by Leah Jane Esau
They said there were faces so ugly that “only a mother could love.” But there were faces even uglier than that apparently. For when the nurse put the baby in Bria’s arms, she frowned.
“This isn’t my baby.”
“It is,” the nurse said.
“This can’t be my baby. Where is my baby?”
Bria’s husband, Michael, pulled the doctor aside.
“Is there something wrong with her? Is she deformed?”
“We’ll run some tests,” the doctor said. “But she appears to be healthy.”
She did not have a harelip, but the shape of her mouth was strange: the corner of her lip jutted out. Was it a welt? A bubble? An STD? – impossible, but that’s what it looked like: a cold sore, or lopsided lipstick. Her head was oddly shaped: as if she had a short cranium, and her forehead bulged, like a beluga whale.
“You’re telling me there’s nothing wrong with her brain?” Michael said. “She’s not mentally handicapped?”
“What about this … mole? On the back of her head?”
“Looks like a vascular tumor. Most are just cosmetic.”
“Can you remove it?”
“Maybe when she’s older. Sometimes they lighten, and disappear.”
“Can you do some surgery? Craniofacial. Maybe reconstruct her forehead?”
The doctor looked at him, baffled.
“Sir, there’s nothing wrong with your baby.”
Bria demanded a DNA test. Babies had been switched in the past, she insisted. Perhaps this was not their baby. How could it be? She was a model, and Michael, a handsome attorney. Didn’t the doctors have eyes? Couldn’t they see that the child did not match its parents? They would not leave the hospital without proof.
While they waited for the lab results, (which had been rushed), the nurse tried to coax Bria into breastfeeding.
“I can’t. I just can’t!”
She was unnaturally thin, this mother: the nodes of her spine showed out the back of her gown as she curled in the bed, turning away from the nurse and the swaddled baby, staring at the wall with a faraway look. She looked like a mental patient rather than a new mother.
“Will you hold her against your chest?” the nurse asked. “It’s good for her. It’s important to feel skin against skin.”
“Ask Michael. He has skin.”
But the father was nowhere to be found, so the baby slept lonely in her plastic crib among the rows of babies, wrapped in their blue or pink blankets.
When the results came in, Bria cried into her hands, and Michael stood near the bed, distraught. The doctor who delivered the paternity test had just come out of heart surgery, where the baby had died.
“Your baby is perfectly healthy,” the doctor said.
“But what are we going to do?” Bria said.
“Is adoption a possibility?” Michael asked the doctor. “Perhaps we could start the process?”
The doctor said nothing, and left the room.
Bria was going to name the baby Waverly, or Corinna, or Stella. But when the baby arrived, none of these names seemed appropriate. Neither were her second-choice names: Sophia, Abigail, Claire. These names were too soft for such a hard face.
They took her home with an “x” on her birth certificate: “Baby X.” A child so unwanted, it was not yet named. After many days of debating – weeks in fact – they finally named her Constance. Connie for short.
“It’s cruel,” Michael said, “to call her that.”
“I think it’s a pretty name.”
“No you don’t.”
Bria didn’t. But it was the only name that seemed to fit. She just couldn’t imagine calling the girl Ava, or Adele, or Charlotte, or Kate. It seemed like a cruel joke. It seemed like an affront to nature to give such a beautiful name to such an ugly girl.
No one had seen the baby, and their friends were beginning to wonder why the dinner parties had been cancelled, why the christening had been postponed.
“We can’t hide her forever,” Michael said.
“I don’t see how.”
They’d left the baby asleep in her crib. They found it hard to look at her.
“People are worried about you,” Michael said.
Bria always wanted to be a mother. Ever since she was fifteen, there was jealousy for every stroller that went past, every new breastfeeding mother, every baby with his soft spiral hair. She’d spent her twenties waiting: her career in the way, her career a thing she wanted to fling out the window but she couldn’t because there were thousands of girls trying to get where she was. She’d be crazy to quit. She’d made the cover, at the age of nineteen. Every time she talked about a baby, she was convinced otherwise.
“What? Are you nuts?” her agent said. “Stop saying you want a baby. It makes the Art Directors nervous. And besides, it’s anti-feminist: don’t you have any self respect?”
But a mother was all she wanted to be. She and Michael had waited as long as they could. Throughout her pregnancy she glowed, and bragged, and prepared: those content women at the baby stores, holding miniature shoes, calling outfits “precious” with tears in their eyes. She brimmed with excitement through the morning sickness, the constant discomfort, the horrified looks in the mirror at her destroyed body. It’s worth it.
But now, she did not want to dress the baby in the cute outfits she’d bought. When she looked at the thing in its crib she felt betrayed: she’d risked her career for this? This was not the child she’d envisioned.
Her mother called.
“When do I get to meet this granddaughter of mine?”
“You know, I didn’t get my deposit back,” her mother said – she’d arranged for the Christening party, now cancelled.
“I’m sorry,” Bria said.
“What’s going on over there?”
Bria did not want her tears to escape, so she held her breath.
“Hello? Are you there?” her mother said.
“Yes,” Bria whispered.
“Are you upset about your figure?”
“No. We’re just overwhelmed.”
“I’ll help you.”
“No. It’ll make it worse. Please. Don’t come over.”
That was the word they used: overwhelmed, but it wasn’t true. The baby rarely cried. She slept through the night. She sat in her crib while Bria ran on the treadmill, or lifted weights. She did not need stories, or hugs, or entertainment. She was some kind of alien miracle baby. It was as if she knew she was a burden, and she compensated with silence. It was as if Karma had made this trade: her beauty for her quietude. Bria called her agent months earlier than expected.
“I’m ready to work,” she said.
“Send pictures,” the agent said.
After Connie’s birth, Bria cancelled the expensive nanny service she’d arranged, which had been recommended by her friend, the Hollywood actress. Although the nannies signed confidentiality agreements, Bria couldn’t think of anything worse than the gossip. If she’d produced such an ugly thing, perhaps she wasn’t as beautiful as she appeared. Perhaps her genes were faulty. Perhaps she would grow ugly too, as though ugliness were contagious, as though the baby was a bad omen.
But now she needed a nanny. She called her mother’s friend Daphne, a meddling woman who Bria disliked, but whose niece wanted to come overseas to study English.
“It appears I’ll be back to work sooner than expected, and my nanny fell through. How soon can your niece get on a plane?”
The girl was named Lucia, from Italy. She took the job without even speaking to Bria or Michael on the phone. When she arrived, she was a wispy, rail-thin girl, who might’ve been anorexic. She was barely eighteen. Briefly, Bria wondered if she had the strength to lift the baby, or change her diapers, or put her into a stroller. But by then she didn’t care. The girl would do her job, however hard. It was her responsibility now.
From an early age, Connie was aware that her mother was embarrassed. She avoided being seen with her in public. She sent Lucia to take Connie to the park, or the library, or the dentist.
Once, at a grocery store with her mother, a rare occurrence, the cashier said, “Babysitting today?”
“No. She’s mine,” said Bria.
“Adopted though, right?”
Bria shook her head, sadly. And the woman looked surprised, and reached over the counter and squeezed Bria’s arm – this complete stranger – with a look so full of pity even Connie understood: she humiliated her mother somehow. For days she wondered why: she was well behaved: Lucia had taught her poise and manners, to say “please” and “thank you.” Yet her mother recoiled whenever near: she wouldn’t hug her, or brush her hair, or give her a bath. It wasn’t until sometime later that the mystery was solved, when Connie overheard her mother speaking on the phone.
“Ugly,” was the word she’d used. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought she’d grow out of it, but she hasn’t. The poor thing.”
A thing was what Connie was.
For the first procedure, Lucia and Connie took an airplane. It was called Otoplasty, to pin back her ears. Very standard, they told her. She was five.
In the airport, they stood among books, and candies, and souvenir fridge magnets. Connie touched a coloring book, positioned strategically on the bottom shelf. She traced her fingers over the cover, imagining what colors she might use.
“Would you like that book?” Lucia asked.
Connie shook her head. She did not want to bother anyone, especially Lucia. But when they left the bookstore, and went to the row of chairs by their gate, Lucia handed her the coloring book and a box of crayons.
“Thank you,” Connie whispered.
It was the first thing she’d said in two days, and Lucia bent down and took the girl into her arms. Connie was getting in the habit of not speaking. She was afraid of this Otoplasty procedure and nervous to take an airplane, so when Lucia hugged her, she began to cry.
“I’m scared,” she whispered.
“Of the airplane?”
Lucia pointed out the window where the plane sat, refueling.
“There is nothing to fear,” Lucia said. “This is how I came to you. On a big plane like that. Across the ocean for many hours. Our flight is short. It’ll be over before you know it.”
Connie didn’t remember the flight, or getting to the doctor’s office. She remembers sitting on the exam table, trying not to move the paper beneath her because of the noise it made. Lucia asked the doctor about the vascular tumor, and she remembers the doctor smoothing the hair at the back of her head, and touching the thing Connie sometimes touched: a leathery glob of tar, or the rough skin of an elephant. They’d taken the plane to see this doctor, to get his opinion.
“It’s not dangerous to remove it?” Lucia asked. “Are you sure?”
Connie remembers dressing in a paper gown while Lucia held her hand.
“I’ll be here the whole time,” Lucia said.
Then Connie was given medicine and fell asleep. When she woke up, Lucia was lifting her out of a taxi. She fell asleep again, and woke up later, in a room with gold wallpaper and a big TV.
For two days they stayed in the hotel room in that foreign city. Lucia let her watch cartoons. Lucia told her that her ears had been pinned back, and that she had some of the vascular tumor scraped off. Not all of it: they would have to come back and see the doctor again.
“Does it hurt?” Lucia asked. “Do you need more medicine?”
Connie liked the feeling of the medicine, so she said yes, even though it didn’t hurt. She liked how she slept, how time jumped. Eventually, she would wake up beautiful, and then her mother would like her.
On the second evening in the hotel, Lucia ordered Chinese food, which was Connie’s favorite.
“Do you think you’re okay here by yourself?” Lucia said, studying Connie carefully. “Just for an hour?”
Connie was afraid of the hotel room by herself, but then remembered how the medicine made her sleepy. Maybe she could have extra medicine if she agreed.
“Yes. I’m a big girl now,” Connie said.
“You’re my hero,” Lucia said.
After they ate, Connie sat on the lip of the bathtub and watched Lucia apply her makeup under the bright bathroom lights. Connie liked watching women put on makeup. She’d once seen her mother do it, a complete transformation. Lucia used different colors than her mother, for her skin was tanned even in winter, and she had dark eyes and silk black hair.
“Lucia?” Connie said.
“Can you talk in Italian?”
Lucia spoke in Italian, making Connie laugh.
“What did you say?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
Connie felt a swell of relief.
“You’ll be here? When I’m older.”
“Of course,” she said. “We’re going to be friends forever, aren’t we?”
Something knotted and sharp tugged in Connie’s chest, a sort of panic: she wasn’t sure if she could believe Lucia.
Lucia finished with the makeup. She looked at herself in the mirror, turned her face left and right, gave a final tug to her high ponytail.
“Are you meeting a boy?”
“What’s his name?”
Lucia led Connie to the window overlooking the courtyard where there were patio tables, and white beach umbrellas, and green hedges like a garden maze.
“I’ll be right there,” Lucia pointed at a table in the corner. “See that table? That’s where we’ll sit. If we open this window, like this, and you yell, I’ll hear you. Okay?”
“Do you think you’ll be all right?”
Connie nodded again, though she was afraid. She did not want Lucia to leave her, but she wanted to be helpful: to be good.
Lucia showed Connie how to use the phone. If something was wrong, she could press “0” and the front desk would go to the restaurant and tell Lucia.
“If you don’t want to yell from the window,” Lucia said.
Lucia pulled back the covers and helped Connie into the bed.
“Should I leave the window open? Or is it too loud?”
Connie could hear the lull of voices in the courtyard, the faint music, the clinking of cutlery. Maybe she would hear Lucia’s voice too, and that comforted her.
“Open,” Connie said.
Lucia kissed Connie on the forehead.
“I’ll just be an hour.”
She put on knee-high boots, and a light green jacket.
“Lucia?” Connie said.
“Can I have more medicine?”
Lucia paused for a moment at the foot of the bed.
“Sure,” she said.
When Connie woke up it was morning, and Lucia was lying next to her, on top of the covers, asleep. Connie didn’t remember her leaving, or coming back. Her makeup was smeared on the pillow. Connie glanced down: Lucia still had her boots on. Perhaps she’d never left.
It went on like that for years: too many doctors and too many surgeries for Connie to remember. She and Lucia would return to the Otoplasty hotel again, to finish the removal of the vascular tumor. She was too young to remember the laser hair removal: Bria found someone to do it, to remove her unibrow where the hair was thick and fast growing. Then she had braces, like other children, but they broke her jaw in three places, to push the teeth together. The jaw surgery led to infection, and she had her mouth wired shut for three weeks. Lucia reluctantly took her to consultations for her cheekbones, her lips, her nose, and was relieved when the doctors said Connie was too young. Her face was still changing. She would have to wait until she was fourteen.
Bria had work done. She was getting older, she needed a rhytidectomy, a lower blepharoplasty. As she walked around the house in her hood of bandages, Lucia feared the normalcy of it. It seemed there was no end to it: either Connie or Bria was in a plastic surgeon’s office, or undergoing surgery, or in recovery. Connie didn’t know anything different. And Connie was just a child.
“A lonely child,” Lucia said to Bria and Michael.
Bria had just returned from Africa where she’d shot a perfume ad, and Michael was on his second scotch, his eyes bloodshot and exhausted, his phone dinging every few seconds, every time he received an email.
“She has no friends.”
“What about the kids at the park?” Michael said.
“Those are babies. Everyone else is in school.”
“We’re happy with her tutor,” Michael said.
“She doesn’t like him,” Lucia said.
Lucia didn’t like him either: he was a doddering old man whose breath smelled sour, who had an inflated sense of self-purpose and bragged about teaching the children of diplomats. Lucia never left him alone with Connie. The better Connie performed on tests, the less he came to the house, and Connie begged Lucia to help her study so that she didn’t have to see the man anymore.
“All right. We’ll look for another tutor,” Michael said.
“Why not enroll her in something? A sport? Soccer, or swimming, something with other children. Something she can look forward to.”
It took weeks to convince them, and finally Bria agreed to ballet. Lucia took her to the ballet class where the other girls called her Igor and Ogre and Troll Queen and asked: “What’s wrong with your forehead?”
Lucia arranged play dates. Once, in Connie’s bedroom, one of these girls said: “You’re ugly. My mom says it’s a shame you’ll ruin the recital,” and Connie nodded solemnly, for it was an accepted truth by then.
When Connie was nine, Bria found a plastic surgeon in Venezuela who agreed to fix Connie’s lip. Bria told Connie it would be a secret, because the government didn’t think Connie was old enough. But what did the government know? Connie was a big girl, wasn’t she? Couldn’t Connie do this small thing for her Mom and Dad?
“Don’t you want your lip to be even?” Bria asked.
Connie thought about the girls in her ballet class. How the teacher smiled whenever she looked at them, but had to force a smile when her eyes fell upon Connie. How she had to swallow her disgust. She did not want people to avoid looking at her: strangers on the street who looked, and then quickly glanced away, embarrassed. She was nine and understood this.
“You’ll be so pretty once it’s all done,” Bria said.
“I want to,” said Connie.
Later, Lucia refused.
“I won’t do it,” Lucia said. “It’s gone too far.”
“She’s old enough to make the decision. I asked her and she agreed.”
“She’s a child. She doesn’t know what it is.”
“People won’t treat her well.”
“Michael,” Lucia said, pleading. “Tell me you don’t agree with this.”
“She’s my daughter!” Bria said.
The conversation descended into shouting. Connie, who could hear everything from her bedroom, was struck with fear: fear that Lucia would be fired, fear that it was a dangerous procedure, this lip reduction. But her mother said it wasn’t dangerous. What was Lucia worried about?
And a few weeks later, Connie and Lucia boarded another plane and flew much farther this time. They would come here often over the next few years, for Connie’s lip plasty, and her rhinoplasty, and her cheekbone prosthesis, and her chin reduction – all before she was twelve years old. She too, like her mother, would get to travel the world.
Years later, after Michael died in a car accident, and Lucia got married, and Connie had been sent away to boarding school, after she’d had breast implants and then had them removed, after she’d met her husband: a quiet biologist who studied tropical birds, her mother died.
Connie didn’t speak at the funeral, nor did she have anything to do with the planning of it. Bria’s second husband: a Frenchman named Olivier, and his children sat in the front row and wept and wept. They’d rented the largest room in the funeral parlor, an auditorium, and it was overflowing.
Mostly, nobody knew who Connie was, but the few who did, shook her hand, and said,
“Your mother was so beautiful.”
Was she? Connie wondered.
“She had a face you could fall in love with.”
This was the only thing they could say about Bria.
Leah Jane Esau is an award-winning playwright and fiction writer. Her fiction has appeared in PANK, Bodega Magazine, Grain, The New Quarterly and others.