The first successful hand transplant recipient refused to take his immunosuppressive drugs, his body rejected the hand, and it was amputated at his request. Newspapers quoted him as saying he was “mentally detached from it.” Another man who received a penis transplant after losing all but a half-inch of his own had it cut off after fourteen days, not because it didn’t work (he could pee standing up by then), but because of what the doctors referred to as “a severe psychological problem of the recipient and his wife.” I still went ahead with the facial allotransplantation surgery.
“Count backwards from ten,” the anesthesiologist said, and I said, “Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.” If I said six or five I don’t remember. I remember the blue pajamas everybody was wearing, and the device the surgeon had attached to his glasses that looked like a miniature telescope, and that’s it. I woke up covered in bandages and nauseated.
The week before I had made myself a lemon meringue pie. It’s my favorite dessert, and possibly my favorite food. I love the brightness of the yolks. I love zesting the lemons into a small mixing bowl, their bright yellow grains like pollen against the glass. But when I put the lemon against the grater I couldn’t disfigure its surface and I started to cry. I understood why, of course; it was perfectly obvious to me; but I wanted my pie, too. I made myself zest the lemon and then I baked the pie and then I ate a bite and my damaged tongue couldn’t taste it just like it hadn’t been able to taste much of anything since the accident, which was somehow always a surprise to me, and I went to the bathroom to vomit. I threw the rest of the pie in the garbage, along with the scalloped glass pie plate, a wedding gift from Parker’s decrepit great-aunt Gert. Before the accident, Parker would have been pretty mad about that, but only let some drunk smash your face against a dashboard leaving you horribly disfigured and you too will discover that you can do anything, and nobody will say a word.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” I remember I said, and a nurse injected something into my IV. She was a skinny black girl in pink scrubs. “Thanks,” I said, and she patted my hand and said, “just call if you need anything.” In the hand she patted was a little box with a button on it, which was attached to the bed by a long cord. Presumably the button, when pushed, would signal her to come back. I hoped nobody she loved would ever have to go through this.
At the party to celebrate my new face, Grace said to me, “You look great. Really natural.” When the car caught fire, my face was burned off. My nose and jaw had been pulped by the dashboard, and what was left of my face was a mess. A hot mess. Ha.
In comparison to before, of course I looked better, but I had a mirror and I knew it didn’t look natural. It looked I’d been left in the sun too long and started to melt. They’d go back in later to remove some of the extra flesh and skin. Grace was trying to be kind, of course, but she didn’t understand. I didn’t care that I looked kind of weird, so I didn’t need to be convinced that I looked normal. I had a nose and a whole jaw again, not to mention palate, teeth and parotid gland. It was nice to have too much face for once. I tried to smile at Grace, but the nerves under the transplant were barely starting to respond, and I couldn’t be sure if it looked like anything. I’d practiced smiling for an hour that morning, watching myself in the mirror, but the effect was entirely hit or miss.
“Have another drink, Grace,” I said, and I made her a brandy Alexander, her favorite. I knew all my friends’ favorite drinks; we were all famous drinkers. In the time it took me to pour the crème de cacao, cream and brandy into a cocktail shaker, she’d gotten ensnared by one of Parker’s stories along with six other women. I dusted some ground nutmeg across the top of her drink and handed it to her.
Parker was talking about the time he went on a vision quest (he can’t ever just get high; it has to be spiritual). I know this story back to front. He told me it on our first date: he went out to the forest with an ex-girlfriend of his, who was part Cherokee, and she gave him some LSD and took him to a clearing, where they lay on their backs and looked at the stars. The girl told him the Cherokee believed you could find out who you were through a vision quest, and she was going to show him who he was. He saw a coyote in the sky made of stars, and the coyote’s body was made of clouds, and he went to sleep. When he woke up, the girl had left him there and driven back to the city. He had to hitchhike back and when he arrived, he went to the girl’s house and she told him that she’d said she was going to show him who he was, and she had. He was the kind of guy who gets left behind. He was the kind of guy who dumps a girl and then trusts her when she offers him LSD. He was the kind of guy who thinks a coyote of all clichéd things is his spirit animal. (I guess I married him because I’m the kind of girl who likes coyotes.) Parker always tells this story like it’s the funniest thing in the world, and everybody always laughs. “She was so angry when I broke up with her,” Parker said.
“Aren’t you going to have one?” Grace said, shaking her drink.
“Can’t,” I said.
“She couldn’t stand losing face,” Parker said, and then he noticed me on the periphery of his little crowd, and his face crumpled into an expression I can’t quite describe, somewhere between remorse and the social horror one feels when one mentions something unmentionable. I tried to smile, to show I knew he hadn’t been talking about me, but I don’t think it came across. I don’t know what he saw instead of a smile, and for the first time I wondered if I hadn’t been better off without a face. I watched him toss back a finger of Maker’s Mark.
I’d told the investigators it was the other driver’s fault. They never caught him, so it wasn’t hurting anybody. I never mentioned the drinks we had before the accident to anybody. I was just as drunk as Parker, after all, and I’d long known that it was our mutual appreciation for a well-told lie that made our marriage work.
Reprinted with permission of the author, © Joanne Merriam