INAUGURAL COSMONAUTS AVENUE FICTION PRIZE WINNER

ken

After much thought, Pam and I decide to fix our faces. We save up until we can afford what we want and get a referral for a plastic surgeon in Daytona with reasonable payment plans. The surgeon slouches in a pilling white coat and listens to Pam describe her goal look: a slight narrowing of her chin point, a shrinking of her nostrils, and a reshaping of her upper eyelids to resemble the eyelids of a doll.

“Blepharoplasty,” the surgeon says, “to see better.”

“Yes please,” Pam says, though her mother always tells her she came into this world in the year of the blessed fire tiger and possesses delicate Chinese features passed down through the generations. Save all but the crooked front teeth, my Chinese mother would have told me if she were still alive to make a call. My mother appears in photographs as a woman with an impressive face.

In the weeks after our procedures, Pam and I rotate soaking in the tub and drink liquids through a straw. The swampy air of summer ripples against our front window but we keep the blinds wrapped tight. Our cells vibrate on the kitchen counter, a buggy hum through the gauze over our ears, but we keep sucking on the straws in the warm bath, give it up to voicemail.

“It’s healing time,” I remind Pam. “We’re in no state to take any jobs.”

When the surgeon’s office finally calls to bring us back in for the big reveal, we can’t wait. We have a few pre-celebration g and t’s and line up in front of the long mirror in the bathroom. The bathroom is cluttered with every lamp we own, the better to see the surgeon’s handiwork. I lift the gauze on Pam’s chin, peeling back the white tape and shimmying off the oily pads into the garbage can, followed by the white pads strapped across her nose and then the two thick ones protecting her new eyelids. I keep my eyes closed while doing this, and when she takes off my pads she does the same, detaching the white springy layers on my face by feel. On three we spin around and reveal ourselves. Pam begins to dry heave. She jerks her fingers over a chin cut down to a clumpy point and a nose cropped to half its size, narrow and bulging. Her eyes are fleshy plates that float just under her eyebrows.

“No thank you, no thank you, no thank you,” Pam says, her mouth quaking in the mirror.

I stare at my own reflection, at reshaped parts that stick together worse than they did before. Lopsided, cut up. What’s in a nose, I think as I gape at my new face, what’s in a pair of eyes.

We wrap our heads in scarves and take a cab to the surgeon’s office. The waiting room has a corrosive meat smell we hadn’t notice before. We stride past the front desk and demand the surgeon undo what he has done until he gets it right.

“Relax,” he says, “let the adjustments settle, you may be pleasantly surprised.”

He gestures at the contracts we signed, legal agreements that now seem counter to any real doctor’s code of ethics, certified with Pam’s fat a’s and my grade school cursive. What’s a yes in this great land, I think.

“Don’t play with me, stoner,” Pam yells at the surgeon, shoving her maladjusted face toward the ripped pocket of his coat.

“Let’s make a deal,” he says, backing away from Pam, and agrees to work on us again if we come up with a percentage of what we paid him the first time.

Back at the apartment, we stand in front of the mirror and make an effort to smile. I do a mental count of all the jobs we did over the years to make that money and how many more we will need to do to make even a part of it back.

“Might as well try,” I tell Pam’s reflection, “Isn’t that what they say.”

“I’m not about to visit our regulars like this,” Pam says, her mouth puckering under her tiny new nose. “They won’t know what they’re looking at.”

“We are not ourselves,” I say. “We take jobs as not ourselves.”

“Damn, girl,” Pam says. She tugs at her old mouth, really smiling this time.

Pam pulls out her phone and creates new profiles for us, with fresh names. In the description, she writes: Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield are ready to play. We stage a photo shoot in our bedrooms, snapping at certain angles so we still look like something someone would want. We advertise for services we would never have offered before, to the disappointment, surely, of our mothers. I scroll through the photos once we’re done and for the second time, I do not recognize myself. Digging through the kitchen cupboards, I find an empty jam jar and label it Face.           

An hour later, our new profiles start blowing up.

“See,” I tell Pam. “We’ll get this fixed in no time.”

*

Jim is waiting for us by his front door, the steps of his walkway loose with dry rot. In his request, he asked if he could call us by his favorite Asian girl names.

“Howdy-doo Lotus Blossom,” he says to Pam as we slide past the front door.

“Howdy-doo Jade Flower,” he says to me.

There are two other men in the living room dressed in work jeans and wife beaters.

“Co workers,” Jim says. “They’ll stay in the other room.”

“$50 each to listen,” Pam says as we set up on the plaid couch. “And we lock the door ourselves.”

Jim works in roofing and is missing digits on both hands. He strips down, and bends over the soft edge of the La-Z-Boy. He points to a long metal panel on the coffee table, stamped on one side with a seal that says “Val-U Homes”. I imagine the metal edge grazing his fingers, blood leaching into his work jeans. Pam positions herself in front of Jim. I grip the metal with both hands and hit his bare ass with the panel.

“Yewww,” he says. The skin of Pam’s breasts hug his missing parts.

I hit him with the panel again. Pam keeps her new eyelids wide open, holding Jim’s meaty thighs with her legs. I can hear the men in the other room deep breathing, rusted bed springs rocking against each other. I hit Jim until his skin is bulging red to purple, a skin not unlike our new skin. Sweat pours down our faces, pooling into the creases of the couch. The panel is slick in my hands.

“Yewwww,” Jim shouts, and then he finishes.

*

When we pull up to our apartment, Pam’s sister, Wendy Lo, is waiting outside on a bench, her school backpack tangled up in her lap. Pam’s sister, like her mother, was born in the year of the metal ox. Pam and I get out of the car. We burrow deeper into our sunglasses.

“Mom told me to come check on you so I’m here,” Wendy Lo says as we cross the lawn. “What the.”

Her lips hang open. She reaches toward Pam’s face. Her fingers hover and then withdraw.

“It was a mistake,” I tell her, “the doctor made a few mistakes.”

“Uh yeah,” Wendy Lo says.

“We’re working on it,” Pam says from behind her sunglasses. “We have this jar.”

“Are you on drugs again?” Wendy Lo asks. “Is she on drugs again?” She asks me.

Pam heads for the door. Wendy Lo pulls the strap of her backpack until they’re too tight around her hand.

“Well what am I supposed to tell Mom.”

She traces her eyes over our faces again, chapped and swollen in the rippling heat. Pam moves towards her, way into her personal space.

“Tell her she can donate to the cause,” Pam hisses.

“Go home,” I tell Pam’s sister.

We watch Wendy Lo raise two dainty middle fingers and then scamper away, her backpack bouncing behind her.

*

The next day there’s a DM from a man who calls himself Mr. Funds. Love your pix, Jessica and Elizabeth, he writes. How much for a night. Depends, I write back. We don’t like overnighters. But the Face jar is not even half full, and Mr. Funds names an amount too high to laugh at. He sends us the address of a chain hotel by the beach and a room number.

As soon as we enter, Mr. Funds tells us to secure the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. He instructs us to take off our clothes and put on the outfits, displayed on the hotel bedspread. We slide on pink cotton t-shirts and stone wash jeans that swallow us up.

“You both look so much like them,” he says, touching our cheeks. We pull back at his touch on our raw skin, but only a little. He displays two plastic cups on a tray. Two small white pills lie at the bottom, familiar nail sized hexagons.

“No, we don’t do that,” I say, looking toward the locked hotel door, though my eyelids have started to ache. Mr. Funds places a fat envelope next to the plastic cups.

“Alright, stoner,” Pam says. Before I can stop her, Pam picks up the cup and tosses the pills into her mouth. She chews and chews. I want to force her to puke them back up and link hands, head for the beach right outside the hotel. But I tip the second cup to my lips and tuck the pills under my tongue.

Mr. Funds sits between us on the bed. He begins to brush our hair with a plastic hair brush decorated in blue and pink polka dots.

“I work in investments,” he tells us. “Do you girls know how to recognize a solid financial investment?”

“Not really,” Pam says. “Do tell.”

He continues to brush, rotating from my head to Pam’s head.

“We have what is called a diversified portfolio,” he says, “to maximize your assets.” Mr. Funds turns to Pam and pats down the flyaways that gather at the tip of her widow’s peak.

“And it’s important that you align your investments with your time horizon,” he says.

“Time horizon,” I repeat, because I like the words. He runs the tip of the brush against the ridges of Pam’s curls, set to a crunch with hairspray. Pam closes her eyes as he does this, rocking her head from side to side. My eyes start to grow thick and heavy too. The two little pills wedged under my tongue are melting. This is nice, I think as I slide back into the plush bedspread. This is the way to diversify.

When I open my eyes, Mr. Funds has his hands wrapped around Pam’s neck, his palms resting just above her collarbone. The brush falls to the floor and he begins to squeeze. Pam is limp, her face drooping in a deep sleep. Get off of her, get off of her, I keep trying to tell him, though I don’t hear anything but the sound of someone trying to breathe. I topple over, grip the ceramic lamp on the bedside table. I manage to lift it over Mr. Funds. I hit him as if he asked for it.

His hands slide off Pam’s neck and he rolls onto the middle of the bed, one side of his head bloody, but not too bloody. I spit out what’s left of the pills in my mouth and gather up our clothes.

“Come on, girl,” I yell at Pam, trying to link hands. Her head rolls toward her chin, heavy as a plank. I pull her away from the stains on the bed and throw open the door. We fly past the foaming tips of the beach on the cab ride home.

*

I lay Pam down on her bed. I check her pulse again. She talks in her sleep, gabbing like a newborn. I glance at my cell, consider calling someone. Maybe Wendy Lo, though her sweet school girl face would surely crumple at the sight of us. I go get the pot of coconut oil in the bathroom. Four dabs of oil on the tips of my fingers and then onto Pam’s sleeping face. I rub them in until she shines. Our latest ritual, usually done in front of the mirror before bed, to speed up healing and keep our skin supple for the next round.

“Do you think we’ll get our look right the second time?” Pam asked me one night. She let the mask dry, sipping her g and t.

“Of course,” I said, my new face no longer new, but still so sure. “Of course.”

I wake up on Pam’s bed with no Pam. I dangle my hand under the sagging bed but the jam jar is gone. The buzzer for the front door goes off. Wendy Lo, here to check on Pam again. I let her in.

“God,” she says when she steps inside, “it’s filthy.”

“We’ve been busy.” I’m still in the clothes from last night, Elizabeth Wakefield in the tattered pink t-shirt, the wide, heavy jeans.

“Well,” Wendy Lo says, looking around. “Where is she?”

“Not here,” I say. “We should go look for her.”

I head into my bedroom to change, letting the old clothing fall on the floor. Wendy Lo stands in the doorway of the bathroom.

“You know a girl in my class did what you two did,” she says. “But she was in a bad car accident and it ruined half of her face. She showed us pictures. Horrifying.”

Wendy Lo pushes her hair out of her face as I come up behind her.

“She didn’t have a choice. It had to be done.”

I watch her lean forward, so close to the mirror she marks it with her breath.

Looking. Considering.

.

.


Steph Wong Ken is completing her MFA at Portland State University. Her chapbook Nebraska & Miracle came out in 2011 via Maison Kasini Press.