The Face Transplant Man
At the TV studio, a make-up artist with an apron full of brushes leaned over the Corporal's face. Jess couldn't hear their conversation from across the room, where she was speaking with the producer, but he was making the girl laugh, and she kept freezing her brush in midair, like she was telling him to stop. There was a red patch that extended from his nose to his chin, giving him a raw look even after all the surgeries he had had. When the makeup artist was finished, though, the skin was unnaturally matte and even, and he looked less like a war veteran than a Hollywood character actor who'd made his career on a fucked-up face.
The first time Jess and the Corporal had been naked together, he'd run his finger along a thick worm of a scar on her shoulder. "Where did you get this?" he'd asked.
War, she'd almost wanted to joke. She didn't point out the strangeness in his asking her to recount the history of scars. But then again, she knew the story of his body, the story had become a public thing. Her body, with its moles and dimples and scars, was still hers.
Sometimes she lied when people asked about that scar. She told her sorority sisters that it'd come from a soccer cleat, and she'd been lucky it hadn't been her face.
"I used to take long showers," she'd told him, running her hand along his chest where the skin was smooth from his burns, "and we only had one bathroom in the house. It made my mother crazy. We had sliding glass doors, the rippled kind you couldn't see through. One morning she was banging on the door for me to get out. And bam." She whispered the bam, opening her hand in a burst across his chest, "and the glass all fell in one sheet. Sliced right into my shoulder."
Jess had actually laughed when it happened, out of sheer surprise. She was wet and naked, standing in a pool of glass. Her mother had screamed, then started crying, and Jess had to step carefully out, dry herself off and ask her mother to sit still on the carpeted toilet lid. She had managed to dress herself - - - sticking a menstrual pad on her shoulder - - - and they had driven to the hospital with her little brother in the back. Her mother had told her to lie at the emergency room, to say her brother had been playing baseball out back and the ball had come through her bedroom window.
"Baseball at seven in the morning? It was an accident, Mom. I know you didn't mean to."
"But you have to lie," her mother said.
"Why is it my fault in the lie?" her brother said. "What if I get in trouble?"
"Please shut up," her mother said.
In the wound, Jess could see her own bone and tendon. It was hard not to look, to take this one chance to see what was inside her. In the ER, they injected painkiller right into the cut - - - that had hurt - - - but then Jess had watched the doctor stitch it neatly with a thick thread. She was fascinated by the complacency of her skin, how readily it had opened, and then would agree to shut.
Her mother, on the other hand, had been told to recline in the neighboring bed and the nurse had to deliver an orange juice to get her blood sugar up.
"Did it cure you of long showers?" the Corporal had asked.
"No," she said. "It actually didn't. My mother used to say I was incurable. In general." Then, "I suppose I wouldn't last long in the service."
"There are some who never learn," he said. "Who'll take a beat down all day before they change. That's a good way to die."
§ § §
The TV producer was an older woman beset by various strings - - - lanyards around her neck, a headpiece trailing black cords, fluorescent bungees on her wrists jangling with keys - - - such that Jess had the urge to unburden the woman and show her to a chair. The producer was speaking to someone else on the headset while explaining to Jess that they were starting to plan for the next Veterans Day segments.
"Your team always delivers," she said. "Do you have something we haven't seen yet?"
Before Jess could answer, she lifted her finger, pointed to the earpiece. She paced for a minute, and Jess noticed she was wearing fuzzy house slippers on the set. "No aioli," Jess heard her say. "No a-o-leee."
She came back and raised her eyebrow, the cue for Jess to speak.
"We're doing a full face transplant later this year," Jess said. "One of the first of its kind."
"My god," the producer said, the god hushed and low, in recognition of the horror of it, but her eyes glinted Oh my God! - - - a producer's dream.
Jess explained how the new face would be a hybrid of the donor and the recipient, resembling both. She repeated the surgeon's explanation: they had put the Corporal back together like a Rubik's Cube, turn by turn, but this would be like laying down a clean sheet on a bed and tucking in the corners.
"We'd have to be careful about how much we ask of the patient," Jess said. "He may want privacy."
"Mm-hmm," the producer said to Jess or to someone in her headset.
She sounded pleased, perhaps picturing the telegenic possibilities of the recipient meeting the deceased donor's family. The surgical program was fueled by images, like Operation Smile in the third world: cleft palate, no cleft palate. Before and after. What could be more satisfying, what could provide a greater hit of pleasure?
They all wanted the next fix to be greater than the last. Jess had felt it herself, the disappointment when a new patient arrived with less dramatic injuries. They had already treated the worst disfigurements, and now just routinely changing lives with a foot or an elbow surgery did not seem enough.
Jess wanted more. She had closed her eyes at night and pictured - - - almost against her own will - - - a man with no face entering her, and it had given her a nauseating thrill.
On the set, the Corporal's interview started. He and the correspondent were angled toward each other, so close their knees nearly knocked. The woman looked prettier but older in person than she did on TV.
"People stare," he was telling her. "Of course they do. I don't look like I did at twenty-five - - - but who does?" He laughed, and she laughed with him.
"But before, they wouldn't stare. Even kids would look away. Now they just ask what happened to my face. Because now it is a face. I don't know how to say this exactly," he said, "but it didn't seem fair, before, for my wife to have to look at me. Because it was really hard to look at. It wasn't something you could just get used to. I may not be pretty now," he smiled again, "but you can get used to it. It's not a shock over and over again."
The woman leaned in to him. The Corporal's throat burns had left his voice raspy and high so that he couldn't raise it, which had the effect of drawing people closer.
"I read recently that your marriage has ended," the woman said, "and I was so sorry to hear it. Your wife was a marine as well?"
They'd agreed in advance that there would be no questions about his marriage. The producer felt Jess tense, raised her arm to keep her from moving toward them.
"In Fallujah," he said. "She had it worse than I did."
"And you now have custody of your daughter?"
"I do," he said.
Jess saw the woman's eyes gleam with the combination of compassion and infatuation single fatherhood (and in a disfigured veteran, no less) elicited in most women. She looked ready to lean forward right into his arms before she regained her journalist's composure.
"What's next for Corporal Tucker?" she asked. "There are some people who'd like to draft you into politics. Your gift for oration has been called presidential."
"It's flattering," he told her. "But I think my era of public service has come to an end."
"Where did you learn to give speeches like that?" she said. "Where does that gift come from?"
"Conviction," he said.--- From Dog Years
©2016 University of Pittsburgh Press