When you go to the periodontist for oral surgery and all you're worried about is the potential pain, you may forget to ask whether you will spend the next couple of weeks looking like a chipmunk beaten up by biker squirrels.
Or at least I forgot to ask.
So now when I look in the mirror, I see a face with golf ball bulges turning purple, lips stretched wide like taffy and a jaw the shape of a juice box.
Outside I wrap my scarf as high as I can and try to ignore the fact that now when I breathe, I fog up my glasses. When I dared to venture out to the local bakery (perhaps the source of this whole problem), I ran into an acquaintance and had to act as if I weren't melting from shame (and the boiling scarf). "It's, uh, great to see you, too! Bye!" Even at home I am surprised to feel sickeningly self-conscious around those nearest and dearest. Surely, beauty is not purplish-skin-deep.
Or is it? Being suddenly disfigured, even temporarily, made me wonder how other people — the gashed, pocked and bloated — face the world. So I asked around.
My friend Mandy recalled the time she went to a fancy restaurant for lunch and ate something that made her throat feel as if it was closing up. "Then I looked at my arm, and there were all these blotches on it, and I was starting to panic," she said. "So I staggered across the street and bought a big bottle of Benadryl, and the pharmacist told me to take a double dose right now, and I was like, 'OK.'"
The problem was, that night she was meeting a new guy. They had tickets to "An American in Paris." So she ran home, changed into clothes that covered as much of her as possible and met her date at the theater. The show, as far as she can recall, was delightful. "But I fell asleep, and the guy kept elbowing me gently to wake me up, till my head lolled back on the seat again." Each time she fell back asleep, she snored. "And every time I would wake up, I was furiously itching myself all over."
It may not come as a huge surprise that they did not date again. But for Mandy, at least, the sudden onset of unattractiveness was short-lived.
Marisa Christina Steffers, a grant writer, went through chemotherapy 12 years ago, just a year after her husband died. Their son was in second grade. Today she is the proud mom of a college freshman, but the permanent loss of her eyelashes and eyebrows still smarts. "I get called 'sir' a lot. Then they look and go, 'Oh, sorry.'" What has surprised Marisa most is how hard it has been to adjust. "I can be as vain as the next person, right?"
Of course right! It's not just you, Marisa! It's all of us. Comedian Genevieve Gearity fainted in the New York City subway last August, breaking all her front teeth. Gone was the perk that non-celebrities and the non-disfigured take for granted: the ability to be invisible. Genevieve stopped going out, until she woke up one day and realized: "I don't see people anymore!"
She decided to bite the bullet (as well as she could) and go back onstage. "After six months of hiding from the public, I told the audience that I had broken all of my front teeth. Then I immediately covered my mouth."
That got their attention. So she told them, "That's a fun trick you can use on first dates. Mention you have a terribly unattractive physical impediment, and then hide it. You will hold their attention the rest of the night."
And then, if the person can see beyond whatever it is, you've got a winner.