When the girl behind the counter asks if I’d like to add the day’s pastry special to my order, one look at her left ear tells me her mother will be dead by the end of the week.
Behind me, there’s a long line of people impatient for their morning cup, so I purchase the pastry special out of sheer sympathy for the poor girl. It’s a scone. I hate scones.
I find a table near the back where I can face the wall and sip my coffee and read my book in peace. Based on the noise level behind me, the café has grown significantly more crowded. Probably a good time to finish up and go.
“Would you mind terribly if I shared this table with you?” A smooth-skinned woman with coarse hair stands next to me, holding a small tray with a coffee cup and a muffin. She extends an index finger toward the empty seat across from me.
“I don’t mind,” I say. “I’m done, actually.”
She sets her tray down. “Please, don’t go,” she says. “If you leave, someone else is bound to take your spot. Someone who may want to chat.” She sits and smiles at me. “You look like someone who doesn’t want to chat.”
I smile back at her. “Perceptive,” I say.
“You won’t even know I’m here. I swear.” The woman pulls an electronic tablet out of her large leather purse and sets it on the table. She removes her coffee cup and muffin from the tray and then uses the tray to get the attention of a busboy who takes it from her and carries it to the bussing station. She stirs her coffee, sets the spoon on the saucer, and taps her tablet screen on. She reads a few sentences before pausing and then glancing up at me staring at her. She smiles again. “Am I disturbing you?”
“Not at all.” I lower my gaze back to my book. I’m telling the truth. She’s not disturbing me. But something about the fact that she isn’t disturbing me, well, it disturbs me. I scan the pages in front of me in an attempt to read, but my brain is not processing the words. Instead, my mind is enthralled by this woman sitting across from me. My eyes slowly drift back to her, almost completely against their will.
She’s peering back at me this time.
She shoves her tablet into her purse. “I’m bothering you, obviously. I’ll move. I didn’t mean to—”
“No, please,” I say a little too forcefully. “You look familiar is all.” I wonder if she’s one of those people who can tell when a person is lying by the way their eyebrows move. I knew someone who could do that once. I pay particular attention to keeping my eyebrows still.
“Really?” she says. “You look familiar, too.” Her eyebrows are still. “But I can’t place where I might know you from.”
“Probably, nowhere,” I say. “I’ve got a tragically common face.”
“Oh, please.” Using both hands, she lifts her cup of coffee to her lips and blows on her coffee before speaking. “You are anything but common looking.” She smirks a little as she sips. Her hazel eyes have the coolest specks of turquoise in them.
“I’m Jeffrey,” I say, offering my hand.
“Audrey.” She shakes my hand. “I just moved here.”
“Me, too. Well, just moved back. From the East Coast.”
“I’m from New Mexico.”
“New Mexico?” I say. “Never been.”
“Then it’s unlikely that we’ve ever met before.” She winks at me, and I assume she knows I lied about her looking familiar. “Come here a lot?” she asks.
“Not really. I’m more of a feed-the-pigeons-in-the-park kind of guy,” I say. “What brought you to Southern California? A modeling job?”
She takes the accordioned paper off her muffin and then breaks the muffin into pieces. “You’re either very sweet or you’re buttering me up for a sequel to this little interlude.”
“Maybe a little of both,” I say. I’m aware that Audrey’s full hair hasn’t moved once since she sat down, and instinctively, I begin seeking out the slightest glimpse of her ears before I plunge forward and ask her out.
Audrey pops a piece of muffin into her mouth and raises her eyebrows. She puts her hand in front of her lips as she speaks. “Not bad.”
“Me or the muffin?” I ask.
She swallows. “Maybe a little of both.” Her smile is now in full flirt, but she keeps her hands away from her hair. This bothers me. Women always touch their hair when they flirt—eight out of ten times, they pull it behind their ears; two out of ten, they twist it around their index finger. That’s just science. Either way, I’m always afforded a peek. But Audrey doesn’t touch her hair. Like, at all.
I don’t think I’ve ever asked a woman out before getting a good look at her ears before, but there’s something so alluring about Audrey. The thought of discovering things about a woman in the same way most people do—through a good old-fashioned date—seems relatively harmless. It is how my parents did it, and most likely, your parents did it that way, too.
“I’d be happy to show you around L.A. if you need a tour guide,” I say.
“Would this tour include dinner and drinks?”
“For a nominal fee.”
Her laugh is coy. “I’m a sucker for nominal fees.”
A busboy stops at our table and offers to take my empty coffee cup and full pastry plate. “You wanna call me, or should I call you?” I say to Audrey as I take out my cellphone.
“I’m a bit old-fashioned,” she says. She reaches into her purse and pulls out a pen. She writes her number on a napkin. “Remember when telephone numbers were always written on little strips of paper that could be so easily lost?”
I wrinkle my brow to signal my confusion.
She hands me the napkin with her number on it. “It was nice back then,” she says. “Because if the person never called you, you could just assume they simply lost your number and not that they had reconsidered asking you out.”
I take the napkin from her hand, but she holds onto it for an extra second or two.
“I’m happy to report that I am very efficient at managing scraps of paper with important information on them,” I say. “Losing your number is highly unlikely.” I put the shred of napkin in my pocket and then stand to leave. I tap the table. “Take care of my table, Audrey. It’s been really good to me lately.”
I walk away, pausing at the patio’s threshold to turn back and take one last look at her. If there’s one benefit to reading ears instead of palms it’s that you can do it from a distance. She’s watching me, that slight smirk still on her face. A waiter breezes by her, causing her hair to fly back and expose her left ear, but I’m too far away to read it. Damn.
I swivel on my heel and then head out the front door, equally excited and terrified about the prospect of what her ears might tell me when I finally get the opportunity to read them.
She lives in one of those garden triplexes over on Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue. I am thankful to have avoided traffic on the way over here. Traffic, for someone with my abilities, means thousands of side profiles, entire life stories mapped out on the cartilage flanking the heads of the hardworking schmucks stuck in traffic alongside me. It can be so unpleasant.
It wasn’t always that unpleasant. The less I could read, the less it bothered me. However, over the years, I’ve honed my craft, learned to master it, better process what I see. A small tragus? The guy’s really smart, close to genius. A shallow concha? The girl doesn’t have time for gossip but won’t pass up a sappy romantic tale. And I’d tell you what it means when the fossa triangularis is overshadowed by the helix, but you’ll just have to trust me that you’re lucky not to know.
There’s never any parking in the entire city of Santa Monica, and there’s never any shortage of cars searching for some. I pull into the alley behind Audrey’s place. She spots me out of her second story window and leans out to say, “Stay there. I’ll be right down.”
In no time at all, she is at my car. I move to get out and open the car door for her, but she stops me with a wave of her hand. “Oh, don’t do that. I’m fine.” She opens the passenger door. “The whole door-opening thing is so silly, don’t you think?” She plops onto the black fabric seat and slams the door shut. She sets her purse down at her feet and then turns to me. “Jeffrey,” she says, nodding acknowledgment. “Just as handsome as I remember.”
Her hair is motionless through it all and that makes me anxious. I wonder if normal people find this way of getting to know someone enjoyable because I can say with absolute certainty that I do not.
I maneuver the dashboard air vents toward her. “It’s a hot one, isn’t it?” I turn the knob of the A/C to full blast. I’m not ashamed to admit that a little cheating may be in order here. Just a peek is all I’m asking for. The gush of air produced by the vent is more than enough to push her hair away from her ears, but before it can, she blocks the gust with her hand and turns the vent downward, away from her face.
“Oh, you haven’t even seen hot until you’ve spent a summer in New Mexico.” She rests her hand on her lap, the sleeves of her blouse rustling in the air conditioned current. She stares at me and smirks the same smirk she gave me in the café. “So where are you taking me, Mr. Jeffrey?” she asks.
I put the car in drive and say, “Someplace where I can get to know you better.” The tedious way, unfortunately.
I opted for an expensive restaurant at the top of one of Sunset Boulevard’s tallest buildings. I’ve come here a few times with colleagues, and the rooftop bar has a magnificent view. A windy as hell view.
“So, what do you do for a living?” Audrey asks. She cuts her mushroom ravioli in half and swirls it around in its roasted red pepper sauce.
“I’m a writer,” I say, sipping the vinegary Merlot that Audrey has chosen to go with the meal. When the waiter poured the sample of it into her glass, I could see that the cork was a little too dry, but Audrey rolled her eyes when she tasted it, as if it were one of the best wines she’d ever had. It does compliment the balsamic-drenched house salad, though. I’ll give it that much.
“What do you write?” she asks.
“Mostly freelance travel writing.” I swirl my broccoli rabe in its far too thick butter sauce. “What do you do?’
“Ever heard of anaplastology?”
“Is that in the medical field?”
“Sort of. I work for a company that designs prostheses.”
The waiter arrives and refills Audrey’s wine glass. “Everything tasting good?” he asks. He tips the wine bottle toward my glass, but I put my hand over it to signal I’ve had enough.
“Everything’s great.” I say. The waiter’s head turns as he sets the bottle down on the table, and I’ve got a full view of his left ear. He’s a struggling actor, just like every other ear on staff in here. I also see that our waiter will soon place a rather large bet on our city’s hockey team who is currently in the playoffs for the Stanley Cup. “Go Kings,” I say instinctively.
The waiter smiles. “I think they are going to take the whole thing this year,” he says. “Anything else I can get you two?”
After the waiter leaves, Audrey’s face drops. “You don’t like the wine, do you?” she asks.
“It’s wonderful,” I say, eyebrows held still, just in case. “I’m driving, so … ”
“Ah,” she says. “Cute and responsible.”
We continue our meal, conversation never slowing, but a small part of me can’t help but wish we could bypass all these get-to-know-each-other formalities. This process is so tiresome, and I’m impatient. Everything I want to know about her is hidden just beyond those expensive blonde highlights.
We finish our meal, and I suggest we head out to the rooftop bar for an after-dinner drink. I like Audrey. I like her a lot. But at this point, I desperately need the slightest peak, just to know she’s not a crazed stalker or something.
We step into the rooftop clearing. There are several couples already seated at the tables lining the edges of the rooftop patio. “Wow,” Audrey says. “Would you get a load of that view?”
We grab a table, and a twenty-something female server approaches us. “Can I get you guys some drinks?” The server’s hair is pulled back, revealing that she really loves her job and that she is considering breast implants.
“A Merlot for her and a club soda with lime for me.” I look to Audrey for approval. She nods, her hair still stubbornly in place.
The waitress puts two cocktail napkins on the table in front of us. “I never get to put these things down, it’s always so windy up here. Seems you two picked the perfect night to come out.”
“I hate the wind,” Audrey says.
“Yes,” I say, staring at the still napkin, “It does have a quite the unreliable disposition, now doesn’t it?”
We spent a few hours on that rooftop bar and I discovered all kinds of things about her: her favorite ice cream flavor is Neapolitan; her father was a DEA agent until he was kidnapped and pistol-whipped by a gang of bikers at which time he quit law enforcement and became a banker; she loves the smell of lavender but not when it’s paired with lemon; her mother has a serious drinking problem but only ever drinks Galliano Mists; she never spends more than $4.00 on a shampoo but will spend any price on a good conditioner, recently buying one that cost $45.00 because it contained hemp seed and real gold flakes; and, she’s afraid of heights but only if there’s water below, like on bridges and piers.
Eventually, it is time to take her home, and by now, to be honest, I’ve almost forgotten about her ears. We are fortunate enough to find parking directly in front of her apartment, so I can walk her to her door. On her porch, I lean in for a goodnight kiss, and I run my hand along her cheek to her hair, pulling a few tendrils back, acutely aware of what I still have yet to see. She is quick with the block and pulls her hair back down along the side of her face.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m weird about my ears.” Her smile wanes.
“It’s okay,” I say, leaning back in for the kiss, careful to keep my hand steady on her cheek, instead. I’m weird about them, too, is what I want to say, but I refrain. My curiosity has been replaced with bona fide feelings of attraction. Like I said, I really like Audrey. I can’t imagine anything that I will eventually see is going to change that.
The kiss is nice, exceptionally nice. We part, and I tap her on the chin gently. “When do you think I’ll get to see you again?” I say.
She holds on to my coat lapels, pulling me back to her. “Does right now work for you?”
We kiss some more before she opens her apartment door and invites me in. Her place is tastefully decorated. I’d wager she’s bought everything from a catalog. She strikes me as a catalog shopper. We head into the kitchen area where she offers me a drink. “You don’t have to drive for a while, right?” She takes a bottle of vodka out of the freezer.
“It’s looking that way.” I think I see her blushing.
As she mixes our drinks, I spin slowly in a circle, taking in her apartment. Next to me, is a small glass dinette table, with an open Pelican case on top.
Inside the metal case are several plastic ears resting upon the black velvet lining.
I must have made some sound, because she walks over, hands me the drink, and then shuts the case. “Work,” she says. She hoists her glass up into the air. “To a terrific first date. And now, onto our second.”
I halfheartedly clink glasses with her and then point to the case. “Were those ears?”
“Auricular Prostheses. Prosthetic ears. I’m in the prosthetics business, remember?” She sips her drink. “Want to watch some TV? Just got the cable turned on.”
I don’t want to watch television. I want to know who buys prosthetic ears? Ears! Of all things… you can’t make this stuff up.
She doesn’t seem interested in discussing her work, so I sit with her on the couch. We make out for a few moments before I pull away from her. “I’m sorry,” I say. “The ears in the box are sort of tripping me out a little bit.”
“You want to see them? They’re actually quite remarkable.”
We move back over to the case, and she opens it. “I craft them,” she says. “They’re called ‘The Whole Ear’ and they’re for people who have lost ears in accidents or… or for someone like me.” She lifts her hair back to reveal two perfect ears. Like perfect, perfect.
In addition to their physical perfection, the ears are also perfectly silent.
“They’re fake,” she says. “I was born without ears. It’s called bilateral Aural Atresia with Microtia. It’s congenital, meaning I was born with it, or without it, I should say.” She chuckles in discomfort and lets her hair fall back into place. “I was born without auditory openings and without pinnae—that’s the outer part of the ear.” She moves her finger up and down next to her head, and I nod because I already know what pinnae are. “Had a lot of surgeries as a kid, but they always looked strange. With ‘The Whole Ear,’ they finally look natural.” She swirls her drink around. “At least I think they do.”
I’m immobile for a moment, not sure how to process it all. Her ears are silent. Absolutely nothing.
She misreads my shock and turns from me, reaching out to close the case again. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I should have told you sooner, or maybe I shouldn’t have told you at all, I don’t know… I know it’s a bit much for a first date… I’m sorry—”
I put my hand on hers, preventing her from shutting the case. I turn her to face me. “It’s fine,” I say. “It’s not too much. Plus, it’s technically our second date.” I pull her into an embrace. I don’t tell her that while I think a prosthetic ear is indeed odd, it does feel almost cosmic that the two of us would meet. I’ve never been very successful at long-term relationships with women because of my condition. Maybe now, maybe with this woman, it could all finally be different.
Over her shoulder, I spy the ears in the case. “Can I take a closer look at your work?”
“Sure. Those are just models. Examples of what I can do.”
I turn one of the ears over in my hand. It’s light, both in color and in weight. It looks so natural. The helix is creased nicely over the scapha, yet it doesn’t say what an ear like this would normally say. It doesn’t say: “I talk too much,” or “I wish I talked more.” It doesn’t say anything. I set it back onto the case’s velvet lining, next to a clear acrylic box filled with hobby knives.
“X-Acto knives?” I ask.
She nods. “Similar.”
“You actually craft these yourself? Using these knives?”
“I use the knives on the molds. The ears are a silicon-based composite in order to retain a more natural feel. I know it seems weird, but I love my job. I make life better for a lot of people.”
“Are they removable?”
“They can be removed, yes, for cleaning and stuff. They latch magnetically onto a titanium rod surgically implanted just south of the temple, back near the natural opening. Of course, some clients opt for gluing theirs on instead. No surgery required.”
“Why would anyone want this—I mean, why did you choose this over… over… whatever other options there are?”
“Many reasons. Ear reconstruction uses bones from your rib cage to craft the cartilage and then grafts skin over that. Lots of scars, lots of subsequent surgeries, and in the end they just don’t look real.” She reaches into to a messenger bag sitting on a dining room chair and pulls out a white binder filled with pictures. She flips through them until she stops on one, tapping it with her index finger. “Here. Here’s a picture of someone with total ear reconstruction. See? It’s obviously reconstructed.”
I examine the ear in the photo. It belongs to a man, probably in his forties, and after seeing it, I know that he is a wealthy man despite his birth defect and that he once stole twenty bucks from his grandmother to buy some weed. I can also see that although he’s straight, he still likes a woman to give it to him up the ass on occasion. The message is warbled, but it’s there.
“More recently, they’ve started using these polyethylene implants, Medpros,” she says. “They are a little better… ” She flips through the pictures again before stopping and tapping one. “… and they require less surgery, but they involve this tissue expansion procedure where they put this balloon under the skin and inflate it over a few months until the skin in the area stretches and heals, and then—” She closes the book. “I’m boring you, aren’t I?”
“Not at all,” I say. “Can you turn back to that last picture?” She flips to the picture once again, and I gather muddled but pertinent information about that photo’s subject. “This gal lost her ear in a boating accident? How do you lose your ear in a boating accident?”
Audrey wrinkles her brow. She flips the page over and then back again. “Where do you see ‘boating accident’?” she asks.
“How do you know how to sculpt the ear for a particular person?” I ask. “Like how do you know if they should have a shallow concha, or if their anti-tragus should be pointy or curved?”
She grins, touches her cheek, then points to me. “You know a lot about ears.”
I consider telling her the truth. She was, after all, truthful with me about her own affliction. “I do,” I say, hopeful that will suffice.
She moves closer to me, tugs on my shirt and says, in a volume slightly above a whisper, “Maybe on our third date you can tell me why that is.” She kisses me, and I kiss her as intentionally as possible in return.
After a few more minutes of chaste canoodling, I finally get the opportunity to pull her hair back as I move my lips her along her jaw line; she doesn’t stop me this time. I get a closer look at her artificial ear—beautiful and quiet … like any good woman, my father would have said. A perfectly smooth anti-helix on another female would suggest something about her sexual likes and dislikes, but on Audrey, it’s nothing but a perfectly smooth anti-helix. I worry about our progress towards her bedroom. How will I know what to do? What she likes?
She pushes me down on the bed.
“Wait,” I say. I can’t think of any other way to put it, so I just say it: “How sturdy are your ears? I mean, how well are they attached?”
She fumbles with my belt buckle. “You’ve got nothing to worry about,” she says before creeping down my chest to where my pants are now opened wide. “Just don’t use them like handlebars, and we’ll both be fine.”
Turns out, I don’t really need to read a woman’s ears to figure out what they prefer in bed. Especially if that woman is Audrey who has no problems whatsoever telling you exactly what to do and what not to do. Of course, I didn’t wow her with my uncanny ability to please a woman on seeming intuition alone, but what I did do was good enough. For the both of us, I guess.
It’s now close to 4:00 in the morning, and Audrey is crashed out next to me. I, on the other hand, can’t sleep. I like this woman and would certainly love to see her again, but as the city street light shines through the window and hits the heap of silicone and plastic on the side of her head, I just don’t know if I can. I start to reconsider her. How can I ever truly know this woman? Ever truly trust her?
Audrey snores, something I would have probably learned from her ears if they were real. I watch her as she sleeps. She’s had far too much to drink and it seems to me that she’s more likely passed out rather than sleeping peacefully. I reach out and touch her shoulder. Poke her a bit. Yep, she’s down for the count.
I let my hand wander over to her ear. I outline it. Run my finger along the helix down through the concha and to the lobule. It feels unnaturally real. I pinch the lobe. I pinch and pull a little. I pinch and pull a little more. Her head shakes, but she doesn’t wake. I pinch and pull hard enough to dislodge it. She still doesn’t wake, and I pay no attention to the auricle-less hole that remains or the three silver bars sticking out next to it.
With her ear in my hand, I sneak out of the bedroom and into the dining area. We didn’t turn off the living room light when we made our way into the bedroom, so I’m able to see this thing in its entirety. It’s impressive. They’ve even simulated vellus hair by using different matte finishes. It’s beautiful.
But, it’s a total lie.
I open the acrylic case containing the knives and pull one out. I get to work. I carve into the superior crux of the antihelix, forge a deeper sacha, create a small bump on the tragus, smooth out the antitragus a little more. The material does not respond well to my carving. I hold the ear out in front of me. It reads like a computer-generated voice message. I put the final emphasis on the external meatus, really working the knife through the auris. I hold the ear out in front of me once again. I am done.
I carry the ear back into the bedroom with me. After finding my clothing and putting it all back on, I hold the ear up to the street light glow for one last look. No better words have ever been spoken, albeit artificially. It’s my very own version of a Dear Joan letter. I set the ear on the pillow where my head should be and quietly slip out of the apartment.
As I drive down a deserted Sepulveda Boulevard, I’m filled with sadness. I have finally met a seemingly perfect match, a woman meant for someone like me. But there is no hope. I need to be honest. We could never be together. It just wouldn’t work.
I stop at a red light. There isn’t another car around for miles. I turn on my interior overhead light, pull down my driver’s side visor and turn my head, getting a good look at my own ear in the visor mirror.
I’ve been told palm readers can’t read their own palms, so it’s never been very surprising that my own ear is unintelligible to me. What does surprise me, however, is that the Darwin’s tubercle protruding from my helix—on any other man—would suggest something about his ability to distinguish fact from fiction. But to me, it’s just a vestigial chunk of cartilage.
The light turns green. I flip the visor up, out of my way and then press down hard on the gas pedal and think about an alternate location for my morning coffee tomorrow.