AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WORK IN PROGRESS
From the moment I opened my eyes that morning I could tell something was wrong. My face felt cold, a bitter chill swept across my exposed nerve endings, the hollow sting of pain you get when a cavity-riddled tooth comes in contact with a glass of ice-water.
But to be indelibly clear, and to circumvent the obligatory setup, I had no face. No face at all. It had somehow been peeled from my flesh the night before: naked muscle, fat, veins, and meat left in its absence. Naturally, the first thing I did upon feeling that cold chill in my facial viscera was feel around for any abnormality. And, unfortunately, my suspicions were readily confirmed as fingers probed the surface meat. My face, or lack thereof, felt wet, almost sticky, and a sensation of stinging pain followed every time my fingertips grazed it. Strangely, this did not keep me from feeling it at length, over and over again, each time contact was made an acidic ball of pain volleyed from nerve stem to cerebellum. It was some time before I could make my way to the bathroom mirror.
I was afraid, for one thing. Even though I had a disturbingly good idea of what was to greet me on the reflective surface, I had considerable trouble in bringing myself to take the plunge. Stupidly, perhaps I thought that if I were never to see it, then, somehow, it wouldn’t take root in the imminent dimension of reality. I thought, maybe, if I just lied down and went back to sleep, perhaps the scene would change. I would be secure in my subconscious knowledge that this was all a dream, and that another dream would take hold of my autopilot senses; I would be dreaming about losing my teeth, or driving an out-of-control automobile, or showing up to 8th grade geometry class completely naked.
But that was not to be. What came to pass that morning was indeed all too real, and as I goaded my stagnant will to sidle in front of the mirror, I felt a tinge of cowardice. The fact that something as vital to my very identity as my face was apparently missing easily managed to inspire the appropriate response of fear. The inability to face my lack of one was another thing altogether. Why was I so reluctant? I wonder. Maybe, it was fear, but fear not of your regular variety. What I mean is, perhaps it was a fear that I would be staring into something far too raw and plain than I had ever seen before in my life—than I would ever be able to handle with the two eyes planted firmly in my head. Myself. Simple enough, when you think about it
Finally, I had managed to break my stillness and I slowly side-stepped in front of the mirror, all my will and hope and stupidity lying in shards on the fuzzy bathmat beneath my feet.
What I saw did not shock me, nor terrorize me as I thought it would. Instead, what I saw in my empty face seemed all too familiar; like I was looking into the very electrons and protons and quarks that composed my brain. What I saw was not something I had never seen before, even though I rationally knew that I in fact had not. It was something like looking through a pair of prescription sunglasses that aren’t yours; things were distorted, blurred, unlike I had ever observed them, while the fact remained that I was viewing what, with the glasses off, was a mundane part of my everyday surroundings.
Maybe that makes no sense, but I’ve come to the conclusion that what I write now needn’t really appeal to the area of the brain which deems things logical or the like. My predicament is, at this point, no longer ably constrained to the realm of logic and reason. I have no face
Even though I felt strongly compelled to break my gaze from the mirror, I hadn’t the slightest clue of what to do next. I sat on the couch for a long time, staring into my blank 32-inch Hitachi. Then, out of nothing more than habit, I picked up the remote, flipped around aimlessly in search of nothing in particular. I guess I ended up watching a lot of TV that morning. Put simply, even though my face was missing, I felt I had nothing else to do. There was no sense in getting worked up into a panic, though that might have been the normal, healthy response in such a circumstance.
I must confess; I did doze off a few times there in front of the television. When my wits had gathered themselves into the upright, ready position, however, I reasoned that it was time to see a doctor. But then another obstacle presented itself: how would I venture out into the wide-open world of people and cars and buildings and pavement without arousing shocked and horrified stares from the men, women, and especially children passing me by on the street? The answer was simple. I soon remembered that I had purchased a brown fuzzy ski mask the year before in preparation for a weekend in Aspen. Strangely, I had never actually worn the thing, but I still remembered faintly and auspiciously that I had stored it somewhere in my bedroom closet.
So, I began rummaging, sorting through things I hadn’t seen in years and had all but forgot I even possessed. Finally, however, I found it, buried deep under some old tennis shoes, winter coats and rubber slickers. Without thinking, I hurriedly slipped the mask on, and a barrage of white hot orbs of pain bombarded my senses. My face stung like hell all over, every single inch, every single centimeter of raw meat throbbing with pain. It took me a moment to work through the sting, but I slipped it back off as fast as I possibly could, sweat beaded up like morning dew on my raw capillaries*.
I had yet another obstacle standing in my way, then. If I couldn’t comfortably wear the ski mask for any significant period of time, then I would have to find another way to make it outside without arousing unwanted attention.
It occurred to me that I would need something loose-fitting; something that would hang off the top of my head without brushing up against my empty face too often. A pillowcase. As if my movements were synchronized to some ominous doomsday clock, I strode over to my bed, grabbed a pillow and pulled off the blue-and-white striped pillowcase. I found an old pair of scissors in my nightstand drawer and proceeded to cut two reasonably sized holes for my eyes. I slowly fitted the empty pillowcase over my head then, and beginning to walk in a small ellipse between my bed and bathroom, at varying intervals of steps per minute, I concluded that the makeshift mask would do the job. Of course, I would have to get dressed before going out, as I was still in my boxers and t-shirt. I knew that it would be out of the question to take a shower, so I quickly threw on a pair of khaki slacks and a polo shirt. I secured the pillowcase mask over my head again, and headed for the door.
I was outside of my apartment now, for some reason hugging the wall like an escaped prisoner in an old silent film. The hallway was cold, but luckily, there was no one else in sight. I headed for the elevator, and as I pressed the B1 button, it occurred to me that the oddity of a man walking down the street in a pillowcase would be almost as painfully embarrassing socially as it would be physically to wear the ski mask. But it was too late – the elevator had started its descent to the ground level and there was no point in turning back now. Then my first brush with humiliation presented itself as the elevator stopped on the fourth floor.
A man dressed in a gray business suit stood before me, and I could feel his wandering eyes burning a hole through my excised face. He stood perfectly still for a moment, then looked down rather abruptly, stepping into the elevator beside me as the doors slid closed. We stood next to each other for a few minutes in an awkward silence, and finally I tentatively said, “…Going down?”
The man almost turned his head, but then stopped short and replied tentatively as well, “That’s right.” The elevator had finally hit the ground and as soon as the doors began to part, he stepped forward, said, “…Have a nice day.”
The doorman glanced in my direction in much the same way as the man before, I put my hand up so as to say ‘hi’, and negated his job by slipping through the door before he could open it for me.
I was outside now, and my scattered mind was immediately reminded of its temporary ineptitude as the cold winter air nipped at my face through the pillowcase mask. I had forgotten the time of the season, apparently, but that was the least of my problems. It was too late and I had come too far to go back and garb myself in appropriate attire, so I quickly strode forward, down the street, until I came to the bus stop.
The bus arrived and I boarded. Much to my relief, the bus was almost entirely empty, so I found my seat, down towards the very back, away from the other passengers. The ride would end up taking a good 45 minutes until I was at a reasonable walking distance from the city clinic, and besides a few children pointing and laughing, my embarrassment was thankfully kept to a bare minimum.
Logically, I knew that a few people staring at me was of little to no consequence. But I felt their eyes puncturing my mask and ludicrous appearance just the same. Though I had come into contact with relatively few people in my journey thus far, every stare was like a 7 foot titanium wire pushed through my skin, probing into my muscle and viscera and emerging through a puncture wound on the other side. Logic and rationality, it seemed, were moot here as well.
And thinking of this, my mind begins to question the reason for all that has happened. The outlandish yet self-evident explanation of a lone burglar mutilating my face in the night has lost almost all of its plausible weight. Though there is absolutely no other reasonable, earthly explanation, I now feel as if this “crime”, as it were, appeals somehow to a more abstract line of thought. What I’m saying, I suppose, is that something approaching the supernatural or divine has taken place here. Even though I have never been one to believe in such things as boogeymen and deities, I can’t help but feel that this is precisely the case.
But, I digress.
As I was saying, I had just departed the bus, began the trek on foot to the city clinic when the chilled January air had really begun to irritate the wet meat of my empty face. Also, for some reason, I began to break into a cold sweat despite the subzero temperature. Looking around, I saw that there was no one in sight, so I quickly slipped the pillowcase off my head. I heard a scream; jumping up in the air a half inch or so, I looked around and saw a woman running away from me in horror. My heart felt warm after that, as if it were being massaged by electric current siphoned from a toaster oven, and I hurriedly threw my mask back on, shame and embarrassment and humiliation flooding my senses.
It was inexcusable, what I did. I should have known better than to reveal my newly hideous features in public, whether people were around or not. It was an error in judgment and to this moment I feel an oppressive weight of guilt hanging from my neck. But I had to go on. I had to see a doctor. I had to do something besides watch TV like nothing at all was amiss, even though this may very well have been my precise inclination at the time.
It wasn’t that my lack of face didn’t concern me. To the contrary, it concerned me a great deal, probably more than anything had ever concerned me before in my life. But there was, and still is, a blatant lack of instinct—instinct as to what I should feel, do, think, and so-on and so-forth. Even now, I don’t know exactly what to think, what to feel. It is simply as if the area of my brain that regulates such human affectation has been peeled away in the dead of night along with my face.
The only thing that came naturally to my brainstem that moment was a very palpable and onerous feeling of grief and shame. Other than my emotions in regard to the gawkers and curious onlookers, all human instinct forged by tragedy and happenstance had been surgically removed. The doctors may have presented at least one possible solution to my most visible and obvious defect, but as for the mental complication, I was as alone in the world as I have ever been.
I had finally made it to the clinic, and with a burning reluctance smoldering in my heart, I took the plunge, opening the door and walking inside. It occurred to me, then, that my plight might not be so solitary in the company of others who suffered from all manner of physical ailments and disfigurements.
With this in mind, the fact that there was even just one man in the waiting area with a visible ailment massaged my tattered and frayed nerves. In fact, I began to feel so complicit in his sickness, that after signing in, I decided to walk over and sit next to him. He looked to be about 70 or 75, or somewhere in that neighborhood, and his face seemed as if it had begun to implode on itself. His nose was missing, he had no teeth, only a bottom lip, and there was a purplish speckled coloration stippling his face. Sitting next to him, I felt compelled almost to take off my pillowcase mask, but I managed to restrain myself, for my sake and for the sakes of all the other normal-looking patients seated in the waiting room.
I forgot to write something though; probably the most notable part of this whole episode, in fact. The old man with the sunken face spoke to me, out of nowhere, and I was surprised that he still had the mental wherewithal to conduct such a social transaction – not to mention his missing upper lip. Turning his head only slightly, he looked through the eyeholes in my mask and said falteringly, “You got a pillowcase on ‘yer head, fella.”
My face meat warmed as if I were embarrassed, and I replied, my voice slightly muffled, “Yes. I know.” I didn’t know what to say next, and by the time I found words to follow up with, he had turned his head away.
Unexpectedly, he spoke again. “Name’s Norman. Got cancer in the face. You?”
“…Same,” I said.
“Why you wearin’ the pillowcase on ‘yer head?”
I stopped to think. “I guess I do it to spare small children,” I said finally. The man looked as if he were smiling then, but with half his mouth and nose missing, it was really impossible to tell.
“That’s a good idea you got there,” he said. “Wish I thought of it.”
Just then, a woman dressed in teal-colored scrubs emerged through the door next to the sign-in window. “____ ?” she said, and hearing my name, I arose from my seat, looked back at the man with the sunken face, and stepped forward. The nurse spoke again. “Right this way, sir.” She led me through a beige labyrinth of hallways, offices, and examination rooms, finally stopping at a door at the end of one of the many corridors. “Go on in, Mr. ____. The doctor will be right with you.” She handed me a green paper gown, opened the door, and walked away.
I was alone in the room now, and I had just begun to undress when I realized that I would have to remove my pillowcase mask in order for the doctor to treat me. At first, I felt reluctant, remembering the woman in the street’s reaction to seeing my mutilated face. But there was simply no way around it. All I could do was warn him that what he was about to see was bound to be disturbing, to say the least.
So, dressed in the paper gown, I sat up on the metal examination table, the cold steel cooling my buttocks. Strangely, I began to feel slightly more nervous at the thought of my naked body being probed by a strange man’s cold fingers, but before these two dueling apprehensions could begin to fester, the door creaked open. “You decent?” a gravelly voice said from behind.
“Uh, yes. Yes, sir,” I said.
He pushed his way in, then, closed the door behind him and stuck out his hand, apparently unfazed by the pillowcase draping my head. “Doctor Leo Shrake…and you are…Mr. ____, is that right?”
“Yes, sir.” For some reason, my social autopilot found it necessary to address the man as some kind of superior.
“What brings you into the clinic today, Mr. ____?”
“Well,” I said, “It’s my face, you see.” I paused, unsure of how to go about explaining what had happened.
“And what’s wrong with your face, Mr. ____?”
My mind clicked off then, all thoughts and plans leaking my brain like a bagful of sand punctured with a sewing needle. “I have no face.” The doctor looked at me for a second, then proceeded to write something down on his clipboard as if he hadn’t heard what I said.
Without warning, then, he deftly swiped the pillowcase from off my head, dropped it to the floor and began massaging his cleft chin. “Do you still have the face?” he said finally.
I was silent for a moment. “No. It…it’s just gone. I woke up like this.”
“No idea how it happened, then.”
“Did you look around your house at all?”
“Well,” he said, inhaling, “If you don’t have the face, there’s not much we can do for you at the moment. When this has happened in the past, you see—for example, when a farmer fell face-first into a wheat thresher—he put it on ice, in a Ziploc bag; we then replanted the face, and aside from a few minor facial scars, he was fine. But we don’t have a face to reattach in this case…”
“What about skin grafts,” I said. “Wouldn’t that be an option?”
“Not really. Never been a fan, to tell you the truth.”
We sat in silence for a minute or two, and though his dismissal of the prospect seemed in no way logical or even tied to any semblance of cold, hard fact, I took it at face value. He was the doctor, after all, and I assume he must have had his reasons. My mind clicked back into place, then, and I asked, “What about something for the pain?”
The doctor tapped his pen against his two front teeth, said, “Yes. Yes. That we can do something about.” He turned around and began rummaging through a white wooden desk. Several moments passed, and his rummaging continued. “…So, how about that game last night?” he said in an effort to break the silence.
“Mmm,” I said. “Yeah. Sports.”
Disregarding my response (and rightfully so), he finally procured a pad of paper from the second drawer, and began writing a prescription. “Take this—once in the morning and again at bedtime. Hydrocodone can work wonders, so long as you don’t abuse it.” He began to usher me out of the examination room, then, but stopped dead in his tracks, clapped his hands and said, “…Mr. ____. There is one thing we may be able to try. However, it is extremely experimental. In fact, to my knowledge, it’s only been done once before, and that was on a goat…But, if you feel it necessary, we could attempt what is known as a face transplant.”
“Face transplant,” I said.
“And that would be…someone else’s face on my body.”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“But,” I said, “who would possibly donate their face?”
“A cadaver,” the doctor said, his lips curled and chapped. “Think on it,” he added. “It may very well be your only option…”
“I will,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”
After leaving the clinic, I found my mind stranded yet again on a desert island of clueless-ness. I didn’t quite know what to do next, other than ponder the “burning question” Doctor Shrake had left me with. But, before it had even managed to become one, the question was filed away in the darkest regions of my brain paper-clipped to the inevitable answer—I would do it. And, even though I knew a decision of such profundity must demand more thought than I had afforded it, I simply did not see the point in jumping through any additional hoops. Because, one thing was clear: I could not simply go on with life without a face, become some kind of hermit coiled up in my apartment like a venomous African snake burrowed in soft soil.
It wasn’t that I found this fate particularly objectionable, however, but more that society as whole certainly would.
As I think of it now—now and for the first time, I do not find the above proposition unfavorable in the least. It’s not as if my life was at the point of bursting with human relationships before my face had been stolen. In fact, I had few to none meaningful relationships. I have no family. No wife. No girlfriend or friends, even. Just business acquaintances at my place of work, really. But, it’s pointless to pursue this line of thinking. For one thing, how would I maintain my job if I were unable to leave my apartment? How would I pay my bills, or buy food, entertainment and toilet paper? The prospect of living as a recluse without a face, it seems, is hindered only by the pressing demands of society itself and not by me at all.
But, I’m getting off track.
Adhering to the restrictive dimension of reality, it seems I would have no choice but to agree to the face transplant. Even though the prospect of a dead man’s face being sewn onto mine is not enticing, to say the least, it seems the best and only alternative presented to me thus far.
I would have turned around and gone back into the clinic then and there to inform the doctor of my decision, but I realized that I should, just to be safe, report the potential “crime” to the police. I still felt that, somehow, there was no crime at all, but I reasoned that I should not fall back on something that amounts to nothing more than a hunch, so I made my way by bus to the city police station.
By now, I had become incrementally more comfortable in the oddity of my appearance, though the stares and dirty looks still managed to force surgical needles of varying width and length through the apex of my cranium. Put simply, I was comfortable with being the weirdo at this point, despite the fact that the social element still singed my heart. I guess, what I’m saying is, I would have been perfectly content by now to live out the rest of my otherwise uneventful life without a face, if only society would accommodate such a state of being.
But it seemed that as long as I was forced to garb myself in an old pillowcase, there would be a silent understanding between us, that I was the oddity, the outcast. So I adjusted my pillowcase mask, stepped off the bus and headed the requisite three blocks downtown to the police station. When I got there, it occurred to me that, unlike the doctor whom I had for some reason felt the urge to address as a superior, the police were undoubtedly the very embodiment of authority. This made me nervous, though I still don’t know exactly why. I guess it was the fact that I would be walking into their den a weirdo, a freak, a man with a pillowcase over his head—which, somehow, in my mind at least made me equal to the sociopaths and psychos that these men of respect dealt with everyday.
Finally, I summoned the courage to step through the front door. I walked in small, conservative steps up to the front desk, saw an attractive young policewoman with blonde, bobbed hair and spoke up. “Excuse me, ma’am,” I said.
She looked up from her paperwork, looked back down, and as if doing a double-take, looked up again immediately. The look on her face was one that, by now, I could easily identify. It was something like disgust, mixed and amalgamated with wonder and perplexity. “…Yes…sir…,” she finally said, “…what can I do for you?”
“I’m here to report a crime,” I said.
“What kind of a crime,” she asked, her eyes darting all around me in avoidance of my ludicrous headpiece.
“Well…,” I said, trying to find the words, “…my face, it’s been…stolen.” She looked at me blankly and for a long time, saying nothing. “That’s why I’m wearing the pillowcase, you see.”
“Sir,” she said finally, “We’re very busy here and we don’t have time—,” her words were interrupted sharply by a shrill scream as I impulsively whipped the pillowcase off of my head. I don’t know why I felt it necessary to do such a thing, especially considering the incident with the horrified woman in the street, but for some reason, the female officer’s incredulity had managed to burn a hole through my heart worse than any confused or shocked stare I had received thus far.
By now, the entire department was looking on in my direction, spellbound by equal parts horror, perplexity, and mild disregard. Stupidly, I finally remembered to slip my mask back on, and the officer, finally gathering her bearings, said, “Holy shit. Have you been to a hospital, sir?”
“Yes,” I said.
We were both silent for a moment then. “Do you know who did this? How did it happen? I mean, what happened…?” she said, her questions spattering on me like a shotgun blast of rock salt.
Another officer who looked to be about fifty years old, with well-groomed silvery hair and a mustache approached the desk, said, “Mr…”
“____ is my name,” I said.
“…why don’t you come with me, then, Mr. ____” Embarrassed by my above impulse, I somewhat reluctantly followed the fifty-something man into what appeared to be some sort of break room or lounge. “Name’s Edwin. Deputy,” he said, tapping the gold emblazoned pin on his breast pocket. “Now, Mr. ____;” he stopped, turned around and shut the door, “…Please, have a seat—Mr. ____, why don’t you take me through what happened, sir.”
My thoughts began to stir about, coming to life like a clay monster in some sort of stop-motion animation film. The words in my brain jerked around, all jumbled and diffused, but finally I came to the point where remaining silent another moment would seem to be socially unacceptable. I spoke. “I…don’t…” I began, stuttering and stumbling like a fool. “…What…I mean to say is, I don’t…know what happened…sir.”
Deputy Edwin let my words crumble under their own awkwardness without casting attention on the ruins. “That’s fine,” he said. “Take your time, Mr. ____. You’re obviously under a lot of stress.” He turned around and picked up a paper Dixie cup. “Coffee?”
“Yes,” I said, before realizing that in order to drink the beverage I would have to remove my mask.
“Go ahead and take it off,” the deputy said as if reading my thoughts. “I won’t scream.” He kind of smirked then, which made me feel better about the whole thing for some reason. I lifted the cloth up over my mouth as carefully as I could and took a drink. “Now,” he said, “Let’s start from the beginning.”
“Uh, yes,” I said, “The beginning…well, it’s really pretty simple, actually. You see, I just kind of woke up this morning…without a face. That’s it,” I said. The deputy’s soft features seemed to harden for a moment. Apparently not satisfied with my statement, I pressed on, “…And, I guess,” I said fumblingly, “Someone broke into my apartment in the middle of the night and…cut my face off.”
“What about valuables,” the deputy said, this time with a distinct lack of a smirk on his face.
“Valuables,” he said. “Are you missing any, is what I mean.”
“Well…no,” I said.
The deputy tussled his mustache, crossed his arms and said, “Okay, Mr. ____, here’s where we’re at: either you be straight with me, tell me what is, or we’re gonna have to ship you off to the nearest nut hut.”
“…I don’t understand,” I said, shrinking in my seat.
The deputy began to pace. “Mr. ____, I’ve been a police for over thirty years, and believe you me, I seen some weird shit in my day, least of which is this, believe it or not—and the one thing I’ve learned in situations like this is, suspect the cook before you suspect the crook.” He sat down in a metal fold-out chair directly across from me. “What I’m saying is, it seems to me at least, like you got some sort of mental shit going on. No thief or robber I know is gonna break into some nobody’s house, middle of the night, cut a guy’s face off, and leave all valuables undisturbed. See what I’m saying?”
“You think I did it,” I said finally, my testicles receding into my pubic cavity. “You think I cut my own face off.”
The deputy smiled. “Goddamned if I know how or why, exactly, but yeah, that’s what I think. My best guess: you’re some lonely skitzo just looking for attention. But hey, I’m no psychiatrist.”
“So…where do we go from here,” I said, completely drained now of the impetus for humiliation and shame.
“We? We go nowhere. You go to the nuthouse, is all.” Deputy Edwin smirked again, and so did I.
(NUTHOUSE: DAY 1)
As I write these words, I am in the present. To be more precise, I am in the nuthouse. Plans to suture a cadaver’s face to mine have proved to be stillborn in my mind—the premature idea lodged under the heavy weight of happenstance. I won’t get my new face now. The doctors here (who have taken to referring to me as “No-Face”) seem to think that the transplant would be cosmetic more than anything else. My bleeding is not an issue; in fact, it’s one of the things they seem most fascinated by—the question of why I haven’t yet bled to death. Funny thing though; I had never even thought of that. Profuse bleeding, it seems, is yet another bolt of logic and reason rendered moot in the aftermath of the ”crime”.
The really funny thing, though, is that I can’t seem to remember what my face looked like. For the life of me, my brain simply can’t project even a reasonable facsimile of how I might have looked onto the white matte of my cerebellum. If I had to describe it, I’d say that it’s something like remembering the taste of filet mignon; something you have the vaguest sense of what it looks, feels, even tastes like—but something, in the end, your brain simply can’t replicate exactly as it once was.
But, even though I can’t remember my face, I suppose that I am, in some strange, dysfunctional way, content. I’m taken care of here, in the most basic ways that would have been otherwise insurmountable on the outside. I get three square meals a day. I get clothed; don’t even have to worry about doing a wash, as my attire is all state-issue. And most importantly, all of the other inpatients are too far gone to even look twice in my direction. I’ve found the solution to all my grisly new problems, it seems.
And one more thing: I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not much of a writer, so this will be my last entry*
* note for revision: after some reading in my new place of residence, I realize that capillaries are found only in the skin—not in the flesh. But that is neither here nor there…
*note for revision: Mr. Griffin, our recreations director, finds this last line a bit awkward. I’ll have to think on it…