A corner of my face was loose, a jiggling flap along the jawline below my right ear. The flesh beneath it was red, raw, and stung like hell.
Smoothing back the skin, I fastened a band-aid over it and covered the blemish with my hair.
At a party that night, the band-aid fell off. I didn’t have another.
My friend Jen stared at me in horror. However sweet and well-intentioned, Jen is not what you would call a challenger of the status quo. As she led me away from the others, I could already feel her distancing from me.
“Have you seen a doctor?” she asked, wincing. “What happened?”
“Not yet, and I have no idea. A few days ago, I got an itch and started picking at it.”
“Well, don’t! Don’t pick!”
“I guess I’ve been stressed lately.”
“We’re all stressed,” Jen said, already scanning the party, strategizing a way back in. “I think Johnny’s avoiding me,” she added, strain tearing at her face. “Listen, I’ll try to be there for you, but it’s a lot to expect from a friend. Especially when we barely know each other.”
“No worries,” I said, trying to sound casual.
Jen’s eyes flashed defensively. “Is that what you think? That I’m a coward?”
Confused, I stared after her as she vanished into the party.
But on the way home I thought: It’s true. I do think Jen is a coward.
By the time I got home, the flap of skin had doubled in size, exposing a swath of screaming red meat underneath.
I taped a bandage over it and went to bed.
The next morning the tape was gone, the flap of skin had fallen off entirely, and the area along the left side of my jaw had begun its own exodus. The effect was absurd and terrifying, like a clown with half its face ripped off.
I raced to the hospital, where my doctor studied me from a distance, his expression a twitching dance of alarm, disgust, and curiosity.
“When did it start?” he asked.
“Two days ago.” I was trying very hard not to cry.
“I can refer you to a plastic surgeon for a face transplant,” he said. “But I’m afraid that’s your only option.”
I felt sick to my stomach with grief.
“I couldn’t help it,” the doctor said suddenly, his eyes full of wounded contrition. “It only happened once.”
“I never meant to cheat on her. I love my wife very much!” he said, vehemently.
I stared at him in confusion. Had he lost his mind?
“I know what you’re trying to do,” he went on, “and it won’t work! Please leave. If you want that referral, ask the receptionist.”
I left without the referral, thinking people are fucking crazy.
After the doctor’s bizarre behavior, I considered cancelling dinner plans that night with my family (we are not close). But I knew they’d give me hell for bailing, so at 8 p.m. sharp I was at my parents’ front door.
When Mom greeted me, her face leapt back in horror.
My sister appeared behind her, her smug expression saying, ‘Here she goes again.’
I was allowed inside, but I knew dinner was out of the question. I would be kicked out within minutes.
When Dad saw me, he stopped dead in his tracks, the blood draining from his face.
Mom helped him into his lazy boy chair. “Why?” she snapped, whirling around at me. “Why would you do this to us?”
“Do what?” I scoffed.
“You are so selfish,” she spat, “always making things difficult by going against the grain.”
“You mean this?” I said, pointing at my face. I was too hurt to be sufficiently incredulous. “I’m not trying to do this!”
“Of course you aren’t,” Mom snarled sarcastically. Then she got weepy. “You never consider our feelings. It’s always about you and your horrible accusations! We were good parents!”
Dad clenched his fists. “It’s obscene!” he shouted, before bursting into tears. “I can’t even look at her,” he sobbed. “I was a decent, caring, loving father. And this is the thanks I get!”
“How could you come here and accuse us with that thing!” Mom screamed.
I took a step back.
“When you stop twisting our love for you into horrible, perverse accusations, maybe then you can be a part of this family.”
On the way out, my sister snorted, “Freak.”
As I walked down the street, shaken, a childhood memory reared up at me: Dad’s temper and my broken arm, Mom punishing me for his violence with her silent treatment, and my big sister taunting me—dancing over my grave—because she knew she could get away with it—a pattern that continued to that day.
At home, the culmination of others’ hostility began to build, a tsunami of hate pounding over me.
I got a knife from the kitchen and held it to my throat.
But I set it down.
In the bathroom mirror, I looked myself full in the face (so to speak), and between agonizing self-doubt and a leap of faith, I peeled off the rest of the skin.
After throwing my old face into the garbage, I looked at myself again. The reflection was startling—red, raw, and bloody. But the area under my right ear where the peeling had begun was already smooth and pink.
A week later, my entire face had healed. I examined it carefully in the mirror. The skin was soft yet firm. It felt different. And it looked a little different, too, as if the bone structure beneath the flesh had shifted slightly. The stress from before was gone, and I felt a stirring of new confidence.
I switched doctors and went low contact with my family.
Not long after, Jen called me, frantic.
“My face!” she cried. “It’s—”
“I know,” I said. “It’s going to be alright.”