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Volume 14 • Number 1 • Spring-Summer 2022

Jerry Kivelä

Portrait of a Gentle Man

1  Nobody Lives Here

Staring into his own tired eyes, his tattered reflection looking back at him through a small bathroom mirror, the young man began another day. This day was quite like the ones that came and went before it, but something about his reflection now seemed fundamentally different. Something important and intangible deep within him had changed.

This was not the first change he had occurred, nor would it be the last. The changes were smaller at first, easily missed among the distractions of daily life. Yet he had recently begun to take note of a few. He had always loved rainy days, but suddenly he found himself unwilling to even step outside during a fine rainstorm. He no longer found enjoyment in hobbies he had loved. Sour candies had always been his favorites, now he reached for savory snacks instead. Gradually those small changes grew into something larger. He had loved his girlfriend of two years, now he felt her presence in his life quite inconsequential. He had pivoted towards gay porn a few months prior to their relationship’s end, but he had no interest in a boyfriend either.

We all go through so much change in our lifetimes. For some, it can become difficult to distinguish who we really are. We all eventually find ourselves in situations where we have no choice but to destroy the old version of ourselves in order to become the new version. The death of youth. Is our true self closer to the one we are born as, or the one we become in our youth, or perhaps the adult we slowly build towards? These are questions that this young man had no suitable answers to. And even without answers he knew this much; there had been a precise moment when he couldn’t recognize himself anymore, and there had been a precise moment when he realized he could no longer remember who he once was.

He had simply woken up on a rainy Tuesday morning as someone entirely different. He still looked very much the same, straw-blonde hair slightly overgrown, deep green eyes that seem inherently sad even when he smiles. Everything about his physical appearance was the same, his address the same, his name the same. But as he stared at the stranger in his mirror, he had no idea who this young man was. All of his memories were gone. He was, in essence, no longer himself. Every single memory, his life, all replaced by memories of another life, a life he had not lived through. Somehow the young man was stuck in a life he did not recognize.

Finding very little choice, he began to live this life, the life of someone entirely foreign to him. Pretty soon he became rather good at it. He excelled in school and at work, even his relationships with friends and family flourished. But the knowledge, somewhere deep within him, that this was not his life, ate away at him from the inside. It made him unable to ever truly enjoy anything. No success or happiness was ever fully realized for him anymore.

It was early April when the young man packed up his odd existence and moved to a new city in a strange country with a foreign language. No friends, no relatives, no life. He felt untethered for a long time, but this also gave him a certain sense of safety. By the time April rolled along once again, he felt almost at home in this stolen life. It was still not his, of this he was quite sure. But at least it was easier now, without the shackles of his previous surroundings.

Thirteen months had passed quickly, and he had yet to make any friends. He was something of a frictional character, one without the inherent need to please others. That was probably why he found it quite challenging to build relationships with others. But this is not to say that he was lonely. No, he simply focused on himself. The idea of coupling up, or that of love being the ultimate goal in all of this, had become quite ludicrous to him. This realization hurt some part of him deeply, threatening at times to tear his chest open from within with its heft. But he lived through it, as we all do. A stranger to himself, yet he was quite content to spend time by himself.

Cursing the rainy weather on yet another morning, he crossed the street with haste and heard loud noises somewhere in the distance. A demonstration of some sort, or perhaps a political rally. Someone yelling into a megaphone. Car horns blasting, footsteps on hot asphalt, people in a hurry to go places. A bassoonist playing a familiar tune on the corner. Everything always happens at the same time.

“NOBODY LIVES HERE”, written across a homemade sign in sketchy all caps letters. A large group of people had gathered for a demonstration on the circular plaza in front of a large museum. An old man stood in the street corner nearby, this apparently his only plan for the day. As the young man stopped for a moment to gander at the commotion in front of him, he was approached by the man with the sign.

“Nobody lives here”, the old man said, and continued after a beat.

“We’re all just visitors.”

The young man walked away from this encounter with a mix of confusion and empowerment, somehow assured that he had come close to some great philosophical breakthrough, yet quite unable to hold on to that thought long enough to find out what exactly it might be. He fought his way through the ocean of people on the square and entered the museum through large revolving doors, which kept moving in circles long after he had stepped through.

2  Ghost Stories

The museum was very quiet. This was the main reason why the young man came here frequently. Silence in public places is very different to the silence at home. He sat down on a bench in one of the hallways, one with windows out into the courtyard. He looked at the swaying birch trees in the garden and let the memories flood into his mind once again. Memories of a life he never lived.

Standing barefoot on the teak deck of a sailboat, the sun warm on his neck, the soft and salty scent of the ocean in the air all around him. Being bullied as a child, learning to ride a bike, the comfort of his mother’s hugs, his first kiss with a girl, travels around the world. This life had been quite happy. It just wasn’t his.

After a while he grew disinterested in his ghost memories and began wandering around the empty halls of the museum. On the third floor a new exhibition was being mounted. On the second floor, the permanent collection. Mostly paintings of scenery in grand gilded frames, the odd portrait here and there. The young man looked at one painting and then another without much thought, his careful steps echoing gently in the gallery’s thick air, until suddenly he came across something that disturbed him. A portrait of a young man standing in a room with dark green walls. The portrait was rather small, no more than 30 centimeters wide and 60 tall. Yet even with its diminutive size and stature, this piece was the biggest thing that had ever happened to the young man.

He stood there, frozen in place, staring at the portrait, completely transfixed by what he saw – himself. He couldn’t quite understand how this was possible and felt simultaneously relieved and frightened. After years of staring into mirrors and seeing nothing familiar, he finally saw himself. After years of living the life of a stranger, he somehow felt like himself again. So beautiful, so fragile, so flawed. His eyes filled with sadness, milky white skin aglow in the dark room. The portrait of a gentle man.

3.  Becoming

             Day after day, night after night, it became harder and harder for him to sleep. And yet somehow even the days went by in a thick dreamlike mist. Dreams became nightmares as he grew more and more obsessed with the idea that the portrait hanging on that white wall in the museum’s permanent collection was his only true self. This life, this skin, they were nothing but lies. The only truth was in the portrait.  He had to see it again, he had to touch it, to consume it.

  The next day he returned to the museum, once again entering through the revolving doors. This time he wasted no time on other pieces, making his way directly to the portrait. He felt nervous, excited even. The way to the portrait seemed much longer this time, and for a moment the young man feared he had gotten lost, but finally he found it. He knew what he had to do. Close enough to touch, the young man stood there for a long time. A smile slowly appeared on his face. His reflection smiled back at him as he lifted his hands up towards the portrait.

Jerry Kivelä is a trilingual writer based in Helsinki, Finland. Bits of his life can be seen on Instagram @jerrykiva. He finds inspiration in the sweet scent of rain on summer nights, the things left unsaid, sour candies, and the delightful troubles of the shared human condition..