Me, age twenty-five. Standing before my bedroom mirror, studying my face.
The left side of the mouth rises, but the right remains still. The left brow lifts, but the right won’t budge. The left eye squeezes shut, but the right cannot blink.
The doctors draw my blood five times and find nothing.
“Probably just a virus. It should last eight to twelve weeks.”
“Something is clogging your eustachian tube.”
“I’m very sure it’s from exposure to cold.”
In childhood, my best friend stands in her bathroom, angles her face toward the ceiling. I watch her reflection in the medicine cabinet. My best friend tugs her lower lid to expose the inner flesh. Her eyes get dry sometimes, she tells me as she unscrews a small glass bottle. She’s ten years old, one year older than I am. She knows how to load her socket with a baster of chemical tears.
Me, age twenty-five, standing before my bedroom mirror, hovering a squeeze bottle over my eye. Catching the dribble on lash and cheek, collecting it with a stiff tongue. Wondering how it would feel to drink the bottle straight.
“I would recommend an MRI.”
My newest friend waves at me from her wheelchair in the college cafeteria two weeks before my face caves in. My left brow is symmetrical to my right brow, both brows symmetrical to the curve of my mouth. I greet my friend, study the way her smile leans to one side. I congratulate myself on my compassion as I make an object of her.
Standing before my bedroom mirror. Landing a drop to the eyeball with the squeeze bottle, soaking the nerve cold. Feeling the eye ease in its frictive chamber. Feeling the overflow trace the corners of my lips. Tasting real tears.
“I have to go now, I have another patient.”
My professor plants her cane on each step as she makes her way up to the auditorium stage. A week before my face caves in. I sit in the front row with my symmetrical brows and symmetrical mouth. She crosses the stage, hands her cane to someone in the front row for safekeeping. My professor grips the podium and talks about irony.
A week after my face caves in. Sitting in a room of mirrors and barbells, studying my crumpled reflection. My physical therapist stands over me with symmetrical brows and a symmetrical mouth, uses the pad of her forefinger to hold one of her own eyes shut.
“No one taught you how to blink,” she tells me. “Now you are teaching yourself.”
On a vinyl bed, tissue paper wrinkles under my ears. The physical therapist sets a patch of black adhesive on my cheek, another on the side of my neck. She feeds wires into the patches, tweaks the dials on a control panel.
“Can you feel it?” she asks.
Not pain. Just a pulse.
“I’m going to turn it up,” she says
My right eye, slamming shut.
My right eye, gasping.
My left eye, gasping too. Me, with no memory of closing it.
In four weeks, the right half of my face will move again, and I will fight a wave of exhaustion that will last weeks, then months.
The doctor says, “If you figure out what it is, let me know.”
My best friend from childhood, my newest friend, my professor. I force a symmetry across our lives, holding my eye shut with the pad of my forefinger. Replace my reflection with their faces, their faces with my reflection. We are all so different. I do not know how to make sense of us, except as an us.
Downloading another patient care app. Checking my results online. Waiting for someone to return my call. Sitting in another waiting room. On hold with the doctor’s office. On hold with the blood lab. On hold with insurance. On hold.
Samantha Steiner (she/her) is a Fulbright Scholar and two-time Best of the Net nominee. Her 2019 essay “To the Current Tenant” appears in the print anthology Coffin Bell 2.2, and other works are published or forthcoming in The Emerson Review, Apple Valley Review, and The Citron Review. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Steiner_Reads.