This week’s Cowley Literary Award finalist in the non-fiction category is Jennifer Porter, who proves that losing face isn’t always a bad thing.
I would lose face that day.
A piece about the size of a twenty cent piece. Right under my eye, where everyone looks. I’d tried not to think about what they would do to me, just tried to read my book as I waited with all the old folks in the pre/post op ward, in my stiff hospital gown on my crinkly bed. A kindly orderly brought me a warm blanket to put over my cold feet, an Italian gent.
A smooth-faced registrar came to collect my details. I told him I was feeling like I didn’t want to do it; I could feel my eyes welling up. He stood at a distance, mouth set in a line, and said: ‘It’s a melanoma. We need to take it out.’ He used my full name. I only ever get my full name when I’m in trouble. I wanted the orderly back.
I’d become used to my face, as it was. Sure it had a big brown splotch on it–a friend generously called it a ‘beauty mark’–which seemed to have doubled in size when I wasn’t looking. But I hadn’t really noticed it. It was only when I went to recount a funny story, how the hairdresser had thought she’d spilt some hair dye on my face and had started scrubbing at it with a washer, how a friend had told me my mascara had smudged and went to wipe it with his fingertip. People were noticing something that looked like it shouldn’t be there, some kind of incursion.
I remember when I was 12 or 13, looking in the mirror and wishing I were someone else. I would’ve given anything to be someone else, someone without acne. One of those girls with the short uniforms and sparkling eyes and glowing clear skin. I used to make deals with God or whoever I thought was in control then. I’d give up Simon LeBon–I was going to marry him one day–if I didn’t have pimples. I even reckoned I could lose a finger or toe in exchange for clear skin.
I gave up all kinds of foods, tried different diets, different skin creams, then finally saw a dermatologist, who prescribed medication for the acne and sunshine for the scarring. It worked, at least on the outside.
By my early 20s I was starting to feel like men didn’t like me for the right reasons. My face betrayed me–it promised what I couldn’t deliver. I didn’t have the confidence to carry it off. I cut my hair short so that I wouldn’t be so easily recognised as female, a target. If anyone got too interested, I’d make some excuse, before they could.
By my 30s, there was a kind of treaty made between my face and me. The scarring of my teen years was gone, leaving something more interesting in its wake: acceptance. So how did this happen just when everything was in sync?
This removal of a part of my face was surely a form of self-mutilation, rejection of self at its essence. Where would it go, my piece of face? To a white shiny lab somewhere, suspended in formaldehyde? This felt like grief, this pulling inside me.
They were all men, these doctors who wanted to change me. The surgeon at the repat hospital was a young plastic surgeon with a confident handshake. His eyes were warm as he acknowledged the potential for disfigurement and how that would feel to someone my age. The next time I saw him was under the bright lights of the operating theatre with eyes that looked through me.
So as I sat on my bed with my cold feet, the registrar looked at the folder he held then reached for a texta. I could feel the firm tip of the texta under my eye, a series of dashes it felt like. Then another under my ear, where they would take a graft to fill the space left after they took my face. I saw my face reflected in a mirror. It looked like one of those cuts of meat with its branding visible on the pale pink flesh, a reminder of its life.
I was taken to the anaesthetist’s room. The doors of the operating theatre would swing open a little every now and then as I lay on my trolley with the anaesthetist prodding and piercing my skin, looking for a good vein. I could see the white-toothed surgeon looking animated and cheerful. He was showing the nurses something on his iphone. He was flirting. He seemed very young all of a sudden.
I felt faint with terror, my heart was pounding. There was no way out –
like an animal in the stalls at the abattoir. And that’s when I heard it, music, a familiar riff: AC/DC. What was it? It was coming from the surgery and the surgeon looked like he was on some team motivation gig, eyes wide and fists pumping. And as they wheeled me through the swinging doors it came to me, the song. It was Highway to Hell.
And then there was nothing.
It was done. I had a few months of disfigurement but like anything, I got used to it. Nothing like the fragility of youth, when worth is skin-deep. But now it’s just there, my little scar, and it gets smaller and paler and more like me as time goes by, not like the big brown splotch that I coveted as part of me and my history.
‘Turn your face to the sun and the shadows will fall behind,’ an old aunt had written in my blue autograph book when I was eight. I had.
But I don’t turn my face to the sun anymore because the shadows will always come. And when the shadows are long and dark, the egg yolk sun is warm and soft and casts a honeyed light across the world. That’s my favourite time of day.