"And what can we do for you today?" the dermatologist bellows, as though my being naked under a paper gown makes me hard of hearing. His slicked-back, yellow hair has muddy roots poking through, like weeds in a swamp. I point at two rough spots on my forehead. “Benign keratoses,” he says. Looking bored, he launches into a speech about keratoses, ending: “So there’s nothing to worry about."
"Last year you said those spots were pre-cancerous."
He checks his chart. "You're right." He removes them because my face is sun-damaged. But just minutes earlier, all was benign.
My face gives me trouble. In eighth grade, I hate my nose and the way the nostrils flare when I smile. My eyelashes could be thicker but they’re not as thin as my cousin’s, who, I suspect, secretly pulls hers out. My cheeks are round as dumplings. My brows, dark and expressive, remind me of my father, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Richard Nixon. In religion class, the priest scolds me for scowling. In art class, the nun says my mouth turns down rather than up. I long to be different.
My family is very, very white. Summers, growing up, my chief responsibility is to lie on a raft and cultivate a tan. My skin blisters and burns. Sunless tanning lotion only turns me fake orange. My doctor prescribes pills that are supposed to put more pigment in my skin but make me nauseous and turn me a startling shade of salmon. At college, I join the other girls sitting behind sun reflectors on the dorm roof. Nobody talks. We’re saving ourselves for our vastly improved, deeply tanned lives.
Although my father never sits in the sun, never even wears Bermuda shorts, he gets a squamous cell on his leg. He puts off the surgery, and for two years he sprinkles holy water on the cancer instead. When he finally has the surgery, the doctors have to cut into the bone and put his leg in a cast. When his leg heals, he can walk, but he’s left with a dent.
Inside my medicine cabinet, I have a card with illustrations of basal cells, squamous cells and melanomas, along with instructions on how to do a breast check, which I mostly ignore. Nothing matches my spots. Whenever I look too closely, everything looms large and seems alarmingly suspicious.
A waxy pimple appears on my forehead and doesn’t go away. Surgery to remove the basal cell leaves a white, tear-shaped shadow the size of my thumb. Ten years later, a squamous cell. My forehead, scarred in two places, is covered with bangs. My face is still mine.
Years later, I notice a very dark freckle below my right eye. Innocuous, really. Just a freckle gone wrong.
“Nothing to worry about,” says one dermatologist. “Come back if it gets bigger.”
But by the time I get to the parking lot, I’m worried.
“You’re being way too vigilant,” says my rational self. On the way home, I try new makeup at Nordstrom’s, but no concealer will cover the spot. When I study the freckle, a jagged pulsation erupts in my gut. Something is wrong.
A second opinion and two biopsies later, it’s lentigo melanoma. My new dermatologist says the surgery will scar.
“This wouldn’t be so hard if it wasn’t your face,” she says. “A face makes it so personal.”
The surgeon tests one layer at a time. I clutch a heart-shaped rock in my pocket. He takes out another layer. Good news: the cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of the body. But the skin-deep melanoma has stretched over one side of my face.
“You have a heart-shaped flap,” a nurse says afterwards.
“For Valentines Day,” another says.
The wound already bandaged, I can’t imagine how it looks. The surgeon, who is kind, gives me the name of a plastic surgeon.
Bandages off, I hold the mirror at arm’s length and squint at a distance. My face is huge. One side, from the eye to the ear to the chin to the nose, is carved with a heart, the dark color of a bruise. The cheek is hard. My eye gapes, the lower lid pulled down. My new face. The face of a stranger. It should get better over time. I’m supposed to be grateful, but my real face is gone.
Where is my original face?
Strangers stare. I look beaten. In my building’s laundry room, a small boy asks his grandmother what’s wrong with my face. Neither his grandmother nor I know what to say. In my darkened bedroom, I watch HGTV under the covers.
With the zeal of a convert, I keep out of the sun. I massage the scars and anoint them with silicon gel, ointment, sun block. I buy extra-large sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats, which make my short body look like it’s stepped into a hole. I avoid windows and mirrors.
I ask friends: “How do I look?”
They come closer. “It’s getting better,” they have to say. I have to believe them.
One friend tries humor. “You don’t look like the Elephant Man,” she says.
“Wouldn’t this be hard for you?”
“Yes,” she says. I’m strangely relieved.
Then I realize that suffering comes not from scars but from not being at home inside our own skin. Suffering is always having to do something, fix something about ourselves. Dissatisfied, we’re adrift, in search of our one, true face. Lost, we keep searching for home.
Two years and three reconstructions later, the scars recede. When I look in the mirror, I see pale reminders of trauma. Under one eye, pink waves ripple across sand-colored skin. Heart lines are blurred, no longer bruised. My original face, forever in process. A little scarred by life, like everyone else’s.
“It doesn’t hurt,” I’d tell that scared boy in the laundry room now. “It’s healing.”