December 27, 2001
Red Like Me
As I write this, I look like James Coburn eating a lemon in a windstorm. Drunk. Not only does my face look red and crackly, it must be covered at all times with a Vaseline-like lotion, thick and greasy, giving me the appearance of someone who has just eaten a pork chop with no hands. And I lack Mr. Coburn's panache.
I knew I'd be ugly for a week or so. My doctor warned me that even though I was getting the most minor of chemical peels, there would be redness, crusty skin, temporary darkening of the very discolorations and freckles I was trying to remove. In the end, I would look a little better. There was just the purgatory between blotchy and better to be endured.
Wisely, I left town right after the peel and escaped to my mom's for a few days, to the one place no one was likely to notice a woman molting about the face. Wrong. Even in Las Vegas, my face is something to see. I'm thinking about selling two-for-one tickets.
My second day here, I ventured out to surprise my mother at the casino where she works. I waited in line and walked up to the counter of the sports book, where mom was in the middle of telling a guy he was too late to bet on the 49er game.
"Hey! This is my daughter," she beamed, introducing me around.
That's when I saw myself through the eyes of her co-workers. Let me paint a vivid picture. Realizing there was nothing I could do about my face, I completely let myself go. I decided to leave the deep conditioner in my hair instead of washing it out. I didn't shave or put on makeup. I was wearing the outfit I had worn driving in, an oversized men's shirt and old jeans. I'm pretty sure I had brushed my teeth, but I don't want to brag.
"You want to place your very first bet? Clippers or Kings?" asked my mother's co-worker.
"Now, I know you're not used to dealing with this kind of cash," I joked, pushing a five towards him. As I placed my bet on the Kings, the guy let out a hearty laugh, as did the others. Oh my god, I thought. These are sympathy laughs. That wasn't funny.
Bring your daughter to work day had taken a sinister turn. I felt so bad for my mom, like I was embarrassing her, which I knew I really wasn't because she's not as shallow as I am. Still, I wondered what she would tell people the next day. "Don't worry, my daughter isn't really disfigured. She's just vain."
When mom's shift ended, we went over to the bar with a couple free drink tickets from the sports book. "Scotch," she ordered for me. "Something good." Normally, "good" Scotch from the well of a casino bar is throat-burning swill. What I got was smooth, some sort of Glensomething. It was sympathy scotch and I knew it.
Mom told me about having to have something removed from her cheek once. The surgery gave her two black eyes and weeks of stares. "That's what it's like getting older, too," she said. "You don't care so much what you look like, and neither does anyone else. You're outside of that scene. You just want to sit around and hang out and watch life. When your car breaks down, you figure out how to fix it. When a cop pulls you over, you get a ticket. Everything changes."
Things have changed for me in just a few days. I lack confidence. I'm the same as before, but the package is too much for me to overcome. Since the casino incident, I've remained mostly inside. Until this thing is over, I'm not heading into a crowd without one of those Tom Cruise "Vanilla Sky" disfigurement masks. I feel like a loser somehow, and not just because the Clippers beat the Kings.
I never thought much about the word "face," as in face the music, face your demons, face a challenge, face the facts or Einstein's phrase, "the face of God." Now, I can't stop thinking about Eleanor Rigby's face, the one she keeps in a jar by the door. I had no idea my own face was such an integral part of how I face people, how I see myself -- quirky, flawed, OK from certain angles but overall, a problem child.
Maybe too much alone time equals too much philosophizing. One little peel and all of a sudden I think I'm Albert Camus.
My mom's right, though. Things change. My face will be back in a few days, serviceable, familiar, with a few fewer freckles. But it will evolve. It will age. There will be speeding tickets. The only face that doesn't change is the one preserved in a jar by the door, but even the Beatles don't know who that is for.
Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.