A week after I refuse Dr. Gupta’s generous offer of more surgery, he finally discharges me. I’ll need physical therapy every day, my face still hurts, and I can’t drive or go to work yet. But I can’t tell you how nice it is to see the sky: After eight weeks, I was climbing the hospital walls.
Mom drives me to my apartment and holds my arm as I gingerly walk to the door. Naturally, the old guy is sitting on his balcony again.
“Hey, Beautiful,” he calls.
“Is that man blind?” chuckles Mom.
I look at her. A millisecond later, she realizes what she just said.
“I didn’t mean . . . I’m so sorry, baby girl; I meant —
“You’re fine, Mom. I’m getting used to it.” I continue my slow progress down the sidewalk.
“The Lord wants you to know you’re ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’!” the old guy adds.
I consider ignoring him, but right now, any non-medical human contact is nice. And it’s not his fault he was in my nightmare.
“Tell God ‘thanks’ for me,” I call back.
The walk from Mom’s car wears me out so much that I take a nap as soon as we’re inside
That’s pretty much the pattern of my life in the week that follows: When I’m not watching Netflix, I’m napping.
One of the reasons I sleep so much is because daily physical therapy is exhausting. Every session lasts an eternity, and by the time I leave, I’m always sore in parts of my body that I didn’t know existed. Thank God for Lyft — I’d probably fall asleep driving home. If I could drive.
“Take a break,” Garrett-the-Therapist finally announces one day, after making me do unspeakable things.
“How long?” I ask, panting from exertion.
“Long enough to catch your breath.”
“I have to pee.”
“Then hold it.”
I glare at him. “Are you treating me different because . . .” I gesture to what’s left of my face. “I saw you with your last patient, and you weren’t this tough on him.”
“Well . . . I like to see progress,” he says.
“So I’m not making progress?”
“You said it, not me.”
I glare at him. I’ve only had a week of PT so far — of course my left arm’s still useless. We sit in tense silence.
“Back to it?” he finally asks.
Yeah, right. My arm’s on fire, two other patients keep shooting me pitying looks because of my face, and the guy who’s supposed to be helping is out to get me. “I’m done,” I announce, and stand unsteadily.
“We’re only halfway through the session,” he says. “Are you sure?”
I don’t bother answering. I turn around and stagger towards the waiting room.
“You’re right, you know,” Garrett says to my back.
I don’t know what he’s talking about.
“I am treating you differently. Because you’re not trying.”
Now I’m mad enough to turn around. “That’s a joke, right? My arm feels like you ran over it with a dump truck, and I still show up every day for the torture. I’m not trying?”
“Are you doing the home exercises?”
“I don’t have time —”
“Because your calendar is packed, right? Remember what we talked about the first day?
Yeah, I remember — because it’s been bugging me ever since.
“What was it?” he prompts me.
“I have to believe I’m worth it,” I mumble, staring at the floor. “Like, I’m worth getting better for.
“Do you believe it?” he asks.
“With this face, would you?”
“What’s your face have to do with it?”
My face has everything to do with it, I want to shout back. I work — well, worked — in TV news, and while it wasn’t in the job description, I knew why they hired me: to increase male viewership by being hot. And what else am I going to do with my life? It’s not like I can change careers to do more modeling for Luca Oliveira. As for relationships . . . well, Mom’s right. What guy’s going to date somebody who looks like she crawled out of a slasher flick? How can this PT guy ask me what my face has to do with it?
“I’m not even sure it’s worth getting up in the morning,” I finally tell Garrett. “Why — so I can slop breakfast on myself and hear about how I’m not trying at PT?”
“Depression is common in cases like yours,” Garrett says, “but —”
“It’s not depression,” I snap back.
“But didn’t you believe in yourself before the accident? Why were you worth it then?”
That’s a very good question . . . and I don’t have an answer. Why was I worth it?
“I guess when people looked at — you know,” I say, indicating my mangled face, “that’s when . . . for a while, it felt like . . . well, that’s when somebody cared. Or at least they pretended. So I was worth it when . . . I was beautiful.”
From the look on Garrett’s face, it appears that I’m not only his ugliest patient — I’m also the most screwed up.
“Have you thought about seeing a different kind of therapist?” he asks.
* * *
I took Mr. Kipp’s chemistry class in 10th grade because that’s what good little college-bound girls did. He had a reputation for being tough. I didn’t realize how tough until I saw my midterm grade: 47 percent. I could usually charm male teachers into a C, but Mr. Kipp was not charmable.
My guidance counselor said I couldn’t drop the class without Mr. Kipp’s signature, and Mr. Kipp would only sign if I tried tutoring first. That’s why I found myself meeting twice a week at the library with a shy junior named Joaquin.
I don’t know what he’s done with his brain since high school, but I hope it involves making piles of money, because this guy did the impossible: He brought my 47 percent up to a solid B before report cards came out. Chemistry made sense when Joaquin explained it.
However, after a month of tutoring, I started to recognize The Signs. You know . . . The Signs that a guy’s building courage to ask you out.
I have a complicated relationship with dating. The companionship’s nice, especially since I’ve never had a bestie. And if you don’t think making out is fun, you’ve been doing it wrong. But I always knew the guys were only asking because I was hot. Once they got to know me, things never lasted long.
Joaquin finally cornered me one day when we wrapped up tutoring. “Renee,” he stammered, “I was wondering . . . it’s been fun doing chemistry with you, and . . . well, speaking of chemistry . . . whoa, sorry, that’s lame . . .”
I started thinking of a way to let him down gently, but he found words before I did.
“Would you go to youth group with me?” he blurted. “At my church?”
I couldn’t help it: I burst out laughing.
Instantly, I saw that was a mistake: Joaquin looked so crushed by my giggles that I apologized and accepted his invitation. I mean, the only hazard of church is boredom, right? So that Thursday, I went on my first double date — Joaquin and Jesus.
Surprisingly, church wasn’t dull. A senior named Naomi kinda made friends with me, and Joaquin’s youth pastor was a good speaker. I still remember that he talked about how Jesus kept his scars from the cross, even after he came back to life.
“Jesus is God, right?” Pastor Arol said. “So he knows every corner of your soul — the darkest secrets you’ll never breathe to anyone, and your deepest joy-filled dreams.
“When we look inside ourselves, it’s easy to believe that if anyone knew you to the core — even God — you’d be impossible to love. Well, the proof that Jesus does is written in his scars. He knows you more intimately than you know yourself and he still thought you were worth dying for.”
After the program, Naomi asked me what I thought of Pastor Arol’s lesson. “Do you believe what he said? Y’know, about Jesus dying and rising again?”
I shrugged awkwardly. “Maybe. Mom took me to church when I was little, and they said the same things, so . . . maybe.”
Then I quickly changed the subject.
It’s not that talking about Jesus made me uncomfortable: If he’s God, why couldn’t he come back to life? What bugged me was the thing Naomi didn’t ask, but probably would have if we’d stayed on the topic.
“Do you believe God’s love is ‘written in the scars’?” she might’ve said. “Y’know, that Jesus cared enough to die for you, even though he knows you completely?”
“Not really,” I would’ve replied. “Nobody else does.”
Joaquin and I dated for two months before we broke up, and it was the weirdest relationship I’ve ever had. I’m sure he asked me out because I was nice to look at, but he never did anything more than hold my hand. And he was sweet to the end — he tried to make dumping me sound like it was his fault, even though I knew it was because I had nothing in common with a brain like him.
Going to his youth group after our breakup would’ve been the definition of awkward. But I was lonely without Joaquin and Naomi, so I got back with an old boyfriend who still thought I was gorgeous. It was the guy from the middle school basketball team who liked my cheerleading skirt so much.
He didn’t care about my brain. When the conversation ran out, that’s when the kissing could start.
* * *
The day after Garrett lectures me about believing I’m worth it, I still suck it up and go to my PT session. I don’t want Garrett to know he got to me. By the end of the week, I even manage to bring a spoon to my mouth without spilling.
On a less cheerful note, Dr. Gupta clears me to return to “light duty” at work. Oh, boy. I can’t wait till everyone sees my new face.
My usual gig is reporting stories on-camera, but when I arrive in the newsroom, my boss, Tom, tells me I’ll be riding the assignment desk. “It’s light duty,” he explains, his eyes riveted on my face. “Until you feel better.”
We both know I’m finished as air talent. If viewers saw me like this, they’d change the channel.
Co-workers awkwardly stop by my desk all morning to welcome me back. Then at lunchtime, word of a big crash on I-65 comes in over the scanner. I start working on getting our chopper in the air and a news van to the scene.
Suddenly, a thought races into my head uninvited: It’s just like your accident. The night when you lost your face. The night when you almost died
My hands start shaking — and although the phone’s in my hand, I can’t remember if I called Desmond, our helicopter pilot, yet. I’m breathing in gasps as the adrenaline surges through my gut, and the phone clatters to the floor.
I close my eyes to try and focus. When they open again, the chaotic chatter in the newsroom, which normally sounds like home, is a cacophony. I can’t stay another minute. I stand unsteadily and head for the restroom
“Renee,” barks Tom, “where are you . . . is Desmond in the air yet?”
“I have to . . . restroom,” I stammer, and rush out of the newsroom.
I stagger against a wall in the corridor and slowly slide to the floor. My heart’s drumming so fast I wonder if it’s going to bust out of my chest, and I figure this is what dying feels like.
“Oh, God . . .” I murmur.
Then for one of the first times since Joaquin, my words turn into a prayer
“Oh, God . . . help the people in the accident. Don’t let them end up . . . scarred.”
As I close my eyes in a vain attempt to calm down, I’m suddenly flashing back to nine weeks ago, merging onto I-65 at the Chestnut Street ramp . . .
Maybe my mind wasn’t on the road that night. Maybe the pickup was going too fast around the big curve downtown. All I know is I never saw the guy barreling up behind me in the rain — not until he was slamming on his brakes and laying on his horn. He freaked me into slamming on my brakes, and suddenly, my Prius was fishtailing sideways across two lanes.
With the crystal clarity of adrenaline, I knew I was about to die. The pickup smashed into my trunk and sent me spinning across the highway. My airbag exploded in my face an instant before the second smash — when I careened into a concrete barrier four lanes away.
When a moment passed without another impact, I realized in shock that I was alive. The airbag was deflating, and I could move my arms and legs. My left arm was starting to hurt, but it obeyed my brain’s orders when I thought to try the driver’s door, which amazingly opened with a screeching groan
Yeah, my car was totaled. Yeah, I might have injuries I didn’t feel yet. But there was enough space between the car and the concrete for me to climb out. I’m going to walk away from this, I thought in amazement.
Thank God my seatbelt was jammed, because that’s the only thing that kept me inside the car and alive when the third smash came.
I found out later it was another driver barreling around the curve who couldn’t stop. All I knew then was that the dark night exploded with fiery light — and I wouldn’t walk away from the accident after all. My face began burning, burning with a pain that hasn’t abated in nine weeks, burning my whole life like so much wood and stubble, burning me down to a pool of fear and tears and hopelessness in a TV station hallway . . .
It takes a moment for Keishanna’s voice to cut through the memory.
“Renee?” says my coworker. “Tom says you should head home and take the day —”
“I’m fine,” I insist, staggering to my feet. I’m sure my job is hanging by a thread, and all I can think is: If I walk out now, I’m done . . . and this job is about all I have left. I push off Keishanna’s efforts to help and sit down at the assignment desk again.
What was I doing? Accident . . . I-65 . . . get the chopper up . . .
But I still can’t remember if I called Desmond. That’s when I admit that I’m done.
I tell Tom I need to go. He barely nods to me before barking at Keishanna to get the chopper in the air. And from the look on his face, I can tell that if he has anything to say about it, I won’t be back.
I grab my keys and barely make it to the parking lot before the tears spill over. Garrett-the-Therapist said I need to believe I’m worth it. But how does that work when you’ve always distracted people into caring about you with boobs and cheerleading skirts, which suddenly isn’t an option?
Maybe if I had real talent, or better “self-regulation,” or an actual personality . . . maybe I wouldn’t be getting in my car sobbing and alone. Maybe if I didn’t have Daddy issues and no friends . . . maybe if I’d kept trying to find God and “kumbayah” and whatever at Joaquin’s youth group after we broke up . . .
When people know you’re messed up and they still care, it’s different. That’s why it was worth winning Miss Shelbyville at age six. I wanted to make Daddy proud, because when somebody’s out there rooting for you, everything matters.
It’s why I tried out for volleyball and cheerleading. Having friends would’ve given me a reason to go to school besides chemistry class. When kids know you down to your guts and still care, you’re not just living for yourself, you’re living for them.
It’s why I dated Joaquin. He made me believe there was something in my head besides baby blues and a cute smile. For two months, I dared to hope life could be more than an endless beauty pageant.
Never mind; it’s time to face the facts. I need to learn what everybody else already knows. There’s never been more to me than boobs and blonde hair, and I don’t even have that anymore.
Why am I worth it?
I’m not, I finally admit to myself
That’s why I sob over the steering wheel for almost an hour before I finally leave the TV station and head for home.
* * *
I’m looking forward to quality time with my bed. But when I try to turn onto my street, I discover they’re repaving it. I have to park two blocks away.
Two preschoolers are walking by with their mom as I climb out of the car. They gape at me in fascinated horror. I try waving and smiling, which just makes the kids run behind their mother’s legs. She hisses, “Don’t stare at the lady’s face.”
I make it to my apartment complex without passing anyone else. But then I spot a pair of middle school boys playing on their phones under a tree. I recognize one of them; he usually drools whenever I walked by. But he obviously doesn’t know me anymore as his pal points and whispers in my direction.
“Nah, that’s her butt. The other end must be her face,” I hear.
Well, that does it. The tears pour down by the gallon again, and I find a tree trunk to collapse against as the sobs wrack my whole body. I cover my face with both hands . . . and it’s not because I’m crying.
One of the little delinquents has enough conscience to ask, “Ma’am, are you okay?” I flip him the bird.
Seconds or hours later in the eternity of misery, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look up to see it’s the old man from the balcony.
“Hey, Beautiful,” he says.
“Don’t lie to me!” I scream through the sobs. But I don’t shake him off.
The old man says nothing.
When I open my eyes a little more, I look closer at the hand on my shoulder. The skin is mottled brown, shiny and wrinkled, and he only has two pincerlike fingers. I recognize the marks left by burns . . . marks I’d never noticed before.
“It wasn’t my face, Beautiful,” he says gently. “But I know about scars.” He offers me his claw of a hand to help me stand.
“Thanks,” I mutter.
I turn to walk alone towards my apartment . . . but then I turn back.
“I’d feel better if . . . would you walk with me?”
He nods and smiles. I take his arm, feeling the flesh that’s never healed, and smile awkwardly back.
In the old man’s silence as we walk side-by-side, I seem to hear the echo of his voice. And the words he’s said to me so many times before turn into a kind of prayer whispered over my heart:
Fearfully and wonderfully made.
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.
I wave good-bye when we reach my apartment. I also whisper something aloud. I don’t know if I’m speaking to the scarred old man at the door or Someone far older with scars as deep as forever. But I know I mean it when I say
“I want to believe you.”
# # #
Copyright 2020 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.