The woman I love comes back from the war with part of her face blown off and a surgery scheduled for Tuesday. I get drunk in a hotel room down the street from where she’ll be medevaced tomorrow, then type the words face and reconstructive and IED into the Google search bar. I vomit nine mini bottles worth of whiskey after the first image loads.
The doctors are elaborately poised. They are unfazed by my wife’s injuries, almost eager in their enthusiasm to build her a custom-made face from her own spare parts. It’s a godsend, one doctor says, that she lost the parts she did and kept the hardest ones to surgically recreate like the nose, eyelids and tongue. I nod fervently, tamp down my desire to reach out and yank those dirty words right out of his throat. I learn quickly that there are degrees of awful when it comes to having shrapnel pilot its way through the softest parts of the body. She’s lucky not to need a whole new face inherited from a whole new person. The doctors nowadays are demigods with robot parts and they are saving everyone. Peel off and suture on, pleat and tuck until the mask makes for a convincing fit. If my wife were here, awake and not in desperate need of leftover parts, she’d be fascinated. We’d be fascinated together.
This is all good, one surgeon says. Yeah, good, I say and the word tastes like broken vows in the full of my mouth. The most impressive medical advancements of the decade and they are born of incinerated bone and evaporated flesh, an angry nation, and the public’s incessant fascination with the catastrophic effects of the IED. This war has turned out medical titans, true pioneers, trailblazers of reconstructive surgery and all it cost was one soldier’s face and then a hundred more. Our son is fifteen and today I decide he will not grow up to do his mother’s job.
Yesterday, in a German hospital, a chemical wash was used to scrape my wife’s face and prepare it for surgery. The likely audio of the event bats itself around my skull, presses in on the cavities behind my eyeballs and pulses with my every breath. I want to hurt someone: the U.S. Military, jihadi extremists, the punks who underappreciate my wife’s job, the political thugs who keep sending her places, the very woman I love who feels a sense of duty I was not built to understand. I’m carrying a photo of her in my pocket but no one asks to see it. There is an enthusiasm that is radiating off the doctors and it is settling around me. I shrug it off but consider it a necessary trait for successful navigation of the inside hollow of my wife’s face. I ask if they need anything from me. I mean my mouth or my eyes, my skin or rapidly beating heart, but they think I mean my consent to which they enthusiastically nod and lead me to a room with HR.
They put my wife under anesthesia for the helicopter transport, and so it’s best if she goes right into surgery. I haven’t seen her for eleven months, and yet I feel a zealous relief over skipping the part where I have to look into the black crushing hole of her face and be grateful more wasn’t taken.
During the surgery, I sit in my rental car and cry far away from the measured eyes of the commanding officer that escorted her stateside.
Afterwards, the gauze and the bandages cradle her face like a tire swing. The new parts of her are bright red and tight like a sunburn or the innermost cut of a beef steak. She’s got slabs of her thigh and calf nestled and hydrated along the planes of her face. Her fibula has been sawed, sanded and perfectly fit to the missing space where her jaw once was. She is the grown-up edition of the erector set, the almost bionic woman, yet still a vet whose face will be kept out of the spotlight and off posters.
Obviously this is a better version than the one right before. Even with the swelling, she looks like a person. She’s still under the anesthetic, but one of her surgeons tells me she did well. I tell him how much she hates to be given credit for things she didn’t do. He suggests instead we give her credit for her brave acts before and with that I can hardly disagree. The doctor walks over to her, closer than I’ve gotten, and peers at the wires holding her jaw shut. He’s already onto the part where she is one day able to speak normally and eat normally and breathe normally, and I’m still on the part where a hazy dust in a desert I’ve never been to is now full of the parts of her I like best.
I still haven’t told our kids.
When he leaves and it’s finally just the two of us, I stare. She looks different. Underneath the hinges and newly sewn on parts, there is an unfamiliarity to the structure of her features. I knew she might lose things in the war. Here we are nearly at the end of it, so I’ve read up on the modern military family and gotten familiar with the side-effects of a spouse returning alive, returning dead, with arms and without. The decade-long PSA on PTSD, the introduction of the prosthetic that allows a soldier to remain on duty, the constant news coverage that keeps even the most removed viewer informed, and not once did I think to prepare myself or my children for the return of a woman who looks remarkably different than the one we sent away.
When she wakes up, we stare at each other. The space between us is wide and deep until she hits the morphine drip and is swept away into whatever dreamland the lionhearted belong.
I am not inclined towards brave acts. I feel no obligation to save all the children instead of just mine. My version of benevolence applies mostly to those within an arm’s reach. I’m ill-suited for martyrdom, and if at the end of my life my kids and wife are the only ones to consider me brave, I’ll have won the big prize.
I fly home a day early and prepare the kids for a mother they sometimes forget. My youngest suggests we take down all the pictures so Mom doesn’t feel like some other mother was here before. Her homecoming is rich with unintentional slights, everyone’s sensitivities high and active. She makes a
cyborg joke but her speech comes out a forced, awful hiss through her wired-shut jaw. I watch my daughter’s face as she realizes things will be exactly as hard as I promised.
At home, my wife starts a regimen geared towards fixing, stabilizing and reintroducing her to a world not filled with improvised explosive devises. More surgeries are scheduled for later dates and I wonder if each one will take her further from the original prototype. I watch her watch herself. She pries with uncertain fingers, traces the foreign dips and planes that don’t match up to memory. For weeks I get phone calls from people I hardly remember. One is confused, thinks she made it out of Afghanistan fine but then got shot in the face or bombed on the interstate. I tell him we still have thousands of troops deployed. He tsks like he doesn’t believe it, and I shout all the things I’ve not been saying into the recess of the dial tone. The mantles are empty and the walls are full of rectangular 8x10s where the paint has not been sun-bleached. The home feels barren and unforgiving; my son has amassed all the removed pictures and is hoarding them underneath his bed.
I think of her face, the one that she’s missing, even though I know I’m not supposed to. So many soldiers return without whole body parts, big chunks of them that cannot be drilled in, glued back, licked and stuck together. I chose to stay home. I chose not to suit up and gun up and protect everything I love. I sent my wife to do it instead, and everyone called us progressive even though their faces said otherwise.
Occasionally, going to and from the bathroom in the dead of night, we pass each other. The light from the hall will catch the slope of her cheek, the angle of her chin, and the difference is just enough to startle me. I’m being intruded upon by an intruder. She is unrecognizable and I think maybe they gave me someone else to take home. Maybe beneath the hints of her, the buried contortions that remind me of her is some long marred, mournful stranger.
Underneath the cool sheets of our bed, she lets me touch her, just barely. With shaky hands I discover the curve of her hip is exactly as I remember it. I interlay the image of the stranger face and the familiar hip so they are right on top of one another. If I wait and am patient, eventually they are bound to fuse.
Jacqueline Smith is a recipient of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Scholarship. Previously her work has appeared in The Writing Disorder and Hypertrophic Literary.