Then he went outside. It was cold in the winter and nobody knew the way he felt in the morning with the bandages over his face and the throb in his head and the incessant, near inextinguishable worry of how he would look under the bandages once they were released and he stood before the shining mirror in his bathroom because the doctor's office hardly counted, no, it didn't. It was something else and he didn't need to pay particular attention there, all brightly lit and under the close eye of the doctor himself and his quietly patient aide in her sensible shoes and brown polyester pants that still showed her ass so nicely and practical blouse with the large holes for her arms that her bra peeked through. No, it wouldn't happen that he would pay much attention there, not even with the young woman, more or less his age, maybe a few years older, college-y, snub-nosed and cute, giving him some kind of tacit encouragement from the wellspring of her sympathy. He wouldn't look at himself there. It was something to be done in private, like masturbating or reading a certain favorite, great writer with utter concentration when nobody else in the apartment could disturb him. It would have to wait.
"Shit, man, it's cold," he told himself. And he went down to the mailboxes housed in a small shelter where the road met the cement path leading up to the stucco building that held four units in all, two on top and two on the bottom. And there in the small clearing with the dull gray mailboxes glinting feebly, he inserted his key and saw her.
"Hi, Jill," he said.
"Hi, Walter," she said. She had a burned face and a diminutive body with all the right bulges and was black, fluorescently black-skinned with a small, tight Afro that looked just right on her.
She had a fine chiseled nose and straight, white teeth and tiny earlobes that held diamond earrings. She wore jeans that fit her well and a down vest over a long sleeved shirt that looked like a man's but wasn't.
Designs attached themselves to the sleeves and when she spoke it was with a slight lisp as if speaking were a hard thing to do, only learned out of forced habit and not naturally. She didn't want to have anything to do with the world.
It was a hurtful, awful place, and Walter took up the challenge of speaking to her cautiously. He liked her but you never knew what would come out of somebody's mouth.
"How have you been," he said, barely looking at her. He thumbed through his mail, two bills and one piece of junk mail, and she sorted through hers not standing six inches from him, elbow to elbow, facing the bare-branched road that looked haunting in the morning with the winter fog misting about lightly.
"Okay. What happened to your face," she said. She turned to look at him.
"I had a nose job," he said. It came out of him without thinking about it.
It jumped out of him. Then he felt immediately ashamed and returned to inspecting his mail in his hand as if for the first time.
"Oh," she said. "I didn't know you needed one."
"That's what everyone says now," he mumbled. "Or you're the second person who's told me that but before it was the opposite. I felt shitty with the comments."
"You got comments?" She was speaking to him with her hands at her sides, the mail in her left hand and her right hand patting her thigh tenderly, shifting on her feet but holding his gaze with her own apparently concerned face.
It was a good face, when Walter thought about it, even with the burn faintly ruptured along the lower cheek on her left side.
And her pleasant eyes sought him.
"Yeah, I did. People told me stuff," he said. He felt himself choking up and said nothing else, but she stared at him with such wonderment asking for more, he went on.
"It was hell, it was fucked."
"Want to come over for dinner tonight? We can watch a movie."
"Okay." Walter's heart was fluttering.
"What do I do about this," he pointed to his face.
"Nothing, you can eat, can't you?" She smiled widely and turned to go up the walk back to her apartment on the second floor where later on that night, in the darkness of her living room with only the TV on low and no sound coming from the apartments around them, dead for the winter break, he reached a hand out and touched hers, sitting next to him.
Then she scooted up and put her head on his shoulder. On television, The Bride of Frankenstein started at 11:00, but by that time, they were well into dessert, and the night was sweet and pleasing.
"You're going to be okay."
"Okay. So are you."
"Okay. Let's quit playing the okay game."
"Okay. I'm with you."
"Good. What are you doing tomorrow?"
"Going to the doctor's. Getting these damn bandages off."
"Let me touch it."
"Okay. It's okay. It's really okay."