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The Look of Love by Gilad Fogel

© Gilad Fogel

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(Short story)

The Look of Love

When I tell my friends that I think I’m ugly, they always deny it, try to convince me that I’m just being insecure. Especially the girls. When I say I’m fat, they always tell me to stop talking nonsense, but I know the truth. I know I’m fat and I know I’m ugly. I’m a photographer and a good one at that. I know beauty when I see it. I have an eye for such things. I’m an artist.

“You’re wasting your time,” Jane used to say. “Just look at you, in your late thirties and you’ve never made love to a woman. What a waste.”

“Tell me about it!” I’d complain back at her. “What else can I do? I just want to attract a really pretty girl. The kind I’d want to make love to.”

“But that’s so silly,” she’d reply. “For starters, how many times do I have to tell you? You’re not ugly. And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are ugly. So what? Why does she have to be a model? Can’t you just go out with someone ordinary?”

“Someone like you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, would you go out with me?”

And then she’d get this ashen look on her face and shrug her shoulders. I could virtually read her mind and she’d hardly have to explain but she would try just the same. “That’s not the point, Mark,” she would say. “We’re just good friends. Aren’t we? Why don’t you just come to your senses?” That’s how it would go on. The same conversation, more or less, over and over with all my female friends, all the Janes – bunch of do-gooders that they are. One of them even said that I was mad, obsessed. She thought I should see a psychiatrist – but I stuck to my guns.

“I can’t accept anything less than perfection,” I’d find myself explaining. “It’s just my nature. I hunt and preserve beauty for a living. I can’t give my life to something artless.”

Then, one day, everything changed. I can’t tell you how it happened, and I can’t tell you why it happened just then and not ever before. Perhaps it was some sort of cosmic glitch – a blip in the providential order of things. Maybe Fate had lost its way or fell asleep for a second or two – just long enough to let Melanie enter my life. Fate had turned a blind eye to our chance encounter and missed a beat just to let Melanie get close enough to want to be with me. Me, the fat, ugly photographer she thought was idiosyncratically charming enough to hold hands with, to kiss, to make love to. Where I was perfect ugliness, Melanie was perfect beauty. In that twisted sense, we were the perfect match and I had finally got what I wanted.

The Janes in my life were shocked. They wouldn’t say it in so many words but they were incredulous – I could see it in their faces, hear it in their voices. “My goodness,” the Janes would whisper to me when Melanie’d go off to the loo or the bar for a few minutes. “She certainly is pretty,” they would say.

And I’d be extremely ungracious and say, “Well, good things come to those who wait.”

Once, one of the Janes said: “And what exactly is the good thing that’s come to you, Mark?”

“Well,” I replied, “love, of course.”

“You call this love?” challenged Jane, somewhat angrily.

“Yes, I do. What do you call it?”

“I call it a pretty face. Infatuation at most. Maybe it is love on your part but does she love you back?” She sure got me thinking that day.

Melanie and I had a date that same night. It had been raining hard and the air smelt dank, agitated by the water. As I approached Melanie’s flat, the stink of sodden rubbish round her neighbourhood filled my nostrils. It was hard to hold my breath for the last couple of hundred yards but I managed it. When she buzzed me in, I had to run up the stairs to get away from it all. She opened the door and stood there like a bright blonde beacon to the ugly darkness from which I had just emerged. I rushed forward to kiss her hello.

“You’re out of breath,” she commented, brushing her curly locks away from her eyes.

“Ran up the stairs to see you,” I panted.

“Why don’t you make us both a cup of tea and sit down,” she said flatly, “I’ve just got to go to the bathroom. . . . Oh. . . . it’s three sugars for me.”

I made us both a drink and waited impatiently on the sofa.

“Melanie,” I called out to her through the door, though she couldn’t hear me. I wanted to ask her how she felt about me. I wanted to know if Jane was right. “Melanie,” I called out again.

“Yes?” came her muffled voice but, in the end, I didn’t dare ask her what I wanted to know.

“Nothing,” I replied. I knew it was impossible that Melanie would have fallen in love with me. I could tell from the look on her face, the tone of her voice, how she greeted me when we met, that she wasn’t in love with me.

These thoughts weighed so heavily upon me that it wasn’t more than a week later that I told Jane how I’d come to feel.

“Mark, the great photographer,” she said, “I think you’re finally growing up.”

Patronising cow, I thought, but she was right I guess. Something changed and I should have been grateful to Jane for caring about me. Something had changed in me. That chip on my shoulder had disappeared.

Melanie was so gorgeous, she more than compensated me for those years of loneliness. With all of that troubled past behind me, that debt repaid, I realised that I had a brand new requirement. I didn’t care about whether mine was love or infatuation but I suddenly felt that having a pretty girlfriend was, by itself, a superficial achievement and I now longed for so much more. I wanted love. I wanted Melanie’s love more than anything in the world.

“So how can I tell if someone’s in love with me?” I asked Jane.

“Well isn’t that the million dollar question?” she replied sarcastically.

“Come on, Jane,” I said. “I know you have an answer for everything. How can I tell?”

“Not sure you can, really,” she pondered. “They just seem to tell you eventually.”

“That can’t be right,” I jeered. “It has to be more reliable than that. There must be some clue, a visible sign.”

“Well,” she said, “there is the look.”

“The look? What look?”

“It’s just the expression on someone’s face when they’re in love with you. I can’t quite explain it but it looks as if this person has found everything they need. They’re sort of quietly satisfied and content.”

“Hmm. . . .” I mused, “To see that on Melanie’s face would be a real picture.”

And with that very thought in mind, I started to plot. I suppose you’ll think me cold and calculating, but I felt a hunger like never before and I needed Melanie to love me at all costs. I just had to make her fall in love with me – for real – but how?

It finally occurred to me that if I had a hunger, then so did she. To make her love me, I would simply have to feed her what she needed and make sure I was the only person who could give it to her. I found myself asking what could I have that she needed so badly?

The answer came – as if brought to me by the hands of Fate once again – late one evening on the way to her place. Melanie’s was a less-than-respectable district and so it was, on that particular evening, that I took a slightly different route leading me to what I could only think of as ‘the wrong place at the right time’.

“Pssst!” came the opportune sound from somewhere within a shadow at the door of a burger bar I was passing. I imagined a pair of eyes boring right into mine.

“Mister!” continued the disembodied voice, “Can I get you something?” I walked on. . . . “Grass?” said the voice now yards behind me.

“No thanks,” I yelled back.

“Pills?” he suggested as a last resort.

I froze mid-step. The little wheels were somehow kick-started into action by the word ‘pills’. Round and round went the little wheels. Round and round went my thoughts, slowly swirling about that word until they focused on one simple conclusion.

“Not pills,” I murmured pensively, “Amphetamines.”

Suddenly, a burly hand reached out towards me from the shadow and landed on my shoulder. “Son,” said the voice confidently, “we got everything your precious heart desires.”

So that’s how it happened. For the next couple of months, every time I went round to her place, I found a dealer to sell me the drugs and made sure I added it to her sugary tea.

The effect was amazing. Every time I saw her, I could tell that Melanie was starting to fall in love with me. This time, she was the one impatiently waiting on the sofa while I made her a drink. I started thinking of those drinks as my little love potions.

“I think Melanie’s in love with me,” I finally announced to Jane.

“Really?!” she enthused benevolently. “And did you see the look?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s not so much the look, it’s just that I can tell. I mean, she’s always really happy to see me . . . Jane, you’re grimacing! What are you thinking about?”

“Oh, nothing!” Jane was quick to say, “I’m really glad for you. Honest. I’m glad you’ve finally got something that’s more than just superficial.”

“What do you mean ‘superficial’?”

“Well. . . . Don’t you remember our conversation a while back? How concerned you were about your looks and how you just wanted a pretty girlfriend and nothing more . . . I mean, it’s great that you want more than just that.”

“You’re not being straight with me, are you? You don’t really think she’s in love with me because I haven’t seen the precious look!”

Jane denied it, of course, but I knew what she was thinking. Maybe I was just being paranoid about it but, either way, Melanie still didn’t have the look. I, more than anyone, ought to have stayed focused on the value of appearances, the importance of image. I suppose I had become distracted by abstract thoughts and theories. I resolved to make Melanie entirely mine and started to double her dose.

It’s not surprising that she looked increasingly troubled when I came to see her but it was worth it – if only for the incredible sex we’d have after I’d make her one of my love potions. I knew how she longed to see me. I had what she wanted; I fed her hunger like no-one else could – just like she fed mine.

As the weeks turned into months, I began to see how Melanie was changing. She was feeling worse for wear and I knew that time was running out for me. Still, I needn’t have fretted because the moment I had been waiting for lay just around the corner. It was the one moment of my life I shall never ever forget. The moment imprinted itself on my mind like light beams on a roll of film.

That day, as the sun shone through the diaphanous curtains in Melanie’s bedroom, I was lifted gently out of sleep and into a bright Sunday morning. It was the beginning of autumn. The leaves had started to fall and I rushed out of bed to get my camera. As I took some photographs of the park across the road, I heard Melanie’s cat, Twinky, jump up onto the bed behind me, purring loudly. I knew this to be his morning wake-up call for Melanie whom I’d thought was still lying there asleep. I turned around to look at her. . . . and there it was. My God, there it was!

Melanie was on her side with her arm folded up towards her chin and fist clenched beneath her cheek to lift her head at an angle on the pillow. Her fine golden hair fell in curls over her ear, down her neck and over her chest. She had the sheet still pulled up just over her breasts the form of which I could make out through the thin material. Her delicate mouth was turned at the corners to form a gentle, peaceful smile. Her eyes were softly smiling too, pupils large, lids low. She was looking silently at me as I took my photographs. That was it. That was the look Jane had promised me. As the adrenalin began to pump through my veins, the butterflies started running riot in my belly.

I knew she loved me but I was struck by a sudden terrible thought: what if she stops loving me? Ironically, now that I knew love, I knew the fear of losing it. I lifted my hand to my forehead in a desperate panic and tried to think. I couldn’t look at her anymore. I turned around, head spinning, and rushed to get dressed. I grabbed my camera and turned to gaze at her for one last time.

She just lay there in quiet adulation, blind to my turmoil. I shot my camera to capture that look on film forever before running out of the room lest Melanie should realise what was happening to me and beg me to stay. As I hurried down the stairs, I felt devastated but secure in the certainty that I had known love and caught it on camera before it had time to die.

I went to work the next day and tried not to think about the break-up too much but, on my return home, I picked up the evening paper and was horrified to see Melanie’s photo on the front.

"Girl found dead in own bed", read the headline. It went on with "The victim had taken an overdose of drugs the previous night and died in bed, unaware of the danger she was in. Police said that, by the look on her face, she was still in the throes of the drug-induced euphoria when it took her young life from her."

I keep that last picture of her on the wall. So what do you think? Personally, I consider it my greatest work.

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