by Michael Haynes
Marshall churned away on an elliptical machine at his gym. His attention wandered from the news during a commercial and he noticed a woman running on a treadmill across the room. He only saw her in profile, but she looked like Carol. Not Carol right before she died, lying in a hospital bed. Carol when they first met, several years ago. Carol when she said “Yes” to his proposal and accepted the ring he offered.
This woman’s body shape wasn’t quite right and her hair was auburn, not blonde, but it took his mind a half-second to notice those differences. The similarities were what it processed first, bringing back all of the wonderful and sickening feelings he associated with the woman he had loved. He looked away, pulled his focus back to his workout.
A few minutes later, he saw her again. This time she was walking straight towards him. His mouth went dry as he saw her face in full. She did not merely look somewhat like Carol. Her face was Carol’s face. The chin, the lips, the curve of the ear . . . he couldn’t help but stare at her, trying to make sense of it. Then she was past him and gone. His arms and legs kept working away, his mind and heart stunned. When he came to the awful realization of what this encounter meant he felt weak, ill. Marshall fumbled with the machine’s controls, finally bringing it to a halt, and bolted from the gym.
The phone number he needed wasn’t in the contact list on his phone. He had cleared that number out several months back. He tried to recall the digits, but couldn’t. This forced him to wait. Perhaps it was for the best, not to make the call in haste.
He went through the motions of showering and changing his clothes. On the way home, he rolled what he had seen over in his mind, considered if he had any doubts about what must have happened. He decided he was sure.
He had to find her old phone. It was buried in one of the boxes he hadn’t unpacked after moving out of their apartment, leaving behind the city and the life they had shared.
The battery was dead and he waited while the phone charged enough to turn on. Marshall located the entry for “Dad” and almost simply hit Talk, thinking it would serve the man right to see his daughter on caller ID. He quickly felt guilty for the original impulse, “two wrongs” and all that. Besides, the phone’s service had been shut off.
He entered the number into his own phone and started the call.
“‘Lo,” came a fuzzy-voiced answer after several rings.
“Randall, its Marshall.” He paused a moment into silence. “Marshall Adams.”
The silence from the other end of the line continued. Eventually, his former fiancée’s father said, “Yeah. How you doin’, Marsh?”
Marshall had no interest in chatting with this man. He’d never liked him, not even when Randall was reasonably sober. He got right to his point. “Did you sell her?”
No answer. Marshall checked his phone, made sure that Randall hadn’t simply hung up on him. The seconds of the call continued to increment.
“Randall!” he yelled into the phone.
“Yeah?” Marshall heard the sound of liquid sloshing, a bottle clacking against a hard surface.
“I saw a woman today. She had Carol’s face. Tell me it’s a horrible coincidence. Tell me you didn’t sell her.”
Slosh, clack again through the line. “It’s really none of your business, Marsh.”
Goddammit. “Like hell it isn’t. What did you think would happen if I saw someone who . . . who bought her image?”
“They call it licensing. Not buying. Or selling.”
Marshall closed his eyes, took a few seconds. “Randall, how could you do this?”
“They pay good money. Like I said, it’s none of your business.”
“I was in love with her. We were going to be married.”
“Well. You weren’t. I’m her father, so it was my right to sell . . . to license her image.” He paused a moment. “I’m sorry you saw someone who got a ReForm of Carol.”
A new silence filled the connection, and when Marshall checked his phone this time it showed the call had been ended.
At first he tried to avoid the woman with Carol’s face. He went to the gym at crazy hours when hardly anyone was there or he simply didn’t go at all. But she showed up in his dreams, this other woman. He knew it was her and not Carol because her voice was not Carol’s.
Weeks passed with no relief. Desperate to purge the tension within himself, Marshall changed back to his old workout schedule. Now, he watched this other woman any time he saw her. He kept track of when she was likely to be at the gym and what routine she kept there. There was only one logical next step to take but it took him several more weeks to get up the nerve to approach this stranger with his dead love’s face.
She had just stepped down from the treadmill. Next she would go to the weight machines. Then back to the treadmill. Marshall passed by as she was wiping down the handholds. “Do you like that model of treadmill?” he asked her. His heart was pounding in a way that he had forgotten it knew how to do.
She looked him over. “Yeah, it’s good. I tried all the kinds they have here and this is my favorite.” Her voice was nothing like Carol’s, but it was pleasant, a hint of a Northeastern accent to it.
“I’ve been doing the elliptical machines for so long, I was thinking about trying something new. I think I’ll give this one a try, thanks.” He held out his hand, was amazed that it was dry and steady. “I’m Marshall.”
She took his hand. “Robin. Nice to meet you. Good luck with the treadmill.” She let go first. She smiled, Carol’s smile, and turned away towards the weight machines. He climbed onto the treadmill, legs wobbly from adrenaline, and started up with a slow jog.
A couple of weeks later they went on their first date. Soon, they were seeing each other regularly. He never said anything about Carol, and she never mentioned that she was wearing someone else’s face.
Summer turned to fall, and their relationship blossomed. Still, there were little things Marshall had to attend to. He knew that he couldn’t let Robin see any pictures of him with Carol. He couldn’t quite let them go, not yet, so he rented a safe deposit box and put both the physical pictures and a flash drive with their digital pictures in it. Once he had done that, he wiped all of them from his computer and purged pictures of Carol from all social networking sites he used.
Robin told Marshall that she was happy to finally be away from the Boston winters. But as fall gave way to winter, a chill fell over their relationship that had nothing to do with the climate. Marshall couldn’t put his finger on it, but Robin seemed distant and distracted when they were together. He asked her a couple of times if everything was all right, and she said it was.
One January night they were sitting in his kitchen, eating dinner. She had barely spoken since he had served the food, and was eating with mechanical mindlessness.
“Is the veal good?” he asked her.
She nodded, her face cast down.
“Robin . . .” he began.
She looked across the table, and he saw tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.
“I’ve got to tell you something. And . . .” She stopped, shook her head a bit. “I don’t think you’ll like it, Marshall. And I know that I’ve got to tell you. I should have told you before. But I’ve been so scared.”
For a moment, he’d been afraid she was going to say that it wasn’t working. But now he knew what she was going to say. She had no idea he would know, and he would have to act surprised and . . . oh, Lord.
He took a sip from his wine glass, stalling for a moment. “Tell me, Robin. We’ll talk it through. Whatever it is.”
The seconds stretched out as no one spoke. He knew she had to tell him now. She had gone too far to try to talk her way back out of it. He sat there, tension running through every inch of his skin, his guts. Readying himself to look . . . what? Aghast? Surprised? Affronted? How would someone be expected to act in his shoes?
“Okay.” She said at last. “Okay. You know I moved here not long before we met.”
“I moved here for a reason. I was . . . I was not in a position where I could stay where I lived. I’d made a choice that a lot of the people I knew . . . my friends. My family.” She stopped, looked at the ceiling. “I made a choice that they couldn’t accept.”
He knew what that was like, in a way. Since starting to date Robin, he’d been cutting down his contact with his family and old friends, anyone who had known Carol. He had even gone so far as to have all calls from family members routed directly to voice mail so he’d never have to take a call from one of them while she was around. But he had to stay in character, had to act the part of the clueless boyfriend.
Marshall leaned in a bit. “What sort of choice? What, like . . .”
She cut him off. “Here. It will be easier this way.” She reached into her pocket, pulled something out. “This was my senior picture in high school.” She slid it across the table to him, face down, like a dealer passing one card to a gambler.
He took a couple of seconds, and then picked it up. It was a picture, Robin before she was ReFormed. Not ugly, but certainly what most people would term “plain.” He looked at it hard, then looked up at Robin, then back to the picture. He tried to decide how long it would take someone to figure it out. He counted to twelve, then widened his eyes and set the photograph down, making the motion abrupt.
“Your face. You had that . . .” He cocked his head, rubbed his fingers in thought.
“ReForm process. Yes. This isn’t the face I grew up with. But it’s who I am now.”
Marshall worked his tongue and teeth behind his lips. He reached for his wine glass then pulled away from it.
“Why not tell me sooner? Why not right away?”
She sighed. “I wanted to put it behind me, you know? That was the whole point. Be someone different, someone better. When I thought we were just going to go out a few times, have a little fun, it didn’t matter. But now it matters.”
She reached a hand across the table toward his hand, but not touching him. “I’ll understand if you feel like I’ve lied to you.”
He looked at her eyes, the eyes that he still sometimes thought of as Carol’s eyes. He held her gaze for a long moment. Then he reached out and took her hand.
“I’ve only ever known you with this face. And the past . . . Well, sometimes you have to let the past stay in its place.” He squeezed her hand, gently. “I’m glad you told me, Robin. I knew something was bothering you, but I had no idea what it was. You don’t need to worry about a thing.”
Tears streamed down her face. He almost told her his own secret, that he had known all along about her face and just how he had known. If ever there would be a time to confess, this was it.
He opened his mouth to speak, but rather than expose his own past, he asked her how she had chosen this particular face.
“Oh . . .” She smiled, Carol’s smile. “Well, I didn’t want one of the celebrity faces. Honestly, I don’t know why anyone does. But this face . . . it was the face I always wanted when I was a kid. Beautiful but . . . humble, too. Does that make sense?”
He just nodded, afraid that speaking would give his emotions away. Later that evening, after more talking, more wine, and more crying she stayed the night. The reserve that had characterized their relationship in recent weeks had melted away.
That June they were married in a private ceremony, with a few of their mutual friends as witnesses. Robin had not gotten a new passport since undergoing the ReForm process, so honeymoon destinations were limited. Still, there was little Marshall could complain about relating to their time on St. Croix. The small inn where they stayed had, surprisingly, been as charming as its website.
Their last morning on the island he woke up alone in bed. Robin wasn’t in any of the rooms of their suite, but the door which opened onto the path to the beach was ajar. He tossed on a shirt and shorts and followed the path down the hill. Robin was standing on the white sand beach, looking out to sea.
“Decided to get an early start on the day?” he asked her.
She jumped slightly when he spoke. “Goodness, Marshall! I didn’t think you’d be up yet.”
He leant in, kissed her ear. “I must have just sensed you weren’t in bed and had to come find you.”
“Oh, stop.” She said it with a smile, and turned to kiss him.
“It would have been okay to wake me up, you know.”
“Thanks. I just wanted a few minutes to think, just me and the sun and the water.”
“Sounds deep. Anything in particular you were thinking about?”
She looked into the distance for a moment, then shook her head. “It’s hard to explain. Just about . . . everything, I guess. How things happen. I mean, two years ago, I was working a lousy accounting job in Boston, hating pretty much everything about my life.”
Marshall remembered two years ago. The first symptoms, the diagnosis, the quick decline.
“And now,” Robin continued, “I’m married, I’ve got a new home, a new job. It’s like I’m a completely different person, but I’m still me . . . and I wonder if I’m going to wake up some day and realize that the person I used to be doesn’t even exist anymore. That I’m living someone else’s life.”
Marshall wrapped his arms around her, hugged her close to him. “You’re you, Robin. Nothing that happens–not marriage, not moving, not anything–can change that. You’re the same person you always were. Just happier.”
Her smile only touched her lips, not her eyes, but when she spoke, she said “Thank you. I needed to hear that.”
Marshall’s phone rang. He checked the screen, saw Robin smiling up at him, and answered.
“False alarm,” she said.
Thank God. “Oh, Robin, I’m sorry. I know that you were hoping that this time it was for real.”
“Yeah.” He could hear her, choked-up, on the other end of the line. “I really thought it was.”
“Well, if you think we should try going somewhere, we can do that, you know.”
“Maybe. Right now, I can’t even stand thinking about it. And I’ve got to get back to work; I’ve already been away longer than I should have for lunch.”
“I love you, Robin.”
“Love you, too.”
He hung up, stared at the spreadsheet on his screen for several minutes before standing up to take a walk. He and Robin had discussed children before getting married and both had said they wanted to have at least two. It was the same thing he had told Carol, as well, several years ago. Both times, he had meant it.
But now, two years into marriage, pushing thirty, he was feeling less certain. There was a certain routine to the life he shared with Robin now. He had shifted from student to a young professional living with his wife-to-be to a caregiver and mourner. Then he had uprooted himself geographically and finally socially, abandoning his old connections for his new life with Robin.
He stood by a window, stared out across the downtown skyline. He couldn’t just tell Robin that he no longer wanted children. That wouldn’t be fair to her. But he also couldn’t bring himself to feel anything but a dull relief that this had been another false alarm.
On the way home he picked up flowers for Robin and Chinese food for dinner. The apartment was dark when he arrived. Robin’s purse and phone sat in their usual place. He put the food and flowers down on the table and went into their bedroom.
Robin was sprawled across the bed, facedown.
“I brought home dinner,” he told her.
She didn’t turn to face him. “I don’t think I can eat, Marshall. You go ahead.”
He sat down on a corner of the bed and touched her shoulder. “Do you want to talk?”
“I don’t know what I want. I just want to not feel like this.”
“Like . . . Like I’m being punished.”
“Punished? I don’t understand.”
For a long time, Robin didn’t answer. Eventually, she sat up and turned to face Marshall.
“Have you ever thought about what our child would look like?”
“Um, well, kind of small at first . . .” Her eyes fell, and he knew it had been the wrong thing to say.
“I’m not joking, Marshall. If . . . when we have a child, it’s not going to look like me. It will look like you. You and the way I used to look.”
“Hey, Robin . . . however our kid looks, it’ll be beautiful to us. You know that. It doesn’t matter to me if it looks like you now or you then or whatever. It will be our kid, no one else’s.”
“It matters to me,” she said, leaning into his shoulder, burying her head in it. “It matters to me.”
Shortly after their third anniversary he came home to an empty house and a photo sitting on the kitchen table. It was an old one, taken when he and Carol were in college together. She was sitting on his lap, smiling. Robin’s smile.
He tried calling Robin but her phone was off. She called him the next day, explained that the photo had fallen out of a book from their shelves that she’d been reading.
“At first, I didn’t know what to think. It was like looking at a picture of myself, but one that I knew could never have been taken. And then I figured it out . . . how could you even look at me?” she asked him.
“How could I not?”
“All these years, Marshall. All these years you were looking at me and seeing her.”
“It’s not like that. I mean, it was. At first. Seeing you, thinking about her . . . I felt like I was going to go nuts. But it hasn’t been like that for a long time, Robin.”
She didn’t answer for a few seconds. “Why keep it a secret, then? Why did I have to find out by accident?”
“What would you have thought if I’d told you when I first met you?” he asked her.
She considered this. “Probably that you were crazy.”
“No. Yes?” She sighed. “I don’t know.”
He reminded her that she had kept her ReFormed face a secret at first, too.
“I know, Marshall. I’ve thought about that. But in the end, I told you. Before we got married. I just don’t know what to think about this.”
“Please come home. You can think, we can talk about it. Whatever you need.”
“I can’t do that yet. I need time.” And she hung up.
The next three days were agony for Marshall as she didn’t call again, didn’t come home, didn’t answer his calls. He’d loved, truly loved, twice now. He’d lost Carol. And he was afraid he was losing Robin.
She came to their apartment on a Saturday morning. She didn’t bring back the suitcases she had left with.
“I want to talk. But not here,” she told him. “Let’s go to Marlo’s.”
They walked silently to the coffee shop around the corner, not their usual place, but the one they rarely visited. They sat at a corner table with their drinks.
“I’m willing to give this a try,” she said. Relief pulsed through Marshall and he broke into a smile. He started to speak, but Robin held up her hand.
“Wait,” she said. “There’s more. It’s something I’d been thinking about. Something I’d been, well, I guess afraid to talk about. But now I know it’s what I have to do.”
She licked her lips, sipped at her drink. Marshall tried to stay calm, wondering what conditions were coming with her willingness to stay.
“I’ve been saving up some money. A little bit, here and there, for over a year now. I want myself back. I’m going to have the ReForm procedure again and I’m going to have them put back my real face. I’ve been feeling like there was something wrong with my life for way too long.”
Marshall looked at her, considered every inch of her face. He thought about what this would mean.
“So, that’s what I wanted you to know, Marshall. If you meant what you said, if our marriage is really about you and me and not about chasing a . . . an image out of the past, then stay with me. If not . . .”
Marshall reached over, took her hand. “And here I thought you were going to ask something hard.” He smiled. “Yes, Robin. I love you and I want to be with you forever and I don’t care what you look like.”
A month later, Marshall drove Robin to the ReForm clinic.
“I really can take a taxi,” she had said that morning. “I’ll be fine, and you can come pick me up in three days when I’m released. There’s no need for you to take time off work.”
Marshall had insisted on taking her. “You’ll be more comfortable in our car than sitting in the back seat of a taxi. Besides, that way I can stay with you until they’re ready to start.”
Robin smiled at him, kissed his cheek, and went to finish getting ready. Things weren’t perfect yet; there were still moments when he could tell she was feeling guarded around him. But those moments were less and less often. One day they would be gone forever.
They drove to the clinic and Robin signed in. They went straight back to a curtained prep area. The hospital-like sounds and smells reminded Marshall of all those visits to oncology floors, surgical suites, recovery rooms. Robin’s doctor finally came by to talk with them and Marshall was relieved for something in the here and now to focus on.
The doctor ran through a variety of preliminaries, confirming the details of Robin’s medical history. After getting that information, he looked at Robin and Marshall. “It’s not often that we get this sort of request,” he said. “Particularly not from someone in . . . um, your circumstances.”
Marshall realized the doctor was talking about him, about their marriage. He supposed the ReForm clinic saw plenty of couples where an older man was getting a trophy wife without the mess and pain of a divorce. But, yes, his and Robin’s situation probably was atypical. Of course, it had been from the start.
He thought about assuring the doctor that he was comfortable with the change, but balked. It wasn’t any of the man’s business, really, and it was Robin’s decision to make, whatever Marshall thought about it. He wasn’t going to feed the doctor’s conceptions by replying.
“Well. I’ll see you in a little while then,” the doctor said to Robin before leaving the curtained area. They waited another long half-hour for the anesthesiologist to arrive.
“Sorry, dear. Busy morning around here. You’re my fourth patient already today!” He worked as he talked, inserting an IV into her arm. “That’s for the sedative. You’ll feel a bit of cold in a second as it starts to flow.”
He tapped on the screen of the controller and nodded. “Perfect. I’ll give you two a moment, then I’ll wheel you back to the OR. We’ll see the new you in a few hours.”
“The old me.” Robin murmured, the sedative already taking effect. If the anesthesiologist heard, he didn’t comment.
Marshall brushed Robin’s hair, held her hand. “You’ll be fine, love. I’ll see you when you’re in recovery.”
Her eyes had fluttered shut. He thought he saw a small nod, but wasn’t sure.
Marshall’s mouth felt dry. He held Robin’s hand tightly then released it. He bent down, touched his lips to her cheek, and kissed Carol goodbye for the second time.