An excerpt from Martha Schabas’s new novel, My Face in the Light, published on April 12, 2022 by Knopf Canada
The best liars are not cunning so much as they are delusional. They are able to lie convincingly because, in the moment of lying, they internalize their need to be believed. So they offer themselves up as the first victims of their dishonesty. Even if it’s only for an instant, a liar will believe herself.
I’ve often wondered whether the only people consistently able to see through a lie are not the beacons of honesty that we hold up in society—not the judges or doctors—but simply other liars. This isn’t because of anything as inane as a giveaway tic, but because a liar will recognize something in her peers. Real liars, habitual liars, must possess such a deep-seated scepticism of the world and the fluttering of its inhabitants that the truth becomes unavoidably elastic, demanding to be stretched.
Three months before visiting Rachel, I’d been on a train from King’s Cross to Gatwick Airport, resting my head on the window as I watched the gloomy cycle of London’s brick-and-chimney backside. An overhanging bridge cast us suddenly into night, leaving me staring at the blur of my own reflection. I hadn’t noticed the man sitting across from me. I’d noticed people sitting around me, but I hadn’t noted any one of them in particular, and if, in the end, this man hadn’t spoken to me, I would have been unable to recount any details about him, just as I was later unable to recount any details about the rest of them. I also hadn’t noticed that my shoulder bag, which I’d placed by my feet, had come undone, and that my book and little bag of makeup had slipped out of it. So, when I was pulled from the hum of my thoughts by a much clearer, sharper sound at their periphery—someone telling me to mind my stuff—I sat up with a jolt.
I pushed the makeup bag back in first, worried that a tampon or something had fallen out with it. It was then that this man picked up my book and passed it to me. I thanked him and we locked eyes.
The man wasn’t old—all of fifty, I’d guess—but his gaze felt accentuated by the weight of his lined forehead, giving his pale eyes an unusual force. He pointed at my book.
“Are you a student?”
I looked down at my worn second-hand copy of The Merchant of Venice. The cover displayed a sepia-toned photograph of a bearded man standing by an open window.
“You’re reading for pleasure?”
I shrugged and smiled in a way that was a little polite and, out of habit, a little hateful. Normally, when a strange man talks to me without any real reason, I assume that a single layer of his friendliness can be peeled away to find sex. I opened the play and tried to look consumed by it. But as I stared at the table of contents, with no intention of actually reading, I questioned my instinct to be so curt. There was something interesting about this man—an intensity that was both gentle and commanding.
“It’s for work,” I said.
“Oh?” He’d taken out his phone, but he glanced up at me now. “What is your work?”
“I’m an actor.”
I stared at him without flinching, waiting for the inevitable. Sure enough, his eyes crawled up to my forehead—despite, what was probably, his best attempt to keep them still.
“I don’t do film,” I said. “Just theatre.”
But the man didn’t seem embarrassed to be caught staring at my scar, trying to reconcile the deep, twisting mark that traversed the skin between my temples with what I claimed to be my career. In fact, he looked at it quite boldly, his curiosity unapologetic.
“Is it visible from onstage?”
“Sometimes. It depends on the size of the theatre.”
“Even with—” He furrowed his brow, as though searching for the word. “The right makeup?”
“Makeup can never cover it completely. It’s so much darker than my skin.”
He nodded slowly and scrutinized it for another moment, before turning to look out the window. I couldn’t help but smile, taken aback by his unselfconscious interest. It was so different from what I was used to—strangers staring into my eyes maniacally, doing everything they could not to look up. With his attention on the passing landscape, I took the chance to observe him more carefully. He was a solemn-looking man with a crushed sort of handsomeness. Shadows curved under his eyes and strands of silver were flecked through his sideburns. He wore a long, dark coat and polished brogues. On his wrist was a flash of gold, an expensive-looking watch.
“A few years ago, I was in an adaptation of Euripides’ Helen,” I said. “It was a terrible production with an onstage drummer. But the only thing the critics took issue with was me.”
“They couldn’t buy me as a heartbreaker. As the face to launch a thousand ships.”
He smiled ever so slightly and his eyes went back to the scar. “You must be very good. To be cast against type.”
Of course, I could have been insulted by this blithe corroboration of the critics’ slight. But I found his honesty refreshing. Typically, when I’ve told people the Helen anecdote, or really any little story to do with how others perceive my scar, they’ve felt obliged to stumble through a monologue on my supposed beauty—something about my bone structure or a special light in my eye—concluding that an inability to recognize this beauty can only denote a moral or perceptive failure on the part of the beholder.
“You live in London?” he asked.
“You came here for work?”
I told him about the Royal Shakespeare apprenticeship I’d come to England to audition for, hoping we could change the topic quickly.
“And how did it go?”
The question was logical, to be expected. I glanced out the window and sighed, exhausted by the prospect of having to launch into a version of the lie I’d told Elias on the phone the night before. Instead, I met this man’s pale gaze and said, “I actually didn’t go through with the audition.”
But no sudden shock moved through the man’s features. The decision had no context for him; it came with no sense of stakes or meaning. He lifted his chin a little, at best mildly curious.
I pulled on the sleeves of my jacket and stretched my arms out in front of my body, wondering at my urge to explain myself to this stranger. “I don’t think I ever had any intention of auditioning. And I admitted it to myself just in time.”
“You travelled all the way from Canada for an audition you did not plan to go through with?”
He looked a bit impressed with me, but was distracted by his ringing phone, which he pulled out of his pocket and spoke at in a language I couldn’t place. The conversation lasted a minute or so. When it was over, he held the phone in his hand, as though weighing something he’d just discussed.
“So? Tell me your real motive.”
“If not for the audition, why have you come?”
It started to rain just then—a spray of steely water slapped the window, leaving a pattern of wobbling droplets on the glass. The sky had become oddly bright, and the brightness filled the train car, illuminating the man’s face. I’ve always attributed too much significance to weather, to its relationship to mood, and I found myself stirred by the sharpness of so much light, how much it suggested my own exposure.
“I’m trying to leave Toronto.”
He sat back in his seat, as though in need of distance or perspective to absorb what I’d said, staring with a directness that felt both trusting and shrewd. I’ve always preferred people who are unafraid of eye contact, thinking there’s something cowardly and pitiable about the instinct to avoid this simplest social union. But I found myself a little overwhelmed, even embarrassed, by the moment, and evaded it by talking about what my plan had been with the apprenticeship, how it would’ve given me a one-year study visa that could be renewed if I were offered a place in the company. It would’ve enabled me to pack up my life and leave Toronto by the fall.
“But then—you didn’t audition?”
“And so what is your plan B?”
“There isn’t one.”
“Why not move to London and just work?”
“I don’t have an EU passport.”
“Couldn’t you get a part?”
“Well … I guess. If someone decided to cast me over a thousand British actresses.”
He brought his hand to the window and traced a long, winding rivulet of water with his finger. It was a youthful gesture, touching and misplaced on this middle-aged stranger. I worried that he’d be drawn to the glaring questions that my situation elicited: Why was I leaving? What was I escaping from?
“What if I could be of help to you?”
I shook my head. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you want to move to London, but you have no way to work there, no place to live. What if I were able to help you with these concerns?”
I laughed once, awkwardly. “How would you do that?”
He leaned over the seat next to him and took a folder out of his briefcase. He pulled some papers from it and handed me a glossy London real estate fold-out.
“I own buildings. Many are commercial and on long-term leases to businesses. But I have some residential ones, not expensive and centrally located. The leases are short for the most part—the flats are usually rented by students. Vacancies pop up frequently.”
“Okay,” I said, flipping a bit anxiously through images of new low-rise housing—stunted-looking rectangles with smooth stucco exteriors.
“What if we made an arrangement? I would lease you a flat. Instead of paying rent … you would do some work for me under the table.”
I raised my eyebrows. “What sort of work?”
“Administrative things. Nothing too demanding and only part-time, so you would have plenty of time for your auditions.”
“And you’d give me an apartment for that?”
“Are you—I’m sorry.” I laughed. “But you aren’t actually being serious?”
He frowned, then held an empty hand out in front of him, as though to say it was up to me to judge his sincerity.
I sat up a little straighter. “But would it even balance? Part-time office work for London rent?”
“I think it would.”
Our eyes were locked again, and I felt colour come to my cheeks. Of course, it was then that my suspicion shifted from his sincerity to his motives. “I’ve … I’ve barely told you anything.”
He inhaled deeply and rubbed the back of his head with his hand. His coat sleeve rode up and exposed a crisp cuff. “It’s an idea. There are details, certainly, that would need thinking through. But really, what is so extraordinary in the offer? I have space. I have work. You tell me you’re in need of both.” He paused. “And I’m really a huge fan of the theatre.”
He took a business card out of the inner pocket of his coat and handed it to me. His name was Max Haleemi. He had numbers in both the UK and Lebanon.
An announcement told us that we were five minutes from Gatwick. I spent them pretending to organize my things. We parted on the platform with a very quick handshake. I felt uneasy at the sudden warmth of his skin on my own. As I walked away, I realized I hadn’t even told him my name and wondered how he’d remember me in the implausible scenario that I called.
When I was younger, I used a headshot in which my hair is parted so deeply to the side, and my head held at such a severe slant, that the skin on my forehead isn’t visible. The photo depicts a girl (age range sixteen to twenty-two) glaring mischievously at the camera—a child’s attempt at sexiness—with pale hair that catches the light as it tumbles over her shoulders. She is wearing a black tank top with lace at the neckline, and holds a hand on her hip, so that one slim arm forms a sharp angle behind her body. She isn’t quite smiling. There’s something mannered in the line of her mouth that makes her look unsure of herself, and softens the defiance of her stare.
Back then, I would go to auditions trying to enliven this frozen image of myself. I would part my hair at the same violent extreme—for a while I had a curtain of flat bangs—and march into the studio frowning. I went out for dozens of Anne Franks and Juliets, roles that felt wholesome and earnest, uncomfortably at odds with the moody adolescence that still held me in its grip. I was never ready for the way that people would respond. After I finished a monologue, there would typically be a strange, tense silence in the room, followed by a quickening barrage of questions about my training and experience. At nineteen, I saw the attention I got as a baffling, at times surreal, indication of a profoundly disjointed universal force—an underlying discord between cause and effect. My experience of “acting” felt so perversely unequal to the reaction it provoked that it all had the feeling of a big joke that I wasn’t in on.
What I did felt simple and mechanical—I can only liken it to a kind of blind focus, a skill that also makes me good at mental math and solving crossword puzzles quickly. I’m convinced that what others see as talent is actually a very boring tendency towards total concentration. When others focus on a job or task, they are still vaguely aware of themselves, the contours of their thoughts and body, whereas I feel a funny propulsion into the task itself. When I’m forced to stop in the middle of some text, I feel confused, unhinged. I’ve picked up the habit of staring down at my shoes to reorient myself. I tried explaining all this to a director once and he asked me if I was a Buddhist.
In those early days, I’d often get cast in roles right there on the spot, without being asked to pull my hair off my face and try the script again. Then there’d be an awkward interlude at the first read-through. Either the director or the costume designer would complain that they couldn’t see my eyes and I would oblige them by slowly pulling my hair into a ponytail. The pity around the table would be so oppressive in the moments that followed that it felt as though someone had aimed a hot blow-dryer at my face. It probably took all of five seconds for one of my cast-mates to swoop in with an unrelated joke, but my shame was vastly incommensurate with the time it was allowed to gestate. Shame really can’t be measured well in seconds.
In the headshot I have now, I’m facing the camera head-on and my scar is completely visible. It’s funny that I paid five hundred dollars to have these photos taken, because I’m rarely asked for them anymore. Directors know me across the city now; they know the calculation that they’ll have to make in casting me—the relative gain of what may (or may not) be great talent against the absolute loss of a visual ideal.