Hours before a first date with some girl I met on Tinder, I get Bell’s palsy again and the right side of my face begins to deflate and sag towards the tent poles of my neck.
This first date is meticulously planned. I made dinner reservations in a private greenhouse near the South Street Seaport and secured tickets to a sold-out poetry reading featuring a poet she talked about when we first started exchanging messages. This girl likes to read. I am a writer. I draft and revise my texts to her, and then add one typo so it looks casual.
Know that from the greenhouse, you can see Brooklyn. All the cute queer girls live in Brooklyn. I live in Queens.
I don’t want Bell's palsy to be happening so I pretend it is not happening. Know that my outfit had to strike an impossible compromise: hot enough for a first date, but not so hot that I couldn’t wear it to work. I am a middle-school teacher, covered in magic marker, my thighs striped with bruises from chairs my students fail to push in.
Last bell rings and I remove my N95 to put on lipstick and discover I can not press my lips together and I just put my mask back on over the creeping paralysis the way you would drape a napkin over a meal you could not finish. Beauty is youth and symmetry, and I do not have these things.
Know that the girl from Tinder is eighteen years younger than me, but liked my profile anyway. Women in their twenties, I believe, swipe right on Tinder with the abandon of someone with too many singles, making it rain.
I will go to great lengths to impress these women. I once went out on a date with a beautiful woman who teaches trapeze, and I flew, hoping she would like me if I didn’t show fear. My teeth chattered. The bar moved so much faster than I thought it would when I swung out on my long arms.
This new girl I met on Tinder is great at texting. Our first date is forty-eight hours after Valentine’s Day and everyone’s carnations are still perky and it is cold on the pier but I wear my short jacket anyway, hoping the bottom half of my body will compensate for the unlovable top. I can feel my face settling on the bad side, like a tarp filling with water, into that familiar half scowl. It’s still possible I can text her, let her know I need to go to Urgent Care instead. But all our texts are witty and fun, and my seventh cranial nerve is damaged and I look weird makes for terrible banter.
Know that on my Tinder profile, my pictures are all either full-body yoga pictures or heavily airbrushed selfies.
After I get Bell’s palsy, I’m supposed to get to the doctor as fast as I can, so I can get on antivirals and steroids to bring the swelling down. Instead of going to Urgent Care, I go to meet the girl from Tinder, and say nothing about the half of my face that is slipping off its hanger. One of my least favorite things about Bell’s palsy is that you can’t say Bell’s palsy. I figure if I can avoid words with b’s or p’s and stay in profile to her all night, it will be OK.
We go to dinner. My second least favorite thing about Bell’s palsy is that it makes eating uglier. At the best of times, my neck looks like a pillowcase stuffed with wire coat hangers when I chew. I cover my neck with my hand when I swallow, which makes the waiter nervous. It is the universal sign for choking.
Am I choking? I want to ask her how the date is going. Has she figured out that there is something wrong with my face? I want to run to the bathroom so I can text her to ask. This woman reads math books for fun, and studies poetry, and plays the bass. She has the darkest eyelashes I have ever seen.
I want to tell her that I am not always this ugly, but that would require telling her that I have Bell's palsy, that I’ve had it many times, that I always feel like it is my fault. Bell’s palsy is related to herpes, and that is part of why I don’t want to talk about it. I got an MRI after the tenth or eleventh occurrence, and the neurologist told me I have a normal brain.
Know that my mother, who loves me, once told me not to come home when I had it. She said the sight of my half-dropped face gave her the willies.
It will all be fine if I can just make it through this date with my face in profile. I look at Brooklyn. I keep her on my good side, hand to my neck, pushing my hair forward, and ask her if she wants to go walk along the river, explore this pier. I ask if she wants to make out. She says yes, and we do, in the glare of the sodium lights, wet dock under our boots. It’s New York: no one stares at the two women kissing by the Maritime Museum. Her lips are duckling soft and tentative, and I wonder if she feels like has to kiss me, because I planned this cute date and paid for dinner. We ordered wood-fired pizzas, and I couldn’t tell if they were bland, or if it was just because Bell's palsy knocks out half your taste buds.
Each time I get it, my face is left increasingly crooked. I try not to say ugly. I try interesting. But I mean ugly. When I smile, my mouth is shaped like a fishhook.
When I was born, my mother said I was so cute all the nurses threatened to steal me. I had red curls. Nowadays, a nurse would never say this. But I love that story.
When my mother and stepfather sold the house where I grew up, she asked if I wanted my baby pictures, or if she should just throw them away. I took them, cramming the albums into my tiny closet in Queens. She gave me the framed collage that has all my school pictures, arranged in a circle like the hours on a clock. By seventh grade, my white-girl afro sprouts to the edges of the cutouts in the frame. In the middle is my graduation photo. I am smiling symmetrically, but the mortarboard mashed down my curls. Picture Day at school is still the worst. When I hand out my students’ photos, I know to discreetly place the envelope face down on their desks like a graded test.
The kids like wearing masks to school. They brush their bangs forward and their faces disappear completely. I do not know what they look like, but I am still, somehow, always surprised when they take their masks off to drink water. They always look different than I imagined.
The worst case of Bell’s palsy I ever had was in the summer of 2008. I was maid of honor at my little sister’s wedding, all my features crowded on the left, and my uncle came up to me after the ceremony, looked at my face and said into my wreckage, “Wow, you can really tell.”
Know that I usually talk to my students about it, when it happens. I say things like Without Bell's Palsy Sylvester Stallone would be Frank Stallone, trying to be inspiring.
I text my mother. She lives far away now, and sometimes I do not tell her when my face collapses, and I tell myself it’s because I do not want her to worry, but really it’s because I do not want her to be disappointed that I am not pretty. I have Bell's palsy again, I text. She can’t show up for me if I don’t give her the chance. She texts back: Do you know why you keep getting it? I do not know. I have a body, and it does things I do not like, yet it is the only one I will ever have.
Know that I once got Bell's palsy and wrote an entire grant application in two weeks, powered by prednisone, and secured funding to go to New Zealand for a summer to study restorative practices.
And the girl from Tinder? We are still texting, although it has slowed. The last I heard, she is working on her taxes. I text her a picture of a duckling, floating on a triangle of pizza, and confess that I have Bell’s palsy, that I didn’t tell her because I didn’t want to wreck our cute date. She verifies that it was, indeed, a cute date. We plan, vaguely, to see one another again, on some unspecified day in the future. I tell her I will let her know, when it heals.