On a scale of one to ten, with ten being childbirth, this will be a three.
A three? Really?
Yes. That's what they say.
What other things are a three?
Well, five is supposed to be having your jaw reset. So it's not as bad as that.
Having your foot run over by a car.
Wow, so it's worse than that?
Just a little worse, not much.
Okay, well, I'm ready. No - wait; let me adjust my sweater.
Okay, I'm ready.
Here goes a three.
Right. Here we go then.
The laser, which had been described as pure white light, was more like a fist slammed against a countertop, and her body was a cup on this counter, jumping with each slam. It turned out three was just a number. It didn't describe the pain any more than money describes the things it buys. Two thousand dollars for a port-wine stain removed. A kind of birthmark that seems messy and accidental, as if this red area covering one whole cheek were the careless result of too much fun. She spoke to her body like an animal at the vet, Shhh, it's okay, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry we have to do this to you. This is not unusual; most people feel that their bodies are innocent of their crimes, like animals or plants. Not that this was a crime. She had waited patiently from the time she was fourteen for aesthetic surgery to get cheap, like computers. Nineteen ninety-eight was the year lasers came to the people as good bread, eat and be full, be finally perfect. Oh yes, perfect. She didn't think she would have bothered if she hadn't been what people call "very beautiful except for." This is a special group of citizens living under special laws. Nobody knows what to do with them. We mostly want to stare at them like the optical illusion of a vase made out of the silhouette of two people kissing. Now it is vase ... now it could only be two people kissing ... oh but it is so completely a vase. It is both! Can the world sustain such a contradiction. Only this was better, because as the illusion of prettiness and horribleness flipped back and forth, we flipped with it. Now we were uglier than her, now we were lucky not to be her, oh but then again, at this angle she was too lovely to bear. She was both, we were both, and the world continued to spin.
Now began the part of her life where she was just very beautiful. Except for nothing. Only winners will know what this feels like. Have you ever wanted something very badly and then gotten it. Then you know that winning is many things, but it is never the thing you thought it would be. Poor people who win the lottery do not become rich people. They become poor people who won the lottery. She was a very beautiful person who was missing something very ugly. Her winnings were the absence of something, and this quality hung around her. There was so much potential in the imagined removal of the birthmark, any fool on the bus could play the game of guessing how perfect she would look without it. Now there was not this game to play, there was just a spent feeling. And she was not an idiot, she could sense it. In the first few months after the surgery she received many compliments, but they were always coupled with confusion.
Now you can wear your hair up and show off your face more.
Yeah, I'm going to try it that way.
Wait, say that again.
I'm going to try it that way. What?
Your little accent is gone.
You know, the little Norwegian thing.
Isn't your mom Norwegian?
She's from Denver.
But you have that little bit of an accent, that little way of saying things.
Well not anymore, it's gone now.
And she felt a real sense of loss. Even though she knew that she had never had an accent. It was just the birthmark, which in its density had lent color to even her voice. She didn't miss the birthmark, but she missed her Norwegian heritage, like learning of new relatives after they have died.
All in all though, this was minor, less disruptive than insomnia (but more severe than déja vu). Over time she knew more and more people who had never known her with the birthmark. And you would assume that these people didn't feel any haunting absence, because why should they. Her husband was one of these people. You could tell by looking at him. Not that he wouldn't have married a woman with a port-wine stain. But he wouldn't have. Most people don't and are none the worse for it. Of course sometimes it would happen that she would see a couple and one of them would have a port-wine stain and the other one would clearly be in love with this person, and she would hate her husband a little. Which was ridiculous because he was innocent. But he wasn't an idiot and so he would notice.
Are you being weird?
Actually I'm not. I'm just eating my salad.
I can see them too you know. I saw them come in.
Hers is worse than mine was. Mine didn't go down on my neck like that.
Do you want to try this soup?
I bet he's an environmentalist. Doesn't he look like one?
Maybe you should go sit with them.
Maybe I will.
I don't see you moving.
Did you just finish the soup?
I thought we were splitting. I offered it to you.
Well you can't have any of this salad then.
It was a small thing, but it was a thing, and things have a way of either dying or growing, and it wasn't dying. Years went by. This thing grew, like a child, microscopically, every day. And since they were team, and all teams want to win, they continuously adjusted their vision to keep its growth invisible. They wordlessly excused each other for not loving each other as much as they had planned. There were empty rooms in the house where they had meant to put their love and they worked together to fill these rooms with high-end, consumer-grade equipment. It was a tight situation. The next sudden move would have to be through the wall. What happened was this. She was trying to get the lid off a new jar of jam and she was banging it on the counter. This is a well-known tip, a kitchen trick, a bang to loosen the lid. It's not witchery or black magic or anything, it's just a way to release the pressure under the lid. She banged it too hard and the jar broke. She screamed. Her husband came running when he heard the sound. There was red everywhere and in that instant he saw blood. Hallucinatory clarity: you know for sure. But in the next moment your mind relinquishes control, and gives you back to reality; it was jam. Everywhere. She was laughing, picking up the shards of glass out of the strawberry mash. She was laughing at the mess and her face was down, looking at the floor, and her hair was around her face like a curtain and then she looked up at him and said, Can you bring the trash can over here?
And it happened again. For a moment he thought he saw a port-wine stain on her cheek. It was fiercely red and bigger than he had ever imagined. It was bloodier than even blood, like sick blood, animal blood, the blood racist people think beats inside of people of other races: blood that shouldn't touch my own. And the next moment it was just jam and he laughed and rubbed the kitchen towel on her cheek. Her clean cheek. Her port-wine stain.
Can you get the trashcan?
Go look in the mirror.
Go look in the mirror.
Stop talking like that. Why are you talking like that? What?
He was looking at her cheek and she instinctively put her hand on the mark, and then she ran to bathroom.
She was in there for a long time. Maybe thirty minutes. You've never had thirty minutes like these. She stared at the port-wine stain and she breathed in and she breathed out.
It was like being twenty-three again, but she was thirty-eight now. Fifteen years without it, and now, here it was. In exactly the same place. She rubbed her finger around its edges. It came as high as her right eye, over to the edge of her nostril, across her whole cheek to the ear, ending at her jawbone. In purplish-red. She wasn't thinking anything, she wasn't afraid or disappointed or worried. She was just looking at the stain the way you would look at yourself fifteen years after your own death. Oh, you again. Now it was obvious that it had always been there, just around the corner. She had startled it forward, back into sight. She looked into its redness and breathed in and breathed out and found herself in a kind of trance. She thought: I am in a kind of trance. But she didn't try to shake out of it, instead she shallowed her breathing for fear of waking up. In the trance there was one sound and one smell and one sight and one sensation and it was the sound and smell and sight and sensation of her port-wine stain and this stain was her, it was her body. She didn't have to think because plants don't have to think about themselves and weather doesn't have to think about itself, it just blows around. It was this kind of trance, she was just blowing around. It's hard to describe it any more than that, except to say that it lasted about twenty-five minutes. That is a very, very long time just to be blowing around. Mostly you waft for a second or two, a half-second maybe. And then you spend the rest of your life trying to describe it, to regain the perspective. You say: It was like I was just blowing around, and you wave your arms in the air. But there were no arms like that and you know it. It's become this long story you tell about this half-second of your life. Only for her it was twenty-five minutes. Do you understand? Twenty. Five. Minutes. If it could have lasted forever, she would have gladly lived there, inside the stain, a red and limbless world. She came back like a plane taking off, she was no longer in the stain, but looking at it from above. It grew smaller and smaller until it was just a tiny region in a larger mass, one which this pilot favored, hovered above, but would not touch down on again. She pulled some toilet paper off the roll and blew her nose.
He found himself kneeling. He was waiting for her on his knees. He was worried she would not let him love her with the stain. He had already decided, long ago, twenty or thirty minutes ago, that the stain was fine. He had only seen it for a moment but he was already used to it. It was good. It somehow allowed them to have more. They could have a child now, he thought. There was a loose feeling in the air. The jam was still on the floor and that was okay. He would just kneel here and wait for her to come out and hope he would be able to tell her about the looseness in a loose way. He wanted to keep the feeling. He hoped she wasn't removing it somehow, the stain. She should keep it and they should have a kid. He could hear her blowing her nose, now she was opening the door. He would stay on his knees, just like this. She would see him this way and understand.