I thought of my friend Julia, who once told me, "I love your cheeks. They're Victorian." I had no idea what that meant, but she said it with such a quintessentially Julia-esque mix of kindness and certainty that there was no need for clarification—my self-consciousness had already been bundled away in a confidence-boosting swaddle of crinolines and velvet and Charles Dickens by the fireside.
And there I stayed for six years, until the good people at O spirited me off to the renowned dermatologist Roy Geronemus, MD, director of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. There, at last, the apples in my cheeks get a clinical diagnosis: telangiectasias, or dilated blood vessels near the surface of the skin. Over several sessions, the wonderfully calm and steady Geronemus will zap my telan-et-ceteras using a pair of lasers with names straight out of a Buck Rogers comic: the Gemini and the V-Beam.
"It works like a smart bomb," he says, with a gentle matter-of-factness that strips any violence out of the analogy. "We're selectively injuring the vessels. They aren't critical to the skin's functioning, so you can shrink them down, constrict the blood flow, and as a result, reduce the redness."
The Gemini feels like hot needle pricks; the V-Beam like concentrated blasts of subzero air. When I leave the Laser & Skin Surgery Center after the first round, I look like a windburned skier; a few hours later, irregularly shaped islands and isthmuses of swelling come out in relief on my cheeks. For a couple of days, I look like I'm storing nuts for the winter. By the third session, the post-zap puffing isn't so bad—it creates a honeycomb pattern that reminds me of the syphilis slides from eighth-grade health class. As the swelling recedes, it leaves tiny, angry purple flowers scattered across my face, which disappear within the week.
I make a total of four visits to Geronemus's office, at three-week intervals. Each time I return, the ruddiness I've worn forever has faded by several degrees. It's like watching a Polaroid develop in reverse. One week after my last treatment, my cheeks simply glow, beaming palest petal-pink.
Upkeep may be required: Geronemus tells me that any major hormonal change—a switch-up of birth-control methods, pregnancy, or, eventually, menopause—could put me back in the red. So could time. For now, I go everywhere without makeup—a first. Sometimes I'll give a little start, as if I've just realized that I forgot to wear a bra or my skirt is bunched in the back. Then I remember that only my face is naked, and I can feel myself blushing.