Great — the old guy’s sitting on his balcony today. He usually is, but I hate walking by because I know he’ll say the same thing he always does. Maybe I’ll go around back . . .
Too late. He spotted me.
“Hey, Beautiful,” the man calls.
Boys have been catcalling me since puberty. This guy always has a Bible in his lap, so I assume he’s not a dirty old man. Still, he’s kinda . . . not creepy, because he means well . . .
Old-fashioned, I guess?
“The Lord says, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,’” the man says loudly. “You’re beautiful because God made you.”
I force a smile and keep walking, wishing the parking lot was closer to my apartment.
Have you ever met somebody so nice you wonder what’s in it for them, and if the answer’s “nothing,” it could mean you’re a horrible person because you can’t imagine being that altruistic? You tell yourself you’re avoiding them because they might be conning you, but really, it’s because you feel guilty that they’re so much better than you?
Yeah . . . it’s like that.
Suddenly, I hear the old guy’s voice from behind me, powerful and cold: “You’re not listening, Beautiful.”
I turn around in time to watch him vault the balcony rail and drop 12 feet to the ground, landing like a track star.
Did that really just happen?
He flings the Bible aside and advances on me with an ugly leer twisting his mouth. “Hey, Beautiful,” he says, eyeballing my boobs through my blouse.
I fumble for my phone to call for help. The terror rises when I realize I left it in the house again.
The old man’s close to me now — too close. His gnarled paws tear the blouse from top to bottom and yank it from my chest. I try to cover myself, but my hands don’t feel ordinary flesh . . . and when I look down to see why, I scream.
My torso is a corpse. Black-green patches of rot mottle my chest; skin hangs from my stomach in curtains. There’s a hole in my gut with maggots spilling out.
Cover it, I think desperately; don’t look and pray it gets better.
I grab for my torn blouse, but the old guy holds it away, leering and dancing just out of reach. He stretches out a hand like he wants to grab my boobs, but instead recoils and grimaces in disgust.
I try again to cover the skeletal remains with my hands, but my flailing fingers puncture a hole in the chest wall. White ribs and dark dried blood show through, but there’s only a chasm where a heart should be.
“Hey, Beautiful!” screeches the old man, cackling and pointing to the horror.
I dash down the sidewalk towards the parking lot. If I don’t get there and lock myself in my car, I know I’ll die.
“Hey, Beautiful,” calls the old man, chasing me with banshee laughter. “Hey, Beautiful!”
I reach the car and yank the door handle, hoping my rotted fingers don’t tear free. The old guy’s one step behind me, chortling and mocking, and I wonder if he’ll yank off more flesh before I can get inside. I’m fumbling with the key fob and smelling a stench like roadkill but so much worse, and I can’t tell if it’s my corpse of a body or the old man’s breath on my neck, and I know I’ll never get the car open in time . . .
Suddenly I snap awake, still gasping for air.
* * *
A nurse is standing at the beeping IV machine beside my hospital bed. “Sorry,” she says, silencing the gadget. “Did you have another nightmare?”
“Yeah,” I grunt. “It’s fine.”
I’m not mad about the beeping; it yanked me out of the dream. But on the other hand, the proof that I’m awake is the same as every morning: My face hurts. Thank God it’s not on fire like a thousand matches anymore. Right after the accident, I literally wanted to die.
“Today’s the big day!” the nurse enthuses, pointing to the bandages swaddling my entire head. “Those can come off for good.”
“Okay . . . can you help me?” I ask.
“The doctor will take care of it, honey.”
“I wanna see.” I start randomly pulling on gauze. The dressings have been changed a million times, but I haven’t seen what’s underneath.
“You can’t do that!” the nurse cries, grabbing my hand. “You could peel the skin away —”
“Then help me,” I say, tugging my hand loose to attack the bandages again.
“Dr. Gupta said —”
“He’s not here. You don’t wanna have to look at me, do you?”
“Of course that’s not — honey, it isn’t safe!”
“Then you do it!”
She sighs and looks at me, probably debating whether to stick a sedative in my IV or give in. Finally, she pulls scissors from the pocket of her scrubs.
“You get to explain this to Dr. Gupta,” she mutters.
It takes a long time for the bandages to come off, and it’s not a painless procedure. When the nurse is finally done and steps back to take a look, I can read her face: This is worse than I thought.
“I wanna see. I wanna see my face.”
“You’ll have to stand up —”
“Well, Dr. Gupta wants me walking more.”
“And psychologically, it might not be the best —”
“I have to look sometime.”
I roll my legs off the side of the bed and sit up, trying to ignore the dizziness.
The nurse sighs again. “Let me help you.” She takes my arm and helps me stand.
I’m not just dizzy now; the nausea’s hitting hard, too. Leaning on the nurse, I stagger over to look in the mirror over the sink. A cartoon freak show looks back.
Parts of my scalp are too damaged to grow hair while the rest of my head’s covered in stubble. As for my face, one eye is higher than the other. My forehead’s a mess of sutures and skin grafts. Two holes and a little raised mound stand in for a nose above a twisted, mangled rope of a mouth.
I nod grimly at the mirror . . . and it’s a rude shock when the freak show nods back.
The nurse shakes her head with a sad smile, which doesn’t make me feel better. Then she helps me stagger back to the bed. I get there just in time to puke on my sheets.
Walking always brings on the nausea, but I can usually hold it down. I guess the mirror’s what did it. The nurse props me in a chair while she changes the sheets.
As I watch her, I can’t help thinking: How do you have a life without a face? Especially when a pretty face is all you ever were.
* * *
Daddy was the handsomest, nicest, awesome-est man in the world. Or that’s what I believed when I was four.
It took a few years to realize he was a self-obsessed lawyer who lived at work, never made time for me, and slept with his secretary for a year before he finally divorced Mom. He was a living cliché.
But Daddy was still the greatest when my parents got divorced, because like I said, I was four. Still, I couldn’t understand why he always cancelled when he was supposed to pick me up on the weekends.
Mom was only marginally better at the parenting gig. When Dad took off, she suddenly had to get a job after not working since I was born, and she hated it. Being a paralegal was only supposed to tide her over until she met Mr. Right and started making babies.
She was a busy lady after Dad disappeared. There were 40 hours of work, plus bar-hopping with friends to blow off stress, and somebody had to tell her how pretty she was, so she dated a parade of boyfriends. I basically lived at daycare — and it made me a demon child.
I remember Ms. Kallis’ comment on my kindergarten report card: “Renee struggles with emotional self-regulation.” She should have written, “Renee cries every morning when Mommy drops her off, screams and throws things when she doesn’t get her way, and bullies kids behind the teacher’s back.”
Mom’s solution for “self-regulation” was entering me in Little Miss This-or-That pageants. No matter how busy she got, Mom always had time to brag to the other pageant moms about her glory days as a model.
I tanked in the first few contests when I refused to smile on cue or even answer the judges’ questions. But things turned around one Saturday in first grade, because Daddy promised to come! I actually cared about winning now. The pageant director delivered a bouquet of roses from Daddy while I waited backstage, and I was ecstatic — nobody had ever sent me flowers before!
The excitement lasted until I opened the card and sounded out the words. “Sorry Daddy can’t make it. Good luck today.”
The tears came instantly. Not only was Daddy missing the pageant, he forgot to say “I love you to the moon and back” on the card. Before long, my crying descended into a backstage screaming fit.
The pageant director had no idea how flowers could make a 6-year-old upset. She was out of her depth as she tried everything:
“You’ll ruin your makeup!”
“You need to smile for the people who came to see you!”
“How could such a pretty girl be so upset?”
Finally, I got the message: It didn’t matter how I felt. The important thing was to get out there and be pretty. I remember thinking: I’ll show Daddy — I’ll win this stupid pageant when he isn’t here!
I dried my eyes, smiled like a pro, and walked onstage determined to charm the judges. Did you know you can keep grinning while suffering from a broken heart and thinking of ways to kill your father?
At the end of the day, I was crowned Little Miss Shelbyville. I still have the tiara to prove it.
* * *
I fall asleep again after my encounter with the mirror. When I wake up, my mother is sitting next to the bed.
“Hey, baby girl,” she says, forcing a smile. “Looks like they took the bandages off?”
Thank you, Captain Obvious. I don’t say anything. As the silence drags on, Mom’s eyes wander back to my face repeatedly.
“They published your spread,” she says finally, taking a glossy magazine out of her purse. “The shoot you did for Luca Oliveira . . . wanna see?”
I shake my head. “Pretty sure my modeling career’s over, Mom.”
We’re rescued from another bout with silence when Dr. Gupta walks in — and audibly gasps as he sees me. I should probably get used to that
“Who removed your bandages?” he asks.
“I did.” I don’t mention the nurse; there’s no reason to throw her under the bus.
“But I wanted — because if I was here . . .” The doctor eyes me narrowly. “Have you . . . seen yourself?”
I nod. There’s an awkward pause.
“It’s important to recognize this is only the first step,” he finally says. “Since the burns are mostly . . . well, we can plan additional surgeries now. I foresee five in all, which will reconstruct —”
I hold up my hand: “Five more operations?”
“For now. At a later date —”
“How will I look at the end?”
“We’ll use software to generate some pictures —”
“No! I mean, will I look . . .?”
“Will she ever be normal?” Mom interjects.
Bluntness is Mom’s greatest gift. In the silence that follows, I can tell Dr. Gupta is struggling to come up with an answer.
“‘Normal’ isn’t a term I would choose —”
“No, Mom,” I tell her. “No chance.”
The doctor tries again. “If someone saw you at a slight distance —”
“I could fool ‘em till they got closer?”
“I didn’t say —”
“You didn’t have to. I don’t want any more surgeries.”
Dr. Gupta’s and Mom’s mouths drop open at the same moment — which would be funny if I could laugh.
“I mean it. No more,” I repeat.
“Renee, you can’t!” Mom says.
“You’re not thinking rationally,” the doctor adds.
“I refuse to lie around dreading five more times under the knife,” I say firmly. “I have to move on with life sometime.”
Mom and Dr. Gupta argue with me for a while, but finally give up. They know my face is a hopeless cause.
“You’ll still need PT — that’s physical therapy,” the doctor says. “It will take work to recover the use of your left arm.”
He has a point. The accident caused remarkably little damage besides my face — and my left arm. It flops around lifelessly; I can’t even feed myself with it.
When Dr. Gupta leaves, Mom goes back on the offensive about the surgeries. “Baby girl, you can’t do this,” she cries. “You’ve always been so beautiful! Your face is the first thing . . . don’t you want a husband?”
“Your looks caught you three husbands, Mom. How’s that working out for you?”
“Renee Jane, don’t make this about my mistakes —”
“You told me Jeff’s only hanging on because he’s too old to start over. And how long did it last with Matthew? Don’t get me started on Dad —”
“Renee, let’s not . . . please? I don’t want to fight.”
She has a point. I take a deep breath.
“It’s just . . . I’m your mother, baby girl, and I want to see . . . what kind of life are you going to have?” Mom asks tearfully.
That’s a very good question, and I don’t know what to say.
With this face? Not much of a life, I finally admit to myself. Not much at all.
* * *
My 6th grade class went to a waterpark on the last day of school, and I wore a new bikini Mom bought me. Braden, this geeky guy in my class, kept turning around in the waterslide line to look at me. But he never said a word — just snuck glances at my budding boobs.
After about the 10th time, I said, “They’re called breasts, Braden. Girls grow them to feed babies. Nothing to see here.”
Braden faced forward for the rest of our wait in line.
That’s the first time I remember a boy undressing me with his eyes. Maybe some girls enjoy the attention; I don’t know. But although I’m used to it now after however-many-thousand times . . . I still hate it.
In middle school, I would stand in front of the mirror and fantasize about being ugly. Some mornings, I’d think about showing up to school in sweats and a ponytail with zero makeup. Maybe then, guys wouldn’t start drooling when I walked into the room.
But I never dared to dress down, because it’s not like I was smart or popular or talented. Mom’s pageants had taught me I was good at one thing: being pretty.
In 8th grade I tried out for volleyball. I’d never played before, but it looked kinda fun, and I always had trouble making friends — maybe joining a team could help. I don’t know why I did so poorly in the friends department. Were girls jealous of my looks? Did they assume I was snobby? Maybe my “emotional self-regulation” was still horrible?
Anyway, I could tell at tryouts that I wasn’t nearly as good as the kids who’d played before. Still, it was middle school. I might make the team, I thought. I might even make friends in the process.
When I climbed into Mom’s car after tryouts, she immediately noticed I was missing something. “Where’s your backpack?”
“I must’ve left it on the bleachers,” I confessed.
“Hurry and check, Renee! Maybe you’ll catch the coaches before they lock up.”
I dashed back towards the gym, but froze in the lobby when I realized the coaches were inside discussing the players they’d seen. “Let’s start with the obvious cuts,” a voice suggested.
“Renee Caron is gone for sure,” said Ms. Kitzerow. I recognized her voice because she was our P.E. teacher.
“Yeah, what rock did she crawl out from under?” chuckled a woman. “Did you see her serve?”
“Is that what she was trying to do?” someone else laughed. “She should’ve gone out for cheer instead. They’re only in it to wear the skirt, right?”
I didn’t stay a moment longer. I ran furiously back to Mom’s car like somehow, I could outpace the coaches’ words.
“You didn’t find it?” Mom asked when I yanked open the car door.
“Find what?” I said.
She eyed me strangely.
“Oh . . . my backpack wasn’t in the gym,” I said. “I’ll find it tomorrow.”
“Hope you don’t have homework,” Mom muttered, rolling her eyes.
When my school announced cheerleading tryouts a week later, I took the volleyball coaches’ advice and tried out. Stick with what you’re good at, right? Even if it’s looking good in the skirt?
I made the squad and cheered my guts out for the basketball team. I also dated (if you call middle school relationships “dating”) one of the players. But the other cheerleaders already knew each other, which didn’t help the new girl make friends. I think they resented having an intruder in their little clique. Mostly, cheer was a lonely experience.
Also, I hated the skirt. It just gave my baller boyfriend and his hormonal teammates something to stare at.
Copyright 2020 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.