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The Man Whose Face Disappeared
What is it like to lose your identity? Find out in this eldritch parable by David Carr.
On the tube home one evening he was observing his reflection morph in the concave window of the carriage. He watched it shrink and then elongate, shrink and then elongate. Sometimes, just to pass the time, he would imagine what the funerals of his fellow passengers would be like. The child opposite might be killed in a car accident while walking the dog, he thought. The parents would be inconsolable as they watched the white coffin, and the dog would be sitting at home moping, waiting for his play friend. There was a young couple next to him, touching each other gently the way new lovers do. They would both be struck down in a hang-gliding accident. There would be a court case, and their parents would find some consolation in that.
He had lived in London since getting a job in the City. The work was little like promised, and he began to occupy a place in life which he had hoped would never come to him: he ran financial models through his computer; played the occasional game of golf, or squash if he was feeling athletic; he would bring home oven-ready meals for himself and his girlfriend during the week, and then go for Friday drinks with work colleagues. He felt like the archetypal moderate. Some weekends he would visit his family in the Downs, and others he would go around furniture stores or car showrooms. The monotony of life would soon be usurped by the arrival of children, and, he realised, would simply descend into a new tedium.
Tonguing at a molar that was giving him some concern, he dug the end of that muscle into a large hole where the tooth should be. There was no pain. He brought up his index finger and gouged at the cavity, his eyebrows furrowing in concentration. The mother sitting opposite glanced at him distastefully. He puffed his lips in a mock smile as he retracted the exploratory digit.
After nearly an hour underground it was a relief to be home and rid of the suit and tie. He gazed in at his gaping mouth in the bathroom mirror. The tooth was almost gone. He called to his girlfriend to come have a look.
“I can’t see anything,” she said.
“Well that’s kind of the point. Here, feel it.”
“Don’t be disgusting. If it doesn’t hurt, then stop worrying about it. You can go see a dentist tomorrow if you like.”
He continued to pick at the mysterious gap until he was called to the kitchen to taste the ratatouille.
That night he dreamt he was in a hall of mirrors. It felt like reality, but as if viewed through a tunnel, or a veil of perception; he was watching an infinitesimally prior self. The mirror moved further and further away, and as it did so he saw his reflection with an increasing time-lag. Then he could see his reflection light years away, moving even after he had died: he now existed only as a phantom reflected in that faraway mirror.
He was awakened by a news bulletin on the clock radio beside the bed. Celebrity deaths and inner-city stabbings. Shaving, he noticed a new blemish on his cheek. What is that? he thought. He touched his face, then the mirror, as if to scratch the blemish from the proxy source. He moved his head side-to-side to get the measure of the mark, but the reflection seemed to disappear. There was something there, and nothing too.
He couldn’t tell if the glances he received on the morning’s commute were genuine, or merely the interpretation of a self-centred paranoia. Arriving at the great glass and steel tower where he worked, he entered the elevator.
“Hi there, you had a haircut or something?”
“Not recently,” he replied, raising a tentative hand up to his gradually-receding hairline.
“Oh never mind. Just thought there was something different about you today.”
Quickly turning on his computer and hanging up his jacket, he went to the bathroom to check his reflection. It was hard to put his finger on the difference. He felt again at his degraded tooth, to find it had now worn right down to the gum. He shook off a strange feeling of impending emptiness to stare at his grey eyes. Perhaps he could catch the blemish unawares, he thought, but its reality eluded his inspection once more.
He splashed some water on his face and loosened his tie a little. “Just one of those days,” he said aloud to no-one.
Feeling no better by lunchtime, he made a drop-in appointment with the doctor. In the waiting room he perused a few old car magazines. Looking at the shiny, over-designed bodies of the sports cars, he felt a surge of despair. This is what he had worked for. In those pages were his aspirations laid bare. He half tossed the magazine away, half let it fall from his grasp.
The doctor peered reluctantly at his face, prodding the skin as if moulding a clay model. Sitting back in his swivel chair, the doctor shook his head in puzzlement.
“Well to be honest, I’m not sure what to say.”
The patient stared at the doctor.
“It seems as though there’s some kind of hole in your cheek. It’s really rather strange, not like anything in the textbooks,” the doctor elaborated with a forced laugh, then continued more seriously, “Anyway, there’s not much I can suggest at this stage, except to keep an eye on it and see if it gets any worse. You find that most of the time things like this just go away of their own accord, and interfering with them just makes them worse.”
He couldn’t face going back to work; he would call in sick. It was Friday anyway. So he found himself wandering through the streets like a lost child. He came up to the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and went inside because there was nothing else to do. In the vestibule he heard the voice of an American tourist rebound off the stone walls. Then he climbed the tight staircase to the Whispering Gallery. On the way up into the massive dome he felt the freedom of spontaneity for a few seconds; but this passed as he remembered what might be in store for him. Reaching the top of the stairs, he exited out onto the balcony, from which it seemed that all of London was visible. He saw the capital laid out as if for his eyes only. At that moment, his eyes were the only ones in the universe with that particular view. Yet his viewpoint was just one of billions, each barely affecting the others. He had a world inside himself that had the force and focus of a singularity. Picturing that infinitesimal point expand within him, he next saw his world in a thimble. He imagined it further expanding, until it became an egg cup. Soon the egg cup became a glass tumbler. Bigger still, it became a bucket, which became a tool shed, and then the very cathedral he was standing on – each world fitting inside the other like a set of Russian dolls.
On his way back home, this time he was sure that the looks he was getting were because of his mutating appearance. Sitting in the crowded carriage, the passengers left the seats either side of him empty, as if he was an odorous beggar. He knew those looks. He had given them himself, towards vagrants and the mentally impaired. The rule was not to make eye contact, because otherwise they might mistake you for one of their own kind, or someone who might give them money.
When he finally got home he made straight for the bathroom. He brought the shaving mirror up towards his collapsing-in-on-itself face. There seemed to be a force, a motion, slowly draining away his reflected visage like water down a plug hole. What was happening? He sat himself down on the toilet seat, and held his head in his hands. He groped around for any sense of familiarity: his thinning hair line, the dimple in his chin. He couldn’t even be sure if his nose was there or not, his features had so blurred into one another.
His girlfriend wouldn’t be back until late, so it was just him. But, he wondered, how much of him? A cold beer would help. And another. Cooking was asking too much, but a big bag of tortilla chips would soothe his hunger for the time being. There would be something terrible on the television that he could lose himself in, too. He started to bite the inside of his cheek, a nervous habit that he shared with his father. After another few beers he fell asleep on the couch.
In the morning the light pierced through his eyelids, waking him with a headache. He relieved his bladder and took a few painkillers with a pint and a half of water, even as his stomach shirked the treatment. As the bathroom cabinet slammed shut, its mirrored surface revealed a shock. Half his face was not there.
What was in its place was hard to define. It was not simply invisible, but it was not a solid object either. It seemed like a void, a black hole, a Francis Bacon portrait.
There was a knock at the bathroom door. “What are you up to in there? I need the loo.” The handle turned and the door crept open. He slammed it shut again. “Don’t come in! Call the doctor.”
“Don’t be silly, you’ve just got a hangover. I’ll put on some coffee.”
Walking through to the kitchen, he passed photographs they had put up together. There were her parents, toasting each other on their silver wedding anniversary, and a black and white image of his girlfriend from just after they’d met. They had gone to the West Coast of Scotland and stayed in a cottage by the beach. The photograph captured her mid-cartwheel through sand dunes, her long legs splitting the late rays of the sun beautifully. It was the perfect shot, the result of a one time opportunity, he thought, because it was before digital cameras – before you could check the photo as soon as it was taken, repose and reshoot – edit your life as it was happening. He recalled that the day he picked up that photo from the pharmacy was the day he realised he was in love with her.
“Are you feeling better, then?” she said as his footsteps drew nearer. She turned with a wry smile, which changed to a gasp of horror as her brain struggled to work out what this ghost was before her. He felt the ceramic shrapnel of the coffee cup bounce off his shins before he heard it smash on the tiled floor.
“There’s something wrong with me,” he said.
He followed her reaction through unseen eyes more clearly and subtly than he had ever done before. She backed away, shuddering visibly as she nearly passed through him. She couldn’t look at him. There was barely anything left to look at.
“Please help me!”
Her eyes widened in fear and she ran to the bedroom, to get away from the monster. He was hardly human now. She hurriedly packed an overnight bag, and left for her parents’ house.
Now he was left alone with his half-self. Pulling back the blinds to watch her leave was like opening the curtains to a dismantled stage. She glanced up to the movements at the window, and was repulsed at the nothing that stared back.
The empty house reflected back his transparency. The furniture that they had chosen together, that seemed to so perfectly blend their personalities in a material existence, was now insignificant. He felt sick, but kneeling over the toilet bowl nothing would come. He soon allowed himself to fall asleep, curling his body in the foetal position around the porcelain basin like a drunken teenager.
It was dusk by the time he woke again, the half light between what was real and what was not. He dared not look at his face: he knew it would only be bad news. However, he was hungry after missing breakfast and lunch. He put some bread in the toaster, and boiled water in the kettle. The matching appliances were a testament to nothing, but he laughed at the thought that if a man could make toast and tea, he really didn’t need anything else. He sat at the sofa with his supper, pulling the blanket over his shoulders. Then his stomach gave another groan at the realisation that, without a mouth, he would not be able to eat.
He brought his hand up tentatively towards his incomplete features. There was nothing substantive, nothing to grasp. Yet there was not completely nothing either. His hand was held in space as if repelled like a magnet. He felt the solidity of matter, but certainly nothing that could be called flesh.
He had always taken such care with his appearance. The violent acne that afflicted him in adolescence meant that he might not leave the house for days as he waited for particularly bad eruptions to subside before facing the world. Now he would give anything for that enflamed look. His hairline was also of no concern, now that his whole face was receding. His many girlfriends had called his eyes intense and mysterious, and his mouth had seemed to have a permanent upward turn. He attracted people, and they were comforted by his handsomeness. What could attract them now?
The phone rang loudly and he picked up the receiver.
“Son, are you OK?” It was his father.
Trying to reply, he felt the sound gurgle in his throat and die before it could be heard.
“Son, please, what’s wrong?”
There was nothing left inside him. He couldn’t be seen, and he couldn’t be heard. He didn’t want to see his dad either. In fact, his vision was tiring. He could feel his eyes succumbing to their inevitable disappearance. He crawled into bed like a sick animal. Now there was nothing to do but wait. Leaving the house was unthinkable. Outside there would be people staring through him, whispering about him, then spitting at him, and he’d be able to give nothing back. If he was to dissolve into the abyss he would do so on his own terms, protected in the sanctuary of his self-made world, undiluted by reality.
Using the spare key his father came in calling his son’s name, climbing the stairs as if he suspected a gas leak. There was no response. Opening the bedroom door felt like pulling off a plaster, but there was no wound to protect, no body to treat. The window was open, and the unseen wind breathed in and then out, rustling the satin curtains and taking with it the soul of his son.
© David Carr 2011
David Carr is at Imperial College, London, doing PhD research on the nature of consciousness at the boundary between sleep and waking.