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  • Nick Janicki

Tuesday Tales: "The Portrait of Me"

“Don’t pout,” she laughed. “Just ask me.”


I looked at her and tilted my head to the side, an eyebrow raised. The head tilt was clever, but a lift of the eyebrow would really sell it as I responded with, “I don’t think I’m following.”


She flipped her hair and rolled her eyes as if they had been sent sailing by a heavy gust of wind, putting my gesture to shame. “You’re kind of sulking,” she said. “I can’t exactly say it’s attractive, either. I mean, you’re obviously a sweet guy, but you need to learn how to be a little more forward if this is going to go anywhere.”


Alright, Pete, just call it quits. You did your best, big guy, now go home before you embarrass yourself again. I had turned around to head down the front steps, expecting to leave her with that simple-yet-sufficient goodbye nod, when her hand landed on my shoulder.


“Just ask me,” she repeated.


I sighed, shamefully turning toward her again. She wasn’t going to let this go, but that was okay. It was what I wanted, after all. It might have been that I was now a step down the stairs, making her just slightly taller than me, but I felt like a kid getting a talking to by one of his parents. “Alright . . .” I took in an audibly deep breath, continuing, “Can I come upstairs?”


That was it — the big question. Of course, it would have sounded better five minutes ago before we were standing around in awkward silence and before she called me out on my childish behavior. Derrick had more guts than this back when he was in the fourth grade, I buried myself a little deeper in discomfort.


She didn’t respond to the question, simply grabbing my hand and guiding me inside, up the stairs and into her apartment. It was happening. Not how I had expected it to, but it was happening nonetheless, and that’s all that really mattered at the end of the night.


I met Carly on Tinder two days ago. I suppose the technical term is “matched,” but that always felt a little like a game show to me. Congratulations, Pete, you just scored a two-week vacation in the Caribbean! Yeah, no thanks. I prefer to keep it on the more traditional side of things in the dating world, meaning dating apps have never been my shtick; I go for real-life encounters. I’ve always told Derrick that Ted Mosby from “How I Met Your Mother” didn’t find his wife on a dating app; it was just a happy coincidence that they met at that train station. I’ve been making that comparison for four years now, though — Derrick was over it.


She sat me down on a rather raggedy couch once we were inside—one she had certainly picked up off the street based on the smell alone—and made her way to the kitchen to fix us up some drinks. “I found this killer paloma recipe online,” she shared.


The brief moment alone allowed me to familiarize myself with this woman. She had kept to herself during most of dinner, so the invitation upstairs and sudden shift in demeanor took me by surprise. This was my chance to really get to know her. Yes, when she was to come back from the kitchen, too, but this would give me a leg up on the conversation.


I started to look around the room, a self-guided tour of this woman’s mind.


A tiger-print blanket—okay, maybe she’s into animals.


A few empty prescription bottles on a table against the wall—strange, but I have all sorts of allergy medications, so I’m one to judge.


Some sort of abstract portrait of a man on the wall, painted with only varying shades of brown.


A lava lamp with—


Hold on . . . what was that? I turned my head back to the painting on the wall—the portrait of the man. Was it? No, it couldn’t be. Don’t flatter yourself, Pete — it’s not attractive. You already put it all on the line once tonight. Don’t do it again. Besides, all the features of this man’s face are disproportionate. An intentional decision by the artist, sure, but that comparison isn’t going to help your case in the looks department.


“Here we are,” she startled me, gracefully placing the cocktail down on a coaster on the coffee table in front of us. She sat down next to me on the raggedy couch, her leg lightly touching mine. She was staring at me with a soft smile. “Well, give it a try already!”


I grabbed the glass and took a sip from it, feeling her leaning in closer in anticipation of my reaction. I turned toward her as the drink went down, once again seeing that beautiful smile that made me swipe right on her in the first place.


“Good, right?” she asked.


“It’s great,” I said. “I’ve always been a fan of mezcal.”


We were eye-to-eye now, moments away from that first kiss we’d tell our kids about in the far future, with so many memories to be made between then and now, when she responded, “I know.”


The room started to get foggy as if she had been cooking something in the oven for far too long, sending smoke to fill the small apartment. My eyes grew tired as if I had just drunk a half a dozen palomas. Her face, along with the rest of the room, began to blend together, that sweet smile looking rather peculiar now from this point of view.


The glass fell to the floor, shattering. I followed it, almost watching myself from afar as my body made its way off the raggedy couch toward the floor. On my way down, I managed to grab ahold of a handle on the coffee table, sending a drawer flying open and several pieces of paper inside floating into the air.


My body was paralyzed and my mind remained confused as my future wife rose from the couch and made her way to the kitchen again. Yes, call for help, I thought. My face turned from the ceiling to the floor, prepared to rest for awhile. As it did so, my weary eyes caught something that managed to do the impossible: widen them.


The pieces of paper from the drawer were now on the the floor alongside my frozen body, having fallen just near my head. They weren’t ordinary pieces of paper, though—they were photographs, and on them were other men, although that description would seem unbelievable given their condition. Their faces were disfigured, carved into an appearance that would make my toes curl, should I have had the ability to move them. And, resting prominently next to those faces were portraits of the same men. Not abstract portraits, but life-like ones reflecting what had become of them.


The last thing I saw was one of her feet, still inside the wedges she had worn on our first date, stepping onto the photographs. “Don’t pout,” she laughed.

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©2020 Nick Janicki