Topography

by Ola Faleti

i.
Staring didn’t accomplish much, I always thought. We live in the 21st century. Can’t people take a picture? I should be used to it by now, after a lifetime of a face that’s remarkable in all the wrong ways. When I’m feeling bold I stare back. Usually I’m too tired to care. Too much wishing for the impossible will do that to you.

ii.
I didn’t grow up religious but I would pray hard. My Grandma said that Allah provides. So I’d get on my knees facing what I thought was Mecca and mumbling fast. Please take my stain away, please wash my face and make it clean like Grandma’s, and mom’s, and Lina’s. I’ll serve you forever and ever. Please. Amen.

I didn’t know anything about being anyone’s servant. My mom was God-averse; she had the mindset that if her children wanted religion it would come to them. But after 2 years of straight prayer I didn’t notice anything different. That same splotch went over my cheek and left eyebrow, like another country in my skin. Just as magenta and unyielding as before.

I went downstairs for breakfast one morning, barely concealing my tears. My mom asked what was wrong after plopping some buttermilk pancakes in front of me.

“I’ve been praying for two whole years for God to fix me.” A fresh crop of tears stung my eyes. Mom thought for a second before putting her hand on mine. “There is no God, only what’s real.” She moved her hand and stood up. “Eat those pancakes before they get cold.”

ii.
I used to wish I looked like Lina, my best friend. Her face is stupidly clear and she has a butt chin – I mean, a dimple chin.

But if you can’t be beautiful you can be smart, so I studied harder than everyone else. Now it’s sophomore year and I’m a chemistry tutor. It’s the only way anyone halfway decent-looking comes near me. The usual suspects: some burnouts, mostly jocks who walk around like royalty.

My favorite pupil is Lex Martinez. He’s on the soccer team. We meet every Thursday from 3:30 to 4:30 in one of the study rooms at the back of the library. Once in a while he’ll stand up to stretch and his t-shirt rises a couple inches, exposing the flat tummy I wanted to run my fingers all over. This boy does everything to avoid balancing equations, but at least he’s nice.

“Why is your face like that?” Lex’s face was turning rose. “I mean – sorry. I didn’t mean that way.”
“I was born like this.”
“Oh.”
“Let’s go back to problem #3. You still have some carbons left.”

We spent the last 15 minutes working the problem through until our session was up. I told him he was making good progress and managed to lean close enough to smell his aftershave, or whatever that deliciously piney scent was. As Lex packed up his things he said, “That thing on your face looks just like Alaska. Has anyone told you?”
Now I turned red.
“Catch you next time, teach.” He waved and smiled as he hoisted his backpack over his shoulder.

On the #77 bus home I googled Alaska. Lex was right. My face does almost have its own country.

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