By Israel A. Bonilla
It’s hard for me to remember where I heard that sitting close to a corner when alone is far from advisable—something to do with offering an unpleasant sight. Yet here I am, smoking and staring. Next to my table, a pair of teenagers sulk over some trifle about a trip; near them, a disheveled family of three struggle to keep the food from overwhelming their mouths; opposite, two old men play chess while discussing the burden that life becomes; not far, a slick couple, assuming no one is watching because of their respectable appearance, mess around with their hands under the table. They all share what I’ve not had the opportunity to enjoy.
Many times I’ve speculated in front of this same cup of coffee, one of the few past its prime, about the reason. And again and again I arrive at the same insurmountable fact: ugliness. It’s easy enough to brush aside, but I believe I’ve been rigorous. This is how it goes.
Average, hard-working people—those are my parents. They know the central privilege of not being a minority; that is, they know a semblance of agency. Pretty fine if you have something going for you. Otherwise, a bland existence awaits. Sad, but not too sad. They have each other; they have a roof. The life they could offer me was austere. Few words, few surprises, few chances. A life not unlike the one of my neighbors. Except they stumbled upon a shiny little object called hope. When all the children clustered to sing the praises of sport, the mere awareness of my presence suggested a different chant: Here comes Rickety Robert with his rickety knee, give him a nail and a hammer to help him be! You might guess the problem. My parents did what they could to improve my knock-knee, but it worsened with the years. Since summers were terribly hot, using shorts was inevitable. And I can’t blame the kids for the laughs. Do we not notice a stark contrast in less than a second? Are not children especially prone to comment on differences in less than a second? I was sensitive. I couldn’t bear the thought of hearing that chant every time I tried to play with someone else. Kicking a ball toward another kid wasn’t that important. A wall was equally effective. I figure each night they were all eager to see each other in the morning. Hope, yes.
School was a slightly different story. We were all welcomed to a haven of sorts. No wonder they grew to be confident even in their mediocrity. They could count on at least one palm to pat their shoulder. I, on the other hand, was met with a mixture of bemusement and pity—owing, surely, to my age. Then the world was not as cruel as it would come to be. Adults in general felt it a responsibility to point to my existence. And this altruistic impulse worked like a patch on threadbare trousers. I’m indebted. It blinded me sweetly to the reality waiting outside.
When you’re a small creature, you arouse a curious sense of protectiveness in those around you. It doesn’t matter that you’re deformed or repulsive. Actually, this helps to exacerbate the feeling. Human beings find the minute inoffensive, and thus have a shot at control. But it all felt quite different in those days. Why ruin the memory? I do have to emphasize, however, that with age comes a bleak change.
In high school, adolescents everywhere are thrown into a miniature version of life. The authority figures here are true to form. They ask something very specific of you; outside it, you can rot. It’s at this moment that emotions have their one and only opportunity to develop unhindered. All further displays, I’m positive, are an echo. And so, if you’re stifled in any important way, it’s a damning affair. I would’ve appreciated being like the thousands—a speck that collapses with other specks, not a charred remain. But no such privilege was handed. I was made a buffoon, since my body seemed to evidence the suitability of the role. And this I do resent. Ugliness is one of the worst instances of fatalism. You can picture yourself as a lawyer, a painter, a doctor, an actor. But first and foremost you’re a blotch. Why deny that we’re all physiognomists at heart, the orthodox sons of Lavater?
Dire times, true. Made worse by a lack of focus. I had no consuming passions. My head was as barren as my body. A deliberate choice. I loathed the idea of compensation. To trouble myself with knowledge reeked of spindliness. The examples were profuse: professors humiliating students in the only way left to them, now stripped of youth; professors humiliating other professors in the only way left to them, cloistered as they were in this ascetic environment; students humiliating other students in the only way left to them, physical vigor being unattainable. I wouldn’t join them. You can imagine fiction was no relief. Identifying with protagonists was another insidious form of compensation. Besides, creative acts seemed to me to betray a blighted nature. A fulfilling life is its own end.
Is this the complete truth? Well, no. I would be a hypocrite if I were to portray myself as a guileless pariah. There were frank fellows who approached. But I hadn’t the optimism to meet such attempts at friendship. They smiled at things that would never make me smile; they enjoyed a peek beneath the veil that was to me a barrier. I didn’t have the secret support of those who boast a disinterested spirit.
You might suspect that here rests the answer, that I could’ve landed some lifelong friendships and the beautiful camaraderie which follows. You would be mistaken. Without hope there is no defense against the question of questions: why bother? All the airy homilies that fill our vital atmosphere come from people who have temperamental diseases that can be cured through a healthy contact with the community. They’re addressed toward ears other than ours.
High school ends. And a life of brooding in loneliness begins. I came across the claims of evolutionary psychology, the claims of religion—bitter tales, though hardly worthy of a category beyond caricature; simplifications with the gloss either of abstract reasoning or revelation. I can understand, however, their appeal. They’re ready-made weapons to the pessimist or the optimist. Moreover, they make sense of the fatalism. Behind the aesthetic and moral repulsion lies a story of cunning ancestors who have bred cunning offspring, or a story of a hermetic paternal figure who cares in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
I now have a job as a proofreader in a middling business. I rarely interact with people, as is appropriate. And my boss is one of those adults I spoke about; he pities me. But once again I’m indebted. I’m shut off from the stream of wearying life. While I certainly can’t dive and bathe like others, exulting in the sun’s gentle burn, at least there is a roof above me. And there are windows through which I can feel the breeze and gaze at this perplexing pageant of congealed desires. I almost feel irremediably alienated from them, pure mind. Almost. Here I am, with a cup of coffee past its prime and a brimming ashtray. The waitress draws closer to my table and smiles what appears to be a dutiful smile. As she cleans the mess, her perfume rouses me from the slumber of self-absorption. I notice a birth mark in her left arm, wrinkles near her eyes, a red flush in her chest. I wish she would acknowledge me without the need of speech, without the protracted efforts. She leaves. I’m suddenly a body. And I’m gasping for breath.
Israel A. Bonilla lives in Guadalajara, Jalisco. He is author of the micro-chapbook Landscapes (Ghost City Press, 2021). His work has appeared in Your Impossible Voice, Firmament, Minor Literature[s], Berfrois, King Ludd's Rag, and elsewhere. Sleep Decades, his debut short story collection, is forthcoming from Malarkey Books (2024).