The Missing FaceMature

SANDRA FLETCHER:

            My name is Sandra. I am a young woman, still finishing college. Despite my studies, I find time to make a life for myself. Even with my parental support, I took on a job. And even with that, I found time for a love life. It is not as stressful as it sounds. And I guess I am rather privileged to live in first-world country. However, things are never as perfect as they seem.

            We had been dating for six months before anything had gone askew. Awry, amiss and askew. Twisting away from trust and factuality, into secrecy and perceptions. Things became complicated, and I now miss the simpler times.

            My room-mate was out of town, and we had the place to ourselves. I was working half-time as a waitress, and he was struggling to get by, with a job that didn't pay much more than minimum wage. So, we chose not to mark the occasion with anything expensive. Just an inexpensive few boxes of Thai take-out.

            "Do you mind if I finish the green curry?" he asked, as he tipped the container so that I could see what little was left.

            "No thanks, it was too hot for me," I answered. My chopsticks clumsily pried at some pad-thai noodles, trying to get them closer to my mouth. Being a Caucasian, I never really got a chance to perfect chopsticks.

            "Mmmm," he savoured the last bite of chicken from the green curry, and thumped his chest. I could see his face turning red, thinking, Too spicy for Jack, as well. Darn macho pride.

            Jack set his fork down, spooned the last bit of white rice on his plate in to quell the spices, and then set the spoon down as well. I remember him telling me that a fork and spoon were the real way Thai food was eaten, and that the chopsticks I was fumbling around with were not part of the authentic experience.

            We had rented a movie, from Blockbuster, and it lay at the foot of my bed. He had his eye on it, now, as we cleared away our dishes and the styrofoam take-out boxes. And all the while, I was talking about my essay for class. He was listening intently, and actually cared.

            "Can I edit it for you, sweetie. While the movie starts?"

            "Sure," I answered.

            He picked it up off my desk, and went over it in pencil while I loaded the disc into the DVD player.|

            And then, I realized something profound, as the movie loaded. All these months, it was almost always my life that was the focus of the conversation. Always; my work, my education, my family and my life. I suddenly realized how very little he had ever shared with me about the things that revolved around him. Sure, he had told me things about himself. But I knew nothing of his family, his ambitions, his ancestry, his ex-girlfriend, his friends or where he even came from. Heck, I barely know a thing about his job! I suddenly felt very, very selfish.

            It was a chick-flick. The kind of sappy, romantic, captivating story that makes my heart melt. And he seemed to be into it. He could follow it, even after having an essay in his lap for the first half-hour.

            The TV was across from my bed. Together, we cuddled against the pillows. I swear, I saw a tear in Jack's eye at least once. Must have been the part where the leading man was forced to leave the love of his life. Or maybe I was imagining things.

            When the movie came to an end, and the credits rolled, we cuddled in the soft, ambient music. I had my hands up his shirt, caressing his chest. And he held me close against him, a somber look on his face.

            The lighting was dim. Since he had phoned the restaurant, I had turned off the lights. With a few matches, I had lit the candles Clarice, my room-mate, keeps around for power outages. Now, the room flickered in their soft glow.

            I began to peel up his shirt. I could see the line of darker hairs tracing a line across his abs and belly-button, down below his waist. I had never imagined that a blond man could have hairs so dark. I could feel his broad shoulders around me. And I could smell the coolingly antipodal smell of his warm sweat, such a lovely smell.

            "Sandra, what are you doing?" he asked me.

            I answered him by drawing my face up to his and kissing him. I tried to invade his mouth with my tongue, but he kept his lips closed; just gently sucking on mine.

            He ran his hands through my short flair of brown hair, murmuring my name and kissing my scalp. Jack knew the chemotherapy had not been easy.

            I put my hands on his shoulders, pulled myself over him, and kissed him again. I could feel his low-cut jeans protruding towards me. This was when I would expect any other man to move a hand towards the back of my bra. Jack is different. It had nothing to do with the cancer, or the prosthetic lump of silicone in its place. He is simply not forward with new things like this. It is not that he has no initiative, but that he respects me too much for his own good.

            His own good, indeed! I reached down, and grabbed through the denim at the solid protrusion.

            And he moaned something incoherent to me, "Ohh, Nat."

            Though a little confused, my fingers moved towards the zipper and button. With agonizing slowness, I pulled it, and we could hear the metal teeth coming apart one by one. His body jerked with excitement. And then, I began to --

            "N-na- N-," he pulled back. "Sandra, I can't do this. I'm not ready."

            I was stunned. I was the woman, and he was the man. And thus, it had never occurred to me that I might be the one hearing those words. I felt like some kind of vile nymphomaniac. And I felt worse, when he got up from the bed, pulling down his shirt. Missing his touch. Face flushed. Feeling dreadful. And even worse, when he walked towards the door.

            It was the right time of month. And we had six months together to celebrate. I had felt that I was ready.

            "Goodbye," he said to me. "I'll call you when I've cleared my head."

            There was a knot in my throat, where there should have been words. He had stayed with me through the vomiting and the hair loss. If we were headed towards a break-up now, when things seemed so perfect. No more unpredictable diarrhea. No more frightening weight loss. No more tumours. For now.

            Silence broke. The door of my dorm closed behind him. I was left alone, speechless and tearless. I wanted to cry, but I felt too confused to even worry or wallow.

            Instead, I wondered. Does it have anything to do with the replacement breast? No, that's nonsense, Sandra, I told myself. He's not as superficial as Richie.

            I must have sat on the bed, staring at the eerily silent DVD menu screen, for at least fifteen minutes. The parted lovers on the screen made it worse, even though I heard him say that he would call. And I knew things were not over. However, things had become complicated, in my mind. And there was nobody I could blame but myself, for being too insensitive.

            I remembered when Richard left me. It was just after he found the tumour, late one quit evening, hands exploring each other's bodies. He did not care enough to stick around. That made him not good enough for me. No regrets there.

            I looked over my essay. It was good to begin with, but he had made it flawless. I typed it up again, with his revisions, and all the while I kept thinking of him. Flawless. And then I remembered how very little I knew about him. I suddenly felt that horrible feeling again - thinking oneself to be unduly degenerate. Fearing that I would never smell him again, never hear his voice.

            Now, I was finally worried. And I did what I always did, ever since the dehydrating effects of treatment. I reached for the glass of water at my bed-side table. Beside it, my heart stopped - there was an unopened condom package lying beside it.

            Clearly, something had given him second thoughts, in the moment. I tried to replay it all, in my mind. However, I gleaned no further insight. Only heartache.

            I went to bed early, that night; though that is not to say that I fell asleep early. I tossed and turned, with him on my mind, for many hours. Whenever I had problems sleeping, which usually occurred during exam time, I went for a walk.

            Exercise always dulled the anxiety and put my insomnia to rest. However, I had already jogged with him to pick up the Thai food down the street. And I did not want to think of that. Besides, it was dark out now. I grabbed my water glass, emptied it, and went into the en-suite kitchen.

            I made a fortunate mistake, then. Better to know, than to live blindly. In the shadowy room, the monitor stung my eyes as the computer hummed back to life.

            I signed on to Facebook, when things finally finished loading and updating. And I had a few notifications, and messages. Nothing important, though, really. It was Facebook, after all. Importance was rare.

            Claire must have logged on while she was at her parents. She had sent me a brief message: "I think there's something you need to see. Trust me." And there was nothing else. No link. No photo. Nothing. I was frowning, at first.

            Then, I found it. Among my other notifications, she had invited me to join a group on Facebook. I assumed it must have had something to do with her message, though Claire was never one to put much focus on trivial things.

            The group's title was 'Finding Matt Knox: Have You Seen This Man?'. I didn't enjoy getting spammed with petty invitations for groups and applications on the Facebook website. I cringed, remembering all the inbox messages, wall-posts and notifications I had to wade through last semester when I had signed on after recovering from the cancer treatment.

            This was unlike Claire. However, like my room-mate, I fancied myself to be a humanitarian. The question echoed playfully in my mind, Have you seen this man?

            I joined the group, telling myself it would probably be just for the moment so as to commit the man's face to memory. It was late, and I was not wearing my glasses. So, I did not want to squint at the little thumbnail photo of the man.

            My eyes grazed the recent posts on the group's wall. Aaron Knox, presumably a relative of the missing man, was getting into an argument with another one of the group's members, named Natalie West. She had suggested that the group was pointless after a year of no results; after how they had already had a funeral for Matthew. Aaron, however, had not given up hope of finding Matthew, who he referred to as 'Matty' and 'his bro'. It's nice to know that strangers bicker. It takes away some of my own guilt.

            I went to the group's photo section. A headshot loaded, and I sat in the dark room with my jaw gaping low. My thoughts reeled in greater confusion than they had earlier that evening. The face had been committed to my memory long before I had ever looked at the first photograph. It was hauntingly familiar.

            I have, indeed, seen this man!

            The broad, angular cheekbones. The strong, imposing nose. The brown eyebrows. The hair - no, it was not Jack's hair in this photograph. Matthew Knox had brown hair. Jack Burlowe, my boyfriend, had blond hair. Hair dye? Matthew had blue eyes. Jack had brown eyes. No, it was him! The same mole above his left eyebrow. The same birthmark on the side of his nose. The same tiny scar on his neck. And Matt had a pair of rounded brown glasses that matched his hair. Jack wears contact lenses...

            Pigmented lenses!

            It dawned on me, then, that my boyfriend was not who he claimed to be. Staring at the monitor, I felt like potential roadkill staring at a truck's headlights.

            How many times have I looked into those eyes and been deceived? I thought I was tough. I was a tom-girl in my early youth. I rarely ever cried. Heck, I had conquered cancer! I am strong. And, now, a tear ran down my cheek.

            I flipped to the next picture. I wanted to be sure. I should not have!

            I should have stopped, then and there, and phoned Jack. My thoughts kept swarming, Jack? Jack! Was that even his name? Six months, I should know his real name! For Christ's sake, Sandra, you almost gave up your virginity to him . . .

            The second picture shocked me to the back of my seat. She looked like me. It was not the same, though. I was not looking at my body-double, like I had been at his. The girl before me, in the arms of Matthew Knox merely looked similar. Her hair had the semblance of the wig I had had to wear. I had been wearing it, six months ago, when I had caught Jack's eyes.

            Those deceitful brown eyes! I banged a hand against the table in anguish.

            I regret most what I did next. I moved my mouse over her face, and the name data tagged to the photograph came up: Natalie West.

            At first, it made no sense to me. Part of me was in denial, and wanted to believe that it was me, there, in his arms. Then, I noticed the hicky on her neck. And the way his arms were folded around her. And then I remembered how Jack had stuttered when I began to make physical advances. How he'd said something: "Oh, Nat!" And the stuttering, 'n' syllable before my name, before he had left.

            Her name! Again, my fist hit the table, clenching tightly. I realized then, that regardless of whether he loved me, he had approached me six months ago because of my resemblance. I was the spitting image of Natalie West! And he was, truly, Matthew Knox.

            She was a stranger to me. And suddenly; my boyfriend, Jack, was a stranger to me, too. I went to bed, hitting the computer's power button, finally brought to cascading tears. My face felt hot, like I had a fever. Mad at myself. Mad at Claire. Mad at 'Jack'. Mad at Natalie. My heart was racing. And yet, I was tired, now, emotionally exhausted. And my mind whirred towards sleep with questions I could not answer, and possibilities I dared not accept.

            No, I can't fall asleep yet! I reached for the phone, and dialed. Nobody picked up. Maybe he, too, had felt the need to go to bed early. I knew he had caller-ID. Should I have edited the group-join message out of my news-feed?

            I hung up, and nestled back under the covers. Seconds became minutes, and minutes became hours.

            My fists would pound, occasionally, against the headboard. Great sobs of mixed emotions and fears. I fought an inclination to pull at my hair, remembering when it had once fallen out. I do not know when and if I truly fell to restful sleep.

            I, Sandra Fletcher, was dating a run-away.

The End

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