She’s looking at me from across the aisle. I can never tell how old they are, kids – seven, five? How do you tell the difference? All gap-toothed smiles and bouncing hair and unabashed gazes. This girl is particularly brazen, staring at me in full force while the train rocks back and forth, her eyes raking my necklace, my scarf, my eyes and nose, and finally settling on my upper lip. It’s a peculiar sort of look children give me like they can’t figure out how my lip came to look like that, how it physically remained like that. Anything abnormal is like a magnet for kids. It’s odd. I was the same when I was little, too, and I remember trying to make sense of things, that the longer I looked at a man with no right arm on the subway that I’d be able to get it. As if anyone could ever understand anything by looking at them. I shift my gaze to advertisements for the 2017 New Year’s celebration in Times Square.
I’m about to get off at Lincoln Center. I collect my things, performing the habitual sweep of the chairs next to me, and cross to the door. I hold the silver pole with a gloved hand and chance a look at the girl. She turns away this time, as though the fact that I’ve gotten up has changed things for her. The train slows and the doors open. I step onto the platform and walk briskly to the exit, the little girl and her demanding gaze moving farther and farther away.
I suppose I’m used to this sort of blatant interest from young children. It’s something I’ve noticed more as I’ve gotten older, though I’ve never gotten entirely comfortable with it. Who would? Kids I babysat always asked me the first time they met me, as their parents scolded them with alarm and an apologetic smile. “What’s wrong with your lip?” was a constant refrain from my childhood, be it in the cafeteria, during day camps, at birthday parties. Sometimes I got “what happened to your lip?” but it was mostly an accusation that it wasn’t normal and that it wasn’t right.
Adults never say anything to me about it unless they’re a doctor, in which case they believe they’re required to make some sort of professional remark to prove they know what a cleft lip is. Dentists are particularly interested, and an ENT doctor told me last year that filling in the gap with collagen was “an option.” I’m confused as to why he felt he needed to offer a solution to something that’s been part of me for twenty-two years. My mom had nodded enthusiastically, saying that it would be great. Fantastic, that sounds fantastic, doesn’t it, Cleo? I looked at her blankly.
I spent a lot of time ignoring my lip when I was younger. I learned to avoid lipstick so as not to draw attention to my lips and instead focused on less exciting shades of eyeshadow, poorly applied eyeliner, and mascara. Instead, I get good brands of chap stick. I have also thought about plastic surgery in France where it was cheaper, but none of it ever amounted to anything. It was a vague thought, like introducing myself to people at college as Chloe instead of Cleo. I pictured myself with a symmetrical face, model-status.
I once talked about cleft palates during my public speaking class in high school. The theme of the speech that week was “informative”. I spent a few hours looking up pictures online and learning about the science behind it. Cleft lips are often the result of a cleft palate, which means basically that the top of the mouth doesn’t form completely. I had an incomplete cleft palate, which is confusing, but basically my top lip was open up to my nose. I got stitches when I was a baby to fix it. From what I looked up, I got off lucky. Cleft palates skew teeth, sending them outward in different directions, often irreversibly so. They create deep divots in cheeks and noses.
During my research, I came across Operation Smile, which is a nonprofit that works to fix cleft palates in countries where people don’t have good access to medical care. I wrote a quote on the whiteboard behind me before I gave my speech from Operation Smile which I don’t remember now. I do remember my teacher telling me that my passion and obvious connection to the subject made it too personal to be informative. I didn’t understand why they were mutually exclusive, and I learned that talking about it was probably more awkward than not talking about it. I added, “never explaining my lip” to my list of things that included no candid photographs, no lipstick, and no serious photographs.
The diner in Maine is quiet when we go in. The early birds have come and gone and its just stragglers now, a smattering of locals and college students. Maya and I sit down and order coffee. Snow drifts past the window as we chat about classes, about second-semester senior year. We order and we start gossiping.
“I’ve never liked her,” Maya says.
I nod. “I feel she doesn’t like me very much. I also have this weird grudge against her because the first time we met she asked me if my lip was swollen.”
“Yeah. It was.”
“Like, you can’t mention something like that.”
“I know. No one asks except for little kids.”
“What did you say?”
“Uh… I said no and then it was really awkward for a minute.”
Maya looks down in her coffee and then back at me, her hands wrapped around her mug. “What actually did happen?”
I shrug. “It was just a cleft lip, so my lip was split up to my nose,” I gesture, “and when they tried to fix it a stitch popped out and the doctor was like ‘it’ll be fine!’ and then it never really healed.”
“They thought it would be fine?”
“Yeah. Kind of funny.”
The waitress arrives with our food. I start on my eggs and bacon and home fries with zealous bites while Maya breaks pieces off a giant grilled muffin. I can tell, as with other close friends, that they’ve always wanted to know, but have reigned in their curiosity until I breach the subject.
I don’t mind talking about it. I was very self-conscious when I was younger; awkward, quiet, and bony, the cleft lip just added to the cocktail of insecurities women build about themselves. I remember a jolt the first time I realized my reflection wasn’t how people saw me. Innocuous and silly, I know, but it scared me that the curves of my lip were switched in real life and that I couldn’t look at myself in that way. I’m used to the reflection I’ve seen everyday for twenty-two years, but it’s still a weird thought.
“Have you ever thought about fixing it?” Maya asks.
I think. “A couple of times, but it’s really expensive, and I don’t really care anymore. I’m so used to it now.” Maya nods and drinks coffee.
I don’t tell her that I’m terrified of blind dates and the moment they notice the cleft lip or that many my profile pictures on Facebook purposefully don’t show my face in full view. I don’t tell her that I’ve thought of how people might reference me as “the girl with the messed-up lip” to people who don’t know me. I don’t tell her the things I’m working through because I’m not fishing for compliments or want help. It’s a slow process for women to love every part of their body. It’s so typical to wake up every morning and pick at skin, rogue eyebrows and frown at curved stomachs. It’s been a long time, but, I realized as I told the doctor no, thank you, regardless of what my mother said I don’t need to fill in my lip with collagen, that I didn’t want it to go anywhere. There’s even this matte dark-red lipstick that I carry around with me now and wear sometimes.
Cleo Aukland – For years, small comments and observations remained lodged in the back of my head never to see the light of day. It was freeing when I realized that putting this stream of consciousness on paper is one of the most empowering and enjoyable things I can do. I write constantly, be it essays, snippets of conversation, fiction, description, or simple observations. I am a keen observer of the world around me and look at things with a fresh, precise perspective. I just graduated from Colby College where I majored in French and minored in Creative Writing (and no, to answer your question, books in French are probably out of the question for the moment) and where I was part of many writing-based organizations. I am happiest when I am creating.