From Cut Away

The day started off all wrong. When I got to the clinic, a battered, putty-colored Pinto was in my spot. I found a place on the street and pumped the meter with quarters. I hate to park the Mercedes on the street. Really hate it. The car is the only place since Clarissa left where I don't feel like a balloon bumping against walls. I bought it new. Before I knew there would be a settlement or that it could be disastrous. 

I have to dash through the lot for the covered patio through a winter torrent, but I stop and look back at the car in my spot. The Pinto's smashed back fender is hanging loose. A cartoon eye stares out from a crumpled bumper sticker. Something hairy and yellowy white is crushed against the window—a woman's wig, tangled and dirty. The seat is piled high with clothes.

 My first appointment is with a young woman, too young, I wager. Says her name's Olivia, then shortens it to Livvy. She has extraordinary eyes, gray-green speckled with a yellowish brown. Her face is slightly unbalanced, but there is beauty, even in the disproportion. With her smooth, lanky hair, high cheekbones and deep-set eyes, asymmetry gives her face depth.

She sits in my office, arms hugging her middle, wearing a faded red sweatshirt with a tear along the shoulder seam. Her canvas tennis shoes turn inward on the carpet and her knees drop together to make an upside down V.           

"I don't think I should have come," she says, rubs her palms once over her knees, and then torques her body sideways, jamming her hips back into the seat.

 She tells me she got my name from a friend's mom.

"She's happy?" I ask.

 "Can't shut up about it." She rolls her eyes, looks to see if I am pleased.

 "You told her you wanted to see me?"

She shakes her head. "She's old. Loves hanging out with teenagers, like she's one of us. She's not. Me coming here? She'd go nuts." The girl is very young. I almost say so, but hang back. I wonder if the client we are talking about is really her mother. Then she confesses. "Thing is, it is kind of weird, even to me."

"Go on. I don't think you'll shock me." This usually does the trick. Clients imagine all kinds of strange pleas if you suggest they should; ones that make their own requests seem tame. I can see her thinking, brow-furrowed. I suspect she is worried about something I can't see. Maybe an inverted nipple. A regretted tattoo. It will likely be the smallest thing. On one so fresh, so nearly perfect, the slightest imperfection can stir the deepest uncertainties.

She picks up my portfolio and thumbs through it.

"My face. It isn't right." She closes the book, turns to gaze out the window.

 Even her profile is lovely. Except maybe around the septum. Perhaps a nudge there. But in a year or two she could grow into it. She's too young for me to tell for sure, too young to even guess.

 I smile reassuringly, "I don't often say so, but I see a lot of faces and yours is quite remarkable."

 "It's not about being more pretty."  She fiddles with the edge of her sweatshirt's sleeve. Little pieces of red thread drift down to the white, jacquard upholstery. She is quite unique, almost stunning. I wonder if she has confided in anyone: her parents, a boyfriend, a girlfriend.

 "I don't understand," I tell her. She's simmering, ready to confide. All I need to do is wait. I glance at the clock. It's getting close to my next appointment.

"It's like it's not me."

I tell myself we're in known territory. When people look in the mirror and see who they believe they are, it is a powerful thing. A scalpel in skilled hands can change lives. So many women are ashamed to ask for what they want. They think they're being weak, bowing to vanity. They have to have lived a while to break through, take charge. Often girls like this end up in some hack's office who'll do anything for a price. Gives the profession a bad name. Then we all end up humiliated.

I tell myself we are on track now, what she needs, the professional delicacy that will be required. I have been here before. She's still turned toward the window, as if I'm not the one she's talking to. "You understand?" she asks. "It's not me." 

"I can't be like this anymore. I can't." Her jaw clenches. Not in anger, but steeled resolve. She is stronger than she looks, this one.

"Pretty's the problem. It's too much." She moves one hand over her face like she's erasing it. The other keeps working at her sleeve, fingers moving like they are figuring, tallying up as the cloth unravels.

 "Pretty's the problem … You want less?" 

I am used to the relief of confession. The thrill of decisiveness. Shame is part of the territory. But the desire to diminish, the request to be helped down a step or two in order to see oneself face to face. This is something new. 

Then she looks at me eagerly. She searches me, perhaps thinking I understand. To be honest, I do not, but that she thinks so is a start.

I keep heading down the track I know. Simple forward momentum often sets things in place. I offer to do some computer imaging. Not because I intend to do the surgery. Maybe if she sees her face on screen, she'll think twice and reconsider. I buzz Sandy. No appointments open for weeks. Then, before I can think what else to offer, Livvy is standing, her face fallen, brow heavy and flat, "I can't. It has to be soon. I'm headed out, leaving town."

 "When you get back, then." 

"I don't know." She inches sideways, toward the door. "I shouldn't have come." Her dingy jeans hang shapelessly from her slim hips. It is an odd feeling, watching her turn, a slippery fish.

Most clients want confidence, certainty, a strong hand. That's what I do. This one is young though. Emerging. Exposed. She does not yet know her own strength. At least not well enough to willingly give way.  To lay such fierce vulnerability beneath my scalpel, it stops me short.

Suddenly I realize it's her car that's parked in my space. A vagrant's car, someone living out of it.           

When I say, "Wait," she glances over her shoulder, not at me.

Then she is gone, the door to the hallway open.

I could have handled things differently. She came here for help. To me. I am used to that. Why did I blunder? I put my head down in my hands, try to play it out differently. But I can't. It keeps ending before I have the chance to make it come out right.


Catherine Kirkwood © 2009 All Rights Reserved