He stood in the lobby at the elevator doors, as he had on so many countless occasions before, Watching impatiently as the flashing numbers showed its rate of descent and cursing silently each time a solid light indicated that it was stopping at another floor. The fact that such a small hindrance stressed him so much was another source of annoyance. A further example of the human condition colliding with the modern world and making life more difficult than it needed to be. There was nothing natural about it. Primitive man had never spent time stressed out over the speed of an elevator. He absentmindedly stroked the long knot of scar tissue that ran down the from beneath his left eye to his chin. Five. It was stuck on five again. The front door of the building opened behind him and the pretty girl from Fairbanks Incorporated on floor ten entered. Most people kept a wary distance when they caught sight of his scar. Strangers were often reticent to share an elevator with him if they were on their own. The Fairbanks girl included. The first time he clapped eyes on her he observed how she slowed her pace upon seeing him standing in the elevator. A barely perceptible moment where she had considered turning on her heel and walking away. But his best gregarious smile and the fact that he held one hand between the doors to keep them open had persuaded her to climb on in. Reluctantly. It suited him that way. People made assumptions about his scar. He had worn it for so long now that he had become accustomed to the stares. They didn’t bother him in the least. In fact, if he searched the facial features of people when they first noticed him he could almost tell what they were thinking. Someone must have tried to kill him with a shank in prison. I’ll bet that he got it in a gang fight. Probably some kind of motorcycle accident. Riding without a helmet. He looked like the type that could be that reckless. It couldn’t possibly be anything to do with surgery. People only had surgery on their face to make themselves younger looking. Prettier. Never to make themselves look meaner. Sometimes they stared at him as if only the scar existed and not its owner. Recently while riding the subway to Union Square a kid sitting on its mother’s lap had pointed at him.
‘What’s that mommy?’
The child’s mother about dropped her offspring with embarrassment but he just smirked at the honesty of it.
‘It’s just a scar kiddo. I cut myself shaving.’
The mother reacted with the type of smile that he knew she would. It was the ‘I appreciate you removing the indignity from that situation’ kind. He responded with his own grin of absolution. One he had performed on many other occasions. To drunks, degenerates and floozies. He couldn’t blame people. It wasn’t the kind of scar that you could hide without wearing a paper bag. Or a Halloween mask. It was far easier to conceal the internal scars of life but they could certainly reveal their existence in other ways. The scar on his face was obvious and under his control. What would the world be like if the emotional damage people endured during the course of their lives manifested itself on the outside? Likely, it would be a more considerate place. There would be a lot of people walking around with some serious wounds. Particularly in this city.
Once, he was sharing the elevator with the pretty girl from Fairbanks when he caught her staring at his disfigurement out of the corner of her eye. From the corner of his eye. She didn’t fear him then. Just comfortable enough to steal a subtle peek. He liked that about her. The restraint. It indicated a certain sensitivity. He thought about allowing her get away with her furtive glance but he just couldn’t resist.
‘Car accident when I was a kid.’
‘I couldn’t help but notice you looking?’ He pointed at his face and grinned that grin.
‘Oh, I wasn’t… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.’ Her sallow face tinged with flecks of crimson that raced across it like rays from a breaking sun.
‘That’s okay. Happens all the time.’
They rode the rest of the way in the type of charged silence that seems like a scream. Even the moments between the bing-bong on floor ten and the elevator doors opening seemed to take far too long. When the gleaming chrome shutters eventually slid back he could feel the tension rushing out like a wave. Coasting down the corridors of an office floor that resembled a henhouse. People stacked beside each other with just enough company to not feel alone and just enough of a partition between each of them designed to make them feel that way. Guilt tugged at him as he stared at her back as she hurried away from her embarrassment. The doors closed and he continued upwards to his apartment. Away from the stares.
The next time they met in the elevator, it was during a descent. The doors made their soft pffft sound as they slid open to reveal her gorgeous face. Upon seeing him, her features transformed from indifference to some fusion of mortification and frustration. Reluctantly, she stepped inside and turned toward him when the doors slid closed.
‘Listen, about the staring last time. I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean any offence.’
He held up his hands, palms outward in a mollifying gesture.
‘None taken. If I had a nickel for every time someone took a long hard look at this visage, I’d have enough to build a bridge to the stars.’
She smiled and he smiled inside.
‘I know but I’m honestly not that kind of person. Everyone in this city is so hung up on looks. It drives me crazy. Truthfully, it’s probably the thing that I hate the most about New York. This obsession with the surface, without a care for what’s underneath. It just makes everyone so damn shallow at times.’
‘It just means that the ones that take a little bit more time to get to know people are all the more special.’
‘You know what? That’s a very nice way of looking at it.’
‘I’ve had plenty of experience.’
He winked at her. She smiled again and this time he smiled inside and out. She turned away and stared straight ahead at the flickering numbers. They both stood in silence but this time it was the comforting kind that washed over you. Embraced you. He was pleased that nobody else got on the elevator the rest of the way down, leaving them alone in their intimate moment. He stood back on the ground floor and allowed her to exit first.
‘Nice talking to you.’
He held the door open for her on the street. She walked west and he walked east.
That had been three weeks prior and their paths had crossed several times since. Their meetings proved to be one of the highlights of his day and he suspected that she felt the same way. She always burst into a smile upon catching sight of him. Today was no different.
‘Fancy seeing you here?’ It was cheesy but the best he could come up with under the circumstances.
‘I know right? Did you ever think about how much of our lives we waste standing around waiting in this city?’
‘Actually, sad as it sounds, yes.’
‘Is that right? So, come up with any answers?’
‘I worked out that the average New Yorker spends thirteen to fourteen percent of their lifetime waiting on things if my calculations are correct.’
‘No. Sorry, I just made that up.’
She feigned offence and wagged a finger at him.
‘Seriously though.’ She continued. ‘Sometimes I feel like I spend more of my time waiting than doing but that’s life in this city.’
‘It’s why every moment counts.’
They both looked up at the bank of numbers above the elevator doors. It was still stuck on five. Where only a moment ago he had been silently swearing at whomever it was that was holding it up, he was now happy with the delay. When it finally did descend and the doors closed behind them, it would only take one minute and ten seconds until they reached the tenth floor – assuming nobody stopped it along the way. This he had calculated. Struggling to rise to the precious moment, he rummaged for something meaningful to say when she spoke.
‘I’ll bet I know exactly who it is that’s holding it up.’
‘Yeah. You know that fat guy with the bad hair piece? Works as a manager for that office supply company?’
‘That’s him. Always talking loudly on his phone. Always saying ‘Just a second’ and holding the door open while he barks some order back in at his staff.’
‘Yup and I only know that because he insists on announcing his full title during every phone call. Like it means something.’
‘Probably just compensating for the fact that he’s working in an office supply store and had dreams of something bigger.’
‘And who does he think he’s kidding with that hair piece? It’s like someone made a swimming cap out of a cat.’
He laughed hard as she continued her rant.
‘Man, I hate fake guys like that. This city is full of them. You wanna know something else?’
‘Only in New York would I know the name of a total stranger like Larry Sloman and not the name of the person I look forward to riding the elevator with. A guy I do know. Well kind of.’
‘Anthony.’ She said it as if measuring it for a fit. ‘I had you figured for a Mike.’
‘Is that right? And do you have a name?’
‘I was gonna say Stephanie.’
‘Sure you were. And here was I thinking that you were one of the last of the honest guys in New York.’
They both smiled.
‘So what do you work at in here?’
‘Oh, I don’t work here. I live here.’
‘Really? I thought it was all office space.’
‘No, just up to seventeen. Then it’s residential. How about you?’
‘I own Fairbanks.’
‘You’re the owner?’ He failed to conceal his surprise.
‘Why is that so strange?’
‘I just assumed… nothing.’
‘C’mon Anthony. You can’t just do that! What did you assume?’
‘Anthony, don’t be one of those fake guys. I’ve told you how much I hate that, right? It’s okay, you can tell me.’ She was smiling.
‘I just assumed that you were a secretary for some reason. You know. The office hours. The wearing sneakers to work. I don’t know. Stupid and prejudicial I guess.’
‘No, that’s fine. This city is all about assumptions. Before you told me, I assumed that you got your scar in a bar fight.’
He chuckled again.
The elevator doors suddenly opened and Larry Sloman exited brusquely. Cell phone stuck to his ear as he barked into it loudly. They both smiled at each other knowingly as they stepped aside and let him pass before walking in. Bing-bong. Pfft.
‘I could be wrong about this but you seem like a nice guy and I was wondering… well, I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward but I was wondering if you’d like to go out for a drink sometime?’
He was quiet for an interminable moment.
‘I’d love to but –’
‘It’s okay. I shouldn’t have asked.’
‘No, it’s not what you think. It’s just that I’m seeing someone and they probably wouldn’t like the idea.’
‘Yeah, I guess not. Forget about it.’
The silent scream enveloped them again as he scrambled for something to say that would diminish her embarrassment. He found nothing. Bing-bong. Pfft.
‘See you later Anthony.’ She walked away without turning around.
‘See you Stephanie.’
The doors closed leaving him alone. All his life he had struggled to find an identity. Something more than the one he was born into in his old Brooklyn neighbourhood. Hidden among the skyscrapers of Manhattan he forged a new self from the one that he had abandoned on the other side of the East River. He knew that people referred to him as ‘Scarface’ behind his back. He would always be branded ‘that guy with the scar’ but at least it meant that he was somebody. In a city where everybody strove to be someone, he had a sense of individuality which distinguished him from the swarming multitudes that scurried along the streets outside. Far from being faceless, he was known by his. He enjoyed the fact that it made others look. That it made them try not to look. Strangers thought twice about causing him trouble. His scar provoked a response and forced people to feel. His scar was his story. As strange as it would probably have appeared to those on the outside he never saw what he did as being untrue to himself. It was a means of separating himself. Of being more himself. Until now.
He didn’t have a girlfriend. Stepping off the elevator and opening the door to his apartment, he delicately began to remove the scar that he worked so hard to maintain. He didn’t know who he was anymore.
About the Author
Joe Kavanagh spent a decade residing in Brooklyn before returning to his home town of Wicklow. While living in America, he worked over a dozen different jobs until finding employment writing for several New York-based newspapers and magazines. Upon relocating to Ireland he became a member of a critically acclaimed band that made waves but no money. He currently earns a living as the co-owner of a martial arts gym and spends whatever free time he has writing.
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