When I was a junior in high school, my best friend Lauren and I joined the after-school film club because I was chasing a boy named Jason Woods, who had curly black hair and wore Doc Martens. Jason was chasing a girl named Mina Gleich, who wore heavy eyeliner and a leather jacket and a cool hard stare.
None of us knew what Mina was chasing. None of us knew why she was there.
We watched Casablanca and she called it boring. We watched The Graduate and she called it bullshit. We watched Annie Hall and she sighed and fidgeted the whole way through. “Fuck that dumb movie,” she said when it was done.
“Language,” said Ms. Holland.
“Why do you always have to be so negative?” asked Lindsay Chang in the back row.
“You don’t have to come if you’re just going to hate everything,” said Shannon Hecker, next to her.
“I wish you would all just let Mina talk for once,” said Lauren.
“I wish you would all just shut up for once,” said Jason.
“Stop,” said Ms. Holland. We stopped. “Mina. Would you like to suggest a movie for our meeting next week?”
Mina shrugged. The next week she brought in a video in a plain plastic case.
“Wow, something she doesn’t think she’s too good for, I can hardly believe it.”
“Fuck off, Jason.”
“Both of you,” said Ms. Holland. “Cool it.” All eyes in the room on Mina, and she didn’t look back at any of us. “Would you like to say anything about the movie, before we begin?”
“Not really, no.” Lauren and I looked at each other. The air in the room was electric. There was a whole universe inside Mina’s resistance. There was a power we could sense but couldn’t see. Ms. Holland raised her eyebrows and waited.
“Fine. It’s an independent horror movie. It was made in 1988. The special effects were revolutionary. I think it’s a masterpiece.”
Jason snorted. Ms. Holland started the movie:
A young woman, new to New York City, arrives at a tall glass office building to interview for a job at a cosmetics company. She takes a gleaming elevator up to the thirtieth floor, and signs in with a receptionist with skin like marble, and sits to wait on a long white couch. Everywhere the young woman looks, her own face is reflected to her in glass and metal surfaces. Something feels strange about the place, but the interview goes well and she takes the job. As she shakes her new boss’s hand, she knocks a glass paperweight onto the ground and it shatters all across the linoleum floor.
She starts work. A friendly assistant buyer named Mel shows her around the office. The conference room, the break room, the samples closet packed full of lipsticks, eye pencils, jars and vials and creams and gels. “Take whatever you want. Really, it’s ok! Trust me. You’re going to love working here.”
A montage: the young woman taking the subway up to Midtown. The young woman at work, watching her own reflection as she types, as she takes notes, as she sits in meetings. The young woman filling her purse with samples of lotions and gels. The young woman at home, staring at her skin in the mirror, spreading cream onto her face.
Things fall apart quickly, of course. Three of the skin care buyers report mysterious illnesses and stop showing up at work. A memo goes out requesting that anyone with a sample of Anti-Blemish Tonic #3 please stop using it immediately and turn it in to the research department. The young woman overhears her boss on the phone whispering about “product recalls,” “liability,” “damn the ethical implications, I’m talking about millions of dollars.”
Late one night, Mel shows up at the young woman’s apartment with her coat collar turned up and a long red scarf wrapped around her face. “We need to talk. There’s something very wrong happening.” She takes off her coat and slowly, so slowly, unwraps her scarf. The music shrieks and whines. The scarf finally comes off, and where Mel’s face should be, there’s nothing at all, just an empty space, just a haze in the air.
I didn’t know how to watch this weird movie. I watched Jason watch the joy unfolding on Mina’s face, all lit up in the green and blue and golden light from the screen.
“This is cheesy and it sucks,” he said, but he looked at Mina like he’d lay down his life for her.
“You don’t get it,” she told him quietly, and in the dark classroom, her eyes glittered like stars. Her voice could have held longing and it could’ve held despair, and I just wanted to see what she saw. I wanted to be looked at the way Jason looked at her. I didn’t understand anything yet.
After high school, Mina quietly disappeared. The rest of us moved to Boston and drank cheap beer and had sex and got dumped and graduated from college, but the word on Mina was that she moved to Los Angeles or London or Hong Kong. I heard that she died, that she got married, that she was a famous model and she was never coming back.
“It’s weird, right?” I asked Lauren, both of us lying on our backs on the living room floor, in the little apartment we shared in Somerville. “That someone who loved that movie about becoming invisible would just vanish like that.”
“I guess. Mostly it’s weird that you still think about that movie so much.”
“It’s weird that you hardly remember it.”
She laughed. “I didn’t care. I only went to that club because you asked me to. Unbelievable, how much we used to like these people who didn’t even look at us.” She paused. “Did you know Jason’s in Boston now? He’s coming to that party at Kim’s on Saturday. Come on, don’t roll your eyes! It could be really good.”
“It could be really good,” is what she always said when she tried to bring me anywhere. Parties where I’d stand in the dark, my back against the wall and my eyes open, and where even in the dark people would look at me, questioning, hungry. Parties where I’d stand quiet in the bright kitchen, my back against the counters, waiting. Parties where men would come stand close enough that I could smell them, where they’d touch my arm, touch my hand, touch my hair.
“Don’t worry,” Lauren would tell me, seeing the look on my face, “half the people here don’t know each other either. Don’t worry, you aren’t the only one who worries they don’t belong.”
That wasn’t what bothered me. I don’t know what bothered me. But she was trying to help. She was trying to get me out of our house, out of myself, out of my head. She was trying to help, and that’s how we ended up at a party at a girl named Kim’s house, still chasing a boy named Jason Woods.
As soon as we arrived, Lauren got pulled aside by a skinny girl with green hair. I didn’t mind. A projector beamed a movie onto a white sheet on the wall, and even in this crowded room, even with a pop song playing loud enough to shake the floor, I recognized the movie right away:
Inside the young woman’s apartment, Mel shares the information that she’s pieced together. Anti-Blemish Tonic #3, designed to make wrinkles and blemishes disappear, is more powerful than anybody anticipated. It was not just the wrinkles that disappeared, but the skin itself, too. The whole face. “You’ve tried the samples too, haven’t you? You probably don’t have much time. The change comes on quickly.” It’s uncanny, watching this faceless person speak.
They decide to break into the office. They need to know what is happening to them. Mel keeps watch outside while the young woman goes in.
The young woman picks the lock on a tall black file cabinet and flips through the papers inside until she finds what she’s looking for. A thick manila folder: CLASSIFIED. She flips through the contents and we see the words RECALL, DANGEROUS, IRREVERSIBLE EFFECTS, DISCONTINUE PRODUCTION IMMEDIATELY.
The young woman hears a sound and she freezes. A flashlight beam comes into view, and then a security guard. The guard’s light is about to hit her face, she’s about to get caught, when suddenly a change comes over her face. It starts to look shaky, then it looks foggy, then it looks like a weird trick of the light, then it’s just gone. The guard’s light flashes across her face and keeps moving. He starts to whistle. He doesn’t see the dark form hiding just in the shadows. Why would he? He is looking for a face.
She does not need to take the mirror out of her bag to verify what she already knows to be true, but she does anyway. She looks in the empty mirror for a very long time, until she hears Mel honking the horn of her car outside. She gathers up all the papers and puts them neatly in her bag, and she walks slowly out of the office.
I felt someone’s eyes on me as I watched the movie. I turned around: Jason.
“Good to see you,” he said. “You look great.”
“I’ve been thinking about for this movie for so long.”“I’ve never met anyone else who’s seen this. It’s a masterpiece, don’t you think? The effects. Way before their time.”
“Don’t show off; you hated this movie. I was there too, remember?”
“Yes. You were there.” He looked at me harder. “Of course. Of course, you were there.” A softer light turned on in his eyes. “Sometimes you forget what it’s like, to be known so well.”
We turned back to the screen to watch the president of the company pull into the parking garage in his shiny black car. He gets out and locks it and sees Mel standing in a corner. “Hello?” She steps out of the shadows. “Who’s that? Who are you?” the president asks her. She moves into full view. Her face is still invisible. “Melissa, is that you? Who are you? Who are you?” Mel takes a gun out of her bag and shoots him twice in the chest. He slumps down against his car, blood running down his grey suit.
“Listen,” Jason touched my shoulder, “do you want to go talk outside or something? Somewhere quieter?”
“Okay.” His hair was still curly and he was still wearing those same shoes. I still thought about the way he used to look at Mina. We walked to his apartment. Somewhere in the distance, a siren screamed. Somewhere close by, a car alarm.
We sat on the couch and he got two beers from the fridge and I looked at my hands. I looked at his hands. He put his hand on my hand and we moved into his bedroom. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered as he pulled off my pants. He looked at my collarbone; I looked at his hair. “You’re so beautiful, you’re so beautiful, you’re so beautiful,” he grunted while he fucked me in his hard twin bed. I watched his face above mine, his mouth open and his eyes closed. It felt like a cold bath. It felt like a punch in the gut. A messed-up thing, to get what you want. A messed-up thing to want anything at all.I left in the morning before he opened his eyes. When I got home, Lauren was passed out on the couch. I brushed my teeth and washed my face and stood there in front of the bathroom mirror, staring into my own eyes.
At the end of the movie, Mel invites all the young people from the office over to her house, all the secretaries and assistants and clerical workers, all the women whose faces are now gone. They talk about their fear and their sorrow, this tremendous sense of loss, this dull and creeping feeling that they’ve been stolen from themselves.
“Maybe,” says a small figure from the side of the room, who might be the young woman from the beginning, “we’re looking at this all wrong. Maybe it’s not a tragedy at all.” A stir of annoyance in the room. “No, listen. Think of what we could do if we stopped being looked at. Think of what we can do with this if we’re brave.” A stir of excitement this time, a bright current of anger. The music gets louder. Somebody starts shouting. Other voices join in.
They all rush out into the street. They move through the city unseen, unknown, free to harm everyone who has ever done them wrong, everyone who took their faces away, everyone who’s ever looked at them. We see windows get smashed. We see a car set on fire. We see five men die extremely bloody deaths, their faces filled with pain and confusion.
Almost two decades later in the middle of New Hampshire, this scene was heavily criticized in our high school film club. “Too violent,” said Shannon. “Too weird,” said Lindsay. “Corny,” said Jason. Mina just shook her head.
After the movie, she and I were the last ones left waiting for our rides on the steps behind the school. I asked her what it felt like to be beautiful. She shrugged and she screwed up her face and she said that it felt like nothing much at all.
“Is that true?”
“I didn’t think so.”
Finally it’s morning. The sun rises over the New York City skyline. Shopkeepers unlock their doors and raise up their gates, and we see people waking up in apartments across the city. They stretch, open the blinds, stumble into their bathrooms, splash water on their faces, look in the mirror. We see the young woman coming home after her long night. She stumbles into her bathroom, splashes water on her face, and looks in the mirror. And in the mirror we see a blank space that could contain longing, or could contain sorrow, or could contain rage, and we see the credits roll.
Photo By: Jessica