T. C. Boyle
She liked his hands. His eyes. The way he looked at her as if he could see beneath the skin, as if he were modeling her from clay, his fingers there at her jawline, at the orbits of her eyes, feeling their way across her brow. She’d stepped in out of the hard, clean light of early summer, announced herself to the receptionist, and barely had time to leaf through one of the magazines on the end table before she’d been ushered into this room, with its quiet shadows and the big black-leather reclining chair in the middle of the floor—it was like a dentist’s chair, that was her impression, only without all the rest of the paraphernalia. And that was good, because she hated the dentist, but then who didn’t? Pain, necessary pain, pain in the service of improvement and health, that was what the dentist gave you, and she wondered about this—what would this give her? The recliner said nothing to her, but it intimidated her all the same, so she’d taken a seat in a straight-backed chair just under the single shaded window. And then he was there, soft-voiced and smiling, and he pulled up a second chair and sat close, studying her face.
“It was the Botox I was interested in,” she heard herself say, the walls soaking up her words as if she were in a confessional. “These frown marks, right here?”—she lifted a hand to run two fingers along the rift between her eyes—“and maybe my eyes too, underneath them? I thought—well, looking in the mirror I thought they looked a little tired or saggy or something. Right here? Right along here? And maybe you could—if there’s some procedure, nothing radical, just some smoothing out there? Is that possible?” She couldn’t help herself: she laughed then, a laugh of nerves, yes, because all this was strange to her, and he hadn’t said a word beyond that first soft hello, just fixed those eyes of his on the lines of her face and hadn’t let go even to blink. “I guess it’s because I’m coming up on my birthday—next week, I mean. I’ll be thirty-five, if you can believe it, so I just—”
“Yes,” he said, rising, “why don’t you have a seat here”—indicating the leather recliner—“and we’ll have a look?”
On the way out, she stopped at the desk to make an appointment for the Botox treatment. Both secretaries—or no, one was a nurse flipping through files in the far corner—had flawless faces, not a line or wrinkle visible, and she wondered about that. Did they get a discount? Was that one of the perks of the job? There was a color brochure to take home and study, forms to sign. The Botox was nothing, he’d assured her—simplest thing in the world, and it wouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes—and the procedure on her eyes was very routine too, a snip of the excess skin and removal of the fat pads, the whole thing done in-office, though she’d be under sedation. It would take a month to heal, two to three months till it was perfect. He had run his fingers under her chin, stroked the flesh below her ears and pressed his thumbs into the hollows there. “You’ve got beautiful skin,” he said. “Stay out of the sun and you won’t need anything major for fifteen, twenty years.”
“I was just wondering,” she said to the secretary, feeling bright now, hopeful. “Dr. Mellors’ wife—did he work on her? I mean, the kind of procedure we’re talking about for me?” She pushed her credit card across the counter. “It’s no big deal, I was just wondering if he would, you know, on his own wife . . .?”
The secretary—Maggie, her nametag read—was in her thirties, or maybe forties, it was hard to say. She’d put her hair up in a bun and she wore a low-cut blouse over a pair of suspiciously full breasts, but then she was an advertisement, wasn’t she? Her smile—the complicitous, sunny smile that had beamed out continuously to this point—faded suddenly. The eyes—too round, too tight at the corners—dodged away. “I wouldn’t know,” she said. “He got a divorce five years ago and I’ve only been here three. But I don’t see why not.”
The procedure—the injection of the botulin toxin under the skin between her eyes and then creeping on up to her hairline, one needle prick after another—hurt more than she thought it would. He numbed the area first with a packet of ice, but the ice gave her an instant headache and still she felt the sting of the needle. On the second or third prick she must have flinched. “Are you comfortable?” he asked, inches from her, his pale gray eyes probing hers, and she said, “Yes,” and tried to nod, but that only made it worse. “I guess I don’t handle pain well.” She tried to compose herself, tried to keep it light, because she wasn’t a whiner—that wasn’t her image of herself. Not at all. “Too sensitive, I guess,” she said, and she meant it as a joke.
The purpose of the toxin, as he’d explained to her in his sacerdotal tones, was to paralyze the muscles between her eyes and the ones that lifted her brow, too, so that when she squinted in the bright sun or frowned over her checkbook, the skin wouldn’t crease—it wouldn’t move at all. She could be angry, raging, as furious as she’d ever been in her life, and certainly her body language would show that—her mouth, her eyes—but her brow would remain as smooth and untroubled as if she were asleep and dreaming of a boat drifting across a placid lake. Of course, the effect would last an average of three months or so and then she’d have to undergo the procedure all over again. And he had to warn her that a small percentage of patients reported side effects—headaches, nausea, that sort of thing. A very small percentage, negligible really. This was the safest thing in the world—in the right hands, that is. These Botox parties she’d read about? Not a good idea.
Now he took her hand to lift it to her forehead and the patch of gauze she was to hold there, just till the pinpricks closed up. “There,” he was saying, “that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Lying back in the chair, staring into his eyes, she felt something give way inside her, the thin tissue of susceptibility, of surrender: she was in his hands now. This was his domain, this darkened room with its examining chair, the framed degrees on the wall, the glint of polished metal. How old was he? she wondered. She couldn’t say, and she realized with a jolt that he wore the same expression as the nurse and the secretary, that his brow was immobile and his eyes rounded as if they’d been shaped out of dough. Forty, she guessed. Forty-five, maybe. But he had a spread to his shoulders—and those hands. His hands were like electric blankets on a cold night in a cabin deep in the woods. “No,” she lied. “No, not bad at all.”
“All right, good,” he said, rising from the chair, though he hadn’t shifted his gaze from her. “Any problems, you call me right away, day or night, OK?” He drifted to the table in the corner and came back with a card imprinted with his name, the number of the office, and an after-hours number. “And let’s get a date set up for that blepharoplasty—we’ll plan it around your schedule.”
She was about to get up too, but before she could move he reached forward to take the pad of gauze from her, and she saw that it was flecked with minuscule spots of blood. “Here,” he said, handing her a mirror. “You see, there’s nothing there—if you want, you can cover up with a dab of makeup. And you should expect results within a day or two.”
“Wonderful,” she said, giving him a smile. In the background—and she’d been faintly aware of it all along, even through her minor assault of nerves—a familiar piano piece was sifting through speakers hidden somewhere in the walls, as orderly and precise as the beating of a young heart. Bach. The partitas for keyboard, and she could hear the pianist—what was his name?—humming over them. She rose and stood there a moment in the still, shadowy room with the bright light focused on the chair in the middle of the floor, absorbing the music as if she’d just awakened to it. “Do you like classical music?” she murmured.
He gave her a smile. “Yes, sure.”
“Is that what this is? I never know—it’s the music service. But they’re good and I think it helps the patients relax—soothing, you know? Hey, better than heavy metal, right?”
She made a leap here, and everything to come was the result of it, as inevitable and indisputable as if she’d planned it all out beforehand: “The reason I ask is because I have two tickets for Saturday night—at the Music Academy? It’s an all-Bach program, and”—she lifted her eyebrows, she could still do that—“my girlfriend just told me this morning she can’t make it. She was—she had to go out of town unexpectedly—and I was wondering: would you like to go?”
After the concert—he’d begged off, said he’d love to go but had to check with Maggie, the secretary, to see if he was free, and then he wasn’t—she went into Andalusia, a restaurant she liked because it had a good feel and a long bar where people gathered to have tapas and drinks while a guitarist worked his way through the flamenco catalog in a nook by the fireplace. She knew people here—the bartender, Enrique, especially—and she didn’t feel out of place coming in alone. Or she did, but not to the extent she felt elsewhere. Enrique took care of her, made sure nobody crowded her. He was protective, maybe a little obsessive even, and if he had a thing for her, well, she could use that to her advantage. A little mutual flirtation, that was all, but she wasn’t seriously looking—or she hadn’t been, not since she’d got her divorce. She had a house, money in the bank, the freedom to eat when and where she liked, to travel, make up her own schedule, and she was enjoying it, that was what she kept telling herself.
She was having ceviche and a salad, sipping a glass of Chilean red and looking through the local newspaper—she couldn’t resist the Personals: they were so tacky, so dishonest and nakedly self-serving, and how pathetic could people be?—when she felt a tap at her shoulder and there he was, Dr. Mellors, in a pale gold sportcoat and a black silk shirt open at the collar. “Hello,” he said, “or should I say buenas noches,” and there was nothing even faintly medicinal in his tone.
“Oh, hi,” she said, taken by surprise. Here he was, looming over her again, and though she’d been thinking of him all through the concert, trying to fit him into the empty seat beside her, for one flustered second she couldn’t summon his name. “How are you?”
He just smiled in answer. A beat went by, Enrique giving her a sidelong glance from the near end of the bar. “You look terrific,” he said finally. “All dressed up, huh?”
“The concert,” she said.
“Oh, right, yeah—how was that?”
“All right, I guess.” It had served its purpose, giving her an excuse to put on some makeup and leave the house, to do something, anything. “A little dreary, actually. Organ music.” She let her smile bloom. “I left at the intermission.”
His smile opened up now too. “So what do I say—I’m glad I couldn’t make it? But you look great, you do. No complications, right? The headache’s gone away? No visual problems?”
“No,” she said, “no, I’m fine,” and then she saw Maggie, with her hair down and a pair of silver chandelier earrings dangling above her bare shoulders, watching them from a table in the dining room.
“Good,” he said, “good. Well, listen, nice to see you—and I guess we’ll be seeing you next week then?”
The first thing she did when she got home was put on some music, because she couldn’t stand the silence of an empty house, and it wasn’t Bach, anything but Bach, her hand going to the first disc on the shelf, which turned out to be a reggae compilation her husband had left behind. She poured herself a glass of wine as the chords fell like debris into the steadily receding sea of the bass line, a menace there, menace in the vocals, and the unshakable rhetoric of the dispossessed. Reggae. She’d never much liked it, but here it was, background music to her own awakening drama of confusion and disappointment. And anger, anger too. He’d blown her off. Dr. Mellors. Said he was busy, too busy to sit beside her in a dim auditorium and listen to a professor from the local college sweat over the keyboard, but not in the least embarrassed to be caught out in a lie. Or even contrite. He’d tried to make a joke of it, as if she were nobody, as if her invitation counted for nothing—and for what? So he could fuck his secretary?
The windows were black with the accumulation of the night, and she went around pulling the shades, too many shades, too many windows. The house—it was what she’d wanted, or thought she wanted, new construction, walk-in closets, three-car garage, and six thousand square feet of views opening out to the hills and the ocean beyond—was too big for her. Way too big. Even when Rick was around, when she was wound-up twenty-four/seven with selecting carpets and furniture and poring over catalogs and landscaping books, the place had seemed desolate. There were no nooks—it was nookless, a nookless house that might as well have been a barn in Nebraska—no intimate corners, no place where she could feel safe and enclosed. She went through the dining room to the kitchen and then back round again to what the architect called “the grand room,” turning on all the lights, then she poured herself another glass of wine, went into the bathroom, and closed and locked the door.
For a long while she stared at herself in the mirror. The lines—the two vertical furrows between her eyes—didn’t seem appreciably different, but maybe they were shallower, maybe that was it. She put a finger there, ran it over the skin. Then she smiled, seductively at first—“Hello, Dr. Mellors,” she said to her reflection, “and what do I call you, Ed? Eddie? Ted?”—and then goofily, making faces at herself the way she used to when she was growing up with her three sisters and they’d pull at their lips and nostrils and ears, giggling and screeching till their mother had to come in and scoot them out of the bathroom. It didn’t do any good. She snatched the glass up off the marble countertop, drained it, and looked at herself the way she really was, a not-so-young woman wearing a permanent scowl, her nose too big, her chin too narrow, her eyes crystallizing in wariness and suspicion. But she was interesting. She was. Interesting and pretty, too, in her own way. Prettier than the secretary or the nurse or half the other women in town. At least she looked real.
Or did she? And what was real worth anyway?
She shrugged out of her clothes then and for a long while studied herself in the full-length mirror on the door. In profile her stomach swelled out and away from her hips, a hard little ball of fat—but she’d just eaten, that was it—and her buttocks seemed to be sagging, from this angle, anyway. Her breasts—they weren’t like the breasts of the women in the porn videos her ex-husband seemed so turned on by—and she wondered about that, about the procedure there, about liposuction, a tummy tuck, maybe even a nose job. She didn’t want to look like the secretary, like Maggie, because she didn’t care about Maggie, Maggie was beneath her, Maggie wasn’t even pretty, but the more she looked in the mirror the less she liked what she was seeing.
On Tuesday, the day of her pre-op appointment, she woke early and for a long while lay in bed watching the sun search out the leaves of the flowering plum beyond the window. She made herself two cups of coffee but no eggs or toast or anything else because she’d resolved to eat less, and she didn’t even lighten the coffee with a splash of nonfat milk. She took her time dressing. The night before she’d laid out a beige pantsuit she thought he might like, but when she saw it there folded over the chair like a vacated skin, she knew it wasn’t right. After trying on half the things in the closet, she decided finally on a black skirt, a cobalt-blue blouse that buttoned up the back, and a pair of matching heels. She looked fine, she really did. But she spent so much time on her makeup she had to speed down the narrow, twisting roads to the town spread out below and she ran a couple of lights on the yellow and still she was ten minutes late for her appointment.
Maggie greeted her with a plastic smile. She was wearing another revealing top—borderline tacky for business dress—and she seemed to have lightened her hair, or no, she’d streaked it, that was it. “If you’ll just follow me,” she chirped, and came out from behind the counter to lead her down the hallway in a slow, hip-grinding sashay, and then she was in the examining room again, and the door closed softly behind her. Awaiting an audience, she thought, and this was part of the mystique doctors cultivated, wasn’t it, and why couldn’t they just be there in the flesh instead of lurking somewhere down the corridor in another hushed room identical to this one? She set her purse down on the chair in the corner and settled herself into the recliner. She resisted the impulse to lift the hand mirror from the table and touch up her eyes.
“So,” he was saying, gliding through the doorway on noiseless feet, “how are we today?”
“OK, I guess.”
“OK? Just OK?”
“Listen,” she said, ignoring the question, “before we go any further I just wanted to ask you something—”
“Sure,” he said, and he pulled up a stool on wheels, the sort of thing dentists use, so he could sit beside her, “anything you want. Any concerns you have, that’s what I’m here for.”
“I just wanted to ask you, do you think I’m pretty?”
The question seemed to confound him, and it took him a moment to recover himself. “Of course,” he said. “Very pretty.”
She said nothing, and he moved into her then, his hands on her face, under her eyes, probing along the occipital bone, kneading, weighing the flesh while she blinked into his unwavering gaze. “Which is not to say that we can’t improve on it,” he said, “because it was your perception, and I agree with you, that right here”—his fingers tightened—“there’s maybe just a few millimeters of excess skin. And—”
“I don’t care about my eyes,” she said abruptly, cutting him off. “I want you to look at my breasts. And my hips, and, and”—the formal term ran in and out of her head—“my tummy. It’s fat. I’m fat.”
She watched his eyes drop away. “I don’t, uh,” he began, fumbling now for the right words. “You appear to be fine, maybe a pound or two—but if you’re interested, of course, we can consult on that too, and I’ve got brochures—”
“I don’t want brochures,” she said, and she began to unbutton her blouse. “I want you to tell me, right here, right now, face to face, because I don’t believe you. You say I’m pretty but when I asked you to—to what, accompany me to hear Bach of all people?— you said you were busy, too busy, and then I see you out on the town. How am I supposed to feel?”
“Whoa,” he said, “let’s just back up a minute—and don’t do anything, don’t unbutton your . . . because I have to ask Maggie into the room. For legal reasons.” He was at the door suddenly, the door swinging open, and he was calling down the hall for his secretary.
“I don’t want Maggie,” she said, and she had her brassiere off now and was working at the hook of her skirt. “I want to look real, not like some mannequin, not like her. Leave her out of this.”
She was looking over her shoulder at him as he stood at the door, the skirt easing down her thighs, and she hadn’t worn any stockings because they were just an encumbrance and she was here to be examined, to feel his hands on her, to set the conditions and know what it would take to improve. That was what this was all about, wasn’t it? Improvement?