At 24, living in New York City, I visited a dermatologist I'd picked at random off my healthcare provider's website. She had a crispy perm and silvery blue eyeshadow up to her brows, and she attacked my cheeks with a sharp, stinging laser encased in a beige plastic wand. A week later, I looked like I had fallen asleep facedown in a hammock with a sunlamp burning beneath me. Those crusty lumps and bumps eventually healed, while the flush both remained and changed—it was more mottled now, more like an archipelago of splotches and blotches than a smoothly continuous crimson tide.
I tried to undo the damage at a day spa in SoHo, where a beautiful Russian-accented woman told me to lie on a table beneath an enormous camera-like device suspended from the ceiling—for all I know, it was discarded parts from a Proton satellite left over from the Soviet space program. The apparatus flashed in my general direction over the course of three serenely pointless sessions, costing about $1,200 in total. (Let's put that figure in perspective: At the time, I worked at an alternative weekly.)
After the calamity of the $1,200, I just tried to live with it. The English major in me reached for cultural-historical perspective. I thought of the libertine fops and madams of 18-century France, with their white-powdered faces and crimson-painted cheeks. I thought of John Keats, dead at 25 of tuberculosis, which gave its sufferers a telltale milky pallor with flushed cheeks—a look that actually became fashionable in 19th-century Europe. (Their version of heroin chic, perhaps.) Keats was the bard of the blush: He wrote irresistibly of a cheek "rosy-warm / With the tinge of love, panting in safe alarm," and elsewhere compiled a taxonomy of the versatile blush:
I thought of the phrase apple-cheeked, so sweet and wholesome. I thought of Marge Simpson's mother, dispensing advice on prom night: "If you pinch your cheeks, they'll glow," she rasped. "Try to break some capillaries."
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