You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know
We’d found the perfect house, the house with levels. Dave took the day off work and we went to my bank. Dave was the loan officer’s name too. Bank Dave was shiny and superbly neat, and his pale stocky hands flashed over his calculator like a professional dealer’s over playing cards. He told my Dave it would be cheaper and easier if everything was, at least for the application process, in my name, because my Dave had some cleaning up to do. My Dave had no savings, none at all. He needed to clear out some debts, write some clarifying letters, tidy up old business. Then we needed to get an inspection and send Bank Dave a copy of the report.
I wanted to tell Bank Dave that Dave was a good man who’d stood behind a sick and troubled woman and then cared for their children, all on his own. This was why his credit score history wasn’t perfect. He had good reasons.
I also wanted to call everything off, right then and there. I wanted to stop, and regroup, and think this all through. But paperwork has a momentum of its own, and I signed and signed and opened my folder and signed.
“Stop,” I said as we left the office. “We can take the stairs.” “You okay?” Dave said.
Was he okay?
“It’s big,” he said. “It’s just big. And all the old stuff. I’m of course going to be thinking about all that. I’m sorry about all that, Heather. I wish so badly I had more to offer you.”
“They’re here,” I said. “The stairs.” I worried that when I pressed the door open, alarms would ring throughout the bank, throughout the whole downtown.
I told myself once we had this house it was going to be easier. We would be together and we would get better at things: money, dinner, trust. But I was anxious, I worried, I consistently felt something bad was going to happen. Soon after we signed the loan application, a woman came to Dave’s house. Dave was at work. The boys were in their bedroom playing Legend of Zelda on the GameCube. I was cooking dinner, which I would likely eat by myself, though I’d set the little round office table for four. My first thought when the doorbell rang was: This is Sarah. When I opened the door, the woman took three steps back. She had a serious briefcase and no coat. She looked alongside the house, like she was expecting someone to be escaping.
She asked for David. She used his full name. I wondered if I was supposed to know her.
“Which one?” I said.
She gave me a look that said, Don’t get smart with me. I told her there were two, a senior and a junior. “I am the wife,” I said. I felt I was incriminating myself.
She said she was the process server. Again she looked down the driveway. I was trying to remember if I knew what a process server was. What was the process? What was “being served”?
She let me sign for Dave. The envelope was from a law office. It was, she said, an outstanding balance. It could be for anything, I thought, and I went inside, weirdly calm. I’d been waiting for something bad to happen. Had I been hoping for a reason, any reason, to leave? I knew Dave had spent a few nights in jail. I knew he’d had to be very careful or he’d lose his driver’s license permanently. It was so hard to square these facts about Dave with the kind, gentle man I slept with at night. Why hadn’t he told me about lawyer debt? What was it for? I was terrified to buy a house with this man. I sensed I would be the one paying this lawyer bill. I was disappointed at how ungenerous I felt. I felt I was in over my head. I felt like I didn’t love Dave enough, and that feeling was sickening. I felt like a deserter.
I set the envelope on the sock pile on his dresser. I turned off the noodles and told the boys they could eat whenever they wanted to, everything was ready. I slipped out and drove home, and then I tossed and turned all night.
I thought about leaving all the time. But I pressed forward. I asked Dave to drink less. He said he was fine, it was fine, I was worrying way too much. I arranged for the house inspection.
And at the same time I arranged to meet my old boyfriend, Dick, for lunch. Dick was not a Dave fan. Since meeting Dave, I’d hung an American flag on my porch, taken archery lessons, and discontinued exclusive NPR listening. I had questioned mindless Bush-bashing. I had questioned the two-party system. Dick felt Dave was not the right man for me; he had told me this on more than one occasion. Dick believed I was turning into a conservative. Dick felt Dave had led me to isolate myself from my friends and from my real self. But Dick was also bright and sensible and he knew me and he cared. And I needed somebody to be honest, brutally honest, about my marriage.
He sailed up to the table at the New Holland Brewery. “Hello, there, Heather, you look beautiful. As always.” He slid into the booth and put his folded hands on the table like we were at a summit.
Dick was tall, distinguished, white-haired, in a crisp black leather jacket. He believed he looked like Alan Alda, something I was entirely unable to confirm. There were half a dozen men in our town who looked just like him: tall, white-haired, aging well. Dave and I had joked about the ubiquitous Dick lookalikes. I leaned across the table and gave his cheek a brushy kiss. He smelled good, like cigars and office furniture and toothpaste. He was sixty now. He smelled organized, effective.
After we ordered, I said, “I need to know if I should leave Dave or try harder.”
“Leave Dave?” he said, aghast.
I told him about the legal notices, the bankruptcies, the process server. I hadn’t known how much debt there was. What if there was more to come, more of the past yet to be revealed? Everything was going to be in my name.
Dick rested his hands on mine. He looked at me hard. I braced myself for the big I told you so. “Heather Laurie,” he said. “You have to stay with this.” Dave was a good guy, he said. Sure, his politics were a bit questionable, but he loved me, I obviously loved him, there were the boys, and I had married him. I couldn’t cut and run so soon. I had to stick it out. For better or worse. “You took vows,” he said. He made a wincing face. His hands were still folded on the table, but now his index fingers were pointing at me, like a church steeple.
When the sandwiches came, we ate. After a bit, Dick said, “Let me ask you something a minute. See Marlene?”
“What?” I scanned the restaurant, happy for a topic change. I didn’t see anyone I knew. I took his pickle without asking.
“Marlene,” Dick said. “Marlene is right there, you see her.”
“You are looking right at Marlene Cappatosto. The woman who waved over here a second ago? Why do you pretend you don’t see her? She thinks you hate her. Why do you always snub Marlene? She has mentioned this to me several times. She’ll see you and say hi and you walk past her as though you do not know her at all.”
I thought of all the articles I had read. How complex recognition was. How was I going to explain it? People would think I was mentally ill. “I haven’t ever seen her and known it was her and not said hello,” I said. “I wouldn’t do that.” I couldn’t imagine how to explain face blindness without sounding like a complete wacko.
“She’s a nice person,” Dick said.
I shifted around in the booth. “I have a thing. It’s a thing. I can’t always recognize people.”
He gave me a strange look. He said, “Oh, you do not.” He frowned in a pursed way. “You knew who I was.” He notched his face, as in Checkmate. “You always think you have something. Remember the Lyme disease? Remember that? Remember when you thought you had Ménière’s? And the whole dengue fever thing?” He laughed.
I tried to explain. It was true, I had overreacted to mosquito bites and what was probably seasonal allergies. But sometimes I knew people. Sometimes I didn’t. Often, I didn’t know if I knew them or not. It was a real thing. Very rare, from what I had been reading, and most often caused by a stroke in midlife, but I had it. I knew who he was because he came up in clothes I knew to be his, and he sat down at my booth: he acted like someone who knew me. I wasn’t stupid, I figured it out. But not the same way he did. I couldn’t recognize the human face. I often said hello, I told him, to other men in town, thinking they were him. “A lot of men look like you,” I said. “This happens to me all the time.”
Dick shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’ve never heard of anything like that before. Come on,” he said. He put down fifteen bucks, excused himself, took his coat from the back of his chair, and went and sat with Marlene and the other women.
I always forgot why Dick and I broke up, and then I always remembered.
A cop car trolled behind us on our way to the final inspection. As always, Dave drove extremely slowly. The boys, on their scooters, outpaced us.
“Your seat belt,” I said to Dave. I was tapping his arm with my fingers, not nicely. I was like a crow. With my feet, I was trying to get the beer bottles under the passenger seat. Dave had been drinking in the car on the way home from work. We’d had our worst fight yet: he was on my car insurance and I wanted him to get his own. I vowed to stay calm, not to bring this up now.
“I can see the fear in your eyes. You don’t want to live with us.”
“It’s a cop,” I said. “These bottles are driving me crazy.” When had things gotten this bad? Why was he drinking? And why did I join him late at night, nearly every night?
“It’s okay,” he said.
“You know it isn’t. How can you drink in the car? You can’t. You can’t do this.” Beer bottles were rolling around loose on the backseat floor. I had pushed them under my seat and they’d come out the other side. “We can’t move in together if you drink like this.” I meant something much wiser. I meant this to come out in a loving We’re a team, I’m in this with you way. The cop turned down a side street, but I did not relax.
We pulled into the driveway of the perfect gray house. My split-level. The boys circled the car on their scooters. Dave cut the engine. He took my hand. He said he was sorry in a soft voice. In a different voice, he said he didn’t know what the drinking was about. He said, “I have to do something about it. I don’t know what it is. No one in my family has this. No one I even know.”
I got out of the car and went inside, where the realtor was beaming with his clipboard. “Isn’t this a wonderful time?” he said. “Isn’t this an exciting day?” I sent the boys around back to explore the creek, the tree house, the shed.
The inspector was upstairs inspecting. Dave had been on the roof and seen something he didn’t like in the chimney; now he was trying to get the working fireplace to light. I leaned over him. I was worried on all sides.
“I do not get it,” Dave said. “I hate to think the guy is lying, but this thing hasn’t been used in . . . I don’t know how long. I don’t get it. I think it’s broken. This is just not a working fireplace.” Dave’s head was in the fireplace itself and his body was on the hearth. From where I stood, the man had no head. I sat on the hearth and patted his leg. I felt sick.
“Easily fixed, no doubt,” the realtor said. “We can give the seller a list of everything you need fixed before closing; that’s typical—supertypical.”
The inspector yelled, “I’ve hit the mother lode! You’re gonna wanna see this!”
We found the inspector on the pull-down stairs that led up into the attic, his upper half swallowed by that space. We each took a turn peering in. Every cranny of the attic was insulated with spray-injected foam. There was controversy, apparently, whether or not it posed a toxic threat.
“Whoa,” Dave said. “Excessive.”
“What do you think about this stuff?” I asked the inspector.
“They went all out,” he said. “Whoever put it in, they went whole hog with it. That’s for sure.”
“We have to think. We were not expecting this,” I said. The realtor shook his head.
“We didn’t say no. We just have to think. I’m not sure. I’m just not sure.”
Reeling, I retreated downstairs. I discovered that the doors to the garage and the half-bath were split, splintered. I knew this kind of damage, intimately. It was damage done in anger, fury. I called for Dave.
Keys jangled, and a man burst in.
“What the fuck are you doing in my house?”
I shook all over. I leaned against the wall, inching toward the bathroom, where Dave and the inspector now stood. Was I supposed to know this man? Had I seen him before?
“We’re allowed to be here.” I said this to the floor with great confidence. I looked up, looked him in the eyes. He was like a person on fire. He was thrumming with rage. And then I knew: I could live with Dave and his drinking, I could live without dinners, I could live with a town full of Republicans, I could live with the lunar stuffing between the walls, but I couldn’t live in a house where this man had lived. I said to the man’s shoes, “We will never buy your house!”
The inspector said, “VanderSluis? We went to high school together? Mike Van Lente. Hey, how’s it going?”
“You’re inspecting now, I heard that. You got laid off? Why are you in my house? Isn’t the realtor supposed to be here?”
I slid out of the vestibule and ran up the stairs, through the kitchen, out the front door. I ran to the car and got in fast, like I was being chased. I had recognized that man’s face. He had the look, the male version of my mother’s face. I knew that I could not live in this house where he had lived. Rage felt soaked into the walls. This house would never smile on us; inside of it, we would only be unlucky, uneasy, and unkind.
The boys found me in the car, hopped in the back. I rubbed my face, refused to cry in front of them. “So, what’s happening?” Jacob said softly, nervously, slowly. I heard his feet clinking the beer bottles on the floor of the backseat.
“We’re not getting it,” Junior said. He breathed out dramatically. “I knew it.” He slammed his body back onto his own seat. Then he got out and slammed the door so hard it bounced back open. He ran down the street.
Jacob said to me, after a bit, “Whatever. You know that’s David.” Then he leaned over the seat. He said, “I’m going to go, though, okay, Heather? I need to do some things and stuff. . . .”
Then he took off down the sidewalk, sliding around on the snow, catching his brother at the corner. I watched them hitting each other, reenacting the drama that had played out in the vestibule, that was playing out between me and their father, under the surface. Through the windshield, the house looked dark, closed and empty, but not the right kind of empty, not the kind I wanted so much to fill.
The house fell through. The status quo prevailed. Married but not living as married. A family that wasn’t functioning like a family. Fine and not at all fine.
A giant manila envelope came in the mail. Wisconsin postmark. No return address. It was a letter from my cousin Patty, Katy’s daughter. Enclosed were photocopies of Katy’s skeleton drawings, and family recipes. I had forgotten I had written Patty back when I first contacted the scientists about schizophrenia and face blindness. She was the only one who had answered.
Let me answer your questions one at a time. No, no one in the family has mental illness as far as I know. Aunt Florence had a severe paranoid reaction in Europe and had to come right back home, but do not bring this up to anyone—she doesn’t want anyone to know, especially your mother. I was in a mental ward for six months due to a breakdown brought on by exhaustion after I had my two children and working so much. My mother (Katy) died of agoraphobia and emphysema—she couldn’t leave her bedroom the last three years of her life. People always said your mother was peculiar, but there was no mental illness in the family.
To the contrary, it sounded like every female member of the family suffered some form of mental illness, and childbirth was a specific trigger. The sheaves of drawings were the same kind hidden in my mother’s bedroom closet, the ones she’d forbidden us to look at. There was one of a snake eating a blood-drippy heart, the snake wrapped in other snakes. Dave asked me to put the drawings away. He was worried that spending time with them would upset me. But I liked them. I liked the boldness and weirdness. I liked being in the presence of the strange, dark, unstoppable creative impulse.
I was in the tub with a glass of wine when the phone rang. I wrapped myself in a towel and answered.
“Your mother is very hurt, very hurt, Heather, by your saying you do not love her, and you must make amends, you really must. She’s your one and only mother!”
I didn’t recognize the voice at all. Had I ever heard it before? It was old and forceful, midwestern, Germanic, terrifying. I pretended to know whose it was.
“Love is a two-way street, and she’s your one and only mother. My circle is praying for the two of you to heal. It would be wonderful if you and me and your mom could go to church all together when we are up there. I can’t get her to go down here! She thinks she’s sinned too much! Oh, Heather! So much healing. So much—”
“Who are you?” I said finally. My voice sounded polite and afraid.
It was Bernie. She was visiting my mother in Orlando, and they were driving up to see me. They would arrive Monday. Hadn’t I gotten the letter?
They’d gone to kindergarten together, my mother explained when she got on the phone. Bernie, she said, was her best friend. She’d talked about her thousands of times. They were looking forward to Michigan and nice cool weather. Wasn’t she lucky to have such a good friend? My mother’s voice was loud and clear, high and fake, like she was acting in a bad play. Or being held hostage.
“How do you two know each other again?” I asked.
“Bernie is my best friend!” she yelled dramatically, and I could tell she had an audience.
“Have I met her?”
“You were very little. I think very small.”
I asked my mom if it was hard to talk right now.
“You are so perceptive! I’m so proud of my beautiful daughter! I can hardly believe I’ll be seeing you in a couple of days!”
When I suggested a hotel, my mother said that would be impossible: Bernie was a minister’s wife and could only stay in homes, because that’s what she was used to; plus, she was on a tight budget. But we would pay, I said. No, my mother said. It wasn’t possible. They wouldn’t be any trouble. Her voice was loud and strained, taut with forced cheerfulness.
When we were little, my mother regularly gave us emergency words, white dog or pineapple. If we were ever in trouble, we were to work them into a conversation with her, staying on the line as long as we could. Our captors would not know, would not suspect, but she would get help. I wanted, now, to ask my mother if she needed rescue, if she wanted to use a code word, if she remembered the secret system.
“Angel,” I wanted to whisper into the phone now. “Purple cucumber. Schmatzhagen.”
The last time my mother had visited me in Michigan, I had just moved in, classes had just begun. I was nervous and new. I’d left her alone in my house with a painting project to keep her occupied, and strict instructions: Don’t take the dog out, don’t go anywhere, don’t engage the neighbors in conversation; just stay inside. I’d be back a little after four. When I came home, I found she’d taken down every painting, everything I had on the walls: the Haitian blue woman, the 1950s Virgin Mary print, the Renoir reproduction in its lacy gilt frame, the painting of fish taking other fish for a walk on leashes underwater. She’d put the paintings behind the sofa and pressed two furnace filters against them. She’d tacked sheets over my bedroom windows. I’d found the trash full of food: she’d thrown away my tube of garlic paste, canned coconut soup, couscous, jars of condiments, chutneys and pastes and olives and sun-dried tomatoes.
Back then, I’d felt censored, over-mothered, oppressed. We’d fought bitterly; she’d left early. Now I understood that these actions were her way of keeping me safe, leaching out the bad energy. But I didn’t want her coming up here, going through my papers, taking my savings bonds and bank statements for “safekeeping.” I didn’t want her cutting the buttons off my dresses. I didn’t want her running around in my fragile new marriage. Most of all, I didn’t want her scaring my stepsons again.
“If you don’t want us, just say, Heather. I’m not going to come where I’m not wanted. I very much want to see you. If you feel otherwise, please, just say. The trip is an expensive one for me. Please. Just say how you feel.” This was her natural voice.
“I can’t wait to see you!” I said, and I hung up the phone, desperate childish schemes running through my head: I could leave town, I could stay down at Dave’s. She and Bernie could stay at Dave’s while he and the boys stayed here. I could go to a hotel. They could just stay in a hotel. How bad could it be? A couple of days.
That weekend I got out extra blankets and put them on the sofa. I made up the twin bed in the guest room with fresh sheets. I found soap, new soap. I made a grocery list. School was starting in a few days. I tried to get my syllabi organized for classes, but I couldn’t think what books I’d ordered. I couldn’t imagine students reading those books, whatever they were, and me talking about them. To what end?
The evening before school started, the last Sunday in August, was a cool night with a warm breeze. I was walking down College Avenue, carrying my quinoa salad in a yellow Pyrex bowl draped with a blue linen towel. I wanted to feel effective and Martha Stewart–ish. I wanted to feel participatory and welcoming. I was on my way to a potluck dinner for new women faculty. I did not want to go. I wanted to go to parties but I hated going to parties. I had no idea why. As I crossed the street, a strange old station wagon pulled in the spot beside me. A man got out and smiled a dopey smile. I stepped back and looked at the guy, trying to figure out if this was someone I knew. He wasn’t looking at me as though he knew me, or otherwise. It took him a while to speak.
“Hey, sweetheart.” He opened his arms wide. He was holding a tall boy in his hand. In a paper bag. I knew the outline of a tall boy.
“Did I scare you?” Dave said. It was Dave, it was Dave, it was Dave. Of course it was Dave. I shifted my salad to my other hip.
“Whose car is this?” I looked inside, holding my salad as one would a toddler. There were empty beer bottles on the floor, the seat. Dave, Dave, Dave.
“Well, sweetheart, I accidentally bought a car on eBay,” he said. “Ended up high bidder.” He laughed and shook his head. “Great car, though. Great car. Single owner, old lady. Low miles. I’ve been looking for one just like it.” He sounded warm and fuzzy, hell-bent on happiness.
“My mother is on her way up. I’m late for a school thing. Welcome new women faculty. I told you about it.” I wanted to say a lot more.
“Well, sweetheart.” He frowned, but in a deliberate way. It was not a convincing frown.
“Why are you drinking?” I said. I sounded mean as a rat.
He looked into my eyes. He said in a kind voice, thoughtful, “That’s a hard one to piece together. As I have said before . . .”
“Things have to be pieced together,” I said.
I was approaching the apartment where the potluck was being held, wondering how long I would have to stay to not be weird or rude, when a woman came toward me, saying hello.
“Hi, I’m Heather. I’m in the English Department,” I said. “Are you looking for Jenn’s? I think this is it.”
“Yes, of course, I know,” she said. “I’m Jane Small. In History. Our offices are down the hall from each other? In Lubbers? This is my fifth year here. We have met.” She smiled. “Many times.”
I opened the door and followed her up the stairs. I didn’t really believe her. Jane Small? I didn’t think so. That was not my idea of Jane Small at all, not even close. I thought Jane was a much thicker-boned person, older, less happy.
Inside, I beelined for the kitchen and concentrated on helping Jenn lay out the plates. She had beautiful plates. I said hello to Beth Trembley, who turned out to be Janis Gibbs from History. They looked a lot alike. I filled my little plastic glass with some wine. I scanned the room. Jenn’s home was the upstairs of a house, an apartment. It was nice. She had a pretty scarf over her television set. I knew people did this to add color where there would otherwise be black plastic, a blank screen. It made me nervous, though. I moved from the television to where a woman was standing alone by the stairs. She looked nervous, afraid, and I knew she must be new. New woman faculty member. I went up to her. “Hi, I’m Heather,” I said. “Welcome to Hope.”
She said, loudly, her voice stiff, “I’m Jane! Jane Small from History, we have worked together for years. I am just down the hall from you.” On the word “hall” she pointed her arm out. She held it out there. I got the idea the arm was saying Go away and Why can’t you get this? She said, loudly, dropping the arm at last: “You know me.”
The party stopped on the loud words, in the way a party like this always does. Something was said, something with sharp edges, and it rose over everything else, and it rested on top of the party for a moment, like a sheet of aluminum.
And then it fell. The party readjusted itself, and the chatter rose again and wove around the room, women’s voices, Three Mo’ Tenors on the stereo, Jenn in the kitchen calling, in her voice like silver water, “Almost ready, folks! Almost ready!”
I stared at Jane. She looked nothing like the woman I had met on the sidewalk. She had on a jacket outside? Or maybe she had changed her hair?
I slipped out of Jenn’s apartment before dinner; I didn’t say good-bye. On my way home, I walked past Dave’s apartment. I looked up in the windows. There was Jacob in the dining room with his sword, frozen in a stance, the weapon over his head, shining. He looked so serious and straightforward, like he was going to carve the place to pieces. I almost wished he would.
I felt perched on the edge of my own life. I’d been fooling myself. I had no idea what I was doing. I felt as though not one of us—Dave, Junior, Jacob, me—knew what the hell was going on and what made sense.
And so, finally, I called for help.
This excerpt reprinted from YOU DON’T LOOK LIKE ANYONE I KNOW: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2010 by Heather Sellers
Read more nonfiction in our current issue