My mother calls me hyo-nyeo – filial daughter – and strokes my hair with so much love it breaks my heart. But sometimes, she has spells when she shakes with anger towards me.

“There is no greater sorrow than not getting married!” she says. “The thought of you alone in life, no children, that is what is making me old and sick.”

I tell her I am meeting scores of men at the office where she thinks I work as a secretary. It’s just a matter of finding the right one.

“Isn’t that why you suffered so much pain with your surgery?” she says, stabbing her finger into my cheek. “What is the point of having a beautiful face if you don’t know how to use it?”

Even as a girl, I knew the only chance I had was to change my face. When I looked into the mirror, I knew everything in it had to change, even before a fortune-teller told me so.

When I finally awoke the evening of my jaw surgery and the anaesthesia began to wear off, I started screaming from the pain, but my mouth would not open and no sound came out. After hours of persistent agony, the only thing I could think was how I wanted to kill myself to stop it – I tried to find a balcony to jump from and when I couldn’t, frantically searched for anything sharp or glass; a belt to hang on a showerhead. They told me later that I had not even made it to the door of my hospital room. My mother held me during the night as I wept, soaking the bandages that encased my face.

I am terrified of her dying. When my mind wanders, I think about her tumours spreading poison throughout her body.

I wanted to reach over and shake her by the shoulders. Stop running around like a fool, I wanted to say. You have so much and you can do anything you want.”

The other day at my clinic, I finally saw the actual girl that I modelled my face after: Candy, the lead singer from that girl group Charming. She was sitting in the waiting room when I walked in, slumped in the corner with hair spilling messily out of a black cap.

I went to sit beside her because I wanted to see how clear the likeness was. I’d brought in photos of Candy’s face when I had my first consultations with Dr Shim. She has a slight upturned bump at the end of her nose that makes her so uniquely, startlingly beautiful. Dr Shim was the surgeon who gave it to her, which is the reason I had come to him.

Up close, I saw that her eyes were streaked with red, as if she had been crying, and she had ugly spots on her chin. She hasn’t been having a good year, with all those rumours flying about how she has been bullying Xuna, the new girl in their group, and that she’s busy running around with a new boyfriend and missing rehearsals. The comments on internet portal sites have been merciless and torrential.

Sensing my staring, she pulled her cap down lower and started twisting her rings – a slender gold band on each of her ten fingers.

When the nurse called her name and she stood up to walk in, she turned to look at me and our eyes met, as if she could hear what I was thinking.

I wanted to reach over and shake her by the shoulders. Stop running around like a fool, I wanted to say. You have so much and you can do anything you want.

I would live your life so much better than you, if I had your face.

from If I Had Your Face (Viking, £12.99)

 

Frances Cha is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the Columbia MFA program, and a former travel & culture reporter for CNN in Seoul. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, V Magazine, The Believer and other publications. Her short story ‘As Long As I Live’ was published in the Korean-language anthology New York Story (Artizan Books). She has taught Media Studies at Ewha Women’s University, creative writing at Columbia University and Yonsei University, and lectured at Seoul National University. She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters and spends summer in Seoul. If I Had Your Face is published in paperback, eBook and audio download by Viking/Penguin.
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Author portrait © Storybymia

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