These Things Other Than Beautiful

By Keija Parssinen

It’s summer. Jed is saying something. It travels slowly through the air, which is so thick you could slice it up and have it for breakfast. I can almost see the words undulating through the atmosphere, a mirage of letters. “It’s so hot I could kill an Arab.” That’s what comes out, when the letters piece themselves back together and find their way to my ear. He can’t stop saying that, “It’s so hot I could kill an Arab.” He says it has to do with Albert Camus.

A few weeks ago, a package arrived at the barracks from a widower in Seattle. We broke it open eagerly and “The Stranger” fell out, unceremoniously, next to some condoms, three packs of sugarless gum, and some banana-flavored energy gel which tastes like banana toothpaste. Jed says that the Army website lists it under the heading, “Things to Put in Care Packages,” and he’s trying to figure out a way to hack the system so he can take the gel off. He puked up all the brown yellow guck after eating twenty-two packets trying to stay awake one night on patrol.

Jed took “The Stranger” and read it on a slow afternoon. He says he isn’t sure if the widower has a sick sense of humor or is just stupid. Apparently the main character kills an Arab for no reason, and feels no remorse, and Jed doesn’t understand why the man acted as he did, especially because he had a beautiful girlfriend and got to swim in the Mediterranean every day. I ask Jed, ‘If there were sense to the world, why would you have been born so damn ugly?’

This conversation happens on our way through a sticky area of Baghdad. It’s called “sticky” because when blood dries, it leaves a residue behind that would be sticky, if you ever touched it. I’ve only ever touched blood when it’s still wet. Jed’s talking to me, and it feels like we’re the only people around. But, before his words can reach me, I hear a sharp popping sound and a crunch, both of which make it to me faster than his words. And then the humidity and the quiet are gone, replaced by flames and a noise that takes up all of the night’s spaces. I’m on my back and my face is hot with fire and my leg is burning, and even my body is making sounds, sending up a shriek like a missile coming home, and I realize that it’s me shrieking, it’s my mouth. Near me, Jed’s mouth hangs open, and there’s blood where his tongue should be.

*   *   *

Now it is spring, and there’s the wet scent of new growth — buds and leaves sprouting. I am no longer in the desert. I am in the Texas Hill Country, where I was born Fair Mae Deacon, and where Ma and Dad were born, too. I am getting used to seasons again. I like to drive and look at the wildflowers along the roadside. I appreciate that nature is so honest in its rituals, its beauty existing for the express purpose of getting laid, or pollinated, or whatever.

As I lay in bed, the green smell of budding plants drifts in through my screened window, along with the unmistakable smell of fertilizer, newly laid in the flower beds of the neighboring house. Yesterday, I watched the gardeners lay the manure out in mounds resembling coffee grounds before they procured an extension cord, plugged in a small microwave, and nuked their lunches right there on the front lawn. The smell of tamales mingled with the fecal stench for a moment, rancid but familiar. While the workers ate, they watched me. Not as gardeners or construction men or other laborers used to watch me. Instead, they eyed my prosthetic leg with their eyebrows raised.

Rolling over, I stare at Brad’s face. His eyes look puffy, probably from the drinking we did last night. I throw his resting arm to the side and nestle up in his armpit, which smells of bourbon and Old Spice. His pores are speaking to me and I want to fuck him. He is the first man I’ve slept with since getting out of Reed more than a year ago. Unit 57. The amputee unit. Which really is something of a misnomer, because I don’t think you can technically amputate a face, yet some of the soldiers there had all their limbs, tree-trunk strong, but were missing their faces. I used to wonder if their wives ever tried to kiss them anymore, since the teeth still told you where the lips should have been. I was one of the best cases in Reed since my brain was undamaged. The doctors put me there because they thought I was dumb, mute, and legless. After the attack, I didn’t talk for two weeks. When I finally opened my mouth and asked a nurse for a Coke, she looked disappointed.

One time, I jerked off one of the single guys in the unit. He was crying out of his blind eyes when I wheeled past his door, and I knew he had no girlfriend to come and remind him of his stallion days. So I just spit on my hand, took hold of him, very businesslike, and finished him off. When I turned to leave, he’d stopped crying and asked me my name. I said, “It’s Fair.” He laughed and said, “You’ve been a sight more than fair, I’d say.” I was about to correct him and say that it was Fair as in beautiful, not Fair as in just, but then I let it go. With my mottled stump quivering over the edge of the wheelchair, beauty seemed an impossible concern. Maybe naming your daughter Fair is like naming your dog Bumper.

“Hey,” I say, jolting myself back to the present. “Time to scoot, Bradley.”

I grab his chin and pull it side to side.

“Erghh?” he says.

“Up, up and away, Bradley.” I try rolling him toward the edge of the bed, but he’s a substantial guy; a former offensive lineman whose high school nickname was “the Continent.” With a tectonic shift, he is out of my bed and out the door. There wasn’t much to it, our night together. Not by my old standards of thrill and danger and epic, and sometimes even love. But he was the first man to hold me in my new form. And how can a person be expected to go two springs without laying deep into someone else? There were nights I would wake up shivering with pleasure after dreaming of a male arm slung around my shoulders, my waist: the animal smell, the power present in that most casual gesture of possession. And I would cry at the realization that there was no such arm, and I would wrap my arms around my stomach, hugging myself so that my flesh wouldn’t grow completely unaccustomed.

Part Two

Now that I’m home, I’ve picked up with a handful of high school friends like Brad. They still linger around the lake, buzzing like mosquitoes over a still pond. They know it’s a stagnant sort of life, working as waiters or tending bar, getting high before their shifts so that the glow from the spread of bottles behind the bar yields whatever meager magic to their empty, stoned eyes. “It’s like Christmas,” Brad said last night. “All those blues and golds and oranges and greens.” They tuck the memory of those illuminated bottles into their back pockets to help them get out of bed in the morning. Every night, with help from a spliff and some single malt, the bottles shine newly seen, my friends moving inside the restaurants like post-Lapsarian Eves and Adams. When Brad told me about the bottles that was when I asked him to sleep with me. I tried to keep the desperation out of my voice. I’d had three whiskey sours and my lids were heavy and my stomach warm, and I could imagine it was Christmas and that Brad wanted me.

Helen, my mother, snores on in the next room. She hasn’t shared her bed with anyone since her third divorce was finalized a few years ago. She claims it’s because her face looks like a balloon that’s slowly losing its air.

“Nobody flirts with me like they used to,” she complains.

She never asks me why I don’t go on dates anymore. The smell of shit from outside settles in my hair. Brad’s cum crusts on my thigh. I’m starting in on my second year back in my childhood bed, and I can practically feel the pollen from the raging trees outside settle on my face. I hope it won’t be the last time that Brad can look past my nubbin of a calf and see the face he wanted so much when we were in high school. I must have denied him a thousand times back then, rebuffings for which I’m now grateful because my sexual life depends on the desire that the delayed gratification has swelled in him. When he came, I could feel the ten years flowing through us, his post-coital euphoria almost enough to make me forget my stump. I was ready to let him take whatever he needed, didn’t even complain that he hadn’t helped me climax. I hid my half-leg under the comforter and let him collapse on top of me, bracing my bones for his 225 pounds, holding him up with a taut stomach and veined forehead until I was entirely out of breath and had to roll him off me. Since the bomb, I seek out pain from unlikely places.

Before he ran out the door he said, “You’re sweet, Fair.” It’s a word I’ve always despised. So innocuous and soft. In the Army, I never heard anyone use it. We pulled and ran and pushed and fired and fought “sweet” far the fuck away. It’s probably why I liked the Army so much. It was a place where a girl, even a pretty one, could be mean and not apologize.

I touch the soft mound of hair where my legs are splayed out, my hips still open. Brad is also the first man I’ve slept with who didn’t tell me I was beautiful. Even the captain with a face like anger itself complimented me, after he snuck in my bunk and fucked me, just like he’d promised me the day before — mercilessly, until I cried. Then he had leaned in, kissed the spot above my left eyebrow, and said: “You’re fucking beautiful, you little cunt.” I knew it was a game, the way he talked to me; that it had something to do with the eighteen-year-old PFC he’d lost the week before; that it had to do with needing to create ugliness in spite of his desire for me, which had been palpable for weeks and had our whole company on edge. I knew my fellow soldiers were spending themselves in the shower every night, in anticipation of what I would do with the captain. We were a unit. We did everything collectively, even fuck, I suppose.

“Fair,” the captain had whispered the morning before he came to me. “Do you know the Egyptian fable about Naela?”

“No,” I’d said.

“She was the beautiful wife of the king of Egypt. Then the king was killed because his successor knew the king’s wife was a legendary beauty and wanted her for himself. Do you know what Naela did after she was forced to become the concubine of her husband’s murderer?”

“No,” I’d said.

“She knocked out every single one of her teeth with a brick, leaving her with a ragged smile that disgusted the man. He cast her out into the street. But at least she didn’t have to sleep with the motherfucker,” he’d said, laughing.

“So?” I’d said.

He’d leaned in really close, so that I could smell the Listerine on his breath. For all his toughness, he was always meticulously groomed. He’d once said it’s what kept him from becoming a complete animal — the civilizing power of Listerine and floss. I learned that trick from him and never failed to brush my hair before putting on my helmet.

“So what I’m saying, Fair,” he said, “is that when you get taken hostage by those goat fuckers and they’re lining up to rape you into tomorrow, you’re going to take a rock and knock your lousy teeth out.”

He took some dry cereal from the bin above the kitchen sink, grabbed a spoon, and walked away. I knew he wanted to use my face for escape. That’s the problem with tough guys. They give themselves away so easily and they are never aware they’re doing it. I made up my mind to let him take me, mostly because I knew he would help me escape. It would be a fair trade, which is more than could be said for most transactions in Iraq. Two days before, my friend Maurice lost the right side of his body, and later his life, when an RPG hit his Hummer. As far as I knew, all he’d gotten in return was a well-folded flag. When he was attacked, I rationalized that his uneven features and porcine eyes had made the strike possible, if not invited it outright. That was how I was raised. Beauty was not only my namesake and my birthright, but also, I believed it could lift me up above the plain and protect me. When I enlisted, when my mother and neighbors and friends told me I was being foolhardy, I felt an alien calm. My beauty was unimpeachable. I had no doubt it would bear me up and sail me over the sweating combatants.

Part Three

Brad’s gone, and I hear my mother slide out of bed, her raw silk duvet rustling softly.

“Fair? Are you getting ready?” she calls.

“I’m up,” I say, clutching the side of the bed as I strap on my prosthesis.

As we drive toward town, I see that it is a morning of smashed things. A toad, freshly squelched, guts like a broken watermelon spread over the pavement, all green skin and pink flesh. A dead cat in the middle of the highway, its ringed tail flattened by long-gone tires. Helen and I are on our way to the hospital, and I hope she doesn’t see the cat sashimi in the turn lane. It wouldn’t be pleasant to be reminded of the body’s limitations so soon before surgery. On the car radio, the announcer says that according to a new study 650,000 Iraqis have died since the start of fighting, according to a new study. So Iraq makes number four on the morning’s list, a whole country splattered on our windshield.  Soon to complete this litany of ruined things: my mother’s face. At that moment, I think of Maurice and his face like meatloaf as he lay dying. I wonder how many plastic surgeons it takes to undo the ugliness inflicted on the soldiers in Walter Reed. I am suddenly angry at Dr. Vincent, the plastic surgeon my mother is going to see, for not being overseas, helping the teenagers who have unwillingly parted ways with their features as they knew them; for instead being here, in Texas, in an office done up in faux Versailles grandiosity, peddling vanity.

The March rains have come, and I know they will wash away the debris of all these broken things. Although my mother’s face and Iraq pose bigger problems than can be solved by thunderstorms. The rain builds until it sounds like hail against the car, obliterating the radio, filling the air between us. I haven’t spoken to my mother since last night, when she announced her intentions to have a facelift. She’d been planning it for months but failed to inform me because she said she didn’t think she would be imposing since I never leave the house.

“I just think it’s too good a value to pass up,” she shouts over the rain on the windshield, reasoning against my silence.

“Ma, fuck value. It’s your face,” I say.

Saying fuck feels good. I’m glad I broke my silence for the word’s gratifying consonance; a consonance we relied on in the desert. We lived in curses, their clip and crack quick, severe, like automatic weaponry. Pop! Shit! Crunch! Fuck!

“Honey, don’t be silly. It hasn’t been my face for at least ten years. All my features have melted away. Don’t you miss my chin? Besides, I’m starting to look a little like a drag queen.”

I wonder why I feel so possessive of her face. A face I learned in one day, one moment, really, after opening my eyes for the first time; a face that peered over crib’s edge until it became milk and warmth and softness. To stop the natural progression of that face seems criminal, censorial.

“Besides, I hear it’s more like a pedicure now. Isn’t science wonderful?” she says.

I think of the forty titanium screws holding my left femur together. My “good” leg. My remaining leg. Thanks to science, I’m alive, but most days, I feel like Frankenstein’s monster. Living at home since my injury, I have realized that my mom has somehow sidestepped ugliness all her life. Like many middle class suburban people, she lives in a place where the body’s integrity is rarely compromised. When it is, it happens slowly, privately. So different from the developing world, where maiming, killing, and decay are practically street theater; where a house collapsing, or a bomb, or a riot can bring carnage straight into the living room. The intact, medically-maintained body is an assumption here, and so it becomes a matter of buffing and waxing and painting and trimming. Luxuries of development — like formal gardens. It’s been hard for me to adjust to this attitude, after Iraq. Where life is a scramble and a heartbeat makes you the big winner. I wonder if Helen is ready for the cruelty that ensues when the body is compromised; because it’s the same whether you’re cutting to remove excess skin or a leg. The blood, the pus. Scar tissue. Bruising. By any account, thoroughly unpretty.

“Have you even researched this guy at all? Dr. Vincent?” I ask.

“Well, his mother-in-law is in my bridge group, and she just raves…”

“Oh Jesus, Ma. Are you kidding me?”

“Fair, come on. He has his degree. I’ve seen it right there on the wall of the office. Plus, I like his face. He’s handsome,” she says.

She laughs, but her timing is off. I have read about women dying from botched plastic surgery, and here is my mother, entrusting herself to some guy because she has a crush on him. She reaches over the console and puts her hand on my thigh. At that moment, I catch the scent of her fear.

I turn left at the gas station, up into the refined strip mall where she will have her operation. I have finally realized why she can never talk to me about my leg. To acknowledge it would somehow destroy her illusion that we are the blessed, the beautiful. Only her reflection has the power to make her second-guess her blessedness, and it must have been doing just that recently. It must have revealed her chin for what it is, the repository of a life’s expressions, weighing on her jaw. Ugliness has always terrified and fascinated her, and she’s probably been watching it approach from deep in the mirror for years. When I was a child, she referred to the unpretty girl I played with as unfortunate. As if it was not just a matter of aesthetics but one of fortune. And now she is finally willing to bring ugliness into her life, if only briefly, as she strives to reverse the age-induced depleting of her own substantial fortunes.

“Fair, dear,” she says, “It will still be my face when I come out.

She doesn’t sound very sure. I sense her embarrassment. For a natural beauty to stoop to this most unnatural thing. I loosen my grip on the steering wheel slightly. Quickly, I glance at her. She has gathered the hem of her blouse and folded it into triangular edges, which she rubs furiously. It’s what she does when she’s nervous.

The doctor’s brochure, which she showed to me last night, proclaimed “Roll back the decades with Dr. V!” I feel like she’s angling to erase the nineties, when two of her three divorces transpired and Grams died on New Year’s Eve, 1999, going out in a grand finale of diabetic fireworks: lost limbs, milky eyes.

But if she loses that decade, she’ll lose the night I lost my virginity. She told me it aged her three years cold.  She would also lose the creases from all the arguments we had, which tic-tac-toed nearly all of my teenage years. It was an angry time, but with the anger came the pure exhaustion of our tears, the joy of our spent fury, when we would find our way back to each other, take one another by the shoulder and say, “Love.” The face as palimpsest, where we write and rewrite but never entirely erase. And she is prepared to lose all that.

We pull into the parking lot in front of Dr. Vincent’s practice. I cannot call him Dr. V, like some funhouse doctor or sports commentator. Not when he’s going to etherize and slice open my mother and suck out her physical memories. I fold my arms up against the steering wheel, rest my chin on top.

“I’ll see you in three hours, OK, Fair?” she says.

“OK,” I say, watching her as she darts through the rain-tinged, bullion-colored morning. “Tell him not to screw it up.”

She’s subsumed into the fluorescent light of the hospital.

Part Four

Even before the Army, I pursued a messy, physical life, wrapping myself up in men who didn’t bathe or whose tattoos threatened to rub off on my skin. We dirtied ourselves together, lay in our filth, fucked in ways that made love seem something clean and dry and distant. I lived a life in sullied sheets and torn jeans, but always, I could take a hot shower and emerge alone with my cheekbones, reminding me of decency and balance and beauty. Then I would go home to my mom, or later, when I lived on my own before joining up, go back to my small loft, which was Japanese in its minimalist cleanliness. I could retreat into my nothing space and lay naked on my crisp white sheets, running my hands from my toes, over my ridgepole shins to my thighs, then rest my hands on my knobby  hips. In this way, I dangled myself over the precipice — I faced down unsightliness and retreated unscathed. I loved unbeautiful men, felt that they were somehow closer to the reality of things than me. I think ugliness was one of the primary reasons that I joined the military. It promised unending fields of rough-faced men with bodies they’d beaten into submission. I knew I would have to beat my feminine body, too, iron out the curves that marked me soft and undisciplined. When I was discharged, I had a cruel stomach and dictatorial biceps, my changed body telegraphing its ability to snuff out life. Only my leg betrayed vulnerability.

When I left Unit 57 after six months of physical and psycho-therapy, I wasn’t prepared for the strain of the unspoken deadline. Leaving the hospital meant, unofficially, that the state was done with me. That now I had to make my way in the world without the help of nurses and aides, not that they had been around that much when I got moved to “outpatient” status. Budget cuts, I’d heard. Walter Reed was due to be shut down in 2010, but sometimes it felt like it had already been closed. Like we were living in a ghost town. Once I became an “outpatient,” I lived in a building across the street from the hospital. Occasionally, caseworkers would come by to check on us, but we were essentially on our own. We were stuck in a purgatory bulging with the limbless.

On my last day there, standing awkwardly in front of the sliding glass doors, waiting for Helen to pull the rental car around, I felt the familiar, cloistered hospital world falling away rapidly. I felt freakishly disproportionate. Clyde, my physical therapist, told me that when you lose a leg, you have to learn to walk all over again. You become balanceless as a baby. As my left side, I felt my face slowly following, my left cheek slouching. I would ask Clyde if he saw the tick, and he told me that those physical twitches, those feelings of absence and presence, were a normal part of recovery. We heard the word “recovery” a lot in the hospital. I often wondered what exactly we were trying to recover, but no one would say. I had a recurring dream that I was the leader of a search and rescue mission at sea, and I would plummet to the bottom of the ocean, bubbles forming a tower over my descending head. At the sea floor, I would find my leg, tangled in a plume of seaweed, green with the phosphorescence of drowned plant life.

On the flight home from Washington, my mother and I didn’t talk. She flipped through Vogue, and I read “The Stranger”. It was the same copy Jed had read and sand would occasionally slip out when I turned the pages.

My first morning home, I awoke to a ripped-out magazine page taped to my door. It was from Vogue — a woman in a green jersey knit sheath with a peacock feather in her hair. One of my mom’s old tricks. She’d put up photos she found particularly captivating and talk about the model’s “air of mystery,” her intelligent mouth and clean posture. I took the page down, balled it up and threw it in the trash. That night at dinner, my mother spoke about a charity ball she would attend.

“I just don’t know if I should wear the navy taffeta or the lavender crinoline,” she said.

“I’m not sure, Ma. What makes you feel the best?” I asked.

We didn’t discuss my leg. I felt I had failed her in some way, and now the only way she could function was to avoid discussing it altogether. At the time, I accepted it. I wasn’t ready for depth. I wanted to float, to skim, and by the time I was ready, her indifference was habitual and I’d become immune.

After that first dinner back, I went up to my bedroom. It was on the second floor, so I leveraged my way upstairs on crutches, which took a quarter of an hour. I didn’t allow myself to fall asleep until I’d concocted a beauty recovery plan. I had to find a way to restore myself — a way to take that hot shower and clean off the crust of my experience again. I had to get clean again. Clean, even and symmetrical. As I fell asleep, I determined I would learn the name of every Texas wildflower. I would learn the constellations, too, and be able to point them out to people, to future loves. I couldn’t be lazy anymore, couldn’t just win men on the promise of waking to loveliness every morning. I would let the wildflowers bloom in my ruined body.

After the surgery, I can’t tell just how smashed up my mother’s face is because the doctor has her wrapped up, mummified in white gauze. Only her mouth and nose poke through, upper lip inflated like a little sofa for her nose to sit on. I half expect the doctor to bring in a hook and pull her brain out through that strange, isolated nose, tell me to hand over my gold bracelet to add to her tomb’s treasure horde. But instead he says:

“I took two inches of skin out of her chin and tweaked her eyelids a bit.”

He smiles, inviting me to complement him on a job well done. Because I’ve recently made up my mind to be less slavishly decorous when dealing with authority figures, I return his smile with a nod.

I sit across from my mother, whose feet are bundled in dirty socks and tucked into gold ballet flats. This is my mom. Still vain enough to wear ballet flats to surgery. I’ve always attributed her vanity to the fact that her name is Helen. For a woman born poor in El Paso, that’s a lot to live up to. I suppose that, given the name, this surgery was inevitable. I am suddenly thankful that my name can also mean just. Even adequate seems a better destiny than beautiful.

“Mom?” I say.

She doesn’t respond, her breathing heavy and wet. She sounds like Jed did, trying to get breath past his pulped tongue; like he was eating really messy spaghetti. I am seized by the desire to find one of those suction devices that dentists use to suck out all the impeding saliva. The nurse comes in to check on us. I’m feeling uncharitable.

“So,” I say, peering at her nametag, “Brandi. Will my mother suffer from phantom chin syndrome?”

I’ve worn shorts on purpose, and I know she’s seen my leg. I ache to make her uncomfortable. My mother’s rattling continues loudly. Brandi gives me a sidelong look as she checks the bandages. She is quick but not rough. She reminds me of the drill team girls I used to know in high school. The Raiderettes. To make the team, your name had to end in “i” or “ie” or “y.” They danced at pep rallies before football games, neatly choreographed moves that suggested an ability to direct and contain the body. It was strangely appealing, dance as science rather than art, the girls moving like falling dominoes. They called each other “sweetie” and “sweetheart,” and then they would secretly stab and shred each other, whispering in the hallways. That was when I came to hate “sweet” and “neat.” False premises.  Human bodies, and humans, are unruly. And nothing is ever arranged.

Even before Brandi can respond, I know she will say something that suggests her belief in beauty’s preeminence, because she is lovely. Younger than me, possessed of the common prettiness you see in clothing catalog models — her eyes suitably wide-spaced, her ears and nose small and seemly. Already, I know she believes in what she does, because she cannot imagine a life devoid of prettiness. So she enables other fading beauties to clutch and cling to the faintest suggestion of bedroom eyes; the hint of a Nefertitian profile beneath the cruel sag. She probably sees herself as some sort of charity worker.

“I see this as an act of self-preservation. Your mother has chosen to look as young as she feels,” Brandi says.

I am restless, so I reach for a cigarette.

“There’s no smoking in here, Miss Deacon.”

“I prefer Miz,” I say, buzzing out the Z extra long.

“Well, Ms. Deacon. You shouldn’t smoke around your mother for at least two weeks. Slows the healing process.”

She’s unflappable, and people who cannot be flapped really don’t interest me. I come from a family of amateur thespians, hysteria and hyper-sensitivity passed down from generation to generation like china. My father left us in a flurry of raised voices and arms, a balletic rage, slamming the door so hard that the screen fell off its hinges. We Deacons consider unflappables to be emotionally unwell. Only after I joined the military did I learn the value of the straight face, the still hand. I take the mummy that is my mother by the elbow and walk slowly to the car. My balance is almost completely restored now and I barely limp.

Part Five

That evening the floods come down, big ripped clouds bouldering with thunder, rattling the brass mirrors that hang in my mother’s sitting room. I’ve got all the windows open, the smell of rain whooshing through, clean as chalk. Somewhere, a door slams shut. Behind the house, the darkening hills meet the sky in a series of uneven ridges, like a herd of sleeping camels nestled muzzle to flank. In the darkness, I step onto the covered porch and sit down in the wicker peacock chair where my grandfather used to read Louis L’Amour and smoke Marlboros. I wonder what he would say if he knew his only daughter got a face lift. Even though he was a wholly timid man, a wearer of corduroy jackets with elbow patches and a player of bridge, I like to imagine that he is the one sending down this deluge, punishing my mother for her frivolity. I have decided to do a little role play in order to get through my anger: I will be the nurse, and my mother will be a soldier who has taken shrapnel to the face.

I watch the lightning whitewash the sky, coming down in skeletal fingers. To me, its silence is one of nature’s greatest triumphs. I cannot think of another thing that approaches destruction with such muted quickness. Except perhaps a falling bomb, but even that whistles before its spectacle. My bomb never whistled, never gave us any warning. It lay in wait, wrapped in foam to look like a rock, a typical EFP — Explosively Formed Penetrator. A formal name for a casual killer. But I don’t like the term “roadside bomb” either. Sounds like a goddamn tomato stand.

But what about man’s ability to reconstruct? I suppose I will see once I take the bandages off my mom’s face. I lost my leg to man’s innate talent for killing, perhaps she will salvage her beauty through our talent for restoration. I walk inside. Blood pools on the bandage at the base of my mom’s neck. I’ve forgotten the screaming red of new blood. I sit down at her feet. It is strange to see her prone, she who is so outwardly self-possessed. She is making soft noises, moaning, all lip and hum.

“How are you doing?”

She doesn’t answer.

“Ma, are you OK?”

Still, no words, but slowly, she reaches her arm up to the side of her face.


“Yeah, Ma.”

“What have I done? What is it that I’ve done?” she says, her voice like paper on paper, barely audible.

“You want a Vicodin?”

“No,” she says. “Come here and sit by me.”

I scoot along the edges of the couch until I’m sitting next to her. She fumbles around until I realize she is trying to grab my hand, so I give it to her. I try to make her a soldier but fail, because this is the house where I grew up, not the desert; the house where I came into my body, my face; where I snuck skinny boys into my room and learned the human landscape. I can’t imagine my mother as government issue in this house. So I just hold her hand. I hear her sigh.

“Am I hideous?” she asks.

“I’ll know tomorrow when they take off the bandages,” I say. She laughs, or tries to.

Thunder rolls its way through our small canyon out back. Lightning fills the windows with its blue light and then we are in darkness.

“Damn,” I say.

“What is it?”

I realize she can’t see our darkness, so I say, “Nothing,” and then continue to sit with her, holding her hand, watching the lightning make our oak trees into wizened monsters. We sit close, and I can feel her breathing. I close my eyes and feel her put her arm around my waist, pulling me deeper into her stomach. We were never the embracing kind, so it’s a little awkward at first, but then I just relax into her.

“You smell good, Fair.”

“I took a shower,’” I say.

She rubs my arms, up and down like she’s trying to make me warm.

“You’re all muscle,” she says. “How did your body get so strong?” She sounds almost childlike now.

“Army’ll do that to you,” I answer, thinking of the thousands of hours I’ve spent sweating and kneading and pushing my body into its current shape. But my mother has never been too interested in what my body could do. I’ve stopped working out since the attack, and a thin layer of flesh has formed over my muscles. I’ve gone up a cup size.  Though I’m hardly voluptuous, I like it.



“May I touch it?”


“Your…your leg.”

I hesitate. I don’t really want her to touch it.


“Honey, let mama,” she says. “There now. Let mama. Let mama.”

She’s holding me and beneath the strange antiseptic smell, I smell her skin. That mother smell that takes me back to the start before things became complicated. I untangle myself from her arms and start to unbuckle the prosthesis. After I remove it, I brush off my stump, which is sticky with sweat. I take her hand and place it on my knee so she can feel her way down. She moves her fingers over my kneecap. And then she is cupping it in her palm, trying to smooth the ruffled skin. I close my eyes.

“My Fair. My dear. My Fair,” she repeats, her hand still on my stump, and I feel a wrench move around my heart. I open my eyes, but I can’t see my leg in the dark. I can hear her crying.

“Ma, you can’t get your bandage wet,” I whisper.

“Lie down with me. Here. Lie down with mama,” she eases my shoulders down horizontally so that I’m lying beside her.

I lie down next to her, and she pulls me close.

“I’ve forgotten what another body feels like,” she says.

“I’ll take care of you, ma,” I say.

“Honey, I know. I know you will. Aren’t we a pair of aces.” She laughs weakly. “You’re a good girl, Fair.”

Good. Just. Adequate. I am happy to be these things other than beautiful. We lay silently for several minutes. Slowly, my eyes adjust to the dark. I can see the outline of the hydrangea on the porch. I know under the bandage, my mother’s face is turning itself inside out, pus and blood finding their way beyond her skin. I hold onto this image of her soldered face. The sight of her blood brings fear, then a sudden tenderness. Like I do for my wounded friends, I pray for her to get her face back so that she might recognize herself.  She squeezes my hand, and I feel hers, hot with the blood it contains; whole. I am grateful for the touching, the ritual in it. The laying of hands. The blessing of two bodies meeting in quietude.