We were getting coffee, which we used to do all the time, when Tierney told me she was thinking of having it done.
“Really?” I asked, half-laughing—I didn’t think she was serious. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why?” Tierney looked annoyed. “Do I need a reason? Why did you get your tattoo?”
I’d hurt her feelings. I hadn’t meant to. As I tried to think of what to say I followed the line of her eyes to a woman who’d just walked in and was ordering a latte. Her face was merely a suggestion, like a Cycladic head or a more abstract Brâncuși, featureless save for hints of her former browline and the bridge of her nose, the dip of her philtrum and pout of her lower lip.
It used to be they’d give me a bit of a start—people who’d had the injections. Not any more, obviously. I mean, even if Refractin never becomes as commonplace as a boob job or a tummy tuck, I think in other ways it’s pretty much the same. Expensive, but not outrageously so, and we’ve all agreed to agree that the procedure isn’t necessarily about bowing to internalized patriarchal beauty standards. It’s radical empowerment. Self-care, like a four thousand-dollar bikini wax.
I felt Tierney’s eyes return to me.
“I guess it just doesn’t really seem like you,” was what I said, but it was the wrong thing to say.
Did you think it was the weirdest thing in the world, the first time you saw it? In person, I mean, not on a magazine cover. I guess that’s a not a fair question for you; anyway, I sure did. I still remember not feeling certain if I was disgusted or enticed by the way the procedure smooths out the face, removing every detail to create a featureless organic mask. You know they grow it, right? Yeah, they totally do, like Vantablack. It’s pretty weird. They take a sample of your skin and create a unique batch based off of that. The injections contain some chameleon genes along with everything else; these days, it even tans and fades along with your neck and hands if you go out in the sun.
Anyway, Tierney got defensive. “Doesn’t seem like me?” she said. “How would you know?”
She was just a hair too loud for a crowded, indoor space. I was worried people would stare at us so I sat back, lowering my own voice in the hopes she’d do the same.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, “you’ve never mentioned it before, that’s all I meant. If you want to, go for it. Do you need someone to drive you home, afterward? I could—”
“I don’t need someone to drive me home,” she said sharply, as if I were an idiot for suggesting it. “I don’t even know if I’ll do it. I was just saying I was thinking about it.”
Tierney checked her phone. “I gotta go,” she muttered. “Catch you later.” And then she was gone, leaving her half-drunk latte on the table.
I sipped on my mocha for a few minutes longer, surreptitiously looking at the woman who’d sparked our disastrous conversation. She was reading one of those square local newspapers as she sipped from a ceramic mug. Honestly I’m still fascinated when people who’ve had Refractin eat or drink—the way it looks like a mouthful of coffee or a bite of cake simply . . . disappears. Down the invisible hatch.
As I watched her, a bit of cream or foam stuck to the pentimento of her upper lip, and then it was gone. Her surgeon had done a better job than most; her tongue was completely invisible against her skin. In the low light of the shop, I hadn’t even detected a shadow of motion.
It wasn’t just the content of my conversation with Tierney that had felt weird to me—it was the timing of it, too. Her mentioning Refractin, I mean. Maybe she’d brought it up because of the woman in the shop, but also I’d been having an affair with Tierney’s fiancé Jaxon, and the last time we’d seen each other we’d checked out some porn together—porn featuring girls who’d had Refractin injections. So, I was worried that—
Oh, of course there’s porn! Loads of it. It’s not all mannequin fetish stuff, either. You can find just about anything you’re into, it’s just that the actors and actresses don’t have, well, we’re not supposed to say don’t have faces anymore, right? They don’t possess conventional facial characteristics. Anyway, when someone sticks their finger or whatever in someone’s mouth it disappears just like food or drink. Uncanny . . . but also hot.
Actually, it’s the porn that made Refractin seem more normal to me. When the procedure debuted I wasn’t one of those people wringing my hands over whether it was “wrong,” or would give businesspeople or professional poker players an unfair advantage in the workplace or whatever. I resented the slogan they chose for their TV ads, Let Them See The Real You™, because fake-empowerment marketing is inherently annoying, and it’s also just really uncomfortable, not being able to read someone’s expression. But then, like everyone else, I learned to ignore the ads. And not only that, I realized how much more there is to reading someone than seeing their face. There’s posture, personal style, mannerisms . . . tone of voice, too.
I left the coffee shop wondering if Jaxon and I hadn’t been careful enough about deleting his browser history, but I calmed down when I remembered that Tierney couldn’t know I’d been watching the porn with him. Unless he told her, of course, but then we’d all have bigger problems than our smut preferences. No, worst-case scenario, she’d just been feeling insecure.
Hm? Oh. I don’t know. Jaxon and I just sort of . . . happened.
Well, that’s not true. Nothing ever just happens. I guess I mean to say that I didn’t set out to cheat on Darien . . . but when the opportunity arose, I took it. What can I say? I’m only human, and at that time I was a human who was annoyed with her boyfriend for a lot of reasons, some of which were more legitimate than others.
The real issue was that we were both of us unsatisfied with the other, but not so unsatisfied that we were doing anything about it. No, we were in the phase where we were committing subtle acts of sabotage, each playing our various cards—but cards, while thin, stack up over time.
Then came the night when the four of us were supposed to go out, but Darien bailed on me, and Tierney on Jaxon—they were going through a similar rocky patch—and Jaxon and I agreed there was no reason we had to stay home. I’d had a hard week. I mean, every week teaching high school art history is a hard week. Can you blame me for wanting to spend some social time with adults? But one drink became a second, and then . . .
We said at first it was in the service of saving our relationships; we said it would just be occasional stress relief, like a steam valve for our lives. It made sense; justifications always do! But quickly we became enamored of one another, because that’s what happens.
It’s just so easy to idealize the person with whom you’re having an affair; so easy to take the ways in which they’re different from your current lover as evidence of them being superior. Maybe they go down on you without being asked, or are always on time, or have a flair for the romantic, all of which seems heroic. What you don’t realize is that they are terrible with money, or can’t take a criticism without offering one of their own. Still, sometimes a cage of a different shape can feel like freedom.
Anyway, after Tierney left I tried to tell myself it was coincidence—her mentioning Refractin, I mean. I reasoned that I wouldn’t have felt so paranoid if she’d mentioned getting her breasts reduced or chopping off her hair—it never would have occurred to me to think back on whether the porn Jaxon and I watched had featured chicks with small tits and pixie cuts. But the Refractin thing . . . it just felt different.
It bothered me so much that I mentioned it to Darien that night, as we sat on the couch side by side but still separate as we watched television. I mean to say I mentioned the procedure. Not everything else.
“What do you think of Refractin?”
“I said, what do you think of Refractin?”
Darien conveyed what I considered to be a disproportional amount of annoyance in the way he paused the episode of Black Mirror that we were re-watching. “What?”
“The surgery where they inject that stuff into your face and—”
“I know what it is.” We had finished eating, and he shifted his plate from beside him on the couch to the coffee table in order to squirm around and look at me. I’d put my plate in the sink; I always put my dishes up when I was done instead of leaving them around, congealing, presumably for someone else to pick up and clean. The apartment we shared was open-plan; you could see the TV from the kitchen, so it wasn’t a big deal to just do it, at least in my opinion. “I guess I like it.”
“Sure, why not? It’s weird, but it’s not grotesque or anything.”
I know I’d watched that porn with Jaxon—eagerly—but even so, I felt myself get a little annoyed about Darien’s reply, as I imagine women once did if their partners confessed to liking those really big boob jobs that were popular way back when.
“Who said anything about it being grotesque?” I fired back.
“This was a trap,” he said, eyeballs tracking back to the remote. “No right answer.”
“It’s not about a right or a wrong answer.”
“Like hell,” he said, and unpaused the television.
I won’t get into the fight that ensued; suffice it to say it got ugly quickly. My simmering resentment boiled over, he lashed out in turn, and as always happens with these things, more details were shared about who was more unsatisfied in bed or whose dietary quirks were the more annoying or whose social graces were the most deficient than one would think necessary for two people who were presumably done with one another.
Which we were. Two days later he moved out; two weeks later Jaxon ended things with Tierney and ended up sleeping on my couch while he found his own place.
At least . . . that’s what we told our mutual acquaintance, so as not to seem like the worst people in the world. Of course he wasn’t really sleeping on the couch, and for a month or so we had a glorious time with one another.
I say “or so” because by the end of said month I was already exhausted by him. I’d always thought Tierney was too hard on Jaxon, which was one of my other justifications for the affair. Sure, Jax was a germophobe and a spendthrift, but surely he didn’t need to be berated for that. But that was before I noticed that the kitchen and bathroom floors were always wet after he moved in—“towels are disease vectors,” he’d said, even though I changed them regularly—and then one morning when I was trying to make waffles for us and he was gone for forty-five minutes after I asked him to run out for eggs. “What happened?” I’d asked. “Oh, I went to the store across town,” was his answer. When I asked why, he’d looked at me like I was the one who was nuts while declaring, “The store close to your house charges three cents more per egg, which is highway robbery, quite frankly.”
I ended up alone, which is what I deserved. And what I told myself I wanted.
“I’m done with romance,” I declared to my friend Siouxsie one night, when we were strolling around the First Friday Art Walk. Acting the part helped a lot, as did hanging out with other single people. “Living alone is the best.”
“I agree, but I’m also still sort of amazed you guys split,” she said. “You and Darien, I mean. You always seemed so . . . simpatico.”
Siouxsie hadn’t meant to poke my heart, she wasn’t like that, but I felt the jab just the same. “Well, in some ways we were,” I admitted. “But you have no idea what it was really like, living with him,” I added hastily.
“No one ever does,” she said.
Later that night I went into a bit of a spin over Darien. I had kept myself angry and resentful and thus relatively free of regret by mentally replaying all of his worst traits in the movie theatre of my mind. But that night, all I could think about was what I had loved about him. What I still did love about him, in spite of everything.
I scrolled through his social media, sighing over every clever remark and side-eyeing every unfamiliar woman he interacted with until I started wondering if I was cyberstalking him. That’s when I made myself shut down the app . . . but not before tapping on his current profile picture. Retracing the familiar lines of his face with my eyes instead of my fingers made my heart beat a little faster. After that, I had to put my phone down in order to resist calling him to ask how he was feeling in the wake of things; if he was at all dismayed by the quick end to what we’d had and the ensuing silence between us. Time is a lathe, it’s true, but it doesn’t soften life’s hard edges equally.
I could have just asked, but I was too afraid—and what I feared most wasn’t his scorn, but his silence. I couldn’t handle more ghosting, not after a surprising amount of our mutual friends had sided with Tierney. I’d thought, incorrectly, that we were all adults who didn’t have to “take sides,” but there it was; I was unclean, a pariah. No one seemed to care how I was feeling in the wake of it all, even though, at least as far as I could tell from social media (before she ditched me across all her platforms), Tierney had emerged from the ashes of her engagement like a phoenix. She’d switched skin care regimens, joined a climbing studio, found a new climbing boyfriend—“the works”—whereas I was the one staying in, drinking wine with my cat on Friday nights, and not getting laid because everyone who swiped up on my hookup app seemed like a creeper.
Though at first it had hurt my feelings, in the end I was actually grateful she’d friend-dumped me so completely. It made things easier . . . that is, until I saw her downtown, eating ice cream with Annalise and Priya. I approached only because I saw she was wearing that one sweater of mine that she’d loved so much; I’d given it to her when I’d gone on a closet-cleaning kick the previous spring, when Jaxon and I had merely been flirty at parties. That she had retained it, and still wore it, gave me hope that perhaps we could patch things up.
I called her name; she turned around, and that’s when I saw she’d gone through with it—Refractin, I mean. Her face was an unreadable mask, but just the same I could tell she was unhappy to see me.
“Hey,” I said. “Nice sweater.”
She stepped away from Annalise and Priya, who both looked completely mortified.
“Excuse me?” she said, in the cold way one might speak to a stranger, her words emanating from the blank canvas of what had been her face.
“The sweater,” I said lamely, and then lost my nerve. Ironically, I couldn’t face her.
“I’m sorry. I think you must have mistaken me for someone else.” And with that, she turned away.
I crumpled. Had a total meltdown in public—I started shaking, and my face got so hot I was amazed my tears didn’t evaporate into steam. I knew I had no right to cry in front of her, not when I’d been the one to betray her, but she’d dismissed me so utterly I felt like no one, nothing. Like the ghost of someone who’d never been born. It was humiliating, to be brought so low in front of friends—well, former friends—and strangers. I literally staggered back from their little triad, my eyes red, my nose running, my lip wobbling like a spoiled toddler’s. There was no hiding what I was feeling, so I ran for it.
That’s when I decided to have it done—Refractin, I mean. I never wanted anyone to see me like that ever again. While I’m sure in that moment the slump of my shoulders, the trembling in my legs, my fluttering, nervous hands would have given me away to onlookers regardless, there’s still something so personal, so radically intimate about the way a person’s face contorts when they completely lose their shit. No two people collapse the same way.
The next day I called up a local cosmetic surgeon who had good reviews and booked a consultation. They said I was a good candidate so I lied my way through the psychological evaluation and said all the right things during the mandatory seminar on “Unexpected Ways Refractin Can Change Your Life.” Unsurprisingly, everyone else there was a wreck, too. You don’t have to agree with me; I know I’m right. When I called the office for a referral, the receptionist didn’t even have to search for your name and website—she just gave it to me from memory.
As you probably know, the recovery time for Refractin is surprisingly swift. Less than a month and I was healed up and living my new life, the one where everyone allegedly could see the “real me.” Except, of course, my new life was nearly identical to my old life, save that the creepers who swiped up on my hookup app were mostly fetishists. That was fine by me; kinky types are honest, most of the time, and anyway I was so grateful to be getting laid again that I didn’t care if it was transactional affection.
I could also hide in plain sight from everyone from my past, but that was both good and bad. At the seminar, they’d told me I might feel isolated or invisible afterward . . . well, good. That was what I wanted. But as time passed, I wasn’t sure if I liked it. The city seems big—I mean, it is big—but in a lot of ways it’s a small town, as my random encounter with Tierney had shown. After a few of Tierney’s crew had done double-takes upon seeing me and then pretended not to recognize me I got a new haircut, dyed it lavender, and started wearing clothes that were just different enough from my former style to conceal myself entirely. If I was going to be invisible, I wanted it to be on my terms.
That’s what made it so awful when I saw him—Darien, I mean—one sunny afternoon as I took a walk through a park we’d used to frequent when we were a couple. He was alone, and unlike me or Tierney, he looked exactly the same.
He looked wonderful, actually. I broke out in a sweat even though it was cool out; I was unprepared for this, but I calmed down when I realized he wouldn’t be able to tell who I was; or rather, tell that I was . . . me.
Except he did.
“Hey you,” he said, as if we were friends; as if we’d never been lovers who had hurt one another. He sounded genuinely pleased to see me. “How are you?”
“Oh, fine.” His kindness meant so much to me and I felt a fresh surge of affection for him. After that one night I’d tried to keep away from his social media and been largely successful at that . . . but now, here, in his presence, I wanted to confess to him that I’d been stupid, how much I regretted how I’d treated him, how I’d ruined everything and I knew it, how many times I’d brought up old pictures of us on my phone just so I could feel my mouth moving as I said I love you while looking into his eyes one more time.
Instead, I asked, “And you? How have you been?”
“Fine, fine,” he said. “I like the,” he waved his hand over his own face to indicate he was talking about mine. “Looks cool.”
“Thank you,” I said, struggling to sound like I was just making conversation; like none of this was weird or awkward or upsetting, given our breakup fight had been over this very topic. “I’m amazed you recognized me, actually. Most people don’t.”
“Oh, I’d know you anywhere,” he said cheerfully, and then he walked off. He didn’t turn around to look back at me, not once, and for the first time since the procedure I was truly grateful that no one could see my expression.
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