Tuesday 9 July 2013

An Ugly Day

I'm having an ugly day. This is the third day, and there are some less attractive ones to come. I'm perfectly healthy, and, in a seemingly infinite number of ways, my life is very good. I know that.

And yet, I would rather not show my face right now. The worst outbreak of cold sores I can remember experiencing has taken over my lower lip. Even without looking at my face in a mirror, I am reminded of the presence of this nasty little virus; my face hurts, burns, where these blisters have erupted to the surface of my flesh. 

It's a little thing. My lip is swollen and ugly. I have my legs. My fingers work. My brain is fine.

And yet… I would rather not go do anything that I could conceivably put off until later, when maybe I won't have to deal with unwanted attention or commentary about this painful thing I can't control. Maybe it's my fault I have this now; maybe I out-funned myself in the blessed spot of summer sun we got over the long holiday weekend. Maybe hanging out too long in the ultraviolet rays that burned my legs weakened my defenses enough for these minuscule creatures to do their dirty work on a nerve in my face. I don't know.

I do know that this is not a big deal. But it feels like it is. And that is, in large part, because I am used to having a sort of superpower. Usually, my face is quite easy. It's younger than its years, white and female, with oversized blue-green eyes and cheekbones that come from just enough Native American ancestry to add some intrigue. Whether I want to or not, I reap a daily dividend from this face. And, even though there may be days when I would rather leave my face at home and pass unnoticed through the city, I can feel the abrupt pivot that happens with this temporary disfigurement. I don't like it.

I spend so much time trying to re-inhabit this feminine face with more depth, less judgment. To use whatever superpower this is to bring my intelligence into situations that might not otherwise welcome it, or to talk to people who might not otherwise care to engage. It doesn't always work. I've been told before, by colleagues and eventual close friends, that my initial appearance said to them that I would be difficult, disinterested, and dismissive. People carry their assumptions into situations that sometimes stick around long enough to develop nuance.

And yet… The interactions I want to avoid right now come with extra judgments. Disease. Sexual promiscuity. Cover it up. Does it matter that most people have been exposed to the virus that causes these nasty little blisters in some of us? No one will know that I've had them since I was a child, long before I ever had the chance to do some dirty thing that would have earned me a scarlet letter on my face. Or maybe some people won't know that cold sores are another manifestation of herpes, which causes colds, chicken pox, small pox and shingles. That these bugs live in almost all of us, once we're exposed, and our immune systems fight them down into invisibility most of the time.

Sometimes they make their mark. And all the marks are interpreted differently. Chicken pox are childhood. Shingles are stress. And the big "H"--herpes--are taken to be a sexual death sentence and a dirty mark against the bearer. None of them have a cure. All of them are simply waiting for the right mismatch of immunological memory and exposure to experiment further in our species. They are ancient, adaptable, and omnipresent.

Really, this is no big deal. But I might just wait to go out until the journey is less laden with monkey fears about plagues and human judgment about appearance. Not so ugly days, when I have a little more choice about how people read my face, and fewer painful reminders of what we can't control in this social universe.

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