By Harrison Bae Wein
Raymond has had two faces for as long as he can remember. Like a chameleon’s color, his face alters with its surroundings. Although he has no control, he can feel the subtle movements of bone beneath cheek, the cartilage in his nose expanding or contracting, his jaw broadening or narrowing, teeth separating or closing together. These changes take place in but a few moments.
The difference between his two faces, while not dramatic, is enough to make him unrecognizable to anyone who knows the other. Upon encountering the second, they might think he looked familiar, but would be unable to pinpoint from where they were acquainted.
To avoid the possibility of discovery, Raymond is careful to keep his work and home life separate. The sole hint of his home life at work is a portrait of his wife on his desk, but no one there has ever met her in person.
His facial transformations began when Raymond was in the fifth grade. He gave little thought to them at the time, viewing them much as he did the coarse hair that had begun to sprout on his chest: something not to be discussed with others, to be accepted with a certain degree of vexation but overall resignation.
As he grew older, he came to understand that this trait was unusual. Unable to find any information about the condition, he concluded that it must have been some sort of adaptation. The guise he adopted at school seemed tougher and more masculine; he felt the broader nose, more prominent brow, thinner lips, and angular jaw projected strength to the other boys, while at home his softer features seemed more relaxed and approachable.
Now, at the age of 34, the changes in Raymond’s face are as routine as his schedule. The morning hardening of his features begins soon after his car leaves the driveway. The evening softening commences when he returns to their housing development and is complete by the time he rounds the curve on their street and comes into view of the lemon siding of their cottage style, one-story home.
This morning, Raymond leaves by the front door as usual, in his red tie and blue blazer, to pick up the newspaper. He typically reads little of it, but feels it important to support this institution and the local businesses that advertise in it. He glances at the headlines: a murder-suicide at a motel, an independent bookstore closing, a transgender rally planned for the weekend. He feels unusually heavy this morning, tired and uninspired—understandable, as today is his last day of work after more than ten years with his company.
He walks to the garage and wearily punches in the code. While the door opens, he waves to their neighbor Leo, who is manually trimming a holly at the corner of his house, which is identical to Raymond and Kayla’s except that Leo’s vinyl siding is a sage green. Fit and sturdy for a man approaching sixty, Leo—in a wide-brimmed hat, pants, and long-sleeved shirt in earth tones that might be mistaken for the greenery—waves back and says hello in a neighborly voice before focusing back on the bush before him, carefully snipping one or two twigs at a time. When Leo’s wife died of ovarian cancer two or three years ago, Kayla organized the neighbors to provide food for him, for which he was very appreciative. He and his wife used to tend their garden together; now, he spends hours a day in his sun-protective clothing, trimming the lawn, keeping the shrubs in shape, planting annual flowers as his wife once did. Raymond does his best to smile and wave whenever he sees Leo, but as outwardly friendly as Leo seems, Raymond has long had the sense that their neighbor doesn’t like him.
Raymond gets into his car—a silver Buick with black leather interior, almost half paid off—and starts the engine. His face begins to change as usual as he drives away, but after he rounds the curve of their street, he realizes that the movement of bone beneath cheek, the broadening of jaw, the separation of teeth has not yet completed. He checks the rear-view mirror to see that his face has indeed become caught in the midst of a change. It looks like neither of his two faces, but rather something in between.
He stops the car outside one of the houses to feel his jawbone, to press it to see if it will move, but it seems completely stuck. He wiggles some teeth, but they, too, are fixed in place. Raymond doesn’t know else to try. Figuring this must be a glitch that will work itself out, he pulls back into the street to continue his journey. But by the time he reaches the main road and leaves the neighborhood, he feels no further alteration. His panic beginning to grow, he decides to turn around and retrace his steps. Perhaps his face somehow missed the cue to change.
It doesn’t respond in the slightest as the car rounds the curve back to their house or even as he opens the garage and turns into the driveway. Leo is still outside but shows no sign of noting anything unusual, glancing over impassively as the car pulls up and into the garage.
Inside, Raymond shuts off the engine and flips down his sun visor to peer in the illuminated mirror. Gazing into the unfamiliar face that greets him, he has no idea what to do. He has never told anyone, even Kayla, about his facial adaptations. How could he ever explain this to a doctor? He has nowhere to turn for help.
That this could happen today is exasperating. Many of the past wakeful nights have been spent envisioning himself in his cubicle, slowly and deliberately packing his few belongings into a cardboard box as his colleagues drop by one by one to tell him how very sorry they are that he has been fired. He wonders what they will say when they see this altered facade. Perhaps it is the recent stress and lack of sleep that have caused his face to become stuck this way.
Although there is little danger to his career in being late on his last day, Raymond is reluctant to do so, feeling it would be undignified and petty, and make the impression that his firing was justified. Thus, he decides to proceed to work; perhaps his face will complete the change once he drives away from his house again. So he starts up the car, pulls out of the garage, past the unperturbed Leo once more, and resumes his commute.
This time, he feels no change whatsoever as he drives through the neighborhood or joins the traffic on the main road. At the first red light, he glances in the rear-view mirror to see that no further alterations have occurred and, with a deep breath, resolves to continue toward work.
He spends the drive trying to steady himself and preparing to confront his colleagues, running through the excuses he might make if anyone asks what has happened to him: his face is puffy, he’s gone to the dermatologist, he’s wearing makeup.
Arriving at the office park, he pulls into his usual spot in the second row from the building. Once inside the glass and concrete structure, he goes to the elevator and enters with the other workers, ascends to the sixth floor, and walks down the hallway to the heavy glass door of his suite. Although he sees familiar faces, he meets no one he knows.
As he strides to his cubicle, he makes sure to keep his head down. People toss halfhearted hellos in his direction, but no one attempts to stop and engage him in conversation. He doubts anyone even attends to him beyond a glance out of the corner of their eyes, but is afraid to raise his head and make direct eye contact lest his problem be discovered.
In his cubicle, he finds a cardboard box on his empty desk, his few possessions already collected and placed carefully inside for him: his Cincinnati Reds mug and coffee tumbler, his earbuds, the picture frame with the photo of his wife, a couple of granola bars, some chewing gum, and a mostly eaten package of turkey jerky from the warehouse store. Beside the box is a brief note from his supervisor asking him to kindly leave his badge on the desk before he leaves.
It hadn’t occurred to Raymond that they wouldn’t let him clear out his own desk. Angry, he scans around defiantly, daring anyone to notice him, but no one is paying attention. They are all in their own cubicles, focused on their computer screens. Like the numbers they work with all day, they seem unreal and inhuman, each serving a particular purpose for the organization and nothing more. After working with him for years, none of them had even ventured to say a word in his defense when he was fired—perhaps, he told himself at the time, because they were frightened to be marked next to be “downsized.”
He unclips his badge, slaps it down on the maple veneer surface, lifts the box, and begins walking toward the exit. He proceeds haltingly, pausing to say good-bye to each of his now-former colleagues and seeking to make eye contact. However, none will even glimpse at his in-between face; they avert their gaze, embarrassed for him, and mutter worn platitudes. As he nears the end of the aisle, he longs to scream in frustration, but then everyone would suddenly look at him, and what would he say then? No, he decides, it is best to just slip away quietly.
The elevator is empty, there is no one he knows in the lobby, and the parking lot is deserted. As he pulls out of the lot for the last time, he decides to head toward a distant mall where no one will recognize him, and he can linger anonymously in the food court for as long as he likes. But driving away, he reconsiders.
Kayla is the only person in the world who he is even remotely close with. He and his wife have been married for eight years. Their parents, who knew each other from church, introduced them and strongly encouraged their union. Kayla promptly quit her job after the wedding, eager to organize their household and raise their children, but she has never been able to get pregnant. At first, they tried diligently. The doctors could find nothing wrong with either of them, but over time their enthusiasm faded. While it is still not too late to conceive, sex has become dull and mechanical. Kayla now flinches at his touch and keeps mostly to herself, busy with projects for the house and garden: restoring furniture found at yard sales, rearranging wall hangings, growing plants from seeds and cuttings. The room upstairs for the baby, painted a powder blue, stands unfurnished and unvisited, its door closed for so long that it has become stuck in its frame.
They have never talked much, but Raymond, although grateful for Kayla’s careful attention to their home, feels particularly distant from her now. He has little sense of her daily schedule or what she might be doing. Recently, she has spoken about going back to work, but although Raymond has expressed support for the idea, he doesn’t know whether she has yet tried applying for any jobs.
With a surge of resolve, he decides to turn toward home and tell her all. Inspired by this resolution, the ride home is smooth and uneventful until their neighborhood finally comes into view, when his anxiety rises like a snake. Half-hoping his face will change, he drives slowly past the seemingly endless one-story houses, the only variation between them being the landscaping and the colors of their vinyl siding, decorative shutters, and roofs. But he feels no sign of any shift in bone or teeth, and his heart is thumping by the time he rounds the final curve of their street.
Leo is no longer outside his house, and Raymond sees no one else around. Feeling the sudden need for more time to clear his head, he turns around in a neighbor’s driveway and parks down the street so that he can walk the rest of the way home.
The taste of air is calming, but as he meanders up the walkway to his front door, his apprehension returns in full. He finds it difficult to imagine how to begin this conversation. The possibilities keep shifting in his mind. This uncertainty causes him to decide to walk around the house and sit for a time on the patio. It has always been soothing for him to lounge alone there, watching the birds flitting among the tree branches, the squirrels approaching on the grass but then veering away without seeming to notice him. If Kayla sees him and comes out to talk, so be it. If not, he will have had some more time to think.
Raymond turns onto the path to the right and walks past their empty dining room to the side of the house, where he finds the guest room empty, as expected. Peering into the backyard, he sees no sign of Kayla working in the garden, but curiously detects the tinny sound of some old orchestral dance music.
Walking cautiously to the edge of the brick patio, he peeks through the back window into their large, open living room and sees Leo and Kayla swaying together in the middle of the open floor, the coffee table pushed back against the couch. Surprised, Raymond backs away behind a boxwood and watches as Leo, still in his sun-protective shirt and pants, twirls Kayla, who is wearing gardening overalls over a plain white tee shirt. They come back together, Leo gripping Kayla’s hand, his other palm flat on her back, and then he suddenly dips her back. Kayla arches her spine in compliance as if she might fall backward without his support, and they laugh with an ease that Raymond has never shared with his wife.
Raymond has little idea what to make of this sight, at Leo bouncing awkwardly as the two come back together, his mouth moving as if singing along to the music. As Raymond studies Kayla’s smiling face, it occurs to him that, while there is a certain familiarity to her puffy cheeks, her deep-set eyes, this woman seems like a complete stranger to him, someone he has never met. How could Kayla be such a different person with Leo? And is this an innocent moment between the two or evidence of a love affair, one that has been percolating behind his back for months or years?
Beginning to feel guilty for his voyeurism, Raymond retreats back around the house and walks toward his car, trying to make sense of what he has just seen. Once inside, he rolls down the windows, reclines his seat, and stares at the smooth black cloth on the ceiling.
Raymond thinks he should be angry and jealous, but feels only a disorienting thinness, as if he might dissipate at any moment and drift out the windows, as if his flesh was formed of nothing but mist or fog, his figure barely holding together in the shape that is known as Raymond.
After some thought, he decides that his first step must be to return to the house and introduce himself to his wife. He will wait until Leo has left and then ring the bell, no matter what form his face. Kayla may not recognize him and might not even believe it is him, but facing her is something he needs to do.
Pulling down the visor, he inspects his features in the illuminated mirror and thinks that this is a person he will need to get to know as well.