Protected Left

Abigail Walthausen

It was horrible to think that it was her first time with acrylic nails. Nat wasn’t usually about that sort of thing but she had come at it gradually. First with a gift certificate for a gel mani — a friend congratulating her on a new job, or consoling her maybe, insomuch as the job offered no great prospects—  then an addiction to their shiny solidity followed by a few terrible trips down internet clickholes that described destroyed nail beds, finger cancers grown of the UV rays used to set the color. So the acrylics were an experiment and a compromise that, after the accident, felt more than a little like a medieval referendum on female vanity.

The scar really was bad enough that not a single nurse had said it looked fine or that it would heal to nothing. Even a week later, it looked its angriest yet — the skin was dry and stretched away from the sutures, shiny like saran wrap. The doctor had said it would heal, but that the nostril in the end might hold a slightly different shape, a little wider, a little more like an almond. Then he corrected himself — “have you met anyone with a harelip? What you’ll have is a harenose. Or a harenostril, if you will.”

People would see that scar and probe for a long time to come, Nat was sure, but at least she wouldn’t have to admit to something awful like totaling a car or killing a pet or having had to flee the scene because of lapsed insurance (she was up-to-date). The story she stood by was that it was all-in-all a minor accident except for the unhappy meeting of airbag and nose and false nail.

Or maybe it was no referendum on vanity, but on LA. Sure New York had been littered with nail salons, but fancy nails felt like LA taking over, ten little carapaces resting on the steering wheel just at eye level. Good conditions for a preoccupation. When Nat first moved, she’d been surprised at how little time it took to get in the habit of driving everywhere, to get accustomed to living out of her car the way she used to live out of her purse. That was what urban sprawl was all about: letting your personal goods — lunch, cosmetics, books, dry cleaning — spread out over five upholstered seats rather than yoking it all to your shoulders.

Nat hoped her friends would find it out-of-character that she had been picking her nose when the car crashed, but honestly it wasn’t. It was one of those private tics, to pick her nose while driving, something so automatic, like pulling at bunched underpants as soon as a sweater or coat or messenger bag was over her hip for a little cover. Or like finger-combing her bush in the bathroom, when her jeans had been zipped tight over it. Or like flipping off the mirror extravagantly as soon as the powder room door closed behind her at her mother’s house.

She considered not telling friends exactly how the injury had happened, but when her mother saw the tear up her nostril, black with stitches and the broken pointer finger, she knew right away. People can seeyou, even through the windshield, she’d said. Maybe it was too obvious to try to hide.

It was a Saturday afternoon party, a cookout with more drink than food, when she debuted her horror face. Nat braced herself, but it was a group she knew well, and she considered it lucky that it was still a week before the academic year resumed and the new job would begin. Her friends were the gauge she needed — to see if people were shocked by her face, to see what explanations of her face shocked them.

“Oh my god, look at you,” Imogen gasped as soon as Nat stepped into the kitchen with a warm bottle of white for the freezer. She’d been late to stop at the grocery, so she’d pulled an old gift from her own cupboard before hopping in the car.

“I know, I know. It looks pretty brutal.”

“Did the windshield break on you? Was there jagged metal?” asked David.

“You know, it’s all so embarrassing. The checker at the market yesterday asked if it was a dog attack.” David nodded too readily and Imogen reached for her shoulder — so Nat led with the humor. “The evidence of my shame. It’s like being a teenager at Six Flags, totally vain and you avoid that stupid scream shot they take when the roller coaster is in descent. So you don’t look, until the hottie a few seats ahead of you on the ride goes and buys a copy. Why should he get to take home your worst possible face? Except in this scenario everyone is the hot stranger and your worst face is plastered on your actual face. Just awful.” Nat breathed. It was a canned speech. It evaded the details while, she thought, conveying the particular humiliation of the fluke.

“Oh, you’ll look fine in no time,” said the hostess, Grace, who took the bottle of wine. “I can tell they are nice tight stitches, thin thread.”

“But does it cut all the way through the nostril?” asked David, moving a little closer to Nat. Nat backed away and looked to the rest of the group.

“The really hard thing is what terrible luck to have a traumatic accident like this right after a break-up,” said Imogen. “It’s easier to recover with a familiar situation going on around you.” Obvious. Obvious and rude, thought Nat, but anything to zoom away from the nostril.

“You know it’s fine. It was good timing because Corey was getting so into foraging and I had pretty much eaten all the wild fennel and unfertilized fig berries that I could handle. I mean, a subsistence hunter-gatherer diet is not the most healing. I felt like one of those cats kept by vegans, crazy with a withering brain, walking into walls, clawing at my eyes. It was a semi-poisonous diet, no joke.”

“Diet is one thing,” said David, “ But with a tear like that it’s hard to imagine anything would make much of a difference besides keeping the wound totally immobile and out of the sun. A piece of veal.” He approached her face again — he seemed like a gynecologist for a moment, peering into a bad, bad yeast infection. It didn’t seem like he suspected the nose picking. Unless of course, he was someone who was turned on by nose picking. Nat dropped her glass, but it landed on the hard packed dirt at her feet, so it did not shatter. She picked it up and found only a hairline crack.

“You’re accident prone,” said David.

“No, she’s rattled by the experience,” Imogen hissed.

 

On the ride home Nat tried to decide whether she was “rattled” or not. She was rattled to look at her own face, but not rattled by the idea of another car accident. It actually seemed simple to her now what had happened at the moment of collision, how not to repeat it: she’d be more conservative with those lefts on yellow. She’d gotten hurried, she’d gotten distracted, but all of that seemed a distant problem now, foot light on the gas.

Really what was unnerving to her at the moment was absolutely not the possibility of another accident, but the sun which streamed always through the windows of her car. She had been warned to keep the scar covered, but with David’s reminder she was just for the first time thinking about the car windows — she spent most of her time basking underneath them. Much more than she spent poolside or anything like that. Does the manufacturer coat the windows with any type of protection, or is it just like being an ant under a magnifier, she wondered. Does flat glass itself offer some type of protection, seeing especially how it’s made of sand that has suffered a hard burn itself? How to avoid. Cars, when you stop to think, always have roofs smaller than what is below. So of course the sun comes in. She needed a car with a pitched roof, eaves on it like a shingled craftsman. Or maybe a Nissan Cube, where the top at least tries to match the footprint of what’s beneath it.

Corey had loved to make fun of novelty cars like that — the Cubes and the PT Cruisers and the Mini Coopers, but Nat thought they were cute enough. At least they were trying and in a hundred years, those would be the classic cars people thought about. But Corey had a taste for the minimal. The way he moved was cat-like and precise. When he scavenged for things around the neighborhood, he ducked and cut through space the same way he did with a light meter when he was staking out a spot to film. “Elegance is refusal,” Nat had once read on a tote bag. The quotation, screened without irony in a curly-cue script, was attributed to Coco Chanel and blazoned by a young woman in yoga pants. She probably refused herself donuts. And Corey was full of refusals. He refused the sweaters she’d chosen for his birthday, the imported fish she’d cooked for dinner. Nat would have liked to see him refuse a root that was too gnarly or an herb that was too bitter.

Nat glanced at the GPS and there on the map was a single business in the otherwise residential neighborhood, one that she had passed many times before without ever identifying at street level — Chula Doula Bodywork and Womb Services. It usually made her laugh, but today it gave her pause. Womb services? As though a fetus could call up a silver tray of croissants and jam. Nat understood nothing about being pregnant except through menses, which seemed to her like enough information. Womb service, false advertising.

There had been countless signs that things weren’t going to work out with Corey, but nothing had ever made her stand back and take stock the way her birth control did. The few times she’d missed a pill and envisioned having children with Corey, she’d thought reflexively that would never work. But she hadn’t stopped, until the week they broke up, to translate the “that” of having children to the “this” of a strained and unpleasant domestic partnership.

Maybe it was because of backlash against Corey that the date she’d had the week before the accident went so badly. It was her first time “back on the horse” so to speak and the man had gone cute with it. They went to the bowling alley and before she knew it, he was trying to engage her about barbecue styles. He was that type of down-home bro. It wasn’t going to happen, but Nat could hardly just drop her bowling ball and leave. “I’m easily fooled by a good sauce. If it’s a great sauce I barely know what meat is under there” she stared down the long, oiled lane. “That’s a metaphor for my life,” she added before quickly retracting. “No it’s not,” she said without even looking at his face to gauge the reaction. It had sounded funny, but it made no sense —was it sexual? Was it existential? She was talking to a guy who had no shame in asking people to unpack their jokes, so she packed up that ugly bomb herself.

No one had texted after that date, and in retrospect she did stand by the most obvious part of her opinion, that a rib is a rib, who cares if it’s beef or pork. She was driving now through Elysian Park, past huge family parties with smoking grills and Norteño music blasting. Seeing the double parked cars, the parents loading kids in and out of car-seats, she had the closest thing she kept on having to a flashback  — a what-if flashback. What if she had spun out in this intersection, hit a family? Sugar-hyped kids run out unexpectedly. She saw not one or two, but four bounce houses inflated under the trees and they calmed her somehow. When there’s a bounce house, kids stay in a bounce house. Plus, to think about it, a bounce house is about the safest thing you could crash into —  a huge airbag. Safe for the car, even maybe safe for the kids.

Nat had to admire the level of infrastructure that was there for kids, at these parties for folks of all ages. Nat’s friends had started having kids lately, but Imogen’s party had had no bounce house. The kids present had rifled through their parents’ bags, finding sippy cups and board books and toy cars and phones until they reached the bottom and unleashed the temper tantrums that gained them exit. Plus, at parties within her friend group, a bunch of struggling academics, breeding late and begrudgingly, there were usually only a few kids at a time — most were so young that they could not yet interact and were limited to playing side by side. There was no infrastructure for them, or at least no great multigenerational continuum that ensured a little gang of kids around at all times.

She didn’t know why she was feeling so sorry for the kids out of the blue. But she liked them, at least as far as her scar was concerned. There was one little girl who stared nicely at her face, she stared without dodging. Adults so far had only dodged, as if afflicted suddenly with a flare up of some terrible inner ear disease. The kids had no manners, but who cares? Adults rarely cover their rudeness well, only a little better than the college students to whom she’d been an adjunct slave these past six years.

She wondered about the high school students she’d meet next week because she was not sure whether they would seem more like her charges at the university or like children fresh from the bounce castle. When she’d toured the school at her interview, the classrooms appeared to be full of the jaded, silent former and the halls teemed with the sugared-up latter — but they were the same kids. Were high schoolers just that good at splitting themselves? She pulled her car into one of the park’s diagonal spaces, the last one in the long row, far from all the parties and grills and bounce houses, and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. She had been expecting to figure out the mysteries of high school students with the help of the same pleasant, friendly face that had accompanied her through every new stage of life thus far. Now, there was a plate of raw meat sitting between her and the world. She blinked back tears because grimacing hurt, because salt in the nasal passages hurt, because the eventual hardening of snot into boogers — that sounded like something that could buckle the wound.

But still she cried for ten minutes straight, and when she was done the sun had moved and was beating down on her face. She’d have to do something about a sunhat.

 

Once she’d blotted her eyelashes and adjusted the car’s visor, she drove to the other side of the park, to Chinatown. The afternoon light was brutal, as though the bald hills leading up to Dodgers stadium were sending down an excess of the sun’s heat in a slow landslide. Tourists looked dazed and disappointed — who had told them this Chinatown was an attraction? Nat supposed the place offered a taste of LA noir, but so gritty, with shades of John Fante more than James M. Cain. The tourists didn’t look like they were seeking Fante. There was New York Chinatown, San Francisco Chinatown, but here? Maybe they’d just looked at a neighborhood map and assumed.

She walked along Broadway and started with the eccentric hats that were laid along tables in front of the souvenir stores. There was a folding umbrella hat, a bejeweled visor, a straw pyramid with dried ferns shellacked onto the sides. They all looked good in the mirror because they all threw a shadow down over her raw face, but they were novelties. And then she found a plainer one that might work. It was a pale pink baseball cap, but with a bill that splayed out to twice the traditional silhouette. Shade reached her chin and only her ears glowed in the oppressive sunlight. She held the mirror to the side and from that angle, she looked like one of those cutouts of a bonnet girl that decorates poor rural lawns. But it didn’t matter — if she could get the hat in black or any shade of khaki the effect would surely change. Aside from the nails, she’d kept her look plain lately — in fact, she’d been gradually adding undyed linen pieces to her wardrobe. She was unsure, though, whether that was more because of the fashions (new naturals was what bloggers were calling it) or because she was simply getting old. She’d have to wait and see what linenwear her new high school students wore. She doubted any.

Nat walked inside the giftshop, past racks full of elaborate knots made of red and gold nylon cord, mandarin collared baby pajamas, a coil of incense, snake-like, that looked like it could burn for days. A woman sat behind the counter reading. She looked up at Nat and stared.

“Do you have black?” she asked, pointing to the pink cap in her hand. The woman shook her head, looking pained by Nat’s request.

“Not the hat. Something else…”

She disappeared into the store’s back room. Nat looked up at the shelves behind the counter where there were huge glass jars the size and shape of the plastic tubs that Costco cheese puffs come in, but filled with things that were dried, grey, brown, natural. She’d heard about these Chinese health treasures, dried creatures from the ocean that might run hundreds of dollars an ounce. She was about to get an upsell, Nat had seen the woman’s concern and she was sure of it. Something to heal her face, something rare and regenerating to fix her face. She’d listen to the pitch, she was up for anything.

At least ¾ of an inch of the incense coil burned to ash as Nat sat listening for the grinding of a mortar  and pestle, the whistling of a kettle, whatever from the back of the shop. She picked up a keychain, impractically big with a squishy palm-sized donut dangling from it. A stress ball, a flotation aid to keep keys from sinking into a lake, or maybe nothing so purposeful as either of those. It was realistic, like a gag food to leave on granny’ silk couch, but for the metal grommet that impaled it.

The clerk emerged from the back and Nat dropped the donut guiltily, though she didn’t know why. On the counter, the woman put a half-sized bottled water and a floppy black hat.

“Drink the water — your skin is drying out.”

Nat nodded a thank you and picked up the hat instead. It was similar to what she’d asked for, but with a long flap in the back, something made for a camel train across the desert.

“Drink,” said the woman, “you are cracking,” and she held the hand mirror behind the counter, implying that it was some sort of reward for proper hydration.

But Nat was not annoyed by the gesture, instead she was overwhelmed suddenly by gratitude. She’d forgotten about potions and stunned instead at the simple advice. To have water — it was simpler than to un-break up with her boyfriend, than to un-demote her career, than to un-crash her car, than to accept sympathy. To drink water was to go forward in time rather than back and that prospect was a true relief. Every dieter in LA set about drinking water as a first step and here she was among them all again. She laid the hat flat on the table, gently, like a baby doll in a baptismal robe, and with her other hand she reached for the water bottle, instead accidentally grasping the clerk’s fingers. It was a tender moment, and it felt like no accident.

By the time Nat had drunk up the water, paid with a fiver, bumped into a tall rack of cell-phone charms, she was absolutely dizzy. She pulled the hat over her head against the sun  and felt like a hostage hiding the route home from herself.

 

 

Nat wouldn’t supervise the blacktop — or meet her students at all — until the following week, but she still packed the hat for her first day at the new job. She’d discovered that the long train in the back detached with metal snaps. Good. It was redundant with her long hair. Still, she folded the two pieces carefully into the bottom drawer of her new desk. They could mellow there, perhaps transform from bargain store oddity into obvious and necessary school supply. It was a week for getting organized like that: her schedule was full of downtime interspersed with meetings and coffee hours and such.

After just the first few hours her desk was looking good, her first month plans were in order, and everyone who stopped for introductions was hurried and commented on her bulletin board (her calendar’s September opened to the Belle of Amherst) rather than her wrecked face. It was an open office and she had yet to be alone with any of her new colleagues.

The meetings themselves were barely distinguishable from meetings at the higher ed level except that each presenter, whether administrator, department chair, union representative, seemed accustomed to letting the weight of their pride fall outside themselves. Their presentations were worried over and precious; their best students probably were too. Nat’s academic colleagues had kept their prides and passions to themselves. They had seemed invulnerable in their crankiness towards undergrads, invulnerable in the near-extinct tenure track positions they secured themselves. Maybe they saved all the tender beaming for the faraway conferences, maybe caught in the throes of specialization their powerpoints became loveletters.

At lunchtime, there was no scheduled plan. Some teachers would eat at their desks, some in the faculty lounge. The day spread out before Nat, who felt already over prepared for 40 minute lessons on paragraphing and Of Mice and Men, so she decided to bring her lunch downstairs. Torn face or not, it was an act that would have always felt a bit like pulling off a bandaid, to walk alone into the specific unknown social structure that a faculty makes. She’d done it before, though, at a handful of workplaces.

The lounge was a 1970s time warp — false wood paneling everywhere, two laminate topped dining tables parked in tandem to make one long conference table. Nat was eating on the early side and only one other teacher sat in the corner, his drab madras shirt blending into his drab plaid chair. He was a math teacher, she thought, and he was hunched over his attendance book, copying student names out by hand. That seemed like a waste when he could just print more lists, but maybe that was what all this unscheduled prep time was for: wasteful tasks.

Nat warmed her soup in the microwave. It was an old oven, but Nat marveled at how well scrubbed it was. If this was anything like the university (or the dorm room, for that matter), in a few weeks, the condition would degrade and it would become a contentious issue, she was sure — who had dirtied the appliance, who was to clean it? It was the sort of primal struggle that was comforting in its universality. Her minestrone popped and left the first few splatters on the smooth white plastic.

She was sitting at the big table when the next teachers came in. They were older men too — from outside the humanities, Nat could tell. They also wore plaid, none of it cheerful. They went straight to the fridge and from the freezer, one man, the taller of the two, dragged a huge mass of something wrapped like a pinata in layers of grocery bags. He flung it on the table.

“It was a good summer at the cabin,” he said. “Got three bucks, and when all is said and done, after carving it and sharing it around, I’ve got about twelve pounds of meat here. So that’s what’s left for you. Think you can handle it?”

“Course I can handle it,” said the other. He pet the bag with a solid, red hand. “You want your whole half as a ragu?”

“Does ragu still freeze for later?” sneered the first guy. “Or do you want to make some of it into a lasagna ready-to-go?”

“Mmm. See what I can do.”

At the back of the room, the other teacher looked up from his attendance book and called out “S’all roadkill to me. Wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole.”

“Venison, man,” said the chef.

“Stalked and conquered in the style of our ancestors,” said the hunter. All at once the three men noticed Nat sitting there, her soup cooling, “Betcha didn’t expect to come face-to-face with a dead deer today,” said the man in the corner.

“I’d hardly call it face-to-face,” countererd Nat a little more shrill than she’d intended. “But it sounds good — I’d try it on pasta.” She wished that today her lunchbox had been filled with foraged goods to show around and wondered if that was something that would have impressed the venison team, who were now introducing themselves and lobbing friendly questions at Nat. They wanted to know where she’d worked before, but she wanted to tell them about the mallow and chickweed salads she used to pack for lunch. Did deer eat those same things in the wild? Tree barks for sure, but what about delicate tannin infusions?

“I’ll tell you, Nat, you’re going to be satisfied with the protections here. College teachers aren’t treated half as well as us — you’re not gonna find any part-timers here. No more stitching a living together piecemeal.”

Another teacher, who Nat recognized from her own department, entered the room and sat down at the table. She ignored the men and nodded at Nat.

“Hope you’re ready for the onslaught. Come this time next week, you’ll be slogging through a totally overwhelming pile of plagiarized essays.”

“But I wasn’t planning to assign anything big the first week,” Nat said.

“Summer reading, hon. And the teacher you’re replacing was a real sadist. She had them read The Scarlet Letter.”

“Ambitious.” she said and tried to keep her tone ambiguous because she did not know if she was supposed to hate that former teacher or the students or The Scarlet Letter. Silence. “Well, at least I’m appropriate with my Scarlet Nose-Tear.” She had not come up with that one off-the-cuff, but she’d kept it to herself until now because of the pun’s awkward gravity.

“Come again?”

Too late to retract and Nat pointed to her face: “You must have noticed, right? It was a nose-picking injury. And I’m wearing the shame — I keep on assuming it’s obvious.”

“Wow. That’s a lot,” she laughed, a devious smile spread across her face. “Analogy’s cute, but don’t let the kids in on that one. They’ll torture you with it.”

“And don’t go assuming anything is obvious, professor gold nuggets,” kidded the hunter, as though they’d known each other forever, “you do that and you’re severely overestimating the student body.”

“He’s jaded,” the woman said. “Our kids are sweet kids. But don’t give them a good story unless you want to get an urban legend in return.”

An urban legend sounded about right, Nat thought — maybe she was Rudolph, or Pinocchio, or the proboscial monk from that Japanese story in all the anthologies. It felt mythic, and maybe it’s what she was groping around for, her nose bearing a secret she couldn’t keep and a joke she couldn’t land.