Juan hadn’t eaten with another person in months. He couldn’t remember the last time. He couldn’t remember what it was like to sit across from someone discussing inconsequential things, like the quality of the food, what the people at the corner table might be talking about, or what he’d do when he got home.
Everyone that knew Juan, thought he was busy. A man-about-town, appearing everywhere at once and shaking every hand.
Juan had a knack at first impressions, they all agreed on that. They thought him affable and charming, though no one could tell you why.
No one could give any definitive answers about him, and as time passed they were more inclined to avoid the subject.
All in all, Juan was an acquaintance. He was nobodies friend, but everybody’s buddy. They would smile at him in the street and he would smile back, an empty mouthed, tight-jawed smile, wrinkling his eyes on reflex because he’d read somewhere that is appears more genuine. Everyone would smile this way.
It was only by chance that Juan found his way to parties. No one went out of their way to invite him. He wouldn’t be invited anywhere. He’d hear about these events after the fact, and everyone would assume he’d been there and they missed him, and he would lie and say he had been, or that he’d left early, or that his cat was sick, even though he didn’t have a cat. The only thing for him to tend to was his reputation.
Things were simply assumed of Juan. That he was kind, cultured, intelligent, desired by many women, envied by men. This is what people said to one another, but no one had expressed the fact, only shared it as second-hand knowledge.
Juan knew all of these things about himself, yet he was incapable of remedying them. He fermented in his skin daily. He’d ask himself why it was that he was forgotten so quickly? He would listen to others stories, feeling rejection well within him.
He would eat lunch at the same café every afternoon. During this routine, he would torture himself by watching couples and groups walk past, sharing their days together, and he would imagine that he was looking out of their eyes, living their stories.
Juan had no stories. His were confined to books, which he quickly forgot the details of because the quality lay in reading the words and not in the re-telling, or so he said. The only ones he told were his stock stories, which he would perform when meeting new people. These were tried and true tales. Ones that guaranteed to make his impression a good one. These were much like stock photographs that come inside picture frames from the stores, which incidentally, Juan would put on display, lacking any of his own to put inside.
He could never tell them true things about his life. He didn’t even like telling himself about those.
How he was miserable, desperate for affection, though unable to give it. How he still cried at night when he remembered how his brother would punish him by smothering him with a pillow. Juan had become so accustomed to this treatment that he found if he could get a hand in with his head, he could use it to push in the plush and produce a tiny pocket of air to breathe in. Juan’s mother did not believe him when he told, even when he showed her the outline of his face, impressed on the underside of the pillow by his crying and panicked sweating.
Once when Juan and an old girlfriend had been play-fighting, she began to force his head down with a pillow, and he beat her so viciously that he blinded her left eye permanently. Juan could not recognise her face from his brothers, through the tears, bile and burst capillaries.
How was he to tell people these stories? Blinding somebody in a blind rage over being blinded by a pillow.
He’d never get past the gate. And once he was through, he’d be confined to the foyer. He would never be allowed into the show, private viewings were for the inner circle. Juan had never been in.
Despite being seen as affable, it was unspoken that he made others feel anxious, guarded even. It’s as if everyone wanted to think him charming but really wished he would leave.
This is how Juan felt when on empty evenings when he looked at photographs of nameless families on his mantle. This is how he felt when he would smother himself with his pillows, leaving the shadow of his face on the casing. This is how he felt when he could no longer leave his room, and no one came looking.
Juan felt that he no longer existed, that he was imagining himself. Someone would come searching for him if he existed, he thought. They knew his name, his face, but all else was left to speculation if anyone took the time to speculate.
When someone did come looking, for the late rent, they found Juan with a blue velvet cushion tied to his face with a polyester-leather belt, and the picture frames of strangers arranged around his body like a funeral procession. His face had welded to the fibres and the skin pulled free from his skull when it was removed. Juan was unmasked and proved to be empty and decaying.