One day I stopped looking in the mirror. I was tired of my face, tired of finding fault with it, of wishing it looked a different way or trying to make it look a certain way. It was always just my face. Nothing could be done. So I stopped looking. And an odd thing happened. My face went away. It disappeared. Or at least the reflection of my face went away, the only means I had of regarding it.
Isn’t it strange? That we can never look at our own faces without the aid of some object, a mirror or a lake or something shiny to reflect it back for our own eyes to see? Eyes we can see out of, but cannot see ourselves through. Without mirrors, without lakes, we can only tell what we look like by what other people tell us. It’s like being blind.
At first, people greeted me similarly. They did not run away screaming. It was apparent that they saw something still—some apparatus of features in close approximation to eyes, a nose, a mouth—that they could respond to. I looked in their eyes, at old photographs and home movies, but all images of my face had been expunged. I was no longer visible to myself.
Once my face became unavailable to me, two things happened: I cared more about it; and caring for it became more difficult. I would wash extra carefully each morning, vigorously scrubbing with soap on a hot towel, then rinsing with warm water ten times; I brushed my teeth and flossed after every meal; I interrogated my face with my fingers constantly, vigilant against skin eruptions, overgrown brow or nose hairs, crust left in the corners of my eyes.
Putting makeup on became impossible. I couldn’t trust myself to stay within the lines of my lips, my eyes. Blush I could still sweep on with a free hand, but I had no way of knowing whether I was wearing too much, whether one side was redder than the other. I could not tell whether the mascara was clumped or smudged, whether my eyebrows were plucked evenly, or if the concealer I normally wore to hide the dark hemispheres beneath my eyes, was concealing what was already concealed from me.
It was torturous not to be able to confirm a clean appearance, a tidiness of one’s own features like a room well-swept. I did not like the idea that others could look at me while I could not; that I could see their faces but not my own. I realized that to recognize oneself each morning anew was a kind of exercise in existence. You get up and you see yourself in the mirror and you think, “Here I am.” It was reassuring, this ritual, the familiarity of self, conjured and re-conjured like an auto-hypnotic spell. Without my face, I felt off-balance, tentative. I became obsessed by what I could not see.
I took to asking my lover to describe my face for me each day.
“You’re beautiful,” he would say, dismissively. As if that were the end of it.
“No, no,” I’d protest. “Tell me truly what you see. In detail!”
And he would go over the checklist. Eyes brown with dark lashes. Sharp nose. Even teeth. Lower lip full, upper lip thin. Slight scar over the right eyebrow. Black hair to the shoulder.
I was not content with factual information, I wanted impressions, overall feelings.
“You look tired today,” he’d say. Or, “Your eyes look sad.” “Today your face is as fresh as a budding rose.” “Your smile is like the flickering of a candle.”
After we made love, he would run his thumb across my profile as though cutting with a blade. He would graze my forehead, the ridge of my nose, my mouth, my chin, all the time staring at my face as though it were something sacred to him, something rare. This became more exciting to me than the sex itself; this way he had of examining my face. Tenderness like exaltation. He took ownership through touch, through the authority of his gaze.
I began to live in his eyes, to live through them. To feel I could see what he saw: my own face like a thing separate from me. Or to put it differently, my face lived in his eyes. When he went away, it went away. I went away. I lost face. It began to be a problem.
“What do you see?” I’d say, greeting him at the door.
His own face would flush. “I see you,” he’d say, thrilling me with his clarity.
“Anything different today?” I’d ask.
He would study me a moment. “No,” he’d say, “it’s looking much the same today.”
“Nothing different at all?” I’d push him.
“Well . . .” He would look more closely. “Maybe a bit more desperate.”
After a time, he grew tired of looking at me, of being the mirror. “The problem with you,” he said, “is you have a poor self-image.”
“I have no self-image at all,” I said.
“See what I mean?” he said, and left, swinging his portmanteau.
Without him, I was inconsolable. I did not like to go out. There was no one else I trusted with my face; I did not want strangers looking at it, desiring it, judging it, passing it by. I would peer out my curtains at the people walking in the streets and feel their indifference like a cold wind through the open window, and I was glad to stay inside, away from scrutiny.
Gradually I stopped caring what I looked like. What did it matter, if I had no one to tell me? I didn’t wash for days. I threw my cosmetics out. I barely brushed my hair. On the occasions when I had to go out, to run an errand or to buy food, I noticed people shying away from me. Their own faces looked startled by mine, as though they were looking at a ghost. I did not bother to smile or to frown, or to evidence any facial expression at all. If I could not see, why should they?
In this way, I began to re-inhabit the world. I presented myself to it as I saw myself in it, a blank, a cipher, a nonentity. A faceless woman. I no longer expected any sort of reaction at all when people happened to look upon me; I began no longer to require one. And the strange thing was that I became happy. I saw the faces of others, their looks of suffering and boredom, of longing and displeasure. I saw also—mostly on children—looks of delight and curiosity, of sadness and rebellion. And I knew that their faces were my own, that I had access to all of these ways of looking by means of what I saw.
I sat in the park and sketched them. An old man sitting on a bench, wrinkled like a shar pei; a young girl sunbathing, pearls of sweat beading on her upper lip; a woman feeding pigeons, her expression of intense compassion; a businessman reading a newspaper with downcast mouth and eyes. I saw their faces like gifts offered up to me, like opened books. Their generosity astounded me. I found no face unlovely, none without interest or complication; the sheer variety moved me.
Sometimes I would dream my face at night, my features ardent, vivid. My eyes. My mouth. I would wake up smiling in the morning. Memory became my mirror. Private and nocturnal. My face floated in my unconscious like a balloon.
It was nothing I would share with anyone. I was shocked I ever had. It seemed too intimate, too crucial a thing. In dreams, my face was the face of my dreams.
I existed this way for many years. I was used to the way people treated me, comfortable with the non-recognition that stood in their eyes when they saw me, the passing over of someone not relevant to them, not fully registered. I, who for so many years had craved the double take, the quickening intensity of a male gaze. I carried within me the memory of my beautiful face; I carried it like a secret fetish, like a relic. I knew what it was, what it had been. I was happy to have it hidden from public view.
And then one day, as I was hurrying down the street, I passed a shop window and caught a glimpse of my reflection. I stopped, stunned. I went back. There it was. My face in the glass. It was thinner than I’d remembered, rougher-complected, with deep creases at the corners of the mouth. The circles under the eyes had grown darker, more pronounced, and there was a general sinking-in of the cheeks, a hollowing of flesh. My hair, wildly knotted and standing out from my head, had gone completely gray. It was like looking at a ruin.
The memory of my face shattered then, like a mirror, each fragment a blade, a tiny sliver of cold, annihilating pain. I walked away in misery.
The Liberation of a Face was published in The TriQuarterly Review volume 110/111 in Fall 2001.