To Be Horst

The man stood in the cafe’s doorway staring openly and with no expectation of recompense at a girl who sat three paces away from him. His monochrome, leonine face, bracketed between curly hair and beard of that shade called red only because it is not what is usually called brown, was covered so contiguously with freckles that the places where flesh tones broke through were the real freckles. It was a face puzzled, stymied, suddenly decisive, wrongly decisive: a face full of error, of error simple and compound, error seen and missed, error mourned and error dreaded, error unerased. A single heavy Cyclopean eyebrow bore down on his eyes like a frown. He wore a collection of baggy, bulbous, but untorn plaids.

He had a regular table in the window of the cafe where he would sit for hours, never reading. Nobody who worked there had ever seen him with anybody.

The girl, about twenty, raised to him a well-arranged and blank white face. The man pointed to his sternum and lofted that bar over his eyes as high as it would go. Pushing against the thick brunt of shock, he began toward her in small slow steps, anxious not to disturb whatever delicate balance in the atmosphere made pretty girls look back at him today.

“Are you Horst?” she asked him.

Horst?” He squeezed out the word on a long exhalation, an exhaustion: his chest caved, his shoulders folded in around it, and his clothes seemed to loosen as he shrank inside them. “No, I’m not Horst,” he said, almost inaudibly. “But I’d like to be.”

His hand fell away from his chest, as if it could no longer resist the pull of gravity; he broke at the waist and sagged into a chair. From there, ten feet away, he watched the girl steadily, his fingers spreading and contracting on the marble tabletop. Presently a man came in, introduced himself to the girl, and sat down with her.

Horst was a striking young man with dark brown hair, tanned olive skin and blue eyes. In or around the eyes was a weary ease that did not change when he saw the girl: he knew—approached her with the knowledge—that he could have her if he cared to. The eyes said, Hello, I am tired, Try to wake me up, I may be awakening, No, I am sorry, You tried, It is me, I cannot feel, I am a wanderer, Hello, I am tired, Try to wake me up.

The red-haired man’s eyes moved from the girl to Horst and did not move from Horst. He was imagining what it might be like to be Horst. He could taste the drink that Horst drank, could see what Horst saw, breathe the air Horst breathed. He had forgotten entirely about the girl: she was merely a Horst-induced mirage; a manifestation, a byproduct, a proof of Horstness in a universe of Horstlessness; she was just one of many things that would happen to him in a life, the life ahead of him, of being Horst. Horst was the answer; the girl had been only the question. He stared inquisitively, to penetrate the mystery of being Horst; acquisitively, to wrench from Horst all of the Horstian secrets; he stared as if receiving an encrypted radio signal, as if this stare, so close by, could not possibly intrude upon the privacy of Horst, as if Horst, returning the stare, would look only into a mirror.

Horst into Horst equals Horst: something seemed to take hold of his nose, jerk it Horstward; something gently pinched the skin around his eyes into small weary crinkles. He held himself absolutely still as a sort of carbonation foamed up along the surface of the table and etched new whorls and eddies into his fingerprints. As his eyes changed, a smile stole into them. Soon now, very soon, the admirers would begin to come.

Previously published in Sudden Fiction (Continued); originally appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review and also appeared in MQR’s collection The Male Body. Reprinted here by permission of the author.