|Apr/May 2016 Fiction|
Whenever Henry Gutteridge walked down the street, the women behind him were transfixed. His full head of wavy brown hair looked like it belonged to a 20-year-old, the broad shoulders on his six-foot frame suggested his body was lean and muscular, and the clothing he wore was stylish and expensive. Sometimes these women increased their pace in order to get a peek at Henry from the front, expecting to feast their eyes on the face of a film star and body of a fitness model. Instead they found someone with the weathered, ashen look of an aging alcoholic.
With his bulging eyes, bulbous nose, and beefy jowls, Henry's face seemed like it had been mauled by a Mack truck. In silhouette, his stomach protruded to such a degree it seemed like he'd swallowed a regulation-size bowling ball. If they didn't freeze, these females on the street usually pretended they were trying to get a look inside a store window. Occasionally, a shell-shocked woman would just take off, flee from the face she considered too horrible for human eyes. Henry thought this behavior was more than disrespectful; he regarded it as sadistic. Each time it happened, he felt as if his body had been grazed by fire. Henry Gutteridge lived in the scorched body of a survivor.
Henry was an alcoholic, a recovering one, sober for nine years and seven months. He was exceedingly proud of this statistic but ashamed he'd been drinking for more than half his life. For almost two decades, Henry started every morning with a slice of melon and a martini. For a long while he was a functioning alcoholic. With a respectable job in banking, a decent place to live, and a devoted German shepherd named Valmont, Henry seemed to be living a quiet, contented life. The truth was his loneliness was borderline unbearable. The phone never rang, neighbors never knocked on his door, and his only living relative, a younger sister, had become estranged because of his drinking. Sometimes Henry screamed into a pillow just to enjoy the sensation of a nearby sound.
After Henry turned 35, his boozing became so bad he was fired from his job at the bank. Hitting rock bottom made him face the unfortunate fact that his life would never improve unless he stopped drinking immediately.
He devoted every waking moment to his recovery—attending 12-step meetings daily, working with a sponsor, reading books about the disease of alcoholism. Within eight months Henry was sober. Every night, after making it through an entire day without a sip, Henry felt a genuine sense of pride. He even reached out to others to help them with their struggle. But he was still agonizingly alone, experiencing life from the rafters when the stage was miles away.
When he first saw the goddess on a cold but radiant day in September, he froze in his tracks. He couldn't believe how breathtakingly exquisite this woman was. That was the first shock. The second was that she didn't wander away. Her feet remained planted on the sidewalk in front of a popular patisserie while pedestrians leisurely strolled by.
Draped in a houndstooth pattern wool-and-cashmere coat and an Hermes scarf around her neck, this magnificent beauty looked like she had stepped out of another time, a more elegant, more glamorous era. Henry was ecstatic she was allowing his gaze to sink into her flawless skin.
She was the first to speak. "Hello there," she said in a warm, welcoming voice.
Henry returned the greeting and proceeded with polite conversation. Five minutes into the chat, a gust of wind caused the silk scarf to fly off her neck. Henry raced down the block in hot pursuit, finally managing to grab the colorful accessory when it became trapped in a metal fence. "Thank you so much," the woman said when he handed it back to her. "It's getting chilly, don't you think?" Henry took this as an obvious goodbye, but to his tremendous surprise, the enchantress suggested they continue their conversation at a small bistro a half block down the street.
Her name was Angelique Ruby. As they sipped hot tea, they discovered their mutual love of canines, the countryside, and art deco. Henry was more than a little surprised to learn Angelique hailed from Polk City, Iowa, population four thousand. She seemed as Midwestern as Montparnasse. Her exotic name, haunting face, even her elegant, vowel-rich voice suggested she was from some sophisticated European city— London or Paris, or maybe even Buenos Aires or Peru.
"My father was a real estate mogul," she said. "After he passed away, I sold most of his property, but I held onto a concrete slab of a building in downtown Chicago."
"I hate those ugly concrete slabs," Henry said.
"I don't think anything in the world is ugly," Angelique told him. "I believe there's a little beauty in just about everything."
"That's a really nice way to look at the world," Henry admitted.
When they finished their tea, Angelique suggested they have dinner the following night. After exchanging information via their mobile devices, they shook hands cordially and went on their way.
Overwhelmed with excitement, Henry wondered if too much happiness might be dangerous to his health, too severe a jolt to the system. Then he reminded himself there was no chance of a second or third date with this modern day Aphrodite. This made him feel infinitely more relaxed.
The next evening, when Angelique opened the solid oak door of her sprawling home in one of the most exclusive zip codes in New England, Henry gasped. Though she was dressed simply in black with a strand of pearls hanging from her neck, she looked like royalty. She guided him on a tour of the house as her three tiny Yorkshire terriers tagged along on the white carpet. Paintings of all sizes and styles dotted the walls. The master bathroom was larger than Henry's entire one bedroom bungalow. Henry couldn't recall ever seeing a more opulent residence. Oddly, Angelique spoke about the place with nonchalance.
"I just put it on the market. I want to sell as quickly as possible and move into a more modest house."
"Because it doesn't reflect my personality. It doesn't lend itself well to the art deco pieces I like. Plus I'd be much more comfortable in something less grand."
"Well, enjoy the grandeur while you can," Henry said.
After Angelique slipped into a resplendent crimson coat that flowed to her ankles and matched the color of her lips and nails, the couple was off to dinner at a place called The Surreal Experience. Angelique didn't seem to mind climbing into Henry's ten-year-old Toyota with its dented fender and inoperative tail light, but he was more than a little embarrassed by the vehicle.
Inside the elegant restaurant, smartly-dressed patrons were enjoying their food and drink while admiring the art on the walls. After Henry and Angelique were seated at a corner booth, a freckle-faced server named Jasper appeared before them with menus. Angelique went for the roasted filet mignon, Henry decided on the Dover sole. When Jasper left the table, Angelique and Henry examined the Magritte-like painting hanging above them. It depicted a suntanned man in a tuxedo pushing a massive boulder up a snow-capped mountain.
"Such an interesting piece," she said. "Inspired by Sisyphus, no doubt."
"Not my cup of tea," Henry stated.
"I can understand that," she replied. "What do you want out of life?"
Henry couldn't help laughing. "So much for superficial chitchat," he commented.
"I'm not a big fan of small talk," she explained.
Henry thought a long while before answering the question. "I guess I just want to be accepted," he confessed.
"Being accepted is important," she told him. "That's a noble thing to want."
Now it was Henry's turn to ask. "What was the worst experience of your life?" he inquired.
Angelique, too, contemplated a long while before speaking. "I experienced a devastating tsunami," she said. "That was terrifying, but truthfully it wasn't the worst experience of my life."
"You don't have to say any more. If something was worse than a tsunami, it must've been deeply traumatic, and we don't know each other well enough yet."
"That's a wise thing to say, Henry Gutteridge."
Jasper delivered two steaming plates of food.
When the meal was over, Angelique offered to pay her share of the check, but Henry wouldn't hear of it.
After pulling up to the entrance of Angelique's house, Henry began to fidget.
The very last thing he wanted was to make an unwanted move. To alleviate the tension, Angelique leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you for a wonderful evening," she said. "Maybe we can do it again."
"I'd love that," Henry told her, certain she was merely being polite and had no intention of a second date.
The following afternoon, Henry sipped cappuccino at the local coffee house while perusing the employment opportunities in the newspaper. His thigh alerted him to the fact that a text was being delivered. He reached for the phone in his pocket, and when he saw that Angelique was inviting him to a charity event that weekend, his heart did a somersault. The text ended with the question, "Do you already have plans for Saturday evening?"
Henry chuckled. He had no plans for any evening.
The event (silent auction and French-Asian fusion dinner) was the second in a series of dates for the new couple. One night they saw a movie. Another night they went for a drive. A gentle kiss on the cheek ended each evening. The relationship seemed to be moving at a quiet, quotidian pace instead of with urgent speed, but Henry didn't mind. He could hardly believe he was part of a burgeoning romance with anyone let alone a woman like Angelique.
It was toward the end of the sixth date when the relationship advanced significantly. After a tasty dinner at a trendy vegetarian place called Roots & Radishes, Angelique invited Henry into her house. He made himself comfortable on the sectional sofa as Angelique dimmed the lights. Then she sat close to him, causing his body temperature to rise and pulse to race. The desire he felt was obvious; it was all he could do to breathe. "I love the fact that you've been such a gentleman, Henry," Angelique said, "but if you want to kiss me, I would kiss you back."
Even with this enticing invitation, Henry moved tentatively. First, he caressed her cheek. Then he brought his lips to hers and held them a half inch away, giving her time to change her mind. But she didn't. She remained perfectly still, eyes brimming with encouragement. The moment was so powerful, the air seemed to vibrate.
When she kissed him, Henry's pleasure spread from his lips down his body like a fever. Trembling, he moved his mouth down to her perfumed neck. He brought his body as close to Angelique's as he could, pressing against her, literally trying to reach beneath her physical beauty, attempting to leave his imprint. Moments later, she took Henry's hand and led him to the master bedroom. He moved cautiously, afraid he would trip on some priceless antique, a gorilla in a rose garden.
In Henry's eyes, Angelique was so impeccably exquisite, so perfectly delicate, she seemed breakable. At first he deliberately tried to contain the passion he felt for fear he would accidentally scratch her skin or crack a bone. But it wasn't long before Henry felt confident enough to let go of his inhibitions and perform with bravado.
Hours later, Henry caressed Angelique's arm as she drifted off to sleep. He peered around the room—the handmade Italian armchair in white leather, the art deco cabinet with its intricate carvings, the red velvet Louis XVI chaise lounge. Everything was foreign to him, but he knew he'd remember every detail just as he would recall every kiss, every touch, every sigh.
The bright sun blazed through the sheer silver curtains of Angelique's bedroom window, announcing the morning. To Henry it felt like a spotlight illuminating his happiness after living in the dark for so long. He didn't just feel alive, he felt like an active participant in the human race.
A similar scenario presented itself the following night. And the night after that.
And the night after that. One early Saturday morning, Angelique wiped the sleep from her eyes to find Henry gazing at her. "What are you looking at?" she playfully inquired.
"Just the world's most beautiful woman. Thank you for an unforgettable night."
"Thank you, fellow traveler," she said. "That's what we are, you know—a pair of solitary travelers who found each other in the remote jungle."
It pleased Henry to hear her talk of their relationship in such poetic terms. "I'm so glad we found each other."
"I am as well. Are you free for a drive later? There's something I need to tell you."
Suddenly Henry became tense, jumping to the conclusion she was ending the romance. "Anything serious?"
"No, nothing serious," she tried to convince him.
"Sure, I'm free later." He kissed her sweetly on the cheek. Then he quietly left the room with a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
The minutes of the day couldn't have moved with more excruciating slowness. Dreading the delivery of Angelique's news, Henry could barely function. He split his time between staring into the vast, cloudless sky with his dog Valmont and pacing the living room back and forth like a caged animal.
When dusk began to fall, Henry pulled up to Angelique's house and she climbed into the passenger seat. She wasted no time. "You might not want to see me again after I tell you what I'm about to tell you," she said.
"There's nothing you can say that would change what I feel for you," he assured her, "unless murder or torture were involved."
"No murder, no torture."
"Then we're fine."
"You're very sweet, Henry," Angelique said, "the sweetest man I ever knew." She spoke slowly and quietly, choosing her words with care. "If I showed you a picture of myself at age ten or 12, I guarantee you wouldn't recognize me."
"Why not?" he asked.
"I was very homely, gawky, and terrified all the time. My mother used to tell me I was the ugliest girl in the world."
"That's an unforgivable thing to say to a child."
"My father told me to ignore her, but it's impossible for a daughter to ignore what her mother says. I spent my entire childhood being as invisible as possible."
"Most childhoods aren't easy," Henry said.
"If Dad had been around more, things would've been different," she explained. "His work took him from city to city. It was a miracle I survived, Henry. I can't tell you how often I thought about jumping off a roof. Try to imagine a little girl's mother telling her over and over how ugly and hideous she is, how some other daughter, any other daughter, would make her proud." For a few moments, Angelique retreated into silence. "That's worse than experiencing a tsunami," she finally said.
Henry nodded with sympathy. "You're beautiful now, Angelique. It takes some women years to grow into their beauty."
"But the truth is I didn't grow into it," she stated matter-of-factly.
"I don't follow."
"The day I turned twenty-one," she said, "I inherited my father's fortune. Would you like to know how I spent it?"
"It makes no difference to me how you spent his money," Henry said.
"It might just make a world of difference." Her hands began to quiver. "I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cosmetic surgeries. Nineteen different procedures, head to toe. Nothing you see is real. My eyes, my cheeks, my nose, lips, hair, breasts, waist. Every single part of me is fake, Henry. Nothing of the original is left."
"Except what's inside," he assured her.
"I'm a phony, a fraud. My name isn't even Angelique Ruby. I changed that, too."
"What was your name?"
"Ada Ripp," Henry repeated. "I've heard worse. Did you have a middle name?"
"Yes I did," she said. "Debris."
"Debris?" he asked incredulously.
"My mother thought it sounded like the French version of Debra. Basically I was named after garbage."
"Do you know what this proves? It proves that despite your upbringing, you molded yourself into something spectacular. An insecure young girl can overcome a cruel, unloving mother and become a sophisticated, caring human being. This is a lesson for everyone."
"Take some time to think about it. I have one more surgery, the final one, next Friday."
"What more are you doing? You're perfect the way you are!"
"I won't look this way in ten or 15 years," she explained. "My face and body will fade. But I'd like to be as attractive as possible for as long as possible."
"You'll always be beautiful to me."
"That gives you six days, Henry," she told him, ignoring his comment. "There's a lot for you to think about."
Henry was at a loss for words. "Would you let me drive you to the surgery?" he asked.
She was touched. "That would be very nice."
Henry dreaded Friday, but it arrived with fierce, brutal force. A thick, blue-grey fog hung in the air. With Angelique in the passenger seat, Henry cautiously navigated the road to the medical facility. A light drizzle gradually turned into a deluge. The car's flimsy windshield wipers could barely keep up with the torrential rain. "I took the entire week to think about the situation, Angelique," he said.
"And...?" she asked.
"And I don't feel the least bit differently about you."
After driving for 30 minutes, Henry pulled into a parking spot near the entrance of the medical facility. The rain had stopped, but grey clouds hovered. Hand in hand, Henry and Angelique walked confidently toward the two-story brick building as if defying the darkness above them.
Dr. Avery Stafford was a commanding presence. Six feet tall with longish sandy hair, he wore a white doctor's coat, cleaned and pressed to perfection. He and his nurse Nadine greeted Angelique. "Are you ready for us?" the doctor asked.
"Most definitely," Angelique said.
Henry was told that the surgery would take 90 minutes, but the patient would be woozy for the rest of the day.
"Why don't you catch a movie at the cineplex we passed?" Angelique asked.
"Good idea," Henry said as he embraced her warmly. Then he watched the love of his life head down the long hallway toward her final surgery.
The movie, a thriller, was less than thrilling. When it ended, Henry exited the theater to find the rain had returned with a vengeance. Despite the weather, he drove fast, way above the speed limit. Luckily, there were no police cars in sight.
Henry took a seat in the waiting room of the medical facility and grabbed a magazine from the coffee table. He attempted to read, but the words all blended together; he simply couldn't focus. Ten long minutes later, Dr. Stafford entered the room with a grim expression.
"What's wrong?" Henry asked.
"Please come with me," the doctor quietly suggested.
Henry followed him to a small, nondescript room a few yards down the hall. "What happened? How is she?" he asked.
"Whenever a patient undergoes anesthesia," Dr. Stafford explained, "there's a risk."
"What are you telling me?" Henry asked.
"Complications due to anesthesia are quite rare. We did our best," Dr. Stafford said, "but she didn't wake up."
"What do you mean she didn't wake up? I want to see her."
"The patient had extremely high blood pressure, were you aware of that?" the doctor asked. Henry didn't respond. "We inserted a breathing tube into her windpipe, but it didn't work quickly enough."
"Can I see her please? I want to see Angelique," Henry said, panicked. Then he shouted. "I want to see Angelique!"
Angelique Ruby, or Ada Ripp as her chart read, had died on the operating table.
There was nothing Henry could do to bring her back.
For all intents and purposes, Henry Gutteridge stopped living. He barely ate, barely slept, rarely stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. Once again, he was alone in a chilly world, this time locked inside his grief. When he dared to look into his future, he saw cheerless, dreary days and lonely, depressing nights. His dreams of shared experiences and intimate conversations with Angelique had disappeared as if blown up by an atom bomb.
With hours turning into days spent thinking about his lost love, Henry realized she remained an enigma. He knew the broad strokes of her life, but he wasn't privy to the specific brushes, the choices of color. There was a deep sadness in the eyes that peered out from above the magnificently high cheekbones, and Henry was only beginning to understand her oblique, melancholy sensibility.
Angelique was a woman who created herself like a sculpture from a slab of clay, shaping and molding her image, studying, learning, and practicing how to appear worldly and sophisticated. She had longed for someone to come along and love the person beneath the beautiful façade, and she was thrilled when Henry had done just that. But Henry was plagued with guilt, wondering if he would have loved her if she hadn't been so beautiful, if she'd remained the plain, average-looking person she'd been before even considering cosmetic surgery. He didn't want to think about that possibility.
One gloomy afternoon, Henry ventured outdoors into the cold, raw weather. In his clunky brown boots, he ambled through grey sludge that only a day earlier had been pillows of glistening white snow. He made his way past shattered pines and rows of skeletal trees and found himself standing in the liquor section of the supermarket. Henry could feel his heart race; he was in an oasis that could satisfy every craving he felt.
The bottles shimmered brilliantly under the fluorescent light. One in particular, with its ornate silver packaging, seemed as if it had been designed for a king. He picked it up and saw it promised a satin flow across the palate. Henry wondered what satin tasted like. With enormous willpower, he placed the bottle back on the shelf and hurried away.
Exactly two weeks after her death, Henry received a certified letter from Angelique's attorney along with a copy of her last will and testament. The letter stated Angelique had legally changed the document just days before her passing.
Angelique had left everything to Henry—the palatial home, the bank account, the office building in Chicago. Then there were the possessions he hadn't even known about—a white Rolls-Royce, a townhome in Telluride, a yacht in Sag Harbor. All of it now belonged to Henry Gutteridge.
The change was baffling, bewildering and gradual. It took a long while for Henry to accept the fact that Angelique wanted him to enjoy a more upscale lifestyle. When he finally did, he purchased a modest two-story home and a Land Rover Discovery Sport big enough to fit Valmont, Angelique's three Yorkshire terriers, and the two additional dogs he rescued from the pound now that he had a huge, rolling backyard.
Then he learned the unfortunate lesson.
A man whose face could frighten a child, a man who would never look as good from the front as he did from the back, suddenly became the most popular man in the neighborhood. The quality Henry had previously lacked was a magnet for women. The moment they learned his address or saw the car he drove, they were hooked. It never failed: Whenever Henry ventured out on a Friday or Saturday evening, he found himself surrounded by a restless sea of attentive females.
Henry decided to spend most of his Friday and Saturday nights at home, playing with his high-spirited family of hounds and cherishing every moment he'd spent with Ada Debris Ripp.