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The Face of Pain

In her dazzling Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy detailed her quest to reclaim her jaw, disfigured by cancer. Suddenly, she was the toast of literary New York, beloved for her quick wit and wild streak, saluted for her grit. But her endless surgeries left her so weak, impoverished, and dependent on drugs that even her dearest friends couldn’t save her.


Elusive Beauty: Lucy Grealy, shot by her friend Marion Ettlinger in 2000.  

I knew Lucy Grealy for several years before she knew me, and now that she’s dead, I think of all the years I will know her again in this one-sided way, me thinking of her. We started college together in 1981. Even at Sarah Lawrence, a school full of models and actresses and millionaire daughters of industry, everyone knew Lucy and everyone knew her story: childhood cancer, endless reconstruction. She was the campus mascot, the favorite pet in her dirty jeans and oversize Irish sweaters. She kept her head tipped down so that her long dark-blonde hair fell over her face to hide the fact that much of her lower jaw was missing. It was her work-study job to run the film series on Friday and Saturday nights, and before she would turn the projector on, it was up to her to walk in front of the screen and explain that in accordance with the New York State fire marshal, there were exits located at either side of the theater. Only she couldn’t say it, because the crowd of students cheered her so wildly, screaming and applauding and chanting her name, “LOO-cee, LOO-cee, LOO-cee!” She would wrap her arms around her head and twist from side to side, mortified, loving it. Her little body, the body of an underfed 11-year-old, was visibly shaking inside her giant sweater. Finally, her embarrassment reached such proportions that the audience settled down. She had to speak her lines. “In accordance with the New York State fire marshal,” she would begin. She was shouting, but her voice was smaller than the tiny frame it came from. It could not be heard past the third row.

I watched this show almost every weekend. It was as great a part of the evening’s entertainment as seeing Jules et Jim. Being shy myself, I did not come to shout her name until my junior year. By then she would wave to the audience as they screamed for her. She would bow from the waist. She had cut off her hair so that we could see her face clearly. It was always changing, swollen after a surgery or sinking in on itself after a surgery had failed. There was the year that she walked with a cane and someone told me it was because they had taken a chunk of her hip to graft into her jaw.

Everyone knew that Lucy was the poet. I wrote short stories. I thought we were not so far apart, but when I waved to her in passing or said hello in the cafeteria, she would look at me blankly for a minute and then look away as if we had never met. Lucy Grealy was much too cool for the likes of me, a girl from Tennessee who did not go to clubs in the city.

I graduated from college early and went home to Nashville, where I put my liberal-arts education to use as a line cook in a restaurant. Soon after I received my letter of acceptance from the M.F.A. program at the University of Iowa, I got a letter from Lucy. Her handwriting was small and oddly scrawny. She said that when our mutual friend Jonathan Wilks had first told her that I had gotten into Iowa, she was disappointed because she wanted to be the only Sarah Lawrence person to be admitted. But then he had also told her that I was going out early to find an apartment, and if this was the case would I find one for her as well? She was having a surgery over the summer and wouldn’t be able to go and look. She reminded me that she was on a very limited budget.

It never occurred to me to tell her no. Lucy had the pull of celebrity, and while she had always ignored me, I was flattered to be asked for help. Besides, she would be the only person I knew in Iowa. I borrowed my mother’s car and drove up in the early part of summer and quickly found that there was not a single apartment Lucy could afford, nor was there a single apartment I could afford. There were very few that we could have managed if we pooled our resources, and so I rented half of a very ugly green duplex on Governor Street for $375 a month. When I got home, I wrote and told Lucy that we would be roommates.

I rented the smallest U-Haul truck available, and my stepsister, Tina, and I drove to the Midwest with the few things I culled from my family’s basement: a single bed mattress and box spring, a chair, a coffee table, a tiny bureau, a few pots and pans. We watched as the hills of Tennessee flattened out and the trees gave way to fields until finally we were driving on a tabletop covered in corn, the highway making a neat cut through the middle. It was late August and scorching hot. We were sticky from sweat and all the candy we had eaten on the way. We pulled up to the house on Governor Street and found the front door open wide. The place was completely empty and the linoleum floor was wet with Pine-Sol. I stood at the threshold, not entirely sure about just walking in. I called her name from the door. “Lucy?”

She shot out from the back bedroom with a howl, was through the living room and up into my arms, leaping up onto me, her arms locked around my neck, her legs wrapped around my waist, 95 pounds that felt no more than 30. She was crying into my hair, squeezing her legs tighter. It was not a greeting as much as it was a claim: She was staking out this spot on my chest as her own, and I was to hold her for as long as she wanted to stay.

“What happened?” I said, and I put my arms around her back. There was never such a little back, and I felt it heave and sob. I had thought something horrible, only something truly outside my understanding of bad things, could drive this girl into my arms.

She pulled back to look at me. She kissed me and smiled and cried again. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said.

I do not remember our love unfolding, that we got to know each other and in time became friends. I only remember that I walked through the door and it was there, huge and permanent and first. I felt I had been chosen by Lucy, and I was thrilled. I was 21 years old and very strong. She had a habit of pitching herself into my arms like a softball without any notice. She liked to be carried.

Lucy had a genius for friendship. She was able to offer up the deepest part of herself over and over again to people she liked, and in return, we were willing to do anything for her. That was her gift: herself, her intimacy.

“Dearest anvil,” she would write to me six years later, “dearest deposed president of some now defunct but lovingly remembered country, dearest to me, I can find no suitable words of affection for you, words that will contain the whole of your wonderfulness to me. You will have to make due with being my favorite bagel, my favorite blue awning above some great little café where the coffee is strong but milky and had real texture to it.”

Lucy had gone to the local auction her first night in town, and there she had met a man who was handsome and twice her age. He had given her a ride in his sports car and then taken her home and made love to her. Years later in her memoir, Autobiography of a Face, she called the man Jude, not because she was afraid he would sue her but because she didn’t want to give him the pleasure of seeing his name in lieved to have finally ditched the burden of her virginity, but what was the point of having sex with a man if you didn’t have a girlfriend to tell the details to? For three days, she had waited in our duplex for me to arrive. She hadn’t had the money to connect the phone service.

For two people who didn’t know each other, Lucy and I had a lot in common: not only friends and classes from college and a vaguely stunned feeling about having found ourselves in the Midwest but also about four hours’ experience with men between us. We had both made it through high school without a single date. We had both had our first kiss from the same boy in college (a sainted and tender soul who must have made it his business to kiss the girls who would otherwise have graduated unkissed). Lucy had infinitely more flair than I did. She had danced in New York’s finest transvestite clubs, where she was once again regarded as a sort of lovable mascot. She had had adventures that were, if not sexual, at least sexy. And now she was having sex.

Lucy continued off and on with Jude for the two years we were in school. She came home early most mornings looking rumpled and calm. In those days, she had a four-by-four gauze pad folded and taped to the side of her jaw that she wore constantly. I never saw what was under it, though I pointedly asked her to let me see several times. I became so used to it that after a while, I thought of it as part of her face. She would pour a cup of coffee and sit down across from me at the table.

“Bondage,” she would begin patiently, “is not about a desire to be dominated.”

And so began our sexual education, with Lucy attending the demonstrations at night and me reading off her notes in the morning. I would make her a bowl of Cream of Wheat while she talked about pornography, fetish, and whatever had happened the night before. We talked about books. We shared our copies of Nabokov and García Márquez. Lucy was always the more ambitious reader. I stayed with fiction, while she went through philosophy and film criticism and heavy art-history books she lugged home from the library. Lucy’s particular genius was the ability to take the disparate subjects she read about and find the ways that each one informed the other. We talked about classes and poetry and politics and sex. But the core of our love was based in the little home we had together. I cooked what we referred to as Lucy-Food, a steady diet of things that did not have to be chewed, soft lasagna and half-done pancakes. After meals, we danced in the kitchen. Lucy was a brilliant dancer, and I was tireless in my efforts to imitate her. We would dance for hours, dance until our feet ached from the linoleum floor, at which point Lucy would go and get in the tub (Lucy, skinny, was always freezing and could most often be found in the bath). I would sit on the edge and smoke cigarettes and we would talk about our bodies. Most people thought that Lucy’s story was in her face, a history in the irregular line of her jaw, but it was in her entire body. It had been systematically carved apart for its resources over the years: The skin and muscle taken from her back had left wide swaths of scar tissue; delicate, snaky scars wrapped around her legs because some surgeon had needed an extra vein; one hip had been mined for bone grafts and had left a spiky stalagmite peak that pushed threateningly against the ropey pink skin. In the future, they would take her lower ribs and a bone from her leg and the soft tissue from her stomach and pour them all into her jaw, where they would gradually melt away into nothing. But while she was tortured by her relationship with her face and talked about its being ugly, she had a real fondness for her body. Every scar was a badge of honor. She had a lack of physical modesty common to many people who had spent that much time naked in hospitals.

Outside of the moments we were together in the green house on Governor Street, Iowa City wasn’t such a wonderland for either of us. Jude proved to be more insane than the sex was worth. In retrospect, we should have seen this coming, but we had no experience to judge him against. I had made an equally poor choice of partners, but at least I now had something to add to the discussions over breakfast. Instead of giving us the companionship we had hoped for, the men made us lonelier, a feeling that was especially hard for Lucy, who had spent so much of her childhood in the isolation of illness.

Years later, I thought about the loneliness of Iowa and how it wasn’t so bad when we had each other to come home to. She wrote to me, “Lately I’ve been completely obsessed with loneliness: it colors everything I see these past few weeks. It’s okay to be lonely, I know that, but I don’t like the way it’s become the thing by which I measure everything else. I can’t seem to try to not be lonely: it only seems to happen accidentally, like this afternoon. I’ve started several letters to you, even finished a few, and even got one into a stamped envelope, but they were all so whiney, so pathetic, I just couldn’t bring myself to post them. I’m not too sure this one will make it, but I’ll try. In the others I kept trying to explain why I was lonely and pathetic, but maybe I should just simply skip that, announce it in a single sentence, then get on with the letter. I’m lonely and pathetic. There it is.”

On the cold mornings that we were both home, Lucy would get up in the dark early hours and come into my room. “Scoot over,” she’d say, and I would press up against the wall beside my single bed and she would crawl in beside me and wrap her arms around my waist. “Someday we’ll look back on all of this and we won’t even believe we were here,” she’d whisper. “We’ll say, ‘Do you remember when we used to live in Iowa?’ ”

I’d smile, warm, already falling back to sleep, telling her: “We’ll say, ‘That happened during the Iowa years.’ ”

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