Kyle used to be pretty. He used to stop them in their tracks. He pretended he didn’t notice how mouths hung open and brains whirred like slot machines as women and gay men struggled to manufacture something clever to say to him.
Pretty brought him far. His many friends, his job, his boyfriend—chalk them all up to Kyle’s looks. In fact, older men routinely sidled up at bars and told him in no uncertain terms that they’d like to kill Kyle and harvest his skin and wear it themselves, and they were only half-joking.
The boyfriend’s name back then was Chandler. Chandler was reasonably pretty, too, but lacked Kyle’s confidence. Right up until the end, Chandler was counting his lucky stars that he’d landed someone as pretty as Kyle, and he said nothing that might risk the liaison, even after Kyle proved to be the worst boyfriend in the world.
Kyle reasoned that he didn’t have to be a good or faithful boyfriend. Pretty had made him a promise. Pretty had excused him from ordinary obligations. Pretty said, You can have anyone and anything you want any time you want.
So Kyle was a little hard on Chandler. He was a little hard on a lot of people and a lot hard on a few. No doubt, there were people who cheered and laughed and clinked glasses the night pretty left Kyle behind.
It was like this. Kyle was out at a party and playing Cards Against Humanity, and each person whose answer wasn’t chosen had to do a shot. Kyle was pretty, but he wasn’t the funniest bastard in the room, so he downed a lot of casual shots.
After midnight, everyone stumbled out to the bar. Kyle’s best friend was at his side. He wasn’t nearly as pretty as Kyle, but he was a good sport, and he made the most of his assets, and he never begrudged Kyle the attention; he was happy to pick the leavings from the table, and he did pretty well. Even Kyle would have slept with him on a slow night if he hadn’t had a boyfriend. And well, maybe even so. (See above. Kyle wasn’t the best boyfriend in the world.)
At closing, Kyle and his best friend burst through the double doors into a night that was clean and pristine and full of catcalls and club-thump and the giggle-gaggles of those being seduced on the sidewalk. Buzzing like a telephone-pole transformer just before it explodes, Kyle and his best friend wandered away together, trading jibes and jokes, until they came to a door in the night on a side street neither of them had ever strayed down before.
Kyle had never seen a door in a night. He never knew it could have such clear edges and etchings. He never knew the handle could feel so damn cold. But the door was light on its hinges and easy to open. Kyle threw it back with gusto. When it closed on him again, Kyle threw it back even harder and passed through without a second thought. Kyle was pretty. His best friend was at his side. What could possibly go wrong?
Kyle is now, at best, handsome. In a rugged sort of way. And that’s probably a stretch. A kindness. His features aren’t true. His face is not his own. It bears the mark of another. A complete stranger. A man on a Porsche Boxster with a who-knows-what in his hands.
Kyle is forced to look at this face that’s not his own each morning when he shaves. This is not his nose. This is not his chin. This cracked jaw is not his. These false teeth he’d like to spit free. He wants to tear off his own skin. He wants exposed muscle and sinew, which have the virtue of being honest. Over forty-two individual muscles in the human face. Isn’t the human face a goddamn miracle?
Since that night at the Boxter, Kyle has made a fetish of his workout to make up the difference. Sometimes he gets his reward: he hears hot guys in the locker room saying after he passed things like, It’s not the face you fuck, and Cut off his head and he’d be hot.
Kyle was surprised to discover that being pretty had actually been a burden all along. Not that he says anything. Pretty was a privilege, and if he speaks up, he deserves all the mock violins and unsympathetic boohoos and the Welcome to the world the rest of us inhabit, asshole.
Kyle saw the boys sprawled on the Boxster. Pretty can make a man lazy and dumb, but it did dawn on Kyle in the most impersonal way possible that passersby on this particular street on this particular side of said door in the night might wish to cross to the other side of the road to avoid an unpleasant encounter. The boys were somehow sullen and rowdy at the same time. They were nursing beers and launching the occasional empty end-over-end at streetlights and cheering when they struck home and glass littered down like crystal.
His best friend, who hadn’t seen the door in the night and didn’t know Kyle’s fate was sealed, said, “Hey, you sure you want to go down here, man? I don’t like the looks of those guys.”
“Hey, Faggots!” one of the boys on the Boxster cried out in a singsong that meant no particular harm.
Kyle knew he shouldn’t respond. He wasn’t just a pretty face. He was a smart cookie.
But he was drunk and the part of him that couldn’t resist a fight and wanted to die and leave a good-looking corpse cleaved off from the half that went hustling toward the safety of the next alley. He didn’t give a single thought for his best friend’s safety, and he trundled after Kyle as Kyle almost certainly knew he would.
The boys sprang to their feet, and the Boxster fell away like a stage set stricken.
Kyle must have known how this would turn out.
His best friend called out his name uncertainly, saying, “Let’s go, man, let’s go.”
Kyle said, “Fuck no.”
Kyle walked straight into the meat grinder of bottles, fists, and swift kicks. Down he went. His best friend cried out and his nose crunched and a wet splatter pattered down on the sidewalk next to Kyle.
Kyle heard his mother’s voice in his head: You’ve got to get to your feet. The head injury in fights comes from getting kicked when down, not from a punch.
She knew. His mother was a nurse in the rehab hospital for brain and spinal cord injuries.
Get up. Get up. Get up, he heard her shriek.
Another ferocious rain of blows made Kyle stagger, swing wildly, fall again, then reach the edge of the Boxster’s bumper and haul himself up. One of them did then kick him, and a rib cracked, and some little old black woman came flying down the block shouting up a storm, and it was her, or Kyle’s broken jaw, or spat teeth, or the teeth cutting his lip, or all the blood–something scared the boys off. And then one of them came back, and he hit Kyle in the face with a what-he-never-saw.
Kyle knots his tie without help from the mirror into which he’s tired of looking because he hates what he sees. He spit-polishes his shoes, but not enough that he sees his own reflection.
What happened to Kyle wasn’t the end of the world. He now has a new boyfriend. A real one. Who loves him. He’s Kyle’s former best friend, and he’s never once blamed Kyle for getting his nose broken. Not a single word.
They share an apartment in Dorchester, and he ushers Kyle to the door. He’s still in pajama pants, because he works from home. Kyle has a job interview, his first since the incident beyond the door in the night.
“Good luck!” his boyfriend says.
Kyle freezes. Luck implies that the future hangs in the balance. That it might change, for better or for worse, if Kyle chanced to find a penny on the sidewalk or inched his way back through the door in the night.
Kyle’s not, to say the least, a big believer in luck. In his experience, it’s all about destiny. His mother is with him on this: Not unlucky, she says. Not lucky either. People make choices. Hit you a few inches to the left or right, and you’d be dead. But it’s not a matter of luck.
Still, as much as Kyle believes what’s going to happen will happen, Kyle says thanks and kisses his boyfriend goodbye. Kyle says, “I love you,”and sets the alarm and turns his key in all three locks and barricades his boyfriend inside. It’s one thing to believe in destiny and another to be patently stupid. Safety first. Take adequate precautions.
That’s Kyle’s motto now. That’s what it’s like. He’s a different person. He looks both ways twice before he crosses the road. He judges faces in crowds against the fading light. He dots his i’s and crosses his t’s and never go anywhere without telling people where he’s going and how long he’ll be gone, so they know where to look for the body.
Each morning, he makes the flesh that looks back at him a little promise: Today I won’t be afraid.
The flesh that looks back from the mirror has no fucking idea who he is.
The morning’s as unpretty as Kyle is—gray and cold and looking like it got smacked in the mug by a who-knows-what and shattered and put back together again by the best of a group of shrugging surgeons-but-not-miracle-workers. The windows on his street are mismatched and all the shades at different heights like drooping lids. He notices the flaws in the buildings’ masonry and, at the end of the block, a pair of signs for the same destination pointed opposite ways. It was as if some great childish God disassembled a model city and put it back together and only afterward discovered a piece had somehow gone missing, so that the world almost did what it was supposed to do, came tantalizingly close to its promise, but never quite made it.
Pretty used to work on more than gay men. Everyone wanted a little bit: other pretty people, bottomfeeders, starfuckers, cougars, cast-offs, the lonely, and would-be wingmen looking to make the most of disappointed girls. The first interviewer, for example, is the type of old straight white dude who would have loved Kyle when he was pretty, because Kyle would have reminded him of his young self, and Kyle would have become, briefly, the son he always wanted instead of the disappointing schlub he actually had at home.
Now, though, he eyes Kyle twice, squinting suspiciously, as if he just detected in Kyle’s face the shadow of a second person struggling to break the surface of the first. He comes across as duplicitous. Untrustworthy. He has to fight uphill to create a spark, to uncover the slightest connection. He resents that he has to do this. Pretty used to do it for him. It never used to be so hard.
The second interview goes worse. Kyle knows the guy instantly: he fucked him way back when Kyle was pretty and this guy was just average. He’d fucked him even though the guy exhibited that irritating combination of giddy, bumbling stupidity and unabashed fear characteristic of a lottery winner who couldn’t quite believe his luck and thought the prize might still be taken away from him. Kyle used to hate it when tricks like this one pointed out they didn’t deserve to sleep with someone as pretty as Kyle.
The lottery winner comes in, head down, obviously just looking at Kyle’s resume for the very first time. He stops in his tracks, his head cocks, as he reads and recognizes the name and is trying to remember where from. He looks up at Kyle. No recognition registers. He shrugs and obviously thinks to himself, Common enough sort of name. Fucked up face I’d remember.
The lottery winner extends his hand.
“Hello,” Kyle says, using the lottery winner’s name. “Remember me?”
Kyle invokes the lottery winner’s worst nightmare. Like he woke up hungover in a bed not his next to a stranger so old and ugly even beer goggles couldn’t justify the pity-fuck.
“I didn’t recognize you,” he gasps.
The two of them stumble through the interview because the lottery winner’s avoiding looking you in the face and addressing every question to the tabletop. But he’s too polite to ask What the fuck happened? And Kyle, for one, isn’t going to help him out of the jam. Let him ask if he wants to know about doors in the night and Boxsters and getting beaten by who-knows-what. It’s all a matter of public record. Ask Siri. Ask Cortana. Google it, motherfucker.
Kyle doesn’t need this job that bad.
At the door, the lottery winner finally steels himself to look Kyle straight in the eye, but he has trouble choosing which eye, because they’re ever-so-slightly uneven.
“Good to see you,” he says. “Glad you’re doing well.”
You’re not going to get this job is the underlying message. Who wants to spend all day staring being constantly reminded that the world as you know it could change on a dime?
Kyle’s boyfriend sits across from him at the dinner table as if it was a third interview.
“How did it go?” he asks.
Kyle’s tired of interrogation. Kyle’s tired of explaining that he’s doing just fine, assuring people no-it-doesn’t-hurt-any-more, and agreeing that he’s lucky, when luck had nothing to do with it.
Kyle forces himself to smile, which reminds him how crooked his smile has become, which prompts a flash of shame and an involuntary raising of napkin to face, but the shame is chased away because in truth he secretly kind of likes his new crooked smile, which is goofy and rare, and Kyle thinks his boyfriend probably likes it, too. He gently reaches over and touches Kyle’s wrist in a way that forces his hand down so there’s nothing between the two of them.
Threading the line between matter-of-fact and maudlin, Kyle recounts the old man’s distance and the lottery winner’s discomfort. Kyle’s boyfriend and former best friend laughs and says, Better luck next time. Kyle flinches at luck’s invocation, and he thinks He-and-I-are-so-very-different-this-can’t-last, and then he thinks, He and I are the only ones on earth who went through this and can possibly understand each other.
Kyle’s boyfriend says, “Wait a minute.”
Frowning, he recalls the detail you’ve just divulged. He asks, “You fucked the lottery winner?”
“Wasn’t he, like, Chandler’s best friend?”
It’s a minute before Kyle’s disappointed boyfriend nods. He very tidily, very deliberately, very stiffly gets up from the table and clears Kyle’s dishes and wipes down the kitchen and takes out the trash.
Kyle sits exactly where he was.
Much later, Kyle takes the Vitamin E oil down from the bathroom shelf. It’s been a nightly ritual since he left the hospital to rub oil on the scars, which he does with a certain grim determination.
His boyfriend appears over his shoulder in the mirror. He cocks his head and watches Kyle put a drop of oil on his fingertips.
Kyle’s new boyfriend says, “Let me do it.”
Kyle shrinks within his skin. At that moment, if Kyle lets his lips open and his tongue wag, something ungracious would almost certainly stream out, something un-generous, something that’s not Kyle, not how Kyle is today after the door opened for him in the night. The words will be spoken by a voice from beyond the door, perhaps the voice that properly belongs to this strange untrue face he now must wear.
Something clicks, and for an instant, it all makes a certain kind of sense, like finally putting a face to a name, or a name to a voice. Kyle turns to face his boyfriend, as if his boyfriend was a far better mirror than the one over the sink.