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The Man With the Aristocratic Mustashe
A tall man sporting a thick black aristocratic mustache leans against the stucco wall of the French restaurant where his girlfriend works, smoking a cigarette while he waits. The smoke he exhales winds through his mustache like ghostly fingers. His eyes are shockingly blue and are far away, lost in a world of what-ifs and dreams. And his daughter. She is always at the fore of his mind. Beautiful Carmen, who laughed often and unashamedly with her father’s piercing blue eyes combined with the softer, gentler features of her mother. A waterfall of golden hair and tiny hands and feet. He recalled with a sad smile the way she called him Daddy when she was a toddler. And as always, the cold, waxy look that took over his beautiful daughter’s face as they took her away, her blood staining the pavement red, a waterfall of glass marking how her car had veered off the road, running straight into a deer.
The ember on his cigarette dies. He crushes it beneath his boot, made of patent leather, and lights another, his hands shaking. It is a nervous habit. Before his daughter’s death, he never smoked. Since Carmen died, he was never seen without something to smoke. Whatever takes the edge off, whatever makes her loss less real.
His girlfriend, Amy, is finishing her last shift waitressing at the small French restaurant her parents own. She is in her early twenties, and the men of the tables she waits look at her as if she were a breathtaking sunset. However, her focus is on education. She is determined to become an elementary school teacher and studies while her parents cook.
“Night, Dad, I’m going home. Love you Mom, Erik’s here to pick me up,” she calls to the kitchen, and they shout back their goodbyes. She takes off her sweltering apron with Le Petite Fromage stamped across the chest, hangs it on the rack by the door, and fixes her long red-gold hair that never seems to stay straight down.
The man with the aristocratic mustache and electric blue eyes, Erik, takes Amy’s hand. Her finals are tomorrow, and her hand shakes in his. His blue eyes lock on her green ones.
“Amy Lynne Terrence,” he says, using her full name as her mother had when she was young, “You are going to pass your finals with flying colors and be the best elementary school teacher this side of Pluto.”
A slow smile lights up Amy’s face. Standing on her toes, she kisses him lightly on top of his elegant, aristocratic mustache. The crickets begin to strike up their nightly symphony, as the artist of the sky changes her palette from blue to purple.
Two weeks go by. Amy’s finals come and go, and Erik sits on the front porch, looking at her. Twenty years her elder, and yet he still learns so much from her. Those piercing blue eyes gaze at Amy, hunched over a child psychology book, in utter awe and wonder. Two weeks, and as Amy anxiously refreshes her teacher’s webpages on her pretty laptop whose keys glow when tapped on, Erik thinks of Carmen. A senior when she died. She would have been here, pouring over textbooks in a warm, sunlit kitchen. Perhaps if she had lived, the house would have rung with the sounds of smaller feet just learning to toddle.
Two weeks, and Amy’s final results come in.
Erik walks up the carpeted stairs. The sensation of feet slipping into the cover of carpet is really quite pleasant. It is twilight, the last stains of daytime slipping away, bleeding orange into the darkening backdrop of purple and blue. Stars peek out from behind their mother’s skirts, twinkling as if to say hello.
“Amy?” He calls out, waiting for the quiet announcement of her bare feet sticking slightly to the varnished floor. No sound comes. Thinking she is asleep, he walks into the bathroom to take a shower. He notices that it is superbly clean today. The white tile seems to gleam, the mirrors a complete reflection.
He raises an eyebrow.
Their faucets never drip.
He walks to the bathtub. A pale hand lies limp over the side.
Water rolls from the pads of her fingers. When the drops splash on the impeccable tile, he realizes that the drops of water are tinged red with blood. Horrified, he runs to her side and takes her hand. It is as cold as ice. Her eyes are open but not seeing, green glass. A razor, grinning maliciously, gleams from where her hand had dropped it.
He screams until the ambulances come.
Again he stands at the gravesite of a woman he loved, first his daughter, then his girlfriend. He holds the results of the college finals in his hand—the reason for her suicide. He plans to burn them.
After Carmen died, Erik saw her everywhere. Boarding buses, walking in parks, reading in libraries, sipping strawberry frappuchinos at Starbucks. But it would be just a flash, like the exact shade of her hair or the same curvature of the mouth that would alert him, but the resemblance would end there. However, he clung to those moments like a lifeline. Seeing Carmen kept him sane.
The worst was when he used to see adult women who reminded him of his daughter, women walking briskly with crisp suits and high heels that clicked when they walked, women carrying sleeping children or holding the hands of kids who asked hundreds of questions, answering with only the patience mothers have, women living their lives as he always thought Carmen could have lived hers.
Similar things were happening with Amy. He’d see women laughing loudly, hear her voice, smell her perfume, but he’d turn around and see an unfamiliar woman, a familiar stranger.
Carmen had been his world after his first wife, Katherine, left. When Carmen died, he wandered around, lost, until he found Amy. Amy was his world. Now it was all destroyed and he has nothing.
The man with the aristocratic mustache begins to change. His mustache grows bushy and unkempt. His eyes, once so blue and piercing, glaze over with an unreachable sadness. He begins to wander the streets of Seattle without a purpose, occasionally drifting into bars that lack class but offer an escape from the world without Carmen or Amy to light it.
“Putting all of your happiness into one person is dangerous. Even if Carmen and Amy were here, they could have left me, like Katherine. I could stand that, though. Katherine and I were never meant for each other, Carmen was the only thing that kept us together. Ah, I should have known. But at the same time, the first time I saw Amy, I knew she was for me. Brilliant, beautiful, smart, independent… she seemed so utterly flawless. And when I got to know her, I got to love her, flaws and all. I thought I could help her, make her love herself as I loved her. But I never could, her perfectionism was extreme. I thought… oh, I suppose it doesn’t even matter. She loved me, but never herself,” he talks to the bartender, a statue of a man who makes noncommittal noises while cleaning glasses and mixing drinks.
“Well thanks for listening, Tom. I appreciate it,” Erik says, paying his tab and leaving a hefty tip. He walks out the door, through the thick clouds of smoke, catching glimpses of women, women with red hair like Amy’s or blonde like Carmen’s or Amy’s laugh and Carmen’s mannerisms, women that weave through his dreams like a terrible, terrible Queen Mab, haunting him, lying next to him in the empty side of the bed next to him, running across the shadows that linger above his bed just before he wakes.
It is a little after midnight, the birth of a brand new day, but the death of the previous still lies, heavy, in the air. He walks through Seattle as he always does, walking to the graveyard where the two women he loved best lie.
However, today he decides to take a different route. There is an apartment, an apartment where he and Carmen used to live. He still owns it, as he cannot sell it yet cannot bear to live in it. The memories press down on him like a weight as he takes careful, precise steps to the apartment building that shoots upward like a weed made of brick and concrete. He climbs the concrete stairs up to the door, which he unlocks with no small amount of effort. That door always sticks, and it is nearly impossible to unlock without years of practice. The building is exactly as he remembers it—smelling vaguely of too much carpet cleaner, strong perfume from the elderly landlady who lives on the bottom floor, and the seeping smells always equated with old buildings. The carpet is still a gross combination of red and yellow, and the very walls seem to creak with secrets contained by the history of the place. Slowly, tiredly, he begins to climb the stairs that groan softly beneath his weight. After Amy’s death, he began to lose weight alarmingly fast. Now he is little more than skin and bone, his eyes sunken and glazed with a lack of purpose. After fifteen stories, he opens the door to the old apartment with shaking fingers. The door swings open, creaking. Tears spring immediately to his eyes. He had not been here since the day of the accident, and it is exactly the same. The kitchen has collected a layer of dust, but her school calendar is still pinned to the refrigerator, and a box of long-rotted Cheese-Its sit unopened on the counter. An issue of Seventeen lies open on the coffee table, its glossy pages showcasing a hopelessly complex hairstyle showcased by impossibly beautiful girls smiling with airbrushed perfection. An English textbook is also open below it, along with a notebook, pencil, and half-finished notes. Without even looking at it, he knows it is support for her Marxist criticism paper on The Mask of the Red Death. He walks into Carmen’s room, and the sight of it totally breaks him down. Everything is exactly as she left it. Clothes hanging neatly in the closet, arranged from pastel pinks to cold blacks, shoes in a straight line below it, formal high heels to lazy flip flops, pants folded in the wardrobe, opened just slightly in her rush to get to school that fateful night. Her bookshelf, books organized precisely by title, a single book lying on her desk. My Sister’s Keeper. Her sunny bedspread is slightly askew, and all of the pictures of her family, Carmen and her father, Carmen and her friends, Carmen babysitting, are in picture frames coated with dust.
The memories of that room are purely stifling. Tears splashing into his aristocratic-turned-bushy mustache, he walks into his old room. It is nondescript, a queen-sized bed with a desk strewn with forgotten work papers and books stacked beside it. But his goal is the wide window that looks out onto a dark city, lights of other apartments, other lives, other families, other tragedies lighting up the night sky like a world of candles. They don’t see him as he opens the window with hands that have stopped shaking and are strangely calm and steps out onto the concrete ledge. It is cold against his bare feet, and he cannot remember when he took off his shoes. His hands grab the sides of the window, as he looks down. It is dizzying, to look down and see the concrete below. It’s not the fall that kills you; it’s the impact.
He closes his eyes. The breeze that always accompanies high buildings caresses his face, kisses him teasingly. His hands immediately go to his pocket to search for a cigarette, but he has none.
A light goes on in the apartment directly across from his. A young woman, a woman who could be Carmen’s twin, merely a few years older with dark circles under her bright blue eyes, is there, searching for something in the cupboards of her kitchen. Then another woman, taller, more elegant, with curls of long auburn hair and big, doe-like brown eyes, even with the same determined square jaw. The Amy look-alike hugs the Carmen look-alike tightly, kissing her on the head and lips when they break apart. Then the Amy look-alike points to where Erik stands, her eyes wide with horror, mouth open in shock, and the Carmen look-alike quickly dials her cellphone to 911.
Before he knows it, the man who once sported an aristocratic mustache is clean-shaven and awaiting admittance to a mental hospital, guided by the couple who found him and called 911 on that night. In the light of the day, they don’t look so much like Carmen and Amy. Their names are Alice and Sam, and Alice is a psychiatrist and promises to help him through any problems he may have in the future.
But that night, something happened to Erik. He said goodbye to both Carmen and Amy and suddenly, their loss is real. And their loss is painful. So he goes through mental treatments to make his mind healthy again because it would make both Carmen and Amy happy to see him healthy. But life is not a Disney movie. There are not always happy endings. Nothing ever turns out the way you anticipate, and often not the way you’d like it to be. Generally that just means you have to live with whatever cards life deals you. Sometimes, though, whether you want to chalk it up to the work of a divine being or just the empathy of humans, the caring of other people can be salvation. He walked those cold, lonely streets of Seattle without salvation until he was literally on the edge, ready to jump, ready to fall. He wandered those empty, glaringly sterile hospital halls that gleamed with false hope alone, lost, hoping, and looking out the window. Sometimes he sees them moving out of the corner of his eye, laughing, walking, talking, and smiling. In those moments, he closes his eyes. He reminds himself that they are gone, a realization that twists his heart every time. Although their loss will never cease to hurt, he can cope. He can live without the two women he loves most in his life, although every day is a struggle.