Today I was looking through old fragments of stories and stumbled upon one I had forgotten about -- one featuring this guy. I think it's pretty good, actually.
"Nobody loves me," J. Zander confided, one dark winter's night, to his housekeeper.
He had been saying this to himself for the past hour and a half, chanting it subvocally like the chorus of a song to which he had forgotten the rest of the words. He had gone out to his club and come home alone, smelling faintly of brandy and cigar smoke, not exactly drunk but very full of self-pity. Unbidden, the housekeeper had brought him coffee, and as she bent to stoke the fire he finally said the words out loud: "Nobody loves me, Ancelina."
The housekeeper replaced the poker and straightened up. "Miss Leaf loves you," she said.
"Her name is Levertov," said J. Zander. "Mrs. Patrick Levertov."
"Mrs. Levertov loves you," said Ancelina.
"She doesn't love me," said J. Zander. "I just remind her of Tim."
"Well," said Ancelina, noncommittally.
"People loved him," said J. Zander.
"Miss Leaf certainly did," said Ancelina.
"He was more lovable than me," said J. Zander, downing half his coffee at a gulp.
"I couldn't say, sir," said Ancelina.
J. Zander sighed and stood up. "Good night," he said.
"Good night, Master J," said Ancelina.
As J. Zander climbed the stairs to his bedroom the words repeated themselves in his mind: nobody loves me, nobody loves me. Somehow they were not quite right. He wanted to remember the rest of the words to the song, but still he could only remember the chorus. It ran through his mind as he brushed his teeth and splashed water on his face, as he gargled with Listerine and undressed and climbed into bed. It was only as he began to sink down toward sleep that the doors of his subconscious unlocked and swung open, revealing what he had been looking for.
"Everybody thinks I'm ugly," he said, just before he fell asleep.
He had forgotten all about this the next morning: the memory was swept away on a tide of brandy fumes and exhaustion. All that remained was a vague sense of discontent, which he at first ignored, assuming that it was a mild hangover or a symptom of gastrointestinal distress. It didn't go away, though, and by midafternoon he was sitting with his head on his desk, wondering what was bothering him.
He realized what it was, finally, as he drove (too fast) up the winding road that led to his house. As he drove, he looked alternately at the road and at the woman in the seat next to him, wondering if he found her attractive or not. It was possible that he did; at the same time, it was at least as possible that he didn't, but was so grateful to have her with him that he couldn't tell yet. He had left his office in the full flush of the afternoon to find her and succeeded so quickly that it was barely dusk.
J. Zander had a tendency to confuse being attracted with being attractive: when he saw a beautiful woman, he tended to forget that he was not sure if he was good-looking himself. The doubt tended to surface most when he was alone, or surrounded by men -- particularly if they were dowdy middle-aged men, which made meetings with the board of directors particularly trying -- or, as now, when he was with women he was not unequivocally attracted to. It was as if, on some level, he thought of beauty and ugliness as contagious qualities, or as qualities that tended to assemble into discrete groups: if there was one ugly person in the room, there might be more, and for all he knew it might be him.
So as he peeked at the woman sitting next to him in his car, wondering if he was truly attracted to her, it finally occurred to him to wonder, as he had often wondered before, if he was himself attractive. He knew immediately that this was the thing that had been bothering him all day.
"Aha!" he yelled, and stomped on the gas, driving the rest of the way up the hill at ninety-five miles an hour.
He thought that if he drank a lot more it might help him stop worrying about being ugly. And even if it didn't, he figured that the next day he wouldn't remember having been worried the night before, which was almost as good. So he and Abby (for such was her name) sat on the floor of the bathroom at the end of the second-floor hallway, and she drank vodka, and he drank tequila, and they admired the decisive noises their shotglasses made when they set them down on the marble floor.
It wasn't such a strange place to drink, because it was the largest bathroom in the house, the size of a smallish studio apartment, and so beautiful, made of soft pink marble veined with palest gray, that when not in use it resembled an indoor garden. The bath, which took up nearly half the room, was recessed into the floor, and was really more like a fountain in which it was possible to bathe: hot water ran down the wall from vents near the ceiling, plashing and glittering over the pattern of frosted glass tiles behind it. The tiles were green and yellow and blue, and the pattern they made was raised in some places, so that the water made a beautiful noise as it went over them, like the sound of a shallow stream.
It soon worked its calmative effect on both of them: they laughed, and took their shoes off and paddled their feet in the water. J. Zander decided, to his relief, that he was genuinely attracted to Abby, and this, combined with the liberal amounts of tequila he had imbibed, and the soothing sounds of the bathing fountain, finally anaesthetized his worry. And because it was no longer a pressing concern, he was finally able to ask her something he had never asked a woman before: "Am I ugly?"
"Ugly? You? No," said Abby, and laughed. (She had herself consumed, while not quite as much of vodka as he had of tequila, still quite a lot.)
"Of course, you're drunk," he said.
"That's true," she said. "But you're still not ugly."
"Hm," he said, uncertainly, and took another gulp from the bottle of tequila. (He had given up pouring it into the shotglass; it seemed like a waste of motion.)
"Why, do you think you are?" Abby asked.
J. Zander reached down to trail his fingers in the water. "I don't know," he said.
She set down her shotglass with a resolute click, stood up, and started taking off her clothes. He watched her. Soon she was naked except for the rings on her fingers, and the wetness already on her feet, which glistened in the light like the thinnest of gossamer stockings. She perched on the rim of the bathtub and slid into the water. "Are you coming in?" she asked.
He still had his feet in the water and the bottle in his hand, the fingers of his other hand trailing in the water; he had been thinking, as he watched her get in, of what would happen if she were to pass out and drown. It would be very bad press, and he would probably be sued, though the thought of being sued didn't worry him much more than the thought of being stung worries a beekeeper. But he would rather that she didn't pass out and drown, because he had enough to worry about, and he was thinking that perhaps it would be a good idea for him to remain where he was, as a lifeguard.
"Well, are you?" asked Abby.
"I don't know," he said again.
Abby splashed over to him, causing a wake that lapped over the edge of the bathtub, dampening his pant legs. Standing in the recessed bathtub, she was a little shorter than he was, sitting at its edge; she reached up and started unbuttoning his shirt with her wet fingers. "What's the point if you don't come in?" she was saying, as her hands left wet evidence of their passage up and down his shirt front. J. Zander felt as if someone were weeping on his chest.
He consented to have her pull his shirt off and discard it, and then, resigned to the inevitable, stood up and took the rest of his clothes off. Abby floated on her back, watching him undress as he had watched her, and pulled him in by his ankles when he sat down again on the bathtub's edge. The water, a little over two feet deep, lapped around his shoulders and then receded again. Abby laughed.
J. Zander laughed too. "You still think I'm not ugly?" he said.
"Sure I do," said Abby. "Think you're not ugly, that is."
J. Zander was happy at that moment, being moderately drunk and naked in a bathtub with a naked woman, with his head back against the glass tiles on the wall so that the warm water ran down his neck and he could hear the sound of the fountain in his ears, as if their soothing spirit were trying to find the quickest way to his brain; but none of these things placated him enough that he could ignore the discontent that moved at the back of his mind, a barred tiger in long grass. He couldn't believe her when she said that he wasn't ugly; he couldn't know that when she thought of him she wasn't really thinking of pink marble veined with palest gray, of green and yellow and blue tiles of frosted glass that looked like the first powdery snowfall on a frozen lake, or a glittering indoor waterfall that made the most soothing noise in the world.
Without having to try, he knew that the result would be the same with any other woman he met, and he certainly didn't want to get into the habit of asking women if he was ugly. He asked Ancelina, experimentally, but she only laughed and said, "I can't tell; I've known you since you were six!"
"All right, then," he said. "What about John Zander?"
This occurred to him in a flash of brilliance, for he looked a great deal like his youngest uncle, and Ancelina had not lived in the same house with him for twenty-five years. But Ancelina said, "I don't like the way he looks -- he always looks angry." This was no help.
The problem, of course, was that he couldn't trust the professed opinion of anyone who knew who he was -- and there were a lot of people who knew who he was. The solution was equally obvious, though annoying: he had to find someone who didn't know who he was, and put the question to her. The company always ran itself perfectly well in his absence, and so he got into his private jet and flew to London.
This turned out not to be as helpful as he'd hoped. He was nearly as well known in London as he would have been in New York or Los Angeles, which was nearly as well known as he would have been in Seattle. He did not recall until he was on the ground again that Penheligon Industries had bought out Tamarind Software, an English company, less than two months earlier; his picture had been in The Daily Mail and The Times of London so recently that hundreds of copies of his face were probably still yellowing on coffee tables around the city, collecting Earl Gray stains, even as he walked down Gower Street on the evening of his arrival. (There was no need for him to walk anywhere, and indeed nowhere he wanted to go, but he had just been in a plane for fifteen hours and felt highly stir-crazy.) He was tired and irritable -- even more so than could be accounted for by the long flight, because he had just remembered that he had yet to find a good cup of coffee in the whole of Great Britain.
This was only the beginning of his sorrows. He was staying at the Palace Hotel, and as he gulped the coffee they brought to his room, closing his eyes as he drank as if he were receiving an injection, it occurred to him that he knew people in London, many people in fact, and that he was going to have to avoid them. He didn't want to explain to anyone why he was there. And the idea of lying was nearly as odious, because he hated to be reminded that he cared what people thought.
He stayed in the room only long enough to shower, change clothes, and swallow enough coffee to remind himself that he was alive; then he was gone again, into the mahogany elevator, muttering to himself "let's get this over with," as he descended. The phrase, once it had occurred to him, repeated itself in his mind, and to his mind's ear it sounded like another line from the song he had tried to remember, the song whose chorus was nobody loves me. At the moment, however, he was clean enough to squeak, and smelled ever so faintly of cologne, and was caffeinated enough to think of the task ahead and feel pleasure at how easily he was sure to accomplish it. He knew that in an hour he would reek of pub smoke and be utterly dejected, but at the moment it didn't matter.
Ordinarily J. Zander wore a suit. Three-piece, dark gray silk, Giorgio Armani. In a rare display of both foresight and the good grace to resign himself to the inevitable, he had decided early in life to get used to wearing one, and succeeded so well that by the time he was seventeen he felt strange wearing anything else. On those rare occasions when he did wear something else (unless he was golfing) he could barely recognize himself -- he would stand, momentarily transfixed, in front of mirrors, as if he'd just caught sight of the identical twin from whom he'd been separated at birth. His hair was naturally unruly, and required quantities of styling gel to do nothing more than lie down, so that ordinarily it was as stiff and immobile as a rosebud encased in Lucite: when he touched it he was half afraid that it would cut his fingers. His watch fob and the ring on his right hand glittered as he walked. Altogether he ordinarily looked like something polished to a high gloss by a power buffer.
Tonight he had allowed himself to tarnish: he had left off his watch and his father's wedding ring and, divesting himself of his suit, had put on a pair of khakis instead, and a buttondown shirt with no tie. His hair was the most startling thing, because for the first time that he could remember he was venturing out in public without having done anything more than comb it. Already, as he reached reflexively for his throat in the elevator and was dismayed to find no tie there to straighten, it was drying, and as it did so it was springing effortlessly out of the shackles the comb had sought to impose upon it. Intoxicated with its new freedom it sought strength in numbers, forming spikes and wavelets, and rose up, trying to get away from his head entirely before he could imprison it again.
When he saw his reflection in the mirror in the hotel lobby he could not resist staring at it, thinking that he looked as if he'd just rolled out of bed wearing an exceptionally well ironed pair of pajamas. "Let's get this over with," he said to his reflection.
Get it over with he did. Her name was El, short, she said, for Eleanor; when he told her that his name was J, she thought at first that he had made it up. "No, really," he said.
"Short for what?" she asked.
"Jonah," he said, admiring the curve of her lower lip.
J. Zander rarely imagined the sex act itself. He tended to fast-forward past that part, merely alluding to it as the prerequisite for whatever came afterward -- not because he didn't look forward to it, but rather because it aroused him to draw a veil over the proceedings. They were like a Christmas present, which is always best in the moment before it is opened, when it might be anything. He was attracted to El, unequivocally so; he thought with great pleasure of waking up with her the next morning and summoning hot tea from room service. He was contemplating her dainty feet curled up under her on a chair in his rooms, and he knew that sometime after this moment, and before the tea, something else was going to happen. He knew it was there, but he felt no urge to imagine it in vulgar detail: he only found sexual fantasies satisfying in the abstract, not when associated with anything that would actually happen to him within the next few minutes.
After those few minutes had elapsed, and after they had gone through the predictable, sweaty exercises that followed, J. Zander took advantage of the feeling of invulnerability that always stole over him afterwards (illusory though he knew it was). While he was still drowsy and godlike he asked El, "Am I ugly?"
He saw her eyes gleam in the moonlight as she pulled back to look at him. "Ugly?" she said. "You? No."
J. Zander wondered if this was a line all women worldwide learned in their adolescence. He imagined himself deep in the jewel-green heart of some Brazilian jungle, warm breezes caressing his face, a darkly beautiful stranger whispering into his ear, "Feio? Você? No..."
This unwelcome thought crossed his mind in the instant before El said, "You're gorgeous."
He blinked; a crease appeared between his eyebrows. "I am?"
She smiled at him. "Hasn't anyone ever told you that?"
"No," he said, and the crease between his eyebrows deepened. He thought of every Anne and Amy and Liz he'd ever gone to bed with, hundreds and hundreds of them, each one of them representing dozens of wasted opportunities to tell him he was gorgeous. That was thousands of opportunities, bright delicate things like Christmas-tree baubles that those hundreds of women had carried into his bedroom and then let drop, never saving a single one. Years before, he remembered (though not very clearly), he had come home drunk and angry and used a fireplace poker to bat several Steuben glass candlesticks across the green parlor. Even so had every last Jenny taken batting practice with those perfectly good opportunities, and here he had been walking barefoot over the bright shards for years without noticing.
"It's true," said El.
J. Zander couldn't quite believe her, but he didn't know how to tell her so. He knew of no protocol whatsoever for this situation.
"You've lovely eyes," she said.
He dared not say anything that might contaminate the evidence. He dared not say (as he probably would have under ordinary circumstances) Is that the best you can do? or Dear God, I must be uglier than I thought. He confined himself to "Thank you."
"And you're tall," she said.
He couldn't thank her for that; it was a statement of fact. "That's true," he said. "Not that it matters much, lying down."
"Your eyes, though," she said. "And your face."
This was something else. The world was full of ugly people with lovely eyes, but it was not full of ugly people with lovely faces. He was something of an expert at maintaining a facial expression that was completely at odds with whatever he was thinking or feeling, so it took very little effort for him not to appear concerned or even particularly interested. Nor was it hard for him not to ask, What about my face?, though he would have liked to.
"What makes you think you're ugly?" asked El.
"Someone told me I was," said J. Zander.
"A woman of my acquaintance."
"She's a liar," said El. "You've got a beautiful face."
She curled up then, and arranged herself for sleep. J. Zander put his arms behind his head and scowled at the ceiling. That was it, then: he had a beautiful face. Now he could go home. He would wake up and ring for tea and scones, and after breakfast he would chase El out, and then he would get back into his plane and go home. His uneasiness was not entirely dispelled, but he was smart enough to have foreseen that it would not be. He was also smart enough to know that when El had told him he had lovely eyes and then fallen asleep, she had dispelled that uneasiness as much as it ever would be dispelled: five hundred more women, each extolling his beauty in lavish detail, would not make him feel substantially better. So there it was. He fell asleep fairly contented, proud of himself for having succeeded so quickly, and thinking with renewed pleasure of the next morning's tea.
The next morning, however, before the tea, he awoke and knew immediately and without any possibility of a doubt that El was no longer in bed with him. When he sat up he could see that she was not anywhere in the room, and when he got out of bed he quickly ascertained that she was not in the bathroom, either, or in the adjoining room. He put on his dressing gown and rang for the maid he had brought with him from home.
"Lila," he said. "Have you seen my guest? Did she go somewhere?"
"No sir," said Lila. "I haven't seen her."
They determined, in short order, that El was gone. So was the seventy pounds he'd had in his wallet. The wallet itself remained, as did his watch and ring, which he had locked up the night before in a small portable safe inside the locked oak wardrobe. Of all the things he had brought to England with him, including the Learjet he'd brought them all in, the ring was the only thing he really cared about. He cared about the money least of all: he might have lost ten or fifty or a hundred times what El had taken from him without blinking, and it was primarily a fear of introducing some foreign germ into his body that prevented him from using thousand-pound notes to blow his nose. It was not the money he was thinking of an hour later as he moodily surveyed the scones with clotted cream and thyme-scented honey, the eggs and bacon and kippers, the paper-thin wedges of toast garnished with lox and caviar and pâté de foie gras that were set before him at the London affiliate of his gentlemen's club. As he sipped and nibbled he was occupied primarily with feeling foolish.
[At which point the text abruptly stops.]