of balance.  Her eyes seemed misaligned and her nose didn’t seem to fit her face.  She smiled when she saw him, revealing large, misshapen teeth.

“Hi honey, this is a pleasant surprise.  I wasn’t expecting you here.  Did we have a date I forgot about?”  She had by now walked up to the car and was peering through his window.  Seeing her features up close made it more horrifying.

He slowly got out of the car.  He tried to look in her face but had to look away.  “I came here to tell you it’s over.”

“What?  You’re kidding, right?” Her smile slowly began to fade.

“No, I’m very sorry.  Things just won’t work out between us.”

Tears were already streaming down her face.  “But why Brian?  What did I do?”

“You didn’t do anything.  You’re a very nice woman.  It just won’t work out!”

She was really balling now.  “What did I do?” she kept asking over and over again.

“I’m sorry.”  Truth be told, Brian wasn’t that sorry.  He felt in a way deceived by Maria.  She had to know she was ugly and yet she had allowed him to think she was beautiful.  He thought about when she said she had been waiting for a man like him.  “Ha!  She was waiting for any man who would take her!”

He started to get back in his car.  Maria was now tugging at his arm and was crying uncontrollably.  “Please don’t go!  If I did anything wrong, I’ll fix it.  Please!”  He ripped his arm away and drove off leaving her crying alone in the parking lot.

By the time he got home, he started to feel bad for what he had done.  The anger was now long passed and was replaced by emptiness and shame.  The image of Maria crying alone in the parking lot began to haunt him.  She didn’t deserve that.  In fact, nobody had ever made him feel so happy.

As he walked past his dresser, he was shocked by his reflection in the mirror.  Even though the reflection was similar to his memory, for the first time he looked very unattractive to himself.  His eyes seemed tired and unhappy.  His skin hung loosely on his face drooping unattractively in places.  His ingrown hairs around his mouth and neck seemed really pronounced.  “I’m ugly!  Who would want me?” he said out aloud to himself.

Brian would become lonelier than ever.  His self-esteem was completely shot.  But even worse, it seemed everyone he knew was ugly.  Even the very young, cute receptionist who always gave him a friendly hello each morning seemed revolting now.  It then occurred to him what the blue pill had done to him.  He could no longer appreciate physical beauty.  He was much worse off than before.

He rushed off again to see the palm reader.  Yes, she had said he shouldn’t come back.  But maybe she would feel sorry for him.  Maybe she could give him another red pill.  He was willing to pay a thousand dollars for one! 

However, he would not find the palm reader this time.  It appeared that she had moved on.  The building was completely deserted.  The neon sign was gone.  The door was boarded shut.  He could see through the window that it was completely empty inside.  Sort of like how he felt.  What was he going to do now?

He then thought about Maria, and how he had been so happy being with her.  Why did it matter what she looked like?  What did it matter what other people thought?  Hadn’t she given him the greatest love he had ever known?  As he thought of her now, he realized that she was beautiful – on the inside, where it really matters.  He had made a terrible mistake.  Maybe it was not too late.  In a blaze, he was heading over to her apartment.  Maybe she would forgive him.  Maybe, just maybe, she would take him back. 

1999 Hugh Molotsi