amelia beamer

Smiling Lessons

Originally published in Sotto Voce

Smiling Lessons

By Amelia Beamer

You’ve worked it all out. You’re on your way to meet him (a doctor!) for the first time, after emails that have ratcheted up a tension; made you feel as if you know him. People say, meet in a public place. Tell someone where you’re going, and when you’ll be back. But you’re not convinced that’s necessary. You have your cell phone, cash. You have jokes in reserve, a clever anecdote about buying a bra. You’re pretty sure that he’ll laugh.

If you go back to his place, you’ll know what to do. Kiss. Suck in your breath when you take down his trousers. Push him back on the bed. Moan. Talk dirty. Act like you’ve been fantasizing about it (because it’s true; you’ve worked it all out). Tease. Smile. Act like he’s precious when you take him in your mouth. Close your eyes.


Some of the things that you’re afraid of: Will he condescend to the waitress? Will he rush through dinner, or parse the bill? What if he’s ugly? You’ve seen his picture, but is that really him, the way he looks now? What will he smell like? Your worst fear is not danger, but disappointment.

These things go through your mind as you back your car out of the driveway. You decide you will have only one glass of wine. You can smile and make your excuses if dinner is a failure; you can tell him to fuck off. You reapply lipstick at a red light, smile at yourself in the rearview mirror.

The light turns green, so you go. You don’t look left or right.


The Nissan hits you. Your “passenger-side front quarter panel,” the insurance report will say, but it is you that’s moving. Something horrible is happening to your chest, to your wrist. Not pain, not yet, but damage. You close your eyes, open them, close them again before your car has come to a stop. The airbag fills the space in front of you. It’s smeared with lipstick, lipstick like blood. Blood, also.

You are afraid to look at your reflection in the rearview mirror. You take a breath, finally. Breathing hurts, more than you ever thought was possible.


You don’t even have a cell phone number for David. (Doctor David, a man so busy he meets his women online.) He will think you’ve stood him up. He will think you’ve made this up.


Later, at home, you won’t be able to listen to a traffic report without crying. The gentle terms that the radio announcers use to talk around accidents. Two right-hand lanes closed. Twenty-minute delays from the MacArthur Maze to the Bay Bridge. Your neighbors get into their cars every morning, sleepy lidded, holding lidded mugs of coffee. They do this every day, worrying only about the morning’s meeting, the evening’s affair.

They call them accidents because nobody plans for them.


Passers-by leap into action, telling you you’re okay and simultaneously telling you not to move. They can move just fine.

Every car wreck you’ve ever seen in a movie plays through your mind. The pain rushes into your head, your wrist, your neck. You decide that if your car blew up, that might be okay. You try to tell your Samaritans to back off, in case the car explodes. They don’t understand you. Disappointingly, your car doesn’t explode.

You are determined to stand on your own. Your door is already open, the world ready to receive you. But you are still trapped, and it takes a second to remember why. You are still wearing your seatbelt.

Your dominant hand, the right, refuses the call to duty. You fumble for the release with your left hand. Your left has to take over now, the slave becoming an inept master. Your mother’s voice is in your head, admonishing: Always wear your seatbelt. Always wear clean underwear, in case you’re in an accident. You make your mother proud.

After all that work, the ambulance hasn’t arrived yet. Standing up seems like something other people do — and why? It’s so much work. You close your eyes for ten or two minutes, until you hear the siren. The men in white, coming to take you away, take you away to where it’s funny. They put you in the ambulance, put a needle in your arm. Things get funny.

In the hospital your clothes are cut away. You will need a new bra. You’re on a stretcher — why is it called a stretcher? You’re not on it to stretch. Someone is moaning, and you realize it’s you.

First we’ll fix your sternum, a man in a white mask tells you. You think, groggily, that your date isn’t that kind of doctor. Is he cute? you wonder. The masked man? Why can’t you see his face?


The drugs are the closest thing to magic you have ever experienced. There is a suspended dreamy moment before you are awake, before the pain starts, when you think you are seventeen years old, secretly staying the night with your boyfriend. Like that relationship, like every relationship, the moment ends.

Your chest is unrecognizable, made of gauze and surgical tape. Your arms are useless. You grow scared, thinking of the movies you’ve seen where this happens, every scene you’ve seen like this. You try to move your toes. You have to move your toes. Move your toes! You cry, because you can’t raise your head to see your feet. Are they really moving?

E pur si muove, Galileo whispered, after denying his planetary theory in front of the Inquisition. And yet it moves. A purse still movie, you think. At home, when you can sit at your desk again, you will Google it, guessing at the spelling. Wikipedia will tell you that Galileo never actually said that.


The rental car sits in the driveway untouched for five days. You peek at it through the window, then go sit on the couch until you can breathe again. You talk yourself back up. A broken sternum, a sprained wrist, some nerve damage that may not be permanent. You can walk; you can still play the piano. You got off easy, you tell yourself. Get off it. Get over it.

It is an act of will to open the driver’s door, get in. When you pull the seatbelt across yourself, your body rejects it. The light pressure breaks you.


Your friends come over, bearing casseroles and eating them with you. You apologize for the mess, and they clean it. They answer the phone when your mother calls long distance. A nurse comes to wash your hair, her hands steady and undisgusted.

Dear Doctor David sends a dozen tulips. It takes you an hour to get the vase down and fill it with water. You do this even though your friend Amy is coming over later and could have taken care of it for you.

Dear Doc Dave emails you, all sympathy and apologies for his earlier note, when he thought you’d stood him up. Upstanding young woman, he jokes. He knows you’re not young.


You listen to a lot of NPR, sitting on the couch when you’re not in bed. On Science Friday a mother and son team talk with Ira Flatow about the brain’s mapping of personal space. They start with the Seinfeld joke about two people standing in a crowded party, and one keeps backing away, and the other keeps moving forward. Their point is that the brain actually maps the space around the body, in the hippocampus. Clothing is literally part of us, as are the tools we use.

That day, when you go out to the rental car, you tell your brain that it’s okay. It’s between you and your hippocampus. Your campus is full of hippos, your hippo camp is. You tuck yourself in, the seatbelt tight and hard over your chest.

Before now, you wouldn’t have thought of driving without the seatbelt. You’d put it on just to move the car from the street to the driveway.

You start the car. Eventually, you move it from the driveway to the street. You are covered in sweat when you go indoors.


Three weeks pass. David emails every day, and finally asks if he may come by. That was one of your jokes, the proper use of can and may. Can you? you wonder. What if he doesn’t like you, or worse, you don’t like him?

You tell David you’d like to meet him, but that he may not come over. As much as you wanted him before, you’re not up for hosting. He suggests a time and place for coffee, offers to pick you up. You debate it with yourself, program a few taxi companies into your cell phone, then agree.

The swelling, the bruising, is nearly gone, and you are showering on your own. In the steamy mirror, after, your face still doesn’t look right.


Tylenol with Codeine, or Vicodin? You debate between being spacey or tight-lipped. You decide on the Codeine, which is like water for you now. Air. It’s elemental. You put Vicodin in your purse, just in case.

When you were younger, when you took Tylenol for a headache, you believed that it cured the headache. You were disappointed when a friend told you that, no, it just tricked your nerves. Raised your pain threshold so that you didn’t think you hurt anymore.

In the bathroom mirror you put on lipstick. Turn at an angle to the mirror, so that your good side is showing. You can still barely move your neck, so you turn at the waist. Smile as if you don’t hurt anymore.


May I hug you? David asks. He stands in your doorway, and he wears the same cologne as a famous author you met once. David is handsome, with a slight accent. England or old Boston. Educated enough to make you wet, and this scares you. It will be weeks or months before you’re ready to fuck. This is frustrating but also reassuring. No pressure.

Don’t squeeze, you say, opening your arms. It’s still tender. He puts his hands on your shoulders, as if he might break you. He kisses you awkwardly, cheekily, on the cheek.

I like my women tender, he says. Then he turns pink. Sorry, that probably wasn’t the right joke, he says. You smile anyway, because you like him. Then you touch the bad side of your face, ashamed.

The doctors don’t think the damage is permanent, you say. It’s getting better, I can tell.

Let me see, he says, even though he is an internist. Go like this. He spreads his lips, baring his teeth. You feel like a gift horse, a slave girl. But it’s erotic, his eyes on your mouth, his hand nearly touching your cheek, so you move your hand away. Smile. The right side of your face moves, you can feel it. E pur si muove.

Yes, he says. You can recover your smile. Not that you’ll need it, with my sense of humor.

I may, you say. Let’s go, shall we? You smile.