The Man Had No Face
I was five years old and the man had no face.
The man stood in the kitchen, quiet, with edges not quite clearly visible, and tall; too tall for my short frame to understand as anything but unnatural. I thought he might leave if I turned on the light. The soft glow from the uncovered overhead bulbs looked hazy in the sticky heat. The man turned from the window to look at me and I screamed.
“Nina!” My mother yelled from her bedroom.
I heard a loud thud as her feet hit the floor and she was out of her room and in mine in an instant. The man did not move, simply looked at me with a blank face of eerie, shimmering pale light.
“Nina!” My mother sounded panicked now as she stood in my bedroom doorway and saw me frozen in the hallway, bathed in light from the kitchen, staring into nothingness.
The man made no move to come towards me. Instead he turned back towards the window, crossed his arms behind his back, and stared off into the garden that my father used to tend; as if my intrusion had not bothered him.
“Nina, honey,” my mother knelt at my side now. She took my face in her hands. Her gentle insistence was trying to tear my eyes from the casual stance of the man in my kitchen, who had observed me without eyes as if he was surprised to see me there. “Look at me.” I finally turned my head and my fear-filled eyes met her frenzied ones. “Honey, what happened? Are you hurt?”
“There’s a man in the kitchen,” I whispered, as if I believed if he did not hear me he might not look at me again. “He doesn’t have a face.”
The look of relief on my mother’s face felt like a betrayal. Her light laugh even more so.
“Honey, the darkness is playing tricks on you,” she almost sighed as she pet my long, heat frizzled hair.
She said it soothingly as she ran her thumb across my cheek. It gave me no comfort. He was still standing at the window, even as my mother turned off the light and walked me back to bed.
I was nine years old and the man had no face.
I was in my mother’s room trying to steal some make-up for a costume. The man sat on my father’s side of the bed. His edges were a bit more clear. His clothes were a bit more focused, but I was too concentrated on if he would turn to look at me to notice.
I tried to stay as quiet as possible, hopeful that he would get up and leave. I rustled the Ziploc bag ever so slightly and his head turned, slowly, deliberately, as if he was looking for something and found me instead. I whimpered as his blank face bore into my own. Though there was nothing but a smooth skin-like texture there, I could feel his stare.
We stayed that way for what felt like an eternity. I could hear my younger brother calling for me from the yard. I was holding up the play.
As my brother’s voice floated in from the open window, the man turned his head from me and looked out towards the shout. It felt as if some spell had been broken and I sprinted from the room. I didn’t stop until I was through the kitchen and out the back door.
“Where were you?” My brother yelled, angrily. His gloved fists were on his costumed hips and our neighbor was huffing behind him.
I looked back towards the window to my mother’s room. The man’s blank face was framed in the window, watching.
I was fourteen years old and the man had no face.
I fell asleep on the couch. My mother was working late and my brother was sleeping at a friend’s house. I think the sound of my tv show ending woke me, it certainly wasn’t the man.
He was standing by the worn chaise lounge that my father used to sit in, where I used to snuggle up to his chest. His hand is resting on the top of the chair and his face is turned towards the tv screen.
His body was so clear now; blue jeans, a plain t-shirt, and haircut the way my father’s was right before the accident. His face was still eerily blank, but his presence does not feel menacing. Maybe he had never been menacing. Maybe I was too young to understand the man’s need to remain.
“Do you want to sit?” I found myself asking. My mouth had made the decision to ask the question before my brain could persuade it not to.
The man turned to observe me without eyes, without a nose, without a mouth. For the first time I looked into the man’s face without fear. He had no eyebrows, no grooves in his cheeks, no pores or blemishes on his skin. I looked into the man’s face and I felt sad.
His emotionless face regarded me for a few seconds before he moved around the arm of the chair and sank down slowly into it. I could not see if he sank into the cushion. I assumed it did not sink below his incorporeal form.
I curled up on the couch again and let myself drift in and out of sleep. When my mother got home from work, she woke me to get ready for bed. The man was no longer in the chaise lounge beside the couch.
I was seventeen years old and the man had no face.
The man was standing in my bedroom doorway, as if asking for permission to come in. I was filling in college applications. I wanted to go as far away as possible. I wanted to forge a new path that didn’t include living in the same state as my parents.
A tug pulled at my heart as I told him he could come in. I would miss the man with no face. I would miss the man who had so many similar mannerisms to my father. Who dressed like him. Who stood like him. Who offered the same sense of comfort from a distance. I assured myself I would see him when I came home to visit.
The man sat on the edge of my bed and stared at my computer screen. I had wondered more than once over the years if he could actually see. The hairs on the back of my neck had long ago stopped standing on end as I looked over his face. Though the rest of his form had become clearer over the years, his face had never changed.
“I’m applying to colleges,” I sighed. Talking to the man was now second nature.
I’d speak to him as I folded my laundry. I’d speak to him as we watched tv. I’d even speak to him late at night when I snuck down to the kitchen for a snack. He would be at the window looking out over the garden, checking to make sure it was lively.
“Mom wants me to stay close, but I really want to go MassArt.” I continued clicking away at my keyboard. “I don’t know why she’s so upset. It’s still on the East Coast,” I grumbled. “I’d only be a plane ride away.”
I felt a weird pressure on my shoulder. His hand was resting there, and I realized that the man with no face had never touched me before. He had never even gotten close enough for me to feel the cool sensation that surrounded him.
I looked at his hand and then up at his face. I sometimes liked to picture features there. Thick eyebrows that matched the color of his hair. A slightly off centered nose that held large rimmed glasses. Green eyes. A large mouth surrounded by a full beard. Maybe now he would have creases at the corners of his eyes that matched my mother’s.
“I applied to the colleges she wanted,” I assured him. “But, if I get into literally anywhere else, that’s where I’m going.”
His hand gave a gentle squeeze. I couldn’t help the smile that formed across my lips.
I was twenty years old and the man had no face.
When my brother would video chat with me, I could see the man behind him every time. Sometimes he was close as if he wanted to be a part of the conversation. Sometimes he was in the background, wandering the house as he does when he is unbothered.
The man was in every photo that my mother sent to me during the school year. My favorite one was of the three of them, seated at the table over a puzzle that my aunt took. It looked like a proper family photo. I framed it and kept it on my desk in my dorm.
When I got into MassArt, I promised my mother I would come home every holiday. I promised the man that I would call her, text her, fly home occasionally for weekends. I would make sure she knew I hadn’t forgotten her. I kept my promise to both of them.
I am twenty-four years old and my father has no face.
I know he is my father. I have known he is my father for a long time now. I don’t know what will happen to him when my mother sells the house. Will he stay there? Will he move with her?
I came home to help my mother pack. The three of us haven’t thrown anything out in the past quarter of a century, so it is slow work. All the while, my father is there watching us move from room to room with cardboard boxes and garbage bags.
“Do you ever think about dad?” The question feels out of the blue, but it has been stirring in my mind for years.
My mother’s cursive writing across the box stills. She used to talk about my father a lot when my brother and I were little; telling us stories and making sure we held onto fuzzy memories. We haven’t talked about him much as we got older, beyond her reminding us that he loves us, is proud of us, is always watching over us.
“All the time,” she says and sits back on her legs to look at me now; really look at me like she did that night in the kitchen light. “Why do you ask?”
“It sort of feels like you’re leaving him,” I say. It feels weird to say considering he left her almost nineteen years ago. I don’t look towards the doorway of my old room. I already know he is standing there.
“I’m not leaving him,” my mother says and looks towards the doorway, fondly. “He’ll come with me.”
I want to feel that betrayal again, the way it burned in me that night when my mother had made me feel foolish. I can only feel satisfaction that she hasn’t been alone all these years.
“Mom,” I say, and wonder if I can get the words out again. “He…he doesn’t have a face.”
Realization dawns on my mother’s face and I can see her wrestle with a number of emotions. I can only half see them as she hasn’t looked away from the doorway yet. Finally, she looks back at me and there is only guilt on her face.
“He has a face, Nina,” she says and places one of her hands on my cheek. Her thumb brushes away a tear I can’t stop from falling. “He has a voice too. You were just too young to remember it.”
I look back at the doorway. My father is leaning on the doorframe, observing us with his hands in his pockets. My father will follow my mother. He will remain here with her until she goes to meet him. Until then my father has no face. Maybe, one day, when I go to meet him too, he will.
A.j. pellegrino (she/they) has worked in academic publishing for the last five years and has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Purchase College. She has previously been published in Read Furiously’s Stay Salty: Life in the Garden State anthology.