The Face of God
by Sarah Wang
Morning traffic wheezed by outside. The sun slanted anemically through the bedroom window in twin rhombi. I didn’t know what to expect at the interview, but I felt I could capably navigate anything that came my way—although often when I felt like this it was a result of hubris rather than competence.
I applied a pore strip to my nose, and as it dried, hardening, it pulled the skin of my nose into a taut salutation to the absent chorus of observers whom I envisioned could see me. I looked in the mirror, white strip affixed across my nose, my reflection invoking a memory of the first time I saw my mother after she had gotten plastic surgery when I was eight. She had flown to Hong Kong for a face-lift, a chin tuck, and lip augmentation. I couldn’t look at her. She was equal parts artificial and human, her new face referring to her old face, the mandate of the former unconsciously alerting to me that subtle and not so subtle changes were perpetually taking place without warning or precedent, materializing around and even within me, and everything was different and also just the same as it was before. I peeled the pore strip away, layers of epidermis invisibly ripping from my body along with the blackheads extracted by the adhesive.
“Sorry I’m late. I got into a car accident.” Immediately after saying this, I regretted it. Why hadn’t I said that there was a car accident ahead on the freeway, and traffic was backed up from Downtown to Pasadena? Already I seemed unreliable and prone to trouble. At nine-forty-five, when I should have been on the road already, I’d had second thoughts and changed into a charcoal jumpsuit, then a linen shirtdress, then ripped jeans and a Homer Simpson t-shirt, the pile of discarded garments like the bodiless remains of a disappeared cult in the corner of my bedroom floor, before going back, defeated, to my original outfit: a white suede skirt, white t-shirt, and white sneakers.
“That’s okay,” the editor said, lighting a cigarette in the dim room. He took a drag, exhaling a funnel of yellow smoke. The blinds on the windows were all shut. The room contained the potential to awaken something from its nonexistence, like a million tiny worms would start to bore out the walls. I attributed this feeling to a series of posters on the wall diagramming a man stretching his belly button around himself until his whole body was turned inside out, popping into a flesh-ball that rolled down Fifth Avenue past a mother who was smoking a pipe that reached the moon, and in the bowl of the pipe crouched an old-faced fetus. “Some people enjoy getting into accidents. I wouldn’t know, though. I don’t have a driver’s license. I walk everywhere.”
The press published mostly queer erotica, a subject that I had as much knowledge of, and was as relevant to my life, as motherhood, which is to say, none. I was a fast reader. My grammar was fine. The position was only for an entry-level editorial assistant. Custom bookcases lined the walls, the hallways, filled with books I’d never read, written by people I’d never even heard of. I stared at a spine that read, Meth for Children. Certainly it had to be Math. But it was marked clearly: M-e-t-h.
It had been awhile since I’d been this east in the city. The office was flanked by a rare plant boutique that sold the world’s only bioluminescent cactus, created by crossbreeding succulents with the glowing marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri, and an allergen-free café that guaranteed security against any and all allergies—gluten, dairy, shellfish, nut, strawberry, egg, whatever. I’d read about both places last week in an article on gentrification. Where were the taquerias, the botanicas, and the little stands on the corner selling chili and lime-spiked fruit in plastic bags? Perhaps if I drove a mile or two eastward, I would find them elsewhere in the same arrangements.
“You don’t have a driver’s license? You walk?” I felt bad. Not for him, but for myself. The smoke, the lack of natural light, the posters, the bookcases sagging with thousands of musty books, and the dark green walls were making me nauseas. My short skirt barely covered my crotch when I sat down. I crossed my legs and pulled a book onto my lap. A quote on the back read, The point of writing is to depict that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t. This book does that, well.
“I don’t really leave this neighborhood that often but when I do, yes, I walk. Do you do yoga?” he asked, taking a long drag of his thin white cigarette. He leaned so far back in his chair he seemed doomed to tip over. He didn’t, though. It was like Michael Jackson’s anti-gravity lean.
“Yes. No. Sometimes. Not really,” I stammered. “Why?”
“The outfit. All that white.”
“Oh.” I wanted to say something about smoking, second hand smoke, religion, yoga, the drawn shades, gentrification, but no coherent thought strung itself together. “But, well, if you have a meeting in Santa Monica, you walk?” It was impossible. He was a liar. Walking to Santa Monica would take a week. No one could feasibly get around Los Angeles by walking. Unless he was agoraphobic and arranged his life so that he would never have to leave this room. Looking around at the drawn shades and the groaning bookshelves, it was possible, actually, that he was agoraphobic. He probably slept in a cot in the back. The room was dank with the smell of bodies, of scalp and skin and wet mouths. Would an agoraphobe chase you if you ran outside with his wallet? No wallet in sight, but there was a deli sandwich wrapped in paper and secured with a rubber band on the counter by the sink in the back. I envisioned myself grabbing the sandwich and running out the door, onto the sidewalk, holding it up in one hand, and taunting the editor with it as he stood inside the doorway, unable to step out of his own psychological force field. “Never mind. Santa Monica sucks anyway. No one wants to go there.”
“So, tell me about yourself,” he said, stamping out the cigarette in a green glass ashtray, and then smelling his fingertips. He had a very thin nose that looked anorexic, elongated by his thin face. His eyes were so close together they touched the sides of his nose. I couldn’t tell if this arrangement made him look intelligent or creepy. Both, I guess.
“I am a college graduate,” I said robotically. “I majored in English. I minored in creative writing. Currently I work in a bookstore.” His question lit a flame of confusion in me. It was too open. What was I supposed to say about myself? Where I lived, what my hobbies were? List my professional experience? I didn’t have any to speak of. “I interned for a newspaper once. It wasn’t like the L.A. Times or anything. More provincial. Yeah. I like to read books.”
“What kind of books?” he asked intently, not missing a beat.
“Uh,” I paused. The last book I read was about a girl who had murdered her best friend. I hadn’t realized it was YA until I’d finished it. That’s why the font was so big. The one before that was a book about two college women whose friendship had been destroyed by a guy. All the books I liked were similar in theme and genre. I couldn’t tell him the truth. The truth was too girly, too hetero. I needed something edgier to appeal to this queer erotica publisher. I looked down at my lap. “I like books that prove that life isn’t worth living by depicting that it is.”
He laughed. “Like what, some prep-school, ivy league, smug fiction?”
Wait—had I transposed parts of the sentence? “No, no. I meant that I like books that show that life is worth living by depicting that it isn’t.”
“Which one is it?” He grinned and kicked off a shoe, which I only noticed then were rubber gardening clogs with cutout holes all over it. His bare foot, extracted from the delicate mold of the shoe, was extraordinarily pale and thus skinless-looking, spotted with tan circles from the clog cutouts. Polka-dotted foot tan. It was mesmeric. “Is life worth living, or isn’t it?”
When my car arrived at the curb in front of my mother’s house, I was surprised to discover that I had no memory of the drive. There was no recognition of traffic patterns, glimpses of people or events that had surely populated my passage, or even ambient smells or sounds. But before I could assess the gap further, I saw my mother’s shadow in the living room window, knowing that she was watching me.
“Bao bao.” My mother greeted me as I sat down across from her. She held out her hands, which were stiff with arthritis and joint pain. I held her hands gently, loosely encircling them with my own, paying attention to not bend her fingers or put too much pressure on them. Heat radiated from her, like the radioactive glow of a contaminated body. She was never without a fever these days, her body twisted around the sheets in bed, dawn giving shape and color to the San Gabriel Mountains, the heavy bill of a crow cawing her name in the sharp morning air.
“Did you go to the hematologist last week?” I asked, letting go of her hands.
“I did. The nurse looked like she was fifteen years old. I think it was the first time she took blood. Look.” She flipped her arm over to show me the bloom of purple and green, yellowing at the edges like a fallen leaf. “More blood work. They just tell me to rest and take aspirin for inflammation.”
I leaned back in my chair, partially loose from the base of its legs by dint of a missing screw, and tried to feel the air from outside through the open, screenless window; wanting some of the abnormally humid Los Angeles air to blend with the interior air in an attempt to commune with the world beyond the hermetic boundaries of my mother’s house.
Strewn across the living room were half-empty boxes filled with old ceramics and jewelry that she had made, souvenirs like miniature jade temples from Malaysia and bottles of unused emu oil from New Zealand, VHS tapes of Korean soap operas, photos of my mother hugging various statues in her travels, castoff clothing from my aunt, and as seen on T.V. products. Accumulating things had been a lifelong occupation for my mother. In the high of the moment, acquiring objects produced an unparalleled joy in her. But afterwards, vexation quickly took over when she had to figure out what to do with it all. Over the last three months, she had been slowly packing everything, putting away one object at a time when her body allowed for this work. She thought that all the clutter was echoing her body’s malaise. It was a loop, one feeding the other.
After a year of ailing from various illnesses with no clear diagnosis, she was somewhat resigned to her state. This was the year of the rabbit, my mother’s year. She was sixty. I’d always thought that the return of your Chinese zodiac year brought good luck. It was, after all, the year you were introduced into this world, born screeching and bloody into being. You had a voice. You had a body. You had a vagina and tiny little fingernails. By what chance were you brought into this world, the success of one sperm making its journey to fertilize a single egg? Only that one sperm, out of two hundred and fifty million released, mating with that particular egg-of-the-month, could have produced you. If that wasn’t the stuff of good fortune, what was? But my mother insisted that the return of your year brought bad luck, not good, because it offended the God of Age. Disaster would strike in your zodiac year. What that signified to me then, was that being born was a harbinger of bad fortune, and every twelfth year, you were punished for pushing your way into this already-overpopulated world; the disastrous reverberation a recurrent punishment reminding you of your terrible primal deed. This year was the year of the rabbit, the year of lying in bed, the fever year of twisted flesh. My mother’s year.
“What were you doing this morning?” my mother asked, raking one stiff hand through the unruly curls of her shoulder-length hair. Since I was a child, my mother had been perming her hair; loyal patronage to a local beauty school resulted in a parade of erratic hairstyles as different students executed each bimonthly perm.
“I was at a job interview.” Immediately after I said this, I regretted it. Now I would have to either explain how humiliating the experience had been, or lie and say that it had gone well. But then, later, she would ask why I didn’t get the job, which of course, I wouldn’t. The editor, whose name I never knew, or else forgot, said he’d be in touch.
“You wear leather miniskirts to job interviews? What kind of job is it? Why do you need to look for another job? Did you get fired again?”
“No.” I shook my head, looking off into the distance at a pair of dry chaparral bushes just outside the picture window. The branches were oily and desiccated, ripe for combustion.
I had achieved some notoriety among those who knew me for being fired from basically every job I’d ever had. The Italian restaurant where I had been singled out as a “bad egg,” the salon where I’d fall asleep at the front desk during my narcoleptic phase, the bar where I’d empty out the pool table quarters directly into my purse. I didn’t care about getting fired. I liked it. I did it on purpose. I couldn’t stand working at places where everyone was so dull and dumb, fatheads witlessly grinding away the hours for a paycheck.
When I was a clerk at a bookstore, I hadn’t been fired. Quite possibly, it was the only instance in which I hadn’t been fired. As much as I hated working retail, at least I had been in the company of likeminded cohorts. We overcharged demanding customers and pocketed the money. We let our friends steal books. We covered for Emile, who had secretly been living in the attic for the past eight months after he’d lost his apartment. I had to be in the right context. Otherwise, what was the point? Walking around all day being misunderstood was a waste of time.
As badly as I felt I had performed at the interview this morning, as oppressing as the drawn shades and warped bookshelves in the office seemed, and even as horrifying as the agoraphobic editor’s polka-dotted feet were, I still wanted the job. Besides, I enjoyed being horrified. Everyone enjoys it. All in all, the experience exuded a strangeness that was neither foreign nor native to me, a strangeness that I respected and felt I had a place inside.
“Well, what’s the job? Are you hired?” my mother asked. She pointed to a hair clip on the floor. “Can you pick that up for me? I can’t bend over or else my eyes will bleed.”
“What are you talking about? Why would your eyes bleed?” I picked up the clip and pulled her bangs to the side, pinning them back. Her hands were too arthritic to do it herself. How did she do anything? Life was one demanding task after another: wiping butts and holding chopsticks, opening car doors and fastening bras.
“Don’t you remember? I had eye surgery on Wednesday. Cataracts. The doctor told me not to bend over or else blood will spill from my eyes.” She coughed, reaching for an empty glass mug. “No more tea.”
“I’ll make you some.” I took her glass mug and went to the kitchen.
My mother had not been in good health for, well, the entire time I had known her. She’d always been asthmatic. Her teeth were constantly falling out. Osteoporosis, high blood pressure, bad knees—the daily maladies from which she had suffered since my childhood. But in the past year, the material insistence of my mother’s rapid degeneration had finally usurped the strong bond of our collective denial that her accumulating ailments would pass like a bad smell. Just wait, bear down, hold your breath, and soon it would be all clear. But it wasn’t like that. Her hair began falling out. There was the constant fever, the rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain, back pain, muscle pain, vaginal ulcers, skin lesions, sleeplessness, chronic fatigue. Cat scans and blood work. Dermatologists and hematologists. Anti-inflammatories and sleep studies. Each doctor had a different diagnosis, except when they had none. Most of the time the test results were inconclusive. Each visit, each telephone call, each pharmaceutical panacea was a blow hammering us beyond a recognizable shape.
An electric dispenser on the kitchen counter provided continuous hot water, which I pumped into a clear glass teapot shaped like a bubble. It was like pouring water into a vessel made of and by itself. I spooned a mound of jasmine tea into the teapot and stirred the leaves around.
“You put in too much tea for such a small pot.” My mother stood behind me, leaning in.
Normally her unsolicited counsel would trigger a reflex in me, prompting an eye-roll or a rancorous retort, or even, deplorably, when I was at my worst, slamming the spoon down on the marble counter and huffing, You do it then. “Okay,” I said calmly. “Go sit down. I’ll bring it to you.”
“Tell me about the interview.” She stood unmoving, watching me closely.
In turn, I watched her closely. I’d always thought that the features on her face had been stretched out sideways by the face-lift, as if the doctors hadn’t counterbalanced the horizontal stretching with enough vertical stretching. If my mother had never gotten plastic surgery, would our lives have unfolded in the same way? The facial distortion I’d witnessed as a child had left me feeling radically alienated from my mother, but perhaps I would have felt alienated from her anyway for one reason or another. Empathy is located in the face, but if a face is no longer recognizable, or if it evokes terror, or worse yet, if it is no longer a face, then everything I understood about my mother, sanctioned by her original face, changed when I was eight years old.
“The interview was okay. I’ll hear back next week.” I said, placing the teapot and glass mug on a tray.
“How much does it pay?”
“I really have no idea.”
“Why would you try to get a job if you don’t even know how much it pays?”
That was a good question, a question I had no answer for, only that I was to some degree desperate, and at the same time I was apathetic and didn’t care about pragmatic things, yet I knew I should, sometimes, and that none of the people I hung out with cared about income either, but maybe that was only because they didn’t have to because their parents’ money afforded them the luxury of leading such careless and irresponsible lives. And me, I was not one who could afford such luxuries, but still I found myself absorbed into their ethos. I supposed that made me even more mindless than the rest.
“It probably pays minimum wage or close to that,” I said.
“What’s minimum wage?”
“I don’t remember.”
“What are you going to do about your life?” my mother sighed. “I don’t know what you do all day. You wander around like you have no head. I worry about you. You have no idea how much I worry.”
I was worried about me too. What would happen to me? I was also worried about her. What would happen to her, and to me after that? What would happen to me without her? I had entered a door I was loath to open; plunging into the vortex of my mother’s orbit. But I supposed just because you don’t look at something doesn’t mean it’s not there.
“Maybe worrying about me is really a way to worry about yourself.” I poured the tea into the glass mug, her favorite souvenir from a trip to Tokyo a few years ago. Swaddling the mug in a sweater and holding it on her lap through the long journey home, she safely ferried it home. The mug had a band of cork around it to protect your hands from the heat of the liquid inside, the perfect companion to her glass teapot, which I’d given to her for her birthday one year. The glass mug was the only vessel from which she drank at home. “You’re the one who’s not well. Have you made an appointment with the psychologist?”
“I have a daughter who is very smart. Just like her father. He is smart too. That’s why he didn’t have to pay child support and alimony. That’s how smart he is.”
“What does that have anything to do with what we’re talking about?”
“We are talking about your interview. We are talking about the emergency state of your life. You graduated college over a year ago. Then you turn it around and ask me if I’m seeing a psychologist, and that my legitimate concerns for your life are about myself. You should become a psychologist. See? I can do it too.”
“I only asked because multiple doctors have recommended you see a psychologist. Never mind. Just forget it.”
What was home, the place of eternal return, where I longed to be? Each time I came to my mother’s house, I wanted to feel it here; that my place in the world, however precarious or elusive, would find anchor in the house where I had spent so many years of my life dreaming and waiting for the tomorrow that would bring some kind of clarity to the miasma of the day. I hadn’t planned on coming to see my mother after the interview, but an internal honing system had brought me here, to her. I wanted to be received. I wanted to see my mother as she had been when I was a child; the return of the intelligible face. I couldn’t tell her about the morning’s disaster, how I had misappropriated and then blundered the blurb on the back of the book. I couldn’t tell her about lapsing into the temporary possession of a robot, answering questions with the linguistic aptitude of an intermediate ESL student.
I took my mother’s hands and wrapped them around the glass mug so that she would be able to hold it. All the longing I held inside of me—for my father who had disappeared when I was five only to materialize a few years later with a perm that he’d gotten in Taipei for the occasion of his wedding to a betel nut girl whom he had met while casting for shrimp in an indoor fishing pool, for the elusive arrival of home, for the face of God to appear once more—it was all there, but when I stepped back I could see more of the image in this reflection. There was the sun giving light, the fragile ecology of the landscape, the roads ferrying me across the city, the silent metronome of time keeping it all together. And what was I without it all?
Raising one arm, and then the other, I slipped off my mother’s shirt. She sat perched on the edge of the bathtub while I removed her slippers, her socks, and then pulled the elastic waistband of her pants down, supporting her weight with as much of my strength as I could as I helped her ease in. She, in turn, braced herself with her hands against the sides of the tub, feeling the ability of my body and negotiating with as much strength as she could manage.
After sitting across from my mother and noticing how she kept raking her stiff hands through her tangled hair, the slightly sour odor of her body and the flakes of dandruff floating through the beams of sunlight around her head, I knew that she must not have bathed in awhile, more than a couple weeks and maybe even longer than a month. I’d held her and whispered into her ear, I’m going to draw you a bath. She sat with her eyes closed while I brushed her hair, her head bobbing back rhythmically with each stroke. Her scalp emanated a distinct smell that was a more acute iteration of her usual one, a kind of round and full saprophytic odor. Through it all, we remained silent, as if language spoken out loud were an insufferable violence.
I washed her hair, collecting fresh water with a plastic pitcher I’d retrieved from the kitchen. With a netted pouf, I soaped and rinsed her body. I felt her body transition from tensity to pacification, unselfconsciously giving over to the care. She lay back, black hair spread across her shoulders, as I filled the bathtub with warm water and dissolved in it a cup of Epsom salt, and dappled the surface with drops of eucalyptus oil to help soothe her sore muscles and arthritic joints.
Kneeling before my mother on the tiled bathroom floor, I tried not to succumb to the feeling of my swelling chest, its dull intensity. I was humiliated, guilty, heartbroken. A cat yowled outside, a horn blared. I caught sight of myself, blotchy and furtive, in the mirror.
Sarah Wang is a writer based in New York. In 2016 she was awarded a Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren award. She has written for The Last Newspaper at the New Museum of Contemporary Art; Animal Shelter; The Los Angeles Review of Books; Conjunctions; Stonecutter Journal; Story Magazine; The Ocean After Nature; The Poetic Series, edited by Keren Cytter and Fiona Bryson; “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” at the Pomona College Museum of Art; Night Gallery’s Night Papers; Ich bin ein Junge; and Black Clock, and Antoine Catala’s “Jardin synthétique à l’isolement” at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon. Forthcoming publications include: a short story in The Margins and an essay on the incarceration of young girls in The Third Rail.