My Best Face
‘Always look on the bright side’ my mother had frequently said. For one that was almost pathologically miserable that’s a joke in itself. But it did teach me to view things from a different perspective. It also taught me how to hide my real thoughts about what was happening.
It was this ability that got me where I was then. Caught in a quagmire of indecision. Most people only ever see my best face, the one I choose to show to the world, they don’t see the pain and hurt of my real world. I have also learnt the ability to ‘just get on with it’; another of my mother’s nuggets of ‘how to live your life’.
My best face was the one I put on after the events of ‘the day’. I knew as I planned that special day that life would never be the same again.
The devil was in the detail, so the planning needed to be careful and comprehensive. On day one I had got up, cooked his breakfast and taken it up to him. I was greeted with the customary grunt and I muttered something non-committal.
I left the house as immaculate as ever and began my commute. I got off after just two stops and crossed the tracks to the opposite platform and caught the train that I had worked out would take me back before he had even got up. One or two in my carriage looked up as I left, they were used to me travelling all the way with them. I just nodded and said ‘forgotten papers’, in case they wondered.
Arriving back home I knew immediately that my journey hadn’t been in vain. She had the sense not to park in our street, but not sense to move her handbag, which I could see through the glass in the kitchen door. I knew I couldn’t hesitate, for the scheme to work I had to follow the plan. There was nothing to be gained in bursting in and disturbing their adventures, I must bide my time and let her fall into the trap.
Big gaps in his email stream had first alerted me. A prodigious issuer of instructions he plagued my day with requests, demands and observations. When the internet traffic developed big gaps I began to notice. It really wasn’t hard to work out his pattern, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, first thing in the morning. Gone by midday – always.
I simply took a photo of her bag and left again.
It wasn’t difficult to repeat this for several weeks. For all his meanderings and illicit liaisons, my husband was a man of routine and order. However, over time the pictures grew more revealing, a carelessly discarded scarf, even a pair of shoes once. But what I really valued were the sound recordings. There was no doubting what was going on and her voice was clear through the tiny microphones I had fitted. Nothing escaped these recordings, all the muttered endearments and the plans and the longing. But still I waited. I knew that there were times to savour, times when he thought he was in charge, but I knew differently.
My moment arrived when we planned out monthly dinner party. The meticulous guest list was drawn up and as friends of ours, she and her husband were invited. I enjoyed watching him squirm as he wrestled with his expectation of seeing her and his absolute fear of discovery.
We always like to have a theme to our dinners and this month I had planned a photo montage of ‘things that mean a lot to me’. Covered for the big reveal after we had eaten, to be accompanied by a little sound track, a sort of ‘tracks of my years’ attempt. We pinned the photos our guests sent and lined up their music, of course, I pinned up our photos and uploaded our music.
I ate very little of our supper, the intense feeling I was trying to hold down threatened to choke me, but I got through. One by one I revealed our guests’ dear little groups and twee quotes, accompanied by desperately main stream music. I put on my best face and revealed the photos of handbags, shoes, scarves with a back drop of urgent, noisy sexual activity. The intakes of breath were strangely unifying in their horror and I didn’t see any other best faces once all that was out in the open.
As I left my job interview with Mrs Dale and Mrs Owen, I felt my whole body begin to unclench and, all the sweat I'd managed to will to stay in during the interview felt like it was now flooding through my shirt. Even my legs felt wet, as I uncomfortably teetered out of the big telecommunications building on my interview heels.
I made my way to the bus-stop, reliving the interview questions. it wasn't like I particularly wanted the job, I just needed the job. I think it went OK, but then again, most of my job interviews go OK, but I still don't get hired. Although, this time, a part of me secretly hoped that they didn't want to hire me; I know answering a phone all day is likely to make me go insane after two weeks, but, I should try and think positively. If I'm lucky another, better job might come along and, if I'm really lucky - I won't have to keep taking the damn bus.
It wasn't a long bus ride, but I could barely wait to return home, so that I could finish artistically distressing my new project - a coffee table, which I'd pilfered from a skip two weeks ago. I could hardly wait to wriggle out of my sweaty suit and get it into the wash; finally put on my jogging bottoms - a secret pleasure when no one was looking, and get a cup of tea to begin doing what I actually liked. If only any of the jobs I'd ever had could have felt as exciting as this.
As soon as I entered my flat, the heels were discarded before I'd even shit the front-door. I flapped around with a make-up wipe in one hand and used the other to undress myself; time was of the essence. It wouldn't be long before the uniform went on again and, I would spend another day lying through my teeth about my achievements and interests in such and such. The problem with interviews, is that you didn't get paid for pretending to be someone else.
I thought about the women who'd interviewed me earlier. How did they get to a position whereby they interviewed people? It had become clear after the first ten minutes that the interviewers were hostile to graduates. In fact, Mrs Dale, had almost seemed pissed off when she read out my MA in English literature qualification, and appeared further affronted when she noticed I had a diploma in art.
But that was the problem really, having qualifications in the arts wasn't of much use in this economy. Being able to spell, read, and understand grammar, were skills of an apparently dying trade. I needn't have bothered wasting my money at university it seemed, and art - well, I may as well have gone to interviews and said I skinned puppies for canvas to paint on - given the reactions I'd received.
Probably it was difficult for them to associate creativity with usefulness, but, creativity showed that I was a free-thinker. It was baffling, all these jobs - receptionist, till work, phone worker - they all needed people to be independently strong to give the illusion that a large and happy team were working, but, independent strength wasn't something they overly encouraged at application. Why? Probably because it meant that you might question the capitalist interpretation of team.
I'd learned the truth about what 'team' actually meant in my last job as a hotel receptionist - 'team work' actually referred to the phenomena of operating most of the time without a team. (Why call it a team when you never actually work together?) However, the 'team', would always be remembered when it came to collecting tips: being forced to work over-time for the fifth week in a row because other members of the 'team' had holiday; or of course, the team was remembered when angry customers sought another team member to continue screaming at if things weren't going well. Of course the team never seemed to be around when I had an angry customer shouting at me; or I needed a break, or to go home on time.
I actually believed in the power of a team, just not in the way these middle-line managers conceived of it. You would think having the ability to think for myself would mean I would do well, but it was a fine-line these days. 'Team' was fast becoming the cover-word thrown around to give a nice impression to the public, it was not an actual thing. But you weren't supposed to admit that, or even know that.
I bit my lip as I gave the coffee table another once-over with some sand-paper, while I thought bitterly about the lie that was 'team'.
I was in an awkward position. I wanted to be a librarian, or work within the art industry being a journalist, but there was never any openings that I could apply for. Of course I'd tried multiple times, but they never considered I had enough experience to join their team of 'hope'. No, without 'experience' I couldn't even enter the teams I wanted; I wasn't accomplished enough. But on the other hand, lower-entry level jobs thought I was too accomplished to be hired. I often just wanted to scream, I mean, I still have to eat.
I began holding colour-swatches up to the table and considered how to make the coffee table fit into Mrs Holden's flat. The poor woman downstairs had just suffered a stroke and, was now unable to move well around her home, so she often sat in the lounge with her books most of the day. I thought the coffee table was big enough with all its under-storage to keep everything she might need right next to her. i just wanted to make her comfortable.
I began to forget my disappointment over the world outside and, began to think about ways I could help Mrs Holden in her period of discomfort. the drawer runners seemed a bit stiff, I'd have to do something about that or she'd struggle.
The next morning I climbed out of bed and stepped over a drawer full of clothes on the floor. I'd taken the screws out of the unit to use in the coffee table because I didn't have the money to go and buy more, but I wanted the table to be perfect for Mrs Holden, and it wouldn't bother me too much to put the drawer to the side.
I made a cup of tea and glanced lovingly at the coffee table. next to it was the brochure for the company I would be interviewed at today. I skimmed it half-heartedly. It didn't seem complicated. I just needed to talk about up-selling opportunities.
URGH! I hate talking about up-selling.
'Yes of course I have experience up-selling. It requires determining the customer's needs and offering them a further choice for purchase, rather than what they initially believed they needed'.
As I practice the lines in my head I begin mentally answering myself.
'Of course, I'm quite adept at the psychology of reading people and determining if I can sell the vulnerable more than they actually need or want. In fact, I'm very good at working solo and making elderly people think they need to purchase more for whatever reason. Will my soul go to hell with the team, or is it a one-man show when accountability is considered?'
My plain face stares backed at me from the mirror, while I begin to cover up my stress acne with concealer. It's a shame I don't get to ask the questions.
I take one final moment to check that my mascara is not clumped while I think about who I'm supposed to be today. Being alive is like acting, but no one ever wants to see the show when people wear their real faces.
I brush down the legs of my suit to dislodge any creases and straighten back up again - to look at the face of capitalism staring back at me.
I look prettier, but I'm not sure that it's my best face.
My first serenade, you who tied girls
to bedposts afterschool while I factored
my quadratic equations across town.
Such post-coital univariates, my coefficients
twisting in on themselves while you tossed
another cheerleader’s panties on the floor.
Our mothers warned Oregon girls
about California boys the year we tilted
our noses away from the magazine smell
of Corey Haim in Tiger Beat to the Technicolor glow,
such yellows and golds, almost the smell of lemons,
of real-life Sun-In. All those blonde bangs
we longed to tangle our mall-bangs in.
California boys could tune in
the one station that played Shake the Disease
on Friday night repeat while we waited
for our Top 40 call sign to lose its static,
while I waited for you to look up from your guitar
long enough to notice I could be more
than your girlfriend’s best friend.
She, the natural blonde who went through life
sucking down free milkshakes, her button nose
sewn to the exact middle of her face
while my bumped Roman nose bullied its way into every room.
A nose like the nose of a man on the cover of Time
during the Gulf War, and didn’t you laugh
as you Show-and-Told your way through the day
comparing my photo to his,
central Oregon’s only sand nigger, you said,
and didn’t she laugh, too, knowing, in 1991,
I was cast in our play as the ugly one.
In the bathroom after last period I let my tears intoxicate me.
Finally, something to cry over,
a small town, small school, small-halled injustice
while your band practiced Smiths’ songs in the music room.
While a friend of a friend passed me a note to ride
the afternoon bus one stop past my house to you,
with your a mom who worked downtown,
with your California father who for Christmas
brought guns and CDs from L.A.
Black and white checkered Vans.
Laser discs big as dinner plates.
I ignored your request and sewed black ribbon roses
on Goodwill sweaters, my big nose alive
in the air of late spring, Junior year,
when it almost didn’t matter
that I was the before picture for rhinoplasty.
The Friday before Prom I came over. She asked
for advice on dresses as we waited in your room,
on boutonnières, on how many muscle relaxants
would pour her body out of the dance and into your arms.
She offered to go for pizza if I paid,
girls with big noses trained to always carry cash,
so I waited for you as her blondness impressed
itself down your driveway and you returned
from wherever handsome boys spent their afternoons.
In your room I arranged my hair on your pillow
in a fairytale braid almost strong enough for you
to climb and counted your Swatch watches
in the twilight heat, pretending to sleep
as the song you sang entered my daydreams,
you strumming at the edge of your bed,
the taut-stringed tendons of your arms,
legs folded under when one eye peeked
like a painting called The American Dream,
a Southern radio song all the college stations played.
Your voice the deep register singing
about losing your religion to a face lost
in its own asymmetry, never quite white enough,
until you leaned to kiss the tip of my nose,
your eyes closed, then danced your fingers
across my forehead as if checking
for a fever just ready to break.