inner beauty

More a story disguised as an essay (or vice versa). It was originally published in the “Face” edition of the Wheeler Centre’s Notes on 18 December 2019.

I confess, I disliked this face at first, but it’s grown on me. Now, when I gaze into the mirror, I can do so steadily, boldly, without wrinkling its disconcertingly high-bridged nose at the features so initially foreign to me. The thinning auburn hair shot through with silver. The craggy forehead. The blue eyes haloed with crows’ feet. The square jaw softened by nascent jowls. Its permanent pinkish hue. 

Yes, I used to pine for my former face – its ethnic Chinese femaleness, its devastatingly attractive good looks. But now I realise how shallow I was. That true beauty really does come from within. 

Obviously, I didn’t mean to misplace my old face, much less inadvertently exchange it for another. It happened when my husband and I took our two boys swimming at the Olympic Park public pool. I removed my face before getting in the water because I’d recently read that repeated exposure to chlorine was drying for the features. When it was time to go, I grabbed my face from the bench where I’d left it and pulled it on. 

The kids screamed. 

‘Wrong face!’ my husband yelped. 

We searched for mine, but to no avail. Someone else must have taken it, thinking it was his.

‘Do you think I can buy a face like my old one?’ I asked anxiously on the drive back home. ‘Would they sell them on eBay?’

‘Don’t be silly,’ my husband replied. ‘No one sells faces. It’s not like we live in a sci-fi novel.’

And so began life with the features of a middle-aged Caucasian man. Interestingly enough, barely anyone noticed the disparity between my new face and my body.

‘It’s because of your eyes,’ a female friend of mine explained over drinks one night. ‘Their colour. They’re very arresting. Why would anyone bother looking at the rest of you?’

I couldn’t help beaming. ‘Do you really think so?’ I said, even though I knew that old-faced me would have said with some indignation: ‘What’s wrong with brown eyes? You’ve been brainwashed by Eurocentric standards of beauty!’ 

‘Overall, you look very distinguished,’ she continued, reminding me why I didn’t particularly like hanging out with her, even though I’d never felt strongly enough to extricate myself from our friendship. But she’d been the one who’d suggested tonight’s get-together, and I was revelling in my new-found freedom. Ever since I had donned my new face, my husband was much more sanguine about me going out while he stayed home to watch the kids. I mentioned this last fact to my friend. 

‘See? It’s because you have a distinguished, arresting aura about you,’ she replied without any trace of irony. 

We clinked cocktails. I felt that maybe we did get along well after all.

To my delight, the new face seemed to have a positive impact on my career as a writer. Certainly, reviews of my previous books had said lovely things – ‘captivating’; ‘charming’; ‘vivid’; ‘evocative’. But when I released my latest novel under my new face, along with the pen name I decided should accompany it, Barry Smith, well, the reviews were on a whole different level: 

‘An immense achievement.’

‘A voice for the ages.’

‘… speaks to the universal human condition.’

‘Masterful.’

At last, I thought to myself, reading my latest review one final time before placing my empty coffee cup in the sink to be dealt with by someone else. They finally recognise my resplendence.

This isn’t to say that the face didn’t come with problems. My husband and I ended up getting divorced. He said he was tired of doing most of the household chores and picking up after me all the time. I acknowledged this failing on my part and did my best to improve, but I found domestic affairs difficult to focus on.

‘How do you expect me to care about trifling things like putting cheese back in the fridge and throwing rubbish in the bin?’ I exclaimed during one of our fights.

He merely stared at me, slump-shouldered, wiping his hands on his apron. And I saw with disgust how much he’d let himself go.

We agreed on joint custody. I got myself a wife. 

My writing career continued to soar. People began treating me with the reverence I had long deserved. Fellow male panellists stopped cutting me off and talking over me when I was saying something. Audiences nodded their heads as one whenever I made a particularly trenchant and universally applicable remark. 

Funny thing, though. I saw my old face last weekend at the Central Coast Writers’ Festival. I had an hour to kill before my next sold-out event – ‘Earth-Shattering: In Conversation With Barry Smith’ – and I thought I’d take a stroll. On a fanciful whim, I ducked into a four-person panel session titled, ‘Why Women’s Fiction Matters’. There was my face, seated onstage, third from the left. Embarrassingly, she was in the midst of holding forth – hysterically, in fact – about how her work was perceived as of minor relevance because of her gender, race, blah, blah, blah. You know the type. I certainly did. I could barely believe I’d once had that same chip on my shoulder, similarly wallowed in self-pity. But then my merits were finally recognised, and all it had taken was time and unflinching devotion to my craft. 

The moderator tried to calm her down, but to everyone’s shock, she stormed off the stage and headed for the exit, near where I was standing. I averted my gaze, but fortunately, she was so blind with fury she couldn’t even recognise her own face (talk about allegorical; I made a note to use this incident in my next novel). I felt so sorry for her, the least I could do was be gentlemanly and open the door. 

‘Fuck you,’ she muttered as she stomped past.

The nerve. Some people are just asking for the world to hate them.