by Daniel Enjay Wong
I wanted people to look at my face and see an equation.
In the bathroom mirror, I stretched my skin. Fingers pushed together a prominent chin, the right triangle of a Roman nose. For a moment, I could sustain a fantasy. I could make my mother out of myself.
On other side of the door, she echoed like a hallway. “Mitch, get out of the bathroom. You’re a boy, remember?”
When my mother walked outside, cars in the street slowed down. Strangers complimented her bone structure, carved like the side of a coin.
She was always grateful for words. Once, a man in Central Park performed a limerick for her. Honestly, it was a terrible poem. None of the lines even rhymed. But my mother clapped anyway and searched her purse for change she never carried.
The two of us lived in a comfortable kind of isolation. As a child, I would get lost in my own house. Its size often gave way to games like hide and seek, where we squeaked across tile floors and buried ourselves under pea coats. My mother treated fun like a conscious choice. “Okay, we’re going to have some fun now.” Nothing was fun until she said it was.
When it was my turn to hide, I dreaded the moment of being found. What I hated more was the thought of all my mother’s attention focused on me. My father was out the door, smoke between her fingers. I didn’t know him, my mother having removed any evidence of his existence, but I knew that I resembled him. Darkness was the only place that gave way to my imagination. I pictured his face, laughing at our state of incompleteness. Crouched in a laundry hamper and waiting for the game to end, I’d grow fearful, then angry. My mother was husbandless, and I was squatting in a basket. She was too pretty to work. There was nothing she could do, but there was nothing I could do. I thought about really being lost.
My mother made a big show out of finding me, though I think she always knew where I was all along. She stomped around the carpet. She breathed heavy above my head like a lion in a Bible story.
Then the basket lid flew off. As my eyes adjusted to the light, her face came into focus. I was never prepared to stare directly into it. She was blinding.
“Found you,” she said, pinching my nose with cold fingers.
“Nothing’s wrong with his nose,” the doctor said. “A bit larger than average, if anything. But that’s genetic variation.”“It’s from his father’s side.” My mother’s reflexes were faultless, too.
I sat on the exam bench, facing my mother’s chair. The doctor stood in between us like he was interrupting something.
My mother asked about other parts of my face — she had measurements written down in her purse — but the doctor wouldn’t recommend anything because I was still young and at “that weird age.” He put his hand on my shoulder as if to lean on me. “It’s too early to tell. Sometimes a child will look like one parent, and then grow into resembling the other. It’s not a predictable process.” He waved his hands, as if drying them off, and turned for the door. I got up first, and my mother followed us out into the hallway. Her presence burned behind me like a corona. She was willing me to speak.
“But what if it doesn’t happen?” A voice came out that I didn’t recognize.
The doctor breathed out. “Then you know how to reach me, kid.” He said “kid” in a way that suggested maturity.
As we drove home, my mother said that I’d done well. “It’s good to ask questions,” she said. Silence took over, and I watched the sky reflected in the windows of office buildings. It was too massive to comprehend.
At a red light, my mother opened the overhead vanity mirror. She dabbed at her bridge with a pinky finger and asked me if I was okay.
When I didn’t answer, she spoke again. “I know you think none of this” — she gestured to her face — “matters. But you have to understand. Things were hard. Your father…” Her voice began to rise like a bottle filling to the brim.
“Mom, can we just drive?”
That night, I passed by my mother’s room while she slept. As I moved past the doorway, she snapped up in bed with a popping sound, like her bones weren’t even ready. She was sitting still, but I could see her outline, slightly blacker than everything else. I sensed the momentary fog of confusion. It was eyeless fear.
She saw the father in my face.
When I graduated from high school and prepared to move to college, my mother started to play a frantic quiz game. “What’s in Colorado anyways?” she’d ask.
I said I would find out. It took every suitcase in the house to finish packing.
After calling the taxi, I made a neat line of luggage in the foyer. I imagined they were stones in a river that formed a path. My mother was sitting behind me in a lounger, facing away. I could only see the top of her head.
“Don’t get angry, I’m just talking, but if you change your mind? Dr. Hamilton — ”
“OK, Mom.” I could suddenly feel my nose the way a person is aware that he breathes.
“Please don’t get upset, Mitch. Please don’t do that to me. I’m just talking. But you can use my account. And call if you need my help, alright?”
When I heard the taxi honk outside, I turned to my mother, but she didn’t move from the lounger. It was another game. She was hidden from my sight. Even when all the suitcases were loaded into the trunk, she stayed put. Part of me wanted to say goodbye, maybe to give her a hug, but something told me that if I did, I would never be able to leave.
I closed the door and it sounded like my name.
College came, but it mostly went. My face never changed. I felt stupid for expecting migration, a miraculous rearrangement of stars.
The friends I made were unlike me. Their posture was sturdy and arched. They stood like mermaids on the bows of ships. They addressed elders by their first names. They were too excited about Ecstasy.
I lived off campus during those years and got a job working for the admissions office, which gave me an excuse to stay during the summers. My mother had stopped calling when I was a freshman, and I knew it was because she could always hear the chatter of people in the background. They spoke and laughed loudly. My mother raised her voice so I could hear her, and I remembered that feeling of being in the dark. She needed to be located.
But in Denver, there was already so much space to navigate. I felt guilty for being young and unhappy. After work, I would drive past fields of crops, a hand pressed to my mouth like I was watching a burning house.
One night the winter of my junior year, I was visiting my friend Sara and her boyfriend in their apartment. We were snowed in. We ate, drank, and played “Two Truths and a Lie.” Sara’s boyfriend was smoking because he thought it would keep us warm.
I told my truth. “I used to wear a clothespin on my nose when I slept because I wanted to have a bridge.”
“Oh my God, just like Little Women?” Sara was too drunk to know what words did.
“No,” I said. I tacked on a laugh and waved at smoke that wasn’t there.
Sara’s boyfriend was pushing ashes around on the table. “So… did it work?”
I slept over on the couch that night and headed back to my apartment the next morning. The snow was fresh. My feet sank into the powder without resistance. Before moving to Denver, I imagined snow to always be this way, like sugar you could spin. But most of the time, mixing with dirt and twigs, it became a dark slush that was the color of everything else. It was unbearable to look at.
I fished out my cell phone at a stoplight and dialed home. Each ring sounded louder than the one before. I counted them like the seconds between lightning and thunder.
We both listened to the silence that followed.
I pressed the button for Surgery.
The mirrored doors of the hospital elevator came together, forming a dim reflection. In a matter of hours, I told myself, this picture would no longer exist.
It was the summer before my senior year, and I had decided that I would take a leave of absence. Tapping her network of doctor friends, my mother had found a reputable cosmetic surgeon in Denver. Everyone said that he held a knife like an extra limb. At the first consultation, a technician scanned my face in a dark box. Then I met with the surgeon, a pale, thin-nosed man whose skin resembled rubber. He seemed cold and clean. He dragged my new face around on a computer, rotating and scaling it over a sea of analog blue, then smiled and asked me what I thought.
While I liked the changes, the rendering seemed too controlled, too calculated — a splash of water in a videogame. Light appeared to be coming from all the wrong places. I knew that it was silly to say, but I told the surgeon it looked artificial. He scratched above his mouth and said, “Well.”
In the elevator, I studied my reflection, one that I’d seen from every angle: in funhouse mirrors, tile floors, and security cameras. But this was different. Scratches obscured its true form. I scrunched up my face. I said, “Rhinoplasty. Rhinoplasty. Rhi-no-plast-ee.” I couldn’t see my own mouth moving. My eyes were dark tunnels. Actually, the reflection kind of resembled the Shroud of Turin, which I remembered seeing on the cover of a science magazine. I was at my late grandmother’s house in Connecticut, attending her wake, when I noticed the magazine alone on the coffee table, exactly where it was when she died. No one had bothered to move it. The face looked in all directions, like the Mona Lisa.
“Should we put this away?” I asked my mother. “It’s kind of morbid.” I lifted a corner of the magazine. The wood underneath was darker than the rest of the table.
My mother checked the buttons on her blouse. “Your grandmother was a morbid person.”
I felt the elevator slowing to prevent a crash. The doors were rumbling with momentum. They wanted to erase me.
I stared hard at the reflection, committing myself to memory.
I waited for my mother.
We agreed to meet at a restaurant in a half-underground building, the kind where you only saw people’s feet walking outside. When I was younger, I used to look out those windows and pretend I was sinking. I would get excited in the way that children anticipate natural disasters.
When my mother finally arrived, four years of separation vanished. But in my new face, I felt brave. I stood up in the booth, allowing her to approach me. The elements would assemble themselves differently this time.
My mother was still beautiful, though visibly older. I felt like I was meeting an actress hired to portray her. She stopped a few yards short, her mouth wide.
“Wow, wow, wow,” she said. “Look who’s fabulous.” She came at me fast, and the gap between us closed for a hug. People glanced at us from their tables. I realized that no one else in the restaurant knew the exact scale of this moment.
My mother and I slid into the booth and looked over the drink menu. The waitress came, noting our resemblance.
“Dolls, the both of you!” she said, spinning away with our orders.
My mother smiled a winner across the table. I could tell we’d both been looking into mirrors lately. Her eyes fell down to the purse in her lap and she asked, “So what can I do for you tonight?” I heard the echoes of waitresses.
I reminded myself that I was meeting my mother to hear an apology, even if it meant making a scene. I was a tree that would make all the noise it could. If I was going to fall, some birds were going to scream.
“This is all wrong,” Sara had said on the phone earlier. “She needs to hear you out.” I could hear the anger in her voice because she wanted to fight for me. Her loyalty was terrifying. Too much love felt like a gift I couldn’t afford.
“I just wanted to see you,” I said to my mother, speaking for the first time. Something happened to my voice after the surgery. Now the timbre was plain, hairless. Water could have washed it away.
My mother covered my hands with hers. “Don’t you dare apologize, Mitch, you’ll make me cry.” She looked to the side and blinked quickly. “God, the world is too big, isn’t it? It’s no wonder people get lost. You forget what’s real.”
I felt like falling. My mother had never been sorry for anything in her life. She wasn’t going to start now.
I decided to drink until it felt good to be in my own skin.
My mother asked me if I thought growing up was going to be easy. We were both red in the face and soft in the brain.
I shook my head and tipped back, finishing the last of my drink. My mother’s face, dappled like a painting, filled the bottom of the glass. She had no wrinkles. I decided not to say anything.
The alcohol made me shiver. My mother gave me a look like I was wearing a cheap suit and everyone knew it. I put down the empty glass and stared at her until she was small enough to fit on the tip of my finger.
Just as that happened, my mother perked up and announced that she was going to call a cab. She leaned over onto the seat and started to scoot herself out the booth headfirst. Her head was sticking out horizontally, turned away from the waitress coming down the aisle with a fresh pot of coffee.
Involuntary movements weren’t fast enough. My mother’s face drank straight black. There was screaming. Then the restaurant went silent.
The last time I remember a roomful of people being that quiet, I was at a Denny’s during an earthquake. The hanging lamps were swinging. I’ve heard that in stressful situations, people reveal their true selves. Oddly, no one had panicked. I guess that whole restaurant was filled with people who would just look up at the dead weight of a ceiling and say, “Fine.”
There wasn’t much coffee left in the pot. My mother covered her face and moaned long vowels. The waitress was alternating between apologizing and hiccupping. She saw the highlights in my mother’s hair. She could tell that my mother had money and wasn’t afraid to use it.
I don’t know what took me so long to react. I picked up an origami napkin from the table and shook it open. Every movement I made felt like no one had ever done it before. People hovered in the background. The waitress watched me like I had the power to undo terrible deeds. I held the napkin up by the corners. The fabric was a map of creases, and I realized that someone, another human being, had assembled it. I saw how the world worked. I leaned over and laid the napkin in my mother’s lap for her, ready to be marked.
My mother didn’t move immediately. She seemed to be waking from sleep, her arms gradually leaving her face and finding the cloth. I heard dripping liquid. It then occurred to me that I should say something, either to fill the emptiness or acknowledge what had just happened, but I couldn’t bring a thought to my lips. When I was a child, speaking came easily to me. I imitated the cadence of television reporters. I used to think the news they described only happened because they spoke so perfectly.
“She’ll be okay,” I said finally. My voice was still weak, an exposed wire, but I could feel a solid core building in my throat. Some of the onlookers relaxed a little, and the waitress seemed to believe me. Strength was returning, and it felt like creation.