I see something in the mirror that isn’t me. At least, not yet; all it will take is the right doctor. A good one.
I had one, for a while, after a decade of unsatisfactory work. Now that there are nurses handing out cheap under the table injectables on practically every street it’s easy to forget how difficult it once was to to acquire them, the taboo and expense driving the practice almost underground. Besides, few aestheticians seemed to understand what I actually wanted, or why, and I was turned away from more clinics than I can count.
Some suggested I seek therapy for body dysmorphia, unaware that I’d been in counselling from the age of five. Others directed me to an optician, claiming that it was my vision that was off-kilter, not my face. I’ve always seen the world in perfect 20/20, my mind is clearer still; every rejection and attempt to misdirect me only made me more determined and, I admit, desperate, at times.
When I could convince some reluctant doctor to work on me the results were never quite what I wanted, often damaging more than they corrected. The longest I was satisfied with a procedure was three days before I began to see more correlating flaws, like the tributaries of a dark and throbbing vein. My friends and family began to give up trying to discourage me, fading away one by one until only the vaguest acquaintances remained in contact. They feigned concern, confusion, begging me to accept myself. As if I wouldn’t see through their motives, the false gleam of sadness in their eyes.
Nobody ever wants to watch others grow beautiful and successful, particularly after a lifetime of them being the ugly one.
Night after night I browsed telephone directories and web forums, posted endless casting calls on Gumtree, often while still propped up amongst the stiff sheets of a hospital recovery bed. I thumbed through a hundred portfolios, read testimonials until my eyes ached and the words seemed to jump around my laptop screen. But I never once questioned my judgement, the sanity of what I wanted. How could I? How could anyone faced with the same reality day after day, in every shining surface, in every photograph from the day they were born?
I still remember the first time I recognised myself in a mirror. Of course I’d seen my reflection before, but I hadn’t known what it was. Children see strange and terrible things often- imaginary friends, night terrors, things adults do and then pretend never happened at all, or say must remain a secret. Their reality is an abstract of perception, so it was only when I was four years old that I thought to question why an ugly mangle of flesh followed me in the mirror when everyone else could see themselves. My mother laughed when I asked her about it, thinking it an immature joke.
“That’s you! It’s not a monster. Oh- what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
I stared at her, unable to speak. I hadn’t the words then to describe the thing that I apparently was, a face so malformed it appeared inverted, teeth folding inwards, eyes at different heights and barely more than slits above the flattened mass of my nose. The body beneath was similarly mutated, spine so crooked that it resembled a knot of bone, arms and legs bloated into indistinction. I couldn’t understand how I’d never felt the contorted terror of myself, nor seen it, looking down. Worse still why nobody else had ever thought to tell me, their silence crueller than the bullying that should have come.
It was only when I was older and began my corrective surgeries that I noticed people staring, whispering, the way they never had before. They were envious, I thought, seeing the improvements, or perhaps the comparitive ugliness of the rest of me stirred a reaction; I was never sure. All I knew was that I had to finish what I’d started, until I never had to meet the gaze of that creature in a mirror again.
One night when I was twenty two I received a phone call from a private number, jarring me from pain-killer infused sleep. I was recovering from my third rhinoplasty, and although the bandages were off and the bruising had faded I could barely breathe from my left nostril, and the tireless throbbing of residual swelling had me popping acetaminophen by the hour to keep me sane. In a groggy stupor I clawed the telephone from my bedside table and answered it.
“I saw your bulletin,” a voice said immediately at the other end of the line.
No greeting, no introduction, straight to business. The voice, neither definitively male or female, was accented- Russian, I thought, mixed with something else. Yawning, I said, “I’m sorry- are you a doctor? Who is this?”
“I am a doctor,” the voice confirmed. “My name is Dr Dantalion. My surgery is open now, if you’d like a consultation. I can give you what you want. All procedures. No questions.”
I looked at the clock on my bedside table.
“But it’s three o’ clock in the morning.”
“Surgey is always open late hours. Is the way I prefer to work. If you come now I can show you photographs of my other patients, so you see I can deliver what I promise.”
Swallowing, I consisted. I was already several thousands of pounds into debt, and with the amount of procedures I wanted I doubted I’d be able to afford even a single one of them at short notice.
As if they’d read my mind Dr Dantalion said, “There will be no charge. You case interests me. Surgeries will be experimental, good for my portfolio. Benefit for us both. You will come?”
“Yes,” I said, already fumbling my way into my clothes. “Yes, yes. Tell me the address.”
The surgery was in a strange location, operating from a small building on an otherwise abandoned retail park just outside the city, every other storefront wondow covered up and caked in the grime and graffiti of long disuse. I sat in the vacant parking lot, peering at the surgery from the outside with trepidation. It didn’t appear much more used than the other buildings, the only sign of it still being in operation the electric glow of lights streaming through partially open blinds. Sighing, I got out of the car and limped towards the door. My left hip hadn’t been right since I’d had my legs lengthened, yet another aberration I hoped this strange doctor could correct.
I knew, of course, that I was doing something incredibly dangerous, that no surgery that opened at night in such a bizarre location could possibly be legitimate. But by that point I’d long thrown away any sense of fear or self-preservation, content to risk death if it brought me closer to looking human.
Entering the surgery I saw a vacant reception desk, a waiting room in which every chair was overturned and thick with a layer of dust. I stopped dead, looking nervously around for any indication of life, besides the light. I noticed a door to my right standing open, a dirty name plaque on its frosted glass panel catching my eye.
Dr Dantalion. That strange name was unmistakable, and I took that as an indication the voice on the phone had been telling the truth as to their motives.
“Hello?” I called, nervously, stepping through the door.
A figure sitting at a desk rose to meet me, pale and startlingly tall, over six foot two by my estimation. They were thin, completely bald and yet strangely androgynous, the angular face beautiful and ageless in the way only plastic surgery can provide. Taken aback I shook the long, delicate hand they offered me.
“It is good to see you,” they said. “I see your affliction very clearly. You say in your bulletin you want to look like yourself. And you do not now? I understand you. I can do this. And more. I can make you beautiful.”
The words send a shiver through me, eliciting the desire for something I’d never thought possible. I’d always set my expectations realistically- I’d never expected any doctor to make me pretty, only acceptable, normal. It never occurred to me that my malformed body could be forced into beauty.
“You look doubtful,” the doctor said, nodding. “Sit down. I show you my portfolio. You can even contact other patients, if you like. Ask if they are satisfied. If you do not like then we will not go ahead. But I would like to.”
“Well, let me see, at least,” I said, cautiously. “I’ve been disappointed so many times. I’m just scared of making things worse.”
“Remember, is free,” said Dr Dantalion. “No expense.”
Their eyes, a weird, flat brown that was almost black, watched me closely as I flicked through the laminated portfolio on their desk. By the first page I was already riveted. I’d never seen surgery taken to such daring extremes, men and women who were in far worse states than me pushed into ethereal beauty. Some of their aesthetic choices weren’t to my particular taste- lips overblown, consuming half a face, jawlines shaved into knifepoints -but I appreciated the artistry, each patient almost unrecognisable from one image to the next.
I understood then the extent of transformation that was possible, and I had to sit down on the small plastic chair by the desk, my whole body shaking too much to stand.
“You… performed all of these surgeries yourself? You could make me… like this? How long would it take?”
“All mine,” said Dr Dantalion, reaching forward to touch my arm. “And would take a year. All I ask is that I perform any procedure I see fit. You have to trust my vision. Can you? Will you?”
Their hand was so cold that it was like having a cold bar pressed to my skin and I jumped, startled. But as strange as it all was I found myself nodding, only asking for a day or two to consider before I agreed. The doctor gave me the portfolio to take home with me, encouraging me to communicate with their other clients to assure myself I was making the right choice. The following afternoon I sat in front of my laptop and did exactly that, firing out emails to each and every client in the book. It occurred to me that being given their private information so openly was perhaps not entirely legal, and thus didn’t expect many to reply.
However within an hour or two I received a reply, sent from the family of a woman who’d had vast portions of rib and hip bone removed as well as a portion of her stomach. The lady had died three months ago in a car accident, the message said, but before her passing she’d expressed enthusiastic consent in sharing her surgery story with any who cared to hear it.
“Was she happy with the procedure?” I asked. “There were no drawbacks? No terrible side effects?”
The response, although perfectly polite and formal, seemed somehow caged, frosty. The family, evidently, did not approve.
“She was happy. It was all she talked about. She would have gone further, if she’d still been with us.”
That sealed the deal for me. I knew what it was to pursue procedure after procedure, never satisfied, yet high in the brief fix of drawing closer to the image of myself I’d always wanted to see. Now I had a doctor willing to provide perfection entirely without cost I saw no reason to stop, and I ended up calling Dr Dantalion that same day.
They scheduled my first appointment for the end of the week, yet again in the middle of the night. I was promised to receive multiple procedures at once- a jaw correction, slivers of my eyeslids removed to enlarge them, a portion of brow bone shaved, operations that would make a radical and immediate change. Every other doctor I’d ever met had strongly advised against having multiple procedures done in a short space of time, let alone at once, but I’d seen the doctor’s work and wholeheartedly believed in it despite their unorthodox practices.
Every day up until that first appointment I studied my grotesque reflection, quivering with the notion I’d finally see the self inside my head in the glass. No, better– a version far superior, an entirely new creation rather than an enhancement.
When I arrived at the clinic again I was sweating with anticipation, even knowing I wouldn’t see the final results for months to come. I was surprised to find that Dr Dantalion would be performing the surgeries entirely alone without any accompanying nurses, although they had already implied as much. Still I asked no questions nor raised a single objection, sliding onto the chilly surgery bed with the same nervous excitement as always.
Dr Dantalion leaned over the bed, looking in their mask and gloves like an eldritch creature from a Zdzisław Beksiński painting, remote, beautiful, terrible. Yet I wasn’t frightened as they put an oxygen mask over my face; it didn’t even occur to me to be.
When I came around after the surgeries I couldn’t feel my face, my head from the next up completely numbed from whatever painkillers Doctor Dantalion had given me. I asked through thick lips if the procedures had gone well, and the doctor nodded, their dark eyes narrowed with a smile.
“Perfectly. Unquestioningly. Within a month you will see.”
I spent a few weeks confined to my apartment, fortunate enough working from home in an administration position that I didn’t have to leave my bed, let alone the building. The doctor had asked me to cover my mirrors until I was fully healed, so that I wouldn’t overanalyse the healing process or the result. I was taking so many drugs that I didn’t have the energy to experience my usual post-surgery anxiety, the desire to tear my appearance into pieces.
When at last it was time to have every bandage and brace and stitch removed and all the bruising had healed I returned to Dr Dantalion’s surgery, trying not to look too closely at the white face watching me in my car windows so that the surprise wouldn’t be spoiled.
“Here,” they said, upon handing me a mirror. “Is it correct? Is this the face you wanted?”
I could only nod, my newly widened eyes flooding with tears. There is no way to describe the magnificence of what I saw, my gurning mouth corrected, my misshapen forehead smoothed out. There were still flaws to be fixed, naturally, but those that had transcended every expectation I’d ever had. I could barely breathe, suffocated with emotion. Dr Dantalion gazed at me, silent, still awaiting a response.
“When can you do more?” I croaked.
Over the following ten months I was almost constantly in and out of the surgery, accepting procedure after procedure eagerly. Liposuction, rib removal, labiaplasty, cheek filler, some small, some long, gruelling and complicated beyond what my already altered body should gave been able to withstand. I should have been in agonising pain, but the drugs, too, were never-ending, meaning I only ever felt numb and heavy. But mentally I was buoyant, glowing with the thrill of seeing such a colossal change.
Whereas before I’d cringed away from going outside I made a point of leaving the house at every and any excuse. I was able to look people in the eye, speak without wincing and stumbling over my words. Yet as usual passersby were repelled by the difference in me, but to an extreme, not even bothering to hide their disgust. Once afternoon while hobbling down the street with a frame, a temporary measure while recovering from bone shaving, I saw a small boy twist round to gawp at me, flattening himself against his mother’s side, pallid and appalled.
“What is that thing, Mum? I don’t like it.”
“Shh,” the mother hissed, stricken, pulling the boy sharply away from me. “Don’t go near it. You don’t know what they’ve got.”
The exchange alarmed me, reminding me too much of my reactions to myself for comfort. I turned, looking at myself in a store window. What I’d seen as nearing perfection seemed suddenly disgusting, a gaunt, gangling beast with a stretched white mask of a face, barely able to stand. Then I shook myself, gritting my teeth. I couldn’t let the words of an idiot child hurt me. Dr Dantalion was a genius, and I believed in him completely. I simply had to trust that by the time he had finished working on me I would be finally and unquestionably complete.
It was a few weeks later that the family of Dr Dantalion’s other patient contacted me again. A suicide note had been found, proving the car accident far from such. It was a confused, emotional piece, they said, praising and cursing Dr Dantalion in a single sentence. The woman spoke of addiction, mental illness, a fanaticism only exacerbated by the doctor’s never-ending, ever-improving image.
“It was meant to take a year,” the note ended. “A year, to make me an angel. But it’s been three, and they say they’re not finished. I don’t want them to finish. But part of me knows it’s just making me worse.”
I coolly thanked the family, unimpressed by them reaching out to me. Their daughter was mentally unwell; I, who had continued therapy despite not a single scrap of evidence supporting my own failing mental state, was perfectly healthy, if anything far happier and more clear-minded than I’d ever been before.
That night I made an appointment to visit Dr Dantalion again, hoping to discuss the final step of my transformation. With both legs out of use I hailed a cab to the surgery, dragging myself on crutches to the door, inch by inch. I was wringing with sweat from the effort, but I knew it would pass, and it had no effect on my desire for more change.
I knew immediately that something was wrong. The inside light was off, and when I wrenched the door handle I realised that it was locked. Growing cold, I shouted and knocked, banging with both fists until they bled, but I knew from the desolate quiet that the surgery was closed and Dr Dantalion wasn’t there.
All week I called their number, and returned to the surgery several times, but the surgery lay empty, and I could find no trace of its existence online, although I searched for several weeks. I didn’t even have the portfolio with its reams of contacts, having returned it months ago for the doctor to give to another patient.
The stress of it sent me tumbling into a sickening depression, worse than I’d ever known before. I guessed that pressure from the dead woman’s family had caused the doctor to flee to escape the law, but I couldn’t help grappling with the suspicion that he was unsatisfied with his work, as he had been with the other patient.
That he knew it would never be done.
It disturbed me to think I’d been an experiment, that I’d been abandoned so close to perfection. Yet if he’d returned I would have crawled to him agan in an instant, and would again, even now. I’m still not comfortable with my reflection, for I see all that is still missing, the parts of me untouched by needle or scalpel.
I just wish I still had Dr Dantalion’s pills. My legs never did regain their function, most likely because the pain makes it to difficult to retrain the muscle. I refuse to believe that anything is wrong, anything that can’t be mended.
All I need is a doctor who will touch me. Who will see what I do.
- WRITING PROMPT BY BRODIE TABERNER