Sorry, I’m Bad With Faces
If I could paint just one thing really well, I would choose bare branches against an empty sky. I would like to paint endless images of bare branches against infinite empty skies. But I am not good at painting.
I can sketch a series of interconnected boxes, but the lines are never straight. I am incapable of drawing a perfect circle. I made a sculpture once, of a mother dragon holding a baby dragon, and it was pretty decent, as far as third grade work goes. I never kept up with sculpting. I probably would not be good at it now. I would make something decent, and then keep going. I would do too much, and then it would be bad.
I can’t do much math beyond basic arithmetic, multiplication, and division. I cannot hold numbers in my head for very long. I must repeat a phone number aloud several times, and quickly, until I can write it down, because I know it will go away. My mind is a sieve through which digits slip into nothingness.
The school put me in gifted math when I was little, and when it became very clear that I was not, in fact, “gifted” at math, my father wouldn’t let me go to the regular class. He got mad about it all the time. He yelled when I didn’t understand. Eventually, the teachers decided I should take regular math. I was relieved. I did poorly in regular math, too, but it wasn’t quite as bad. I am still afraid of numbers.
I am afraid to dance in front of people. Sometimes I am afraid to dance by myself. I do not dance very often. I cannot always hear the beat. I do not understand time signatures.
When I listen to music, I sometimes cannot pick out one instrument from the other. I know a guitar is not a trombone, but I do not always or often know whether a trumpet is a trombone or an oboe or a tuba. When is a guitar a guitar, and when is it a bass guitar? What is a flute and what is a clarinet? Sometimes I know, and sometimes I do not know. Musical notes on a page baffle me. They are marks made with ink, signifying nothing.
I do not notice or remember street names. I cannot read a map. I cannot hold in my head the image of a city as diagrammed from above.
I do not remember directions. People tell me how to get from here to there as if I were the type of person who can follow such instructions. I nod thoughtfully, as if I understand. I pantomime comprehension, so that they do not feel bad about not being able to make me understand. I do not want them to try to explain again, because I do not want to have to convince them that it will never work for me.
Everyone wants to think that he is the one who will help me understand directions, or math, or time signatures, or dancing. I cannot explain to them that it is not about the method of communication. It is not a matter of pedagogical style. They simply do not have the power to make me different.
They give me the directions. I try to repeat the directions in my brain over and over, but they fade within seconds, gone the way of the numbers.
I can tell you the name of the street on which I live. I am not certain of the name of the street that bisects the street on which I live. I have lived here for six months.
I struggle with faces. They slide out of my mind like the numbers and the directions. When I meet people for the first or second or fifth time, I use tricks to get them to say their own names. The names unlock the memories of where we met, what we ate, whom we discussed, how we fucked.
If we fucked, I may be likelier to remember their faces when I see them in person, but not always. If we are dear friends, or longtime coworkers, and we have a sustained emotional connection, there is a very good chance I will know them when I see them on the street, but it may take me a few seconds to be certain. If they do something especially terrible, or especially wonderful, I am far likelier to hang onto their facial features.
When I was little and my parents would take me to family parties, my mother would tell my father in the car who everybody was, in advance, and how they were related. I would listen, and try to remember. But in person, it was hard. I could remember the names, but not the faces, and how could I connect it all? It was like the musical notes on a page, which for me have nothing to do with sound and never will.
I was always nervous about going to parties. I still am, sometimes. When somebody has a unique gait, or a strong scent, or a signature clothing item or piece of jewelry, that helps. I learn as much about people as I can, so that they will know that I care who they are even if I cannot remember what their parents chose to call them at birth, because I cannot recognize their faces, and I have to record their existence through their stories. I can retain their stories.
When I am very tired and my parents pick me up at the airport, it takes me perhaps a third of a second to register their faces. That doesn’t sound like very long. But staring right at your mother and not recognizing her for a third of a second — that’s an eternity, really.
I am always a little surprised to see my best friend, whom I have known for 22 years. We visit every few years. It is always a treat. That’s what she looks like! Did she always look like that? Yes, she did. She is so beautiful. A piece of my brain remembers — yes, this is her face. It is so comforting to the part of my brain that always remembers. To the rest of my brain, it is a fun revelation. Look at this new face! What a lovely face. I love her very much.
I am worried that after my parents die, I will not be able to conjure their faces in my mind. My friend died, and I have been practicing with his face. I can call it up for a second, but then it is gone.
I know we have photographs, but I don’t usually have photographs of my favorite moments with my friends and family. Those take place in private moments of laughter and reflection. Those are conversations. Those can’t be captured on camera, but some people seem to be able to recall them perfectly.
I can’t always remember voices, because voices are like music, but intonation, favorite words, those will come to me.
There is shame and embarrassment and tension and confusion attached to some of this way of being. There are good things, too.
I know that Zen mind is beginner’s mind, and I am not a Zen Buddhist, but I am always a beginner, it seems, in many areas of life. I am often surprised, and sometimes delighted. Things that should be old hat are often new and thrilling to me.
There are people who are very good at some and even all of the things I cannot do. To me they are magicians. I am full of admiration. My excitement is genuine.
I introduce friends to each other as if this were the meeting of two of history’s greatest minds, and I am just blessed to get to witness the interaction. I tell each one glowing details about the other as if the other weren’t listening. This is either awkward or charming, I’m not quite certain, but it is not a pretense on my part. I really am that enthusiastic, partly because I think my friends are fascinating and partly because I’m just so fucking thrilled I remember who the hell they are.
I miss a few people who are dead and I miss a few people who are alive. I loved them all and I remember how I loved them, because I guess I don’t get to pick what I forget.
“Come back,” I want to say, but they are dead and can’t come back, or they’re alive and it would be bad for people — them, me, others — if they came back.
They stay where they are, and some things stay in my brain and some things don’t. I keep going. I must learn more, see more, do more for the first, second, fifth time. I must meet more people, hear their stories, learn every single little thing about their strange quiet broken and unbroken hearts. There are so many beautiful faces I have yet to forget.