A Youngish Man by Patrick Pawlowski

A young man is staring at a young woman, and that is how this story will end. The young woman is motionless, her hair brown and vigorous with the light and cream of some perfectly diffused light. Her skin is tawny and brown and without an errant speck of beauty or ugliness. Her white teeth and dimples, so close together, and her eyes, wrinkled just so, make her seem happier than the blurry people ambling quickly before her, and how they could so amble, without a one of them stepping out of their own rapidity in a stumble at this perfect beauty, is a confusion to the young man, Teller.

Teller pawed at the woman, trying to curl her hair around his fingers (and maybe tie it around there, so he wouldn’t forget, so she wouldn’t forget). She did not move. Her hair still radiated light, her peach skirt is still, her white shirt is still, the legs wrapped in their sheers are still, so still, still crossed at the knee. Teller whispered in her ear, and she found nothing in it, not fright, pity, mortification, or the less plausible possibilities of interest, piquancy, or reciprocity. She just kept holding the Tanqueray, but she did look Teller in the eyes, from beyond her paper holding she held everything before her in her eyes. Teller rubbed his palms on his jeans, and whispered again the same thing, that he’d see her tomorrow, and also that she is very, very pretty.

Teller went to the freezer and took out a tray of ice, one single solid block of ice. He ran it under hot water while he masturbated, pulling his own hair. Out of the tray he took a bagged credit card, only unfrozen for emergencies. He walked with the card cold in his hand to the print shop three blocks away. In that short time, he wondered about the messages colors carry, and which two were most beautiful. Triumphantly Teller walked into the subway station with his 9½ by 11-inch sticker of a bouquet of red and white roses, tripping clumsily down the stairs but to no serious or minor injury. The woman stood in the same spot, liquor in one hand, the other pointing at him, with a posture and angle of simultaneous wanting but not needing. He walked up to her without hesitation, her stare the same as yesterday, her hair without the subterranean dimness that Teller thought muddled him and made the effort of his white crisp button-down seem overmuch. His palms sweated and he felt encumbered, like his feet, too, were entrenched in swamp. He counted again, 1-2-3, and could not let her eyes linger on his indecision any longer; she did not deserve that. I think you deserve these, he said, and stuck the flowers to her beckoning outstretched hand.

He leaned in to give her a kiss on the lips, but at that moment, he swore a whisper left her mouth. The rolling roar of a passing train offered her message confidence. Teller sat down before the woman, her pointed feet at his head, and thought, hell. He curled up on the ground, her body hovering in place. He lay next to the woman, cold but comforted, and fell to sleep instantly.

A brown-bearded man in an orange work vest stood over Teller. I been nudging you for a minute now, time to get up, he said. The worker scrutinized the stuck-on roses and looked back at Teller. He began to peel away the advertisement, the woman’s body rolling into itself, one eye meeting another as the pure whole of her disappeared into a white tube of sterile vinyl. Where she moments ago sat on her stool with her Tanqueray and her red and white roses was an old poster for an action film, featuring a towheaded squarejaw and a young blond ingénue. Teller stood transfixed and incomplete, undesirous.

You want this thing, kid? Teller walked away from the worker, thinking to himself, won’t make that mistake again, won’t make it again.