It was an eyelash curler that impaled Lisa Meunster's neck. The only thing metal in the car's cabin and it happened to be in her hand at the moment of impact. She wasn't using it, at least not for curling eyelashes. It was a prop for her story about Sylvia and Mary and an undercooked hamburger. Then it was a weapon.
When the Jaguar crushed the front quarter panel and snapped the from axle of the Meunster's Honda, Lisa was pushed forward and to the right against the passenger door, and the eyelash curler, one metal ring still looped around her finger, was jammed between the door handle and her neck. In the days that followed, doctors would explain to Lisa that the eyelash curler had pierced the sternocleidomasoid muscle and split the tiny gap between the internal and external jugular veins. She had been incredibly lucky, they would say. The eyelash curler had been inserted from the front and then levered to the right as if to pry her esophagus out the front of her neck. This prying motion had severed the third cervical nerve, and that was to be the source of Lisa's trouble, though she wouldn't know that for several days.
There were other lucky breaks, she would be told. It had been raining that evening and the car rolled into the median where soft soil slowed it more gradually than the freeway would have. Harold would be released from the hospital the same day. His fractured left tibia might never return to full strength; he would probably have a limp. But he was alive and he would be sitting by Lisa's ICU bed when she woke up.
"Thank God you had your seat belts on," they would say.
"Thank God the kids weren't with you."
"Thank God it wasn't worse."
When their car came to rest, Harold was unconscious and Lisa was hanging helplessly from her seat belt. Their Accord lay on its left side so that Lisa, in the passenger seat, was hoisted into the air. Getting ready for their third Christmas party that month, she had chosen a red dress with a lace hem that encircled her knees, and a white blazer. She felt a pain in her neck — she wasn't sure why — and realized, with surprising disgust given the circumstances, that her clothes were ruined. Bloody streaks of red made it look as if her dress was bleeding onto the white of her favorite blazer.
From her position there — in a ditch, hanging from a seat belt, looking at her unconscious husband, with an eyelash curler sticking out of her neck — Lisa could see through the moonroof toward the freeway they had just left and the city skyline behind. It twinkled. Broken glass was sprinkled with water and the lights blurred and pulsed. Lisa thought it looked exactly like one of the pre-loaded wallpapers on her smart phone, beautiful and out of focus.
The least affected by the accident, at least physically, was the other driver. He walked away with only bruises, though his walk was short and ended at the back seat of a squad car. Thomas Thacker had been a city councilman for less than a month. At the Brookwood Country Club's Christmas party that night, he had celebrated much. The year had brought him to public office, to a corner office with his law firm, and to the manager's office at a luxury car dealership where he was handed the keys to a jet black XK. Thacker blew a point-two-three.
His mug shot was on the front page of the local newspaper that Lisa found folded on the table next to her hospital bed. Harold was asleep in a chair that didn't quite recline far enough. It was dark and quiet except for the ubiquitous beeping of medical machinery — a syncopated reminder that life is fragile. Lisa realized she was in a regular room. There were none of the curtains and gurneys and rushed voices of the ICU she remembered from the last time she was awake. And she realized that she couldn't turn her head, discouraged from moving by a faint instinctive memory and by a thick armor of bandage from chin to collar bone.
She reached for the newspaper and read the account of her near-death. Thacker hadn't seen the Meunsters until he hit them. Harold's instinctive steering had kept them on the road for another four hundred feet after the initial collision, only to be sideswiped again. The second collision had sent the Honda rolling. Thacker had been released on bail, but his future looked grim. Lisa stopped reading after the quote from the mayor.
"If you're the cause of an alcohol-related accident that nearly kills a young couple on their way home from a church Christmas party on Friday, you can't expect to sit in council chambers on Monday as if nothing ever happened."
It was a Sunday night when the truth came to Lisa that attitudes were shifting from sympathy to apathy. She was in the bathroom alone, undertaking the tedious process of removing makeup from her jowl. It had been four months since the accident and she no longer expected to see beauty when she looked in the mirror. She expected to see a sagging cheek pulled grotesquely away from the right eye socket. She expected to see an absence of symmetry reflecting the absence of a working third cervical nerve.
She sagged elsewhere too. With a full schedule of doctor visits and a full complement of stinging stares from the pony-tailed, firm-bodies girls at the gym, exercise had become difficult. Her shoulders slumped. Her hair seemed to clump and drape like willow leaves in rain. Her mirrored ghost appeared as more of a puddle than a person — slack, and lifeless, stretching and distorting its reflection in a polluted medium with little radiating ripples marking the violence.
She had been to church that day. There were the usual hugs and well-wishes from people she had known for decades. But there was a difference in their approach, an ambivalence she barely noticed at the time but seemed impossible to ignore in front of the mirror.
They were distancing.
All the prayers and assurances for healing had gone silent, and now people weren't sure how to treat her, as she wasn't sure how she should be treated. As a pariah? As a project? As a charity case? A survivor? Was she to refuse to let it affect her? Refuse to acknowledge the damage and refuse to let others do so? That was noble but disingenuous. The truth was that it did affect her, all of her.
Was she to "own it" and address it? Come to it with a matter-of-fact acceptance that made it sound like she was talking about the weather? That appealed to her but, given that she was still crying over the ugliness every night, it hardly seemed possible.
She decided, or rather the face in the mirror decided and informed Lisa, that there would be no ignoring or owning. There would only be struggle; a dragging, tear-streaked siege of the ugliness. A prolonged campaign to get herself back in shape.
The first surgery was a gift. Her church raised half the cost and a plastic-surgeon-friend-of-a-friend discounted the rest.
The improvement was dramatic. Her friends, who always seemed to see the bright side of Lisa's devastation, used phrases like, "beautiful", "natural" and "good as new."
They were liars.
Lisa knew her face wasn't "good as new." "Less hideous" would have been more accurate. The cheek held higher and appeared firmer, but it still drooped unnaturally, and the tell-tale ripples of loose skin under her eye still winked at her in the mirror.
She thanked the doctor and the church, and secretly resolved to continue her campaign.
The most daunting opponent in Lisa's War On Ugly was not her cheek or her third cervical nerve: it was money. Harold had proved a caring nurse and a devoted lover. If her repulsiveness had ever affected him (how could it not? she thought) he never showed it. He assured her that he loved her inward beauty; he loved her for who she was, not what she looked like.
He was lying.
Or at least she imagined he was. She doubled her gym visits and started to look for work. Harold was doing many good things, but he wasn't funding her War.
Lisa hadn't worked since their wedding, seven years before. They had intended to start a family right way, but that hadn't materialized. Somehow, she imagined, her body was broken on the inside before the accident scarred the outside. Maybe, in a way, it was poetic. Maybe it was time for everyone to see how ugly her empty womb looked.
The first job that came along was in bookkeeping. She answered a want ad in the newspaper, got a call the next day, an interview the next week, and an offer the week after that. She took it. She had a bachelor's degree in accounting, though she had been convinced she would never use it. Her new employer was a family-owned plastics company that manufactured the black caps on syringe plungers. The accounting department had three members. When her new boss, Oscar, walked her to her cubical on the first day, she immediately descended to a darker mood.
Her cube was in the back corner of an office bullpen, hidden by windowless walls and empty desks. She was two cubes removed from her nearest coworker. As if to explain, Oscar pointed out that this cubical was closest to the filing cabinets she would use most.
On Oscar's tour of the facility, they passed the sales department where shiny-haired girls in pencil skirts were zipping up a trade show booth. They shook her hand and smiled faintly, each whispering a silent prayer of gratitude, Lisa suspected, that they weren't deformed.
She worked there for six months and put all her earnings into a health savings account. She scheduled the second surgery before giving her notice. She was packing a cardboard box with the few personal items from her desk when she pondered that the surgery would require an injection. In the consultation with the surgeon the week before, she had learned that Botox would be used. She had worked for six months helping a company make little plastic discs for the right to use one of them on herself. She smirked crookedly, lifted the box, and walked away from her desk. She didn't look back.
The second plastic surgeon declared the second surgery a success, though Lisa wanted a second opinion. The skin looked stretched to her. The second opinion on the second surgery led to a second job, this one in retail, and a third surgery. The third surgery begat a third job and the fourth begat a fourth. The fourth job was selling newspaper advertising.
It was a dying breed, the newspaper advertiser. A diaspora of dreamers and traditionalists who believed they could make business dreams come true with a loss leader and a catchy slogan stamped onto paper as cheap as their promises. They had to know, Lisa thought, that only a very few people would actually read their ads and that every single copy would be burned, shredded, recycled or lining the cages of pet gerbils within a week. Surely they knew, but she wasn't going to tell them.
After all, she had made a habit of not stating the obvious. She did not cry, "Unclean! Unclean!" on her way through the Starbucks line. If they couldn't see what everyone else could see - if they couldn't admit the inevitable, then she wasn't going to try to persuade them.
To Lisa, this was progress; from the back corner cubical hidden from view to the out-front salesperson for a very public entity. To many local businesses, especially those like bondsman and personal injury attorneys with ties to lots of local news stories, she was the face of the paper.
The fifth surgery was a mistake, a step backward. It would take a sixth to undo the damage of the fifth. She only hoped the seventh would move the cause forward.
Harold had long since given up on dissuading her. He called from the closet to ask where his tie was. It had been years since he wore it — probably since the fated Christmas party of which they had stopped speaking.
Lisa was in front of the mirror again. She labored there for hours each day, either putting on or taking off various modules of her public face. Tonight, she started a half-hour early. She was going to stand in front of people tonight — hundreds of people — and smile and receive an award.
Ten months before, after stumping through hundreds of storefront businesses and scores of networking lunches, Lisa had landed an account that would set her for all of the surgeries she wanted. Grand Properties managed more than one hundred apartment communities, with more on the way. They would advertise for years to come. Grand had also provide other introductions until, on this night in December, Lisa was primping for a banquet where she would receive the Matilda Thacker Award for the paper's top salesperson.
The girl was seven, eight at the most. Even from across the street in the dim, pulsing lights of the city, Lisa could see her eyes — bright and eager and knowing. She wore a dress, which was impractical in her position, with torn pink stockings and black tennis shoes. There was a park across the street from the hotel where Harold and Lisa stopped at the valet stand and made one last check of clothing and makeup on their way into the banquet. Lisa noticed the girl right away. And the newspapers.
She sat on the ground in front of a green metal park bench which supported a mass of ragged clothing and shopping bags that looked to conceal an adult, lying down. Over the mass was a layered array of newspapers serving as a quilt. The girl was taking selections from the quilt, choosing them carefully for her purposes, and tying slips of the newsprint into bows. Three already adorned her matted hair, tossing in the December breeze in unison with the edges of the quilt.
It didn't help. Lisa wondered if the little girl knew that her bows didn't look pretty; they only served to make the scene she occupied more pathetic. Lisa saw her as a gawker sees a Monet. She stared at her idly but intensely and absently shook her head. Something told her she shouldn't think of the girl as an exhibit, as if the valet might become a docent and point out the detail in the girl's bright green, threadbare scarf. But she couldn't help it. She saw her from across the street, but she knew the scene perfectly.
She knew the most minor details — the endless arrangement of strips of pulp that never seemed to align just right; the frailty of the bows; the way they seemed less pretty over time; the gnawing awareness that the bows weren't working; the drive to ignore that awareness; the little girl's fear of looking at the fluttering heap of newsprint behind her because she knew what she would see. She would see someone she didn't understand. Forces larger than her, cosmic and random and unexplained and unfair. Regret. Rejection in the form of charity. Ugliness.
One of the bows blew away from the girl's fingers and both of them watched it tumble down the street, then crash and crumple into the gutter.
Lisa signed a check and touched the pen to her crooked lips. From the window in her office, she could see the picnicking lunch crowd in the park across the street — couples on blankets, nannies with children, puppies, frisbees, smiles. In half an hour, Harold would arrive with chicken salad sandwiches in a to-go sack, and they would take their place amid the flirting summer breezes. Lisa smiled and her smile ran downhill, toward a deeper sense of things. She glanced away from the window to the Matilda Thacker Award.
The award had arrived in the mail and she kept it on a shelf above her desk. It reminded her why she started the agency. Since that December night when the hotel valet thought she had lost her mind, Lisa's charity had grown to a national powerhouse. Macy's Mirror had provided counseling, career assistance, play therapy and plastic surgery for nine hundred women and girls, free of charge.
Macy was the girl with the newspaper bows. She had become Lisa's first client. Two weeks after Lisa had run into the street to retrieve Macy's bow — to pull a tattered, dirty symbol of beauty from the gutter — Macy was enrolled in school and shopping for uniforms at the department store with her name.
There had been no acceptance speech for the Matilda Thacker Award. In fact, Lisa had never again appeared before any crowd, nor in any plastic surgeon's office, nor, for that matter, at her own office at the newspaper. She had quit her job over the phone on the way to Macy's.
The war was over. Her cheek showed the broken lines of defeat. But her eyes told a different story. She kept the award on a shelf where every visitor to her office could see, propped up next to a photo of a homeless girl, a ribbon of newsprint, and an eyelash curler.