When I make the mistake of looking at the cashier’s face at GreatMart, I see his right eye slide down his cheek. I leave my bags and rush out. Driving home, I avoid glimpsing myself in the rearview mirror.
I’ve suffered from prosopagnosia — face blindness — my whole life, but now when I look at someone’s face, even my own, I never know what I’ll see. My hallucinations are horrifying, sometimes nauseating. They began shortly after I caught my wife, Claire, with her dance instructor.
Last year, after Claire was passed over for a promotion at work, she quit. Our daughter’s wedding perked up my wife temporarily, but then boredom overcame her. She started pestering for us to try new things together — cooking lessons, painting, yoga.
I told her that even though she’d abandoned her career, I remained focused on getting ahead. Besides, I’d been transferred to a different department, and by the end of the day, I was worn out from associating the new names with hair color, body shape, voice — any cue I could latch onto.
One day Claire announced she was going to learn flamenco dancing, which was being taught in the studio next to her yoga class. She apparently was a natural. “Ricardo” — Nerman, as I snooped out online — was so impressed, he started giving Claire private lessons.
It was a Tuesday. I came home early with a bad headache and walked in on Nerman and Claire on the couch. I recognized Nerman from his jet-black died hair and mustache. I knew it was Claire from her bare feet, which were undulating in Nerman’s crotch as he rubbed them.
I still remember how Claire’s eyebrows arched, and her lips twitched when I caught them. Was that a smirk? I couldn’t believe it was my Claire and stared at her feet, hoping to see someone else’s toes.
I moved out after a few days of accusations, denials, and confessions. I found myself obsessing over the look on Claire’s face when I caught her with Nerman. I had dreams where her eyebrows became tiny, hissing cobras, and her lips erupted into flames. It got so bad that when I looked at photos of her, my eyes played tricks with her features. Then Claire’s grotesque faces started filling in for the blank ones I couldn’t recognized in real life.
When I arrive at my apartment from GreatMart, a woman with short hair is there. “Who are you? Why are you here?” I look at the floor.
“It’s me, Dad. I got a haircut.”
Relieved to hear my daughter’s voice, I make a mental note of her new hairdo.
“How you feeling, Dad?”
I know where this is headed. Jennifer wants me to move in with her and John. “Better.”
“Then look at me.”
I lift my gaze. Jennifer’s face is a giant thumbprint, the whirls and sworls rotating in different directions. I begin feeling dizzy enough to faint. Hold on … Hold on … No use. I put my hand over my eyes and sink to my knees.
I’ve been staying in Jennifer and John’s basement a few months. I’m off work on disability. My daughter is expecting. Claire and Nerman are living together.
I read a lot. Not a problem as long as the descriptions of characters’ faces aren’t detailed enough to trigger mental images. I wear a blindfold to listen to TV and when I have supper with my daughter and John.
According to Jennifer, Ricardo and my ex-wife have opened a Spanish-themed restaurant, El Huevo Picanteand dance the flamenco each night. I can’t help but feel some relief that Claire seems to be doing well. Her betrayal still stings, but I realize I could’ve been a better husband.
One afternoon Jennifer informs me that Claire and Nerman are coming to dinner, and do I want to join them?
“I think I’ll pass.”
“Guess I can’t blame you.” She holds out a pair of headphones. “Noise cancelling. I’m sure they’ll want to dance for us.”
That evening, when the racket begins, I start to put on the headphones, but the rhythm is infectious.
A few minutes after everything goes quiet, there’s a knock on my door.
Claire’s voice. A fist pounds in my chest. I put on my blindfold, let her in, and count the steps as we go to the sofa.
“Why are you here?”
“To see how you are.”
“Fine. You?” Ever ask someone how they are as a courtesy then can’t wait for them to shut up when they tell you? Well, I find myself not feeling that way with Claire. She describes how she and Ricardo are working hard at El Huevo Picante, but loving every minute.
I don’t dare ask. I have to ask. “That day I caught you with Ner … Ricardo — did you smirk at me?”
I hear a gasp. “God, no. I was ashamed, just trying to keep it together. I’m so sorry I hurt you.” I feel the fist in my chest unclench.
We talk about how we’ll be thrilled to have a little one to spoil. She says Ricardo is looking forward to it as well. I lift my hand. “Do you mind?”
When she doesn’t say anything, I touch her forehead and cheekbones, trace a finger down her nose, cup her chin in my palm. I visualize in detail what I’ve felt. The image doesn’t contort into something hideous. I know I can’t free myself from prosopagnosia but realize that needn’t be true of my hallucinations.
I take a deep breath, remove my blindfold, and stare into the calm face of a stranger I know is Claire. After we chat a few more minutes, I ask her to dance for me. She hesitates then stands, lifts her chin, raises rounded arms and builds to a crescendo of snapping fingers and stamping heels. I have to admit, she’s pretty good.
David Henson and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now reside in Peoria, Illinois. His work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net and has appeared in numerous print and online journals including Potato Soup Journal, Spelk, Pithead Chapel, Moonpark Review, Bull and Cross, and Literally Stories. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.