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Last Saturday, I was sitting on a bench in Century 21 while my boyfriend tried on pair after pair of sneakers. I scrolled through my Twitter feed, trying not to look too perturbed by the neon orange, water sock-esque monstrosities on his feet -- if he got a rise out of me, he’d be sure to buy them.
A headline glowed out at me from my tiny screen: “Does This Face Look Scary to You?” And it did, but not for the reasons you think.
The face belonged to Victoria, a three-year-old girl who was recently asked to leave a KFC because her extensive facial injuries from a dog attack were “scaring” the other customers. I know that what they wanted to write was “grossing out.” I know because when I looked at the girl in the picture with the swollen face, scabs lining her lips and nose, and an achingly cheerful glittery eye patch covering her right eye, I saw a face that grossed out and scared people for years: my own. In the photo, Victoria's trying to smile, but her lips are broken and blood-crusted. The eye not hidden by a patch looks terrified. I would recognize that terror grimace masquerading as a smile anywhere.
Yes, that face scared me. Because it was the one I saw in the mirror for years after my own accident left me with the same injuries as Victoria -- a crushed jaw, a liquefied eye socket, pulverized cheekbones. Victoria lost her eye; they saved mine. But I lost eight teeth (important ones, like, all the ones you can see in a smile), and most of my top gums. Put your tongue at the roof of your mouth. Feel how it’s concave? Mine is a lumpy, squishy mass of repurposed hipbone covered in thigh skin. Run your tongue along your teeth. Taste anything? Mine taste like licking a porcelain bathroom sink, except tinged with blood from ill-fitting dental implants that agitate my gums and have never for a moment looked like natural human teeth.
In the aisle of Century 21, surrounded by last year’s forgotten sneakers which had already taken on the garage sale sag of stuff nobody wanted, I pressed the home button on my phone. Victoria’s face disappeared.
I don’t know if I have PTSD. I have never talked to a therapist about my accident. In my experience, doctors are smug, and you can’t trust them. In the hospital, when my gelatinous eye floated in the waste of my eye socket and my mouth was a bloody, empty hole, doctors looked at me coolly over the tops of clipboards and said, “This is what happens when you don’t wear your seatbelt.”
So I don’t know about PTSD. But I do know that the screech of tires on concrete, the rotten yet metallic smell of my dentures when a dentist prods them with one of his whirring torture devices, or the sight of a little girl’s broken face cause a tightness in my stomach, a pain in my chest, and my whole body starts to feel like I’m weeping even though my eyes are dry. This is what happens when you don’t wear your seatbelt.
I guess you want to know what happened. I was sitting in the backseat of a friend’s car when she lost control. My face slammed into the back of the headrest and basically exploded. Of course I don’t remember any of this. My parents told me two weeks later when I woke up from a coma in the ICU of the hospital. Then began the long business of putting me back together.
I think I had 20-something surgeries and small procedures. Not all at once. First there was the big one: the nine-hour event where they replaced most of the bones in my face and jaw with titanium. “The Bionic Woman” my family and I joked, laughing sadly, trying to make it funny.
After that, the procedures were smaller, ranging from white-coated interns pulling stitches out of the corner of my eye with tweezers to the two-day hospital stay when they removed a few inches of hip and inserted the bone into my mouth to rebuild my gums. I went months without teeth, languishing on my couch in front of reruns of "Love Connection," looking through the peephole when well-meaning friends dropped by with milkshakes but being too afraid of my face to open the door. When I did have teeth that first year, it was never for more than a few weeks at a time, and they were flimsy dentures that wobbled beneath my fingers with I prodded them in front of a mirror.
Victoria went into that KFC, which makes her braver than I ever was. I couldn’t stand to be looked at. I’d been popular in high school, one of the pretty girls elected to wear a tiara and wave a scepter in front of my classmates at basketball games. I couldn’t face the lumpy, swollen monster that looked back at me in the mirror, and I absolutely couldn’t face the people in line at the movies or at nearby tables in restaurants, all glancing side-eyed to figure out what was wrong with me.
I messaged Victoria on Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t stop thinking about her and her sad little smile, her one terrified eye. I wanted to send money, but I don’t have any, so I sent what I could: words. Here’s the message.
I read about what happened to you, and I wanted to let you know that I understand how sad and scared you must feel right know. I know because when I was younger, I had an accident too. I had almost all the same injuries as you. I used to feel funny going to the movies or out with my friends because I was afraid that people would look at me differently. But eventually I did, and I realized that my friends and family loved me just the same and that was all that mattered. It was a long road, but I hope that you’ll look at my profile picture and see that I’m smiling now and not scared anymore. I’m rooting for you, and I hope you won’t let a few mean people make you feel sad. There are millions of us around the world who think you’re beautiful and brave!
I want her to feel beautiful and brave, for this whole horrible ordeal to be over and for Victoria to go back to the normal life she lived before.
But I know she can’t. It’s never over. Everyone -- doctors, parents, friends -- promised me that when my surgeries were finished and my dental implants were in, my life would be the way it was before. In truth, nothing has ever been the same. There are callouses on my tongue from constantly worrying my bridge. Ever had an ulcer on your cheek that you prodded and bit until you whole mouth was swollen? It’s like that, but for a decade.
Seven years after my accident, I had to have another surgery on my gums. They wouldn’t stop bleeding, and for months leading up to the surgery I had to explain to friends, my boyfriend, my students, why my teeth were occasionally dotted with blood. Every time I meet someone new, I worry that two seconds after I leave them, they will try to guess at what’s wrong with me that they can’t quite put their finger on it.
When a camera comes out, I feel myself clench. If the photo catches me from a certain angle, the left half of my face looks dead, my eye just sort of floating, staring at nothing, in spite of my cheek implants. Once, in front of an entire writing workshop, a misogynistic, bullshit professor asked me, apropos of nothing, exactly how many teeth weren’t mine. He referred to me all semester as a “damaged woman.”
When I confess all this to friends, usually over wine, and roll out my checklist of insecurities, they always respond, “But you’re so pretty.” And I am. But what’s hard to explain is that I don’t feel real. The face in photographs is still not the one I recognize as “mine.” Occasionally, I can feel air rushing behind my cheek implant when I breathe. My tongue hurts. There’s blood in the sink when I brush my teeth. I hate to agree with the bullshit misogynist, but I do feel damaged sometimes.
I hope Victoria doesn't grow up to feel this way.
And Victoria, this is only a small portion of my life. Most days I’m fine. I’m fun. I’ve achieved a lot: a PhD, publications, a long-term relationship with a guy who (shoe taste aside) is wonderful and would never describe me as damaged. So Victoria, I want you to know all that too. Because I am smiling in my profile picture, still scared, but not broken.