While my house was being looted, I was at a concert, staring up at a beautiful singer. All the strangers in my row were featureless in her supernova light. If she was the movie, we were the extras. We filled the background and lined the pockets, but the star would be glad when we finally left.
I was dressed in a big fluffy faux fur jacket from Target, the kind of thing selected for and peddled to permanent audience members. Fans. Followers. People better suited to spacesuit costumes than rocket science. When I left my house that night, I was more concerned with that stupid outfit than the bolt on my backdoor. My children were away and my orbit had become irregular.
Earlier that evening, my friends had picked me up in my driveway. I’d tottered across the cement in high heels, my hair and my anxiety whipped like stiff egg whites, the daylight shining badly on my array of cheap, poly-plastic accessories.
“You look fancy,” my friend Tom said, with concern. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” I said, tryharding to not try so fucking hard. “Of course, why?”
I knew why. My feelings were ajar. My internal state visible to all, just like my house. Just like my blinds left stupidly in the up position, always letting the light in and the secrets out. For somebody so heavily invested in facades, I was not much good with them.
At the concert, I cheered and clapped, the hollows of my body taking up predictable space and volume with all the other bodies that cheered and clapped. We gathered our purses and coats and moved obediently to the merch table in the lobby where the artist posed with fans and autographed t-shirts. Flashes popped, people jostled to get closer. I planted myself near the water fountain, envying the pattern of highlights in her hair. How did women manage to wear their beanies so effortlessly, I wondered, and find devoted hipster boyfriends and create successful careers?
Meanwhile, back at home, my Christmas lights were twinkling over my fireplace, giving the luster of midday to xboxes below. Maybe the thieves had been watching me from the woods for weeks, learning my dull routine. Me, dressing and undressing, curtains never drawn with proper consistency because who cared. Years had timelapsed across my bedroom wall and there was nothing much to show for it. Who cared about my hard drive full of unsaved birthday pictures? My laptop was on the kitchen table, in a deep winter’s nap. My backporch security light, too, was in eternal slumber. My door knob yielded to anyone’s turning.
On the drive home from the concert, we rolled up to the scene of a car accident. A fire truck was angled to block off the road. We idled in the blinding blue strobes, unable to pass, unable to see the travesty. Tom turned off the car engine. All was still and cold. A life-flight helicopter hovered overhead, invisible but for its pulsing chop and single, wheeling searchlight. It scanned the perilous whips of traffic lights and floated down, down, down into the intersection. Humans disembarked, approached a waiting ambulance and disappeared inside it. The helicopter waited. The police waited. The traffic waited. Somewhere, in the middle of this steaming ring of headlights, the life of one person slipped closer to the void. It was taking forever.
When they finally dropped me off at my house, I shed everything inside the front door. I made my way through the dark, tripping over toys and detritus. It was so cold. I couldn’t wait to take off my fake pointy pieces and slip into a hot, quiet bath. Its dim, weightless embrace would shuttle me far far away from light and sound and pressure. I flipped on the light, turned the tub spicket to hot, and let the warm water rush over my red, freezing hands. Why was the house so cold?
Right about then is when I saw the back door gaping wide open. It was like a ripped airlock with its tattered screen lifting in the breeze. I stopped breathing and listened. I could hear the furnace straining full blast through the vents, warm air disappearing out the door and into the black night.
My laptop was gone. The pen was still on its left, the empty cup on its right, but in the middle there was a 12 inch by 12 inch empty space.
The bath was running in a totally different sort of house now. There was another empty space where the TV used to be. All the TVs were now empty spaces. Baskets pulled out of their shelves and ransacked. Strewn wires, plugs ripped of their valuable ends, devoured of their mass, stripped of their contents. To be robbed is to become forever acquainted with the shock of these emptied spaces. How easily all your efforts turn to dust. It can make the order inside you break down.
I listened again. Whoever had bulldozed through my home, was he gone? I could still smell him.
In the room that my kids shared, everything was dumped, yanked out, emptied. Christmas presents had been harvested and toted away in a missing backpack. Material things don’t matter. That’s what people say on the evening news. Material things can be replaced. But as I wept my way from room to room I knew that they can’t always. Sometimes when things disappear, they stay gone. In their place are brand new problems, like bitterness, fear and lack.
But this was my first real robbery, so when the cops showed up I was still in shock. The gaskets in my brain had blown. Outside, their parked police cars looked ominous – the twin sentinels of Ruin and Plunder. But the neighborhood was still sleeping peacefully, houses shut up tight, occupants unconcerned. I might as well have been living in a colony on the moon.
The police did a perimeter check. They snapped flash photos of my wall-to-wall space junk, piecing together a telescopic image: scuffed walls, carpet stains, nerf guns, school papers, overflowing garbage and kitty litter crunching underfoot. Opened cupboards full of mess, makeup all over the bathroom counter, hair dryer on the floor, bed unmade. And me, in call girl clothes, hyperventilating. You couldn’t tell where my life ended and the crime began.
They asked me for a list of losses. They gave me a business card, a case number, a warning about my windows. It was probably just some kids, they said. Kids. Oh good, just kids. Kids! Kids and material things! We can all be replaced.
It was 1 o’clock in the morning when they left. I was glad to send them off because public violations are awkward for everyone. The way I stood there, ankle-deep in discarded hulls, all the matter sucked out of my airless black window panes, all my particles spewed across the county. How many years had I spent longing to rise out of this place and shine in the spotlight? Me the singer, the headliner, the fiery sun at the center of the universe. It was clearer now that my glow was more like the accretion disk on the edge of a black hole. I don’t know why. Emptiness is a mysterious thing. Nothing around me could escape its gravity, not even light.
The task was simple: record an audiobook version of my second novel, Crash Bang Burn. I was ready. I had the equipment. I had emotional support. I had technical know-how. I even had a cup of tea.
Go ahead, Dawn. Mic is live. All ya gotta do is read your story in 3…2…1…
Three pages in? Yeah, no. The only thing crash-bang-burning was me. It wasn’t just hard. The soundproof booth became a fiery echo chamber of my own merciless stupidity. My words, my voice, and finally the entire summation of my life’s work: nothing was safe from the brimstone. I collapsed inward like a dying star, dabbing my tears on the print-outs.
Chris sat at the opposite mic, pensive as I withered. He told me to start smaller. Forget the audiobook. Read one paragraph of something else, something more accessible. So, I did. I picked one of the first essays I’d ever put on this blog, and read it aloud for him. What followed was a confessional about the futility (and irresistible possibility) of making art, raising children, and trying not to lose hope – while feeling stranded out here in the middle of nowhere.
I thought about all the other artists who, like me, were also not marketing and business geniuses. For me, the only thing more depressing than hearing another artist self-promote, was hearing myself do the same thing. But at a time and in a corner of the world when art is treated as insignificant, we outliers are often left to ponder the void.
“Why am I fucking HERE?” I asked Chris.
And he said: “That’s a good title.”
It’s not always easy to broadcast a snapshot of yourself wallowing in your deepest fears and frustrations. But I learned a lot and came out the other end feeling lighter and wiser – which is what I love so much about writing in the first place: absolution through confession.
I look forward to continuing the discussion. For now, here’s Chris and me in “Shipwrecked’ – the first episode of our podcast “Why Are We Here.”
Our town has really good schools, which is odd, considering it is also one of the most visually depressing, economically desolate, tank-pocked landscapes a Wal-Mart has ever had the misfortune to plunder. Wal-Mart is actually one of its more attractive features. However, should you need to die in Bremen, the funeral home isn’t bad.
I’d been flirting with the clerk at a video game store nearby. He was a 24 year-old Iraq war vet, and after he’d told me about a few of his tours, I guess I thought his world-weariness and my Bremen-weariness meant we had something in common. We stood outside the store while he smoked a cigarette.
“So, what do you think of Bremen?” I asked, sweeping my hand in the direction of I-20 and the Cracker Barrel.
“I love this place,” he said, and I was taken aback by his tone. It left an indelible impression that someone could feel about this town the same way I felt about my screensaver of the Fiji islands. “I would never want to live anywhere else.”
“Nope. Love it.”
Conversations like that always made me feel weirder than I already was. Didn’t he ever have that gnawing suspicion that there was something better out there, something a little more wow and a little less Captain D’s?
The first year my kids went to school in Bremen, I asked a mother in my daughter’s class for her email address. The woman wrote it down on the paper I offered, but continued talking to her close friend, the way a besieged celebrity might obligingly sign an autograph. I thanked her but she didn’t respond. Pan-handling for play dates, I thought, is so muchfun. I looked down at her handwriting and hated it; I also now hated her and her stupid kid. What I was experiencing was the unwritten law of the Bremen female: stay with who you know from high school. Travel ball, church or cheerleading are also accepted interaction zones. If your life doesn’t fall into any of those categories, you probably should just stay home.
I looked round the room, wondering if everyone here was that way. Maybe this was just a human being thing, and not necessarily a southern being thing.
At my sons’ kindergarten orientation, the middle-aged teacher had a smile like a mask. It was like her skin had been molded into a smile by scientists and then preserved in saccharin. She invited us, a room full public school parents, to come worship at her church home. I stared directly ahead in obedient silence, trying to file away this cheerful warning. I focused on the pink laminated construction paper cut-outs, the whitewashed cinderblock wall, but nothing could shut the cabinet door in my mind. I ran my finger along my son’s name where it was taped to his desk, and felt so deeply sorry for him. I hoped he was too young to realize where we were. Maybe by the time he did, we would be somewhere else. Somewhere far far away. Somewhere less here.
“My granddaddy owned this whole town,” another mother told me that first year. She was standing outside my minivan, talking through my car window in a church parking lot. Her hard-edged country manner had the air of a slightly upgraded tax bracket. Her daughter had come over to play with mine that day, and I was now doing as the Romans do, dropping the girls off at Wednesday night church. This mother didn’t yet know me, or the fact that I’d whisper-screamed “don’t believe anything they tell you!” in my daughter’s ear before she’d run inside to eat God’s free spaghetti.
The woman tried to size me up.
“People come to this town,” she was saying, “and buy these mansions and cain’t pay half their dang mortgage. But our house? Paid in full. Same with the cars.”
“Yeah, where are these mansions exactly?” I asked, as if we were suddenly best friends. “I’ve always heard there’s money in Bremen but this place is so—“(DON’T SAY DEPRESSING) “depressing.”
Her face stayed blank.
“I mean, the strip malls look like,” (DON’T SAY IT) “third world ghettos for white people.”
She looked at me strangely. I figured, if I just kept talking, she’d understand. Or laugh. At least titter. I could go with titter. An intake or exhale of breath would be good. But her understanding of me was shriveling like road kill on time elapse. I had become a bundle of disorganized cells in the general shape of a human.
“I mean, the Piggly Wiggly on 78?” I kept on, hitting her with some verbal defib. “It’s like…post apocalyptic.” I waited. “It’s where groceries go to die.”
“Where are you from again?” she asked vaguely, as if she was passing my cage at the pound and couldn’t reckon my breed.
“Carrollton but,” I answered, watching. “But I’m from…up north…”
“Oh,” she said, meaning, I lived seven minutes too far to be worthy of her well known family name and fully paid family mortgages.
I still have her number in my cell phone, but she never spoke to or returned my phone calls ever again. It could’ve been that conversation. Also, it could’ve been the fact that during that playdate her seven year-old caught me uploading a picture of her grandmama’s minivan onto Facebook.
“That’s my Nana’s car!” the little girl had cried out from behind me, ejecting me out of my chair.
“Oh you scared me,” I said, my right hand breaking the sound barrier to switch off the screen. “You guys want some Lucky Charms? Some cash?”
I didn’t know it was her grandmama’s van. In all honesty, I don’t think I believed the owner of that minivan was an actual person. It was plastered with so many racist anti-Obama Tea Party bumper stickers that you couldn’t even see out the back window. I’d seen it in the school pick-up line but never had the guts or the camera readiness to idle beside it long enough to angle my shutter. In the scheme of my life, actually getting close enough to capture the font on those bumper stickers was like, I don’t know. Shooting a lion on safari. It was way up there.
Sometimes Facebook friends are better than real friends, said no one ever. Except me. I say that a lot.
At the school conferences that first year, I ran into a woman I actually knew. Our kids had gone to the same preschool together years earlier. She was an insider, a tried and true local who could brandish her last name like a frequent flyer card. She was a pro at doing the southern mom thing, dedicating her life to ensuring that she and her son were at the terrifying social center of any sporting event.
My mama hates you, she’d once told me.
Wait, what? I had only met her elderly mother once, at a kids’ swim party.
Yeah, (laughter) Mama thinks you’re a communist lesbian from the pit of hell.
Back then, I had short pink hair and was always breastfeeding in a long Indian print maternity skirt. So yeah, I guess she had a point. But Christ, at least my granddaddy wasn’t a Klansmen.
“Come meet my friends,” she said, and took my arm. It was a month after I’d arrived in Bremen, and I hadn’t talked to her in years. Her warmth was uncharacteristic. Maybe she was excited that I had long hair now, and pants. Maybe she just wanted to establish her territory, to point out the invisible yellow lines of friendship that I would never be invited to cross. She steered me toward two of her fellow Junior Leaguers whom I imagined had terminator-style readouts scrolling behind their vision. Something about their demeanor struck fear into my heart.
“Nice to meet you,” I smiled at them. “I’m Dawn.”
Despite everything, it was kind of a relief being introduced to someone, somewhere. She could’ve introduced me to a stop sign and I would’ve been fucking elated.
Hi! I exist!
“I keep telling Dawn she needs to come to Church with us,” my friend said.
“Really?” I turned to her, incredulous. “C’mon. You know I don’t do Jesus.”
As the words do Jesus reverberated through the cafeterias of hell, the smiles of her friends turned into the shells of smiles –the replicas of what smiles would look like had smiles still been alive today. Smile memorials. Smiles encased in sliding plates of Batmobile armor. I knew how uncouth it sounded to rebuke Jesus, as if he was just some nobody; I knew, and my friend knew too, which was maybe why she’d paraded me out here in the first place and thrown the bait. Maybe she was just bored. But I enjoyed holding ladylikeness by its neck under warm bath water, the little air bubbles popping at my wrists until the flailing stops. I enjoyed provoking their awkward silences, because the expectation that I was supposed to give a certain kind of fuck about their church was directly proportional to the many fucks I didn’t give. I even enjoyed the loneliness that welled up in me in the wake of these brief but mutual cullings. And then, as I drove home, past the endless sweeping vistas of Bremen’s bankrupt strip malls and its thrift stores packed with destitution, I didn’t much enjoy anything at all.
“I read your book,” my Junior Leaguer friend told me later. “My husband and I both did, and you know what he said to me afterward?”
“What?” I asked, hopeful. Dreadful.
“He said, it was just really sad. We both just felt so sorry for you.”
Because that’s what insiders do. They feel sorry for outsiders, but not because they’re actually sorry; because living outside the pack is their greatest fear. A pack’s directive is to peck its members into submission so together they can kill the big, beautiful, solo-flying targets. That is all Bremen has to offer humans; that is all humans have to offer the world. Endlessly boring groupthink variations of “kill.”
Bright spots in Bremen are strangers like Cody, the gay kid who works behind the counter at Sally Beauty Supply. He inspires me because a) he is gay in Bremen and b) he is gay in Bremen. Cody taught me things about curling irons I didn’t even know I didn’t know. He knew about conditioners. He knew about ceramic and tourmaline. Amidst the soulless flesh-hulls of middle aged cashiers who were unable to provide a single original answer to any nuanced question other than AH DOUGHNT RILLY KNOUUGH, Cody was a fresh-faced champion who drank from the fount of hair-knowledge. I looked at him, and thought, If Cody can do it here, godammit so can I. I can survive here for one more year.
I went into Sally’s to see him, but instead of Cody I found a meek long-haired woman behind the register, talking in hushed gossipy tones with a customer.
Customer: “And so this is what they said. At the school graduation we are NOT allowed to have a prayer!”
Customer: “Can you believe that?
Cashier: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
I wished theirs, like every other conversation I am privy to but never included in, was a private conversation. I wished like hell they could just all fly to heaven and talk there, but no matter where I walked in the store I could hear them. I picked up a plastic-wrapped comb, any comb. I wanted to browse the shelves and read the labels but I found myself highly agitated, not caring which kind or what price or where I was. I heard myself make a little whimper. I realized my heart was suddenly racing. Oh shit.
Customer: “They said because prayer at a public school event is disrespectful to people of different beliefs.”
Cashier: “Oh please! It has always been held in the church!”
Customer: “And that is exactly right. So there was an absolute uproar.”
Cashier: “Well good!”
Bottle of toner. T11? T28? I fingered the swaths of doll hair, unable to compare any of the colors. I walked robotically up to the register and stood paralyzed, awaiting my turn. My chest was hurting. I kept a safe and pained distance, leaning slightly toward the other side of the world.
Customer: “And so we told them, that is how we’ve always done it in this town. We are NOT going to change it. And if there are parents here who don’t like it, they can just stay home!”
And then, at that exact moment, both women turned around to look at me with their expectant am I right faces. It was weird. Almost ike we were in some kind of cosmic vignette, and it was my cue to say the next line. So I did.
“Well that’s not very Christian of you,” I laughed, though nothing was funny. My skull felt like all the bone had been replaced with cotton. “Because I’m one of those parents.”
I wasn’t really. I wasn’t even 100% sure what the fuck they were talking about. Even still, I was reasonably certain that they comprised the sum total of everything that made Jesus weep.
The customer immediately turned her back to me.
“And so they changed it,” she continued, exulting in the mootness of my point. “In the end they allowed the prayer.”
“Well,” said the cashier. It was perhaps her second day on the job, and my upstage presence was unnoticed. Oh, how I missed Cody. Cody and his wonderful gay gayness.
“So, anyhow, it was good seeing you,” waved the customer, heading forth into her sunny life of neatly defined morality. Then, not to me: “Have a good day hon.”
“You too,” said the cashier. I stepped forward to put my comb and my little box on the counter. She angled her head down to not look at me.
“’If you don’t like it, just stay home,’” I repeated to myself, as if the conversation was still in play. “How Christian is that.”
“Do you have a club card?” she asked.
I handed her my key ring.
“I mean, it’s always amazing to me,” I continued, “how Christians don’t understand the tenets of their own religion.”
“That’ll be $5.82.”
I handed her a twenty, and watched as she painstakingly made change, talking quietly to the bills. Because even dollars are safer than sinners.
I walked out with my bag, the plastic trembling between my fingertips. What was the point of that, exactly? To get myself all sick and dizzy? Why couldn’t I just shut up? To pray is human, to go quiet is divine. Let them have their world out in the open. You can keep yours behind closed doors. You know, at home. Where non-praying people should just stay.
I caught my reflection in the glass door, wondering what I looked like to people here. Maybe they didn’t even see me at all. Maybe I existed in a parallel dimension that intersected this town but did not fully join with it. Maybe that was the literal definition of hell. It certainly explained why I found joy in avoiding any and all eye contact. And though my social failures are many, they pale in comparison to the pile of used mattresses and busted appliances that are dumped in the abandoned development behind the new school. Maybe that’s what happens when you don’t have a church home; you spend a lot of time taking pictures of piles of tires and shacks with sheets for windows. They speak to me more than humans, more than four year-old Blighton’s little league or Derpina-Grace’s dance recital. Looking in from the outside for so long, listening in on all these countless overheard conversations, I’m reasonably sure that somewhere Jesus Christ is stabbing himself in the ears with two giant Jesus-sized pencils. What if he doesn’t give two shits about your church or your daddy’s daddy or your mama’s mama or your needlessly insecure graduation prayer? If he did care, why do all the buildings in your town look like tombs? Why does the land look like it’s been withering on a cross for half a century? Why are some of your best Christians the most cliquish and inhospitable people? Maybe Jesus already checked in here, looked around, and decided He too was better off just staying home.
The last time I ever took my daughter to Wednesday night church here, an older woman approached her as she was getting in the car. She leaned down to her in a stern and quiet voice.
“Make sure you ask your mother to bring you to church here on Sunday morning.”
I held my hand up and waved slightly. I was standing right there. Right in front of her. She could ask me herself if she wanted to, because I was like, you know, two feet away. In the interdimensional rift.
My daughter nodded, squirming.
“How was it?” I asked her, once the car door was safely shut. “Did they try and teach you anything about the Bible, because –“
“No, Mama. We just colored and stuff.”
“Oh that’s good.”
“And we ate cookies and played tag.”
“Oh, and this boy? He called me the B word.”
“He what?” I took my foot off the gas and the car jerked.
“He told me I was fat and called me the B word. But I pinned him to the ground and made it so he couldn’t breathe.”
“So I told the teacher and they told him next week he has to just stay home.”
“Just stay home, huh.”
And then I understood. Just stay home was how Christians said “fuck off.”
“How about next week,” I asked her in the rearview. “You wanna just stay home too?”
“Okay,” she said, yawning. “Cuz I don’t really like it anymore.”
Growing up I used to hear people say, “inner beauty is what counts”. It was one of those things that looked great on paper, but in real life usually panned out to be bullshit. If it counted, then why didn’t it count? Why was inner beauty more like the snickering consolation prize handed out to ugly people who didn’t get the invite. People like me.
In the real world, especially the one girls had to live in, the surface mattered. A lot. In fact, despite a lot of lip service to the contrary, it was everything. Pretty faces and attractive body parts were the sum total of our human worth. Even God, who was supposed to see only our hearts, ironically chose only the comeliest maidens for the Bible’s best supporting roles. Despite what anyone said, the mirror always laid out the bottom line. The mirror reflected back Who You Really Were. And your placement on the sliding scale of hotness was the Decider between life as a Role Model or life as a Joke. Inner beauty? It didn’t even have a seat at the table. It couldn’t even get into the club.
Somewhere along the way, someone told me I was ugly. And then I realized – or decided – that it was true. After all, ugly explained why I didn’t fit in, why other kids thought I was weird. But uglyalso became the battle cry that divided me against me, served up my first taste of hate, cast a miserable spell of self-conscious panic over every face to face interaction. Back then, there was never any hope of appreciating the magnitude of the extraordinary gifts I’d been given as a human being. What gifts. And who would notice them anyway, and what did it matter, since I was ugly.
Last week, I went to the mall. I walked into a store where headless mannequins strutted with attitude and oversized photos of young models loomed. Like plastic fruit, their faces had been cleared of anything real. Their long, silky hair had been cut from the heads of plain-faced girls, sold and reattached to their model scalps, strand by strand, tousled with precision, and placed around skin that would be airbrushed to a supple pool of lifeless cream.
The greeter at the front of the store said hello to me, and I nodded back. She resembled the models too, only much shorter, and with acne that she’d tried to powder over.
I browsed the racks of clothes and took a few pairs of shorts into the dressing room, where a panel of mirrors awaited. I undressed sheepishly, shrinking under the raw glare of the overhead lighting, averting my eyes as I kicked off my jeans. I slipped on the shorts, buttoned the top snap, and then, without breathing, glimpsed myself. My legs. They’d been hidden all winter under pants, below the counter, beyond the reach of my bathroom mirror. But here they were, revealed to the twisting cringe of the judges table at America’s Next Top Model.
On the inside of my right thigh, there was an angry looking, bruise-colored cluster of varicose veins. On the back of my left leg, there were more. Another vein ran down the front of my shin bone. As I stared, they seemed to double, triple, quadruple – too many to count. I’d had surgeries in the past to remove the worst ones, but I’d lost my insurance before the rest could be fixed. It looked like I’d been beaten with a pipe, and was sprouting leaks all over.
Disfigured,my thoughts whispered. It knocked the wind right out of me, a fist to the gut.
“Don’t worry,” Tyra Banks assured me, “you still have your inner beauty.”
I tried to focus on the shorts, just the shorts, with their cute little sparkly embroidered back pockets, price tags still dangling, but all I could picturewas girls whispering about me when I was 14,my guts exposed through my pale, translucent skin, a force-fed bariatric cocktail of pure shame. The air itself was burning the backs of my calves, millions of blinding reflected angles, each one a judgment, a pink slip, a failure.
I dressed, not bothering to button properly, grabbed my purse, shoved my hangers into the arms of the attendant and hightailed it the hell out of there. Above my disheveled shirt collar, the sphere of the mall gleamed and glistened in a carousel of beauty, all of it digitally, surgically, chemically, financially enhanced. I alone was real, my tender and freakish body caught in the grinding metal gears of the machine. I hurtled toward the safety of my car, where I could regroup in stillness, drive away from my problems, and never be free of them.
I went to the gym to seek absolution, hoping, as usual, to change how I felt. I stood in the back of an exercise class with fifteen women of varying shapes and sizes, trying to follow along. Looking around, I couldn’t help but feel like we were all caricatures of the fitness instructor at the front, whose body was the template, having been repeatedly shaped by the singeing edges of her own vicious will power, and also a hot metal cookie cutter. She reminded me of the unforgiving tyrant who lived in me, in all of us, and who never saw enough improvement, no matter which mountains we moved.
Improvement. I was always trying to improvemy body so that I would end up liking it. Only, I never quite reached the promised land of “like.” I barely crossed the town line of “despise slightly less.” What was improvement anyway, what was fixing the thing I hated, without learning how to love it first? Exercising when I was feeling bad was like worshiping a parking meter: it only loved you while you were feeding it coins.
At home, I ate dinner and watched a TV show where a fat person was made to confront his shirtless body in a mirror. He cried and confessed his shame. I stared at the enormous folds in his exposed skin, the unfixable stretch mark scars, and recoiled as they intended me too, the same way I recoiled at my own reflection. Then I pushed my plate away and cried. These bodies were supposed to tell strangers everything they needed to know about us. Instead, they told absolutely fucking nothing. They told lies. And the world pressed sticky notes onto me, onto him, scribbled with comments and fear and paranoia and untreated mental illness.
My whole life I’d envied playboy bunnies and acrobatic strippers and fitness instructors and gorgeous actresses and lingerie models, because their parking meters never seemed to run out of love. But I was tired of bleeding on a gurney. I was tired of feeling ashamed.
That evening, I scanned through the news of the day, checked the weather, then finally, half-asleep, I clicked on an article about a 25 year-old man who had received a face transplant that day.
His name was Dallas, and in the margin was a snapshot of the way he looked back in 2008, before he accidentally touched a high-voltage power line that burned off all the flesh from the crown of his head to the tip of his chin.
The last thing he remembered, the article read, was standing inside a cherry picker, making repairs on a church window. Three months later, he woke up in a burn unit, faceless. Without eyes or nose. His upper lip, roof and insides of his mouth were gone, as were his teeth. His face was a numb, expressionless graft of skin.
I looked at his before and after pictures, and beheld the unimaginable.
How normal I suddenly was, how functional my body, how perfect it seemed, how socially acceptable. Suffering? Clearly I didn’t know the meaning of the word.
I imagined myself in his place, left to navigate the world in darkness, where networks would advise viewer discretionbefore revealing my face, and onlookers would shield their eyes from the sight of me. I imagined lying in the hospital bed as he had, coming to terms with the pain, the loss of my control, of my pre-planned place in the world. How could I survive such grief, only to face a doomed life? I tried to imagine summoning the will to stand upright, but could not.
I clicked on the video of him speaking. It was prior to the transplant. He faced the camera, without lips, with the empty sockets of his skull plainly visible beneath the skin graft, and he said, “The accident was a gift.”
“When you stare death in the face,” he said, “everything about life seems that much more precious. Every breath is a gift.”
I’d heard that cliché before too, how a brush with death makes you appreciate life. But as I took in his horrifying scars, and then the sound of his voice brimming with gratitude — and not suffering — the magnitude of his spirit settled on me, and opened me. In a flash, I saw what it might be like to have my own body decimated, my own life in question. I saw how everything that confused and pressured me now would evaporate, all the illusions would be stripped bare, all the relationships pared down to their essences, and all the little, overlooked things would emerge in their true glory. At the brink, I realized, you could see what was lasting, and what was false. You came back understanding the difference.
They filmed Dallas at the playground, crouching to catch his three year-old daughter at the bottom of the slide. He told the interviewer that the face transplant wasn’t about fixing his face. He was proud of his scars.
“But I can’t feel my daughter’s kisses,” he said, “and I can’t truly kiss her back.”
She descended the slide, tumbled into his hands and threw her arms instinctively around his neck.
“Daddy got me,” she said, and looked right at him, without the slightest flicker of hesitation. She didn’t even notice the complete absence of his face. Only his presence mattered to her. Only him.
“She doesn’t care and she never has since day one that I was disfigured,” Dallas continued. “She says, ‘Daddy has a boo-boo.’”
Then he steadied himself, resting one hand on the slide as he struggled to stand up. Something about him spellbound me. Even with no features, he was intensely, brilliantly beautiful. How could that be? I wasn’t sure exactly, but this, I realized, was what I wanted. This was what was missing from my life, from the way I saw others, from the way I experienced myself. It was the overriding influence of someone whose spirit was so powerful it transcended everything you could see with your eyes. It annihilated ugliness. It was more tactile than anything I had ever felt in my hands. It was bravery. Massive, larger than life bravery. Up to then, I didn’t know it was possible in such heroic portion.
Perfection is the world’s eternal obsession, its constant misery. But at least now I could rest my attention on a different map entirely, one with a path out of darkness. I could put my finger on the pulse of what was true and did not hurt. It wasn’t outer beauty, or inner. It was what Dallas did when fate conspired to destroy him. He rose from the ashes with no face at all, and shone like the sun.