Canals of Mars

an excerpt

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but ugly is there for everyone to see. I can afford to speak so flippantly on the subject, since I was, and I say it in all modesty, beautiful indeed.

The operative word there, of course, is, was. Was, before a vial exploded in the lab, and turned that beautiful face into a road map of Mars. In the novels, in the movies, this is where the handsome plastic surgeon rushes to the rescue, and by the next chapter-reel, I am Joan Crawford all over again, and on my way to becoming Mrs. Surgeon. Or, in my gay instance, Mister and Mister Surgeon.

Cut. First off, he was older than the hills and singularly unattractive. And, he was already married and blatantly heterosexual. Don't get me wrong: I have no objections to heterosexuals, so long as they aren't too obvious. And, hell, if he had been able to make me lovely again, I'd have murdered her, had the change, and gone after the old codger regardless.

Three operations later, however, the mirror still showed me the surface of Mars. The craters had shrunk somewhat, and the canals had shifted, but it was still Mars. I balked at going under the knife a fourth time.

"No, it won't be a dramatic improvement," he said when I questioned him.

"In other words, I'm still going to look like something brought back up half eaten," I asked, and the tone in which he assured me that I would look better told me that "better" still was not going to be very good.

Which was where we left it. Notwithstanding the pleasure of lying abed in a hospital-there is nothing quite like the personal touch of your own bedpan, is there-and all that delicious food, I promised I would get back to him, without specifying in which life.

When you are damaged, as I was, they give you lots of money, as if that would compensate for what I had lost. I was grateful, though, that I did not have to work. Not because I am all that fond of lying about vegetating, but because I did not have to face all those slipping-away eyes that I was sure to encounter.

There were not many places one could go, however, without the same problem. Jason threw in the towel and was gone. Jason who loved "the soul of me," who loved me "through and through," was through. I told myself good riddance, he was too shallow to be of much use as a lover, and I tried to not to think that I had mostly been just about as shallow most of my life. I definitely tried not to remember that I loved the bastard.

I am fortunate that I am comfortable with my own company, as many are not, and there is a certain bitter comfort in wallowing in self-pity. That wears thin, though, after a while, and the walls of my little apartment seemed to shrink inward with each passing day. So, when Douglas called me, to say he was going to spend a month or two at his cottage on the shore, and would I like to come along, I jumped at the chance. I might not have in the past. I had always understood that Douglas was in love with me-whatever that meant. Jason had been in love with me, too, he said, and what had that amounted to? Who knew what "love" was? I didn't.

In the past, I might have wondered at Douglas' intentions, getting me all alone in that little cottage of his. He was Jason's friend. I liked him well enough on the few occasions when I had met him, and he was a lovely person-just not my type. Not as old as that surgeon, probably, but, really, too old for my tastes, sixty if he was a day, maybe more. I didn't really know. Anyway, what difference does a number make? There comes a point when you're just old, doesn't there? Though I have to admit, if you weren't hung up on age, he was a youthful looking sixty whatever.

They say it's an ill wind, however. With the face I now had, I did not have to worry about whether it was only my beauty that men were after.

I will give him credit. He was one of the few, the first, maybe, since the accident, who did not flinch when he saw me. He even managed to look me straight in the face, and not quickly avert his eyes.

"Pretty awful, isn't it?" I said. He had come out to help me bring my bags in.

He smiled. "I've seen worse," he said. "I used to work in a burn center."

"I hope that wasn't meant to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside," I said, following him up the wide, shallow steps to the front door.

"No, I've got martinis waiting. That's their job."

They failed, however. All they did was lower the barriers I had so carefully raised. The martinis, and Douglas. He was an elegant man, suave and distinguished. He was also thoughtful and gentle; I hadn't known that about him before. Of course, I had never been alone at his beach cottage with him. Never, really, been alone with him at all.

He talked of all sorts of things, movies and people we both knew and recipes and the shore and the weather and, when I could bear it no longer and the tears began to stream down my cheeks, he stopped talking and just held me. He didn't try to tell me it would be okay. He didn't try to tell me that I was still beautiful. He did not swear it would all get better, or somehow magically go away, or any of the stupid, insensitive things that others had said that had only made me feel worse. He didn't even chide me when I blubbered about the canals of Mars.

He just held me and gently kissed my cheek; not even the good one. He kissed the one that was scarred, kissed Mars' canals as if they were the most natural things on this planet. He was the first person since the accident with the courage to put his lips to my flesh; the first, even, to put his arms around me. Jason had tried, and had paled and turned away before his lips touched me, and said with a sob, as if it were his heart breaking, "I can't, I just can't." Then he left.

Douglas only held me and kissed my cheek, and when the tears stopped at last, he took me upstairs and tucked me into my bed like a little child, and brought me a cup of hot chocolate, and made me drink it, and sat and held my hand until I fell asleep.