“You come in here every day, huh?”
Like clockwork with gravel caught between its gears, I skip and stutter as I try to adjust my scripts. The barista shifts from background to fore, from coffee source, money receptacle, to person, and my eyes flick up to meet hers before the pain of contact forces my gaze back down.
“Yeah,” I say. (But my heart is racing, now, my flesh crawling over my bones, every moment of silence another thing-I-should-have-said fear-she-might-speak rule-I-don’t-know.) “I guess,” I add, after too long or too short a pause, fingers tapping against my thumb. If I leave now it will mean no coffee, no routine, an afternoon without a plan. I’ll stay. I have to stay. I don’t want to be here.
I risk another glance upwards, but her eyes are still on me.
My coffee is ready. I take it, say, “Thank you.” Back on script. I make my way over to my usual table, trying to take comfort from the familiar routine, and taking it instead from the thick row of houseplants that shelters me from the view of the counter.
I wonder if I should change my face.
Every day I come in here, sit in this corner, drink my coffee and watch the world. The sounds and motions of the people around me are soothing, fascinating, like waves washing in against a shore. Here in my corner I can watch them safely.
A woman greets a man: “Rob? Is that you? I haven’t seen you in ages!”
“Sorry, do I know you?”
“Oh, that’s right – I had a different face then. Just got sick of that nose, you know? I’m Glenda, from next door, you remember.”
“Glenda! How could I forget?”
The man laughs, loud. “You did the right thing, Glenda. That nose was a monster.”
The back of my mind is still ticking, every part of me braced to freeze or run. I tap my fingers against my thumb, but it isn’t enough. I don’t feel safe here. Not now. Not today.
My coffee is still so hot that it hurts when I finish it, quickly, and push up from my chair. The barista looks my way as I drop off the mug, but I manage to leave without speaking.
I need a new face.
*“I don’t know,”
says a young man, staring into his mug. “At this point it might be easier to just start over. New face, new name, new job. I could move out into the country, maybe get a cat, take up gardening…”
“You can’t run away forever. Alan isn’t going to give up on you so quickly.”
“I could, though. I want to.”
He drinks. “Maybe I should.”
The new face itches where it touches my skin. It’s meant to mould perfectly, but I can feel every centimetre of cling and pull and sweat, loud, bright, painful. Even the coffee passing through my lips – the lips I am wearing – feels wrong.
I take a moment to consider the injustice of it all. Why should I need to disguise myself – all for others’ failure to forget me? I had hoped, maybe, that the whole world would turn face-blind when faces lost their meaning, but that hope was never anything more than vanity.
A woman sits down at my table, and my thoughts scramble.
“New face, huh?”
Panic freezes up the circuits in my mind. I fumble for a script, any script, any words I’ve heard before: “Sorry, do I know you?”
still wearing the same face.”
A quick glance upwards reveals a strand of blue hair in blonde, a green apron (uniform: barista), and eyes. I can’t look away fast enough. My face itches, clings. Hurts.
Blue-hair-strand barista works here most days when I come in. Blue-hair-strand barista takes my money, makes my coffee, says “Enjoy,” when I say “Thank you.” Blue-hair-strand barista asked me, yesterday, if I come here every day.
“You knew me,” I say, heart pounding loud and slowly in my ears. My face, my mask, my shield, didn’t help me. My cheeks and forehead are tingling.
“You got the same drink as always, sat down in the same place, moved and talked in the same way you always do. I was pretty sure it was you.”
A part of me is thinking: I should change my drink. Maybe there’s something else good on the menu. Maybe there’s another table almost as good as this one, almost as safe. Maybe I could change my script, say “Thanks,” instead of “Thank you.” But I can’t change the way I move.
Maybe I should find a different place. Maybe I should stay home.
“So hey,” she says, “is there any chance I could get your number?”
I don’t have scripts for this. I don’t know the rules. Giddy, falling through nothingness, I don’t know how to tell her no.
(I don’t know if I want to. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.)
She has my number in her pocket and she’s walking away and I can’t breathe, I can’t move, I can’t feel my body, and under my face my skin is screaming.
I try to smile at her when I get my coffee. It’s hard without looking at her face.
I can feel her eyes against me.
She’s working, and I’m drinking, but I talk to her over SMS. Text is easier. We trade names, stories, pleasantries. I don’t know all the rules, but it’s better than none.So why don’t you ever look at me? It hurts.
A girl says to an old man: “There’s a place that does entire bodies now, like the faces. It’s pretty much still surgery, but it’s easier, less invasive.”
“What’s this place called? Let me look it up.”
My phone vibrates. What hurts? I’m not that ugly, am I? Eye contact.
I wonder if I should say more. Am I meant to reassure her that she’s attractive? I like the blue strand in her hair, but I don’t know her face. I wouldn’t notice if she changed it.
I don’t want to lie.
The old man to the girl: “You've got no chance, they're all booked up months in advance.”
“Surgery, the old surgery, always took at least that long. Listen. It’s worth the wait.”
He kisses her forehead, folds her into his arms. There’s a pang of jealousy, of loneliness, as I watch them: not for the physical contact, not even for the affection, but for the ease with which they negotiate it. They’re dancing to a song I can’t even hear.
Vibration. I’m on break in a minute. See you soon.
Again, as always, sweat breaks out across my body; my pulse quickens; my breath shortens. I clench and unclench my fists, tap my fingers to my thumb, try to work through the scripts that will see me through this. It’s hard when I don’t know what she’ll be saying.
She throws herself into the other chair, one elbow over the backrest, feet up against the table. “I am spent
. You’d think they’d give us a chance to sit down every so often, at least.”
I make a noise of which I hope that it comes across as attentive. I don’t know what she wants me to say. “They do,” maybe. “That’s why you have breaks.” But maybe not; maybe that’s not what she wants to hear. Better to say nothing.
“So why do you come in here every day? Aside from seeing me, I mean.”
Direct questions are easier footing, though this is less true when they’re open-ended. “I like to watch the people,” I say.
“Without looking at them?”
I can’t read her voice. I shrug.
“I’m kidding,” she says, but there’s an edge in her voice. “Listen, do you want to see a film sometime? Tonight, maybe?”
Her words are heavy with a meaning I can’t decipher. I try to parse the sentence, afraid of answering without knowing what I might be agreeing to.
The silence stretches on too long. She reaches out a hand, brushes my fingers. I flinch away from the too-light touch.
A sigh, heavy: irritated, maybe, angry. “Forget it.”
She leaves me with my heart still pounding, my mouth dry, my thoughts bewildered. I think: conversations are like panes of glass. Fragile. Handle with care.
As soon as you slip up (and sometimes they’re just too heavy, too slippery, or you stumble over the curb, or your hands are slick with sweat; you can’t help it) they shatter.
Vibration. I thought you liked me.
Another. You could have said if you didn’t. You didn’t have to be kind.
I don’t know how to respond.
There isn’t a blue-hair-strand barista working here any longer. The woman who takes my money and makes my coffee is a brunette. I don’t look at her face, and she doesn’t look at mine.
Her hand shakes when she gives me my coffee. I say, “Thank you,” and she says, “Enjoy.” Instead of a heart drawn into the foam, I now have a tulip.
Maybe she’s new. Maybe she dyed her hair. Maybe she changed her face, even; but of course, I’d never realise it even if she hadn’t.