I think Gabe must have been about fourteen when he lost his face, right before Christmas, body pinned in the back seat of the accordioned sedan, the flames reaching him just before the jaws of life did.
Gabe lived in the hospital for half a year, then all of sudden he showed up at school at the end of August with his head looking like it had been dipped in melted wax. He could still see through one eye, through a pseudo-eye like a hotel peephole poked into the scar tissue when it was still wet. He breathed through two holes in the middle, heard through two fleshy seashells for ears, ate through a dry crack in the plaster of his thickened skin. They say that this skin came from somewhere else on him—a second wave of unsettling imagery.
The teachers did their best to protect him but it was inevitable; in the class-change scrums, in the locker-room corners, kids pinned him up against walls and graffitied his blank face with Sharpies. Smiley faces, jack-o-lanterns every October and hearts at Valentine’s, swear words, doodles of vaginas and penises, middle finger salutes. Gabe didn’t cry—or if he did, we couldn’t tell, his tear ducts welded shut by the heat—he just scrubbed his face clean after every incident, after the bell rang, after they moved on to some other victim. Sometimes kids drew on him as a novelty, like trying a joint, but Gabe had his regulars too. I tried not to be one of them.
Twenty years later, just when I’ve almost forgotten him, here he is at Mount Sinai Hospital’s fundraiser for their new Pediatric Burn Unit. A poster sits on a gold stand in the lobby: Author Gabriel Rutledge Book Signing Tonight!, Salon B.
I wait in line. There are stacks of hard-covers near him. His memoir, Facing Faceless, is a best-seller—feel-good book of the year, darling of book clubs coast to coast. Women’s cheeks are wet when they walk past me clutching their signed copies tight to their chests.
I almost leave a few times, my needle swinging between speak now and forever hold, but suddenly it’s high school again and there is nothing between me and that waxy visage of his.
“Hey Gabe,” I manage. “It’s Steve Geddis. Remember me? From high school. Stevie, from Glenhaven Drive?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Right. Steve Geddis. So how are you?”
“Good,” I say. “Real good. Hey, congrats on your book! Congrats on, um, everything.”
“Thanks,” he says.
The lighting casts a gloss on the scar tissue like a screen and I flip back through all the things I ever saw there.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” I stammer.
He doesn’t respond.
“I want to say I’m sorry for what they did to you back then, in school. What I did to you. It wasn’t right. You didn’t deserve it.”
“It’s okay,” he says. “It was never about me, Steve. You know that.”
“Still,” I say. “Just….not right.”
He leans toward me, his voice lower. “You know how I survived high school? I learned that my blank face, this emptiness, was kind of like a mirror to people. Whatever they wrote on me was really written about them. The ones that wrote the ugliest things, I could picture those kids later at home, being beaten by dads or step-dads, ignored by drunk moms. Kids who tried slitting wrists, swallowing handfuls of pills.”
My mind races, recalling what I’d drawn, and how I could have.
“Let me ask you a question,” he says. “Do you like yourself yet, Steve?”
I feel the eyes of everyone in line scorching holes in my back.
“Would it help you to write on me one more time, then erase it? Or write something new? What do you need from me?” He pushes a Sharpie toward me.
“No,” I say, “just, maybe if you could just sign a copy for me. That’d be great.”
He grabs the Sharpie back, opens the front cover of a nearby copy, fingers past four pages and carefully writes on the title page. He closes it and slides it over to me.
“Thanks for coming out,” he says.
In the car, I turn on the map light. On the title page, between my name and his, he’s drawn a head, and where the face should be, there’s a picture of dick, with a big X through it. Except for the X, it’s exactly as I remember.
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