He still has not taken off his shirt in front of her, for reasons only he understands, but tonight is the night.
He is in the bathroom, the poor white light its own sterile darkness. It is that light that flatters nothing, too white to be real. It will look green in his memory. His eyes are focused intently ahead of him, though he can’t say, in particular, what he is looking at.
His face has gotten more attractive in the last year. This he knows. It is in the way people look at him. There is a quality of look – an avidity – that speaks to something just below the surface of his heart, somewhere between his aorta and the metaphysical, where people latch and take note. He does not yet believe that look is for him.
He stares into his eyes, insecure about the fact that he finds them beautiful. Beauty is not an adjective to which he applies any great deal of thought, at least when it is his own. He thinks of himself as functional, and even that is a challenge on the best of days.
Moments flash, disappearing blacks that were once blue hyperlinks. Moments that will continue to exist in the scars of his consciousness. He rubs his jawline slowly: there is a stubble he thoroughly dislikes about his face. But it has not yet grown long enough to consider shaving.
The thought of it makes his stomach roil, and all he can see is the slow rise and fall of his breath. This should be easier for him. He’s so cocky, generally. He fakes a pleasing smile, watches the unattractive lines of his face move into an awkward configuration of momentary lapses in judgment. This smile is ugly. It always has been. Nothing is inviting; often, when he doesn’t look in the mirror, he avoids the narcissism that comes so easily to him; he feels that maybe there is a warmth in his gaze. But that could never be true.
These refrains pass through him, unrestrained for now but tired. A chorus he has heard in his heart one too many times. A pop-song that lost its savor when he met her.
She is contrary evidence. She has been contrary evidence to the act of his hatred as long as he has known her. The way she looks at him. There is that hunger that he sees in others, but it’s never just hunger with her. People don’t warn you about that; if you’re attractive, people will look through you — but never at you — not in the way that matters. The way the shapes of your body – the taper of your waist, the movements of your fingers, the rise of your shoulders – will sculpt fantasies in other minds. He is too aware of himself to deny the pleasure it brings, and his own fantasies when he watches other people he is attracted to admire his body. But he cannot bring himself to agree with it; she’s still an exception.
He is wearing his shirt right now, under the bright lights. She flashes in his mind for a moment as a lapse in the hate he lavishes on himself.
She is not perfect: far from it. She can be loud, and she gets angry at him for silly reasons. She can be distant and hateful; her laugh is somewhere between adorable and a cackle, and he can never decide where his heart falls when he listens to it.
But she gave her heart to him, for whatever reason. She opened up, and the blossom flowered in an instant. The night of his own darkness was waning. He had come to understand some measure of self-love. He had realized the truth one day, both horrible and beautiful, that those moments where he lamented his worthlessness, like Continental dollars, had vanished. In its place was a solidity, to which he was unaccustomed.
And then he had met this girl. Met her in the tritest and meaningless of circumstances. He had met her and resisted for a time; then, when it became evident that resistance was needless, let it flow.
She made him uncomfortable, but it was the uncomfort of being loved and returning it, rather than the pain of his youth. The failures; the suck. But he had still not taken off his shirt.
As he thought about the reasons, he might have laughed.
He had seen her shirtless, and the thoughts made him blush as if someone were observing him. He laughed uncomfortably; she was imperfect in the best ways. The angle of her breasts was slightly off; her nipples had a depressed quality; the curve of her hips too broad; her smile had a particular crook that lit unevenly; she wasn’t an hourglass.
But that imperfection was glorious. It was as if someone had ordered those wrong lines, bad contours, and imperfect shading – for they were not perfect – and made a work of art, reveling in its own glorious unrightness. He drank in those beautiful crevices that you couldn’t find in perfection because they were hers.
He stared in the mirror, sighed, and took off his shirt: he reviewed his shame.
Stretch marks; angry red motes, gouged into his abdomen, stripes long jagged; like poorly healed dagger scars. They were of a tenor few could understand, let alone enjoy, painful recognition of failure to control. When they sprouted, he had assumed they were a rash. Until he examined more carefully, and they did not go away. They stretched as his gut expanded and reminded him daily of his battles with himself that he had failed to control himself—a fear which spoke of another darkness.
He had confided in her these terrors. How in his youth he was diagnosed; how he would have intense moods, how he could flip like a switch: how he was damaged. They served as forceful, perpetual reminders that he was on the hair’s edge of right; ok; that he was once not ok, that he was once broken…still broken.
And those scars hurt more than the memories they conjured up.
She had taken it all with love. She understood. How could she? She may not be perfect, but she wasn’t broken. He looked at those scars, the battles they represented. He liked when she touched him.
But he knew it was important that she see; she hadn’t questioned when he didn’t take off his shirt. She didn’t mind. Her hands wandered freely, but it was ok. “Wait until you’re comfortable: He wasn’t comfortable. He would never be comfortable with these things. But…
He would do it. He would do it. He felt the swell of his belly, significantly reduced by time, effort, and love. Someone who wasn’t him would know his shame. And they would judge him accordingly.
–You’re taking an awfully long time! She shouted.
He looked at his scars. He was imperfect, but so was she. She was ok with it. He didn’t know when he would be, but he knew he would, one day, in some far off way. The way he knew when he met her.
He gathered himself, looked at those angry red scars, and smiled for the first time at his own hypocrisy.
He opened the door to share his imperfections with the universe in the next room.