Illustration: Vivienne Flesher
My dear friend, whom I'll call Beth, and I have shopped together for cosmetics ever since we met in college, but our perspectives couldn't be more different. In the fancy Fifth Avenue department store where we found ourselves one morning, she headed directly to the La Prairie counter and began talking to the young saleswoman about eyeliners with the precision of a chemist, which she was. My own approach was much less focused: I wandered until something caught my fancy. "Freeze your wrinkles away," intoned one of the vendors, who looked a good deal older than most of her colleagues. "Try it," she wheedled, catching my eye, "you'll love how cold it is." "Why not?" I thought. Who knew; maybe the cold would counteract my hot flashes.
"So," said the woman, as I settled myself on the stool, "what line do you want to erase?"
I sighed. Where to begin? "I guess these," I said, pointing to the parentheses framing my mouth.
"Oh, honey," she said, laughing, "you'll never get rid of those. Nothing will. But how about this—" indicating a furrow over my left eyebrow I'd never noticed or cared about...until right now.
As promised, the cream was cold, almost too cold, the sensation vaguely medicinal, and in the end I didn't buy it. I didn't buy anything that day. And Beth, who usually drops hundreds of dollars, left after 90 minutes with only a lip gloss. "What's up?" I asked her. "Where's your stash?"
"I'll tell you," she said, taking my arm as we walked south on Fifth Avenue, "but only if you promise not to say a word to anyone."
"What are we, back in junior high school?"
"Promise," she insisted. So I did.
"I'm having my face done," she said.
Forget the freeze cream: This was a shock to my system.
"I thought I'd have just eye work," she continued, talking rapidly, as if hoping her explanation would outpace my surprise and whatever other feelings I might be harboring. "But the doctor, well, she was so persuasive. She kept gently showing me all these flaws." In the end, Beth was having almost everything tucked, plumped, firmed, and sculpted—her eyes, mouth, lips, chin, even her neck.
"So you don't think I'm awful and vain?" she asked.
"No, not at all," I said, though in fact I did, at least in part. As I heard myself say all the right things (how good it is to do something positive for yourself, why shouldn't she?), I was aware of suppressing a decidedly mixed cocktail of feelings I couldn't possibly have articulated.
"I just looked around my lab one day," she explained—she worked for a pharmaceutical company—"and I realized I was the oldest person there. And I couldn't stand to think of myself as matronly, especially when I don't feel old inside. Bert"—her husband—"understood instantly. Actually, he's completely psyched. Once I had his support, it was an easy decision." She paused. "What about you? Do you ever think about it?"
"Sure," I said. Every middle-aged woman puts in time before the mirror, pulling back the sagging skin around her mouth and eyes. "But I'm too afraid. Surgery scares me."
We left it at that, colluding in the fantasy that I was being honest, that I'd hit some kind of bedrock truth that obviated the need for further discussion.