Faceby Mary Stein
The man outside Barcelona who accidentally leveled his face with the misfire of a shotgun received the first-ever full face transplant. In the picture, a throng of doctors surround him; Henry, looking lost among the lab-coat clad, wearing someone else’s expression. This is what they call a “Human Interest” story, and I can tell his is a face that will be looking back at mine for awhile.
The other’s face I’ve forgotten, even though at the time it seemed so unforgettable. Now it’s not his face I remember so much as the position of his body. Sometimes I see his body in the position of my sleeping son—lying prostrate with both limp arms flat against each side. But mostly I remember the less important things—me in the passenger seat with the driver’s uninvited hand tightening its grip on my thigh, the slowing down at the site but not quite stopping. Only now will I think that I didn’t have a cellphone—then there wasn’t a phone invented to have. When I looked at the victim’spicture the day after, it was within the creases of a small-city newspaper. I wanted to get to know him because the dark liquid pool I saw on the pavement was not oil from his car. I wanted to ask him why he didn’t throw his arms up for protection. In the newspaper, his face was a sprawl of black ink. Due to the size of the pixels, it was hard to tell the difference between teeth and skin.
I may not remember his name, but I transpose his face onto this one I look at now—Henry’sface, and now here’s Henry, perfectly upright. There is a certain comfort in that. A comfort in knowing Henry can look back.
I have seen enough bodies to lose count. I could tell each story five different ways and when I get to the end I will be where I’m supposed to start—the part where it happens all over again. Sometimes I mismatch the stories and the dying man in the middle of the road stands up, gives his tire a kick, and walks home.
I can tell you what the headlights revealed. You never know exactly what you’re seeing. Everything is just a dark form against a dark night. His car had flipped on a road that cradled a river banked with birch trees. In darkness, the movement of water is all you can hear. It’s not like city nights here where you can see lights from residential areas twenty miles away. There are millions of Henry’s new shining faces, lighting up living rooms everywhere.
Where I live now, at the sound of impact fifty people flock from their porches in the time it takes me to dial the paramedics.
And look, it does not take a forensic scientist to recognize the point and the source of impact. But the two teenage drivers who hit the car will be blamed anyway. Later, when the mother of one of the teenagers comes knocking on my door in tears, she tells me that what was clearly her son’s shock was what police officers insisted on calling stoned.
But it wasn’t exactly like that.
The mother was not in tears. I didn’t invite her in. We sat on my porch. The talking was too much to get through the threshold. We shared anger toward the injustice of it all. Because everyone walked away, we could afford to be angry so soon after.
Who does any accident’s story belong to?
It became everyone’s story. The neighbor across the street swore her daughter could have been caught in the tangle of car parts. My son and I dodged the car that came careening toward our house—our fence buckled where we were nearly hit. But I didn’t let myself become a bystander. Inside, I watched the wreckage from parted curtains, still holding my son tight to my chest.
“There there,” I said, stroking his back.
But he wasn’t the one shaking.
I could hear the chatter of the crowd swell into an unintelligible buzz. Airplanes continued to sing through the air. Who’s to say we were the ones to see it first?
My son was too young to remember. But now, when I retell the story he will ask, “How could you just look away from the accident?”
But there’s the one I couldn’t leave—her name I won’t forget.
At a shelter where I worked, I once entered the bedroom of a resident and found her body sprawled across the floor—somehow partway in her closet. I didn’t have to feel for her pulse to know it wasn’t there. Later, other residents asked if she died lying in her bed. If her eyes were closed. Police asked if I noticed an emptied bottle of Trazodone. Of course I couldn’t say she wasn’t dead when I was not allowed to say anything. I didn’t say that, despite everything, I felt for her pulse, anyway.
I can never see everything up close, so I tell my son a different version every time. I keep reinventing these stories.
Henry’s eyes are deeply embedded, so he can look at everything from farther away. During an interview, a surgeon said Henry’s body rejected the face twice. But now his chin sprouts new stubble and his lacrimal ducts produce tears Henry can call his own.
But I know when I look away it’s so I can convince myself everyone walks away unscathed.
Did I say it was dark like underground? That’s the kind of dark it was. The cars we drove then provided the only source of light and I can tell you right now that kind of light only gets lost in red night. That kind of light is only enough so you can see just how dark it is. So if you encounter a car turned askew in the middle of the road, you will not know what it is at first—that animal form strewn underneath its carriage.
Upon seeing Henry’s new face, I have forgotten the other’s name. After fifteen years, the pixels lose focus. The dark swallowed up anything memorable. But I remember that the paper said he was twenty-two, which seemed so old at the time, but not old enough to leave behind a daughter the same age my son is now.
No. I did not want to get to know him. I only wanted to know whose face it was that would be haunting me.
Just his name would do.
There are more.
The ones I don’t even mention and the ones I couldn’t even bring myself to look at—not when there is someone else—anyone else—to find them.
When I was twenty-two, inside the classroom where I taught, I heard a certain shattering of metal that I soon learned was the sound of something large hitting something small. The force of the accident outside propelled a boy’s body from his scooter, into the side of a woman’s house. I stayed in with the children who cried while everyone else ran out at the sound of crushing metal.
The children, of course, could feel the palpable thing—but whether the palpable thing was fear or fascination was impossible to tell.
I have learned to feel relief when the sound of an accident rings deeper—metal-wrenching sounds that indicate two cars instead of one car against a motorcycle.
I am happy to have seen nothing. By the time I finally emerged from the classroom, the woman was hosing blood off her sidewalk.
My mother threw away the newspaper article when I could finally divert my gaze from the printed image of his face as though she could discard the memory itself.
But forget forgetting.
The headlights came across his body like hands blindly searching a nightstand for eyeglasses in the dark. If I bother to think harder, I can remember his slack face, his white or blue-striped polo shirt. The headlights find his body in a sprawling pool of his own blood and we don’t stop until we find the nearest pay phone three miles away.
Sometimes, during the darkest time of night, I will wake up to check for my son’s breathing. If I do this enough times, I can almost convince myself he’s safe.
The woman in the car that wrapped around my neighbor’s tree was nearly full term. Is that why it was so much easier to accuse the others? That woman was a passenger, too. And if I tell it how I want—if I filled in the parts starting from when I walked away—I would say I saw her warn her husband before he blew past the stop sign. I would say she made it home intact to wreak some kind of havoc.
But it is enough to know she survived.
When our children cannot throw their arms out for protection, we step in front to shield them. When the mother of the accused knocks on my door, looking for witnesses, I tell her the story—the version where everyone walks away. And because we both believed this to be true, we talked like old friends.
I am careful not to leave anything out.
This story belongs to her.
The only part of these stories that belongs to me is this: at first when you drive at night your headlights will cast a sideways glance so that every dark object low to the ground will be a body. Then, afterwards—when the shock subsides—everything illuminated will become not a body.
How can I? But I forget his name. The newspaper that printed his name isn’t a newspaper anymore. I have since stopped feeling for a pulse I know is there.
It’s not that I don’t care. It’s that I can only stand to care so much.
Henry is looking at me, and now I’m looking back. But what no one asks is who he may be haunting.
MARY STEIN is the Assistant Editor of Conduit literary magazine and works as a teaching artist in Minneapolis. Her fiction has appeared in Caketrain, Spartan Lit and Connotation Press. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.