Bryan Betancur


Descarado: shameless, brazen. Composed of the prefix des- (lacking) and the noun cara (face).


Bryan Betancur is a Spanish professor in the Bronx and a freelance journalist who writes on issues related to Latinx political identity and representation. In addition to academic and journalistic essays, he has published creative work in Hispanic Culture Review, The Rush, The Nasiona, and iōLit. Connect with him on Twitter @BetancurBryan.


I looked down discretely, verified I wasn’t naked from the waist down. I opened the manilla folder on the lectern. My lesson plan was still inside. Unconvinced, I walked out, found a perfectly legible room number, 515. Everything was in order: I was fully dressed, prepared for class, and in the correct location. This wasn’t one of those stupid pre-semester anxiety dreams I had early in my career. Yet what I saw couldn’t be real. Not this year.

The student in the far corner of the room didn’t have a face. No eyes, no lips, no nose, just a faceless head framed by a mane of curly black hair and sunken in the shadow of a baseball cap. The face (if one could call a ghastly, blank slab of skin a face) was smooth and taut like the faux leather of my car’s steering wheel. If not for the jeans and high tops under the desk, I would have mistaken the student for a dark punching bag stashed in the rear of the class. I paced back and forth with a feigned air of purpose, stopping to type loudly at a computer that wasn’t turned on and to rifle through my empty briefcase like a zealous TSA agent. Despite my attempts at projecting a calm demeanor, I kept glancing nervously at the student. Every new encounter with the lurid head proved equally fascinating and revolting.

After verifying I wasn’t dreaming, I ascribed the student’s disturbing appearance to a new Greek life initiation. One of the houses must be requiring pledges to don repugnant masks everywhere they went. I imagined the masking ceremony with all its gaudy pomp: These masks are a reminder that you are nobody, that you won’t know your true self until you’re one of us! I shook my head in disgust. Forcing someone to wear a tight mask without air holes in the suffocating August humidity was surely criminal. I had a legal obligation to report incidents of hazing, but I couldn’t afford to get embroiled in any campus controversy. Not this year.

I was well into the first lesson of my freshman seminar on the history of Western thought. I taught the course so frequently the past eighteen years, I lectured on autopilot and continued cogitating on the unsettling head. I snuck another glimpse. It wasn’t a mask. I can’t articulate how I arrived at such a definitive conclusion—maybe it was the dual sensation of familiarity and estrangement that gripped me every time I peered at the student. No mask could be so realistic and perturbing at the same time. I peeked again, spotted no scarring or other evidence of trauma. It wasn’t a mask, nor a case of severe disfigurement. This was a person without a face.  

“Um … sorry … professor?”

I turned away from the nonface (what else could I call it?) and saw several raised hands. I tersely asserted that the syllabus contained everything the students needed to know about the course and that there was no need for questions. My automatic recitation resumed, and my mind pondered more morbid possibilities. I recalled reading an interview with Oliver Sacks about prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder characterized by an inability to recognize or distinguish faces. Did I suffer a stroke in the region of the brain that processes facial information? I surveyed the class. Predictably, most of the students looked alike—it would be another semester of rosters filled with McKennas, McKenzies, Logans, and the like—but I easily identified differences between them. Could prosopagnosia be limited to particular faces?             

The rustling of syllabi stuffed into backpacks signaled the end of class. I should have asked everyone to stay seated so I could take attendance, but I was eager to watch the students leave. Some of them would certainly notice their peculiar peer and react in a manner that confirmed I wasn’t in the throes of brain disease. But they were all distracted with their cell phones, oblivious to the presence of a faceless human being in their midst. Too distraught to wait for the herd of self-absorbed youth to lollygag out the door, I rushed after the enigmatic student.

I trailed the faceless head outside and through the quad. The student stopped abruptly, as if uncertain where to go. I could have run over to offer help and used that opportunity to study the nonface without appearing rude. But the sound of Bradford’s voice approaching from behind prevented me from walking farther.

         “Our future dean!” The department chair shook my hand and launched into a tedious account of his summer archival work before I could reply.

         I strained my mouth into a shape resembling a smile and scrutinized Bradford’s face for the first time in almost two decades. Sweat rolled down his temples and along narrow cheekbones that converged at a square, dimpled jaw. His nostrils flared when he talked, calling attention to the craterous pores lining his bulbous nose. The left eye was larger than the right, though the size discrepancy was difficult to perceive under the thick, square frames of his glasses. It was unseemly, but it was a face. A face I recognized, a face that alleviated my suspicions of neurovascular disease.

         Bradford guided both our conversation and the direction we walked. I tried listening to the minutiae of his scholarly projects, but my mind remained focused on the grisly face. I glanced over my shoulder. The student was alone on a bench by the manmade lake at the eastern end of campus. I wanted to show the student to Bradford, but the only visible features from our vantage point were black curls spilling down the back of a baseball cap. Without a name or a better view of the student’s head, I couldn’t risk communicating my unease. I cringed at the thought of Bradford’s asymmetric eyes widening while I struggled to explain what I saw in class. This might sound strange, but, um, have you heard about a freshman who has a face that, um, isn’t a face? Bradford was an esteemed professor and a member of the committee charged with choosing the next Dean of the Faculty. He knew how badly I wanted to be appointed dean and staunchly supported my candidacy throughout the nomination process. I couldn’t allow concerns about my mental state to sway his vote against me.

         I didn’t sleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes, the vacant face appeared like a clay model of a head awaiting a sculptor’s hands. My subconscious covered the hideous flesh with amalgams of faces that reflected my many years in a homogeneous environment. But every superimposed set of blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, freckles, or perfect teeth invariably melted away to reveal the inanimate lump of skin and snap me awake. If I managed to doze off without seeing the nonface, I was soon roused by sounds of indeterminate origin. The noises began as far-off wails, then morphed into low, unintelligible murmurs similar to the hushed chatter one hears at the opera just before the overture begins. I searched scrupulously for the source of the sounds, only to find they did not come from a car alarm or smoke detector, nor from a TV I forgot to switch off. Every failed aural expedition inched me closer to acknowledging that the noises only existed in my head. Unwilling to fall back asleep and risk further distressing sensations, I spent the rest of the night at the computer researching psychosis and brain cancer.


         Ten students missed the next freshman seminar, including their faceless peer. The high absence rate did little to assuage my angst. If the mysterious student didn’t attend, I couldn’t confirm or disprove what I saw the previous class. And with so many absences, it would be impossible to link the student to a name on my roster. But the unusual number of absentees also let me feel validated. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who saw the nonface on the first day. At least nine others had shared my repugnance and felt equally pressured to pretend nothing was amiss. I envied the absent students. They could drop my course and avoid the horrid head, while I was trapped here, dreading the student’s presence, petrified I would unconsciously convey my consternation to Bradford and jeopardize my ascension into administration.

I dashed out of the building at the end of class and crossed the quad, lowering my head to avoid social interaction. The sound of a distant wail stopped me midstride. I lifted my gaze. The student was alone on the same bench overlooking the lake. The howling became a menacing rumble. The student spun around, bared the odious nonface. I sprinted to my car and drove home. For the first time in eighteen years, I skipped office hours and cancelled my remaining classes.


         I could have parked anywhere in the empty lot that morning, but I chose the space closest to the lake. The dashboard clock read 5:15. I blinked in surprise, not because it was too early to be on campus, but because I couldn’t recall when I was last conscious of the time. Since the first day of class, my life had become a ceaseless flow of obsession and loathing detached from any awareness of dates or hours. Days offered brief moments of relief when my faceless nemesis was absent from class, while nights were spent braving nightmares of the abominable face and scouring a silent house for noises that didn’t exist in the real world. Nothing else occupied my consciousness long enough to elicit an emotional response—not rumors about the committee’s vote, not the dwindling attendance in my classes, not the growing piles of ungraded work.

I looked out at the lake. For years I criticized the architectural project as a profligate attempt to attract affluent students who valued picturesque campuses over rigorous academics. Yet even I had to marvel at the first rays of morning light shining on the water. With all the troubling impressions that haunted me since the start of the term, I grew to hate being near the lake when the campus teemed with activity. But now, alone in my car, no student or colleague in sight, I found renewed hope for my mental health in the resplendent sunrise. The living postcard before me was surely a sign. My spirit intuited that today marked a turning point in my career and commanded my body to drive here before daybreak to rid myself of the chilling visions and sounds. I closed my eyes and took a deep, meditative breath.    

         I opened my eyes. The student was standing at the water’s edge. The Edenic dawn devolved to a Boschian inferno. The grotesque head was turned in my direction, the sun’s rays encircling the nonface in a sinister glow. The sudden intrusion into what should have been a restorative scene infuriated me. For eighteen years I taught course after uninspiring course to successive generations of the same spoiled, silver spoon students. And when I was finally on the verge of leaving the classroom, I came across this. Whatever this student represented—disease, lunacy—, I didn’t deserve it.

         “Leave me alone!” I shook the steering wheel, digging my nails deep into the synthetic leather. “You’re ruining my fucking life!” I slammed my fists into the wheel until my hands went numb.

         The student took a slow, stumbling step toward the lake, then collapsed into the water. I watched in awed silence. I didn’t think to intervene until the final strands of black hair vanished below the surface. But what could I do? How would I explain to my colleagues that I was drenched because I dove into the lake to pull out an imaginary person? And yet, what if this wasn’t a hallucination?

         “Not too close, you’ll ruin your suit!” I nearly leapt at the sound of Bradford’s voice. He stood beside me, holding a manilla folder. “The lake is so peaceful in the morning, isn’t it? You know, I’ve written some of my best work out here.”     

         I ignored the detailed description of the last article he wrote while alone on campus and looked around. I was at the lake, the tips of my shoes in the water. When did I get out of my car? How long had I been standing there?

“Anyway, we better not be late.” Bradford removed a sheet of paper from the folder and dropped it in my trembling hands.

I scanned the document. It was a schedule for the fall faculty convocation. Bradford had highlighted the announcement of the new Dean of the Faculty and scribbled my name underneath. It was the third item on the agenda, preceded by the President’s opening remarks and the introduction of Gertrudis López, the new Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion. I didn’t know much about López other than the excitement her hiring generated among a few colleagues. She was apparently an expert in minority outreach and would be the face of the college’s recent push to diversify the student body. I was annoyed her talk would delay my introduction as dean.

         “I thought you’d be more excited,” Bradford nudged me gently with his elbow.

         “Sure,” I shrugged, “anything to improve enrollment. And you know me, I don’t see race. I’ll treat all students the same regardless of their background.”

         “Of course,” Bradford raised an eyebrow and pointed at the highlighted portion of the schedule, “but I was referring to your promotion.”

         “Right, yes,” I replied with affected enthusiasm. “Sorry, it’s been a long week.”

          “Then let’s go, you’ve been stressed out long enough!” Bradford patted me on the back. “You know, I’m reminded of the day I became chair.” He led the way to the campus events center, subjecting me to a meticulous retelling of a story I had heard a dozen times.             

The small room designated for faculty meetings was abuzz with the excitement of a professoriate not yet wearied by the semester. I found it surprisingly easy to mingle and chatted with everyone seated around me until the President took the podium. I didn’t listen to his address, not out of my usual antipathy, but because I yearned to immerse myself in the clarity and optimism that permeated my mind. Despite his blathering, Bradford was right. All the work I put into my bid for dean—hobnobbing, taking on additional committee assignments—created an inordinate amount of stress. Increased worry and decreased self-care obviously provoked the hallucinations that plagued me all term. It made sense that today, when my dedication and ambition were justly rewarded, the imaginary student (yes, imaginary, there could be no more doubt) disappeared in a symbolic cleansing of my psyche.

The President signaled for Gertrudis López to replace him at the podium. My moment in the spotlight was at hand. The new Vice Provost was met with a smattering of polite applause. I could only pretend to clap, my hands still sore from the morning’s angry outburst. Then I heard it. A wailing noise, faint but growing louder. The sound’s origin was no longer a mystery: ambulances, police cars. The applause died down and was replaced by another familiar sound. Droning, muttering. People around me were whispering to each other and turning toward the back of the room to see out the large windows that gave a clear view of the lake.

Perhaps that was the time for introspection, for admission of wrongdoing. I might have felt shame or guilt, or fear of impending consequences. Instead, I smiled and glared at Gertrudis López. A woman without a face.             

© The Acentos Review 2021