The Unseen Face

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Chapter 2 ~ December 7, 2009 ~

This began two weeks ago when I received a mysterious letter with the initials A.J. Its message was vague, just one line: I AM INNOCENT.

A.J. Who is A.J? I thought.

Convincing myself that the mailman dropped it on my doorstep by accident did create some peace in me. However, that peace didn’t last when I saw my name and address clearly written on the envelope. After a few days, simple worrying graduated to nightmares. Nightmares about Emilia.

These dreams were nasty. The kind of dreams that you get after watching a horror movie with ghosts that kill women and drink their blood. It was hard to see such horrible deeds done to the person I truly loved. Yes, it was in dreams, but I hated it still.

I hated it more when I could not stop thinking about these stupid dreams. I could not make them disappear from my head. They were vividly realistic, and their persistence haunted me. That was the beginning…before everything got really messed up.

My name is James Maddox. I am an employee of First Union Bank in New York City. People often told me how lucky I was to get a job in one of the biggest finance companies in the US. Well, as a high school dropout, I considered myself lucky, indeed. Even now, I sometimes wonder why they hired me. There are lots of qualified Online Bankers, I thought.

This was my fourth year in the company and I was still in my comfort zone, although the corporate bureaucracies could sometimes be frustrating. Since the company runs a 24 hour service, I worked in shifts, sometimes sacrificing my weekends or holidays. It was fun, though. I easily fit in with the people I worked with, like Richard O’Brien, my high school buddy.

We had lost contact with each other many years earlier, and he was a senior officer when I ran into him in the north corridor of the building. As if no time had passed at all he became my closest friend and mentor, and helped me dig further into the finance industry. I always enjoyed talking with Richard. Whatever the topic, he found the positive side, a true glass-half-full kind of guy.

When we had the same shift we’d spend hours in the parking lot after work, never running short on topics to discuss. Gorgeous women often dominated our chats, but we also talked about death, life after death, religion, politics and work. Other times we’d flashback to the glory days of our high school.

One night we were at our favorite spot in the parking lot. I was sitting on a concrete bench next to the sidewalk and Richard was sitting on his black, 65 Ford Mustang, eating a burrito. It was between two or three o’clock in the morning.

“I admit, I have never been in a situation like yours, but you have to move on, man,” Richard said with his mouth full.

Richard was pale-skinned in the dim lights. A small, silver crucifix hung from a silver chain around his neck. His fingers were adorned with silver rings. It was a cold night, the crisp air threatened snow, so Richard wore a camel hair overcoat. I was in my favorite vintage Soviet Navy coat, midnight blue, the same shade as my eyes. People often told me the contrasting sparkle of blue against my black hair and olive skin made my eyes hypnotic, sometimes haunting.

“I just feel like she was the one,” I remarked.

Was,” Richard reiterated.

“I know. It’s kinda sappy.”

“It’s not.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna say something that Iv’e kept to myself for too long,” I said, looking him in the eyes. “Don’t take for granted what you have with your wife. Everyman dreams of that kind of life with his girl, man. I thought I would have that with Emilia, and I still do. I keep waiting and waiting for it to happen, but it doesn’t, and I am tired of waiting. Tired. Tired.”

I punch the air like it is a visible enemy.

“You know, James, my wife once talked her way out of a speeding ticket.”

“Really?”

Eating while talking made Richard delay responding. “She was heading upstate to my parents’ house, doing like a hundred on this country road, and she got pulled over. The cop got out of his car. He kind of swaggered to her and he’s like, ‘young lady, I have been waiting for you all day.’ My wife looked up at him and said, “I’m so sorry, officer. I got here as fast as I could.’”

We both laughed.

Quickly, he wiped off a piece of food dangling on his lip.

I chuckled. “For real?”

Richard laughed softly. “No. It’s an old joke. Look, my point is, I know that you’re tired of waiting, and you may have to wait a little while more, but she’s on her way, James. And she’s getting here as fast as she can. Or, probably she’s already here, but you can’t see her yet, if you know who I’m referring to.”

“It’s not that easy to let go, you know.”

“Who said it’s gonna be easy? But, man, it has been like what? Years? Not that I’m saying it’s not a big deal. I just—”

“It is a big deal, okay?” I responded with blazing eyes.

“And you know why it’s such a big deal for you, why you’re not over her yet? It’s because you can still picture her everywhere. You can’t get over someone until you can no longer picture them. It’s a scientific fact.”

“Right. And you’re the expert,” I said sarcastically.

Richard threw away the rest of his burrito into the bin.

“I’m saying that it seems like your hard drive is filled to capacity by her pictures only.”

“There are lots of them.”

“James, grow up, man. What is wrong with you?” Richard shouts, staring at my face. “They won’t go away on their own. You have to overwrite them with fresh images. Images of a great woman. You know who I’m talking about.”

I rolled a large joint and crumbled some skunk between my fingers, then sprinkled it on the paper. I added some tobacco and carefully rolled the paper between my thumbs and fingers several times. “I don’t know why I feel this way,” I said, after licking the gluey side of the paper and rolling it tightly.

“I think you know exactly why,” Richard said.

“Do I?”

I ripped off a small square from the packet of rolling papers and rolled it tightly into a small cylinder. Then I carefully inserted one end of the joint. Richard insisted that I lick the nearly completed joint a couple more times to ensure it was sealed. I twisted the open end of the joint and held it at arm's length, admiring my good work.

“Are you gonna smoke the fuckin thing?” Richard asked, as he handed over his lighter.

“Easy there, stoner.” I lit the joint and took several long and slow tokes before offering it to him. He eagerly grabbed at the joint, but I jerked it away.

“Man!” Richard glared.

I grinned. Eventually, I handed it over.

He drew heavy tokes. Then he leaned his head backwards, enjoying the light-headed feeling. Slowly, he exhaled and closed his eyes for several seconds.

I snatched the joint and drew heavily. “Man, it feels to me that it wasn’t her time. She had dreams. She had a purpose,” I continued.

“And that means what?” Richard asked. “You, too, have a purpose, James. You see, everyone we know will one day be dead. What can we do about it? Death is the most natural thing there is, and we don’t question it. Doesn’t matter what we do, or what we don’t do. It happens, and it’s natural.”

“Fuck me! Am I in a group therapy now? Are you gonna charge me after this?” I snapped.

Richard laughed and pointed to the joint. “I accept weed. Hand it over.”

I handed Richard the joint, and he took a long toke that finished it.

“Look, I know what it’s like to feel sorry for myself,” he finally said.

“Oh, do you?” I asked.

He nodded. “Yes, but in a different situation. I used to feel lonely, and had no direction and no purpose—”

“Yeah, I know, until you found God,” I interrupted.

“Until I met someone who changed my outlook on the world, and that person is waiting for me at home at this very moment. You see, we all have purposes. Just because you’re facing this shit doesn’t mean you’ve lost yours,” he lectured.

Then he shifted uncomfortably on the car and strengthened his seat position. “You know how I used to bang a lot of chicks back in the day? Asian, black, white—I enjoyed everybody.”

“You have been sexually active, I know.”

“Damn right, I was.”

I snorted. “And now you feel pressured to live up to that kind of label?”

“No. That’s the thing. It’s not a label. It’s just something I used to do. Many men have done it. Some are still doing it.”

“Sure.”

“But when I got married two years ago, I vowed to give up all that crap,” he continued. “I hung up my spurs, put the pony in the paddock—no more chasing girls, no more making out with random chicks I met at the bar.”

“You might also add that you made a commitment. Just get me to the point.”

“My point , I was far more broken than you are now.”

“Right. Banging tons of chicks…broken. I wonder who’s got the real issues here,” I mocked.

“Whatever. Just look at me now.”

“And what am I looking at exactly?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking you to settle down and have kids with Jen. But Jesus, James, life must go on. You gotta move on at some point cause there’s a whole life waiting for you. A decent and real one. But you want nothing to do with it.”

“Yeah, guess you’re right, but…”

“Tell me, what will happen if Jen finds out about this?” He asked.

“Ah, here we go again.” My eyes drifted away.

“Look at me! Don’t go all Waiting to Exhale on me, James. Jen is too good for you to lose. She’s the real deal,” he shouted instinctively. “You don’t seem to know what a lucky bastard you really are. I understand you have all this baggage, but I’m pretty damn sure everyone has their own shit to deal with, too. You’ve got to find a way to move on cause it’s part of life, and like anything else, it’s easier when you let someone give you a hand with it.”

To be honest, I found it hard to see how lucky I really was. I mean, how could I be so blinded by the memories of my past. I’d wasted so much of my time mourning. I should have been grateful for what I did have: a job, good health, a social life, a new relationship, and many other things.

I ought to be aware that time would eventually heal the wound that Emilia had left. But how? I was imprisoned by our classic, tragic love story.

Having relationships with girls was never my thing. I was not sure what to call what was going on between Jennifer and I, but love was definitely a strong word. It was nothing more than a fling, I guess. However, in my twenty-two years of life, I had only had one serious relationship. And that love became my nightmare.

It was Emilia Torres who took my heart. She was my sunrise and sunset, my east and west, my winter and summer. The sweetest thing I had ever had.

When I first met Emilia in high school, I was hooked. She was smart, passionate, and driven, not to mention she had a teen-magazine-cover face, a smooth, yellow complexion, and a Spanish guitar shaped body. She was a perfect ten. She was lovelier than the brightest angel of heaven. She was a got-your-back kind of girl. I did what a good boy would do when he found the girl he’d dreamt of his whole life. I went all the way. I gave her my heart. All of it.

Everything seemed like a fairy tale, and love began to crystallize between us. It felt to me like nothing could separate us, but I was wrong. She hid her disease from me for over two years before I found out. She was suffering from an infection of her brain tissues. No one knew what triggered the infection. It seemed to come out of nowhere.

During Emilia’s weeks in the hospital, I heard a radio host asking the question, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ That question rang in my head a lot. I tried to be there for her in every way a lover should, but it just seemed like it was never enough.

Finally, the day came when the reality that she was getting worse began to sink in. She passed away a month later, and it killed me. My kingdom of love fell apart and it has remained like that ever since. But as Richard said, life must go on.

“James, I’m sick of doing this Dr. Phil shit on you every night,” Richard said, breaking the silence. “I know this thing has been hard on you.”

I snorted. “Tell me about it.”

“I know it sucks. But look, sometimes things need to fall apart to make way for better things,” he continued.

“If you say so,” I muttered.

“I’m saying the eggs are already broken, but let’s make sure you’re still able to make a good omelet.”

“So, the eggs are my heart?” I smiled.

“Your head, you dumb ass,” he shouted before checking his phone.

“Got an appointment?”

“You might wanna consider talking to someone. Try a shrink,” he recommended.

“Excuse me?” I growled, glaring at him.

He shrugged.

“Look, you can’t beat the shit out of yourself, forever. Plus, you’re not making any progress sharing this stuff with me. So, why not try an expert?”

“Seriously? Are you shitting me?”

“You have some serious shit going on, man. At least do it for Jen. She needs somebody who can tell her that everything is gonna be just fine.”

“Leave her out of this. She knows nothing, and it’s none of her business, anyway.”

“Damn! I feel sorry for her.”

“Why are you always taking her side?”

“Because you’re a bit of a pussy, you know that?”

“Oh? I’m a pussy. That’s why—”

“You’re too afraid to let go of your past.”

“You think I like being like this?”

“Listen, man,” he said with a very serious face. “Don’t bury this shit any deeper. You may not realize how messed up your life is, but in time, that quite voice in your head is gonna knock you on your ass.”

My eyes widened.

“James, when dealing with deep depression or sad shit, it’s cool to pretend like nothing is wrong. That works sometimes.” He slid closer to me. “But eventually, something inside you will call up and say, ‘you’re fucked up, dude! You have to do something.’”

“But a shrink? Come on. I’m not that fucked up.”

“This is not you. This is not the person I knew in high school. You remember the first time we met? I showed up in the classroom and freaked out, but there was this boy, smiling at me with his crazy stare. Had headphones on, humming around people like he just didn’t give a crap. Happy, confident, not afraid of anything. That boy was you.”

“Just so you know, I was stoned.”

Richard smiled. “What I’m trying to say is there’s a version of you without Emilia, and it’s not this. You can’t let her death steal the real you.”

“Sometimes I think I hear her laugh. Then I turn around, expecting her to be there. Silly, I know,” I said smiling bitterly.

“No. No, it’s not silly. Those are memories. Memories are what our lives end up being. We gotta hang on to the good ones, and let the bad ones go. Never let them haunt us.”

All the way home, Richard’s voice kept screaming in my head like a broken record. I really didn’t want to take his advice. It felt like admitting to having a mental disorder. Everything is still under control, I am not crazy, I thought.

What is the big deal about psychiatrists anyway? Is there a guarantee that the problem will go away if I share it with them? Do they have special abilities to solve this kind of problem? Or it’s all about talking and sharing, isn’t it? So, what difference will it make? That kind of skepticism kept poisoning my brain.

I had just passed Mitchell Street when I remembered that my school was not far from the tunnel. Of course, thinking about it stimulated memories of the old days in high school with my Emilia. I actually didn’t want to think about her, but the fact that I had to pass that route every single day made it impossible not to. Ironic indeed.

Time seemed to no longer exist whenever I daydreamed about Emilia. Without realizing it, my bike turned into an alley where I found a minimalist-style, ancient house with a black-painted fence. Some of the houses nearby looked dark, probably because during the holiday season most people travelled.

I looked at the yellowish white building in front of me and realized that, even though it seemed ugly, it was the place where I had lived for the past eleven years.

There was still a sense of comfort every time I set foot on that place. Perhaps that’s why they say, ‘home sweet home—there is no place like home.’

I imagined my elder sister, Jasmine, sleeping with a blanket draped over her from head to toe. My brother, Aries, always fell asleep on the couch when my parents were already in bed, with Vicky, their lazy Labrador dog, lying somewhere near them.

For nearly five minutes, I manipulated my mind into seeing it before my life fell apart. Before I had moved out after realizing there was no life inside that house anymore. Literally no life. Honestly speaking, I did that quite often, picturing the inside of the house in those days. It soothed my soul and melted my heart, and at times, moistened my eyes with the sting of my memories.

My mother passed away five years ago, and my father a year later. They both suffered from an unknown disease. The doctors only mentioned complications…complications.

After the death of my father, my brother rarely went home. For no reason, he became very busy. For him, the house was no more than a place to dispose of his dirty laundry. I would go months without seeing him. I always wondered what he was doing.

Jasmine got busy with her own world. Two years ago, she married her former boss, and had a baby boy. Having a newborn child was her excuse for not seeing me. I found that reasonable. The last time she visited me was last year, only because I called to let her know that Vicky had died.

So, there I was, standing alone at dawn, playing with my mind. Home sweet home. It was a bit awkward saying that. However, the place was a witness to the downfalls during the last eleven years of my life. There were so many stories, so much laughter, and so many tears inside that dull-looking building. Somehow, that was still home for me.

When I laid down on the couch, the time on my phone showed half past four in the morning.

I made a huge mistake by looking at pictures of Emilia. They were in a folder in my cell phone. Seeing them made me ache, made me feel like slicing my veins with a knife just to put salt on the wounds of which I could never quite reach. I might not have been dead, but this was surely killing me. The weird thing was, I kept on repeating that stupidity almost every night, as if somehow the pain gave me the strength to keep going.

At times I thought, what does a day mean without thinking of her? The earth could shake the sun and kill the moon, and still not bring me such a life in this world. Yes, I know how pathetic it might sound. If somehow that is a curse, then let it be my sweet damnation, because heaven made me to be such a loving man, I swore in faith.

It was strange and pitiful, but joyful in some ways, too. I loved her for the pain I felt, and I did pity them. That was the only witchcraft I have ever used.

As the last cigarette burned out, the day ended with plumes of smoke in my lungs, crystal pains in my heart, and emptiness inside the house.

Lying on my bed, I looked at the artificial stars on the ceiling and let the darkness accompany me. I imagined myself lying peacefully in a vast expanse of grass, enjoying the beauty of the night. I felt the breeze caressing my face with a sweet touch until I fell asleep.


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