This story is by Parvati Chatterjee Mazumdar and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Another lonely evening. Dark clouds linger outside after a thunderous afternoon of rain. I am sitting on my bed, as I have for most part of the day, looking out of the wide glass panes of my bedroom window. Getting up in the morning and changing from nightclothes into clean day clothes is effort enough. It is my gesture toward a workday in this period of enforced isolation. The days are folding into one another. The luxury of time and space deceived me into planning for purposeful activity. I walked in the morning a full forty minutes, followed by breathing exercises, breakfast and then got down to pending paperwork for the numerous organizations on whose boards I sit. It worked for a few weeks …before the inevitable dread creeps into the hollow pit of my gut.
A sinkhole is opening up. The merry- go- round of cocktail parties and dinner invitations has come to a grinding halt. No meticulous make-up is required. No need to hide my flaw. It has taken many years to find the perfect match- the skin tone and right texture of concealer- to cover the mark gouged on my face during another period of isolation of which I have no memory. They are tales I was told.
It was in the time of small pox. A baby’s body covered with angry, swollen pustules. I was not even a year old. My mother and I were marooned in the infectious diseases ward. Ma described it as a long, dark period of isolation engulfed by the fear of impending disaster. Time was no longer punctuated by the beginning and end of day. Sometimes she forgot to comb her hair until she was informed of the doctor’s rounds. “ We have done all that we can. Now she has to fight her way out” the doctors said. “You fought mightily and you won. Not many survived small pox”, my mother would tell me.
My aunt has a pockmarked face and melted arm, which she hides under the folds of her clothes. Thankfully, I remember none of the horror. But I didn’t escape unscathed. In the countless retelling of that tale, we would come to the part of my life long anguish. The mark on my face. Why did I not have the flawless, translucent complexion of my mother? It was a gift of our genes. My brother, my cousins, all of them have the same glowing skin. “Couldn’t they have done something? Ma, couldn’t you have watched over me?” “Even when your hands were trussed up to stop you from scratching your face, you struggled with all of your baby strength”, she replied. One swipe was all it took, in a moment of lapsed vigil, to smash the almost dry scab deep into my skin. I did that! The ugly mark, which marred my face.
“ It’s not as bad as you think,” my friends said in my adolescent years. I didn’t believe them. Boys had started circling around, as they do when girls hit puberty. My friends experimented with make-up, exchanged glances, received love letters and stolen kisses. Maybe more, I didn’t care. I was better than that. I wasn’t interested. Boys were really dumb anyway. I was the one who got straight A’s and kept things strictly business. It was a cover up. Once I hit college, desire could not be denied. I tried to keep up the grades but all I could think about was how desperately I wanted to be beautiful, like the girls with the peach complexion and pink nails. I couldn’t think of anything else, just how ugly I was. No boy would want to be with me. I stopped talking, eating, going out and spent the day in a dark room. My father took me to his colleague from medical school, a shrink. He peered through his glasses at my nose saying, “Your father says you think you are ugly because you have a scar on your nose. Where is it? I can’t see it?” Straight to the point. I looked up at him and almost giggled. Did he have weak eyesight? He wasn’t joking. “It’s very light, hardly noticeable. Why does it bother you so much? Has anybody called you ugly? You are a pretty girl. ”
I wasn’t convinced. The dark clouds didn’t lift. Eventually he suggested some medication. A switch turned on in my brain. A trendy hair cut, slick of lip-gloss, clothes which accentuated my lavish figure and highlighted my thin waist, and a concealer. That’s all it took, I thought to myself, a little surprised at how easy it was. The stubborn mark permanent, like a crater on the moon. I learned to cover it up. Years passed, boyfriends came and went. Some were even intrigued and strangely attracted to the aberration. My face sparkled with the latest light reflecting foundation and the perfectly matched concealer. I rose to new heights in my career, found comfort in my marriage and family. Even so when I meet people for the first time, I look deeply in their eyes to gauge whether they notice the mark under the camouflage. Some naïve folks with sharp eyes and unbridled curiosity ask about it. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I flinch and explain it away as an injury.
The crippling despair of youth has not gone. It lurks, waits in the wings for days like these. In the dark days of quarantine, my early resolutions are threatening to give way to that familiar despair. This time it is not because of my puny concerns, my imperfection, but because of the stealthy killer disease, as virulent as the one I had suffered as a baby. Only worse. No one has a cure and no one can control its spread. The best that we can do is to isolate ourselves as we hear stories of mounting deaths in quarantined wards and unbearable misery. Friends and family have been separated for weeks.
I get up from the bed and call my friend urgently. “Let’s chat face to face on the video screen tomorrow. It will be like meeting.” My closest friend who is like a weather vane to my ever-changing moods agrees immediately. She has been my lifeline in the weeks of isolation. The next morning is clear with teal blue skies and puffy white clouds. I sit down in front of the window where the sun streams in through the wide panes and lights up my bare face. I cannot summon the effort nor do I have the wish to use the colours of my make-up kit to conjure a woman I am not. We chat, my friend and I, happy to see each other on our phone screens. I notice my face absently and then with a sense of realization. I can hardly see the blemish. It is an attractive face. For the first time while free falling into gloom, I also free myself. I feel no need for subterfuge. Our conversation continues, but a part of me disconnects, to gaze at my own face, convinced.