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Face to Face

Face to Face

Published Nov 24, 2022 Updated Nov 24, 2022
time 7 min


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Face to Face

Translator: Austin Wagner


Fancy dinner at the Duomo, Dóri? Flights now available from 20€!

I see the personalized ad and freeze. There we are, dazzling white tablecloth, pizza glistening in front of us, the mozzarella lacquered into place. And we’re smiling. Of course we are. According to the algorithm, this is how we toast the Italian sunset. The models’ bodies are inaccurate, as usual. The woman’s breasts are quite a bit bigger than mine, the man’s shoulders too broad, but they’re wearing our faces, letting me imagine ourselves in Milan. My hand is shaking, I scroll on so I don’t drop my phone to the ground. When I left the house I’d turned off location data. It never would’ve shown me an ad for flights if it knew I was sitting in the urgent care clinic.

My nostrils are crammed full of cotton wads so I breathe through my mouth. My nose throbs, the pain radiating out over the rest of my face. In the car, I’d seen in the rearview mirror how red and swollen it was, like some kind of jellyfish, but now I just feel the crusting blood as it tugs at the skin above my lip.

“What are you going to tell the doctor?” my mother asks for the second time, maybe the third. She’d nagged me about this in the car the whole ride over while I pressed a towel-and-ice compress tight against my face.

What do you want to do now? You’ve thought it through, right?

I hadn’t answered then either, as the melting ice ran across my arm, under my sleeve, down to my elbow.

I’d had to look up online how to file a report. I’d never done it before, not for anything. Though one time my bike had been stolen from in front of the office, they must have used bolt cutters to get through the chain. I’d figured a piece-of-crap bike with the seat held on by duct tape wasn’t worth the paperwork. Come to think of it, my parents had never filed any reports either. When I was little, an employee at my mother’s boutique disappeared after emptying the cash register, a full week’s worth of income. But she just pursed her lips and said a scandal would do even more harm.

“I’ll request a medical report,” I finally tell my mother, as if I hadn’t just looked up what I had to do three minutes ago. But I don’t want to chitchat, I scroll on my phone. My face is taut, clotting blood trickles from my mouth. The wind whistles cold over my nose.

You haven’t gone running this week, Dóri. Why don’t we set a PR together?

In this ad we’re standing out on a track, him and me, in black and white, trendy running shoes laced up and ready to go; just one click away! I could get coupon codes if I allowed access to the running app I used to keep track of routes and times. They’d swapped my face onto the body of a tighter-assed model so I’d feel like the product was mine. We’re dripping sweat in the photo, laughing. According to the algorithm, this is how we look after two laps around the track.

I want to hide the ad. I can’t stand seeing his heavy stubble, his whiter-than-reality grin. I blocked his messages, blocked his number, don’t contact me, but I can’t ban him from the ads, I try but it’s no use. The algorithm knows all my close relationships. It sometimes uses my friends’ faces to invite me out for craft beers, uses a fake photo of my mother to offer me cough drops, as if it thinks a sickly child still wants her parents to look after her as an adult. But usually it’s him next to me. Especially after it figured out from our location data and IKEA bills that we’d moved in together: several thousand exchanges of selfies, video calls, and messages confirmed our relationship.

“I hope you know I’m on your side, one hundred percent,” my mother says in the waiting room. “There is no question of this ever happening again, you need to know that.”

I glance up at her, then back to my phone, just scrolling and scrolling some more. Did you try probiotic yoghurt last week? Buy it again with our 3+1 discount, only until Saturday! I feel the puffiness under my eyelid as I blink; the swelling is a dark splotch on the edge of my vision.

“I just don’t want you to rush things,” she continues. Ever since I was little she was full of advice for any situation, and it was my own fault if I didn’t accept it. If I didn’t dress properly for the weather, if I didn’t have the right friends, she was there with an I-told-you-so. “Rash decisions would do more harm than good at this point. You need to think clearly.”

I already regret having my mother bring the clinic. Even with the pain killers I would have been scared to drive alone, and I didn’t want him to bring me in. Better it was my mother, anybody, just not him. He was mortified the moment he saw the blood splatters all over the sink – it didn’t matter. He pressed the towel to my nose and ran to get ice – it didn’t matter. He would have taken it back – it didn’t matter.

“You know,” my mother fiddled with the clasp on her bag, “I did warn you, as soon as you rented that flat. That bathroom is a death trap. The stones are so slick, and in such a narrow space… that cabinet sticking out like that… this could have happened anytime.”

Anytime. And yet mostly when his grip tightened on my arm over the sink. When I wanted to throw him off and we slipped on the wet stone. This didn’t happen anytime, it happened when the finger-patterned bruises were forming on my elbow, when he was hissing liar, liar, liar.

“This will never happen again, sweetie,” my mother says. “That much is obvious. I wouldn’t allow it, don’t think for a second I’m not on your side.”

Her voice drops to a whisper.

“Especially now. In your condition.”

She’d seen the test I’d forgotten on the edge of the blood-splattered sink, but the algorithm had known first: pre-natal vitamins advertised with a girlfriend’s face; we’re already taking them, why don’t you!

“But don’t you think it’d be best to settle this between yourselves?”

Mother’s voice is soft, confidential.

“Who knows how long you’d be tied up in court… How many people would learn about what happened… What everyone would say about you…”

I scroll on, not looking at her.

“This only concerns the two of you. Do you want to be on display for the whole country, the whole world to see?”

She squeezes my hand.

“You two should talk this out face to face.”

I stand up, though they hadn’t called my name. The blood pounds in my ears as I shove past my mother, I don’t turn back, she reaches for me – it doesn’t matter. Phone in hand I rush to the bathroom. I slam the stall door, click the latch, breathe deep. The tile is cold on my palm, I gulp down mouthfuls of air, and as I lean forward, head spinning, the blood in my nose wakes up behind the cotton, starts seeping again. I run my tongue over my teeth for the umpteenth time, reassuring myself that none of them were knocked loose.

Wes Anderson’s films average an 8.3 on IMDB. Why not pop in to the new movie theater to see one?

There we are in the ad, sitting in some newly-built multiplex. I can’t stand seeing his grin hovering above the popcorn, his arm around the model wearing my face. It’s us, but not. Real, but fake. Just the product of our shopping habits, app data, and stash of photos mined by the algorithm. I don’t want to see us like this. I close the ad, another pops up, skimpy lingerie that’ll make him go wild, olive oil for the perfect dinner for your perfect night in, but the system should know, even if my mother refuses to, the software will eventually realize.

I open up the camera app. I use selfie mode as a mirror to look at my face. Even in the dim light of the stall you can see how swollen my nose is, the skin split a deep purple, the streaks of crusted blood. The wads of white cotton wedged into my nostrils.

I snap a photo of myself. I don’t smile, I look terrible, but I don’t care, I take a side shot to show the bruising under my eye. I don’t know how many I need to take for the algorithm to notice, click, to incorporate my new features into its ads, click, first in the ones for me, this is how I’ll smile in front of the Duomo, click, then in the ones for him, we can go running together and catch the latest movie, click, then my face will be on anti-wrinkle cream ads for my mother, Christmas ads for my relatives, Friday night cocktail invites for my friends, click, click, click. I shoot maybe a hundred photos, enough for any software to relearn my face, to see, against all motherly advice, the truth.

I breathe out. It’s the first time the knot in my stomach loosens.

I slide my phone into my pocket, head back to the waiting room.

I wait for the first ad to appear on my mother’s phone.

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