A/N: This was written for the Show Me Your Patriotism contest, where it won 3rd place in Judge's Voting and tied for 1st in Public Voting. Which came as a considerable surprise to me, since it's the first time that I've ever done better with the crowds than the critics; and the other entries were all insanely good. Like insanely good. I remain totally baffled by the outcomes and grateful for the experience.
Do you love a man for his face?
I was a nurse at Valley Forge General Hospital in the summer of 1943. I'd been there a month or two, and I was only just getting the hang of finding my way around. For the first time in my life, I had a reputation for tardiness; I was practically infamous among the other girls for how often I got lost in that place. It was supposed to be a marvel of architecture, and I guess it was.
A town's worth of two storey buildings, red brick on the outside and panelled wood on the inside, connected by all those darn corridors. Each and every one of them exactly the same, with little difference between them other than the numbers on the doors. It didn't help that there weren't any staircases either; the floors were connected to one another with long ramps - so that it was easier to move gurneys, and patients in wheelchairs could get anywhere they liked. I knew it was all good and important, but it still drove me up the wall when I was trying to find somebody.
And we had a lot of somebodies. Over 2,000 patients. All soldiers.
Their injuries were a little more severe than the ones I'd seen in the emergency room back in Columbus, but that wasn't what made the biggest difference. For me, it was the injuries of spirit - the memories of the war, the doubts about being able to ever really go home - that set them apart from any patients I'd had before.
It's strange. Nowadays, when you say Casablanca people think only of Ingrid Bergmen and Humphrey Bogart, but back then it was the town where the sons of 48 states died to secure North Africa. There were some men there who didn't die, but wished that they had. I suppose this is the story of one of those men.
He was a field medic. British born, but studied medicine in America. Lived in America. Joined America's army. Helped out an American Transportation Corps low on numbers in Casablanca on that day, doing the kind of job you usually wouldn't ask a medical man to bother with. Unloading gasoline from supply ships.
The kind of job you wouldn't usually ask a medical man to bother with, but the kind of job that needed to be done in order for the war machine to keep running.
The Germans strafed the dock while he was holding a ten gallon can of that gasoline.
It burst into flames.
They went on, the boys who made it out of Casablanca. On to Gafsa and Kasserine Pass. On to Hill 609 and Tunis and Bizerte. That field medic stayed behind, a patient to his own friends and peers. They did seven operations on him before sending him stateside.
Seven operations, and he still didn't have a face.
The day they brought him in, half his head was wrapped in gauze. I could only see his jaw and his mouth, the skin showing through on the left side was tight with thin white scars. It was healing nicely, and looked like they'd done a pretty fair job with it. But I knew that he'd always have those scars. He kept his eyes closed all morning, even though it was pretty obvious that he was awake, and I pulled one of the doctors aside to ask if there was some permanent damage we should know about. I thought maybe he couldn't open them.
The doctor told me he could open them fine. He just didn't seem to want to.
It was one of those sweet July days, where the sun seems golden and all the light it casts makes you feel content. We were in the ward where all the men had bandaged faces, the ward I was assigned to more often than not. Some of the other men were worse off than he was, but most of them weren't. You could smell the fresh cut grass just outside the windows, opened to let the soft breeze in and keep everybody cool and calm. It was hard for any of us not to think about picnics and the games we played as kids.
"Hey, Esme!" The joker in bed seven said cheerfully, "How 'bout getting me a nice cold beer?"
I laughed and nodded at him.
"As soon as I'm done checking up on everybody."
"Yeah! Me too, please!" The patient beside him chimed in.
"Honey, I'd marry you if you could scrounge up a bag of peanuts for me…"
Soon enough the whole room was clamouring with requests, like schoolboys when they know the teacher's going to be a pushover.
"Alright, alright!" I tried to quiet them with a smile and a nod, "You clowns don't want a nurse, you want a waitress!"
What they wanted was to be the same as they were before. They wanted to feel like they could kid around with a pretty girl just like before, they wanted to flirt with nurses and get beers on the sly. They wanted a little tenderness, but not in an obvious way. It was easy to get along with, as long as you weren't the severe type.
On my way out, I stopped at bed thirteen. That's where they'd put the field medic. He still had his eyes closed. His hands, with the long tapered fingers I'd by then come to associate with the doctors with natural talents as well as trained skills, were resting lightly at his sides. I hesitated for a moment, but then I said to him:
"Did you want a drink?"
He finally opened his eyes. Blue. Blue as sea glass, sparkling between the strips of gauze and the damaged skin, rimmed red with the raw edges where his eyelashes had been. They were eyes with all the wisdom of sorrow in them, and I'd never seen anything so lovely and so sad before. I almost gasped.
He opened his mouth a little like he was going to speak, then looked away and shut his eyes again.
"Would you like a beer?" I asked him again, "You're allowed to have them in this ward. It's alright with the doctors, as long as you don't overdo it. I'm on my way to get some for the other fellows, it wouldn't be any trouble."
He shook his head, just slightly.
"If you change your mind, just sing out."
He didn't look like he was going to change his mind.
So I headed down to the PX, got an armful of enough bottles to satisfy everybody - even bed thirteen, if he changed his mind - and headed back up to my ward. I passed the beer around, and soon enough a quiet and contented hum of soft conversations started up. Somebody put the radio on in the corner, listening to a baseball game turned down low enough that it wouldn't bother anybody. It was the kind of peace you can only manage in a room full of people who'd just gotten back from a hell of bullets and fire.
I sat on the edge of bed thirteen, the way you would if you very visiting an old friend after an operation. I wasn't one of the girls who was physically affectionate with the patients very often. I didn't brush the hair from their brows, or hold their hands very often. You had to watch it with that kind of thing, otherwise the rumours about you would start and there'd go all your authority. But it was a quiet kind of day, and nobody was paying much attention to me, and I was just sitting down by him.
When he felt the mattress shift, he looked at me. He didn't have any particular expression on the bottom half of his face. Not curiosity, not surprise, not the pleasant conversational smile of somebody who feels like talking.
"I'm sorry to bother you," I said, "I know you're probably tired from the trip…"
He didn't answer. He just blinked, very slowly, like it caused him a little pain to do it.
"Well, I heard the doctors saying you were in Casablanca. One of the girls who works in the psych ward, her husband was in Casablanca. Transportation Corps, too. And I thought…"
Nothing flickered. Nothing changed.
"His name's Whitlock. Jasper. Everybody calls him Jazz."
"He's alright." When he spoke it sounded like I thought it would. Crisp as linen, with the fading music of an English accent. Just two little words, but hearing him saying them made me smile. I'm sure he thought it was just relief to hear Alice's husband was alive.
Of course, Alice had heard from her husband the day before and read the letter out loud to me and a couple of our other friends the night before. I knew darn well Lt. Whitlock was alive, and planning to send home a whole crate of real African dates just as soon as he could.
I just needed the excuse to start the first conversation.
"Was it his company you were…"
"Did you know him?"
"He's alright." He said again, and looked away.
They'd told me that the explosion had taken off both his ears, most of his nose and badly damaged all the skin on the upper part of his face. I wondered what he had looked like before, and what he looked like then. I didn't even know the colour of his hair, or if he had any hair left. Sometimes, they came in with damage going halfway back across their skull, and the hair grew back in patches. Sometimes their entire scalp was damaged.
I wondered about what was under the gauze. I wondered, and for some funny reason I didn't feel any pity for him, or any dread about how bad it might be. I just… wondered.
"Go away, would you?" He spoke so softly I barely heard him.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't tire you out, you must want some sleep."
"No. I don't want any sleep," He shook his head, those pure blue eyes staring off with a kind of emptiness that almost broke my heart, "I just don't want you here."
"His mental condition is really that bad?" The Chief of Surgery asked, leaning back in his chair.
We were all clustered in one of the conference rooms, the Chief, the psychiatrist who'd examined the patient in bed thirteen, our head of plastic surgery, two other plastic surgeons, and two of the other nurses who worked in the plastics wards. The people most likely to interact with the patient on a regular basis, and the people responsible for his treatment plan.
Under normal circumstances, the nurses weren't called into those kind of conferences. Our work was often taken for granted by the surgical teams, but the doctor from psych had requested our presence. Everyone was to be aware of the patient's tripwires - treating him was going to be about as nerve-wracking as diffusing a bomb in a haunted house.
"It's going to be one of those uphill battles." The psychiatrist said, pushing his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose. He looked a little overwhelmed.
"Alright, and what are you going to do to him?" The Chief turned to the head of plastics.
"They gave him seven operations overseas, but those were just to keep him functioning. Get the nose breathing, get the ears hearing. That kind of thing. Reconstruction is going to take at least twenty operations, and I can guarantee we'll be able to pull them off."
"Two years, would you say?" The Chief made a note on the back of a file folder.
"Two years…" The psychiatrist said in a sort of mystified awe. It looked for all the world like he wasn't certain he could keep our patient from cracking up for that long.
"If there aren't any major setbacks." The plastic surgeon nodded.
"Are you a pessimist, Doctor?" The psychiatrist asked him.
"Not on purpose," He shrugged, "I'm just a surgeon."
The room was quiet for a moment or two. We didn't get many cases where the work to be done seemed so overwhelming in the beginning, and so strangely futile. But we were all tough as nails at that hospital, and after that slight faltering, the conference was back on its feet.
"Alright, so what happens when we give him a face?" The Chief asked, clapping his hands together to try to refocus the group. Or maybe it was a nervous habit. I'd never spent much time with the Chief.
"Discharged from the military, that's for certain," The psychiatrist shrugged, "The shock was a hell of a lot for any man to take."
"How much do you think he knows now? About what's in store for him?" The plastic surgeon asked.
"You mean does he realize the limitations of the operations he'll receive?" The psychiatrist clarified, "Does he have an idea of what his face will be like when you're through? I'm afraid so. As a doctor himself, he's caught on to the reality of his situation much quicker than another man might have. It's this clinical lack of hope, this refusal to believe in the best outcome, that's going to be the biggest hurdle in his recovery."
"What about bringing his family to see him? Is he ready for something like that?" The Chief asked.
"It's a nice sentiment, Chief," The psychiatrist shook his head, "But I don't think he'd be ready for it. Besides, the file says he hasn't got much in the way of family. Parents are dead. There's an adopted brother, but he's in the Pacific. It's no good."
"Well, so much for my ideas," The Chief shrugged, "Let's get an operation schedule set up for him by the end of the day. Everybody think they can last two years?"
All the heads at the table nodded solemnly. There was no sudden burst of enthusiasm or team spirit, no sudden surge of willingness to do whatever it took to save the face and the sanity of the patient in bed thirteen. We had no illusions of grand success or mentions in Time Magazine for that one.
The next day, it rained. Alice got a letter from her husband saying he was in Sicily, one of the other girls got a letter from the war department saying her husband was dead. It was the kind of thing that was hard to take your mind off of, especially if you still had somebody over there. I didn't know what it was like, and I couldn't guess.
I'd been married once. He was dead by then. I didn't miss him.
I spent the morning doing everything strictly by routine, including glancing over at bed thirteen whenever I thought I could get away with it. He never read any books, even though there was a stack of them on his bedside table. I didn't know if he went and got them from the library himself, or if the night nurse was bringing them for him. He never spoke to the other guys in the ward, but that happened sometimes. It wasn't always easy to bounce back into the world, even if everybody else in the room was going through pretty much the same thing you were.
Most days, he just stared at nothing in particular. Lost in thoughts I wanted to hear, things he would never say out loud.
I wanted him to be well. Not his face, they'd do what they could for that with their operations. I wanted his heart to be well. I wanted his mind to be well.
I worried for him.
The plastic surgeon came in during lunch to have a talk with him, pulling one of those awful uncomfortable chairs over to the side of bed thirteen. The doctor gave me that quick glance that was his way of suggesting a soft, feminine and familiar presence might benefit the patient. So, without drawing any particular attention to it, I hurried up passing around the medication that was supposed to be taken with food, and made my way over.
"Carlisle Cullen." He read off of the patient's chart, even though by then he knew the name perfectly well, "Mother fond of the letter C, Cullen?"
The patient glanced at him, in his listless and uncaring way, then looked away again.
"Still, Carlisle's a little hoity-toity, isn't it? What did the fellas overseas call you?"
"Yeah, I guess they would. Well, Doc, I think I'm going to like working on you. I like a challenge, makes me outdo myself. I was the boy in medical school who always jumped at the ones that were impossible on purpose. I'm sure you had at least one of me at Hopkins. It was Hopkins where you trained, wasn't it?"
The patient nodded.
"Pretty prestigious." I said, with an encouraging smile.
"Fancier than where they trained me," The surgeon chuckled, "But I do alright. Especially with faces. Cigarette, Doc?"
"I've got my own." He pulled a pack out from under his pillow, and grabbed a cigarette from the pack. I was surprised he had them. I'd never seen him smoke.
"Here." The surgeon lit it for him, then lit his own, "You've come quite a long way. There was a boy we discharged the week before last whose face had been burned. He couldn't do that for a year."
"Hold the cigarette in his lips?" The patient asked in his even, emotionless voice.
"No. Look at a match without flinching." I explained on behalf of the surgeon, and the blue eyes shot right at me, like I hadn't been standing there the whole time. Like I hadn't said anything before that single thing.
I knew I was supposed to smile sweetly for him, but I just stared back at him while the surgeon kept on talking.
"I like to play fair with my patients, and there's no use trying to buoy you up with the best case scenario, since I'm sure you already believe the worst. I'm going to tell you exactly what operations we're doing, and exactly how I think you're coming along. Sometimes you won't be able to see the improvement, and I think you know that. I'm glad you know that. Saves me a lot of time using metaphors about the foundation of a house."
"I hate those metaphors."
"Well, they're cliché but they're apt. Mind if I show Nurse Evenson a photo of you?"
"A… photo?" Suddenly those cold blue eyes turned from steel and stone to water, glancing between the surgeon and me. They looked a little afraid, a little ashamed.
"Sure. Your old file photo. You must know we use a photograph as a reference for this sort of job - I want to make sure you look as much like Carlisle Cullen as possible, not some other fella I dreamed up in my imagination…"
"No!" He said suddenly, sitting forward, "No, don't show her. Don't show her that photograph, please."
The poor surgeon looked stunned. Usually patients liked to show the nurses old pictures of themselves, from happier days. It was the real them, the person they still felt like inside. The person all of the operations and miserable days in the hospital were going to take them back to being. The only thing lots of them felt that they had to show off.
"It's alright. I don't need to see a picture," I said softly, "I think you should start with his eyelashes. Those blue piercers of his hit a woman square in the chest. A few lashes might soften the blow."
I knew that the first operation on the schedule was for eyelashes and eyebrows, and the surgeon knew that I knew. The patient probably suspected, but I think he was happy to play along that time.
"Alright, eyebrows and eyelashes it is," The surgeon nodded, "You're lucky you got Nurse Evenson. She likes men to look balanced. Realistic. I don't think Nurse Hale upstairs is going to be happy until every patient we discharge looks like he's ready to audition to play Superman."
"I don't care." The man in bed thirteen said, so softly I almost didn't hear him.
"What was that, Doc?" Asked the surgeon.
"I don't care," He repeated, louder, "I don't care where you start, I don't care what you do."
"Maybe you don't care now, but you'll care when you can see the work I can do. I know it won't be perfect…"
"You're going to take the hair to make my eyelashes from the back of my neck, along with the hair to make my eyebrows. It'll continue to grow at the same rate as the rest of the hair on the back of my neck, so I'll have to trim it. I'll have to trim my eyelashes every two weeks, or I'll start to look like a circus freak."
"It's not so tough to cut them, son." The surgeon said.
"Do what you want. I understand all of it."
"Fine," He sighed, "Just fine. I'll be back for you in a couple of hours. That means no lunch today."
The surgeon shook his head, giving up on bedside manners and affable conversation. He'd done all he was willing to do in the matter, and the rest was a job for the psychiatrists. He glanced at me, defeated, and left the room.
I sat gently on the edge of the bed, the way I'd done the first day they brought him in. This time the patient didn't close his eyes or look away, he just waited. Somehow both melancholy and indifferent.
"You've got the best plastic surgeon in this hospital." I said, and he didn't answer.
He just kept waiting.
"He might be the best plastic surgeon in the country."
"I don't think you ought to bother talking to me." He said.
"I know. You want me to go away because you think I'm sorry for you and you hate that idea," I shrugged, "But I'm not sorry for you, really. I've seen men come in with worse injuries than yours, and sadder stories. And I know what these operations are going to do for you, and I know how it'll all come out in the end. If I'm feeling sorry for anybody right now, it's myself."
"Well, giving you a new face is just plain old medical science. Skin grafting, cartilage grafting, hair grafting. Not exactly what you could call easy, but straightforward. The surgeon just does like he always does, and when you're on the table you're just like any other tough job," I told him, "But I have to put up with you most of the day. That means having to deal with this so-called personality of yours. It's a lot to ask of a girl."
There was almost a twinkle in the blue. Almost the hint of something beyond malaise. It was only almost, but it felt like one of the biggest victories of the whole war to me.
"Is that all?" He asked.
On the radio there were reports of supply ships being bombed in Salerno. We kept the ward pretty quiet that day. A lot of the boys were still skittish about bombs and explosions. The patient in bed thirteen was looking a little different by then. Still he spent most of the day with his face covered by gauze, still he was without his ears and without most of his nose, but his eyelashes were starting to grow. He had eyebrows by then, too.
Sometimes, he would talk to the patient in bed twelve. Not very often, and not for very long, but little snippets of conversation passed between them. Every now and then, he's ask for a cold beer if I was getting some for the other patients on a hot day. But even though he was allowed to walk around the hospital, he wouldn't leave the area around his bed. He wouldn't even get so close to the door that he could be seen by people passing in the hallway.
I could tell that he was still afraid of the other world. The world where the men had faces, where everyone in the room wasn't in the same boat he was, where to see a man without a nose or without his ears was not considered routine. The world when men had eyes, and were not obligated to feel and empathy or any gratitude towards him for his service. The world where people - women, children, anybody - might look away from him in disgust.
One morning, I came into work early and found him sweeping the floor next to the empty beds.
"Finally pulling your weight around here, huh?" I teased, and when he turned to look at me I could have sworn he stopped himself from smiling.
"Just getting a little exercise."
"Pushing a broom around is exercise, is it?"
"It's something to do."
I nodded, thinking he was going to go back to his sullen and silent routine. Instead, he hesitated for a moment and glanced around the room. To make sure nobody was listening. Then he said:
"The eyelashes… They feel strange."
"They don't look strange." I told him.
"Honestly. They look like anybody else's."
"Well," I said, and tried to stifle a yawn, "I'm headed to the PX for a cup of coffee."
"You know, it's pretty quiet in there in the mornings. Only a handful of people."
"I…" He said, building up his resolve, "I suppose, if you don't mind, I'd like to come along. Get a coffee, too."
"Sure." I said and smiled, like it was the easiest question with the easiest answer in all the world.
We walked along the corridors side by side and in an easy silence at first. But the further we got from his ward, from the room he'd grown to know so well, from the safety and tether of that regulation bed, the more I could feel his nervousness. The air around him seemed to get tighter, more anxious. His easy expression wavered, and out of the corner of my eye I could see his face falling back into that old routine of steel and emptiness.
Part of me was worried that he'd clam back up, that he'd turn around without saying a word and march right back to his room. Part of me knew that he wasn't going to.
We got to the PX, and I swung the door open like I was ripping off a band aid. Somebody had the jukebox on, playing love songs and slow instrumental tunes. Easy listening for the early morning, instead of the rowdy hits you usually heard in the thick of the afternoon.
A few tables were taken. There was a line at the counter, but all in all it was nice and dull.
"Hey, Esme! How are you!" A patient I knew from one of the other wards I worked wheeled over in his chair. He was one of those sociable types, with five sisters and a different story about a different barn dance for just about every day in a month.
"Hi, Johnny. How are the legs?"
"They're fitting me for the prosthetics tomorrow."
"Good!" I said, "Let me know how it goes, will you?"
"If I can find you! Seems like the boys in the burn ward are hogging you these days!" He winked at me and nodded at the man beside me, with his face wrapped in thin white bandages, and wheeled himself away.
I picked a table for us. Something towards the corner, but not totally out of the way of the action. When he was sitting down, and looking a little more secure with the idea of being out and about, I went to get the two paper cups of coffee.
"Who's that?" He asked when I got back, nodding to a man sitting along at a table on the other side of the room.
The man had dark, curly hair and had a book open on the table in front of him.
"Him? That's Charlie Swan," I said, "A German sniper got him, and when he woke up he was blind. Better than waking up dead, he usually says."
"Hence the dark glasses. He doesn't wear them to look mysterious."
"Is that a Braille book, then?"
"Mm-hmm. He's studying law," I explained, "He was a policeman before the war. You need your eyes for that, but justice - as they say - is blind. So he's changing his trajectory a little bit."
He smiled, looking at the man across from us who was reading with his fingers and writing his own destiny. It was a nice smile. The first real one I'd ever seen on him. It was an impressed kind of smile, and maybe even a little hopeful.
"I hear you have a brother in the Pacific, Doc." I said, trying to keep up on conversation with him.
"You can call me Carlisle, if you don't mind," He looked over at me, still smiling faintly, "I've always liked my own name. I suppose I'm a rare breed in that regard. Most people don't like their names. In fact, most people don't seem to like my name…"
"Carlisle it is," I nodded, "So, this brother of yours?"
"Do you write to him?"
"No," He leaned back a little in his chair, his hands around the cup of coffee, "No, he doesn't even know that I'm here."
"You mean… he doesn't know which hospital you're in?" I asked.
"I'm not sure he even knows I'm in a hospital. The last time I sent him anything was when I landed in Morocco."
"That's cruel!" I said, a little more sternly than I meant to, "He could think you're missing in action, or dead!"
"He wouldn't think that," He shook his head, "If I was MIA or dead, they'd send him some kind of document. I've gone for awhile without writing him before. He's smart, and he doesn't jump to conclusions without evidence."
"Still, I think you ought to write him a letter."
"You don't know him. He's too sensitive for war. He wasn't made for soldiering, he shouldn't be on some rusty boat patrolling islands. If he were at home, he'd be writing symphonies or ballets. I can't bring myself to tell him…" He paused, and I reached out and put my hands around his. They were warm.
I caught myself, and pulled them away slowly. He watched my face. I could feel his gaze, even if I couldn't meet it.
"We should get back," I said, "You shouldn't wear yourself out, your first trip around the hospital."
Off Anzio beach, they were blowing up even more supply ships. We still didn't put the radio on the news. We had a few new patients in the plastics ward by then, more than a few in the other wards. All of the girls were turning into overworked wrecks. Praying every night that the next day a drove of nurses would turn up to do our jobs, praying every morning that we could help each and every patient in our care. It was exhausting.
For three weeks, the patient in bed thirteen had his arm bound to the right side of his face, so that the living flesh inside it could be grafted as skin for a new cheek. It was uncomfortable, and it hurt. But he still spoke a little more every day, smiled every now and then. If he thought I wasn't paying any attention, he'd take out paper and a pencil and begin a letter. He always threw the pages away, but I knew that one day he wouldn't.
The boys across the ocean faced a struggle in Naples harbour, and an even bigger struggle getting supplies through to Cassino Abbey. Alice didn't get letters from her husband very often. The patient in bed thirteen had an operation to take tissue from his abdomen to make lining for his new nose. He had the cartilage for that nose taken from between his ribs. They were painful operations, and tiring ones. It all seemed to take so long.
He went out a few times in the evening, the night nurse told me. Got himself a pass from one of his doctors. Out past the ward, out past the PX, past the hospital gardens and into the world of civilians. I was proud of him. I heard from somebody that he went to the movies, but wouldn't go in until the lights were down, and left before the lights went up. Somebody else told me they saw him in the very last booth of a dim-lit bar. He ordered a double bourbon, and then went back to the hospital.
I was still proud of him.
While the supply line and the army was advancing past Rome, towards Florence, the surgeons began to be very proud of the work they'd done on his nose. Proud of how his face was beginning to look like a face again. It was all coming along nicely.
I found him, one afternoon, driving golf balls on the range out behind the hospital. From behind, with the sun shining on his smooth blond hair, his muscles tensed with each swing, he looked like some sort of golden ghost. A shade from his own past. A bigger piece of his whole self.
He must have felt me watching, because he turned around and offered me the golf club.
"Care to try a couple swings?" He asked, and he sounded so at ease. Finally free from the prison of doubt and fear he'd been keeping himself in for all of those months.
I shook my head playfully.
"I don't want to make you look bad."
"Oh. You play, do you?"
"A little. My father was quite the sportsman, and I took after him in my wild and girlish days. Much to his constant regret."
"You say that like you left your wild and girlish days behind you," He said, "Come on. Let's see it. Maybe you can give me some tips on stance."
It was a little tricky in my starched white nurse's uniform, but I took the club from him and set up my shot. I was very much out of practice, but I got lucky. When I hit that ball, it sailed through the air like it was trying to win the Masters Tournament.
He laughed with delight, then stopped himself abruptly.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Nothing," He said a little sadly, "Hit another."
He tossed me a golf ball from a bucket he was standing by, and nodded encouragingly.
I placed it on the tee and gave it a smack with the club. Despite the rust, I was hardly a slouch at golf.
"When I laugh," He said carefully, "It's not like before. It feels different. It sounds different, because the muscles of this face pull in a different way."
"It'll feel easier. With time."
"The eyelashes. The very first thing, do you remember?" He took the club from me, and set up a ball to hit, "They look alright for what they are. Better than what they were before. But they're never going to be like other people's. They can't be. Other people have eyelashes, and I have individual hairs carefully grafted to my eyelids. It was a hell of a lot of work, I'm sure."
"They've grown in well…" I said, and it was true.
There was a thwack as he hit the ball. He watched it, soaring through the sky so smoothly. So effortlessly on a perfect arc. It was a beautiful hit.
"Pass me another ball."
I tossed one to him.
"They've taken skin from stomach, my neck, my arms. I've got scars all over my body, just so I could have cheeks and a nose, and now they're starting to construct ears," He took a few practice swings before lining the club up with the ball, "Now, I want you think about this right cheek of mine. The skin they've put here is smooth, it's neat. It's bearable to look at. But it was taken from this arm. The tissue of the arm is different from the tissue of the face. It's not made to smile or laugh. When I smile, it's not like when other people smile…"
"It's like when you smile."
"Not really. Not anymore," He sighed, "My smile used to take up so much of my face that my eyes nearly closed. I wish you could have seen that smile. I would have shown it to you everyday."
"You hooked that one." I told him.
He came and stood right beside me, looking out on the green field. Spring was turning softly into another summer. Soon we would have known each other for a year.
"When I leave this hospital, it'll be because they've succeeded in giving me features, do you understand?" He said carefully, softly, as though he were breaking terrible news to me, "It'll never really move like a face. It'll always look plastic. Oh, it'll be better ten years from now, but reconstructive surgery is a limited science these days. It's not perfect."
"I know what the boys look like when we send them home." I reminded him.
"Whatever you think you can stand, you need to know - it'll never be a normal face."
His hand was resting at his side, close enough to hold. I reached out and took it.
"I almost forgot what I came out here to tell you about!" I rolled my eyes at myself, "They brought in a new patient. They put him upstairs since he lost vision in one eye, and they wanted to try to correct it. They figured three months on the eye, eight months on the skin grafts. But Rosalie - you know Rosalie, don't you? She works the same shift I do, only we always take opposite floors. Anyway, she says he's got an awful black rain cloud over his head."
"No, he talks alright. He's different from you were when you first came in. This kid's bitter. Mean and bitter," I said, "That's the kind we usually bring around quickly, you know. It's easy to hold onto the anger or the sadness, but holding onto bitterness? That's an Olympian's feat. You have to want to do that, and none of us can change his mind."
"Would you talk to him?"
"Me?" He smirked, and it pulled the old skin on his left side so that the thin white scars showed in the sunlight, "I'm not exactly fit to be giving that kind of advice."
"I didn't ask you to give him advice, I asked you to talk to him. You don't have to be wise or optimistic; you can be as sullen and forthright as you usually are. I just think he could benefit from a conversation with you. He doesn't need half as many surgeries as you did in the beginning."
"Where'd he get burned?"
"Psychically or geographically?"
"Well, as for the physical, he took most of it on the chest and the neck, all well as the one side of his face with the bad eye. His mouth's in worse shape than yours has ever been, but he kept both of his ears and more of his nose than you did. As for the geography, I think somebody told me he was all the way down in New Guinea. Quite a trip to get home."
He stood and thought, his hand still in mine.
"What's his name?"
"Alec… Something," I laughed at myself, "I can't remember the last name. I'd have to ask Rose."
"I'll talk to him."
Alice finally got a letter from her husband. It came all the way from Normandy and was six pages long. She didn't read any of it out loud to us, she just let us know that she'd heard from him and he was alright. The patient in bed thirteen got a letter, too. From his brother in the Pacific, who'd written quite a few letters trying to track him down. I didn't hear the content of that correspondence either, but I had a hunch it was good stuff.
The twenty-second operation and the twenty-third came and went. Cartilage was grafted, then skin was grafted to make him a matching pair of ears. He asked me to be in a photo with him, to send to his brother.
I said yes.
Alice got a letter from Paris after that, once the supply line had caught up with the troops.
The twenty-fourth operation was a success.
The next letter from Lt. Whitlock was sent from the other side of the German border. On the very day it arrived, Carlisle Cullen - the patient in bed thirteen - was receiving his twenty-fifth and final operation.
Twenty-five operations since Casablanca, November 1942. Twenty-five operations to give a man a face.
It was like he always said that it would be, and like I'd always known he was right about. The face he'd been given, the best face any team of doctors alive could have given him, was a plastic one. It didn't have the same mobility of an average face, and when you looked at him the first time - glancing as you passed him on the street, or watching him out of the corner of your eye at a bar - you could tell that there was something strange about him. You might not put it together right away. You might ask a friend explain to you why he seemed so off, why none of his expressions ever seemed full, why his smile didn't pull his cheeks all the way up.
It was New Year's Eve when Valley Forge General discharged him, and he packed away all the keepsakes he'd collected and the few letters his brother had been sending in the recent months. It seemed strange to me that we'd soon have a new patient in bed thirteen.
The hospital had over 3,000 men in treatment by then. They'd had to build new little brick buildings and new corridors with the same wood panelling, just to make sure all the new personnel always got lost. By then, I knew the place like the back of my own hand. Like the spider web pattern of thin white scars on the left side of a man's face.
I went with him to the railway station. To say goodbye, or to tell him the one thing I'd known for certain since the first day I'd met him. I hadn't made up my mind which.
"Fifteen minutes until my train leaves," He said, his ticket in one hand and his green army bag over one shoulder, "There's a bar just down here. I'm positive I owe you at least a dozen beers by now."
I looked over my shoulder at the bar, still trying to make up my mind what to say.
"Come on," He turned me towards it, and pushed against the back of my shoulders playfully, "I'm a civilian now. You're allowed to go out with me."
"Okay. Okay." I gave in. Very easily.
We sat at a little round table by the window, and ordered a couple of beers. The bartender stared a little too long at my date, but by then he was used to it. He didn't mind. It was just the way people were, and he'd been slapped so many times it didn't sting anymore.
When it was just the two of us, he cleared his throat and started a little speech that seemed like he'd been practising it. It went like this:
"I don't have much to offer. When I get back to Seattle, I need to take some courses to get caught up on recent advancements before I can start practising medicine again. Even then, Seattle has a lot of doctors in it, and most of them have the looks for bedside manner. I'll have to get an apartment, and it won't be very big…"
"That's what the G.I. Bill is for." I said with a shrug.
"You're a bright, beautiful young woman. Don't you see that? All you have to do is point out the man you want, and he's yours."
On the off-chance that he was right about that, I pointed across the table at him.
"You could do better," He said, but I could his stubborn resolve to do what he thought was best for me was wearing down, "Can I write to you? Maybe in six months or so, I'll have a better idea of how things are. Maybe then…"
"Maybe then you'll ask me to marry you?"
He looked away, uncertain of himself. It wasn't going to be easy. The people who go through life making decisions to please other people, the women who choose a man because of what he could be instead of what he is, they're the ones who are never really happy.
So we wouldn't be the richest people in the world. So he might have to spend a few years at college, and then a few more years working beneath his talent. Maybe we'd have to move to the country, and I'd have to work as his nurse while we treated farmers who couldn't pay us right away. Maybe we'd fight more than we wanted to, maybe he'd have days where all he wanted to do was sit in a chair and drink until he forgot about what happened to his face.
Nothing's ever perfect.
Nothing's meant to be.
"Why don't you ask me now?" I said.
"What do you mean?"
"In six months, you're going to ask me to marry you. I'm going to say yes. I've already had two years to decide whether or not I could put up with you, and I'm pretty sure I can. Truth be told, I kind of like putting up with you; it's one of my favourite activities. So you might as well ask me now."
He smiled, bewildered. Those sea-glass blue eyes glittering with that strange magic of his, casting their spell and taking away any ideas I might have had about having fights with him. As long as he could be the man behind those eyes, I'd probably forgive him much quicker than it made any sense to.
"I don't have a ring." He said.
"I don't like rings. I'm a nurse. I can't wear them anyway."
"Are you sure?"
"Oh, for heaven's sakes!" I rolled my eyes, and looked him square in the face, "Carlisle Cullen, will you do me the honour of one day - very soon, because I'm getting impatient about all of this - becoming my lawfully wedded husband? After all, I am in love with you. And I deserve at least that."
"You're never going to give me an inch, are you?" He said wistfully.
"Alright. I'll be your husband, if you'll be my wife," He finally said, "But we have to tell people at dinner parties that I did the proposing."
"You and your pride," I smiled at him, because he made me so very happy, and said: "It's a deal."
Then I leaned over the table and kissed him.
It was a very nice kiss. One of my all-time favourites.
Years later, he would tell me that when they were doing that first set of operations on him, right after the blast when he was still in North Africa, the doctors had talked about how lucky he was that his mouth had been damaged so little. It didn't seem like anything to consider lucky at the time, just a cold hard fact of an accident. Hardly the hand of fate. But, he said, after that kiss he never doubted his good fortune again.
In the end, I couldn't wait six months. I turned in my resignation at Valley Forge General, trained my replacement and headed out to Seattle. I was there just in time for Valentine's Day, so we got married on February 14th in a little clerk's office at City Hall, between Carlisle's classes for the day. It was exactly right.
So, do you love a man for his face?
I suppose so. After all, if it weren't for my husband's face I never would have fallen in love with him.