Inez Tan

Grin to Grin

I wasn’t face blind at all. The discovery came as a shock. We did the test together, my mother and me – tearing a selection of famous faces out of magazines, trimming off the hair, quizzing each other. You’d be shocked how many people wouldn’t recognize Hillary Clinton like that. My mother missed six out of ten, which makes her average. I nailed every one, which makes me a freak.

So why couldn’t I see what was so beautiful about my sisters’ faces? Every one of them – all six before me – had been crowned Queen of the North Star State Dairy Fair. A lot of nouns there, I know. We keep their heads in the freezer in Barn #9, the ones carved in effigy from giant blocks of butter – winners’ trophies. I found the heads lifelike now that they were tightly sealed up in Saran wrap, dusted with frost. They were like the faces of women pressed up against a shower curtain, suffocating with a smile.

And what smiles they were. Though the heads had blurred and softened in the time before they were iced, the twelve rows of teeth remained distinct. I felt ill when I looked at those terrible scored rows, those molded grids, those grooved cells. Like I had swallowed a large lump of butter. “Our husbands liked our smiles,” my sisters said. Yes, no sooner had their heads been carved than men arrived and made wives of them. But soon enough, the husbands went away, and the explanations never did make sense. To inquire further would be to stomp on thin ice and to end up in deathly black water. Better to stand silent and still, holding our breath, even if, six husbands later, it was still only us beautiful girls wringing out the milk, sloshing uphill with the hot heavy tin pails, skimming the frothy cow shit off the cream.

That my mother thought a seventh husband, my husband, might be different sums up all my frustration with mothers. But I held it in. For whatever properties my face possessed, I was also declared a queen. Fairgoers gathered around a chilled glass box, wherein I would sit facing the sculptor tasked with carving my head in solid butter. My mother hugged me and shooed me in to where the sculptor, her back turned to me, awaited.

When the sculptor swiveled around, I saw she looked exactly like my mother. But she couldn’t be my mother; I had been with her outside not a moment ago, my palm still moist from holding her hand. The butter sculptor wore a raincoat the color of sunshine and rubber gloves that were robin’s egg blue. Forgive me, I had just spent the morning painting lush, eloquent verbal pictures of the dairy industry for the judges. The sculptor bade me sit down before her, sharpened her lengthy pointy knife. As if to say, why use a blunt instrument even when a blunt instrument will do.

Smile! she commanded.

I didn’t answer. I kept up an oyster’s tight-lipped simper. I thought of a story that had been read to me as a child. A fox wants to eat a mouse, but the clever rodent, who also happens to be the fox’s dentist, insists on giving his teeth a special treatment first. The mouse and his mouse wife paint the fox’s teeth with a clear fluid and tell him to hold his jaws together. The solution is glue, of course. I wished my saliva would turn to glue.

Smile, smile! The sculptor was in a fury. Smile!

On that final injunction, I felt my lips – smack! – warp like heated metal. Painfully, unnaturally, like I’d sprained them. They wouldn’t unsprain. My teeth felt very rigid and very bare. The feeling flexed through my whole body, as though I were teething through and through, inside to out. The sculptor’s knife flashed, the watchful crowds devoured burger dogs and Snicker bar salad, and I kept telling myself that everything was still as ordinary as could be. But whatever this feeling indicated, it didn’t subside, not in the eight hours of sitting, not when I felt a kind of ripping when I stood. There was blood, but only blood. I blushed, seized my head, and ran.

As was her custom, my mother rejoiced over the butter head and impaled it on a stick. She displayed it thus, in the wintertime, at the boundary of our farm. This was how each of my sisters’ suitors had known how to find them. I was not eager to meet a man who was attracted to my horrible rictus. Please note, I didn’t wish him ill. Didn’t want him to tumble down cellar stairs and break his neck, slice open on wires that had sprung out of grandfather clocks, choke to death while attempting to hang something innocent on a tree. I simply did not want to be bound as wife to such a man. Alas! My mother commanded and I had to obey. In any case, my man was enticed in. He popped my butter head off the pole and he licked the butter lips in front of me. “Salty,” he said.

I will say this – his smile was sweet.

A week later came our wedding night, and I was not as unwilling as I had imagined I would be. My mother had told me that a great pleasure awaited me. Oh, I realized afterwards how, in spite of herself, how very right she was. It was a great pleasure to vitiate all that my mother so wanted me to have. As my sisters had already known. It was the last time I could speak of my innocence – not knowing how I would hurt – and then the eager man thrust himself in between my legs and I screamed, but not as loudly as he!