The Badly Burned Man
I cannot take my eyes off of the badly burned man. He is by far the most noteworthy attendee of the Christmas party.
I do not know this man. I do not speak to him directly, although we end up in the same group discussion a couple times, verbal spokes interacting within the wheel of the conversation. I try not to stare, while simultaneously keeping my eyes focused in his general direction—struggling to find a neutral medium. Conscious of wanting my eyes and face to proclaim that I am not taking any particular notice of his melted skin, that I am looking at him no differently than anyone else in the room. That I don’t see what is clearly in front of me—which of course is a lie.
His face and neck bear the mark of a severe burn: the waxy finish of dead, melted skin fused into a new protective layer; the white of the surface ridges offset by the reddish tint of the interior crevices; the extra thickness, like the putty applied to Hollywood stars when setting out to morph their faces into unrecognizable forms.
I find myself secretly wishing there was a young child around, too young to have learned that it is impolite to just ask a person how they came to be that way. He seems very much at ease, the badly burned man, and I suspect he would answer the child’s question with a decent story. Like the one about my father’s friend, who after removing the rubber tiles in his basement used gasoline to scrub away the adhesive tar residue. How he had thought that he ought to open the basement windows for ventilation just before the furnace sparked and set the floor ablaze. How he hadn’t been wearing gloves and how his gasoline-soaked hands burned even after he submerged them into the sink, the flames taking nearly a minute to sputter out underwater. How he had to wear special gloves for weeks while his hands healed. How the raw, burned flesh and bone visible inside this new, clear rubber skin looked like ground meat stuffed into sausage casings.
By measure of Public Displays of Affection, the badly burned man is receiving the most attention of anybody at the party. His girlfriend—I assume, as I see no rings—is a petite, dark-haired, olive-skinned woman. Very pretty. Not stunning, not perfect. But not marred either.
They repeatedly engage in deep, slow kisses, of the semi-indiscreet variety—not obnoxious high school slurping right in front of us, but not the quick, chaste pecks of affection we expect in the respectable world of adults. He is much taller than his girlfriend, and when she rises up to meet him, he tilts down into her and they look like The Kiss as they hold their embrace, eyes closing, lost in their own space—the allusion to Klimt’s painting the more unsettling because of the surreal aspect of his visage.
I wonder if she is overcompensating. There is something so public about these kisses, which she always initiates. Something beyond new love or Christmas party liquored up mistletoe. As if she feels the need to make sure people know that she is with him, in every sense of the spiritual-emotional-sexual triumvirate, deeply into him, not just “with him” in the friendly companion sense. This is not pity, she says with each pull of him down into her opening mouth, this is love. This is lust. This is combustion.
Watching makes me feel shallow. In my youth I found the unusual alluring. But now I cannot help analyzing this Christmas party scene with the uncharitable scalpel eye of the cynic. We would assume that he was, before the great scarring, an attractive man. Pretty enough for her. We like unity. We question couples that seem poorly matched—our eye for logical order rebels against obvious imbalances. We instinctively question the motives of the young and beautiful on the arms of older, wealthier partners.
Did she love him before the burn? Possibly. But they seem too new—there is a brief flicker of surprise in his face each time she pulls him down for a kiss. He also seems at ease with himself in a way that makes me assume that the burn is not recent, that he has had significant time to acclimate to his new skin. He is casual, gregarious, almost completely unselfconscious. Jovial, even—as we all would be, the cynic in me quickly points out—under the constant deluge of his pretty girlfriend’s kisses.
It is only when a stranger joins the circle of conversation that he reveals even the slightest doubt, with a momentary pained darting of his blue eyes, as if he’s checking them out, reminding himself that there are people who are encountering his skin for the first time.
But at the end of the evening, it is those of us in our near-perfect shallow skins that stumble out, lonely, into the chill desert night.
Kirk Wisland has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. He has written and edited for Wordslinger. Currently, he is an instructor at Ohio University.
All rights reserved to Kirk Wisland.