It was Valentine's Day and Victor Sluche was expertly scooping his own feces into the bottom half of a Pepsi can. The water was stagnant, except the ripples from Victor’s hand slipping into the cold water to quarantine the decomposing excrement.
For almost a week there‘d been no problems. Bowel movements came and then disappeared without incident. Now the toilet was back to its old tricks. Efficiently resolving this issue was a job for someone comfortable working in cringeworthy circumstances.
He cut the can open with a razor, it was either that or using something permanent like a pot from the kitchen. With help from the scrub brush, the poop slid into the aluminum container. He flopped the whole drippy package into a pair of plastic Safeway bags, washed his hands and carried the mess across the street to the dumpsters.
It was a beautiful day in Sonoma county.
As he lifted the rubber lid he noticed a woman walking towards him. She was wearing a red tank top and jeans -- she could have been a member of any sorority, Victor thought, and her good looks were about as remarkable as hard boiled eggs.
Casually, as if disposing of common garbage and not his own excrement, he tossed his bag into the emptiest corner of the dumpster and turned to leave. As he passed the woman, the angles on her face seemed to soften like the light from a lamp with a dimmer switch. Her walk became self-aware as she shoved her hand into her pocket. She smiled and said hello.
“Hi” replied Victor, thinking she seemed like someone who might have a People magazine subscription or sleep with the television on.
The entire encounter made him uncomfortable. It felt melodramatic and painfully obvious, especially on Valentine's Day of all days. She probably wanted Victor to make a clumsy comment about the weather or show her a magic trick; to hold the lid of the hot smelly dumpster while she tossed a Hefty bag filled entirely with empty yogurt cups into it with a dainty fling.
His mind drifted to the old days when women didn't invite him into their lives so recklessly. The days when he had a grotesque half-formed second nose growing out from the bridge of his regular nose. His family couldn’t afford to have it removed when he was a baby, so the nose remained until he was 17 and an inheritance from his grandfather finally funded the procedure.
Victor's childhood was shaped by memories of meeting people and acting aloof while they struggled to understand how someone could face each new morning with such a profoundly upsetting deformity. One of his noses was vestigial; it grew out of the working nose and was about two-thirds the size; it was purple and stuck up like a pig snout. Before the operation, he had three open nostrils and a little concave fourth nostril.
Having his extra nose removed changed everything. The thick skin he'd developed from a life as an outsider and a steady pattern of rejection no longer applied to his place in the world. Elderly women exchanged their agonized compassion and motherly pity for optimistic appraisals of his character and potential. The boys shook his hand and the girls looked him in the eyes, just another guy with one nose.
It was almost as if he were living a secret life in a disguise of normality.
Victor walked down to North Light, a local coffee shop, where a bright pink heart had been drawn on the chalkboard out front. Inside the heart it said: Jimmy Van Peerson Plays For Lovers!
As he entered, he sneezed violently -- the kind of sneeze that disrupts the bedrock of mucus. Potential snot rocket sneeze. Victor felt something fly out but there was nothing on his hands so he decided not to worry about it.
It was lively inside — couples and loners getting their caffeine fix to the tune of a swooning trumpeter playing cupid with his horn. Jimmy Van Peerson was a frazzled looking man in a thrift store sports coat unbuttoned over a black and yellow striped t-shirt. His shoes were patent leather and his greasy hair had been sculpted in a fashion more dramatic and disheveled than naturally-occurring bed head.
A large man sitting in the front was rocking manically to the music, an embarrassing looking middle-aged guy with almost no hair on his head and red splotches on his cereal bowl elbows. The beauty of the music was could not be lost on him and he was rapturous, enjoying Valentine's Day a thousand times more than the young and charming Victor Sluche.
When the song was over, Jimmy leaned wearily into the microphone. "Gonna take a little break but don't go runnin' off... and oh yea, Happy Valentine's Day and all that." A few people laughed approvingly as he walked outside.
Victor followed him out to the back patio and took a seat at the table next to him. Lighting a cigarette, Jimmy looked like the poster-boy for weary worldly wisdom; the pure-hearted orphan boy of monumental experiences.
Jimmy dragged his cigarette and looked over at Victor. He spoke as smoke slid out his nostrils, "Sometimes a man owns too many hats." He made an animated frown, like a mime. "He forgets," a gesture to ruffle his hair, (but dared not actually disrupt the masterpiece), "what his head looks like," and he chuckled with the smoke perched between his lips.
Victor laughed politely. Van Peerson continued, "you got a little..." he pointed at Victor's shirt where an enormous wad of dense mucus rested by his breast pocket.
"Oh!" Victor jumped up and grabbed a crumpled napkin from the top of the busser's tub to wipe it away.
While he was doing this, two women joined them on the patio. Growing up with two noses helped Victor learn to smell nervous energy, his own and others. He was entering a kind of double-date and if he wanted to he could have played the game. Nothing forced the cultivation of social awareness like an extra nose. Victor had gotten too good at the game, it embarrassed him to be so unnecessarily acute.
The freak inside Jimmy Van Peerson was different, it was his own creation and a pleasure to navigate. He played the role of wandering troubadour perfectly. He and the girls introduced themselves to each other as Victor looked out at cars driving by, utterly depressed by the whole scene.
He left the patio and walked home thinking about the last girl who had ever really sent his world spinning out of control.
Emily Calhoun. The name had long ago become a prayer. He and Emily would sit together on the bus ride home from school and play punch buggie –- or maybe that only happened once. Over the years he occasionally considered the possibility that she had loved him in return, but never with the same assuredness as those moments in her presence.
As a fourth grader he found the courage to ask her to sign his yearbook. He didn't bend down on one knee and declare his love like he intended but that was beside the point. It still took weeks of planning and mental preparation. He popped the question by the monkey bars. She obliged, simply signing her name in cursive.
In those days he would wake up early for school just so he could lay in bed and invent situations with her. He would conjure up scenarios where she could see how great the man beneath the noses was. How brave he was. He could bring her a bouquet of flowers and ask her to be his girlfriend -- maybe write her a romantic little note. He could ask her to meet him behind the library and then sing her a beautiful song. Most mornings he would just lay in bed re-living their most recent minor interaction.
These were the feelings that introduced Victor Sluche to the ideals behind Valentine's Day.
Back at home, he took out a photograph. It was the most treasured, most looked at picture he possessed. It was him, Emily and two other kids huddled around a math book with a pile of counting beans. Her eyes had always been there, the smile -- the light. She had not changed a bit and neither had he -- nevermind the missing nose.
The next day, after some research online and a few hours driving north along 101, Victor pulled his Camry into a driveway in Humbolt County. The house looked like a house Emily would live in. Rustic and comfortable.
There were some wooden steps in the front and some space between the ground and the bottom of the house, and Victor discovered a dead possum halfway in the shadows. He pulled it out by its thick dry tail and dropped it in a grassy field on the opposite side of the road.
He listened to his footsteps creaking up the steps and his knuckles knocking on the door. It was unmistakable from the moment the doorknob started turning that it was her hand twisting it. The door opened and Victor found himself face to face with the only woman who could ever turn off all the questions.
She looked exactly the same -- just taller and she had cut her hair. She was still brown hair and hazel eyes -- a little tiny nose, thin lips. She was barefoot.
He introduced himself and waited quietly while she struggled to reconcile the handsome man before her with the multi-nosed monster from her childhood.
"Victor! ...Oh my god… How are you!? What are you doing here?" She hugged him and he pressed his arms against her back, careful to keep his possum hands off of her.
"Can I come inside?"
Washing his hands in the sink he saw sunflowers by the window. Her favorite flower. Colorful paintings and mirrors reflecting beautiful things throughout the house. If people are colors then she was bright yellow -- maybe green.
They were sitting at the kitchen table and discussed old classmates and memories while he played with a spoon.
A cat meowed from underneath the tablecloth and suddenly burst upon the table between them. It walked in a little circle before sitting with its white tail wrapped around its feet. It was staring at Emily, as if in disbelief of the visitor. Victor's stomach grumbled.
Emily smiled, "Your nose... you look fantastic!"
Victor looked down at his hands.
"So, what brings you to Humbolt?"
Victor asked Emily if she remembered a time when one of their classmates asked her how she would rate him from 1 to 10 and she had called him an 8. She laughed and said she did remember.
"Well, I think you're a 10," replied Victor. "And now you think I'm crazy but I don’t care. It absolutely needed to be said. That‘s why I‘m here. No other reason."
Emily laughed self consciously beneath her breath. Then she picked up the cat and began petting it. Victor searched for her eyes but she wouldn‘t take them off the cat.
The kettle whistled and Emily got up to pour them tea.
As she sat back down, the front door swung open and a man walked in with a swagger that could only belong to a woman's boyfriend or a mother's child. Immediately Victor disliked him. He dropped his skateboard next to the front door before walking straight up to Emily without a word and kissing her on the mouth.
“Who’s this?” the man asked, still with his hand on Emily's neck. As they shook hands, Victor smelled the insecurity wafting off of Steve. He was desperate to know who the stranger was and what he was doing drinking tea with his girlfriend.
The three survived a brief and horrible silence before Steve disappeared into another room where the sound of video game gunshots soon followed.
"Why don't we go for a walk?," asked Victor.
"Oh… I‘d rather just stay here," she replied, returning her focus to the cat.
"Sorry, I freaked you out a bit, huh," Victor offered.
"What? No. I just... well yea, that was kind of unexpected."
The intimacy of the reunion was gone. Victor got the message. There was no point in stretching the charade out any longer. Their communication was over. For now, anyways.
"Alright well I'm gunna split," said Victor. "Glad to see you're doing well."
As he stepped back outside he felt something strangely familiar happening -- a feeling he hadn't experienced in years. The feeling of parting ways with Emily Calhoun! A transient feeling, like belonging more to the earth than to a particular body.
In a way, the most fulfilling part had always been leaving unfulfilled. Never a kiss, never any promise -- just the knowledge that there are good things in the world.
It was always the same unrequited love. Sweet blissful unrequited love -- but then so was Dante's, so was Jimmy Van Peerson's. True love is darker and more potent than the compromised kind of love that marriages are built around. True love, Victor thought, is unrequited by nature -- it remains in a state of permanent white heat like another universe separate from space and time. True love is doomed. Beauty is doomed. That’s part of being eternal.
Victor began pulling items from a big brown bag and laying them out on the top of the wooden steps outside the house: A bouquet of flowers, chocolates in a heart shaped box (50% off, after Valentine's Day sale), and a bottle of red wine. He set them down on the doorstep along with the bean-counting photograph and tried to think of what to write in the card. Appearing obsessive was the least of his concerns-- all the great loves are obsessive.
The deadbolt thrashed and the door swung open. Light bled out over the darkness where Victor crouched. He felt like an animal looking up at Steve's silhouette.
"Duuuude," Steve‘s voice quivered, "Go away. Go the fuck away from here right now."
"She doesn't belong to you, Steve."
People like Steve are everywhere, Victor thought, they go to kindergarten with everybody else. As obvious and dull as could be-- a truly normal individual. That was his goal and for him it was an accomplishment. No charisma, no heart; easier to smell with two noses but probably not necessary. Sports fans full of movie quotes and half-interests. Women like them because they are hard headed and secure-- but a woman like Emily should have a man to spin in circles with… the very thought of spinning with Emily put a smile on his face.
As Victor fell into a state of ecstasy, Steve stepped out and punched him swiftly and squarely in the mouth.
It was a trumpet. It was the song he had heard yesterday at the coffee shop. The song consumes him and floods out of his lovesick body. The tune is swoony, almost drunk. It swings a gentle love-- as Victor goes tumbling down the stairwell and into the grass.
When Victor woke up the sky was purple and the ground was wet. He was laying in a bush. A new day was creeping in and his body was pale with cold. The gifts were no where in sight and there was dried blood on his shirt and in his mouth. For a moment he expected to get up and see the dead possum there beneath him, but it was just grass and dirt.
He fumbled for his keys and fell into the driver's seat, looking in the rearview mirror only to discover enormous gaps where his front teeth had been. His jaw was plastered shut with dried up blood.
During the drive home he went over what had happened. How beautiful she looked. How gloriously lost Emily Calhoun made him feel. He was toothless now-- a sacrifice to the angels of unrequited love. It was almost as good as the yearbook signature but age asks less regardless. His most treasured photograph was gone too, probably wet with mud on the alter of meaningful existence.
It was quiet in the car. No radio, just the bumping of the road.
He slept for about two days. The third and fourth day he didn’t leave his room at all. On the fifth day he got hungry and set out for the grocery store. There were several things he needed to buy, including Drano for the toilet.
Walking down the street he saw a beautiful woman walking a dog. Shiny black hair and curvy little hips. It was the girl from the dumpster. He pressed stop on his CD walkman and waived to her from across the street. She saw him and pushed the hair out of her eyes. She stopped walking and Victor took the cue to cross the street and talk with her.
"Hello." She smiled again. She looked more confident this time. Probably because he had already given her more attention than in their last meeting. Her trap had been set and all she had to do was wait. Woman are such mysterious creatures, Victor thought.
"Well, hello!" He let slip a grin by mistake-- he couldn't help it. She looked so honest and organized.
She saw his mouth and her eyes enlarged like blowfish. Her hand flew over her mouth.
"Oh my God! What happened to your teeth?"
"Oh. I got 'em punched out." He stretched his arms and rolled his neck. It was like showing someone a new tattoo.
"You’re kidding!? What happened?"
He looked down a row of trees near the entrance to a park and scratched his head. The picture was green and twisting like a suspension bridge. Victor was intoxicated by the sweet futility of building things carefully.
"Eh. Hard to explain. Maybe I could tell you about it over dinner?"
She must not have heard him because she didn't respond. She just sort of stared at him until interrupted by the necessity of sneezing.
"Gazoontite" said Victor as he handed her a fresh Kleenex from his pocket.
"I hope you have insurance."
Victor leaned down and began petting her dog. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it‘s expensive to have that kind of thing fixed."
"The teeth? I don't think I‘m gonna fix them." The dog, who's tail began to wag, was not the only one enjoying the conversation.
"Um. Alright. Well anyway, try not to get beat up anymore, OK?" She laughed while her flip-flops slapped the cement back into the parking lot of her apartment complex. Victor decided that maybe he had misjudged her the first time. People aren't so simple-- you just gotta catch them unrehearsed. And it was sweet of her to show so much concern over his messed up mouth.
Love is serious business. If it should kill Victor Sluche then that would still be better than plowing on through an inconsequential existence. If it were easy or cheap then what‘s the point?
A large pile of dog shit sat ominously in the middle of the walkway but Victor Sluche saw it coming. He carefully stepped over it, massaging his tender gums with his tongue, grinning joyfully at the green leaves and the dead rocks and things.