Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
Samantha told me about it on our third date. We were watching a movie on her couch when I made my move to kiss her. She whipped her hand in front of my face and blocked me.
“There’s something you need to know,” she said.
I braced myself. Here it comes. “I’m not ready for a relationship. Nothing to do with you, of course.” It was the absolute last thing that I wanted to hear, because I was already crazy about her.
“Okay,” I said.
“I have a removable face.”
That’s a new one. “You have a what now?” I was about to laugh, but she was wearing a deadly serious expression.
“I have a removable face.”
“Is that, like, a metaphor or something?”
“No. My face is literally removable. Look. Closely.” She lifted her chin and traced her jaw line with a finger. “You can see the seam.”
After admiring how beautiful her neck was for a dizzying moment, I leaned in for an inspection. It was very hard to see, but it did look like there was a slightly unnatural transition there from her face to her throat. I grew dizzier, as a dozen questions rushed into my brain.
“Don’t bother asking why or how or anything like that,” said Samantha. “I can’t tell you that. If that’s going to be a problem, you should leave now. I’m letting you know this because I like you, and I want to take the next step, but this is non-negotiable.”
“Okay,” I said, unsure of what was happening. “Not a problem. So what? You have a removable face. Who cares? It looks good.”
“There’s something else. Once a day, usually in the evening, I have to remove the face and disinfect the inside of it. If I don’t, it will rot. This takes about an hour, give or take, depending on how my day went. During this time, you must never ever look at my real face. Never. Do you understand?”
“Y… yes. Got it. Don’t ask about it, don’t look at your… ‘real’ face.”
Samantha stood up. “Now, I’m going to go into the bathroom and clean my face. That will give you plenty of time to think about what I’ve told you. If you’re here when I’m done… that’s great. I would like that. But if you’re gone… I’ll understand.”
She turned and walked into her bedroom. I sat in stunned silence as I heard the bathroom door close.
I gave the thing some serious thought. It was possible that it was a joke of some kind. It was possible that it was a delusion. Was it possible that it was true? Well, it was certainly possible to transform an actor’s face with movie makeup, so I supposed it was possible that Samantha wore a “removable face” every day. Maybe she had had a horrible accident where her flesh had been mangled. Maybe her face had been melted by acid, or burned by fire, or the skin shorn off by heavy machinery. If it had, I would never know, because she would never tell me, and I would never see it.
I pictured a face of raw, naked muscle, rotting away. Could I kiss her, if that was what I was kissing? But wasn’t that what we all were, under the skin? Just muscle and bone and blood and squishy organs.
I paced around the living room, running my hand through my hair. I liked Samantha, a lot. She was smart, and funny… and beautiful. But was that beauty real? Did it count? Did it matter if it was “real” or not? Was I being superficial even worrying about it?
When she came out of the bathroom, I was still there. I looked at her face. She smiled and I was in love.
We dated, we moved in together, we decided to get married.
For the most part, it was a completely normal relationship, typical of two young people in love, building a life together. During the day, it was easy to forget about the face altogether. It looked natural enough, and only in certain positions, in certain lights, was there ever any indication that it wasn’t natural.
But every night was the same. Samantha would close herself in the bathroom – sometimes for an hour, sometimes for two – and clean the inside of her face. The curiosity never left me. I would sit there and wonder what was under that face. I came so close to barging in on her a few times, but I never did.
I did occasionally ask her about it. About what, if anything, had happened. About how it was possible to make the removable face look so real. About what it really looked like underneath. I tried to coax her into showing me, assuring her that I loved her no matter what, and didn’t give a damn what her real face looked like… I was just curious, that’s all.
She never showed me, or told me the story behind it. She didn’t get upset at me (unless I was really badgering her.) She’d just shrug and say, “You know you can’t see it. You know I can’t tell you about it.”
I never told anybody about Samantha’s removable face. It’s not that she asked me not to. I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business.
Except once, I did tell somebody.
It was during my bachelor’s party. We had rented several cabins in Big Sur and spent the night drinking and packing our noses with powders that we shouldn’t have been packing our noses with. Everyone else had passed out and the sun was creeping up behind us as I stood on the majestic cliffs with my friend Chris, looking down on the pacific waves crashing against the rocks.
Chris was my best friend; as close to a brother as I’d known. We’d grown up together, and visited each other at college often, and spent the summers together. After college, we’d moved to different cities, but we stayed in close contact.
Standing there on the cliffs, I told Chris about Samantha’s removable face. At first, he thought I was joking. Then he had a thousand questions, most of which I couldn’t answer.
“I don’t know, man. I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t that drive you crazy, not knowing?”
I shrugged. “Lots of stuff I don’t know. Don’t know how to do calculus, and I don’t know what happens when we die.”
“But dude, she’s about to be your wife. And you don’t even know what she looks like. I mean, I’d have to take a look. Like, you could set a camera up in the bathroom. That’s where she does it, right? Set up a camera and have a look and then you’ll know.”
I sighed. “Yeah, it drives me crazy. I’ve asked her a million times. But she told me I could never look. Gotta respect that, man, even if I don’t like it. That’s love.”
Chris laughed. “You telling me to respect a woman? Up is down now.”
Then we fell back into talking about old times as a new day dawned.
Chris was in town for business last week, and planned on spending the weekend at our house. The conversation at Big Sur had happened four years ago, and we hadn’t spoken about Samantha’s removable face since, despite keeping in close contact and seeing each other as often as two people transforming into adults in different parts of the country can.
It happened on Saturday evening. We were lounging lazily in the backyard, deep into the beer, having just finished with some grilled steaks, when I got a text from work.
“Goddammit,” I groaned. “I have to make a work call.”
“Seriously?” said Samantha, raising an artificial eyebrow. “On a Saturday night?”
“My biggest client, baby. Sorry.”
“It is what it is, I guess,” said my wife. “I’m going to head inside and get cleaned up. Chris? Are you okay just hanging out for a bit?”
Chris smiled. “I’ll be fine. Got my beer, got some weeds to pull in your garden. God knows your lazy-ass husband isn’t going to do it. Those tomatoes are choking to death. It’s a tragedy.”
I rolled my eyes and went into the side yard to make my call.
15 minutes into it, I heard the screams coming from inside. Both my best friend and my wife were wailing in terror.
I dropped the phone and ran into the house and down the hall to our bedroom. Through the open door, I could see that the door to the master bathroom was also standing open.
“Don’t come in!” screamed Samantha. “I don’t have my face on! Call an ambulance! He looked! Oh God, he looked!” She sounded desperate, and truly horrified. That made me desperate and horrified, and I wanted to rush into the bathroom, but I knew suddenly that that would be a mistake.
I knew suddenly that Samantha didn’t want me to look at her real face not out of a sense of vanity, but for my own safety.
Chris staggered backwards, out of the bathroom. He was holding a straightened out paperclip, which he had used to pick the privacy lock. Now he was stabbing it again and again into his eyes, shouting gibberish. He was clearly in the depths of madness, and it turned my stomach to see him mutilate himself.
“Call a fucking ambulance!” my wife screamed. “Don’t come in here! He fucking LOOKED!”
I turned and ran back to the side yard, where my phone was lying in the newly mowed grass. My client was still on the line, alarmed, asking what was happening, what all the screaming was. I hung up on him and called 911.
When the paramedics arrived, Chris was having a seizure in the hallway. Samantha was stroking his head, sobbing. Her face was on, but it had been done hastily, and everything looked a little off.
My world has been dark this past week.
My best friend is in a psychiatric hospital under suicide watch. He’s completely blind and mostly catatonic, except when he slips into a violent, babbling mania. The doctors are optimistic that his state is temporary, but they don’t know the truth about what caused it, because I told the paramedics that Chris had taken a large dose of psychedelic mushrooms and fallen into psychosis.
I saw no good reason to tell the truth about what had happened. Who would believe that one look at my wife’s “real” face would make somebody insane? At best, we would be the subjects of a long investigation; at worst, we would have to prove that what we were saying was true, by showing somebody Samantha’s face. Then the same thing would happen again, and what after that? I had no idea, and no interest in finding out. For Samantha’s part, I knew that she would never consent to show anybody her real face, no matter what the consequences of refusal were.
I did get a follow-up call from the police, asking me to confirm my story. The hospital found no traces of psilocybin in Chris’ blood, though that’s not unheard of, since it has a short half-life. If they end up testing his hair, I will likely be in a lot of trouble. But that’s truly the least of my concerns.
Samantha is in a state of her own. She still cleans the inside of her face, though not as regularly, and when she puts it back on, it’s always crooked now. It is beginning to smell a little bit.
I’ve tried to assure her that it wasn’t her fault. “He knew,” I said. “I told him that nobody was ever allowed to look at it. He knew and then he broke into the bathroom. This is not on you, baby. Please. Talk to me.”
“Not on me? That one look at my fucking face makes people insane? Please. I just need some time alone.”
As for me, I am doing my best to hold it together. Do you know what’s strange, though? Despite what happened to Chris, I still find myself curious about what my wife’s real face looks like. More curious than ever, really.
WRITTEN BY: N.S. Lewis
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