Missing Him Missing Me, short story by Geraldine Mills
Geraldine Mills has published three collections of short stories and four collections of poetry. She has been awarded many prizes and bursaries including the Hennessy/Tribune New Irish Writer Award, two Arts Council Bursaries and a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship. Her first children’s novel titled Gold has just been released and is available at www.littleisland.ie/shop/gold/ www.kennys.ie/gold-2179.html www.geraldinemills.com
There I am checking my teeth in the shop mirror just to make sure there are no little dots of poppy seeds lurking between them when I notice it. The side of my face, around where the crows’ feet pitter patter, has disappeared. In its place is someone else’s. Putting up my hand to touch it, my fingers touch the rough, swarthy skin. That’s not mine!
My neck on speed dial, I pivot around the aisles but no one else seems to have noticed, so taking the clip out of my hair I finger-comb the strands down over the stranger’s jaw in case I frighten myself. Then gathering up what’s left of me, I rush out to the car park, my mind an underworld of think, working out how to get the keys out of my pocket to put in the lock before anyone I know sees me. Please, please, open. I throw myself into the driver’s seat, grab my sunglasses from the glove compartment, slip them on, reverse out of the slot like my butt is ablaze and somehow get the car home. In a very shaky state.
Beyond my own hall door, I knock back the last of the gin, open the vodka. Have a few slugs of that. With Dutch courage now coursing through my capillaries I brave another gawk in the mirror. Still no side of my own face. All that time wasted trying to get rid of them crow’s feet but now that they’ve gone AWOL I miss them. Aahh.
Nothing else happens for the rest of the day so I settle into the new me, the new hairstyle, telling myself that a bird sings no matter how bad his day is. It’s time to brave the new world so pulling the glasses on again, I force myself out the door; go on a little ramble just to see the reaction. With the dark shades, the hair all exotic and mysterious, I feel like a celebrity, hiding from the paparazzi. A car drives by, then slows. Just when I think a camera is going to peek from one of the tinted windows, I hear it thunk, thunk over the speed bump and it carries on its merry way.
Up the street, Ciara Snow is cleaning bat pee from her windows. The vermin live somewhere under her roof; a protected species, so she cannot get rid of them or the long white streaks that river down the glass. Her neck swivels as she spots me, starts waving her bingo wings like a mad bat herself, hoping for some deep meaningful conversation with me about her problem. This is my moment to practise a bit of echolocation and I’m twirling on my heels, back the way I came from and in my own door before her neck knows it’s swivelled.
There’s nothing for it but to ring into work sick. Well, you won’t get me arriving in wearing the shades and swaddle. You know it would be easier to push soft noodles up a wild cat’s ass than have them thinking that Doug has dumped me and I’m back in my virgin bed. Can’t you see them sliding up to me putting a pitying hand on my arm and whispering ‘you poor thing’ when what they really want to say is: Loser!
Funny how Doug liked that side of my face. ‘My better side,’ he used to say anytime he took photos of me. Which was all the time. And the orders he gave:
Stand this way
No, a little bit further back. (If I was on the side of a cliff I’d be over it.)
Move nearer the window
Let the light fall this way and that, as if he was Lychfield or Stephen Curry. He had this mad notion that one day Hello magazine, National Geographic would have a big AHA moment, come knocking at his door and pay him a fortune for his soulful photos of people. Well, HELLO, I soon put a stop to that pie-eyed dream. You see, one evening while I was cooking up a storm for him: Connemara Carbonara, his favourite, I caught him downloading unsavoury shots of naked women. That soon whipped his appetite from him when I told him if that’s what gave him his kicks then he might as well be on Route 66 because he wasn’t going to do it on my watch. Oh, he tried to persuade me it was research, that all photographers did it. I told him right enough he could do his research somewhere else but not in my bed.
Still that butters no parsnips or brings back the side of my own face. I pull the place asunder looking for it but cannot find it anywhere. It’s not in the freezer between the fish fingers and that stewed apple that I forgot to throw out. It’s not in the boxes above the wardrobe. It’s not in the cornflakes.
‘Come on, God,’ I plead. ‘You’re a woman, you should understand. Bring back my face and I’ll never, complain about those crows’ feet. Ever.’
But just when I think that things can’t get worse, they do. This time it’s my schnozzle. There one minute, and then, bat’s pyjamas, it’s gone. I used to think my nose wasn’t half bad: shapely, a little turned-up, yet attractive nonetheless. But the one I’m now staring at is broader, crooked, broken like a boxer’s, or like someone dropped me when I was a baby. Hmm. Now who’s does that remind me of?
This is where I need to do a serious body search so I check out my toes: all accounted for; my knees, knobbly but still intact, my bellybutton. Of course, I can’t find that because of my muffin top. There it is wobbling away at the top of my jeggings, all adipose and stretch marks. Now, wouldn’t that be a service to humanity to take it away, to have it quietly erased without the cut of a knife. But it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In fact, it looks even fatter.
That’s because in my demented state, I’ve eaten all the noodles, the bread, the potato waffles, ‘awfully versatile’. The cupboard is bare, not even a doggy bone. I’m now down to the last of the lentils, some sugar, cockroaches. There isn’t much a body can do with those ingredients so I have to bite the bullet and head for the shops.
The sunglasses don’t fit very well on my big hooter so I burgle my wardrobe for a pashmina, all colourful and expansive. Wrap it around my head. Across my nose. Have a look in the mirror − Hmmm. Almost impressive. It’s not saying who I am but I could be someone. If anyone used their imagination.
What would my friend, Mandy, do in this situation? She’s one of them beauty aficionadas. Loves to spend gazillions on the latest face cream that has some highly-potent magic ingredient from the scrotum of the aardvark or zebra or whatever scrotum is the hot topic of the moment and is purporting to restore a woman’s skin to its new-born radiance. Even if it costs half a mortgage, I have no choice but to go for it. The thing is, Mandy’ll freak when she sees me. That’s what I am: a freak from a nineteenth-century circus, right up there with the four-legged chicken and the two-headed calf.
Roll up, roll up! Get to see your wonky-faced, crooked-nosed specimen.
But needs must and I head off to the shopping centre full of hope that she will be able to restore me to my new-born something or other. There I am at the store but I can’t bring myself to go up to the counter. I’d have to take off my scarf. Show her. No, I can’t do that.
I scuttle to the restaurant further down the way and sit in the far corner. The waitress comes by with her dark hair swept back from her brow and tied in a ponytail. No fear she’s hiding anything. She raises her false eyelashes at me as she brings me my macchiato, my double Danish and I refuse to un-scarf myself. Only when she turns her back do I release a corner of it and gobble sugar-rush and caffeine all in one go.
That’s as much as I’m able for, so it’s home again, home again, jiggidy jig. Sit into the car, have a look in my rear-view mirror, still no resurrection of jaw or nasal passages. Then the car starts to get stroppy; it insists on turning left when I’m turning the wheel right. It’s got a mind of its own and short of getting out and lashing it with a stick I can do nothing but go with it. Fighting with a car is nearly as bad as fighting with your ex and it feels like I’ve driven the whole length of the M50 and back again when there was only two miles to cover.
Everything comes to light by the time I get home. One of my shoulders is heftier than the other. The one with the bigger chip on it is now in control. It’s not so much the bulk of my new shoulder as the way it makes me look so lopsided. It’s too big for my new jacket. Only one arm will fit in. The other hangs limply against my side. My ‘deportment’ as my mother used to criticise, is in the wrong department now.
Oh, no, my lips! They’re gone and they used to be so luscious, full, and all my own too, never any need for the bee-sting-trout-mouth look. I’ve become one of those mean thin-lipped women. And even worse, a chin wattle has appeared, as if I have no neck. All folding into one, making my face look like fried dough. A flat, fried dough face. I am no longer me. All’s changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is being created before my eyes.
I curl up on the sofa, whining that I’ll never get a man to look at me again. Maybe I was too harsh on Doug. At least all bits of me were intact when he was here. What a big hole he left in the bed after he had gone out the door with his bags and his photographic accoutrements.
For some reason, he left one of his photos behind. I could use that as an excuse to text him, see how he’s doing. It’s sitting on the shelf opposite me. A pink sky, a blue tree. And him standing there, his broad shoulders, his stare. He was mad for transforming the backdrops. He could make the world into a place that didn’t exist for anyone else. I never liked what he did, turning nature upside down, believing that he was god and could make things more beautiful with the press of a button.
Then Friday, brushing my teeth, one eye looking out at me is brown where it used to be blue. It changes whatever is left of my face. My hair colouring is now too pale. It makes me look like I was put in too hot a wash. Staring out the window the trees are purple, the sun green. A man walks by with a five-legged dog.
I knock on the glass to call him, ask what happened his mutt.
The knuckles that hit the pane are not mine, either. My beautifully French-manicured nails are now bitten down to the quick. The hand, weathered skin, is big and hairy with a sport’s watch on the wrist. Then I remember what Doug said as he went out the door. That I’d be sorry; someday I’d realise what I was missing. And then my breath catches in my throat. No! He couldn’t have, could he? But he has. Doug has finally started to photoshop me. Into himself.
© Geraldine Mills