As another dawn breaks and light enters the room, Walter Rheinhardt opens his eyes and feels for it in the semi-darkness. “It’s still there!” he screams in the silent room. He had dreamed otherwise, but he has had those dreams before.
Walter stumbles to the bathroom. In the glaring light he sees it in the center of his face – the cobbled, red, clown-like nose he was born with. His otherwise handsome features are overshadowed by that bulbous thing that almost seems store bought until he tries to pull it off.
His phone rings. “Yes, mother?”
“Just checking on you, Walt,” she sings.
“I’m the same as yesterday,” he groans.
“Are you working today?”
“It’s so nice that your boss lets you still work from home.”
Walt thinks about work before the pandemic in an office where people called him “Rudolph” and talked about his odd red proboscis. The guys made stupid jokes, and the women would whisper and laugh. They’d always sing, “They would never let poor Rudolph join in any Rheindeer games!”
“Mr. Franklin thought it best for everyone,” Walt whispers.
“Whatever happened to that nice girl?”
“Sheila?” he says as his mother gushes. Sheila was the only one who never laughed at him. “Yeah, I lost touch with her since everyone went back to the office.”
After ending the call with his mother, Walt pours a glass of OJ and eats a piece of toast. He really shouldn’t hate his parents. When he was nine they took him to a doctor who removed the red bulb from his nose and tried to give him a normal one. His parents waited anxiously as the bandages were removed, and what to their wondering eyes did appear, but the red bulb – the damn thing had grown back. The doctor said, “That’s the worst case of rhinophyma I’ve ever seen.”
Walter goes online, signs into his work page, and sees the assignments for the day. Editing and writing are easily done from home, and during the pandemic he found some peace because everyone was at home too. And the mask, the glorious mask, gave him the perfect way to hide his deformity in Zoom calls. Now, it’s all back to normal for everyone except him because he has never been normal.
After editing his first article of the day, Walt decides to check the staff pages to see if Sheila still works there. He finds her name and headshot; Walt has forgotten how attractive she is. Her email is under her name and “Pronouns: she/her/hers.” Walt hovers the mouse over the email link and clicks it, but then his phone rings and distracts him. It’s another phony call as usual.
Walt prepares to open another link but accidentally clicks “send” on Sheila’s blank email. He feels himself getting upset – panic attacks were a large part of his tortured childhood. He runs to the bathroom, splashes cold water on his face, and slowly calms down.
After drying off and returning to his laptop, he sees he has a new email from Sheila. His hand quivers as he opens it and reads: “Hey, Walt, were you trying to send me something?”
Walt takes deep breaths and writes back, “I was just checking to see how you are doing.” He thinks that’s it; keep it short and simple.
The rest of the day goes by like any other work day. He stops for lunch, goes for a walk, comes back, and works on more articles. Around five o’clock he hears a text ping on his phone. It’s Sheila. “Are you busy?”
Walt smirks and texts, “You know the deal.”
Sheila writes back, “Let’s meet at that place on 23rd.”
“The tavern?” he writes back.
“Yeah,” she writes. “See you soon.”
Walt shakes like a tree in a hurricane. He rushes to the bathroom and stares at himself. “You can’t go looking like this!” he shrieks. But then he thinks that she knows how he looks and is still asking to see him.
The tavern is decorated for Christmas. Sheila is sitting in the booth where they used to have lunch. Sheila’s red lipstick is perfect and her pale blue eyes glisten. Her blonde hair hangs over one shoulder. He slips into the booth, wearing a surgical mask.
“So good to see you, Walt.”
“You don’t have to wear that. Mask mandates are over.”
“I know…” he says, reluctantly removing the mask.
“I like that face,” she says.
Walt orders a martini and says, “You and my mother.”
Sheila sips her wine. “C’mon, Walt.”
“Why…why are we here?”
“The lockdown gave me a lot of time to think.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“And guess what? I thought about you often.”
“Yeah. We had those lunches together and talked about everything.”
Walter sipped his martini. “Yeah, they were fun times.”
“And you used to always say you weren’t normal, but upon thinking about it I realized you were the only normal person in that office. You treated me with respect while the other guys always hit on me.”
Sheila reached over and squeezed his hand. “No, don’t be. You’re a decent, good man.”
“I…I should have said something.”
“No, not with that group. They’re not worth the effort.”
“I wanted to reach out to you so many times, but I was nervous.”
“Because I…I liked you.”
“I still like you and hope we can have lunch again.”
“Walt, I want to see you more often.”
He touched his nose. “But…”
“Your nose doesn’t bother me.”
“No, not at all.”
“But everyone made fun of it and of me.”
“It’s part of you, and I care about you, so it is nothing important.”
“But they all think I’m ugly.”
She touched his hand again. “But they don’t see you with my eyes.”