The Angel, The Torch, and the Half-Moon Man
By Fred Senese
The man I'd been married to for fifteen years stuck with me for three months after I lost my face. He stayed until the bandages came off.
He was there every day of the first month: talking, talking, talking. I was the perfect audience: I couldn't answer, or even move. I could make eye contact, though, and that meant "yes" or "I agree" or "tell me more."
Closing my eyes or looking away meant the opposite of those things. This man programmed computers for a living. He taught simple machines to do smart things. He'd always been able to apply that knowledge to me before, so it was natural for him to try it again. The first month he devised a richer and more fluid means of communication for us. His system involved widening and narrowing my eyes for emphasis and blinking to choose from lists of possible responses, and later from grids of letters.
I found those conversations exhausting. After an hour or so, I’d close my eyes and pretend to fall asleep. He’d sigh, then, and whisper my name. After a time, he learned not to press me to continue. Before the accident, he would have pressed.
What did we "talk" about? That first month it was all about me. And places we'd been together. He remembered the house we'd rented every summer on Cape Hatteras in loving detail. Did I remember the deck chair we could both lie in at once? The night we watched the supermoon rise out of the ocean? The soft-serve that dribbled down the cone and between my fingers before I could finish?
He always kissed my hand--my good hand--before he left. I looked directly at him while he did that, and widened my eyes. I wanted him to know that I appreciated the effort he was making, and the life we'd had together before I became what I was now.
The second month he talked less about the past and more about the present. Mostly he complained about his job. He was frustrated because the new smart phones and tablets refused to speak the computer language he'd used for fifteen years. His company wanted him to rewrite all of his code in some new language instead. The old language was perfect, complete, and comfortable, he said. Why should he have to learn a new one?
He never spoke about the accident, or legal matters, or any of that. He didn't have the words for that kind of talk.
The bandages came off in the third month. I could speak again, but I had nothing to say. He could not look at me. He stopped kissing my hand before he left. That was when I knew what was coming. The first day he missed a visit, I was ready.
We never spoke again. Not really. There were no tears, no accusations, no negotiations. I didn't want anything he had, and the insurance money was mine. We signed the papers. We never argued about it.
We'd argued plenty when I had my face. We'd been arguing when it happened. Another car came up fast off an off-ramp and T-boned us on the passenger side, where I'd been sitting, my face against the window, tears in my eyes. Had I not been sitting just so. Had he not been distracted. A thousand hads, and if any one of them had been different, everything would have been the same.
In recovery and rehab, I met a man who called himself the Human Torch. He’d been welding together the bulkheads of a ship when his oxy-acetylene torch exploded in his face. An incompetent coworker had replaced part of the acetylene line he was using with copper tubing, and the company’s safety inspector hadn’t noticed. Copper reacts with acetylene, he told me. The product is an explosive salt. That was the simple chemistry of his particular disaster.
He barely looked human, but he'd grin at me a lot. His lips had fused together on the left side, so it was a lopsided and ghastly grin. He called it his million-dollar smile. Insurance, lawyers, and affidavits, all of these things were uglier than his face, but once they were done, he'd be free of everything. He'd never pick up a welding torch again.
"You'll be free, too," he told me. "You'll see. All of that shit that was so important? All of that's gone. And you have you."
We watched a lot of TV together. Every morning at 11 AM there were reruns of Northern Exposure. I loved that show. I especially loved the intro, the part with the moose. It was just a calf, ugly and ungainly, but cute somehow, you know? It was the spirit of that place. It would wander the empty streets of the town before anyone woke up.
"That moose," said the Torch. “He goes anywhere he wants. If he were a sweet little deer, doing that? There’d be trouble.”
The day he was discharged, he insisted that we take a selfie together with his new smart phone. So we pressed faces together and smiled our nightmare smiles.
He laughed. “Aw. Ain’t we a pair?”
He set the picture as the background image on his phone. So did I. I replaced it with another, years later, but it’s still on my phone. I look at it now and then.
My new surgeon was an angel. By which I mean that he was a person of exemplary virtue and intelligence, and possibly a messenger or agent of God manifested in human form. Not like me. When he touched my good hand, his fingers were cold. His face: marble, chiseled, perfect. His eyes were preternaturally wise, blue, but not the blue that mine are. BLUE. The blue you get sleeping under the sea in the ages after the Fall.
Angels can't love us. Not really. We're their job. We're work for them. But this surgeon liked me, I was sure. He liked the me that I was, the only me he'd ever known.
He called me Kristi. Like I was a real person, like I was still the person I'd always been. The man who'd stayed with me until the bandages came off had tried to do that, too, but I knew from his voice that I wasn't Kristi anymore.
After the fourth surgery I asked the Angel if he was married. He said that he had been. His wife had left him because he was always working. "I guess I’m the other woman," I said.
He smiled and said nothing. His smile was prettier than the Torch’s, but sadder, too.
After my first surgery with the Angel, I met a man in rehab. Once he had been a woman. He showed me the scars where his breasts had been. Two pale puckered half-moons. You could barely notice them. He said that in a year or two the scars would vanish completely. I asked him if he ever missed his breasts. He told me that sometimes he still felt the weight of them. When he got up in the morning, he was sure that they were still there. He wondered if that feeling would ever go away.
We talked a lot about the men we'd been married to. His had stayed til the bandages came off, too. He'd loved his husband, he said. But he understood why his husband couldn't stay. I told him that I understood, too.
Over the next few months the Angel rebuilt the half-moon man’s face. I didn't recognize him at all after the swelling went down. You'd never guess that he'd ever been a woman. Big square jaw line, manly brow, Adam's apple, dark stubble on his cheeks. He smelled the way men smell. Even his voice was a man's voice now.
I was tired, one day. I was in a lot of pain from the second surgery; even the air against my face made me cringe. I told him how easy it would be, to be done with this. Four or five minutes of pressure on my carotid arteries using a knotted plastic hospital gown as a tourniquet, and it would hurt a lot less than what I was going through now.
"Think about not doing it," he told me. "The Angel is good. I mean, look at what he did for me--it's a miracle. He'll do the same for you. You'll see." I didn’t know if he was right or wrong. When the Angel was finished with me, I wasn't me anymore. I was someone else.
Everything was different. My nose was smaller, my eyes were wider, my lips were fuller than they had been. The Angel had done a great job, I guess. After the shiners went away and the last of the red faded, you'd think I'd been born with the face I wore now. There was a little scar under my left earlobe. That's all.
I saw the half-moon man for the last time the morning I checked out of the ward. I’d just finished putting on my makeup. I asked him how I looked. "I'd do you," he whispered, and he kissed me on the forehead.
“Men will do anything,” I said, and I smiled with my new face. It wasn't a million-dollar smile like the Torch's. But it felt almost that good.
I saw the man I'd been married to at the supermarket two years after that. He was with someone. She was taller than I was. Prettier than I'd been before: slender, blonde, and delicate.
I smiled at her over a pyramid of oranges. "How are we supposed to take these?" she said, "if I pick an orange out, the whole thing's going to come crashing down."
“Maybe that’s what has to happen,” I said.
She plucked an orange from the top of the pyramid and nothing fell anywhere. For some people, it works that way.
"I love your ring," I told her. She thanked me for that. The man I'd been married to dropped a bag of onions into her cart.
"Hi," I said.
He frowned. "Hi. Do I know you?"