I was eight when I first discover how to close the gap between my private and public face.
It started with cold, damp paper towels pressed against my eyes in the school bathroom. I sat on the toilet, face to the sky, letting the water pool along the swollen skin. It stung. By the time I can leave the stall, most signs of my panic attack had slipped into my normal features – save the swollen, cherry-colored downward crescent of my mouth. I quickly learned how to escape from rooms while drawing the least attention possible as I ran away – to bathrooms, to empty classrooms, to my mother who had to rearrange her life and work in the school office for my health.
From there, it became an art. I prided myself in putting everything back together – in rearranging my face to hide the roaring distress – in settling the surface of the water and allowing the piranhas, with their snapping jaws and glassy eyes, their freedom beneath the stillness.
But fuck if it doesn’t get harder. Maybe it’s that the wounds got worse, the damage more visible.
A bad hookup led to covering bruises, hiding burst blood vessels along and inside my eyes. It looked like someone had thrown paint in my corneas. When I caught others looking, despite the hours I had spent with ice packs over my eyes, I tried to smile. I can’t remember if my lip was split or if something else made my mouth ache. No one asked about the red-tinged bruises lining my throat. But I remembered them every time I swallowed.
I covered the raised, patchy mess of my face with plain Greek yogurt. I left metal spoons in my freezer, then pressed them against my eyelids. I wish I could say I had seen stars – instead I saw nothing.
When I opened my eyes, the room struggled to take shape before me.
I’m older now.
My private face has shifted almost entirely inward – the river has frozen over just enough to allow safe passage. I swallow panic and it is sharp against my tongue. But sometimes I find myself locked in a bathroom stall, chin tilted skyward, cleaning the saltwater from my cheeks – reducing the swelling with paper towels as cold as I can handle. I feel so small in these moments… as if I’ve stepped out of time and I’m eight again, somehow equally privy to the horrors to come and surprised when they arise.