It wasn’t so much disgust as it was curiosity mixed with shock. My fault really for allowing eye contact. I once heard that human beings are usually aware of being watched even from behind. Something to do with our primal survival instinct and so. I do allow myself to stare at beautiful people, but for no longer than four or five seconds, which is usually the time it takes them to realise they’re being stared at.
I quickly lowered my gaze and hoped that the train would move, leaving behind the angelic-featured young woman I had indulged in admiring and probably jolted out of whatever reverie she was indulging in.
I was born with a congenital condition where half of my nose as well as my upper jaw was non-existent. According to my mother, getting me through breastfeeding or even bottle feeding was a true nightmare. Most of whatever liquid had made it into my mouth was immediately spilt out. I often imagine myself as this ravenous baby girl who didn’t understand why, despite her mother’s constant doting and fussing, she was never full.
I practised smiling in the mirror, but there was simply not enough upper lip to make it look like a smile; I looked more like a hamster sneering, baring its thin, long teeth. The teeth were planted in the artificial gum that was added during my twelfth procedure. I was seven when they did that one. I will never forget the feeling of the little bottomless pit forming in my stomach where a weak tornado swirled at the sight of my new teeth. I remember thinking that’s it? These are the teeth I’ve spent my whole short life dreaming of? I later learned that this feeling is called disappointment. Is there a word for "intense disappointment"? My new teeth were small, had gaps between them and looked unnaturally white and shiny like shards of porcelain.
I looked at my parents, clearly disappointed themselves, and couldn't allow the tears that had been raging behind my eyes to flow and break their hearts. I nodded and buried my face in their thighs in a show of appreciation, or consolation.
For months, I practised all the different ways of smiling; small and sweet, big and bright, puckered and pouty. But none of them did what I was hoping; make me likeable. Show I had a good heart. I remember like it was yesterday, standing in front of the smudgy bathroom mirror at the age of nine, shutting my mouth like theatre curtains, deciding to put an end to the “act” of smiling, let alone laughing. I mean I still give a tight-lipped smile or laugh if something is funny, but I always make sure I cover my mouth. No need to expose people to this.
My parents resolved to enrol me in a private school with small classes and teachers who made it their mission to see that I wasn’t teased or bullied. “Say it, don’t spray it” was blurted a few times when I inadvertently spoke, unable to secure the gaps in my mouth completely, but for the most part, the kids left me alone, less like a rabid dog and more like a smelly stray dog. And I left them alone, less like a pack of wolves and more like a bunch of unattainable unicorns. Around the age of twelve, I finally convinced my parents to stop planning sad birthday parties where children were either forced to come or tempted by whatever expensive venue my lower-middle-class parents had invested in, in yet another attempt to popularise me. I was this chopped liver that the butcher pushed on you, but you knew better.
When I went to university, it was the same. I put my head down and ploughed on. I wanted to become a vet because the idea of working with animals comforted me. Animals didn’t realise how ugly I was, or perhaps they mistook me for one of their own. I’m sure the farmers and other trainees said nasty stuff about me, but you know, see no evil… and all that.
I developed a beauty fetish and discovered a compulsion to be surrounded by pretty things. When my parents caught the train down to visit me in my first apartment, they expressed concern about how catalogue-like it looked. The canopy bed adorned with blush and gold drapes, the gilded water glasses, the floral rugs and cushions, the peacock feathers of emerald and teal, the cream couch with intricately carved legs. They walked around with mouths sweeping the gleaming floors.
How could I afford that, they asked. It was simple: ebay and second-hand shops. When a student on a scholarship spares partygoers her heavy presence and restaurant diners her unappealing chewing business, she has lots of money to splurge on bewitching books and beautiful bargains.
“Where’s that dress we sent for your birthday?” my mum asked as she sat down on the upholstered ottoman.
I looked at Dad who, standing out of her field of sight, threw his arms in the air. My mother means well. She does. She just wants to see me as beautiful. When I was born, she basically stopped shopping for herself and filled her time with ways to distract me and everyone around me from what was going on on my face by elaborately styling the rest of my body. Flattering haircuts, earrings, and dresses. Lots and lots of dresses that I felt were just not appropriate. It was like attempting to dress up a mop, but it just became a glorified mop.
What she didn’t understand was that I was OK. Around the age of fifteen or sixteen, I simply succumbed to my fate of being invisible. I finally accepted that I was fine just the way I was. I had my other joys, my cats, my books and my practice. And admiring all kinds of beauty the world had to offer.
Last year, as the lockdown measures started to soften, I was in my practice, entering some final details on my PC, preparing to go home. Brenda, my assistant, came in and waited, shuffling from one foot to the other. I looked up.
“There’s a gentleman outside looking really anxious,” she said apologetically, “his dog, guide dog, is quite sick. He won’t leave until he sees you…”
I sighed. I was dying to go home, take a long bath and watch some mindless TV.
“He was almost crying!” she pleaded, “The man, I mean.”
“OK, then,” I gave in, “I’ll see them in room 1.”
I slid my surgical mask back up my little nose and got up. Thank God for masks. Like everyone else, I cursed the pandemic for limiting my freedom, but then masks were mandated and with it a magical solution to my awkward encounters with strangers. Adults were mostly adept at masking their aversion–or pity at best–toward me, but not children. Children couldn’t stop staring. I’d hear them ask, “What happened to the poor lady’s face?” or “Is she sick?”
Then the inevitable “Shhhh!”
I would just pretend I didn’t hear anything.
When I went into the examination room, I saw a tall man in his mid-thirties cradling a whimpering Golden Retriever and whispering to him.
The dog, Lola, had a severe infection. The man, Dan Davidson, was so distraught that he couldn’t pronounce his name right.
When Dan came in two weeks later, preceded by a healthy Lola, I crouched down to look at the beautiful young thing and rubbed her stomach. She stuck her tongue out and panted. It warmed my heart.
This time, Dan was a different person, not the hunched-over, dishevelled man I’d seen the first time, but a very attractive man with a chiselled jaw and athletic build. I couldn’t see his eyes because of the dark glasses, but everything else gave off a comforting impression. He moved with ease and seemed very capable of holding himself well.
“You have a beautiful, soothing voice!” He blurted while I was talking to Lola, sneaking in a subtle examination.
Brenda raised an eyebrow.
“Me?” I’d never been told that before. But of course I needed to use my soothing tone when talking to poor animals who’d been through some sort of ordeal.
Over the next few months, Dan spent a fortune in my practice. Unnecessary medications, treats, toys and procedures for Lola.
“You know he’s here because he likes you, right?” Brenda winked when I wondered what Mr Davidson wanted this time.
“What do you mean?” I felt my cheeks and ears getting hot. What was that weird feeling? Flattery? Excitement? Embarrassment? Shame? Fear?
That day, I almost tripped over my own feet when I entered the examination room.
The whole room, which usually smells of rabbit hay or dog farts, smelled of strong, but tasteful cologne. Could Brenda be right?
The train came to a halt, and I waved off the pungent smell of dog fart with a smile. I looked at the platform and my trained eye immediately spotted a pretty woman around my age. She was wrapping her oversized pastel-coloured scarf around her shoulders with one hand and freeing her red locks from beneath it with the other. Even from a distance, I could see her almond-shaped glowy eyes and her full lips that only a masterful paintbrush could have perfected like that. I bet when her lover kissed them, she let her hands grip the sheets or his face or whatever she wanted, not push him away like I did when Dan attempted to kiss me.
The first time he reached his hands to explore my face, a lump the size of a lemon formed in my throat. This man had cooked the best lasagna I’d ever had for me. He had lit candles for me, he had decorated the table with flowers and fairy lights for me. Yet I was terrified. I tried to keep my soothing “beautiful voice”. I tried to remember that he quite literally couldn’t care less about my looks, but now his fingers were reaching for my face. His fingertips were his eyes; those were how he explored the world, and people, around him. I found myself unknowingly pulling away from him, as if he were the repelling one.
I felt my hands grip the hem of my dress so tightly that my knuckles were about to pop. My eyelids were glued together in a reflex to protect me from witnessing the imminent repulsion on his face. He moved closer and I could feel the heat radiating from his body so close to mine. My head softly hit the wall behind me; I had run out of retreating space.
While soft jazz played in one corner and Lola snored softly by our feet, all sorts of horrible scenarios ran through my mind. What if he realised that my face was the distorted mess it was? Had he touched other women’s faces? With that wit and those looks, he must’ve had! Even if he hadn’t, he surely knew what his own face felt like. Hell, even Lola’s hairy snout was more appealing than mine.
Then it happened; his soft fingertips moved from my hair, to my eyebrows, to my closed eyes, to my cheekbones, down to my chin and rested on my lower lip. My pounding heart slowed down a notch, remembering that my lower lip was plump and soft. His touch lingered there and I felt his heat transfer through his hands like electric bulbs, and then he leaned in as if giving me the chance to get up and leave, if I didn’t want to continue, but I didn’t. Instead, I did the most irrational thing I’d done in my entire life–right up there with actually accepting his dinner invitation. I put my own hand on his warm cheek. And he kissed my lip.
And it was magic. Everything that followed was sheer magic. Me lying in his arms felt like the only place I was meant to be, the place where I would’ve given the whole world to be.
That night I cried. I had resigned to a fate of perpetual solitude and out of nowhere this man came into my life and opened doors to chambers I thought I'd been destined to admire from a distance.
The conductor was mumbling something now and the train went into a tunnel. I got up to get the luggage down from the rack, but Dan had woken up and put a hand on my arm. He liked taking care of these things for me. I smiled.
It had only been two months since we started dating, but we both knew. We knew we were meant to be together. We were official and couldn’t be happier about it.
When the train came to a halt, I dragged both of our suitcases while he got Lola ready to get off the train.
I could only imagine my parents on the platform full of smiles and sheer excitement. The daughter they had worried would die alone with the cat eating the other half of her face was now in love. With a real person.
I looked around the sea of faces, some smiling, some hugging, some waving goodbye, but couldn’t spot them.
“Oh, look!” Dan put his arm on my shoulder, “your parents are waving at us over there!”
I looked behind me and there they were full of smiles, shouldering their way towards us.
And then it hit me! I turned around and looked at Dan’s glasses and gasped.