Short story from Mark Blickley

“My Better Half”

People who see me must think I’m eccentric, emotionally disturbed, or lonely. People who speak with me have told me that I’m an obnoxious, good-for-nothing bastard, a nasty prick, but I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. I don’t even care who reads this damned notebook. My name, Andrew Tremper, is right on the cover for all to see.

It all started about nine years ago. I was shacking up with this girl who was what they call a “modern dancer.” We lasted a little under a year together. Her name was Miriam and she went to some artsy-fartsy college up in New England to study THE DANCE. When she returned to New York she joined a dance company called Dervishing Divas. I met her at a performance on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

I was confused. I’m an educated man and I know what a dervish is—it’s spinning around, out of control. But the Divas didn’t spin. Hell, they barely moved. For over an hour all they did was lift a leg or move an arm or twitch their head every few minutes while electronic music slammed into our eyes and pulsing lights irritated our eyes. The Dervishing Divas sucked, but Miriam looked awfully good in her low-cut leotard, and I could see that she had the rounded buttocks of a thoroughbred horse.

I don’t even remember how I got to a Dervishing Diva performance or where I heard about them, except that back then I used to make the rounds of a lot of inexpensive arts events because there was always lots of women and I was posturing as an arts enthusiast, a good looking, well built arts enthusiast. Hell, I remember the night I nailed Miriam. I had to put up with hours of her artspeak about how the Divas don’t dance, they manipulate movement and shit like that. Well, let me tell you, she moved like a worm with a match under it later that night and a lot of nights that followed.

When she finally skipped out on me, the bitch left me a going-away present—a life-size cardboard cut-out of myself. On a note pinned to its crotch, she said she had it made because talking to the cutout was the only time she could have an adult conversation with me, expose her feelings without being ridiculed, cut-off, or ignored. The note said a helluva lot more than that, it was a freakin’ manifesto, but you get the idea. It was a real artsy exit, don’t you think? And probably the highlight of her creative career. I mean, just imagine all the thinking, planning, and execution involved in trying to make me feel like a complete shit.

I was going to throw the damned thing out, but I grew sort of attached to it. She did pick a pretty decent photo of me to enlarge in cardboard, although I’ve always thought of myself as somewhat taller than I am. Standing back to back with the cutout proves we’re both the exact height, five feet ten and three-quarters of an inch. That sonofabitch dancer nailed me down to three-quarters of an inch. In her manifesto, she predicted I’d keep the life-size cutout because I was so in love with myself. Miriam was wrong. I kept it to show the other broads I bang the monument of obsessive love given to me by a former member of the Dervishing Divas. The girls I take up to my apartment all seem to be impressed, so I guess Miriam’s cruelty backfired on her. How’s that saying go about a last laugh?

I kept the cardboard cut-out of myself inside my apartment for about three or four years. It made its world debut at a stupid party thrown by a woman I was involved with who lived in Hoboken. The point of the party was that no one could speak. Everybody had to write these responses, keep them in their pockets, and then show them to other guests when communication was desired. We were kind of like idiotic mimes without makeup. I feel like an ass even admitting that I’ve attended parties that, but hey, in a time of wildfire viruses, artsy babes are the most liberal and liberated, so I played the game to win the prize. Sue me. It’s better than sitting home and choking the chicken in front of adult video rentals although that, too, has its moments.

I cut up a few garbage bags and wrapped them around my cardboard cut-out that I named Sir Andrew. As I pulled the plastic around Sir Andrew’s head, it felt as if I was trying to suffocate myself, which is ridiculous because I don’t hate me. I pulled the plastic off Sir Andrew and decided to take him outside in all his glory. I figured I’d allow other people to enjoy twice the pleasure of our handsome face.

I had to carry my cardboard cut-out of myself down to the PATH train station at Thirty-third Street. PATH trains are subways that link New York City with New Jersey, and man did I get some bizarre reactions to carrying a life-size cut-out of myself under my arm as I crossed the state line beneath the Hudson River. I dug the attention.

The reason why I decided to take Sir Andrew—I’m just plain old Andrew—to the party was because I’ll be damned if I’ll spend my time writing out silly shit on slips of paper just to appease some piece of ass. If they want me to be silent at a party, fine, they can talk to my life- sized cardboard cut-out, Sir Andrew. He won’t answer them back.

Sir Andrew was the hit of the party. A gorgeous redhead even slipped me her phone number when her hostess wasn’t watching because she wanted to hook up with the “creative genius” that had turned the party’s conceit into what she said was a new art form, for some crap like that, yet all I did at the party was smoke some pot, down glasses of great cognac that the label said was made by monks, and eat like a pig. Whenever anyone approached me with their little fuckin’ witty remarks on paper I’d shrug, shake my head, and point to Sir Andrew, who I propped up in a corner of the living room. So there you have it, the secrets of a creative genius. My mother used to yell at me that if I kept my mouth shut people wouldn’t know how stupid I was. I guess the old bag was right. Anyway, tragedy befell me and Sir Andrew later that evening. I had planned to spend the night with my girlfriend, but she caught me making out with the redhead in the bathroom and pitched a fit. That’s when the silent party turned into screams.
I told her to shut up and stop running the integrity of her party, to pull something out of her fuckin’ pocket for me to read if there was something she wanted to say.

The redhead immediately ran off and shortly afterward my girlfriend kicked me out of her apartment. I grabbed Sir Andrew and staggered my way back towards the PATH station. I was really loaded; that bitch should not have driven me out of her home. Before I even made it over to the subway, a Hoboken cop gave me a summons for pissing in the street. I think I even accidentally sprayed a bit on poor Sir Andrew.

I had a hard enough time navigating through the streets and train turnstiles, but with Sir Andrew tucked under my arm it became damn near impossible. My cardboard cut-out smashed into telephone poles, parked cars, fire hydrants, as well as other pedestrians, and was nearly decapitated by closing subway doors. By the time we arrived home, Sir Andrew was bent, ripped, crumpled, and stained. He looked exactly the way I felt. He slipped out of my hands as I flopped onto my bed.

When I woke up the next afternoon the first thing I saw was Sir Andrew, face-up on the floor, next to my bed. He looked scary. It was as if I was looking in a mirror at a decaying, diseased image of myself. My first impulse was to crush my cut-out and toss it into the garbage, but the idea of trashing myself like that was too disturbing. That was when I realized how attached I’d become to the fuckin’ thing.

I couldn’t keep the cut-out, but I wouldn’t throw it out either, until I could replace it. That’s when I remembered walking past this porno palace right off of Times Square that advertised they could make life-sized cut-outs from photos, although the sample displays were all these gross-looking naked people with bloated breasts and shriveled shlongs. They reminded me of my first experience at a nudist beach. I was about fifteen years old and was expecting to see all these incredibly hot babes jiggling about, playing volleyball, stretched out in the sand flashing more than just a smile. What a disgusting shock to discover that the nudists were mostly guys, middle-aged or even older and the women on the beach looked like my Mom’s friends, or like our neighbors.

Anyway, I set up a timer on my camera and took fresh portraits of myself in my favorite outfits, and picked out the best one. The guy at the porno palace couldn’t believe that my balls weren’t at least hanging out through my zipper. He charged me eighty-seven dollars and change and did a beautiful job. When I picked it up I noticed something quite interesting. My cardboard facial expression had a really strange look to it. I’ve since heard it described as compassionate, concerned, thoughtful, and affectionate. The truth was that my expression was affected by total anxiety. It was the first time I had ever used my camera timer, the first time I ever took pictures of myself and I didn’t think I was going to pull it off. I was too embarrassed to ask someone to take multiple portraits of me because they might think I was some kind of conceited, narcissistic bastard.

I liked having the new, updated version of Sir Andrew with me. Because of Saint Andrew’s success at the Hoboken party, I decided to regularly ferry it out in public. And let me tell you, it attracted and engaged more female strangers than if I had been walking the most adorable puppy in Manhattan. I did notice, however, that when talking with these curious and inquisitive women they seemed to be paying more attention to my cardboard face rather than to my real face that was sputtering out words of charm and profundity.

The first question I was always asked was, of course, why do I have a life-size cut-out of myself? My answer would vary according to the appearance of the inquisitor. If guys asked me I would usually say something like my girlfriend is going out of town and couldn’t bear to be without me for even a day, so she forced me to clone myself so I could travel everywhere she went. Or I would feign shock that they hadn’t heard about the terrorist attack in Florence and that they needed an immediate model to replace the recently exploded statue of David, so I was on my way to Federal Express Sir Andrew to the Italian authorities, you know, stuff like that.

When young women asked me the same question my response was dependent on how they looked. If I wasn’t attracted to the questioner I’d give them the same answer I gave the guys. If the woman looked like she had potential, I’d say something romantic like I was on my way to launch this cardboard representation of myself into the Hudson River, not unlike a Viking funeral pyre, because my dreams of trying to connect with true love had died, or my response would be something humbly humorous, like I decided to invest all my negative traits into this cut-out and was on my way to burn it in a sacrificial fire of repentance and purification or some shit like that. You get the idea.

Funny thing, it turned out women didn’t invest any of my negative traits into Sir Andrew- –they did the exact opposite. Sometimes I’d bang babes that I swear were more in love with my cardboard self than with me. I remember one girl insisting that I prop the cut-out by the bed and keep the lights on so that she could see Sir Andrew while we did the nasty. There certainly are a lot of freaks out there, but freaks are the most fun in bed.

Sir Andrew was pretty good for me in more ways than just the babe department. I never needed a scale. When I’d start to pork up a little all I had to do was compare myself with the cardboard stud and it would force me to keep myself in check. I had to maintain the same handsome and appealing appearance as Sir Andrew because my worst nightmare would be that one day I’d be cruising the streets with Sir Andrew and no one would recognize that it was a life-sized cut-out of me. Call it vanity if you want, but I call it a fight against nostalgia. I don’t ever want Sir Andrew to -represent my glory days—he must be representative of the here and now.

I take Sir Andrew with me almost everywhere I go these days. Aside from his talent for attracting women, I discovered that he also supplies me with peace and safety when I travel home to Manhattan after working in one of the sleaziest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. All the fruitcakes, psychos, and homeless assholes seem to fall instantly in love with Sir Andrew. I just lean back in my subway seat, close my eyes, and hold up the cut-out like a shield while some lunatic mutters away at it instead of pulling out a knife or hassling me about money. They tell the cardboard all about their wildest and sickest thoughts, experiences, confessions and actually seem to find comfort from that stupid look on Sir Andrew’s face.

But the truth is, I’m starting to get a little pissed over all the attention paid Sir Andrew. Why the fuck does everybody love him so much? Why is he more important to people than I am? I mean, if I don’t take care of him, protect him, he could easily be destroyed because he’s so goddamned fragile even a little moisture could melt his compassionate smile into a sneer and ruin him! Ruin us!

What started out as a gimmick to attract attention to myself has really boomeranged into a gimmick that diverts attention away from me. Sometimes I feel like I’m the prop and that my cardboard image carts me around to help me keep in touch with the rest of humanity. To be honest I guess I’d like to be more like Sir Andrew. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to sprinkle profanities and slang into my speech in order to bolster my image as a strong man, but Sir Andrew is completely silent and no one, man or woman, has ever questioned his strength or manliness. And he really seems to be able to help people with their problems because he listens to them and stares them in the face when they’re talking to him.

In some ways I sort of admire Sir Andrew, but it’s kind of hard to change when your role model is yourself.

Mark Blickley grew up within walking distance of the Bronx Zoo, He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center. . His latest book is the text-based art collaboration ‘Dream Streams’ (Clare Songbirds Publishing House). His videos, Speaking in Bootongue and Widow’s Peek: The Kiss of Death, represented the United States in the 2020 year-long international world tour of Time Is Love: Universal Feelings: Myths & Conjunctions, organized by esteemed African curator, Kisito Assangni.

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