FICTION: The Man With a Face by Julia Retkova

It was his sister that taught him how to dance.

Well, it was really just the step sequence. He never took it seriously, but Anna was seven and came back everyday from school with a watery voice.

So they would lock the room to his door, blare music through the laptop, and dance until she’d stop pretending to smile at his weird jokes. She would really only giggle if he’d slip or do something stupid, and, eventually, without even noticing, his mistakes wedged themselves into their dance sequences. He’d thought it’d be almost cathartic for her, to laugh at him, that is. But Anna would laugh, maybe shake a little, but the stop would almost always be blunt. She’d apologise with actual meaning behind it. He didn’t really understand how, but for the rest of his life, he’d always know if someone was actually sorry, or if they were just saying it as a filler or as a glimpse into their box of manners.

Anna was dead, but he wasn’t really sure when that had happened. He wasn’t sure about a lot of things. He knew, really, he knew, how everything existed, he knew all of these pieces were there; but to fit them together would be to pierce the world whole, and as far as he knew, Gods didn’t walk through crowds.

Then, some other days, he’ll watch new light filter into his bedroom, wonder why he’d dream of having a dead sister. He’s pretty sure he was an only child. But then the light comes, the checklist starts, and while he’s making his dinner he’ll try and remember how Anna would poke at her cheekbones whenever she was thinking.

The days breathe very smoothly. They have a lot of structure, a lot of routines, and, sometimes, he gets so caught up in it all that they swallow him whole. He’ll be scrubbing the desk, and then he’ll fall through a little collapsed pocket. Or, otherwise, the days just stitch themselves together, yesterday spilling over into today, and so on and on. You know how it goes.

Now, you might wonder, what actually happens when he falls into these little collapsed pockets. As it turns out, not much. Not much at all. But then not much happens when he’s outside the pocket, either.

There’ll be a night when he’ll look up and see a plane set off. Cutting through black velvet. It’s not the plane itself. It’s the cutting, really. He’ll feel something ugly curl up inside. Something that makes the edges of his vision swim.

He knows it’s night when the light leaves. Of course, it’s never really dark here. There are no stars but the sky glows. He’ll open a door that’s red and reminds him of sleep, and then, and then the air’ll feel as glass does, and his bones are lighter, and his chest stops its pushing. It’s a very quiet street, here. It’s a very empty street, here. There’s a main street on his street, because he can feel the cars rush by. Sometimes, he’ll even hear voices. They always take him by surprise, always send a little jolt of lightning that makes him want to nod his head.

So he’ll go to the right, the streets turn even smaller, until they’re forgotten and there aren’t any lamps left. Cigarette buts always end up in the little pavements cracks. He tastes acid. Sometimes he’ll have to check to make sure his tongue’s still there.

He likes how his breaths cool his lungs. He likes how his feet start aching, how something under his cheeks’ skin crackles. He walks for nights in a row. He can smell the sky getting lighter before he can actually see it. It’s a dampness that reminds him of silent cars, all parked in rows. If he’s lucky, the streets will be empty. The chimes that wave off voices nudge him away.

This happened either yesterday or tomorrow, on a bridge, closer to the city’s heart. But there had been many hours of darkness, he was sure of it, he had sat, felt air like water tumble into his lungs, he had sat for a long time, and when his lungs felt like they were aching and his ribs were hurting and his chest was suddenly too small, too tiny and it was holding him close, inside, enclosed. He needed to leave the house. That night, he had walked further than before. He didn’t remember the last time he had gone into the centre, ushered in by traffic, cars, buses, whirling by him, the faces inside smudged, traces of paint left hanging in night air. He probably looked like that too. Smudged skin. What does he look like? Does he have lips? He remembers that there’s a mirror, against the wall, somewhere. All he sees are his shoes shuffling. Maybe it’s used for something else, but he was content with knowing that there’s someone walking around in the house.

But then there was the bridge, and it wasn’t just the pavement, a single cracked tile, like slammed heads; it was the coiling of black waters, reflecting lights that weren’t always warm, that didn’t always speak of homes. His feet shuffled in time with his breath, faster, and faster, and the railing was grating against his hips, now, his shirt started sticking to his skin. But the river kept shuffling, as if waving, a row of children, all waving, all smiling, their hands moved from the left, centre, only got halfway through, switched to the left again, and as much as he blinked he couldn’t see the movement, couldn’t see the switch. Was he seeing them now? A hundred different waves. The waters, his mind spilled out, brain unspooling out into the cold air. It was night now. The waving children definitely existed.

So he walked like that for a while, wishing them well, trying to catch them again, but then there were footsteps and shapes, solid and unwavering. He remembered, he remembered the waving children were on the tv, once. Or maybe somewhere else. But they weren’t here. They weren’t with him right now, the river wasn’t a part of him, the children weren’t speaking through it. A comparison.

The footsteps and shapes had passed. There were two, he knew. He had kept on shuffling along the railing, watching it out of respect. His hip was burning.

A voice, liquid, honey slipping into his ears, trailing after him from behind, darting in between the footsteps.

What the fuck is wrong with his face?

Quiet, stay quiet, quiet, stay quiet, quiet quiet quiet

And there must have been more people than he had realised, but then he had raised his head and no, they weren’t there? No, no it was empty.

It was very hard to breathe. He didn’t remember how he got back home.

So, either yesterday or tomorrow.

There must have been a child, at some point, because he wakes up some nights and finds he can’t breathe, finds every bone in his body is aching because there was a hand, a small hand, clamped around his thumb.

He slides to the edge and the feeling of pride is worse than anything he could imagine, because although he doesn’t remember much, he knows there was something worth remembering. He knows memories tied to feelings like warmth and lullabies existed, and that’s worse than anything. That’s what wall scratches are made of.

The only actually whole memory he has of a kid is probably one of the earlier ones, because even though it was dark there were still little stories milling around him. There was a weird cacophony being weaved around him, whispers and buzzes, tinkling of laughter like ringing glass.

A little voice broke from all that— he scares me.

He turned just in time to see painted nails cover a small girl’s eyes. She stood, a halo of black hair and trembling lips.

There was a break somewhere along that street, an alley with walls for eyes, closely packed bins and boxes. It was like a cocoon. That’s where the memory stops.

On the bigger streets, there were always cars passing by. The air was colder, crisper. Buildings took the time to watch you. Shadows jumped from window to window, from block to block. He was never really alone.

At times like this, he needed for invisible hands to push against him, he needed suffocation, to feel like the breaths he was’t getting weren’t that dangerous. Chest burned, throat burned, tongue burned, head splitting apart until there are only sirens and shockwaves that eat away skin.

Nobody lives on his street.

The first time he wears a mask, he’s trembling and can’t breathe properly, it feels like there are pills lodged somewhere along his throat, piercing at his chest, burning the air around him until it sizzles and bites at him. But it’s good. His heart is beating faster than it has in a while, the type of fast that goes with fireworks at spring.

The mask itself is simple, but he took hours bending over it, hours coaxing it, willing it to behave and listen. It’s mostly smooth, the colour of skin, smells of nothing but acetylene and rust. It’s what he has spent most of his waking hours focusing on.

When he puts it on, it flits around his face as gloves do. Only his eyes are alive. It’s beautiful. Air hitches in his throat, and suddenly there’s a flood, a wave crashing over him, of possibilities, of what could be, of what’s so close, of what’s within his grasp. He could talk to people, again, because even though he hasn’t tried in a while, he’s sure he still has a voice. He’s sure he can still string words together. Sitting around a table, warm, with faces that look at you and share their days, lunches, dreams, funny stories, nights that changed it all.

He can’t wait, and he can’t cry. The mask might get ruined.

So he goes out. He remembers he had tried to go out, in the beginning. He doesn’t know why, or when it was, exactly, but at least he knows this memory isn’t one he made up along those seconds that stretch out to infinities in empty rooms. He knows it’s real because it makes sense, because although tonight was the first time he had looked at a mirror, he knows he must have looked into mirrors before, because there was a reason he had never looked into one before. And so he knows he should remember looking into a mirror, maybe a long time ago. He knows he should remember what he looks like. And so he remembers, all of it, the mirror, and his face, and him trying to go where people are. Maybe not in a traditional sense, because he still knows there are memories that feel achingly real, and even if they are made up, they must be imitating something, some process his mind once had. He doesn’t mind too much. Memories colour his hours in, maybe not in the way where he can relive them, but there are an infinite number of forms and shapes. This he knows.

And so he wanders onto the main streets, the streets that don’t smell like piss, that are lit up in jewels and dressed in laughter and smoked food. These streets, too, feel like parts of some of those memories he’s forgotten. It had started even before he had arrived, though, and he’s always so careful. Even if he never looks, you don’t just see with yours eyes, you stretch your senses out and have a world build up in front of you. Trickles of people had been flowing past him in streams steadier and steadier. It was better, because although he could see faces turning towards him on the sides of his vision, there was nothing that stabbed at his chest.

He smiled, because the further he went into the city’s heart, the less anyone really cared. Not that he could control everyone, of course, so he branched out to the ones closest to him, the ones that could brush at his cheek, breath on his neck. Nobody cared, and if they stared, if they noticed, it was only something slightly off, something they could grasp at but not fully catch, like dreams you’d wake up from and immediately start forgetting. He knew this is how they all felt because their faces would be slack at first, eyes roaming, sipping all of it in small gulps. Someone shouting, a pretty girl, a light changing, someone jumping up and down. Or there were those whose mouths would be moving, moulding words like figurines out of clay because they had someone next to them, someone beside them, and their eyes would still roam worlds only they could see, latch onto anyone who tried stopping them, wondering without actually realising what if this other one…? But this would only be the first, each time, because then there’d be a hitch, there’d be a break in the waves, and their eyes would widen, or their brow would furrow, mouth would freeze.

And he never had to look directly at them. He stared only ahead, and like he was a magnet, heads would swivel towards him.

But he didn’t mind anyone looking. He never did. He smiled all for himself, in secret, as if he knew something they all didn’t. Some higher truth even he couldn’t fully understand, but at least he had tasted it, at least he had glanced at it, once, on an accidental cold morning.

There was a group that passed him, still boys, shining and brash. All they needed was a glance at him, and then they were whooping, clapping him on the back, fucking legend.

And what could he say? He just nodded along, tried to let them see he was just as happy as they were, and the more they laughed the stronger he nodded, bending forwards, bringing his eyes to face the sky. And his heart swelled when he realised how kind they were, because they had realised what he was trying to say, and were now nodding, just like him, rocking the upper parts of their bodies up and down, laughing and laughing. He tried laughing, too, but all he got were blurry eyes and a tight throat.

Some girls had passed by then, doe eyed with black and tiny feathers, staring with hate, with disgust. They weren’t looking at him.

And later that night, when the crowds had gotten thinner and stood huddled by roads or in brightly lit rooms, he returned back home. He felt like he would overturn. He was shaking, letting out wisps he realised was laughter.

Because he didn’t mind getting stared at, and here he had spent a whole night with everyone else. He could wait for this, because it was enough just to look in without feeling like you were standing out on a cold street.

And when he got back home, he got down on his knees and bent over, staring into the mirror. And there it was, again, the face he saw before, except now he could see it a little less clearer, and loved it a little more blindly. Music notes scattered in clasps.

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Julia Retkova

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Julia Retkova is an English BA student at King’s College London, outside of which she’s also chasing after a part time course in psychoanalysis at the Tavistock Clinic. Her first poem was published when she was twelve, and while she never stopped writing, it was not until now that she started submitting her work again.
If you enjoyed ‘The Man With A Face’ leave a comment and let Julia know.
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