One night, many years ago, two friends spotted something extraordinary hanging on the wall of a restaurant in Spain, and they knew, right away, that they’d need to send me a picture of it.
It was an old photograph, a hazy black-and-white portrait of a young matador sitting on a bench. The bullfighter was slender and long-limbed. He wore a heavily ornamented jacket with oversize epaulets, matching pants and white knee socks, and sat with one hand formally fixed to his hip while the other flaccidly clasped the nub of a cigarette between his knees. His posture suggested that he’d done his best, on short notice, to snap his body into a dignified pose for the camera but got only halfway there.
The man’s head was tilted, and his dark eyes rose just slightly to meet the lens. His long nose was misaligned. His expression was loaded but elusive. He looked tired, crestfallen or maybe just bored. My friends didn’t bother writing anything when they emailed me a picture of this photograph, but its significance hit me right away: The bullfighter looked exactly like me.
I remember physically jerking back in my seat when I clicked open the image. The likeness was chilling, but also exhilarating — just as it had apparently been for my friends. On their way out of the restaurant, they each stopped short in front of the photo and, after a dopey beat of silence — they were deliriously full from dinner and maybe a little tipsy too — one finally said, “Why is there a picture of Jon on the wall?”
The photograph of Manolete (right) that Jon Mooallem’s friends saw in a restaurant in Spain.Credit…Baldomero, via Revista Aplausos
I understand how subjective these things can be, how a resemblance that feels uncanny and self-evident to one person can elude everyone else. Sometimes all you get is a lot of skepticism and squinting, people searching for a sliver of correspondence between the two supposed doppelgängers just to be polite: Maybe around the mouth, I guess. But this photo of the matador was different. For years, I would show that picture to people at parties without a word, and every time there was a profound shock of recognition. It smacked people with an eerie jolt, joggled them into befuddled laughter or downright creeped them out. Even my mother recognized instantly that I and this anonymous Spaniard looked identical, which seemed to rattle her core belief that, in all the universe, her boychik was unique and special.
Eventually, I learned who the man in the photograph was. He was known as Manolete and is almost invariably described as the best bullfighter of the 1940s and among the greatest of all time. When Manolete died, a British newspaper reported that his funeral went on for four hours, and a military plane flew low overhead, showering the 100,000 mourners in attendance with red carnations. An American reporter wrote: “Manolete’s death carries for his followers the impact that the death of the entire Brooklyn Dodger team would produce in Flatbush.”
I ordered an obscure biography of the matador, written by an American named Barnaby Conrad, who lived in Spain in the 1940s and fought bulls himself. The book was slim but filled with photographs. Ripping the package open and flipping through it the night it arrived, I was astonished to see my own face everywhere, from every angle. There I was: doting on my Spanish mother, eating paella, lancing bulls. There I was: suiting up in my bedazzled jacket at the height of my fame or caught candidly at close range, looking goofy and agog. And there I was at the end of the book, hewed from marble — eyes shut, unmistakable in profile — resting on top of my tomb.
Before long, I had absent-mindedly lowered myself onto my kitchen floor and pressed the spine of the paperback open to a random page, to start reading the book in earnest. And this — I swear — was the very first sentence I read:
“He has a face that’s as dreary as a third-class funeral on a rainy day.”
Manolete was ugly. He was remarkably ugly — by which I mean, people couldn’t stop remarking on how ugly he was. They just kept taking swipe after swipe at the glum-looking, contorted hideousness of his face. It took reading only a handful of pages of the biography to understand that Manolete’s conspicuous ugliness seemed to be a defining feature of his persona. He was ugly the way Einstein was a genius, the way Gandhi was nonviolent, the way Jeff Bezos is rich.
The peculiarity of his appearance preoccupied everyone. Even people who adored Manolete always managed to tack on some gratuitous cheap shot about the unpleasantness of his face. Writers called him “tired-looking,” or a “popeyed, chinless, badly bodied, painfully and barely dignified man,” or “the mournful-faced, hawk-nosed Manolete,” or simply “Old Big Nose.”
The more I read about Manolete, the more it started to feel as if this man’s face triggered some kind of slur-reflex in other human beings. One morning, I left the biography on my coffee table, and my daughter — she was 6 then and knew nothing about the book or why I was reading it — caught sight of the portrait on the cover as she trundled by and announced, “I can’t believe they made a book about someone so ugly!”
Weirder still, Manolete’s ugliness appeared to be a very specific strain of ugliness, one that communicated sadness and dejection. His long, bowed face was described as “tragic-looking.” The New York Times wrote that he possessed “such a solemn, gaunt, deadpan face that he sometimes seems twice his age,” and another observer noted that “his wide, sad, heavy-lidded eyes hinted at knowledge of terrors the rest of us could only imagine.” This aura of despondency was actually part of Manolete’s appeal. He had arrived at an unconventional style of bullfighting that was minimal and almost apathetic-seeming. He would shuffle into the arena without any flair, then repeatedly wave the bull by him with his cape while standing straight as a toothpick, his facial expression never shifting from the brooding and indifferent one he always wore. But as Norman Mailer put it, the crowds were “so stirred by the deeps of sorrow in the man that the smallest move produced the largest emotion.” Somehow, the dissonance between Manolete’s affect and the crazy feats he was executing created an alchemic kind of beauty. His style hinged on this contrast — this “beautiful ugliness,” as Conrad put it. “He was by nature a melancholy man, and this sadness was plainly reflected in his art,” another writer explained. “But it was the sadness of an artist, a sadness tinged with languor and a sadness against which his artistry stood out in high relief in a manner that was quite extraordinary.”
I knew almost nothing about bullfighting when I got that first Manolete book, and to be honest, I’ve resisted learning any more than necessary about the sport because it seems so cruel. Still, here was a man going about his job without any of the clichéd, invincible bravado that I had associated with matadors, but instead with a look of resignation and unease, even victimhood: a second animal sent into that ring for the trivial enjoyment of a paying audience, trapped all alone behind the unknowable buffer of his face. Apparently, at the beginning of every bullfighting season, Manolete felt pricks of pain behind his eyes, as though he had walked into a dusty room. But there was no dust. “It must be fear,” he confessed.
I thought about this as I made eye contact with myself in all those old pictures. I couldn’t help wondering why this random matador had hurtled out of history, through that portal on a restaurant wall, to reach me here in the present — what inscrutable information he might be carrying, whether his life and his face had anything to do with mine.
Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez was born in Córdoba on July 4, 1917, and nearly died of pneumonia at age 2. When he was 5, he lost his father. From then on, he would spend his childhood clinging to his mother, who spoiled him.
Little Manolete was aloof and morose, and he wandered through Córdoba lost in thought. He liked to read. He liked to paint. He seldom played with other kids and was too shy to buy a ticket to go to the movies. And he did not care about bullfighting at all.
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The one corrida Manolete went to as a child didn’t excite him in the least, and when kids at school pretended to be bulls and matadors, play-fighting with one another, Manolete kept to himself. This confused his classmates: They knew Manolete came from a family of bullfighters and assumed he would follow in his relatives’ footsteps. They couldn’t understand why he was wasting his time at school. He would be a bullfighter soon.
It was true: Manolete’s grandfather and two of his uncles had been bullfighters, and so had his father, who also fought under the name Manolete. But the elder Manolete developed a degenerative eye condition as a young man, and though he kept trying to perform, even when he saw two blurry animals running at him instead of one, he eventually gave up the sport. (“The sight of a matador with spectacles was too ridiculous for the crowd to take,” Conrad writes in his biography.) He died broke and virtually blind.
The most successful matador in the family was Manolete’s great-uncle: a titanic, immaculately confident man known as Pepete. “Rather than ever having to conquer any fear,” Conrad explained, Pepete “simply did not recognize what the emotion was.” He had become a somewhat legendary figure after rushing to help an injured friend during a bullfight in Madrid in 1862, only to be gored by the animal himself. Pepete stood up immediately, dusted the sand off his pants and walked to the edge of the ring. Only then did blood start surging out of him. Regarding his wound with some curiosity, he asked, “Is it anything?” Then he died. The bull had harpooned Pepete straight through the heart.
This family history explained why Manolete’s mother, Angustias, sheltered her son. Even before marrying Manolete’s father, she was widowed by a different matador husband. And recognizing this tragic compulsion of the men in her orbit to throw themselves at bulls, she “sedulously kept from [Manolete] everything that even most remotely might turn his mind toward a passion which in her own eyes was the most fatal of all obsessions,” an acquaintance of Manolete’s wrote. This included giving away or selling her two husbands’ bullfighting costumes and other artifacts from their careers, to get them out of the house.
The events of Manolete’s early life are fluid in different tellings, and the details are often irreconcilable. Almost everything I read relayed his story in a kind of oldfangled, florid prose. To some unknowable degree, the truth was being turned into folklore. It read like a parable — the story of a man being swept passively toward his destiny. No matter what his mother did, there was only one future for her son.
The tale turns on a kind of mythic conversion story. One afternoon, when Manolete is around 11, he’s wandering past the bullfighting arena in Córdoba at the exact moment when matadors from all over Spain are filing in for an event. A crowd has gathered to cheer the bullfighters, but when a particularly famous one passes by, a man heckles him, barking that he’s nothing compared with the matadors that the city of Córdoba has produced. And when the heckler lists off a couple of these local heroes, Manolete is astonished to hear his own father’s name.
Manolete looks around, stiffens with pride; all at once, he sees the magnificent respect these matadors command, the crowd that has converged outside the arena just to slap them on the back or reach out to feel the fabric of their jackets. And, more than the prestige, he recognizes the money involved: the security that this sport might provide him and his mother. “Now it had happened,” Conrad writes, “happened suddenly and irrevocably”: Manolete wanted to fight bulls.
He sprinted home and managed to find an old matador’s tunic in a cupboard in the attic — the one bullfighting accessory his mother apparently overlooked in her purge. The Spanish journalist Antonio Díaz-Cañabate, who knew Manolete, describes him furtively lifting it, surprised by the garment’s weight, and slipping it clumsily over his shoulders. Suddenly, “some innate instinct” compels his arms forward; he begins swinging them around to execute a fit of imaginary cape work, as though, there in his attic, he is commanding an invisible bull. It’s at this moment that Manolete’s mother walks into the room, crying. “Alas!” she tells him. “The poison is already in your veins!”
From then on, Manolete would spend his adolescence hanging around bullfighters, silently absorbing their craft. He hadn’t ever wanted to fight, but as Conrad puts it, “He was starting to become a man and had just begun to realize that fighting bulls was simply what men in his family were supposed to do.” He was surrendering to the sport more than pursuing it, letting it drag him out like a tide. He was like the human inverse of Ferdinand the Bull.
The same kids at school who were confused when Manolete didn’t want to play bullfighter with them now excluded and mocked him. When he announced that he intended to fight bulls, one shot back: “You? You want to be a torero? With a thin and miserable face like that?”
By the time Manolete was 27, in 1944, he was appearing in three bullfights a week. One newspaper declared that he was “almost unanimously regarded as the greatest matador of all time.” He was mobbed in the streets and would soon be the subject of several books and a popular song, and would have a liquor, Anís Manolete, named for him. After a bullfighting season in Spain, he would spend the winter touring Latin America. His Mexican fans, known as Manoletistas, wore lapel pins of his face — his “elongated, dolorous profile,” as one reporter described it.
Soon, Manolete was said to be worth the equivalent of $37 million in today’s dollars and to command fees equivalent to $160,000 for a single afternoon. Already, he had dispatched more than 1,000 bulls. He always killed them swiftly and coldly, with a technique that had been largely abandoned because it left the matador momentarily exposed. He would lance the animal head-on, straight over its right horn — without smiling, without waving, seemingly without any recognition of his audience at all.
Every facet of his performances was similarly somber and machinelike. Early in his career, Conrad writes, “the stiffness of the lanky boy’s body and the sadness of his face . . . just caused audiences to laugh.” But Manolete’s manager had told him to stop mimicking the garish, balletic style of bullfighting that was popular at the time and taught him, instead, to leverage his rail-thin build and natural demeanor into something statelier. Even Manolete’s signature flourish, known as the Manoletina, was really an anti-flourish: He would wave the bull forward with the edge of his cape held behind his back, which allowed him to execute several passes in a row without ever moving his feet. It gave the impression that Manolete was hardly bothering, committed to a minimum of strain.
He brought the same asceticism to his life outside the ring. “Unlike most matadors,” one newspaper wrote, “his name is associated with neither liquor nor women.” He had few friends, and his fame made him wary of meeting new people. He spoke very little at cocktail parties; it seemed he had nothing to say. If a woman flirted with him, he responded in halting monosyllables. Asked by a reporter why he didn’t smile more, Manolete replied, “This business of the bulls is a very serious thing.”
In fact, his commitment to his trade was so stoic that it felt fatalistic at times, more powerful than any free will of his own. Once, during a fight in Mexico City, Manolete was gored in the leg, and as the medics carried him away, someone asked him why he stood his ground when even the crowd recognized how erratically the bull was behaving and yelled for him to fall back.
“It’s why I’m Manolete,” Manolete answered. “For that, I charge what I charge.”
Recently, I was passing through a metal detector at the entrance to a federal building when a security guard sprang off his stool, shaking his head, and waved at me to stop. He had a look on his face like, Give me a break. “Guy,” he said. “You got to lose the chew.”
I did a quick inventory of my mouth. Was I chewing something? Then I realized that he meant chewing tobacco: My jaw skews so severely to one side that he thought I had some wadded in my cheek.
“No,” I heard myself explaining to this security guard, this stranger: “This is my face. This is just what my face looks like.”
My face is a conversation piece. People can’t help noticing that it’s there and often want to talk about it, want to ask about it or even, once in a while (especially in high school), feel entitled to offer an unsolicited critical take. By now, I can tell when someone I’m talking to has gotten momentarily distracted by my face — scrutinizing its angles, considering it as an object. Mostly, they want to know why it’s so conspicuously crooked, to hear the story of the presumably outlandish accident that fractured my large, bumpy nose in one direction and wrenched my long jaw in the other, so that, no matter how I incline my head, you never feel I’m looking straight at you.
But I never broke any bones; my face just grew that way. At some point when I was a kid, things started drifting, just slightly. And, like a spacecraft that’s been infinitesimally poked off course, that lopsidedness kept escalating as I hurtled through the vacuum of adolescence. Like Manolete’s face, something about this arrangement seems to project gloominess, loneliness or woe. Not long after my friends emailed me that photo of the matador, I went on television to talk about a magazine article I’d written and, looking online afterward, found one commenter asserting that I had the face of a depressed pervert. Other feedback I’ve received about my face from strangers on the internet includes: “Deeply weird” and “Whoah! What the Hell is up with his rubbery jaw?!” Another commenter compared my face to something Salvador Dalí would paint: “Like a smirking Camembert melting in the sun.”
No one appreciates my face with more uncontrollable gusto than dentists. More than once, I’ve endured one calling in a colleague from the other room to come have a look. They peer at my X-rays with giddy concentration. Sometimes, they ask me to get out of the chair and stand against the wall, so they can get a few shots with a regular camera too. (I was in my mid-30s before I realized that these demoralizing portrait sessions weren’t a standard part of a dental exam.) Every time I go to see a new one, it’s the same: The dentist gets like an archaeologist before a dig, eager to know what sort of ruined structure is hidden under there, imagining all the physical dysfunction and pain I must be living with and the many diagnostic tools and specialists that could be gathered behind the project of setting it right.
They aren’t wrong. My jaw is so misshapen that I can feel it wriggle out of joint whenever I open wide enough for a sandwich or a yawn, until it bonks back into place. The gums on the left side of my mouth are wearing away at a distressing rate because those teeth apparently clamp together long before the ones on the other side can connect, and therefore do most of the chewing. I suffer through a lot of sinus infections and sinus pressure, as those passageways have been narrowed and clog all the time. And I get frequent headaches: There’s a particular kind of dull headache that sprouts under and above my eyes like mold. There’s one that presses and holds its weight against my face from inside, like a tantruming toddler squatting against her bedroom door to keep the world out. There’s the throbbing one that hangs around diffusely for hours and produces pain only when I focus on it, like a pang of guilt. Other headaches molder at the periphery of language, in a cloud of synesthesia and memories: purple pain, newsprint-colored pain; pain that has the turgid heft of Greek yogurt or smells like the inside of an umbrella; pain that funnels me back to one gloomy Sunday afternoon from my childhood in New Jersey when I was splayed on the carpet, watching Steve Martin in “The Jerk” on Channel 11.
There have been moments in my life when I’ve been motivated to better diagnose and even fix these problems, shuttling around for exploratory scans and consultations. Doctors have proposed plastic surgery to straighten out my nose, or surgically breaking my jaw and resetting it. After walking me through the complete cartography of the human face in an anatomy textbook, one talked about boring my sinuses open wider with lasers.
But I’ve never pursued any of it. I felt as if I should, but somehow, every possible intervention felt so garishly ambitious — so dramatic. For better or worse, all these problems seem normal to me now. And the truth is, I started to identify so deeply with the peculiarities of my face that the idea of correcting those imperfections eventually became unthinkable. Looking in the mirror, I’d try to imagine every part of me pointing flawlessly forward and wonder: Who would I be then?
When I was younger, I worried I was ugly. But by the time I discovered Manolete in my early 30s, there was even a measure of perverse vanity involved: I had come to appreciate my face so much that I was willing to live with the pain of having it attached to my head. And that’s why, reading that biography of the matador on my kitchen floor the night it arrived, it didn’t upset me to learn how supposedly grotesque my doppelgänger was, how relentlessly this face we shared was ridiculed. I was able to brush it off, even find it amusing. And that felt good — good to feel unthreatened, good to recognize that a measure of genuine self-acceptance had apparently been growing inside me, from an odd angle, all those years.
Reading about how ugly Manolete was that night, I could feel myself freely loving who I am, and therefore vindicated in my refusal to let all those doctors tear apart my face and change me. Everything suddenly felt simple.
But then I read the rest of the biography.
Early in the 1947 bullfighting season, an upstart matador known as Dominguín was sidelined for several weeks with an injury. Recuperating in bed and finding himself both bored and consumed by professional frustrations, Dominguín called a Madrid radio station to ask for time on the air. He had a lot of incendiary opinions about the sport, and about Manolete in particular, that he felt compelled to share.
Luis Miguel Dominguín was 21 and comes off, in written accounts, as an almost cartoonish distillation of every matador cliché the American imagination can conjure. Dominguín was suave, cocky, ambitious, defiant, theatrical — a man of “indomitable self-esteem” and physical vigor who was always surrounded by “company that was completely joyous and happy” and whose life seemed to pour over him in a warm, never-ending bath of eager women and delicious wine. (“If only you knew how difficult I find it to refuse,” he said of his womanizing. “I just let myself drift.”) Also — this is worth saying directly — he was stupefyingly handsome. His face was appealing in a perfectly symmetrical, proportional way.
Manolete had always been known for his understatement in the ring. Dominguín dealt in cheap flash. He would run the bull into the ground and toy with the animal until it was dazed and panting, then cuddle up to it, kiss the bull on the forehead and pose with one of its horns stuck close to his own ear — a move he called el teléfono. He was motivated almost exclusively by pride and claimed to fear humiliation more than death.
Dominguín began ascending professionally in 1943, just as Manolete’s fame was exploding. But then his career plateaued. He was having trouble breaking into the biggest corridas, colliding with some unbudgeable barrier that he couldn’t comprehend. Everyone who met Dominguín absolutely loved him; he didn’t understand why bullfighting fans weren’t going similarly wild.
When a correspondent from the radio station arrived at Dominguín’s bedside with a microphone, the young matador didn’t hold back. He railed about how unfairly the bullfighting world was treating him, how the elites who ran the sport wouldn’t allow him to compete against their golden prince, Manolete. “I am anxious to furnish proof that I am a better torero than he, and that I can unseat him from the pedestal on which public opinion has placed him,” Dominguín insisted. “It is my intention to prove my superiority in the only way open to me” — in the ring.
At first, Manolete tried to ignore Dominguín’s trash-talking. He considered this loud young man a nuisance, this whole manufactured rivalry repellent and unclassy. Manolete had already announced his plans to retire at the end of the season. He was only 30 but wanted to leave the sport while he was still healthy — still alive — and spend his days riding horses and hunting on a ranch outside his hometown. He was done — done with bulls but also done with the fickle, petulant fans for whom he fought. “They are asking more than I can give,” Manolete told the press. “Always more and more.”
But Dominguín kept hounding Manolete, and the public started piling on. The atmosphere around bullfighting was already losing some of its wickedness and danger; the longer Manolete reigned over the sport, the more the crowd expected of him and the harsher its impatience and disappointment became with his subtle and refined performances. Now Dominguín was giving fans permission to feel exhausted with the dour-faced, overpaid man who had dominated bullfighting for years. An old friend of Manolete’s, the bullfighter Carlos Arruza, characterized the backlash as sadistic: “Out of boredom, they now wanted to destroy their once-beloved idol.” They didn’t buy Manolete’s retirement as a transcendent end to a prestigious career. To them, he looked like a coward running away.
It began to take a toll. Arruza described Manolete “as too sincere an artist not to suffer under this treatment.” As the summer wore on, he started drinking heavily, and he seemed even more troubled and sadder than his face usually made him look. “To tell the truth, I was shocked by his physical state,” Arruza recalled. Manolete was trapped between what the world required of him and what he wanted for himself — unsure which image of his life was ultimately the real one, the more noble one to pursue.
One afternoon, Manolete went to visit his mother. She was concerned about how rundown he looked.
“Mother,” Manolete said, “I am not the child I once was. I have to fight bulls.”
He decided to accept Dominguín’s challenge.
Nine thousand people came to watch Manolete and Dominguín’s showdown in Linares on Aug. 28, 1947. The two matadors had already faced off twice in the preceding weeks, and each time Manolete found himself at odds with the public, as the crowds thronged behind Dominguín instead. Now, in Linares, Dominguín played to the crowd right away with ostentatious stunts, dropping to his knees in the sand and windmilling his cape as the first bull he faced leaped by. Manolete killed his first animal calmly. Many people applauded. Many others booed. “They keep demanding more and more of me, and I have no more to give,” he told an onlooker as they dragged the carcass away.
His second time out, Manolete drew a bull named Islero, bred on a ranch outside Seville notorious for the nastiness of its animals. A writer from Life magazine would describe the bull as “an unusually ugly customer”; it weighed more than 1,000 pounds and was aggravated from the get-go, shooting headlong out of the gate before eventually steadying itself, inscrutably, at the center of the ring.
Manolete stepped forward. He flared his cape, but the bull just glared at him. His manager didn’t like the look of the animal; he shouted at Manolete to walk away. But Manolete kept at it, eventually coaxing the bull into a fierce charge, then swiveling almost imperceptibly, so that its horns scraped the air close to his body. The crowd erupted and, after that, Manolete began wringing Islero through pass after pass, dominating the animal, until he was comfortable enough to turn his back on the bull, step away and make a dainty performance of preparing his sword.
The matador seemed to be allowing for a beat of anticipation before the kill. But right as Manolete speared the bull between its shoulder blades, Islero jerked suddenly to the right and planted a horn in Manolete’s groin. The bull shoved the man upward, into the air. And when Manolete hit the ground, the bull charged him again. Then it stomped on him.
People rushed in from all directions to help, swarming the bull like a flurry of flies. Some grabbed at parts of the animal and some grabbed for Manolete, to drag him out from under the heavy pistons of its hind legs. As they hauled the matador out the door, the bull, still with Manolete’s sword in its withers, crumpled in on itself, dead. Everyone in the arena turned silent, left to stare at the two pools of blood in the sand.
The tear at the top of Manolete’s right leg was six inches long. He was losing a tremendous amount of blood and going into shock. At 8 p.m., shortly before he was transferred to a hospital for surgery, he regained consciousness briefly and moaned about the pain. He would die just before sunrise the following morning.
And that was it: the end of the allegory into which writers always molded this real man’s life. But the more I scrutinized the story, the more ungraspable it became. Did the fact that he kept fighting bulls make him a steadfast hero or a kind of passive human sacrifice? Was he virtuous or pathetic? And did he even know himself? What killed Manolete: too much integrity or not enough?
I found it baffling, honestly. Even at the end, in his hospital bed, one of the last things Manolete reportedly said was: “Did the bull die?”
Do any of ustruly comprehend the pressures roiling inside our heads?
In my case, I mean this literally. Although no doctor has been able to tell me definitively, the source of my headaches most likely has something to do with my sinuses. Sinuses are empty spaces, perfect puddles of air nestled among our bones. But some of mine have apparently been nearly flattened, like a crushed plastic straw, as, over time, the bones of my jaw and nose grew out of alignment and plowed into them.
This, however, merely piled extra dysfunction onto a baseline of dysfunction that all human sinuses share. It turns out that all sinuses — not just mine — are works of lavishly bad engineering. This is especially true of the maxillary sinuses, under each eye. Unlike our other sinuses, which have openings at the bottom, these open at the top, near the bridge of the nose, so that sludgy, viscous mucus must push all the way upward through the maxillary sinus, against the force of gravity, before it can drain. (Maxillary sinuses are like toilets inside our faces that we are trying to flush upside-down.) For this reason, it’s the maxillary sinuses that most often clog, and where most sinus infections first take hold. It’s also where my own headaches tend to start.
After one doctor I visited explained this cockamamie arrangement to me, I wondered if I’d misunderstood him, and I started reading about the science of sinuses with a compulsion similar to the one with which I’d read about Manolete — even slogging through a paper on the sinuses of bulls and other bovids, which claimed to be “the broadest and most comprehensive quantitative analysis of sinus morphology ever attempted.” Ultimately, the study that was the most illuminating was also the most disgusting: It involved pumping salt water into the heads of five decapitated human cadavers and the heads of five decapitated dead goats, to measure how much liquid accumulated inside the sinus before the fluid level reached the hole at the top and the sinus started to clear.
The scientists did this with each head tilted in four different positions. They found that the goats’ sinuses drained extremely well when their heads were held in their natural position. Human sinuses, by contrast, performed terribly in their own, normal, upright orientation. They drained most efficiently when the heads were rotated forward 90 degrees. That is, our sinuses would work much better if we crawled around on all fours, staring at the ground — like goats.
Writing in The Journal of Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery, the researchers concluded that the design of our sinuses was likely to have been locked in early in our evolutionary history, before so much else about the human body changed. It may be an example of “the evolutionary lag phenomenon,” they wrote. The problem isn’t that these openings in our sinuses are in the wrong place; they’re positioned perfectly, relative to how we held our heads when we were apes. The problem is that they stayed that way. Cognitively, as a species, we may have been ready to stand up and flourish into the sophisticated creatures we are now. But our sinuses weren’t ready and never changed.
From a certain perspective, then — a sinus-centric perspective — we’re all walking around in a condition that’s against our very nature. Unless our actual nature is to try to transcend our nature: to struggle perpetually to do the difficult thing, in difficult circumstances, for which we are not perfectly built.
Which one is it? This was Manolete’s dilemma. As it turns out, it’s written just under the surface of every human face.
It has been 15 years since my friends spotted that photograph in Spain, and I’m now a dozen years older than Manolete was when he was killed. I’ve lost my wavy black hair, and sometimes, when I look quickly at pictures of myself, I see a hollowness under my eyes that wasn’t always there. Still, the resemblance seems to be intact; if I show someone a photograph of the beleaguered-looking matador, they’re usually still startled and laugh just as hard. And it still feels uncanny to me, too, even though it’s now even eerier to mark the differences between our two faces: the crow’s feet and other lines spreading through mine, and all the other ways it’s diverging from the one that never got to age.
Recently, after years of deflecting doctors’ concerns, I got a procedure to reinforce the weakened portion of my gums — a minor bit of maintenance that will buy my teeth some time. But evidently, I’m still committed to living with the headaches and all the other fallout; a couple of years ago, when I went to see a new dentist, I didn’t even politely hear out her spiel about nose jobs and jaw surgeries. Instead, I affected a kind of amiable world-weariness about the whole predicament, then smiled crookedly, leaned back in the chair and wrenched open my ramshackle jaw as wide as I could manage so that she’d just get on with the exam.
Some stories are valuable because they build toward a clear moral, a principle or set of instructions to have on hand when a certain kind of problem comes at you. But others just describe a problem you haven’t discerned before. These stories have value, too, even if they don’t get you any closer to a solution. The saga of Manolete is, for me, this second category of story — though I’ve spent half my adulthood stubbornly trying to force it into the first.
We all know that it takes courage to make peace with who we really are. Except, of course, if who we really are is a prisoner of inertia or fear or self-destructiveness or apathy or depression — in which case, we all know that making peace with that self would just be giving up, and that the courageous thing to do is to fight against our essential self and transform ourselves into someone stronger.
The problem is it’s often impossible to tell these scenarios apart: to understand when acceptance is Zen-like and healthy and when it’s just going to get you gored by a bull.
In the end, this is what I really look like a lot of the time — spun around and confused, charging determinedly toward one illusory ideal only to skid to a stop and double back to chase the other.
Maybe you’ve had the same fight with yourself. Maybe I look like you, too.
Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of a new book of essays, “Serious Face.” This article originated as a performance for Pop-Up Magazine.