Michael hates looking at himself in the mirror. No, that’s not quite right. Michael’s monster hates when Michael looks at himself in the mirror. It crinkles its crooked nose, curls its lip, and huffs in annoyance, all the while looking at Michael in disgust and unable to even glance at its own reflection.
Michael regards himself and ultimately agrees with his monster’s assessment, as he does each morning. He repeats the same routine upon waking every day, and by now the image of his monster shaking its head with disappointment has become ingrained in his memory.
Everyone has a monster. Some may even have a few. For most people, the monsters act like ducklings following behind their mother. Except they’re not small. And they’re not cute. But they will shit all over the place.
Michael’s monster never misses the opportunity to tell him, “You suck. Your art sucks. You’re thirty-one years old and have nothing going for you. So pathetic. I hate you.”
When someone catches him drawing and gives him a compliment, the monster is quick to say, “They just don’t want to hurt your feelings by telling you to give up. Next time, keep it to yourself so you stop embarrassing yourself.”
When he overhears his coworkers talking about something he’s interested in, the monster stops him. “Haven’t you learned by now? They don’t care what you have to say, dummy.” It nudges him forward. “Just shut up and keep walking.”
When he sees the receptionist he has a crush on make eye contact with him and smile, the monster is right there, whispering, “She’s way out of your league, idiot. Why don’t you pick up some weights instead of picking up that cinnamon roll today? How dare you think she’d want to talk to someone so out of shape, so stupid, so worthless. Don’t waste her time.”
But at the same time that Judith, the receptionist, looks at him and smiles, her monster tells her, “You think that quivering lip you call a smile is attractive to him? Don’t you know he’s aware of how awkward you are? Why would any guy be into you? Maybe if you didn’t have such chubby thighs, just maybe he wouldn’t get repulsed by you.”
And when those other guys’ monsters tell them to whistle at her and block her from the only exit, her monster tells her, “This is as good as it’s going to get for you. Eventually, you’ll have to settle for this type of guy, because that’s all you deserve.”
And when she’s alone in her bedroom reading a book, the monster breaks her concentration and says, “You’ll always be alone. Don’t you see that no one actually cares about you? People that say they do are just being nice, but really, they can’t wait until you’re gone so things aren’t as awkward anymore. Why do you think you’re at home by yourself on a Saturday night?”
And at the same time, both Michael and Judith’s monsters tell them, “No one will ever love you.”
But one day, their monsters are talking so loud that they aren’t aware of their surroundings and bump into each other. Judith falls backwards to the floor, and Michael avoids following after her by pressing his hand against the wall to regain his footing.
“I’m so sorry,” says Michael, and before he realizes, he extends his hand to her.
Judith hesitates for a brief moment but then lets him help her up. “Sorry, sorry,” she says. “I really need to start looking where I’m going.” She pretends to examine her skirt in order to avert her eyes.
“No, no,” says Michael. “It was my fault.” And again, before he can filter himself, he adds, “The one time I don’t notice you in front of me, and look what happens.”
They both immediately feel the heat of the blood rushing to their cheeks and realize they’re still holding hands. Their eyes meet and quickly shy away before they let go of each other; their palms clammy and fingers thick, yet electrified and sending jolts up the arm and to the chest. Neither of them is sure what to do next. Should they keep the conversation going somehow? Should they say goodbye and walk away? That’s when it clicks in their minds. They both realize simultaneously that their monsters aren’t commenting on what’s happening.
And then they hear them. The monsters. They’re speaking to each other.
“Your legs aren’t fat,” says Michael’s monster. “At least you’re still fit, look at this gut.”
“There’s barely anything there,” says Judith’s monster. “At least you’re creative. People love you. I have nothing to offer.”
“My work sucks,” says Michael’s monster. “I’ll show you sometime. You’ll hate it. I bet you could do better.”
Back and forth, they bicker in an attempt to be the most self-deprecating one.
And off to the side, two people begin to feel confident and bold for the first time in their lives.
Michael looks into Judith’s eyes.
Judith stares back.
And at the same time, they say, “Do you want to get lunch together later?”
Alex Rezdan is an American writer currently living in Berlin. His short stories have previously appeared in Popshot, Fabula Argentea, and Viewfinder Literary Magazine, along with Berlin-based magazines RHNK and Berlin Unspoken. When not writing short stories, he is working on his first interactive fiction novel.