The Van Druezen Face
Sometimes, when a person is tired or desperate, their mind goes to a default mode where it plays a tune on repeat, or a nonsense phrase. My mind is different. When I am tired or desperate, my mind generates equations, or—more aptly—assigns silly variables to simple equations. In my youth, I imagined x = n – 1, in which x is the number of truths one knows about lonely people, and n is the number of years one has lived in a large city. Looking back on my life, a lifetime in the city, I now think the equation should be x = 2n. The truths I’ve learned about lonely people, later in life, could ﬁll volumes. But during my youth, my ﬁrst decade in the city, the linear equation held, so that by my third year I knew two truths about lonely people:
1. Lonely people will talk to you in bookshops.
2. Lonely people will make pretend phone calls in public places.
This is how I knew, ﬁfty-two years ago in Balken Books, that the old man would talk to me. He was speaking loudly on the phone, mentioning foreign ofﬁces and diplomats, colleagues in Bolivia and Nepal: hallmarks of a fake phone call. Lonely people often discuss international politics, big events in personal terms, giving listeners a sense that they are important. In that moment the thought of nodding, polite, while a stranger droned on, tried to draw me in, seemed arduous. I put my book down and went to the café next door.
I generally avoided this café because it called itself a restaurant and made you order from a waiter. I ordered a coffee but the waiter lingered, expectant. I ordered a cheese sandwich and felt pathetic. The cheese sandwich put me over budget for the day, and I wondered how I might fare in life’s more aggressive negotiations that were surely coming my way. My mind went to the mythical Abagus who convinced the hungry lion to leave him and how I, in that situation, might see the lion’s point and eat myself. The waiter returned with the coffee. The old man from the bookshop was sitting at the table next to me. I might have taken the coffee to go, but there was still the cheese sandwich, and I hadn’t paid for either.
The old man was watching me and he was not passing it off as anything else, not glancing over or trying to build up some chance encounter. That was how they did it, the lonely people, by making offhand comments and quick glances. I could feel his stare. I did everything to avoid it, until my avoidance was more awkward and put-on than the stare itself. I turned to him—“Sorry, can I help you?”
The old man studied me for a moment and smiled. “May I join you?” He gestured to the chair across from me. Here was the bit I dreaded—the bit where I was offered a choice and, inevitably, chose the option I despised out of politeness and was confronted with my own impotence. “Oh, of course. Please do.”
He stood, slowly, and said, “I apologize if I look at you as if I have known you for many years.” It was a strange thing to say. I realized then that his eyes were not lonely or pleading, but tender and familiar. I misread them because I did not imagine, could not imagine, such a familiar look from a stranger. This was a father looking at his son, a brother at his brother, easy and open.
“No, of course. It’s completely okay.”
He reached into a bag slung from the chair and took out a messy portfolio. I looked away. He was sorting through papers, seemed busy, and I did not want him to feel obligated to talk to me. I did steal glances at his work. It looked like the work of an old botanist—long, sloped handwriting and light sketches. He ﬁnished shuffling the papers and spread them out across the table. I wondered if this was some suggestion, a soft hint that I should go. A possibility crossed my mind—maybe the table he originally took had a short leg. I opened my mouth to offer the table, but before I could, he said my name. He said it with an inflection that asked my conﬁrmation.
“Oh yes, yeah. That’s me. Do I…?”
“Very good, very good. My name is Dr. Hernán Cortázar, of the Paloma Institute. Are you familiar with the Paloma Institute?”
For a moment, I thought that he was referring to a real estate ofﬁce with a similar name. I did not say this, but it slowed my response and, I feared, made me look dumb.
“That’s okay,” he said. “Not many people are. We are, for better or worse, obscure.” He spoke in loose rhythms, the way people do when they know several languages. I was invested. I had a rushing sense of the day taking on a meaning and a purpose.
“I hope I am not keeping you, by the way,” he said.
“No, no. Please. Go on.”
“Very good. We, at the Paloma Institute, study the history of patterns and recurrences. That is, admittedly, very large and very broad. There are many departments and many specializations. I will speak only of mine. I work in the Department of Faces, meaning that I study the recurrence of faces. By this, I do not mean genetics or heredity, and please, stop me if I am rambling.”
“No, please.” It came out frantic, reflexive. I worried he might leave if I were not quick enough to reassure him.
“There are a ﬁnite number of faces in the world, although there are many. Each of us in the department specializes in a single face and its instances throughout history. The face I study is called the Van Druezen Face. I am speaking to you because you have it.”
“The Van Druezen Face.”
“Yes. That is why I look at you with familiarity. I have spent many years looking at your face on the bodies of other men and women. Your face is my life’s work.” At some point during his explanation, the cheese sandwich was delivered. “I understand this is strange. I have a series of questions prepared. For my studies. You may also ask questions, if you’d like.” He gestured at me to go ahead. I thought for a moment. I felt compelled to ask an interesting question, a question that might impress the man, but I settled on—“What does it mean to have this face?”
Cortázar laughed. It wasn’t a mean laugh, or even critical. It was joyful, whimsical, as if we were both sharing in the absurdity of the moment. “I would give my life to know.” He paused, thought. “I suppose I have, in fact, given my life to know. Many years of it, at least. The hope is that, if I gather enough data about my subject, the meaning will reveal itself.”
“How many people have it?”
“It is impossible to say. I have studied three hundred and thirty-two instances of the Van Druezen Face. That includes living and dead. I prefer living. I have always preferred conversations to books.”
I felt a sudden heave of sadness up from my stomach to my eyes and thought, for a minute, that I might cry in front of Cortázar. It took me by surprise, and I fought to contain it. In the moment, I attributed it to shock. I imagined learning that I shared a face with hundreds, maybe thousands of people had provoked a physical response.
I did not know then—how could I?—that this would become a source of strength, even joy, throughout my life. In my loneliest moments I felt a kinship with the unknown men and women who shared my face. I felt a kinship with their loved ones—the people who loved my face on other bodies, the husbands and wives, the children, the friends and neighbors. I imagined, always imagined, that I might encounter them. They would see me in the street, or buying groceries, and they would look at me with love, a reflex of love, and it would surprise them, overwhelm them. They might apologize and try to explain—“I’m sorry, it’s just that you look like a friend…” I would tell them that it was okay. I imagine this scenario frequently.
I realize, reflecting on our meeting, that the sudden rush of sadness was over the old man—how he looked at me with such warmth and familiarity and ultimately knew nothing, cared nothing, of my life. I did not ask him any more questions. I wonder, even now, how he found me. Once he saw that I was ﬁnished, he began to ask his questions. He asked them with curt efﬁciency. It took an hour, and I estimate that there were one hundred and ﬁfty questions. They were mostly surface level, seemingly random. There may have been some underlying structure that I did not care to ask about. He took extensive notes in shorthand. Occasionally, he asked me to repeat something. To my knowledge, our conversation was not recorded. He ﬁnished abruptly and asked about my plans for the day. I did not have any, and I made something up about meeting a friend for lunch. He apologized for keeping me, which, I assured him, was not the case. He shook my hand and, after packing his leather bag, left the café. I paid for the sandwich and coffee, and with nowhere to go, returned to the bookshop.