Wednesday, January 10, 2007


He had been staring at me covertly for the last fifteen minutes, watching as I sat there nibbling at my salad. I’m used to being stared at though. People can’t help themselves. I’ve always been the most beautiful woman in the room; when I was a little girl, adults put me on a pedestal. I was cherished.

The man, a roly-poly individual with a shiny face marred by a red rash on either side of his nose, kept pushing his glasses up against his nose. Shifting in his seat, he looked tortured.

"You're a little goddess," my mother used to say. She liked dressing me in bright colors. "Pastels are for ugly children. You don't have to worry about being upstaged by your wardrobe."

I always knew my appearance set me apart from others. When I was a young teen, my mother became nervous, fearful my looks would make me prey. She needn't have worried. Boys stayed far away from me. Girls were uneasy. I remember an older man who approached me once when I sat at the bus-stop. Tall, his shadow stretching forever, he looked down, drinking me in for the longest time before speaking.

“If you were my little girl, I would never let you grow up,” he said. “I would keep you in pretty little dresses and you would never ever be allowed to go out. You’d be just like this forever.”

I remember thinking he had the kindest voice. I smiled at him. I heard him sucking in air. Abruptly turning, he left the bus-stop.

The roly-poly man stood up, something momentarily igniting his courage, and started toward me. He slowed though and made a great show of having to stretch his legs. There was something sweet about him. He looked so vulnerable. I was touched.

Yawning, he shuffled back to his table and occupied himself with his place setting.

At another table of the restaurant a couple were beginning to argue. Her face turning red, her eyes often shifting in my direction. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I was sure it was about me. She had caught her husband looking my way, or had tried conversing with him only to be frustrated by his distracted state. Shaking his head, he nodded at me, then made the mistake of turning and making eye contact. I couldn't help but smile. His eyes widened slightly, his mouth turned down.

The argument ended with her leaving the table. He followed reluctantly, glancing at me back over his shoulder several times on the way out. A waiter chased after them, their bill in hand.

The roly-poly man had gathered courage again and was starting to rise. His red face damp with perspiration, he walked toward me. His arms were stiff at his side. I didn't want him to collapse again. I held my breath, waiting as he continued his brave walk, waiting until he stood next to me to look up at him, trying to appear as receptive as possible.

"Hello?" I asked.

The man's breathing quickened, his eyes widened slightly. He stood there for as long time studying my features. I felt his need, his loneliness. I felt his inadequacy.

The air rushed out of him, his shoulders sagging, his spine wilting. His face turned an impossible shade of purple. Tears ran from his eyes and he began to sob, making a terrible lowing. Without a word, he whirled about and charged from the restaurant, his cries rising and falling with each stride. Again, a waiter chased a customer out the door.

I felt horrible disappointment. My appetite vanished. I stood and looked around for my own waiter. He came stumbling to me.

"Can I help you?"

God, yes. I wished someone would. "The bill," I said.

The waiter smiled, and I already knew the answer.

"That gentleman who left here a few minutes ago has already paid your bill, Miss."

Thanking him with a gentle touch of my hand to his cheek, I left the restaurant in search of something worthy.


DonkeyBlog said...

Head Rush or Head F*ck?! I have just read this three times - how can one short piece of writing tell so many different stories? Was she actually beautiful, and innocently causing people to view her as something to have, or something to be envied in men and women respectively? Or did she really know that she was beautiful, and used this weapon to make her way in the world (such as a free lunch)? In considering the latter, I heard the story of a girl who is trying to convince herself that she’s happy, when in fact she is very lonely, and doesn’t know why.

On the other hand, perhaps she is horribly disfigured, and people stare and take pity on her, only she doesn’t admit to herself the real reason for the attention and lavishments.

Of course, in the sense that she ends up alone, both possibilities - hideously disfigured or achingly beautiful – could perhaps be viewed as a disfigurement, which is awesome.

I am so pleasantly confused – the best, most intriguing thing I’ve read in ages. Such depth! Well done, Mr Sternberg, and thanks.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I agree with donkeyblog's assessment. However, if it were my own story, I think I'd have a more outwardly apprehensive reaction from the waiter. Perhaps--a second guessing type of motive where the waiter might not be telling the truth about the roly-poly man's paying the bill. In doing this, you could show that the waiter does not want to approach her table yet again because of her deformity. Just a tought. Nicely paced. Loved the back story too. Incidentally, my link isn't working on your site due to "-rush.html" being lopped off.

SQT said...

I'm always a fan of hearing the disfunctional mother in the character's memory.

I agree with Donkeyblog too. It's fun to speculate on the real motives of the man who paid for her meal.

Christina Rundle said...

Loved the short story. There were many things going on and I had to read it a few times to catch everything. I changed my mind on a few situations in which I thought was happening.

This one would have been great in a magazine.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I thank you for the compliments..I am going to rework this and expand it. Maybe I'll try sending it out in another form with another title.

This was probably written too quickly. Basically I sat down and typed it into the create blog window in one sitting, spending maybe fifteen minutes total on it.

However, I liked the idea as it was developing. I'll see.

JR, I have fixed your link on the assignment post and it is now functional. Sorry about that.

Also, JR., I think you're right about the waiter.

Susan Miller said...

I'm commenting after reading it only once. Now after reading the comments (especially Donkey's) I will go back and reread.

Initial impressions...I took the girl as beautiful, if for no other reason due to her confidence of the fact. This I assumed at face value, which was in fact her biggest problem. Nobody had the courage to go past what they saw. Thus, her lonliness.

I was amazed by her eagerness for a connection with those around her, especially those she would describe as roly-poly. But then disappointed when she would describe someone without the fear as "worthy".

Waiter....yeah, okay but I was stuck with "worthy".

15 minutes? Sheesh, Stu!

Bird on a Wire said...

I like the possibilities of her image (in donkeyblog's words "hideously disfigured or achingly beautiful." The beauty one works best, I think, because it is a unique look at disfigurement. She's so beautiful it makes people uncomfortable. I would love to see her beauty become even more of a handicap.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Actually, I meant for her disability to be her beauty, Bird. I thought: imagine someone who was so amazing that no one could even bare to look at her for that long or talk to her..that somehow her appearance would so affect them that they somehow felt humbled or less than whole in her presence. God...

And Sue, the "worthy" statement was intentional. I remember writing it and chuckling to myself, knowing it would be one of those things that threw the reader slightly, that somehow jarred them into having to rethink the character.

gugon said...

Excellent story - what a great twist on the theme. Extreme beauty as a handicap - almost a kind of deformity. Wherever she goes, people stare.

I really loved that little "worthy" hook at the end - it throws a whole different light on the proceedings. It's a bizarre mixture of desperate loneliness and superiority. She's open to ANY human contact - even roly poly with the nose rash - but she will never find her equal. Great concept - I'd like to see this expanded into something longer.

I thought your buildup of the man working up his courage, pretending to stretch, fumbling with his place setting and finally approaching her was RIVETING.

Really good story!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

It never occurred to me that she was deformed because this strikes me as an accurate account of the effects of heart-stopping beauty on others.

Such a woman rarely has close women friends because they are jealous, while men are usually afraid that she won't find them good enough.

If you want to expand this into something much longer, aging is harder for very beautiful women because so much of their identity is involved with their beauty, no matter how much they might wish it to be otherwise.

"Worthy" made me pause, too, and begin to rethink the whole story. But to satisfy the reader, I think it is necessary to eventually clear this up.

Lucas Pederson said...

Complicated, captivating...need I say more? This story chruned with an eeriness perhaps, judging by the other comments, only I felt. I love the multiplicity of it. And you better at least try to get it published! Great work!!

Turnbaby said...

Stewart--I am impressed. To have written this so quickly and yet to have captured such a profound truth. I don't say this lightly or vainly but I have been this girl. And it's a thing you are not always aware of or thinking of but others are---I have been identified by how I look all of my life and it's difficult. It's very good to see a recognition of this weird state and to see how some folks react to what could be the underlying thoughts of the person who you look at but may not 'see'.

And the ending--I take not as a vain statement--but as a goal--to find something beyond the superficial.

Stewart Sternberg said...

thanks, lucas, turnababy, hearts...

I've known a few women like this. Dated a couple. I remember one or two of them talking about appearance and about the effect it had on them as they were growing up. One of them stated that only older men seemed to approach her. Another stated that it made her self conscious and that was why she refused to wear makeup.