Beyond The Ugly

       Tom Brown never thought of himself as lucky for he had never won anything in his life. Not at bingo, cards or playing lotto. Serendipity was something that he knew nothing about. He was a loner, not by choice but life had played a dirty trick on him. He did curse the God's and retreated from life, but at times his loneliness became unbearable.

            He didn't have friends because he learned at an early age that children were mean and said things that were hurtful. He didn't understand why they ran away or laughed and called him a freak until he looked in the mirror and saw the ugly red birth mark that covered the right side of his face. His parents spared no expense in trying to correct a birth defect that they knew would have a devastating effect on their son. They took him to the finest specialists and the very best plastic surgeons who advised his parents that nothing could be done.

        Tom had trouble learning to live with his disfigurement and grew up a loner avoiding crowds and people who looked at him as some sideshow freak and turned away from him in revulsion. It pained him, but over time he insulated himself from the stares, glares and pointing fingers by avoiding people. He couldn't blame his parents who shielded him from the torment, but in a way they perpetuated a little boy's image that he was different.

        When his parents died, he was left an inheritance that allowed him the freedom to never have to work again. Never a spendthrift, he neither wanted cars, clothes, expensive vacations or the accouterments that his money could buy.  His only real indulgence was the apartment that he bought. He did have it professionally decorated knowing that he would spend most of his time indoors and he wanted his surroundings to be as comfortable as possible. He thought of seeking professional help but knew that it wouldn't and couldn't change his appearance and he decided against it after considerable thought. What he really wanted was friendship but he was his own worse enemy and never allowed anybody to get close to. He didn't think that love would ever come his way and he was resigned to that fact. Being alone and lonely had become a way of life.

        One day at dusk as he walked along the beach, he watched the waves crashing against the shore as small craft raced the wind to get back to shore. He liked the solitude at that hour when the beach was empty. Reds, oranges and yellows painted the sky crimson as the sun seemed to plunge into the ocean.  It was a reflective time for him. He walked barefooted, enjoying the sand under his feet and lost in thought when he heard barking. He looked around and saw a large, shaggy dog by a massive rock at the water's edge. As Tom approached, the dog growled and Tom was fearful that the dog might attack. Common sense told him to walk away, but this poor animal looked so pathetic that he couldn't. Carefully, he approached the dog who crouched on the wet sand, shivering with cold.

        "It's all right boy," he said. His voice was soothing. "I know what being alone and frightened is all about. I know how it feels when nobody wants you." Was he talking to the dog or to himself? " I guess we both need a friend." Suddenly tears flooded his eyes and he sank to his knees in the sand and began to cry. He felt a warm tongue licking his hand and big brown eyes staring at him. The dog wagged his tail and put out his paw. Tom hugged this poor creature who wanted and needed love as much as he did. The dog had no collar on or identification. Without thinking, Tom decided to take the dog home. For the first time in his life he was acting impulsively, taking a chance. It was a new experience for him and he didn't care how it turned out. He wanted that dog as much as he wanted anything. In the apartment, he fed the dog and watched him gobble up whatever food that he put before him, his big paw in the dish holding it down as he licked every last morsel. He drank the water that Tom provided and then fell asleep near the bowl of empty food exhausted. Tom called the dog Ambrose and the first thing that he did the following morning was to take the dog to the vet. After a thorough examination, the vet pronounced that the dog was healthy and estimated that Ambrose was about two years old.

        Ambrose  was like most pets, he gave Tom unrequited love and never asked for anything in return. He didn't care if Tom was short or tall, fat or skinny and he never noticed the birth mark that marred Tom's face.

        Dogs attract people and each day when Tom walked Ambrose he met the same man. They nodded, acknowledging each other as people often do when they're out walking their pets. If the man noticed Tom's face he never turned away as others had done. The man's bull dog was named Bubba. Tom knew the dog's name because the man constantly called out, "Bubba, Bubba" whenever the dog strayed to far. The man was about fifty and heavy set. He had brown hair that was turning gray and a neatly trimmed beard. Tom thought his eyes were green but they could have been blue. He wore a golf shirt outside his pants to conceal his girth. He shuffled when he walked and Tom assumed that he had back problems or arthritis. He stood over six feet tall and seemed pleasant enough.

        One late afternoon as Tom was out walking Ambrose, Bubba came racing towards him and the owner was no where in sight. Tom knew immediately that something had frightened the dog and he had bolted. The man would never let the dog wander off like this. As Budda ran toward him, Tom called out his name and the dog stopped.

        "Easy Bubba," Tom said seeing that the dog was shaking and frightened. In a soothing voice Tom tried to calm him down. "That's a good boy. "Where's daddy," he said and stroked Bubba gently under the chin,  Carefully, Tom picked him up and carried him back to his apartment.  Then he went in search of the dog's owner. He waited an hour but the man never showed up.  Tom returned home, fed both dogs, let them play until they were exhausted and they slept at the foot of his bed. The following morning Tom once again went in search of Bubba's master and found a reward poster with the man's phone number. Tom hurried home , called the number and heard the relief in the man's voice when he told him that Bubba was safe at his apartment. He thanked Tom and asked if he could come over and get Bubba. Tom said yes.

        Nervously, Tom straightened out the apartment fluffing pillows and putting stuff away. The apartment was a duplex that faced the ocean. Classical music played on the stereo. When they heard the bell ring, Ambrose and Bubba began to bark. Tom opened the door and the two dogs ran into the hall to greet the man.

        "Come in," Tom said. "Bubba has been walked, fed and has been out. He's quite a lad and Ambrose is going to miss his friend. I'm glad that I found him. He was good company for Ambrose."

        "I don't know how to thank you. " the man said. "Some kids lit firecrackers and he bolted. I tried to find him but he was gone.  I've been a basket case looking for him."

        Tom smiled. He  was forty, tall and lanky with piercing green eyes. He was wiry, and used the gym in the building that somehow none of the other tenants used. He liked it that way. Except for the birth defect he was an attractive man. "Won't you come in. It is so infrequent that I have guests. My name is Tom Brown."

        "I'm Joseph Russo,  but everybody calls me Joe."

        "Welcome Joe. Can I give you a cup of coffee. I just brewed a fresh batch."

        "I would like that if you don't mind."

        "Come in and sit down." Tom led him into the large living room.

        "This is quite a place you have here. It's beautiful."

        "Thanks. How old is Bubba?"

        "Two going on a hundred. We got him when I got out of the hospital."

        "I guess he's your dog because I've never seen your wife walking him."

        Joe laughed. "No wife. A former friend. He also ran off  but I'm glad that he's gone. "

        "I'm sorry." Tom brought in coffee and cookies. Nobody had been in his apartment except the super. He didn't even have a housekeeper. He looked at Joe and wondered why he had invited him in for coffee. Was it because he saw the man everyday, always smiled and said hello? They sat there talking.

        "Don't be. I was lucky in a way. I learned that the young man ran off with another kid and now my former friend Hank wants to come back."

        " I know it's none of my business but I hope you don't plan on taking Hank back. Who's to say he doesn't do it again.'

        "My sentiments exactly." Joe looked at Tom. "Are you married? Divorced? I don't see a ring on your finger or a woman walking your dog."

        "Does it look like anybody would marry me? he said and Joe noticed the bitterness in his voice. "No, I'm gay but who want's somebody who looks like the Phantom of the Opera?"

        "Haven't you heard the expression, beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

        "That might be true but I have learned to live with the cruel remarks and the looks and."

        "And what? We all have scars. Yours happen to be on the outside. Joe took a look at Tom. "I fought in Vietnam and saw a lot worse then what you perceive as your scarred face. I understand your plight but you could have been born without arms or legs or been blind."

        Nobody had even spoken to Tom that way before and his face reddened. Joe didn't turn away but looked Tom straight in the eye and Tom didn't become defensive as he often did when the conversation wasn't to his liking.

        "When I look at you, I see a guy with a birthmark on his face. It probably cause you a great deal of pain. But I also see a guy who was kind and gentle and took care of my pup. Not everybody is cruel or misguided. Did you expect me to recoil and turn away when I saw you?"

        "Something like that?

        "Sorry to disappoint you. Look, I'm not a bad cook. Would you like to have dinner with me some night?"

        Tom was completely thrown off by Joe's remarks. He was inviting him to dinner. He started to say no but instead said, "I would like that very much. Look, Joe, I don't want pity. That's what I don't need."

        "What about a friend? What about somebody to have dinner with? To go to a movie or just to sit and watch TV. I'm lonely too and also looking for a friend. We both like animals and you like classical music. That's a start. Who knows what else we both like. It's just dinner, two people talking and sharing ideas. I owe you for finding Bubba and would like to thank you by cooking for you. Can I call you? It'll be nothing fancy."

         Tom smiled and brightened. "I would like that very much."

        "You can smile," Joe said.  "I have to run. Thanks for the coffee and thanks for bringing my baby home to me."

        Joe left and Ambrose came up to Tom and licked his face. Tom patted his head. He thought about this Joe Russo who didn't seem to care about his scarred face. He was outspoken and somehow Tom didn't mind it coming from him. Tom looked in the mirror and for the first time in years he felt good about himself.

                                                     A few days later.

        For a man who wasn't concerned with how he dressed, Tom took great pains with the outfit he chose. He finished dressing and combed his hair and looked at the big, blotch and headed out the door.

        Joe's apartment was a few blocks from the ocean. When Tom entered the apartment, the smell of basil and fresh herbs filled the air. Joe talked to Tom as he stirred a pot, lowered the oven and added a pinch of salt and pepper to a sauce. He tasted the sauce and his blue eyes sparked. He was satisfied. He led Tom into a warm inviting living room. Show tunes played in the background. A bottle of champagne was on ice.

        "It smells wonderful," Tom said.

        "I hope you're hungry? I made enough for an army." He opened the champagne and toasted Tom. "To a new friend. I thank you and so does Bubba." He hugged Tom who stiffed as he felt Joe's arms around him.

        "I'm sorry if I embarrassed you," Joe said.

        Tom's laughed but it was false and he regretted it. "It's me, my insecurities. Touching and showing emotions are not part of my makeup."

        "I understand. Old habits die hard. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all had confidence. It would be a beautiful world. Are you hungry?"


        "Then, let's eat."

        The dinner was delicious and Tom even had a double helping of Joe's apple pie from a secret family recipe. It was a pleasant evening that went to quickly.

        They sat having a drink and Joe asked Tom.

        "Have you always been defensive about your blemish?" It was said in a manner that Tom didn't take offense at.

        "Since I was a kid and heard the taunts. It has a way of crippling you."

        "It doesn't have to be that way you know."

         "Are you a shrink?"

        "I am but this is about two friends talking. Just asking, not prying."

        Tom looked at his watch. "It's getting late. I think I should leave."

        Joe looked at Tom and said. "Look at me Tom and tell me what you see?"

        Tom didn't answer.

        "You see a heavy man who has problems walking and has been fat all his life. I also heard the taunts and being left out of the games and called a fat slob. I cried myself to sleep at night. You don't have a monopoly on pain. There are a lot of us out there who go to bed every night who are lonely and afraid. I'm a psychiatrist and lonely as you but it's not by choice."

        "What does that mean?" Tom was now defensive.

        "I look at you and see your birthmark but I see something else. I see a man who is bright, funny and who is filled with compassion.  I also see a man who has locked himself away in his castle. I look at you and see a man with a terrific body and who is probably as horny as me." He reached out and put his hand on Tom's knee.

        Tom didn't move.

        "I hurt too Tom, but I'm open to affection." He kissed Tom gently on the cheek.

        Tom pulled away. "I am so afraid of being hurt."

        "That's part of life and living." This time Joe kissed him on the lips and Tom responded. It was a tender kiss but it meant the world to Tom.

        "I'm asking you to go to bed with me. If you chose not to, I understand. I won't press myself on you. What do you say? To the world, we may not be the handsomest couple, but I don't care and neither should you. In our world, our love  will be loving and tender and just as hot as we want to make it. You can knock your own chip off your shoulder, the choice is yours. "

        Tom looked at Joe and reached out and took his hand. They got up and left Bubba at the bedroom door as they closed it behind them.