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You're only a man. You never claimed immunity to the power of beauty. While the stuff is only skin deep, that's deep enough -- what else can you see across a crowded room? Superficial jerks and poetic romantics alike are obliged to make first impressions based on physical appearance, and nothing can be done to change that.

You have been working in middle management at a big corporation for a few short months when a young woman called Tess gets an entry-level position and becomes a part of your life. What is there to say about Tess? Her beauty strikes you first and foremost. Where to begin?

Tess. This is a woman whose eyes sparkle like magical gems from another dimension. They are jewels with the supernatural power to warm one's heart and soul. Those eyes could likely see every nook and cranny in your mind and perceive every emotion that slips though your consciousness. Her smile acts an accessory, creating a comfortable world where joy has no opposition, instantly shifting from a devilish grin to a schoolgirl's blush. Her body, petite and slender, could be sensibly occupied by a young lady in her early teens. Tess, however, expresses a casual knowledge of her body that comes with maturity: displaying good posture while avoiding stiffness, swinging her hips without appearing cheap, keeping her hands at rest during idle moments, making intimate conversation without standing too closely. A youthful body like hers can seldom display such grace. It is a delight to watch her move. Her hair is straight and neat, tumbling to her shoulders on those occasions when she lets it down. It resembles spun gold, if such a thing exists. Does it reflect light -- or generate it? When she uses two fingers to push stray hairs behind one ear, it seems as is flowers are being arranged by a seasoned master.

Tess is beautiful. You are not so lucky. All of this is true and obvious.

Like most employees in your workplace, Tess is a graduate of the state university with a reputation for breeding hard drinkers. Without delay, Tess is accepted into one of the office cliques -- the boozer society, obviously enough. You came from out-of-state and had no such fraternity background. You only became a member of the boozer society after struggling to earn their goodwill. All things come easily to the beautiful people. You resent Tess, and believe that you have good cause.

As time passes, you find no reason to question your feelings. You keep a close eye on Tess. You notice how she brims with self-confidence and attribute this to the constant attention she receives from single men in her department. She is a pretty girl, and looks go a long way in this office. You are offended. You want nothing to do with Tess, and go out of your way to avoid her.

The boozer society gets together at a local pool hall for a few beers to celebrate the end of the week. The table is nearly full when you arrive; the only empty seat is across from Tess. You sit down and say hello. She nods, but does not reply. The situation is uncomfortable, so you nervously start to relate a few anecdotes about your hometown. Her attention is careful and complete. You consider this to be a pleasant surprise.

Before long, the two of you are sharing college experiences.

"My residence hall was next door to the university hospital," you say, "and it was the only real hospital for a hundred miles. Every day, I saw cripples walking down the street. It freaked me out at first but I got used to it. Blind men, wheelchairs, missing limbs. I never see people like that anymore."

"Did you ever see a burn victim?" she asks.

"All the time," you say, "but that's an exception -- I never grew numb to that. It's one of my greatest terrors. I wouldn't want to survive being burned."

"Yes, you would," she says.

"I don't think I could handle looking in the mirror every day with the knowledge that I was once without scars." You think for a moment. "Why do you ask about burn victims?"

"No reason."

"One time I saw this woman -- this totally hideous woman -- waiting for a bus. She wasn't burned. I don't know what her story was. I was at the bus stop and this lady showed up with big lumps all over her body, like peanuts stuck under her skin, and little tufts of hair growing out of the lumps. She was wearing a sun dress. Yellow.

"She smelled bad too, like her flesh had already started to rot. I was shocked to see someone like that out in public. She had every right, of course, but it took a lot of guts. She looked so sad."

Tess is nodding.

"What if she used to look normal?" you ask. "What if she had a husband, and then these hairy lumps started to appear -- do you think he would bail out?"

"It depends on the husband," Tess says.

"Somebody for everybody," you say.

Tess begins a monologue: "Even people who weren't blessed with a perfect appearance have positive qualities, you know? An overweight woman could have lovely smooth skin. A man with a hairy back could have a movie-star smile. Almost everyone possesses an attractive feature."

"That's all true," you say. Your eyes are locked in contact with hers.

"But there are exceptions; maybe one in a hundred. On a rare occasion, I'll see a person and look at them for a long time and think -- wow, there's nothing. Absolutely nothing." She takes a quick drink of beer. She gestures to herself with one hand, loosely holding the beer bottle with the other. "I'm no beauty queen," she says, "but no one could ever be attracted to a person like that. It makes me sad."

I'm no beauty queen. You attempt to process that statement and come up with a suitable response. Tess is not using the slightest shred of irony. Can it be that she does not recognize what she is?

"But there's a comfort in that," you say. "If one of these wholly unattractive people can find someone who loves them, they need never ask the reason why. That kind of love comes from in between the ears. There's no lust involved. And lust always fades, doesn't it?"

"Good point," she says, and smiles at you.

For some reason, the subject turns to allergies, and you talk about a cat with no tail that you kept in your apartment as a favor to a friend. You are allergic to cats, so the story starts with vivid descriptions of the sneezing fits you suffered and later turns to the numerous rolls of toilet paper that were clawed to confetti while you were at work. By the time you are telling Tess how you kicked the cat in the presence of a blind date and spoiled your chance to score, she is laughing so hard that she cannot speak. Breathless, she excuses herself to the restroom. As she steps from the table, you know that you owe it to yourself to learn everything about this woman. She is, without question, more than meets the eye.

When Tess returns to the table, she takes a different seat. You raise a glass to her. She notices, returns the gesture and smiles.

 

The next week, on Thursday night this time, you have cornered Tess by the bathrooms at the same pool hall and are engaging her in a light debate about the women in Woody Allen movies. You insist that the neurotic filmmaker is a full-fledged misogynist, while she maintains the opposite.

"He loves women," says Tess. "He can't get enough of them. How could Woody Allen invent all those love triangles if he didn't love all women?"

"He only sees them as sex objects," you say. "He doesn't make an emotional connection. He blames them for his mistakes and runs off with someone else. It happens in every damn movie."

"You're taking his work too literally," warns Tess, shaking a finger at your nose. "The man is driven by self-hatred and self-doubt, right? The fictional women he creates are simply manifestations of his own faults. They aren't women, per se. They are conflicts."

"Conflicts with short skirts and spooky sexual appetites," you breathe.

Tess flashes a smile. "You almost sound jealous," she says, taking a healthy swig from a bottle of beer. It's a strange raspberry wheat blend, and you are put off by the smell.

"As a filmmaker, he's an irresponsible pervert. Haven't you noticed that he invariably casts young, gorgeous actresses in his lead roles and writes the scripts so that he gets to make out with them?"

"It's fantasy, silly."

"The film is fantasy. Not the film shoot. That's real."

Tess takes another drink of raspberry intoxicants. "You're hopeless," she says.

You slide your hand around her neck and pull her closer to you. When your lips meet hers, you can feel her pulling back but you refuse to release the pressure. She eases into a kiss, and it feels perfect for a few seconds. Then you feel her face curling, and she twists away.

"Don't do that," she says. "All these people are watching."

You suggest going somewhere to be alone but she seems unsure. The sparkle in her eyes has now faded and she now appears younger than she really is. You are suddenly struck by her small stature and slight build. She looks fragile. You reach down and grab hold of her hand, squeeze it, and promise that you have only the most honorable of intentions. She considers the statement and says this:

"A drive. We can go for a drive, and then I'm going home. We both have to work in the morning. Remember?"

You nod, trying to be sincere but praying to all the gods that the evening ends a different way. You want to wake up on a mattress with rumpled bedclothes staring into those eyes, discussing which bagel shop to visit on the drive to work. You suspect she prefers plain bagels with cream cheese.

She retrieves her purse and says her goodbyes and the two of you step out into the night.

 

"Don't kiss a woman without asking her permission," says Tess. "It's impolite." You are driving your car down the highway, listening carefully to the words she says. "There is a choice to be made, and by forcing the moment you deny your partner of that choice."

"I can't deny passion," you say, catching her glimpse with one eye as you drive. You reach for her knee.

"Don't do that," she says, swatting your hand away.

You stare out onto the road ahead and feel your thoughts jumble. The imperceptible clouds of the night sky seem to be soundlessly crashing to the ground and distracting you.

Tess has no signs of anger in her posture or her voice. She simply seems inconvenienced, like a commuter who missed her bus and will now have to wait another half-hour to get back on track.

"I thought we had a good thing started," you say. "I think you're fantastic."

"Thank you," she says.

"Do we have to stop here?"

She looks at you with a hard stare. "You don't know me," she says. "You don't know anything about who I am."

"I know that I want to get inside your head. There's a lot going on in there."

"Too much," she says. With a few syllables, she shifts the conversation in another direction and the two of you are talking about microwave pizza. She believes that it is a flawed notion and should be abandoned while you defend the option of soggy pizza products. You spend the next two hours on subjects such as these and your rapport with Tess grows stronger. You are driving and therefore cannot look at the contours of her body as often as you would like. You are surprised that you are able to see the brightness of her eyes when you are staring into the black wasteland of night. She is under your skin.

She goes home alone, and so do you.



The next morning, you are in the manager's office, reconciling some figures on the corporate credit card statement while he looks over your shoulder. He is huffing and puffing and seems annoyed that he must be present for this nonsense. Although you work quickly, there are some errors that must be corrected before the procedure is complete. He digs in his drawer for a paper clip and picks under his nails with it.

You hear a light knock on the doorjamb. Tess is holding a file folder to her chest and looking at the manager.

"I need for you to sign on this," she says.

You and the manager are both staring at Tess. Why? Her hair is now curly -- inexplicably transformed into a magnificent, chaotic mass of curls that tumble to chin length. You have gathered enough information about women's hair to know that this spectacle could not be a product of hot rollers.

"Give me that file," the manager says.

Tess steps over to the desk and does as he asks. He takes the folder and reads a yellow note on the front. He pulls out his pen, clicks it to life, and scribbles his signature. Before he can finish, he speaks up:

"Did you get a perm?"

Tess smiles, but doesn't show any teeth. You can tell that she has been asked that question many times today. She says no.

"How's that?" the manager asks. He has finished signing and is resting his hand on the file.

"It's not a perm. It's natural. This is what my hair looks like," she says. "I usually straighten it."

The manager leans back in his desk chair and casually clasps his hands behind his head. "How do you do that?" he asks.

You watch Tess for a reaction. This question seems inappropriate, but Tess is handling it in stride. "It's not hard, but a little time-consuming. I brush it out while I blow-dry it."

The manager considers this. He looks at his desk and notices the file. Then he shakes his head. "I don't believe that," he says.

Tess is speechless. The manager pitches forward in the chair and snatches the file from the desktop. "Here you go," he says, and shakes it in her direction.

"Thank you," she says, and gives each of you a little nod before leaving the room. This office has glass walls so you can observe as she walks among the cubicles on her way back to her desk. You are astonished by the calm she has maintained.

"That Tess has a cute little butt, doesn't she?" the manager snickers.

You look at him in disbelief.

He continues. "Girls like Tess make me wonder why I ever got married. You should go after her, my friend. She's a fireball."

 

You and Tess are back at the pool hall on Friday night with the same gang of co-workers. Fewer than twenty-four hours have elapsed between the kiss and this moment. She is standing next to you at the bar, waiting to order a drink. "Why do you straighten your hair?" you ask.

"I don't like having curly hair," she says. "It doesn't suit me."

"It's not so bad."

"I never liked it."

The bartender appears and takes your drink orders. You ask for one of those weird raspberry brews and a Pepsi. Looking at the curls, you comment: "This is what women are going for when they get a permanent. They spend upwards to a hundred bucks to have this very thing happen to them. And you're trying to make it go away."

The drinks arrive, and she remains quiet.

"I dated a girl who got a perm. I was completely against the idea, but she went ahead and did it anyway. She and her mom wanted to bond, and I guess damaging your hair with chemicals is one way to do that. It was horrible. She turned her best feature into a frizzy mess that smelled bad, and paid a good chunk of change for the honor. I never understood it."

Tess thanks you for the drink and starts to mingle with some other friends from the office. One of the guys asks Tess to be his partner in a game of pool and she agrees to take part. You stand behind a railing, a few feet out of the way, and watch the action of the game. Tess has some talent with a cue stick. She and her partner have nearly cleared the table when a difficult shot presents itself. Because of her height, Tess has to step on her tiptoes and lean all the way forward to get in position for the shot. You notice her partner taking a few steps back to get a better look at her rear end. Looking around the room, you see that almost every male has trained their eyes on the same sight. With a gentle slide and a slight tap, Tess gets the cue ball rolling and sinks her intended target. Everyone hoots and hollers, and you wonder if the shot is the true reason.

As the night progresses, the boozer society lives up to their reputation. You have been drinking Pepsi all night and have become a little tired of their drunken behavior, but you remain to watch the girl who's not a beauty queen interact with the crowd. She is clearly tipsy but has not become a giggling flirt. When men make rude comments or romantic innuendoes, she shakes them off and moves to the next group of boozers. A girl from the office gestures to Tess' curls and makes a query. In response, Tess shakes her head and tells the same old story. You cannot hear her voice, but by looking closely at the small movements of her lips, you can make out the words. Her lips remind you of the forced kiss that she found so unwelcome. Your neck and ears tingle as you imagine another attempt at kissing Tess. Is she playing hard to get? Does she find you unattractive? You can't decide.

After a few more minutes, you take your empty glass to the bartender and give him a tip. You walk out the door without saying goodbye to anyone and drive home alone. The night is merciless; there are no stars in the sky.



Weeks later, you hear through the office grapevine that Tess has started dating one of the lunkheads in her department. The two of you don't have much contact anymore, which denies her the opportunity to confirm or deny these reports, but the rumors are consistent with what you observe. Several times a day, invariably, the lunkhead finds an excuse to visit Tess at her desk and rifles through her drawers for a piece of hard candy. Once there, he sticks around and makes goofy faces while she laughs. They also schedule lunches together. It makes you feel ill. You have no idea what they do on weekends; you have never witnessed them being intimate. Since that night at the pool hall, you have been refusing invitations to go out with the boozer clique after hours, even if the alternative is sitting alone in your apartment. You often scan the classified ads for interesting job postings when you read the Sunday paper.

Then one morning, you are sitting in your cubicle with the phone on your ear, pretending to talk with a customer when in reality you are listening to the silence and counting the seconds until the end of the day. You are startled by a voice over your shoulder:

"What are you doing for lunch?" Tess has appeared behind you, her eyes fixed on yours but lacking the spark that you remember. Her hair is curly again -- this has become a normal event -- and has been pulled back and fastened tightly. You have no plans for noontime and tell her so. Just like that, you have an appointment to see Tess at lunch. The morning passes quickly.

She drives. Before you can reach the neighborhood delicatessen, she fires a question: "That night when you kissed me...what were you thinking about?"

You fidget with the seatbelt. "Before, during or after?"

"All three," she says, looking grim.

Closing your eyes to concentrate, you rewind to the events of that night. "There's nothing to tell, really. I had gotten to the point where I wanted to go further, and so I did. I know it was a mistake."

"Why did you want to go further?"

You pause. "I don't know if I can explain that."

"Please try."

You can hear a shocking glint of desperation and pain in her voice, which inspires you to dig deeper. "I didn't know you that well, Tess. I still don't...but I thought that we were both on the same page. The sight of a beautiful woman is so confusing to me -- "

"I'm the beautiful woman?" she interrupts.

"Of course," you say, letting your eyebrows creep up on your forehead. "You sound like you're offended."

"Keep talking," she says, pulling into the parking lot of the deli.

"I didn't know how to take you. On one hand, you're completely out of my league. On the other, you're positively fascinating and I wanted to have you in my life. I took a risk," you say. Tess is nodding as she finds a parking space and turns off the car. "Why are you asking this now?" you ask.

She opens the car door and steps out. "Let's eat," she says, her face just out of sight, and slams her door shut. You are frustrated but ignore your instincts and follow her into the deli. The table she chooses is situated next to the front window. The two of you continue the discussion over steaming mugs of clam chowder.

"Last night Carl stayed at my apartment," she announces. Carl, as you know, is the lunkhead. "I've been putting him off for the past few weeks, and it seemed like the right time."

Dipping the spoon into the chowder once more, you nod. You can't understand why she is telling you this story. Without intending to look in that direction, you notice that the outline of her bra is clearly visible through her light blouse.

"I do pretty well with casual dates, but when it gets to this point, I'm useless. He says that he has fallen in love with me." She pauses. "I don't know what to do."

"Rejoice," you say, in half-mocking tones. "Isn't that what everybody wants?"

She puts her hands on the table and looks hard at you. "Maybe everyone wants to be loved," she says, "but it's not the same to hear the words."

"You don't believe him?" you ask. She has thrown you for a loop once again.

"Did you love me when you kissed me?"

Thinking, you scoop more chowder into your mouth and swallow it. "I didn't claim to love you. I was attracted to you."

"Because I'm beautiful?"

"That's part of it...."

"If you drop that out of the equation, what's left?"

You are speechless. Her face is hard and contorted, and she has forgotten all about her meal. One small strand of hair has come loose, and the curls are bouncing on her temple.

"When Carl and I go out, he's constantly describing his passion and gushing about how proud he is to be seen with me. I know there is more to his feelings than just that, but it's so prevalent. I can't...." Her voice trails away.

"What?" By now, your meal is also a faded memory.

"Anyone can see what I look like. I want him to know who I am."

This tells you everything. You had once assumed that Tess could be self-confident because of her pretty eyes and lovely figure. Clearly, this is not true. She is a strong woman in spite of these things. Your face turns red, burning hot, and you attempt to say something supportive. She looks at you, smiles, and takes hold of your hand. She pulls it to her lips, delicately, and lays a soft smooch on your knuckles.

"Tell me the story where you kicked the cat," she says.

* * *




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