The collection As You Were Saying: American Writers Respond to Their French Counterparts presents stories begun by French writers and then responded to by their American opposite numbers. Here Marie Darrieussecq starts and Rick Moody picks up where she leaves off.
Marie Darrieussecq’s Beginning
The tracheotomy left him hoarse for a long time but in the end he got his normal voice back. And his shoulders were still the same. Sometimes when we were reading together in bed, I’d track the lines in his skin, which was thick and deeply creased, solidified like lava, with sags, notches, broken angles, flat patches dotted with melted pores, canyons and valleys, a relief map I knew by heart.
I would kiss his neck, the skinny Adam’s apple, the damaged tendons, the little tracheotomy scar, but I stopped at the long scar that followed the jawline all the way around, as if his throat had been slit, disappearing into the hair on both sides.
Above it was the new face.
I got used to the burn very quickly; he was like that when we met. His face was rigid, “cardboard” he’d say, he couldn’t make more than two or three generic expressions, but his voice, his gestures, all that went on inside his head–I don’t know how I’d talk about that. You can describe a face, but it’s hard to describe a person, all of a person, I mean.
I remember how we used to joke around, while we were waiting in line, for instance, when we got bored with the wait or someone was staring. All he had to do was go “Boo!” at just the right moment and the other person would start screaming. It was the first time I’d had so much fun with anyone.
When he was tired, he wore a scarf pulled up over his nose, and a hat. I called him the Invisible Man. His eyes he never hid. He had no eyelid left at all on the left. His eyeball formed perfect concentric circles: red, white, blue, and black. The right eye had lost its lashes, but when you saw him from that profile, with the scarf and hat, you couldn’t tell a thing, just that the nose was a little short, maybe.
Occasionally, not very often, a stranger would speak to him. Sitting next to him on a bus, for example, or busy at a computer screen in an office. These strangers must either have been distracted or extremely myopic. When they looked at him full on, his face was like a fist smashing into theirs. But since they’d been the ones to speak first, they’d bravely try to go the distance. Their efforts quickly grew pathetic. They were too friendly, as if speaking to a mentally handicapped man or a little kid. They went on talking for too long, to show that nothing was bothering them, that they didn’t see anything that could possibly bother them. And he’d let them dig themselves deeper and deeper, giving a big grin with his missing lips.
When he smoked, he’d clench the cigarette between his teeth and breathe noisily; it sounded like a straw sucking on an empty glass after you’ve finished the drink. People didn’t dare ask him to put it out. They’d get hysterical when they smelled tobacco and realized someone was breaking the rules, but boy they screeched to a halt the instant they caught sight of his face.
The silence that would fall when we walked into a bar was something you had to hear. Men’s faces, women’s faces, all of them wondering what the hell I was doing with him. And going across borders with him, when the customs official looked at his passport, with a photo from before the burn–no one had ever dared ask him to have another one taken.
Or when, with all the new security measures, he’d be asked to lower his scarf and take off his hat–the expression that would come across the official’s face. The childish terror, the politically correct reflexes, disgust warring with charity, the absolute fear of the other, all of it nakedly clear.
But his sacrosanct exhaustion was gaining the upper hand. To think that this is the same man who protested when I wanted to have a tummy tuck, your stomach’s fine just the way it is, always the same old song, but the moment the experimental protocol was launched he was off and running. And he went about it so well, charming the surgeons, the shrinks, the whole team, that he was chosen for the first complete face transplant.
The donor’s family, his wife in particular, had also taken several tests and signed a pledge never to try to find us. All we knew was that the donor was more or less the same age, had more or less the same skin color, and had died suddenly in a distant country.
I could never bring myself to look him in the face. Above the half-circle of the scar, the skin was quite smooth, ruddy, with a heavy beard. When I looked for his profile, his strange right profile, I’d see a long nose with cheeks stuck on either side, still a little stiff, like the latex masks thieves wear in movies. The eyebrows and forehead were supple, almost too supple, like flowing water or wax, as if the face were about to come off. I didn’t dare touch it. Every morning he shaved like a teenager, with great concentration and effort. He shaved off the beard that was not his. Apparently, hair follicles survive for several hours after death, and I’m telling you, it was a heavy beard. With the razor, he’d shave stripes in the shaving cream across that face. That was the only way I could look at him: in the mirror, from behind his back, watching the shaving cream disappear.
The face was neither ugly nor handsome, I don’t know. It was a stranger’s face, a face that could have belonged to anyone. There was still a weird rigidity, the movement wasn’t quite right yet, but he never missed a physical therapy session and we were assured that in time the face would move in a natural way, quite normally.
Even his gaze had changed, because, as I’ve come to realize, eyelids are what make a gaze. An eyeball has no gaze, no expression. Intensity, yes, I remember the intensity, the unblinking rage, the wicked laugh. But then, with eyelids, he just looked like a nice person.
Rick Moody’s Conclusion One day I woke to find that she was no longer attractive to me. Spring, a time of horticultural vainglory. There was a nice breeze blowing in, there was some sunshine. Her gentlest smile greeted me upon waking. I rolled away and faced the wall.
We had a lot in common. The same black sense of humor. Nothing disappointed me more than sentimentality. We mustered a small, mobile tactical unit for the purposes of wiping it out. We used to go on bus trips in search of children to startle or terrify. On one such occasion, I scanned the aisles for a rosy-cheeked victim and, locating him, with a suitable flourish I twisted my face into a mask of woe and anguish: “I too was once young!” The boy shrank away in horror, blubbering like a girl. What a good laugh we had!
Why she picked me out of the crowd in the first place, only her psychiatrists can say. Still, she wasn’t alone. There were women who wanted what a man like myself brought with him: recovery rooms, bouts of insomnia, white rages, liquid diets. Most of these women left in tears.
I saw her first. At a dinner party. I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a scarf, as I did among friends and strangers alike. In truth, I wore the outfit so that I could stare, a pastime largely denied me. She was on the short side, svelte, with dirty blond hair that she wore to her shoulders. She had the posture of a dancer, perhaps one often injured. Her lips were a routine crimson. She didn’t smoke, she never ate as far as I could tell, and she drank like a soldier. We often polished off a couple of bottles of wine with lunch and then kept right on with our spree until, at night, we tumbled into unconsciousness.
It was when intoxicated that she wanted me. She didn’t want me in a delicate, refined way; she lusted like a stray cat. Everything depended on brutality. She would strip off my clothes, heedless of their fastenings. She would sink fingernails into me, there were often bite marks. She drew blood. How to explain my gratitude?
When, after some years, she embarked on the first of her own “revisions,” as she called them, I was surprised enough to misunderstand the impulse. A gray hair or two had been harvested. She had a disagreeable scar dating to an immemorial mishap in a childhood attic. She didn’t scar well, she had the audacity to say, and wanted to improve on what nature had wrought. Not long after, I came home to find her on the sofa, lips pursed. “They’re going to straighten my nose.” Then she began composing her elaborate fabrications.
Ordinarily, in my romantic past, the women came to their senses. The isolation toughened them up. They stumbled invigorated out of the flames of my disconsolation. After they’d snuck around for a while, they confessed, wept, and packed.Not this time. As I became more and more erratic, as I fell into an inertia wherein I did little but collect my disability payments, she seemed to grow ever more exotic. She was luminous, increasingly beautiful, like some poisonous toadstool. With every fingertip I laid upon her, she seemed to grow more stridently perfect. She was a work of art, and I was the wage-earning desperado in the empty gallery.
I could catalog the procedures for you, because I made it my business to do so. I could list kilos of flesh, bits of bone and sinew that had been trimmed from her and packed into those refreshing little medical waste baggies, to be incinerated in a featureless outbuilding. She lied about the procedures and she devoted herself to ever more Byzantine deceits. Her features came to resemble a large cat of some African genus, a sleek, remorseless panther. Or she was a raptor hovering in the updrafts. Evidently the surgeons kept near the pictures of these animals as they sliced away some more of her and readied the implants.
In May, we intended to go to a masquerade. The hosts were friends of hers, of course. I had long since run through my own supply of friends. She’d encountered this pair–she was so excited to tell me–while looking for a job. Of course, I was adamant that she avoid work, because my condition was delicate and I needed constant attention. I had enough money to keep us underfed. And yet behind my back she’d arranged a job interview. And I would never guess who she met while there!
I ascertained that she had also “improved” on her breasts. Her breasts seemed even more adorable and muscular than they had been when I first gazed upon them. They were like little Victorian pincushions. She must have undergone the procedure while I was traveling home on the occasion of my father’s death. It was the longest we’d been apart. When I returned, I began following her on her daily peregrinations when I could do so from a discreet distance. I believed, for example, that she planned a sexual liaison with the couple throwing the masquerade. There were suitors behind every streetlamp.
For the big party, she intended to get me up as a prince. She spent a week or so scouring the fabric shops of the neighborhood for dusty bolts of simulated finery. Meanwhile, I was to make a selection for her, but the only costume I could think of was the Angel of Death.So: I woke the morning of the masquerade ball with the bleak but refreshing impression that I no longer desired her. I didn’t care for the years when she had made life tolerable, I didn’t care for her pert, flawless breasts. I didn’t care for the muffled candlelight of our devotion. Indeed, it was her generosity that squeezed the breath out of me.
It was then that I hit on the idea for the surgery. A diabolical stratagem, true enough, and therefore perfect. There was no difficulty with the doctors and psychiatrists. There wasn’t a suffering wretch in all of Europe who looked quite as bad as I did. I had only to attempt a smile to bring good men to tears. The panel of experts concurred. No doubt it was only a matter of time before some lad, silly and reckless, finished making use of his own face. In the end, you see, she was only interested in me for my looks.
From As You Were Saying: American Writers Respond to Their French Counterparts, edited by Fabrice Rozié, Esther Allen, and Guy Walter, forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press. Copyright 2007 by Dalkey Archive Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.