“Presentation”

by Sadiyah Tariq

“So, how tall are you? Like, really?”
“Five-nine, why?”
“So, below average, you mean?”
“Not really, that’s still considered pretty tall.” He slipped his jacket on, unsure where this conversation was going, more determined to leave the office early than stick around and chat it up with a colleague.
“Chicks don’t really dig short guys,” the other stated matter-of-factly, his grin coming off as smug, but he knew he was only teasing the shorter of the two. He probably felt obliged to gloat, standing at his full six feet and three inches. He emphasized his point by leaning down slightly, as if Beck couldn’t hear him from all the way up there.
“And you’re the expert, after your failed marriage?” he jabbed back. He grabbed his bag and made long strides towards the exit, trying to escape as quickly as possible.
“Low blow, man,” Eli replied with feigned grievance, clutching his chest for theatrics. But before Beck could make his way completely out the door, Eli shouted at his retreating back, “A couple of us are going out for drinks tonight. You in?”
“Can’t, got somewhere to be,” he simply threw over his shoulder, before he was out into the streets. He was greeted with the rush of pedestrians hustling by the sidewalk, the blaring of cars honking over the drivers tantrums and swears, as the sunlight peeked  through the horizons of skyscrapers. He quickly integrated himself into the river of bodies, walking with purposeful steps into a gift shop a few blocks down from his office building.
It was a quaint little shop, which held a homey and relaxed atmosphere to it. Potential buyers took their time meandering through aisles of knick knacks and trinkets. Beck could have bought a basket of mixed treats, maybe even a platter of cut up fruit designed in a presentable fashion. Instead, he bought wine, in hopes that it would mellow out the anticipated tension. He wouldn’t even have to splurge for a bottle opener, trusting they had more than their fair share in their collection of junk in which they were unwilling to throw away.
As he waited in line to ring up his purchase, he realized that he wouldn’t know what else to buy for them, knowing next to nothing about them. But he didn’t linger on the thought too long, excusing himself by thinking that he knew as much about them as they did of him. It was an even deal.
“Is this for your girlfriend?” the cashier asked, trying to make pleasant conversation as she tapped expertly over the cash register — a chore she’d probably done countless times already that day. He wondered how she hadn’t broken a nail yet, as the length was bordering on being a potential weapon.
“No, it’s for my parents, actually. It’s their thirty-fifth anniversary today,” Beck replied. He picked out a ribbon from the front stock to buy along with the wine, trying to ignore the multiple options of candies and key chains, as he was going for presentation more than the quality of the content. She smiled warmly at the news, as if it was such a heartfelt thought for a couple to tolerate one another for so long, and then celebrating not having killed one another as of yet.
“Congratulations,” she said sincerely, tying the ribbon over the neck of the bottle for him, as he paid for his purchases. Grabbing the bag, they exchanged polite goodbyes, before exiting the shop to hop onto the first train back to his apartment.
Opening the front door, he walked in to see a low casting of shadows around the room. Silence encased the space as he shut the world out with the bolting of the door lock. Comfort set in, the tension in his muscles alleviating, as he felt relaxed in his own space. He could move more easily, control what went where, and how to design the fashion of his house in correlation to his wants. He was a free man.
He didn’t dawdle too long, placing the bottle down on the counter, as he reached for the drawer to pull a gift out. It was an average sized box wrapped up in colorful paper, which harbored a matching set of watches with meaningless inscriptions on them, and the names of his parents. He hoped it was good enough for their cantankerous swings in moods. As he reached down for it, his knuckles brushed against his pouch with syringes and disinfection swabs. His hand shook slightly, trying not to think about what the pouch symbolized or implicated in relation to the other people who used to be in his life. He simply made a mental note to restock later in the week, before pushing it deeper into the drawer where no one could happen across it. Before he even realized it, the moment was over and the shaking had stopped, and he was making his way into his bedroom to get himself ready.
After a shower, he was standing in front of the long mirror of his closet, surveying himself. His short hair was styled neatly, a honey brown that resembled his mother’s, which made him wonder sometimes if he should dye it a different shade. He sported a pressed button down collar shirt with the sleeves folded up a few inches, black pants, shoes exuding the confidence of a classy man, and a watch fastened on his left wrist. Beck was satisfied with the outcome, hesitating a moments longer when he stared at his eyes — a deep blue that resembled his father’s — before turning away to grab his things. It was all about presentation over content, after all.
Driving at a reasonable speed, Beck wasn’t in any rush to reach his destination. He hardly noticed the change from buildings to trees and houses, from construction work to kids riding on their bikes. He was getting deeper into suburban area, and deeper into his own shadows of doubt. He wasn’t at all confident about this whole ordeal, but at the same time, if he didn’t confront the matter with his parents, nothing would change from their current situation. He had to at least try — at least, that was what he was trying to convince himself as he parked in front of the two-story home, a commotion of music, shouts and laughter coming from the backyard to indicate festivities.
Beck closed the car door behind him, clutching the present and bottle in each hand, and walked over to the front door on shaky legs. He tried his best to shove his uncertainties down – way down – as he knocked on the front door, trying to keep his breathing even and a pleasant smile on his face.
“Coming!” he heard a recognizable voice chirp from the other side of the door, a laugh to her voice, as her light footing came closer all too quickly for his comfort. He almost gulped as the door was pulled open, not hearing as lock having to be unfastened – it was those types of neighborhoods where everyone trusted one another. However, one look at Beck, and the light in her eyes dimmed slightly. She closed the door to only a crack to hide his arrival, her expression grave. He tried not to be offended as it was too early to back out now – or too late, depending on how she handled the situation. “What are you doing here?”
“Happy anniversary, mom,” he stated, trying not to sound mechanical, as he held the presents out for her. She simply stared at them, her eyes taking in his appearance, before flickering back up to his face. She evidently didn’t like what she saw.
“You can’t be here.”
“Mom, I’m your child. I have every right to be here.”
“You can’t be seen like this!” Her voice was rising slightly, anger and desperation clouding her gaze. But she still had the right sense to only hiss out her protest instead of yell, as she did not want to draw any attention to their exchange.
“Mom, please. At least let me say hi to dad.”
“You can’t let him see you like this!”
“If you’d just let me come inside, I’m sure—”
“You aren’t stepping one foot inside this house until you change into a dress, only then I’ll let you be part of this family again.”
Mom—” He was mortified that his voice cracked, having thought that the time and distance would have allowed them the breathing space to be passed this already. He thought he could handle whatever they threw at him. But her words of disapproval were still like a punch to the gut, reopening old wounds. “I’m not going to do that,” he tried to say in an even tone, holding his ground and widening his stance to balance himself to keep upright. She looked sad, almost pitiful, as she shook her head, and was already retreating back into the house.
“Then you’re not coming in, Rebecca.” A physical pain burned him at the mention of the name, as he visibly cringed — he didn’t mean to give her that much power to physically see how much she hurt him. She hesitated for a second, opening the door a tad bit, which allowed him a view of the children running around and the adults shooting the breeze over the kitchen island. Their feet were kicked up on the coffee table, the back door slid open to show the majority of the party taking place in the backyard. Beck was almost hopeful she was going to let him in, say it was all a misunderstanding or joke, and that they didn’t care how he decided to live his life.
Those thoughts were quickly squelched when she grabbed the present and bottle from his hands. “I’ll let your father know you stopped by,” she concluded, as if it was a means of a compromise to not let him inside. Using her foot to close the door behind her, he stood rooted to the spot for a moment longer to process what had just happened. After a few seconds, he heard the lock bolt into place, and her footsteps falling back as she joined the rhythm of the celebration. That was his queue to leave.
He walked down the few steps of the patio, legs heavy as he forced one foot in front of the other. He only stopped a couple steps down the walk way when he noticed a little girl staring at him from the side gate that led to the backyard. He recognized her only through her photographs from social media, knew her name even, and where she got her blue eyes from. It was his niece, whom he had never personally met, on account that his brother wouldn’t let Beck anywhere near his family after the fall out. He waved to her, trying to muster up a smile for her sake. A small warmth spread through his chest as she waved back unabashedly to him with a large, toothy grin. However, the moment didn’t last as her head snapped to the side and she quickly ran back to the backyard, as if someone was calling for her. The moment was gone as soon as it came, and she would most likely never remember having unintentionally met her uncle.
As he was making his way back to his car, having finally pulled himself away from the side gate, he noticed his old neighbor making her way over to his family home, carrying a large present between her delicate arms. Rosaline, the picture perfect example of what his parents wanted him to turn out like. She was a beautiful woman, but her smile seemed as airheaded and superficial as she was. She was the type who stayed at home and took care of her husband and the house,and was planning to have kids in the near future. It wasn’t that she ever did anything wrong, but the fact that his parents used her as an example of how he should be, made him dislike the idea of her. She was a nice girl, but he couldn’t care less for her existence.
“Hey, how do you know the Andersons?” she asked, tone hesitant and expression uncertain, as she scanned over his apparel. She looked like she was trying to figure out how she knew him, trying and failing to place him in her memories. He wasn’t in the mood to deal for this.
“I don’t,” he simply informed, sliding into his car and slamming the door shut. Rosaline hesitated a moment, before letting the matter go, and walked up to the front of the house.
He rested his forehead against the steering wheel, trying not to have an anxiety attack right there and then. He slammed his fist against the dashboard, letting out some steam, but was also trying not to let sounds of rage out in order to not alarm anyone outside. He wasn’t supposed to be seen, after all.
A couple minutes of deep breathing exercises later, he straightened up and rolled his shoulders. He turned the car on and made a phone call. As he pulled out of the curb, Eli’s voice arose from the car speakers. “What’s up?”
“Still going out for drinks?” he asked, gripping the steering wheel as he was physically forcing himself to not press down too hard on the acceleration.
“Yeah, I’m just heading out now. We’re going to meet the guys at the bar. What happened? Changed your mind about coming?”
“I’ll meet you guys there.”
“What happened to the thing you had to do?”
“It got cancelled.” There was a moment of hesitation, and when Eli spoke, his voice was laced with concern, but he didn’t press the issue.
“Alright then. See you soon, man.”
The line went dead.

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