A Girl Washes Her Face

Ruth Joffre

Her mother taught her how to wash properly while she was still young. First she unlocked a pristine glass display case, then lifted her face gingerly off the stand where it had been mounted with great precision. Her hands, hugged by exfoliating gloves, lathered the skin, utilizing a series of cleansers, toners, primers, and lotions to remove any oils that had accumulated overnight, then replace the moisture lost in the process. Every human is inherently unclean, her mother, a Roman Catholic, repeated every Sunday before Church. Face-washing became their ritual — a daily act of penance and absolution perfected by the girl in the years of her mother’s decline. Wake up, wash your face. Go to the doctor, wash your face. Get a diagnosis? Wash your face. Every time the girl thought about the tumors in her mother’s lung, her face would leak, and her mother would cut off her tears by snapping, “¡Lávate la cara! Snot is bad for your skin. Wash it off or people will think you’re ugly.” Even now, years into being an orphan, this is still how the girl combats her grief. In the morning, she holds her face over the void it once occupied and thinks, At least no one can see me like this. Now, if she bursts into tears in class or if the sight of a parent dropping off a child at preschool makes her weep, at least the grief will be contained — disposed of after. Every evening, the girl wipes down the display case, rids the glass sides of fingerprints and smudges, and returns her fresh, clean face to its stand. It sparkles up at her. So shy, so neat. Not quite a reflection when she bends over the display case and catches sight of the void. In it, she sees her mother not as she was in those final days, with sallow skin and plastic breathing tubes, but as she was before: warm and brown and chic, her legs crossed at the knee as she perched on the bathroom vanity and leant toward the mirror, tweezers poised to repair the immaculate curve of her eyebrows. Everyone has their own coping mechanisms, the girl thinks. Everyone breaks their own heart.


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