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The news from the doctor is good. Good in the sense that you will not die anytime soon. The condition is “natural erasure,” he says. Your left nostril has been gradually replaced by grey featureless putty. At the end of life you would appear as one large piece of “formless clay,” should you choose no intervention. He hastens to assure you to “expect a natural lifespan,” the same as the average person in your demographic. It’s just that, without accidents to mangle or tumours to deform or diseases to scar, “persons such as yourself develop blank patches of clay that will coalesce so that your body will finally be clay throughout.” Dr. Paynesworth reassures you it’s not contagious. It’s a condition, not a disease. Then you lie back on the crackling white paper of the examination table and he begins to make your condition look closer to a normal face by a simple procedure involving liquid nitrogen and his so-called sculpting tool applied to your left nostril. Afterward he says, “the swelling and redness will last a couple of days and you may want to use concealer.”
On your way back from the clinic the burning sensation kicks in. You stop to pick up painkiller and concealer from the pharmacy and run into a fellow volunteer, Jesmyn. “Oh hey, will you be at the water bank Thursday?” she says. Her eyes rest a little longer on your face and you can tell she is trying to figure out why your eyes are red and watery.
“Yes,” you say, choosing a decisive answer to end the conversation, not because you’ve really thought far enough ahead. Come Thursday, you might still be in pain, the concealer might not work, you might still be feeling as self-conscious as you are right now. But saying “no” or worse, “maybe,” would require explanation for Jesmyn, who prides herself on compassion. “Thursday for sure! See you then.”
She ducks her head twice and smiles and takes a bottle of extra-strength painkiller from the shelf. You wish you had paid greater attention to her face. But too late. You step away, off to look for tweezers and evaporated milk. Both of you end up at checkout at the same time. “A fudge recipe on the back,” Jesmyn says, pointing at the can, which is brilliant because you will be looking at the can and not staring at her face and the extra-strength painkiller and the gallon-bottle of mouthwash in her cart, wondering.
“Fantastic. I’ve always wanted to make fudge,” you say. You check out and rapidly walk to the subway, hoping she will not also be taking the subway.
On the way home, you rip into the AdTyVenol package, trying not to be noticeable. You break a nail on the tough seal. You tear the chitinous plastic with your teeth. Finally you remember you carry a nail clipper in your purse and that does the trick. You dry-swallow one tablet, then another.
When you get home, your husband Forrest is in the kitchen, putting away groceries. “Hey, tonight it’s the finale,” he says. “Ready for the finale?”
“I sure am,” you say in an Oscar-the-Grouch voice, gulping water to dislodge the pill that’s stuck in your throat. You turn away as you do so. He’s your husband; he has every right to look—look—at you, but you feel unaccountably shy. You run to your make-up kit and put on the concealer cream. It’s not quite the right colour but it’s better than nothing.
“Where’d this extra-strength AdTyVenol come from?” he says, picking up the bottle as you re-enter the kitchen. “It’s been tampered with—I’ll have to complain.”
“I bought it,” you say. “From a store. On my way home.”
“Yep.” With the internet of things, you don’t really shop anymore; you just accept boxes of replacement items that are ordered up as the monitors sense you are running low. The monitors of consumables sit in the fridge, medicine cabinet, wine rack, and toilet paper dispenser.
“What was it like?” he asks.
“Shopping in person.”
You think about how the visit felt strange, walking around, not knowing exactly what you wanted or what you would find. And yet you planned to come home with something. “It felt a little like going to a singles bar,” you say.
The doorbell chimes. A sweaty man with a large, waxed mustachio grins from the doorway. “Evenin’ folks, how are we doin’ tonight? Brung this over super fast for ya…” He hands you an insulated pouch and you thumbprint his device to confirm safe arrival and acceptance of charges. “Nice weather we’re havin’… if it don’t rain, that is…” He keeps up with the manic patter until you thumbprint for tip, too. “Hey, your nose—”
“Good night,” you say, pushing him slightly with the door as you close it.
You and Forrest settle down to watch the StarsRUs channel. A year ago, your husband uploaded photos of you and him so that your images could be melded into the show, replacing two original actors’ faces. Forrest wants to re-watch Game of Thrones, where the two of you get it on as Danerys and Khal Drogo. You would rather watch an Italian movie (with subtitles) because then you can see yourself speaking Italian fluently, which you’ve always wanted to do. But tonight is his night to choose. Pumping stallions, luxuriant fur pelts, sexposition with clanking swords.
A godsend. You are 98 percent distracted from the appointment with Dr. Paynesworth. Except when you see a close-up of you left nostril. That’s how it looked a year ago, fully formed and glowing with vitality. You gasp. Forrest squeezes your hand. “Don’t we look brave, dismounting those horses, rushing into the encampment,” he says, his eyes on screen. You have never ridden a horse in your life.
“So brave,” you say. Who knows, some day you might go to Renta-Steed and book time for a full-body experience.
The next day, you apply concealer better. You don’t want a curious look from random persons you might encounter. You are meeting a long-term friend, Kara, at her workplace, which doubles as a carousel. Everyone sits at a chair-desk on a strong spoke that’s connected to a central core. The core slowly rotates the spokes while people work at their desks. “It’s to mimic the natural rhythm of early workers,” Kara says. “They moved around sowing seeds and went back and forth tending sheep.”
“Sometime I’ll give it a whirl,” you say.
You and Kara head to the little café, Signor Barista. It has two or three chairs at each table and all the servers wear large waxy mustaches. The server with name-tag Eduardo asks what kind of coffee you want and then prepares it while you wait. It’s very retro that way, a shock from the speed and precision of the auto-café.
You’ve known Kara since the days of online school, and still remember the day when you both sneaked out to see each other face-to-face and play with your stuffed monkeys. You keep waiting for Kara to say something about your face, and finally when you mention the doctor, she reacts mildly. You spit on a tissue and wipe off the concealer to show the grey putty nostril, and she says, “Yes, isn’t it great?”
“The concealer works wonders,” Kara says.
You stir your coffee noisily.
“My ear was treated months ago,” she says, turning to show you her right ear and you see what you thought was her ear is in fact a protuberance covered with concealer.
Shame floods you. “I feel like—like I missed an entire episode of your life,” you say. You reach across and touch her hand. “Why didn’t you say something?”
She fluffs up her tresses to cover the ear again. “No worry. My philosophy is ‘keep calm and carry on.’ I saved my ranting for the online chat room—you know, a scream room—where everyone freaks out about their diagnosis and the inhumanity of the world.” Her chuckle is classic self-deprecating Kara. “I’ll forward you the link.”
“Great,” you say, disappointed but not sure why.
“Could you take a picture of me with Eduardo Barista,” she asks as you prepare to leave. “What a sexy mustache.”
You agree but Eduardo is off-shift and Maria is now on-duty, gamely sporting a fake mustache. Kara still requests a photo; you remember how considerate she is, not to hurt other’s feelings.
That evening you settle in to watch StarsRUs with Forrest. It’s your night to choose and you are eager to watch you and your spouse effortlessly speaking Italian. Your left nostril is there, looking beautiful, and you think how wrong John Keats was; a thing of beauty is not a joy forever. A thing that is not forever becomes beautiful because it will not last. The couple on-screen begin to have sex on the beach. Firm breasts and pecs, well-toned thighs, abundant hair. Soon there are no shots anymore showing your left nostril. You stifle a sigh and Forrest reaches for your hand. Is there a word for the longing of old body parts? You tell yourself you shouldn’t miss it; you can still breathe perfectly well. Is it not just vanity, to want your own unique nostril instead of the ersatz putty-grey nostril?
You think about your friend Kara’s ear and wish you had looked at her more closely then; she wouldn’t have needed the scream room.
Forrest pulls you to the bedroom where you re-enact the beach scene minus the sand in the perineal area. You fall asleep wondering when Kara will send you the link. What part of you will be the next to undergo erasure?
The next morning in the shower you spend extra time, pressing all over, testing for progress of the disease. No, it’s a condition, not a disease, you remind yourself. You are looking for a sponginess with no feeling associated. Not the heavy potter’s clay, more like a Play-Doh clay.
Forrest walks in and regards you strangely.
“Can’t a goddess have some privacy?” you say, turning the left nostril away while you flash the rest of your nakedness at him.
“Checking for sand mites, are you?” he says as he grabs his toiletries bag and moves to the other sink. “By the way, I ran into Kara yesterday.”
“Oh?” Despite the post-shower coolness, a wave of heat passes through you. “What did she say?”
“She says Signor Barista is a dive, I should never go there.”
* * *
The next morning Forrest gives you a hug. “You really shouldn’t worry, darling,” he says.
“Worry?” you say. “Worry about what?”
“Erasure,” he says. “I love you just the way you are.”
You momentarily see red. Kara, the betrayer. “But that’s sort of the point,” You say. “Erasure is the way I am not.”
He shrugs. “It’s just a condition.” He sounds irritated, like he figured out the answer to a tough question, but suspects he misread the question. He picks up his toiletries bag. “Well, I have a morning meeting. The head honchos want to put in some stupid carousel system.”
“Talk to Kara about her carousel,” you say, “instead of talking about my condition.”
You watch him shave in silence. He executes a perfect curve around his miraculous left nostril.
“See ya later,” he says, after he pats his face dry. “We could do Italian again tonight, would you like?”
* * *
All the way to work, a mental camel caravan treks through the dust storm in your brain. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” You think about when cancer was the big worry. And random viral pandemics that could destroy your lungs. And heart disease… and the stroke that could pistol-whip you in the night as you slept. What is so bad about erasure? You miss your stop and are late for work. In the women’s washroom, you notice your colleague Randi applying concealer.
“Hey, green shirt, black pants,” you say. “How’d we pick the same colours today?”
You both mime pretend excitement.
You go back to your desk. You check your email. When will Kara send that link? You hate to want something from someone you no longer trust. You can’t Google to find the chat rooms; they are dark web and the regular internet will fill up your screen with ads for anti-erasure treatments and grief counselling and reduced-rate fares to Mexico, where some clinic has introduced guaranteed therapy.
Maybe you should talk to Forrest. His aunt was erased, wasn’t she, or maybe it was his mother? That’s the eerie thing—first the condition depletes a body, and then it erases the place the person held in the world, and all the memories of that person. Even if that person made a footprint in concrete, the footprint will be smoothed away. Or so you’ve heard. You hope it’s just scare-mongering. You sit on the Eames lounge chair in the front room and try to remember your husband’s mother’s name. Your mother-in-law’s name. She was at the wedding, even then positioning herself in the background, half of her face always turned away from the light. What was her name? You look for the book from his family, that bible-book, the one where they’ve written all births and deaths of the family, but that disappeared in the last wave of Kondoism that swept the nation.
At lunch time you return to the pharmacy. Concealer and tinned milk. You really hope not to run into Jesmyn. You don’t. But it’s Thursday and, boom, after work there you are, side by side with her, handing out jugs at the water bank to the needy.
“It was a pleasant surprise running into you the other day,” you say.
“How’d the fudge turn out?”
“I’m a disaster in the kitchen,” you say.
You finish the water distribution. You think maybe you should try make the fudge. Maybe you should contact Kara, ask her about the carousel. Scream at her for telling Forrest about your condition. But no, you picture she will move the phone to her bad ear and you will scream yourself hoarse to no effect.
You go to the washroom, apply more concealer. It’s always that way now, checking for erasure. Humans touch their faces hundreds of times a day, you’ve heard, more if they are feeling anxious.
You remember the last time you didn’t care. That sunny day along the boardwalk. You had ordered a banana split to share with Forrest—“let’s split a split”—and ended up with fudge sauce on hands and cheeks. You washed your face in a sink and went out barefaced, still dripping. He’d hid the maraschino in his mouth and, surprising you with a sticky French kiss, had popped it into your mouth. You’d wriggled away, a muffled shriek conveying equal parts revulsion and longing.
You dab the concealer and replace the cap. You can do this; you can do this. It’s just a condition, you remind yourself, not a disease.