Facade – Sandman Meditations

Stories about faces freak me out.

This wasn’t the case until I was nineteen and my face changed quite severely because of what was, I was told, basically a lymph node disorder.  It took a year to get a proper diagnosis, and another year of heavy-duty medications to solve the problem, so I spent about eighteen months with a severely and obviously swollen face, the sort of face that caused people to ask me if I’d been stung by a bunch of bees, the sort of face that made people look at me for just a few moments longer than they would have otherwise: I had a face that was clearly not right.

The only picture of myself I have from that time is my college ID.  I worked hard to avoid photographs.  I worked hard to make jokes about my grotesqueness, or to have quick soundbyte explanations ready for the inevitable questions.  (What was worse, the people who pretended not to notice anything, but obviously did; or the people who just said straight out, “What wrong with you?”  I don’t know.  Depended on my mood; depended on the day.)  I hid a lot, not because I was afraid of people or didn’t want company, but because it was the only way I could rest.  If nobody was looking at me, my brain didn’t go in all of its neurotic directions, trying to figure out what they were thinking, wondering, whispering.  If nobody was around, if I was alone, if there was no mirror, no reflection … then I could feel normal again.

Once the barrage of toxic drugs did whatever they did (my dermatologist, one of the best in the country, said nobody quite knew why the condition happened or why the one particular combination of drugs worked, and too few cases had been diagnosed to do anything but speculate), my cheeks and forehead shrank, I didn’t wake up every morning barely able to open my eyes, and I didn’t look like a freak.  I called friends and family and said, “I got my face back.”

So you can see why the story of Rainie in “Facade” hit a lot of my nerves.  It’s been fifteen years since I got my face back, and I hadn’t really thought about that whole ordeal for a while, but from the first few pages of “Facade”, it was a parallel story biting at my memory as I read.

I expect Rainie’s story is one that pricks a lot of people’s nerves.  You don’t have to have lost your face to know some of what she’s feeling.  Lots of people have cause at one point or another in their life to think, I am hideous.

As I read “Facade”, I kept hoping there would be a pleasant solution.  (We all have certain fantasies we’re especially vulnerable to.)  I wanted Rainie to encounter someone who didn’t care what she looked like.  I wanted her to find someone who found her beautiful in whatever form she took.  There’s room in some of the Sandman stories for characters of strange, freakish, even repulsive forms to find realms where they can relax and rest and even, perhaps, flourish.  This is one of the keys to the comic’s popularity, it seems to me — no matter how horrible the events get, there’s still a sense that this is a world where, on the whole, there’s a place for everybody, if they can just find it.

Rainie couldn’t find it, and it broke my heart.  Sure, maybe in whatever realm she ended up in, wherever it was the sun god Ra evaporated her to, maybe there she found liberation from her form.

But that’s not the happy ending I was yearning for.  During the most gut-wrenching scene in the story (for me, at least), where Rainie’s mask falls off while she and Della are dining, I wanted Della to just say, “Oh please.  You’re not half as bad as Joan Rivers must be under her mask.  Here’s a napkin…”

Not that she gave Della a choice.  Rainie just ran away, back home, to hide and suffer.

I can’t blame her.  When you think yours is the face of a freak, you don’t wait for people to confirm your fears.

There are quite a few issues of The Sandman I’m looking forward to rereading.  I can’t wait to revisit the serial killer convention, or the diner massacre, or any number of violent and disturbing stories.

I don’t plan to reread “Facade” any time soon, though.  Not because it’s not well done.  It’s well done.  The art, the pacing of the story … it’s all great.

But it’s hard to read through tears.

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.