Issue 165, Spring 2003
On a scale of one to ten, with ten being childbirth, this will be a three.
A three? Really?
Yes. That’s what they say.
What other things are a three?
Well, five is supposed to be having your jaw reset.
So it’s not as bad as that.
Having your foot run over by a car.
Wow, so it’s worse than that?
Just a little worse, not much.
Okay, well, I’m ready. No—wait; let me adjust my sweater. Okay, I’m ready.
Here goes a three.
Right. Here we go then.
The laser, which had been described as pure white light, was more like a fist slammed against a countertop, and her body was a cup on this counter, jumping with each slam. It turned out three was just a number. It didn’t describe the pain any more than money describes the things it buys. Two thousand dollars for a port-wine stain removed. A kind of birthmark that seems messy and accidental, as if this red area covering one whole cheek were the careless result of too much fun. She spoke to her body like an animal at the vet, Shhh, it’s okay, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry we have to do this to you. This is not unusual; most people feel that their bodies are innocent of their crimes, like animals or plants. Not that this was a crime. She had waited patiently from the time she was fourteen for aesthetic surgery to get cheap, like computers. Nineteen ninety-eight was the year lasers came to the people as good bread, eat and be full, be finally perfect. Oh yes, perfect. She didn’t think she would have bothered if she hadn’t been what people call “very beautiful except for.” This is a special group of citizens living under special laws. Nobody knows what to do with them. We mostly want to stare at them like the optical illusion of a vase made out of the silhouette of two people kissing. Now it is vase . . . now it could only be two people kissing . . . oh but it is so completely a vase. It is both! Can the world sustain such a contradiction. Only this was better, because as the illusion of prettiness and horribleness flipped back and forth, we flipped with it. Now we were uglier than her, now we were lucky not to be her, oh but then again, at this angle she was too lovely to bear. She was both, we were both, and the world continued to spin.
Now began the part of her life where she was just very beautiful. Except for nothing. Only winners will know what this feels like. Have you ever wanted something very badly and then gotten it. Then you know that winning is many things, but it is never the thing you thought it would be. Poor people who win the lottery do not become rich people. They become poor people who won the lottery. She was a very beautiful person who was missing something very ugly. Her winnings were the absence of something, and this quality hung around her. There was so much potential in the imagined removal of the birthmark, any fool on the bus could play the game of guessing how perfect she would look without it. Now there was not this game to play, there was just a spent feeling. And she was not an idiot, she could sense it. In the first few months after the surgery she received many compliments, but they were always coupled with confusion.
Now you can wear your hair up and show off your face more.
Yeah, I’m going to try it that way.
Wait, say that again.
I’m going to try it that way. What?
Your little accent is gone.
You know, the little Norwegian thing.
Isn’t your mom Norwegian?
She’s from Denver.
But you have that little bit of an accent, that little . . . way of saying things.
Well not anymore, it’s gone now.
And she felt a real sense of loss. Even though she knew that she had never had an accent. It was just the birthmark, which in its density had lent color to even her voice. She didn’t miss the birthmark, but she missed her Norwegian heritage, like learning of new relatives after they have died.
All in all though, this was minor, less disruptive than insomnia (but more severe than déja vu). Over time she knew more and more people who had never known her with the birthmark. And you would assume that these people didn’t feel any haunting absence, because why should they. Her husband was one of these people. You could tell by looking at him. Not that he wouldn’t have married a woman with a port-wine stain. But he wouldn’t have. Most people don’t and are none the worse for it. Of course sometimes it would happen that she would see a couple and one of them would have a port-wine stain and the other one would clearly be in love with this person, and she would hate her husband a little. Which was ridiculous because he was innocent. But he wasn’t an idiot and so he would notice.