My mother always told me my face was pretty, but I thought it was too fat. In the first grade, kids started adding an F to my last name, calling me Terry “Fatkin.” I thought Dad liked my sister better than he liked me, but Mom said it wasn’t true. Still, she selected my hairstyles, hats, and headbands on the basis of what would be flattering to a “full” face. (I never understood the distinction between full and fat.) Cute little hats were out because they emphasized the fullness. Short hairstyles didn’t work with the round contours. It was best to keep my bangs short or the hair pulled back off my face entirely.
When I was forty-five, I was diagnosed with oral cancer. The lesion was small; doctors only had to remove a third of my tongue and most of the lymph nodes in my neck. The surgeon did a beautiful job, and in a few months I looked pretty much as I had before the operation. I was thrilled and grateful, and I promised God that I would be more gentle with myself, that I wouldn’t work so hard, that I would spend quiet time alone, looking within.
Inside me I discovered a shriveled girl, her face drawn and gray. She had been locked away for a long time and was ready to die. I began to try to coax her out. I promised to spend time with her, made every effort to befriend her, to convince her to live.
But life became busy again: work picked up; I remarried; my stepson got married; my son dropped out of college. There were too many things to worry about, and the girl inside me wasn’t one of them. Eighteen months after my surgery, I began to notice a tingling and burning in my tongue and mouth. It turned out they hadn’t quite gotten all of the cancer.
The second surgery was less kind to my face. This time, I lost more of my tongue and more than half of my lower jaw. After seven failed attempts to reconstruct my jaw out of bone from my hip, the surgeons used a titanium bar and tissue from my left breast and my chest wall to rebuild my mouth. Sutures paraded up and down my side, converging on my mouth, neck, and chin. After the operation, I asked that the mirrors in my hospital room be covered with get-well cards and pictures.
It has been three years since that surgery, and I still avoid mirrors and the direct gaze of children. Strangers’ eyes linger on my face for a moment too long. But the neglected girl inside me has emerged and can come and go as she pleases. We like to wear long bangs and hats of all sizes.
Terri Atkin Belanger
When I was thirteen, I came across a photo in a magazine of a young woman whose face was filled with brilliant life and a radiant glow I had never before encountered. I cut out the picture, and have kept it to this day, packed away among my files.
About a year ago, I went to see the movie Summer House, starring Joan Plowright and Jeanne Moreau. I was immediately taken with the expressiveness of Moreau’s face; its lines and wrinkles told of a long life led with passion. I left the theater thinking, What a wonderful face she has! And how familiar a face, as well. It bothered me that I couldn’t figure out where I had seen her before.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I remembered the little picture I had saved. Its image, which had come to epitomize true beauty for me, was of a very young Jeanne Moreau.
I don’t understand the reason for my fascination, whether Jeanne Moreau is the lover I never met, or the lifelong friend I have always sought, but I know I have loved this woman for more than thirty years, and that I will take this love with me to the grave.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
During my preoperation visit, the doctor reviewed the surgery with me. “Our goal is to slim the width of your nose, take off the hump, and smooth out the bulb at the tip,” she said, drawing lines on a picture of my face. “I’m going to break your nose here at the top and here at the sides, then push together your dorsal bones.” She gave me prescriptions for three kinds of pain medication. “Your face will be black and blue for about two weeks. It will take at least six months for the swelling to go down.”
I wanted to be beautiful. I had inherited my father’s Irish jowls, thin lips, and thick nose full of bumps and broken blood vessels. Salesclerks often called me sir, even when I wore a dress. The few men I dated told me I was “interesting.” No one had ever told me I was beautiful.
We set a date for my surgery. I agreed to pay her five thousand dollars. I bought all the medications. My brother told me I was a fool. “Accept who you are,” he said. “To hell with anyone who doesn’t like the way you look.” It was good advice, but I was skeptical; even my brother required of his dates a certain physical attractiveness. I had never known him to date a woman who looked like me.
Everywhere I went, I looked at myself in mirrors. I saw my nose, thick and hard, my ruddy complexion, my chin starting to fold over. Yet I also saw the lovely, dark Greek eyes my mother had given me.
Two days before the surgery, I bumped into my neighbor and her four-year-old daughter, Brianna, at the library. I was wearing red lipstick, which I had carefully smeared on in an attempt to enlarge my lips.
“Are you wearing makeup?” Brianna asked.
“Yes, I am.” I pointed to my mouth. “I have lipstick on.”
She stared at me, took a deep breath, and sighed. “You look so beautiful!” she said.
I drove home and canceled my surgery.
In my seventh-grade gym class, there was a boy everyone called Pie Face. He was afflicted with a horrible skin disorder, his face a mask of weeping, foul-smelling cysts and yellowish crusts that flaked and drained continually. Pie Face never bothered to change into gym clothes — what would be the point? Even the coach seemed afraid of getting too close to him.
One day, some hothead drop-kicked a basketball high into the bleachers near where Pie Face sat with his books and his little box of absorbent tissues. The ball lodged several rows away from him, and none of us made a move to retrieve it. Instead, being cruel thirteen-year-olds, we stood around making rude jokes and pretending sudden interest in our shoes.
Then Pie Face slowly stood, and a queasy, ominous silence fell over us. Shit! He was going to get the ball, handle it, contaminate it! Not even the geeks and dorks would be stupid enough to touch that ball now.
Suddenly, the coach blew his whistle and Pie Face froze like a statue. “William,” the coach yelled to the boy who’d punted the ball, “get your ass up there and get that ball!”
Nobody moved, least of all William. Then Pie Face, sensing the burden imposed by his presence, moved away from the ball, pressing himself deliberately against the gymnasium’s concrete wall.
I remember William taking the bleacher steps two at a time and grabbing the ball while the rest of us hooted and hollered. But somehow I can’t remember Pie Face’s real name.
Santa Cruz, California
When my office received a letter written in Braille, my co-workers decided that I should take the letter to the Center for the Blind to have it translated. When I got there, I spoke with a blind man and was struck by the irony of the situation: he was considered handicapped, yet I was suddenly dependent on him. Curiously, but also somewhat guiltily, I examined his face as we spoke. His different-colored eyes roamed in separate directions, as if each had a life of its own. I wondered how much he could tell from the sound of my voice. I thought about how my “soft but passionate” purple eye shadow meant nothing to him, how the two pimples on my chin were equally inconsequential. I continued to stare into his face, crazily imagining that somehow, if I stared long enough or hard enough, he would be able to see mine, too.
Mira Weinper Young
Ithaca, New York
It was the summer of 1988, and I was in a New York cab, chatting away with the driver, when I noticed that the buildings were passing by too quickly. I saw a red light and the side of a van in front of us. Then we crashed. I was thrown against the metal frame that holds the plexiglass panel between the front and back seats. I didn’t feel any pain, but when I touched my chin I found a gaping hole. The driver asked more than once what he could do for me, but didn’t call for an ambulance.
Bystanders’ responses to my injury were bizarre. A well-dressed couple passed by the window of the cab, and I heard the woman say, “She’s really bleeding a lot.” The man replied, “Shhh, she’ll hear you.” Mostly people just looked, as though I were on display.
Then a tall homeless man appeared in the window of the cab. He took off his filthy T-shirt and gently draped it across my chest, so that my clothes wouldn’t be bloodied, and he brought me ice from a nearby Korean deli. While a Guardian Angel with a red beret went to call an ambulance, I realized another homeless man, with long curly hair and beautiful brown eyes, was looking at me empathetically. I asked him if he would call my girlfriend. He grabbed the cabby’s pen and, as I dictated, wrote “Diane” on his first finger, her phone number on his second finger, and the name of her department on his third finger. Then he demanded a quarter from the cabdriver and set off.
I never saw him again, but Diane arrived almost immediately.
Since that day, my face has never looked the same, nor have I forgotten the faces of the people who helped me.
Brooklyn, New York
In the early seventies, with the draft and the university fading in my taillights, I joined the back-to-the-land exodus: rubber boots and wood stoves and working with one’s hands. I felt a great kinship with rural living, and within a few years I was clearing my own piece of land and building a cabin. Before the cabin was completed, however, before fences, sheds, and barns were built, I paid fifty bucks (a king’s ransom to me then) for a calf.
That was almost twenty years ago. Today, I’m still pitching hay to her, a gigantic hulk of jutting bones with a gut like a concrete mixer. Breathing steam and licking her nostrils, her head poked into the manger, she waits each morning for the same dried grass she’s eaten her entire life. She’s raised ten calves of her own and fostered sixty-seven, paying off my mortgage with her efforts. Her liquid Jersey eyes stare at me like an all-knowing grandmother’s, slightly dimmed by cataracts, yet full of wisdom.
This will be her last winter, I am sure. Her lumbering frame is stiffening up with arthritis. Normally, I would have shipped an old cow like her to market, but she and I made a deal one night many years ago: in a cozy barn, with pens full of fat, happy calves and the sounds of rain on the roof and bovine teeth munching hay, we agreed that she would live out her days here on the farm.
This summer I had the use of a backhoe, but I just couldn’t bring myself to dig her grave. When I call her name, she still thrusts her head in my direction, looking at me with that face of hers, those eyes that have witnessed so much of my history.
Friday Harbor, Washington
During zen meditation retreats, in addition to not talking, we are supposed to not look anyone in the face. When we meet someone, we keep our eyes cast down and bow from the waist. I often long for the exchange of words. I miss smiles. There are moments, however, when it is pleasant not to have to say anything. In silence, I can notice my thoughts and feelings without distraction.
When I return from a retreat, it is difficult to look into the eyes of my lover during an argument, or the eyes of a friend who is glad to see me, or the eyes of a homeless man who asks me for change. I wonder what my own eyes are saying.
When my father died, the hardest thing for me to accept was the thought of his face vanishing from the earth forever.
His face was more familiar to me than my own. In it there was always the recognition and approval (or disapproval) of a parent. My father and I were rarely able to talk to one another, but the looks that passed between us went beyond words. When I walked into the room, his eyes told of a connection deeper than love. Who needs words when there are eyes and mouth and skin and hair?
After my father died, people tried to comfort me with talk of the immortal soul. But whether or not there is life after death matters little to me. It is not the soul I wonder about. It is the depths of my father’s eyes I miss. It is his face I long to see.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
I was forty-nine years old the first time I remember seeing my mother’s face. (I was taken from her at age three.) A long search had led me to one of her sisters, who’d sent me a photograph of her when she was about twenty. My wife says the picture looks like me with a wig and lipstick.
My parents divorced when I was a baby, and I lived with my mother until my father decided she wasn’t taking good care of me. One night, he picked me up for a weekend visit and never brought me back. When I look at the photo of my mother sitting with a sailor at a table full of beer bottles, I wonder what it must have been like for her. People tell me she was wild and loved to party, that she left me crying in soaked diapers because she was more interested in men than in being a mother. Gazing at that black-and-white photograph, I am warmed by her easy smile and hair topped with a large plaid bow — like something the Andrews Sisters would have worn. I wish I could have known her.
She couldn’t keep a job, people say, because she got bored quickly and did what she pleased. They canned her at Whitman’s Chocolates because she ate too many of them. I study her face and try to imagine what she would be like if she were here today. One of her brothers told me he’d heard she was in prison for killing a man.
She had three children by three different men, and ended up running away from the last of those men, taking her two remaining kids (my half siblings) with her. One night, she called one of her sisters to say they had arrived in Florida. Then she said she had to get off the phone — someone was knocking at the door — but she would call back in a minute with the address. Her sister never heard from her again. That was in 1946.
I want to pull up a chair to that table in the picture and talk with her. What kind of music do you like, Mom? What are your favorite movies? Do you like poetry? Are you a feminist? People have told me about your life, but I want to hear it from you, just one conversation, one chance for you to tell me your story. I want so much to take your face in my hands and hold it awhile.
When I was four years old, I slept alone in an upstairs bedroom. One night, I woke to find myself on the floor. I grabbed Morgan, the stuffed dog I always had with me, and prepared to climb back under the covers, where I would be protected from anything lurking in the dark corners of the room. As I got to my knees, I happened to look up at the large window at the foot of my bed. There, gazing in at me, was the face of a gigantic man, his curly black beard filling the bottom half of the window, his black eyes shadowed by menacing, bushy eyebrows. He paralyzed me with a stare. Then he grinned, revealing strong white teeth like blocks of ice.
I shrieked again and again, never taking my eyes off the man in the window. As my parents’ footsteps pounded the stairs, the blackness of his beard was beginning to fade. He winked at me, his eyes glittering. By the time my door flew open, he had disappeared.
Mama held me until I stopped shaking and told me over and over that it had only been a nightmare: no one could possibly be large enough to reach my second-story window. But my father took a flashlight and went outside anyway to check around the yard. He could find no trace of anyone.
The next morning, I squatted in the garden below my window and searched the ground for footprints, or the impressions left by a ladder. I looked up at my windowsill, imagining the size of a man who stood so high. When I went back inside to play, I went directly to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, expecting somehow to be different. I was: my dark blue eyes had changed color completely. Flecks of gold danced around hazel irises ringed by copper bands. What had I seen?
Laura Smith Porter
The driver, in despair over his recent divorce, had mixed alcohol and painkillers before he ran the traffic light and collided with our VW bus. My face smashed into the dashboard, shattering my jaw in seven places. I was almost four years old, too young for surgery, so the doctors cut off my hair, wrapped my head in bandages, and told my parents to “wait and see.”
At first, it seemed the only visible reminder of the accident would be a small scar from the stitches, cleverly tucked under my chin. But as I grew, something wasn’t quite right: my face was lopsided. Doctors theorized that a “growth center” had been traumatized by the accident, and that as a result the left side of my jaw had developed normally while the right side had remained small and childlike.
As a teenager, I cursed my appearance, until gradually I realized that only dentists and photographers could tell my jaw was slightly askew. To others, my face had an exotic quality they couldn’t quite put their finger on.
Later in life, after my divorce, my ex-husband’s parting salvo — “I no longer find you attractive” — haunted me. I began to obsess about my minor facial flaw, thinking it the source of my problems, and came to believe that correcting it would restore my happiness. I consulted an oral surgeon, who sent photographs of me to a special lab where a computer adjusted my image to show how I might look after the ordeal of surgery and a year of braces. The doctor was confident that I would take one look at these before-and-after photos and immediately begin preparations for the procedure.
I looked from one to the other: the now me and the postsurgery me. I found the perfect, symmetrical future face boring. Not ugly, not beautiful; just bland. I left the surgeon’s office, thrilled with my interesting, extraordinary face.
A friend of mine, a woman in her late forties whom I respect, has just had a face lift: loose skin cut away from her throat, a chin implant installed, her brow raised. Part of me applauds her decision: she has always been annoyed by her too small chin, is not ready to advertise her age with a new set of neck wrinkles, and has lots of money to do something about it. Why shouldn’t she rid herself of defects that hide her essential beauty? But I’m also haunted by the image of her face pulled away from the skull, the surgeon’s hands slicing with glittering knives, poking with needles.
I’m fifty-five. My own chin is going soft; there are deep crevices around my mouth; my hair is white. Men sometimes still notice me, but mostly no one looks. It’s both scary and liberating. I could easily spend ten thousand dollars on a face lift. Yet I wonder how such surgery affects women my age. My instincts tell me that it might interrupt the organic changes occurring in our bodies during menopause, possibly aborting the birth of something deep within us. Cosmetic surgery is a rejection of the nascent gifts of age in favor of the slick and familiar appearance of youth. Has my friend betrayed her searching, adventurous self at just the moment in life when she could be slipping free of the biological-attraction dance?
I am not surprised that her husband encouraged her to do this. My friend has her own identity, but the balance of power in their marriage is clear: he earns the money; she stays charming, witty, and good-looking. He’s a good provider. Her life is cushy, with lots of toys, trips, clothes, and concerts. Her home is like a dream house. Her walk-in closet is a temple of slippery, glittering, soft-as-petals clothes (many with the tags still on). Outside, balls crack against racquets; high-powered motors growl: the boat, the Corvette, the Harley. Then there is the second home at Tahoe. And the servants.
Aging is an intrusion of animal reality and biological messiness into this climate-controlled world. With money and technology, however, it can be temporarily overcome. Getting old? Time to jump on your Stairmaster and step boldly forward into the future. There are places to go, things to buy, new rituals with which to celebrate midlife appropriately: he gets a Harley, she gets a new face.
I visit my friend after the initial trauma has worn off. She is coming out of depression and looks great. Her new chin is precious, with a tiny, off-center cleft. Her face is still stiff, but the doctor says not to worry; it will loosen up. He warns her that everyone misses their old face at first. She has gone through the postsurgery remorse and arrived at a simple cover story: she and her husband “have certain values about looking good. This is who we are — it’s not all of who we are, but it’s important. I accept it.”
I know my friend has the right to my respect for her choices. I tell myself, Back off, lighten up, stop judging. We all have our own ways of whistling past the graveyard. Maybe I’ll get rich and famous someday and want to have a few dewlaps removed. Who’s to say that one path is more adventurous or more pure than another? And yet . . .
The other night, I dreamed my friend came to our women’s group after her surgery. Stretching her arm toward the circle of women seated on the floor, she pointed to four digits tattooed in blue ink on the inside of her right wrist and said, “This is my model number.”
Penn Valley, California