TYRANNY OF BEAUTY
Tonight, I forgot the time. Because of that, I’m sitting on the floor of a lobby in lower Manhattan. I’m tempted to go out and hail a cab, or maybe even run to the nearest subway station, but I find that I’m too afraid to even step through the doorway. If I go out there, there’s a chance that no one will ever see me again. I think I’ll stay here until morning.
For most people, this madness began about six weeks ago, when the disappearances began to make the news. It started earlier for the police, when the incidents were spread too far apart for anyone else to make the connection. I knew about it even before the police. I was the first to understand what was happening. And I’m still the only one who knows why.
The series of events that would lead to this actually began two years ago. It was the middle of summer and I was working in a bookstore in midtown. It was a huge place, part of a national chain. I was in the my last year of film school, so it was just a part time job to earn extra money. Not even a stepping stone, really -- just something to keep me amused. That was where I met Paul.
Paul Specter was a fellow “bookseller.” In other words, a menial employee. At first glance, anyone could see that he was used to not being noticed. He acted as if he was invisible. And in truth, he was so indistinct that he almost was. He wasn’t a tall man, but he wasn’t short either. He was balding, but not yet bald. Overweight, though not quite fat. And his face? Just like the rest of him, it was average. And forgettable. Yet, there was something about him that I appealed to me.
Since Paul and I worked a similar schedule, I had many opportunities to talk to him. It wasn’t long before I realized what it was that drew me to him. There was something in his eyes the belied the averageness mentioned above. It’s hard for me to describe it, even now, even after all that has happened. It’s wasn’t a look of determination, nor the look of passion. No, I would say it was more like a look of someone who was getting ready to do something drastic. And for some reason that I still don’t quite understand, I wanted to be there to witness it.
After working together for just a few weeks, Paul and I began to socialize outside of work. Usually, it was a coffee before or dinner afterward. I learned that Paul’s life had been a disaster. Just one catastrophe after another. Nothing had worked out the way he had planned. And despite his plans, it didn’t sound like things were going to change -- at least not to me.
“I wanted to be retired by thirty,” Paul said one day in a coffee shop. “But look where I am. Working with kids just out of high school. I get paid crap. Customers look at me like I’m some loser.”
“No, they don’t,” I said to him. I was lying. The customers did see him as a loser. Our fellow employees, too. They all snickered at him behind his back. I’m not sure why I didn’t tell him this. Maybe I was trying to spare his feelings. Maybe I didn’t want to get between Paul and the disaster that I suspected he was heading for. It’s so hard to understand one’s own motivations.
* * *
Sometime that fall, Paul told me of the crush he had on a fellow bookseller. Bridget was in her early twenties, just slightly older than myself. She was tall, thin, and prettier than most. She had probably done some modeling. In other words, she was completely out of Paul’s league. “I think you should go for it,” I said.
“Really?” Paul asked.
“I’ll bet she likes you,” I said. Even before I finished telling this lie, I knew that I had crossed a line. I was no longer just an observer.
“I appreciate the encouragement,” Paul said, “but I don’t think you’re old enough to understand how these things work.”
“These things?” I asked. “You mean men and women?”
“Yes,” he said. “Men, women, the way things are.”
I realized that Paul had a life philosophy, and that I was close to hearing it. I was sure that it would be strange and pathetic. “Tell me,” I said.
“Some other time,” he said, then shook his head.
“Still, I think she likes you,” I said. I could tell that I hadn’t convinced him, but the seed had been planted. It’s so much easier to do something if at least one person believes in you, don’t you think?
* * *
Paul’s descent began at a New Years party in Brooklyn. It was thrown by a fellow employee, and almost everyone at work was there. I was surprised that Paul had been invited; as I said before, most people thought he was a loser. I wondered if I wasn’t the only one who saw his life as a perverse type of entertainment.
It was your typical late teens-early twenties party -- beer, pot and loud music. Paul seemed out of place. Most of the time, I watched him from a distance. He looked like some exotic fish trying to get by in a tank full of sharks. At first, I thought he would try to slip out, but then I realized that he was staying close to Bridget. He spent hours mingling awkwardly with others, apparently building up the courage to talk to her -- or waiting for the moment to be right. It took him until after midnight to finally do it. I wanted to get close enough to listen in, but I didn’t want to interfere. As it turned out, they didn’t talk to very long. After about two minutes, Paul was headed for the door.
I casually walked to the door, hoping no one would see that I was following Paul. After going through the doorway, I ran to catch up to him. I found him pacing outside, looking distraught and drunk.
“Did everyone see that?” Paul asked. “Did I just make an ass out of myself in front of everyone?”
“They’re all too drunk,” I said. “What happened?”
“I told her how I felt,” Paul whispered, sounding embarrassed. “What was I thinking?”
“Hey, you had to find out,” I said.
“But I already knew,” Paul said. He looked like he was about to cry. “It’s the way things are. It’s the way the universe works.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. Here it was -- his life philosophy.
“Look at the couples,” Paul said. He motioned around us. “See?”
I looked around, picking the couples out of the people I saw in the street. I still wasn’t sure what he meant, though. I shook my head.
“People stick with their own,” Paul said. “There isn’t one Bridget with a guy who looks like me. The beautiful people are with the beautiful people.”
I saw what he meant. I couldn’t help but think of my own former girlfriends. They were all good looking, like myself. We always made fabulous couples, at least on the surface. “But there are exceptions.”
“Exceptions,” Paul said, mocking me. “Only if you’re rich.”
“Hey, it’s not that bad,” I said.
“Let me tell you what it is,” he said. “If I find a woman who loves me, it’ll be someone who is settling. And I, in turn, will be settling for her. We’ll make love, me thinking of Bridget and she thinking of Brad Pitt.”
Paul’s view of things was pathetic and funny. But there was something strangely real about it. For some reason, it made me feel sad. All I could think of saying was, “You’re drunk.”
“No,” Paul said. “Just depressed. I’ll see you at work.”
I wanted to say something else, but Paul was already walking down the street. It wasn’t the crash that I had expected, but an implosion. I didn’t know that the real crash was in the works. Paul would do a lot of thinking that night. And his thinking would change the lives of many.
* * *
That winter, I began my last semester of film school. Because of the time it was taking to finish my thesis film, I was forced to cut my hours at the bookstore. I saw Paul less frequently. Bridget still worked at the bookstore, but things between she and Paul were tense and awkward. Whenever they found themselves in the same room together, one would quickly leave. I loved it.
As winter changed to spring, I began to see a physical change in Paul. He was losing weight and he seemed to be gaining mass in his upper body. I asked him about it one day when we were having lunch together. “You’re getting into shape, aren’t you?”
“Trying,” he said. He pulled up his shirt, revealing his muscular stomach.
“Wow,” I said. “Still trying to win Bridget over?”
“This isn’t enough to win her over,” Paul said. “If I want to penetrate the world of the Bridgets, then I need to change some other things.”
“Since you’re on spring break,” Paul said, “maybe you come with me on Friday and see.”
“Okay,” I said. I was intrigued.
“Can you borrow your dad’s car?” Paul asked. “I’m going to need someone to drive me home.”
“Sure,” I said. I wanted to press Paul for details, but he was in a hurry to leave.
I picked Paul up on Friday, then drove him into New Jersey. I had the distinct feeling that I was getting involved in something illegal. During the ride, Paul couldn’t stop talking about how his life was going to change.
“How?” I asked.
I parked the car in a seedy Union City neighborhood, then walked Paul into a run-down building. I have to admit that I was a little scared, but I could tell that Paul had been here before. I followed him to the basement, then down a hallway. At the end was a wooden door with a frosted glass pane in its center. There was no writing on it.
Paul opened the door, then we walked into a living room that had been converted into a waiting room. It was furnished with three plastic chairs and small table with some Spanish language magazines on it. Before I could say a thing, a door opened and a man appeared. He was tall, middle aged and Hispanic. “Hello, Paul.” he said.
“Dr. Martinez,” Paul said. “This is my friend. He’ll be driving me home afterward.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” Dr. Martinez said to me in a thick Cuban accent.
“Good morning, Doctor,” I said.
“Please,” Dr. Martinez said to Paul, motioning for him to go into the back.
“Can I talk to you first?” I asked Paul.
“We must be begin,” Dr. Martinez said.
“It’ll just take a minute,” I said, then walked into the hallway with Paul. I closed the door behind us. “What the hell is going on here?”
“He’s a plastic surgeon,” Paul said. “He’s going to change my face.”
“He can’t be real doctor,” I said. I couldn’t believe that Paul didn’t realize this. “Look at this place.”
“Do you think I can afford a licensed surgeon?” Paul asked. “Have you looked at our medical plan?”
“So, you just go to anyone?”
“He practiced in Cuba,” Paul said. “He’s in school to get his license here. Meanwhile, he does this to make a living. He comes highly recommended.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. This was madness, I thought. Still, I let him go back into the room. I probably could have fought with him some more, but he was grown man and older than myself. He knew what he was getting himself into. At least that’s what I tell myself now.
* * *
Paul walked into the back with Dr. Martinez. I slid one of the chairs in the waiting room closer to the door that led to the back. From there, I could hear muffled pieces of their conversation. “I want my face to be more chiseled.” “Cheese-elled?” “You know, like Brad Pitt.” “Ah, si.”
“Oh my God,” I said.
The door to the hallway opened. A big breasted Hispanic woman came in. She smiled at me, then walked passed me and through the door that led to the back. I heard the door locking, then she and Dr. Martinez speaking in Spanish. There was some laughter, then silence. I crept up to the door, then pressed my ear against it. I could hear some shuffling and whispering.
I sat back down, then waited. An hour of silence passed. I only had my thoughts to keep me company, and they weren’t very comforting. I tried to convince myself that Dr. Martinez was the person Paul thought him to be. It wasn’t until much later that I bothered to wonder what a plastic surgeon would be doing practicing in today’s Cuba. The silence was broken by what sounded like a motorized jigsaw.
I jumped to my feet. I heard the jigsaw slowing down and its motor grinding. Then I heard a snap. Dr. Martinez yelled, “Coño!”
“What’s going on?” I yelled at the door.
“Everything is fine,” the woman yelled back. “Please be quiet and let us work.”
“Be quiet?” I whispered to myself. I heard the jigsaw sputtering to life again. Then I heard a high pitched scraping noise. I was sure that it was cutting through bone. I considered running out of the room to call the police, but then the motor went dead. Silence followed.
I sat back down and tried to remain calm, but the sound of the jigsaw reverberated in my mind. I tried to convince myself that Dr. Martinez knew what he was doing and everything was going as planned. Then I heard what sounded like a typical wood saw moving back and forth. It sounded exactly like wood being cut, except there was a wetness to it.
I stood up. Again, I was tempted to call the police. Instead, I stood there listening. The sawing stopped abruptly, then I heard hammering. It went on for a full minute, then silence. I sat back down and waited. I still don’t know why I didn’t call the police or do something to stop the procedure. Maybe I was hoping for the best, maybe it was just my perverse curiosity. I felt like someone who saw an accident about to happen. And instead of warning someone, I sat back and watched. Just an observer.
After another hour of silence, the door opened. I stood up, not sure of what to expect. Paul was led through the doorway by Dr. Martinez and the woman. Except for two eye holes, his head was covered with bandages. He looked unsteady.
“You can take him home, now,” Dr. Martinez said.
“Are you okay, Paul?” I asked.
“I think so,” he slurred.
“Make sure he doesn’t scratch,” Dr. Martinez said. “He is not to take the bandages off for two weeks.”
“Two weeks,” Paul said.
Dr. Martinez pulled a bottle of pills out of his pocket, then handed it to me. “He is to take one every six hours.”
“Six hours,” Paul said, then giggled.
“Are you sure he can go home?” I asked.
“He’s ready,” Dr. Martinez said. “Trust me.”
I walked Paul out. In the hallway, we passed a young black woman who was on her way in. I was tempted to stop her, but I didn’t.
I drove Paul back to his apartment, then sat with him until he was acting more like himself again. His words were still slurred, though -- as if he was drunk. The enormity and possible irreversibility of what I had taken part in suddenly hit me. Had I stood by while Paul had been butchered? I felt awful. I wanted to tear off his bandages and take a look, but I couldn’t. As illegitimate as I thought Dr. Martinez was, his instructions still had to be followed -- just in case.
“This is the first day of my new life,” Paul said.
“I’m scared,” I said.
“You worry too much,” Paul said. “Are you jealous?”
“Jealous?” I choked out. I almost laughed, thinking that he was making a macabre joke. But he was serious.
“I’m about to enter your world,” Paul said. “The world of the beautiful people.”
“Oh,” I said. “Don’t worry, there’s plenty of room.”
“Bridget will be begging for me, now,” Paul said. “But I don’t need her. I can do better.”
“I”m sure you can,” I said, lying.
As I walked out of Paul’s apartment, I was hit by an intense sadness. I had the sinking feeling that I was never going to see Paul again. Now, I wish I hadn’t.
* * *
Weeks passed. Paul didn’t return to work from the leave of absence he had taken for his surgery. To tell you the truth, I was too busy finishing up my thesis film to be concerned. I assumed that Paul needed more time to recuperate, anyway. I tried calling him on a couple of occasions, but there was no answer. As I got closer to my graduation, I began to worry. I asked around at work, but no one had heard from Paul. Our manager said, “As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t work here anymore.”
I began to wonder if something had gone terribly wrong. For all I knew, Paul could have died right after I had left him in his apartment on that terrible afternoon. After failing to get him on the phone again, I decided to go to his place. I rang the buzzer for his apartment, then heard his voice through the speaker. “Who is it?”
“It’s me,” I said. “Where have you been?”
“Go away!” Paul shouted. His voice sounded slurred, just as it had when we had left Dr. Martinez’s office. I suspected that he was drunk, but I feared that it was something worse.
“Let me up,” I insisted.
“I don’t want to see anyone,” he said.
“I won’t leave,” I said. “Either let me up or be prepared to run into me.”
After a long silence, Paul buzzed me up. I walked the four flights up to his floor. I saw that his door was ajar. I pushed it open. The apartment was in complete darkness. The windows, which had previously had blinds on them, now had their glass painted black.
“Close the door!” Paul yelled from the darkness.
I shut the door. I was suddenly fearful. Something was going on here, and it wasn’t good. “What happened, Paul?”
“Things didn’t turn out as I planned,” he said, then laughed humorlessly.
“Did he mess up your eyes?” I asked. “Is light painful to you?”
Paul laughed. I’m not sure why, but there was something about his laugh that scared me to my core. I wanted to run out of his apartment, but I was too curious to leave. And besides, I couldn’t see where the door was.
“Is it too dark for you?” he asked.
“I can’t see a thing,” I said.
“Then, let there be light,” Paul said. I heard a click, then the lights came on.
I jumped when I saw Paul’s face. His nose and lips were gone. His teeth and gums were fully exposed. The hair on his head was all gone, except for a few greasy strands. There were scars all over his face and on top of his head. In some spots, it looked like his skin had been removed and replaced by skin grafted from someone else -- someone with darker skin.
“Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?” Paul asked.
“You have to go back there,” I said. “He’s got to fix you.”
“Too late,” Paul said. “Dr. Martinez is gone. Apparently, there were many victims.”
For the first time since that day, I thought of the black woman who I hadn’t stopped from going into Dr. Martinez’s office. I wondered if she had also been turned into a monster, or if she had had her breasts lopped off or deformed. “I’ll take you to a real surgeon,” I said. “They’ll be able to fix things.”
“I’ve been to three already,” Paul said. “It will cost tens of thousands, and I’ll only look a little better. At the very best, they can make me look like a hideous burn victim.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ve run out of rent money,” Paul said, “so I have to leave here. I don’t know where I’ll go. I’m too ashamed to show this face.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Paul, I . . .”
“It’s not your fault,” Paul said. “I should have known that this would go like everything else in my life has gone. You can’t become one of the beautiful people, you have to be born one.”
My fear came back. I knew that he considered me one of these “beautiful people.” In a sense, he was right. Not only was I good looking, but I had been born into money. Things had been easy for me for my whole life, and my future appeared set -- seemingly from birth. “I don’t know if that’s true,” I stammered.
“Of course it’s true!” Paul screamed. “You people! You stand there with everything, then put your faces on television and in commercials. If you smoke these cigarettes, you’ll be beautiful. If you wear this perfume, you’ll be beautiful. If you buy these clothes, drive this car, listen to this music, eat this food, go see this movie, you’ll be beautiful. And people will love you.”
“I’m sorry,” I choked out.
“It’s a tyranny of beauty,” Paul said. “You tempt the rest of us, but you know we can’t get in. You know that we’re stuck in mediocrity. We marry ugly women, but we still can’t stop thinking about you. And look what happens when you try to change the course of things. Who will love me now?”
I was tempted to spout out one of those cliches about beauty being on the inside, but I knew that it wouldn’t go over well. Besides, I didn’t believe it. Paul was right. “I have to leave,” I said.
“So soon?” he asked quietly.
I turned for the door, then the lights went out. I stood still. I could hear Paul breathing somewhere behind me. I was terrified.
“It’s not fair,” Paul said.
“I know,” I said as I walked to where I thought the door was. I put my hands out and found a wall. I felt my way along the wall, hoping to find the door.
“Someone has to make things right,” Paul said.
“I know,” I said. I found the door. I opened it and ran out into the hallway.
“I think that someone is me,” Paul said just before I closed the door.
* * *
That very day, I went to the bookstore and gave them my resignation. I told them I wouldn’t be back -- not ever -- and to mail me my last checks. I went back home and decided to forget about Paul. For a while I was successful. I graduated from film school, got my thesis film into a major film festival, then got a job directing an independent feature film.
I spent summer in pre-production, then we shot for one month in the fall. Sometime during post production, I happened upon a New York Post article about a woman who had disappeared in lower Manhattan. I only noticed the article because the victim looked so beautiful in the picture. I didn’t think Paul had had anything to do with it, but I thought about him anyway. The truth is he came to mind whenever I thought of beauty. By that afternoon, I forgot about the missing woman.
I spent the winter with my parents in their Manhattan apartment while I waited for my film to find a distributor. Sometime in December, the local news mentioned a missing man. He was a Wall Street executive. Rich and handsome. I’m not sure I suspected Paul at the time, but I definitely did after the next disappearance the following spring. This one was a mildly successful model who appeared in department store circulars.
This summer, the newspapers connected the stories. There were actually more disappearances than I had realized -- twelve in total. They had all happened between 1:00 AM and 4:00 AM, and there hadn’t been one witness. The victims were not limited to sex, economic background, race or religion. Because of this, they were presumed to have been picked randomly. I know better, though. You see, they’re all beautiful. Paul has been getting his revenge on the beautiful people, one at a time.
* * *
You should see how quiet the city is at night now. Even the criminals are staying in during these late night hours. I imagine Paul out there, lurking quietly like a shark waiting for the smell of blood. Maybe he’s driving a cab or a truck. Maybe he’s on the subway, making stops here and there, surveying the dark landscape for the beautiful. He could even be on foot. The only thing I know for sure is that he’s out there right now.
As I sit here waiting for the sun to rise and for the streets to be safe again, I can’t help but wonder why I haven’t told the police what I know. Maybe I feel partly responsible. Maybe I think Paul’s doing society a favor by ridding it of some of its vainest. It could even be my perverse curiosity. I’m sure you’ll agree that there is a certain pleasure in watching a disaster from a distance.