I was too young to remember the pandemic, but I guess that’s when it all began.
People were too afraid to touch each other, and face ID was contactless. Epidemiologists said that we could limit the spread by using facial recognition to identify everyone that an infected patient had been in contact with. Some cities used it to make sure that people were keeping quarantine. And once all those cameras and checkpoints were in place, they kept finding new ways to use them.
By the time I started school, it all seemed normal.
Our elementary school was a three-story building that took up an entire city block. On Fridays after school we would crowd into Happy Deli Grocery and buy whatever snacks we could afford with the coins in our pockets. My friend Aisha and I always tried to sneak a candy bar whenever Mr. Halim turned his back to grab something from behind the counter. We would walk home, giddy, our bellies full of purloined sugar. The empty weekend ahead seemed full of possibility.
As a child, I was an accomplished liar. I never meant any harm, it’s just that the truth was always less interesting than whatever was going on in my own head. Most of the time, I got away with it. People rarely noticed me, so they never suspected a thing. I suppose my face was unremarkable. It helped that I was a year younger and a head shorter than most of my classmates.
Aisha wasn’t so lucky. We were in the fifth grade — or maybe it was sixth — when one day she got called to the principal’s office. It turned out the bodega had a security camera. The owner had turned in the footage and the photo on Aisha’s student ID matched the face of a shoplifter caught on film.
She wasn’t the only one in trouble. A lot of our friends had their faces ID’d. They all had to work off their debt, coming in on the weekends to unpack boxes and clean out the storage room in the back. Mr. Halim kept a close eye on them after that, so it became my job to lift the candy while Aisha kept him distracted.
It never occurred to me to wonder: Why was I the only one who didn’t get caught?
It was a dream of my mother’s that I would be the first in our family to go to college in America. I wasn’t the best student, but I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I downloaded an SAT prep app and studied on the weekends. On the day of the exam, I left the house early to take the train uptown.
The test was proctored in a red-brick private school that smelled of Lysol and other people’s ambition. From the moment I walked through its archways, I felt small and out of place, my armpits damp underneath my sweater.
The stairwell was full of people. I wondered if anyone felt as nervous as I did. Most of them just looked bored, staring down at their phones. A white girl with curly blonde hair waved and gestured for me to come over. She smiled awkwardly as I got closer. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “I thought you were somebody else.”
Outside of the testing room was a station that scanned each student’s face. “Why are we doing this?” I heard someone ask.
“Too many cheaters,” explained the sullen woman behind the computer. “We need to make sure that the person who’s registered is the one that’s actually taking the test.”
She turned to me. “Like you, you could pay some kid in India $10,000 and they’d take the SAT for you.” My family isn’t even from India, I thought. But I didn’t say anything.
When it was my turn to step in front of the camera, I could see my own pixelated face looking back at me on the screen. I blinked at the dark shadows underneath my eyes, my limp ponytail.
I stood there for what felt like minutes. “Is it working? How long is it supposed to take?”
“You don’t match any of the photos on the attendance list. I can’t let you in if you’re not registered,” the woman replied.
“I’m definitely registered. Look, I have the confirmation email right here.” I thrust my phone in front of her face. “Can’t I just show you my driver’s license? Or my student ID?”
“Face ID only. Contact the College Board if you have questions.” I looked at her blankly, unsure what to do.
She jerked her head towards the door. “Come on, you’re holding up the line.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just walked away, down the marble staircase and through the cast iron gate.
Sure, there had been other times when I realized some scanner couldn’t read my face. Like it would always say << No Face Detected >> whenever I tried to use one of those camera filters that makes it look like you have puppy ears or you’re wearing a flower crown. But that was just a party trick I’d show off to strangers, an attempt to make myself seem interesting and mysterious.
If I had known how things would turn out, would I have reacted differently? I like to imagine I would have tried harder to stand up for myself. But at first, not being recognized was just an inconvenience. By the time it became something more, it was too late.
Eventually they came up with a name for people like me — illegible — and gave us one year to report to the local police station.
On the night that we first heard the news, my family came together to discuss my options. Even my sister got involved. With their heads bent over the kitchen table, they looked like a Renaissance painting.
The police said they only wanted to collect more data so they could improve the algorithm. But the rumors said different. People whispered that illegibles were being forced to undergo a procedure, some kind of surgery that would reconstruct our faces into something that was machine-readable.
It was easier, I guess, than getting the algorithm to work 100 percent of the time.
“It works for 98.8 percent of people,” my father said. “So, if you think about it, you’re actually the one percent.”
In his 20s, my father had been an organizer for Occupy Wall Street. He grew a beard and squatted for months in Zuccotti Park. These days, he belted his pants and tucked in his polo shirt before going to work. He knew, better than most, that ideological purity was a luxury that only the truly wealthy could afford.
Dad was a pragmatist. For him, the answer was simple: “It’ll be easier for everyone if you just get the surgery.”
My mother sucked her teeth in disapproval. She was certain that plastic surgery was haram. She prayed for a miracle instead. Over the next few months, I often caught her sitting alone in her bedroom or the kitchen, muttering duas under her breath.
My sister knew someone who knew someone who’d brought home a whole suitcase full of Fair & Lovely skin cream from their last trip to Jakarta. The lotion contained a bleaching ingredient that was illegal here in the States. If my skin were lighter, she figured, maybe cameras would be able to detect me better. She had always put a lot of stock in appearances.
No two faces are exactly alike, but for the most part they’re consistent. I never did figure out what set mine apart. Unable to sleep at night, I would gaze upon my sister’s face. Her eyelids, her nostrils, the corners of her mouth. All so similar to my own.
What was it that she had that I did not?
I remember the moment when things really started to go wrong. I had been working for three months at a Zara in Midtown. It was a good job. The customers were mostly tourists, plus I got a 15 percent employee discount.
It was a busy Saturday when my manager pulled me aside and told me they were going to have to let me go. Corporate was using facial recognition to make sure that employees were coming in on time. According to the system, I wasn’t showing up for any of my shifts.
“What are you even talking about?! We work the same days. You know I’ve been here!”
Without meaning to, I had started to shout. I could see a customer looking over her shoulder in surprise. I had never raised my voice at work before, but I simply couldn’t believe it: It was the first time I felt certain, beyond a doubt, that some injustice had been done. And I wasn’t seventeen anymore; I’d stopped biting my tongue just so that other people would feel more comfortable.
The thing is, my manager agreed with me, it must be some glitch in the system. But there was nothing she could do. There were plenty of people willing to work for $12 an hour and it wasn’t worth her time to stand up for me.
“You’ll be alright,” she assured me. Her eyes were already looking past me, assessing the coil of people lining up to pay at the cash registers. None of this was her fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really. That was the whole problem.
I needed a job, and it only got harder to find one.
“We use face ID for payroll,” said the manager at the department store at the mall.
“Register and start making money today! Hold your phone in front of your face to begin,” instructed a food delivery app.
I found a wine bar willing to pay me under the table, all cash, but I stopped going after the owner cornered me in the walk-in refrigerator and grabbed the meat of my thigh, called me a bitch when I pushed him away.
Eventually I moved back in with my parents. The apartment I grew up in felt cramped with three adults in it.
I knew they were worried about me. They would speak in whispers when they thought I wasn’t listening, then fall silent when I walked in the room. Unemployed and listless, I spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts.
I avoided mirrors.
There were stretches where I wouldn’t leave bed for days at a time. I lost track of what month we were in. Once in a while, I met up with a friend, but I’d quickly run out of things to say. I found myself resenting the quiet ease of their lives. I even resented their problems, their overbearing bosses or petty squabbles with their coworkers.
By then, I had been out of work for more than a year. I couldn’t get unemployment either. You needed to register your face for that.
My sister pushed me to get the facial reconstruction surgery. She couldn’t understand why I was being so stubborn.
“It’s a simple procedure,” she reasoned.
“What do you know about surgery? You cried when you got your wisdom teeth out.”
“I was 17! You know what, it doesn’t matter. This is different. You’ll be under anesthesia. They’re professionals, they know how to minimize the pain.”
“They literally crack open your cheekbones and rearrange your face,” I seethed.
“Calm down, I’m only trying to help. Don’t you just want to be normal?”
Normal. That was always the goal. When we were in high school, my sister would take the bus to the thrift stores in the good part of town. She memorized the schedules (Thursday was when Goodwill put out new stock) and made friends with the staff (Rigoberto at Salvation Army promised to hold aside any designer jeans in her size). She’d come home with her treasures and make them look new, scrubbing out stains with a toothbrush, replacing buttons and stitching ripped hems. All this just so she could look the same as everyone else.
I never understood the urge to be normal. I wanted something more than that: to be myself.
“It’s my face. It’s mine and I’m keeping it.”
A heavy silence sat between us. For several moments, neither of us spoke.
“Did you know, I have the same nose as grandma? It skipped a generation. I’m the last person alive with this nose.”
“They might not even change your nose! You won’t know unless you go for a consultation.”
“But why am I the one that has to change?” My voice cracked down the middle. “Why are you angry at me when –– when it’s this system that’s fucked up!”
“Because you think you’re being principled and brave when what you really are is selfish! It’s like you don’t even care what it’s doing to dad, having to see you wallow away like this.”
That’s the thing about siblings. They know how to hit where it hurts the most. I left the room, and when she called to apologize, I didn’t pick up.
It was around this time that my iPhone stopped working. I couldn’t even replace it since all of the newer phone models required a face ID to unlock. My mom gave me one of those old indestructible Nokia phones but, really, who even sent texts anymore? Gradually, I stopped hearing from friends. It was just too hard to reach me.
When my father died, I hadn’t spoken to my sister for more than a year, not since she moved to the suburbs. She invited everyone we knew to come over for the tahlilan after dad’s burial. It was the first and only time I visited her in that large house with its dark green shutters.
What kind of person needs space for three cars, I wondered, as my mother and I walked up the long driveway. I knocked on the door. When no one came to answer, I knocked again. I could see my sister through the front window.
She was whispering in her husband’s ear, a small, content smile tucked in the corner of her mouth. They seemed happy.
Eventually she looked up and our eyes met through the clear windowpane. She rushed outside and wrapped her arms around me. We clung together so tightly that for a moment it felt like we were sisters again.
“Come in, come in,” she said, impatient. She motioned for me to take off my shoes and place them at the end of the neat row by the door. “I didn’t hear you knock. The doorbell usually just announces when someone is here, but, well, I guess it didn’t see you…You should have let mom stand in front.”
“You should’ve been paying more attention!” I snapped back, already annoyed.
She thinned her lips and shook her head in disapproval. Her eyes darted to where my mother was kneeling behind me to unlace her boots. “Sorry,” I muttered. I let my sister guide me over to where her husband was standing.
Her husband was, predictably, white and he had a harmless, affable look about him. He had gone to grad school “in Connecticut,” which was his way of saying Yale. It seemed like it wouldn’t be long before I had nieces and nephews.
Seeing her in the new house confirmed that my sister had grown up and left me behind. My mother was getting older, too. It was getting harder for her to manage the stairs in our apartment. Without dad’s pension, neither of us knew how we would pay the rent.
My sister offered her their guest room.
“Stay as long as you need,” she said.
Neither of them mentioned it, but I understood that the invitation did not include me. Everything in my sister’s life was perfectly curated and I was this odd, inexplicable thing. Sometimes, I suspected that she resented me. I was too close a reminder of how narrowly she had escaped the working class. I knew she loved me, in her own way, but I didn’t want to beg her to take me in.
“You’re sure you can stay with a friend until you find your own place?” my mother asked, anxiously, for the third time.
“I’m sure,” I lied. I had no intention of asking my sister (or anyone else) for a favor, but my mother didn’t need to know that. I reassured them both, repeatedly, that everything was going to be fine until, eventually, even I started to believe it was true.
That night I got on the train and went back to the city, alone.
On our block there was a building scheduled for demolition. They were going to tear it down and put up a tower of luxury condos in its place. On the ground floor was an empty storefront. Its front door had been boarded over, but whoever had nailed down the plywood hadn’t done a very good job. I crawled in easily. It seemed as good of a place to live as any. A nest of blankets and a few crushed Miller Lite cans in the corner told me I wasn’t the first to come here, but I never actually saw anyone else inside.
The thing about being illegible was that it robbed you of choices. Any type of aid came with conditions. An abandoned building wasn’t much of a choice, but it was one that I made freely.
There were shelters, of course, places where you could get a bed for the night. But I didn’t want my every move to be monitored, or worse, to be sent away with the rest of the illegibles.
I was better off on my own.
It was kind of eerie to sleep in an empty husk of a building, but it amused me to pretend I was a ghost haunting the place. My sense of humor had grown very dark. When my sister and I were younger, our mother would tell us stories of kuntilanak, vengeful female spirits with a grudge against a former lover. I couldn’t help but admire that kind of single-minded sense of purpose.
I was far too tired to even think about plotting revenge on anyone.
At least it was easy enough for me to get food, even without any money. No one worked the counters at the grocery stores anymore. There were cameras and weight sensors in each shopping cart that could figure out what you were buying. Your face was linked to your bank account, so you were automatically charged at the exit.
I would just walk in, take what I wanted and walk out. The trick was acting like you suddenly remembered something you forgot at home. I would leave through the front door in a hurry, abandoning my cart in the aisle, so I didn’t flag any of the algorithms that detected suspicious behavior on CCTV.
I tried to do it with a certain degree of irony. That way it was like I was playing a role, which felt better than living my actual life.
With my mother gone from the city, I hardly saw anyone. Who do we become after there is no one left to recognize us, to see us as we see ourselves?
It was late October when a man followed me home from the grocery store. A stranger. He tailed me for six blocks while I decided whether to confront him or run away.
He caught up to me at a busy intersection, where we both waited to cross.
“I saw what you did back there,” he said.
“Excuse me? Do I know you?”
He continued speaking as if I hadn’t asked a question. “Back there, in the store.” He pointed to my bag of groceries. “I know you didn’t pay for those.”
Shit. Was he some kind of security guard? I shrugged and tried to look nonchalant.
“The store will just charge my account.”
“They would. If their cameras could see you. But we both know they can’t.”
The light at the crosswalk turned green and I hurried to the other side of the street. “Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I actually have somewhere to be.”
His footsteps grew longer as he rushed to catch up to me. “Wait! Hey, I’m sorry, I should have found a better way to introduce myself. It’s just, we’ve been looking for someone like you for a long time. If you just wait a minute, let me explain. I promise I’m not a creep.”
“Well, you’re doing a very good impression of one.”
“I get it, you don’t want to talk to me. But —” his voice lowered. “Have you heard of the Defaced?”
I had heard of them. The Defaced were a resistance group. No one knew who they were, or the true identity of their leader, a mysterious figure who called herself Delegate Zero. But they were always in the news, most recently for hacking into the servers of a surveillance company and erasing all its data.
“You expect me to believe you’re a member?” I scoffed. “Anyone can say that. The whole point is that no one knows what they look like.”
I tried to imagine the man’s face peering out from a mugshot, chin up, eyes defiant. I couldn’t picture it. He looked too much like a middle-school algebra teacher.
“We can’t talk here.” His eyes darted to the security camera mounted on the doorway of the nearest building. “But if you come to this address, someone will explain.” He handed me a slip of paper. “When you get there, ask for the Grandmother’s Special,” he added.
“So, I’m supposed to meet you at a random location and just hope you’re telling the truth?”
“No, if that’s what you’re worried about.” He shook his head firmly. “It won’t be me, someone else will find you there. You’ll never see me again.”
There was something in his tone, a grave urgency, that made me believe him. And he was right. I never did see him again.
The address was 375 Lyndon Street. When I got there, I found a family-owned pizzeria in a run-down part of town. It was empty inside, except for a teenage waitress playing a game on her phone. I went to the counter and ordered the Grandmother’s Special.
The waitress rolled her eyes and gestured at a door marked Employees Only. “She’s in the back.”
I don’t know what I was expecting. A dim bunker filled with weapons? A crowd of people wearing masks?
But it was just a regular storage room, with sacks of semolina flour stacked along the back wall and a gray-haired woman sitting at a desk.
When I stepped in the room, the woman took out a camera and snapped a photo of me. Then another. The bright flash made me blink.
“Very good,” she murmured. She looked at me as if I was a circus animal that had just performed a particularly impressive trick. She turned the screen toward me. “No face detected.”
“Yeah,” I shrugged. “It’s always been like that.”
“And you never sought to fix it? An untouched illegible. You are a singular woman, my dear.” She moved closer and examined my features. “May I?” she asked. I nodded, not entirely sure what I was agreeing to.
She grasped my chin in her hand and rotated my head from side to side. “Very good, indeed. Did you know there are 43 muscles in the human face?”
“Um, no? Don’t think I’ve ever heard that.”
“I was a student of anatomy. Until I was drawn to — other pursuits.” She had an odd way of speaking, overdramatic, as if she were revealing a winning poker hand, laying down each word with a flourish. “I still call upon my medical training to carry out certain projects.”
She returned to her desk and opened the top drawer, pulling out a metal tray. On top of the tray was an array of hypodermic needles. She picked up one of the syringes. “It is a dermal filler. Calcium hydroxylapatite and hyaluronic acid. When injected into the skin, it can change the facial proportions. The effect is temporary, however, and overuse causes permanent deformities.” Her lips turned down in a frown. “The algorithms continue to improve. It is becoming harder to fool them with our amateur modifications. But you, my dear. Completely undetectable. That is a rare trait indeed.”
She placed the tray back in the drawer and shut it with a bang. “Now. Tell me why you have come here today.”
“I thought you might be able to help me. Or, maybe I can help you.”
“Yes, I imagine you can. You must be angry, dear. I certainly would be, in your position. No job. No opportunities. Not even a real person, in their eyes.”
I gave her a skeptical look. “So what if I’m angry? It doesn’t change anything.”
“Anger … it can be a productive emotion. If you learn how to harness it. Today we are both in luck. We have been waiting for someone like you. And I expect you will find the work … rewarding.”
“What kind of work?”
“Isn’t it obvious? With a face like that, you could slip into any building you like. The New York Stock Exchange. The White House. there will be no shortage of things for you to do.”
This was why people called the Defaced a terrorist group. Terrorism. Activism. I suppose it’s only a matter of perspective.
“And me? What do I get?”
She looked at me consideringly. “What you’ve always wanted. A chance to be somebody that no one can forget.”