My earlobes were the first thing I touched after waking from the brief coma caused by the accident. I was glad I could rub them between my fingers, unharmed and unbloodied, so different from the rest of what remained of my face. It was comforting and cozy to pinch and pull on them like saltwater taffy when surrounded by the doctors discussing me and my case each morning during rounds. I could hear with my ears and also escape into the texture of them.
Reconstruction makes you as unrecognizable to yourself as anyone else. They wanted to prepare me for what that first look in the mirror would be like after the surgery. They didn’t believe I was excited. You should be proud, I told them, not afraid to reveal your intricate and elaborate work. I joked to the attending that I would be like Frankenstein’s monster when they were done.
“You’re still you, Jane,” one of the residents called out. I remember staring at her, that young and eager doctor in training, long after she’d finished interrupting. I wanted to catch the soft flesh of her earlobe in my teeth, feel the tickle of that light peach fuzz on each bud of my tongue.
My nurse then said that my parents and brother were waiting to see me and could they come in now? But I told her I was tired, so maybe later.
Now the surgery is over and I am awake, looking at a face in the mirror they say is mine.
After waiting for my sobs to fill the room, the doctors leave upon seeing my anticlimactic reaction. I say, thank you but I would just like to sleep.
My beautiful resident closes the door and stays inside. “You don’t have to pretend to be so strong.”
“I’m not pretending. I don’t mind. I wasn’t attached to the old face.” I sound sure and therefore I probably am.
She makes her way to my bedside. “Does it look very different?” She looks so sorry.
“Yes.” I don’t hesitate or dress the truth up prettier than it is.
“We do our best, but when the damage—” She talks in that sweet honey singsong I’ve enjoyed so much, even as it’s made her colleagues roll their eyes when she speaks with confident authority. I stop her though I like to listen to her. The music of her.
“You don’t need to do that. I know. I’m not upset with you.”
“It’s my fault,” she says, but I sense the words before I hear them. “I’m new at getting to assist during the procedures. And my hand—I got so nervous, it shook, and I’m so sorry.”
She’s breathing too fast for language to keep up and I place my hand on hers, the one she indicated had been the guilty party during my surgery. I can feel it tremble now beneath mine. I reach for her arm, to pull her closer to me, until I feel the rigid tension in her small frame start to lessen and then she’s seated on my bed as I want.
“It’s the only way you baby doctors can learn,” I tell her with a smile I mean genuinely even if it looks false, like a stranger’s. “Besides, they wouldn’t have let you do anything too important.”
She laughs with tears in the notes. “You’re not the one supposed to be comforting me.”
“Maybe. But you’re upset and I’m not. So this way makes sense for now, right?”
“What are you, a saint?” She notices the fixation of my eyes on her earlobes and the mood in the room shifts. I know she’ll probably leave any minute now and I’ll let her. Then it’ll just be me and the mirror. Alone.
“Sad that being understanding and decent qualifies one for sainthood now,” I say, but I keep my tone light and playful as I release her hand and readjust my body against the pillows behind me. I’m not looking at her anymore and I think she knows she’d better go. She stands and I focus on the wrinkles and creases of her turquoise scrubs, so I can unmemorize her face.
“You’re very nice to make me feel better, but I am still sorry,” she says.
She seems to be going and is almost gone. But then she turns around and leans back against the door and nods at me. Something in her expression reminds me of the warmth intermingled with pity I could read in the faces of all my loved ones the first time they saw me after it happened. It was maybe not as painful as it would be if they’d physically recoiled, but somehow it felt like they had anyway. I haven’t let any of them come back inside my room since before the surgery. I’m told they took turns showing up just in case for a while, only to be rejected outside my door. Each day, my nurses would remind me that they were there, in the waiting room, poised and ready for when I’d change my mind. Until I didn’t and the nurses stopped saying they were there. I can’t ask now even though I wonder and need to know. Because what if they’re not anymore? I hate my doctor for staying.
“Don’t look at me.”
She stares out the window instead. Then she waits until I start to cry. Once I do finally begin, it’s hard to stop. I rub and scratch at my left earlobe so fiercely and savagely that my nails nearly draw blood. I don’t know why I seek to destroy my own pacifier, but I want to claw my earlobes until they resemble the pulp of a blood orange, like I imagine my whole face did in the back of the ambulance that night. When she wrestles my hands away from my ears and hugs me, I almost ask—did any of them wait for me? Are they still here?
Anna Vangala Jones is the author of the forthcoming short story collection Turmeric & Sugar (Thirty West Publishing, May 2021). Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Wigleaf, HAD, and AAWW’s The Margins, among others. Find her online at annavangalajones.com and on Twitter @anniejo_17.