Once I Could

By Ted Chiles 

It wasn’t til she turned over that I noticed the eyebrow, or the lack thereof. That sounded better than saying her eyebrow was gone. Gone meant it wasn’t coming back. Lack meant we needed one, and it would probably be provided. If not now, we could expect it at some future date. How about missing? Like the eyebrow decided it was feeling suffocated by all that red hair and decided to crawl off into the night. Wanted some alone time. Maybe dreamed it was a caterpillar and headed out to build a cocoon. What eyebrow wouldn’t like to be a butterfly? 

I moved Diva, our cat that always slept on the pillow between us, and leaned in close. The other eyebrow had stayed home. Did Cindy shave her eyebrow in the middle of the night? And if you were going to shave the left eyebrow at four in the morning, then why quit at one? It wasn’t like we’d been drinking tequila. Two glasses of wine isn’t enough to explain the death of an eyebrow.  

Diva, denied her pillow, climbed on Cindy and settled in. The extra weight caused Cindy to shift, and the cat complained. Cindy complained back. 

I decided I wasn’t going to deal with this. I was going to ignore the whole eyebrow incident. Let her bring it up. I was getting tired of all the accusations and the crying. If I asked, Why? She would probably say, So you would notice me. Pay a little attention. And another dramatic domestic scene could be lodged in our psyche. Not this morning. I closed my eyes, steadied my breath and faked it. She wouldn’t know. My skills were finely tuned from months of practice. Cindy got out of bed. Diva followed. When they were gone, I fell asleep. 

Two days later, the other eyebrow took off. I suspect it got lonely and went looking for its mate.  

Neither of us brought the subject up. It wasn’t too bad when she wore her glasses because the large black frames covered the barren territory. Without them I couldn’t stop watching her, and she wondered aloud why I was staring. How in the hell could I not stare? You notice eyebrows. Missing one wasn’t like a haircut or new earrings, little changes that I was supposed to detect but didn’t. When I missed those things, she sighed and shook her head all night, then rolled over in bed facing the window. Usually, the cat would get up and circle a few times and do the same. The females a united front. 

I had to mention the nose. 

Cindy came into the kitchen wearing her glasses. The eyebrows were covered, but the glasses sat on a blank beige space. No bridge. No point. No nostrils. Nothing. The nose was gone.  

So I asked and Cindy reached up to the void above her lips and pinched the air, then looked at her fingers. I thought I heard her ask if it was a zit as she walked out the door, and before I could formulate an answer, she came back with a mirror, inspecting the spot her nose had vacated. She looked up at me and said, I don’t see anything. 

I didn’t laugh. I am truly proud of that. Then I told her I didn’t see anything either because her nose was gone. She told me she didn’t think that was funny and I agreed. Losing your nose and your eyebrows is weird shit. Holding the mirror to her face, she tilted her head and looked at me. She might have said my name. 

It was then that I realized that Cindy wasn’t lying. She truly believed that her nose was still at home and fully functioning. I know this because Cindy hadn’t yawned, and she always yawned when she lied. Not a big round one that you would cover with your fist but a little intake of breath that freezes the jaw and stalls the delivery. I must have smiled or said something then because she got pissed and called me an asshole and walked out. I don’t think I mentioned the word spite. The reason I smiled was I remembered when I discovered her tell. We were playing strip poker and she yawned. I called her bluff and after that her clothes fell like leaves in an October wind until she wore nothing but freckles.  

I should have followed her. I realize that was a mistake; instead I stayed in the kitchen wondering why she didn’t see that her nose was gone. I mean, that is some serious high-level denial. And that’s when I began to wonder how her glasses stayed in place. 

About two in the morning, I moved Diva from her pillow between us. Cindy had given me the back treatment when we went to bed. I started slowly to stroke her hair, then her cheek and finally her forehead. I felt the slight rise of her untamed eyebrows and my finger traveled up the understated slope of her nose. Enough light leaked in to see my finger resting an inch above the blank space where her nose used to be. I pushed down expecting a free fall, instead I felt a slight give as the pliable tip compressed. The cartilage held firm and my finger traced the side of her left nostril to the bulge of the upper lip. 

Her eyes opened. They were so large with nothing around them. Cindy smiled, forgiving me or maybe she left her anger in her dreams. I rolled onto to my back, and she climbed on. I closed my eyes and reached out. It’s amazing that I could keep it up. 

Afterwards she slept with her leg atop my thigh, head on my shoulder and the tip of her nose gently boring into my cheek. I lay there wondering why I couldn’t see what was there. I still haven’t figured it out. The eyes left as a couple and I started to wear sunglasses around the house.

Her contours, cheekbones and jaw line smoothed out to an oval, almost egg like and over time the freckles migrated and beige became white. I bought her a basket of beauty products. A sleeping mask, an eye pillow, and different colored face treatments, which she wore at night. She told me I was sweet. The clay or seaweed extract revealed her hidden topology. 

The mouth left last, and with it the sound of her. The slight accent, the occasional stutter eroded, until all I heard was a constant soft purr of a single note held impossibly long. 

The hair stayed, a red frame for the empty canvas of what had been Cindy.  

I don’t really remember the moment or even the day she knew that I hadn’t been joking about the eyebrows and the nose. I don’t know what my tell is. She does. What I do remember was the way she came and sat on my lap and leaned into me. Hair on my cheek and all I could see was the top of her head. She took my hand and kissed the palm, guiding my finger across the relief of her landscape. 

We became quiet. I didn’t talk much after her ears were gone because I didn’t expect her to hear me. She spoke less each day, not that she didn’t have anything to say, but I had a hard time understanding her without inflection and expression. My failure to comprehend must have been annoying. I couldn’t tell. 

I forgot the color of her eyes. I looked at photographs trying to memorize her features yet the details fell away. They were like a fish coated with some silky secretion and I could shift it from hand to hand for a few seconds until I failed and it fell back into the lake. Whenever I see long red hair, I follow until I catch a glimpse of the face. Maybe some day, it will be Cindy and I will see her. 

We hung blackout curtains in the bedroom and I reclaimed the cat’s pillow. I tried to become water and flow over every inch of her. My fingers sought out all that I had deserted: the drop of her earlobe, the ascent of her cheeks, and the sweep of her eyebrows. In the dark Cindy would trace her eyelashes down my back. I had moments when I saw her again, open and whole. Once the sun rose and light leaked, I abandoned her like the tide and rolled back into myself. 

One morning Diva climbed onto my chest and told me I was late with breakfast. Cindy had left the door open and light from the other rooms drifted in. I scratched Diva’s chin, then cupped her head. I felt the flattened whiskers, but when I looked they were gone.


Chiles’ short stories have appeared in The Pitkin Review, The Binnacle, Prism Review, Lynx Eye, and Nilas. In September 2007, The New Short Fiction Series of Los Angeles performed Love During Economic Times, an adaptation of four of Chiles’ short stories. He has also published nonfiction in Gulf Life and co-authored a ten-minute play with the poet Chella Courington. He is currently trying to become the writer who disappears and shows up six months later with a novella.

Published on March 28, 2008 at 8:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

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