look in the mirror and say goodbye to my face. It's 7:30, the morning
of my plastic surgery. I'm due at the doc's in an hour. When I first
go to see him, I say, "I like my face, not the effects of gravity."
I mean the downward drift of my features which seem to be inscribing
the downward drift of my life. The doc's name is Mark Erlich. He suggests
a face lift, an eye job, and a chin implant. I decline the implant,
imagining infection or slippage. He reaches into the top drawer of
his desk and tosses me a small rubber rectangle with a couple of holes
punched out. I flex it, liking the feel. I ask about the holes, and
he says that's where, in time, tissue anchors the added part.
Next, he takes a
Polaroid of my left profile. It appears on a computer screen. With
an electronic stylus, he erases a fold of skin on my upper eyelid,
a shadow beneath my eye and a darker one that extends from nose to
chin and gives my mouth a puppet aspect. More erasing, and the loose
flesh under my chin disappears, and then the chin itself is extended,
becoming aligned with my forehead and nose. I take in the effect,
and I'm sold. In minutes, I've shifted from opposing an invasion by
a foreign object to accepting a melding of rubber and my flesh. The
new position feels like one I've weighed, although I haven't. "How
much?" I ask. He says, "Twelve thousand dollars."
I have thought I
would do this for a long time. I saved for it. My body is home, and
surgery is home repairs. You need a new roof and weather stripping,
no one argues with you. I like looking in the mirror. It doesn't hurt
anyone. Vanity (the pleasure we take in our qualities, even our disavowal
of vanity) is different from wanting flattery, which to me means needing
to hear that everything's all right when it isn't, can't be. I like
imagining cells engaged in beaverlike activity. I like thinking, period.
It's autoerotic, the mind being part of the body and thoughts, therefore,
possessing a physical dimension. Thinking, masturbating, looking in
the mirror -- all encapsulating pleasures, happy narcissism. Let's
call this the self-care element.
something else about me -- part of my impulse to negotiate life so
much through the body. I deal with loss and disappointment by mobilizing
the flesh--comforting it, training it--finding a way of reversing
the passive position. It's a defense with benign applications. When
I look in the mirror and think, "Fine," I can say, "Fuck you" to people
who intimidate me. I can do that without the mirror, but the mirror
helps if I wind up hurt.
a third, twisted piece in my head: a carping voice that says, "You
need to be fixed." At this point in life, though I still hear this
voice (it will never shut up entirely because (a) I'm my mother's
daughter (b) I'm female goods in a dick-driven market and (c) I'm
human), I don't allow it to make my decisions. I say, "Oh, it's you
again," and I hunt for the trigger du jour. The truth is, I
don't hate my neurotic patterns, don't wish them purged or myself
normalized. As with my sexual kinks (pleasures concocted from the
raw materials of sorrow and defeat), they remind me what I'm made
of, map my trajectories past helplessness.
times, as I undergo the facelift, I'm juggling self-care, defense,
and carping, trying to keep them straight, though to do so entirely
is impossible. I want to be alert, especially, if the voice that picks
on me assumes disproportionate weight. Sometimes it does, but I don't
forget the other motives, which have more sway these days in controlling
been referred by my friend Claudia, who, in researching an article
on cosmetic surgery, interviewed a slew of doctors, studied their
procedures, and watched an operation. She found that most pumped themselves
on the wealth and fame of their clients, while remaining aloof from
them as human beings. She deemed Erlich warm, his fees moderate. I
know a woman he's worked on and who looks terrific. I meet with her.
We're about the same age, with similar, slim builds and Mediterranean
skin. A year after her surgery, there are no visible scars, and her
taut jaw line seems an arrow to my future. She says she felt no pain
after the operation and healed easily but that, a week or so later,
became depressed. She isn't sure why.
if her fantasies of change exceeded what, in reality, a knife could
effect. She reminds me again to hunt for my own devious wishes, lest
I be left with them (like egg) on my face. Still, talking to her fortifies
my inclination toward Erlich. I think I should research the operation
further. After all, it involves blood, anesthesia, and risk. But the
visceral element -- that I'm subjecting my body to incisions and trauma
-- is what I want to avoid. I don't want facts in my way. I agree
to the lift in two weeks.
fast. I want to take care of myself, yes, but there's a trigger for
the timing, the urgency. His name is Evan. I've just been dumped,
and the facelift is part of a conversation I'm still having with him
in my head. I've known him a year, been involved with him half that
time. It's been a rollercoaster trip: closeness alternating with withdrawal
on his part, a clearing of air leading to more intimacy and, inevitably,
punishment for my being "too happy," as he once put it. He didn't
want me to expect affection to grow. He chose to end it by starting
an affair with someone else. He asked me to stay with him, then changed
his mind and wanted out. I wasn't only done to. I enjoyed him -- his
intelligence and wit. He appreciated my mind maybe more than anyone.
But the disappointment was wretched.
happens a week before my fifty-second birthday and a month before
his forty-eighth. The night he confesses his affair, I'm unaware that
anything's brewing and dress for the date. The face I see in the mirror
must look okay, even pretty, because surgery isn't on my mind. Surgery
flits in and out of my head while we're together, but his attraction
to me drains some of the need. When he pulls out, I feel the rejection
as a criticism of my flesh. It's my pattern, although it wasn't his
complaint and sex bound us as much as we were ever united. The age
in my face casts reproach, and my body, too, looks sad, as if the
problem has been in me, my body, something that can be mended, though
in reality there is nothing I can do.
to Evan he can't call or see me, wanting to check my fantasies of
resuming. The fantasies have a life of their own. Evan's body is muscular
and beautiful; in my go-into-action mode, the facelift is a way to
level the playing field. I look in the mirror and say, "You're not
going to get me," addressing everyone who's ever broken my heart.
I would postpone the surgery if I thought losing my boyfriend were
its only fuel.
everyone I'm planning the lift. To hell with body police, whether
zealots who oppose abortion rights or others who judge the desire
for beauty to be mere social conformity. To hell with the idea that
the changes over which we have no control, like aging, are acceptable,
while changes we can influence--through cosmetic surgery, bodybuilding,
and tattooing -- are suspect. My friend John is the most negative,
fearing pain and physical risk. He thinks I'll be disappointed when
the new face doesn't conjure a new man. I say I'm used to disappointment:
I'm a freelance writer. But maybe John's reservations go into me or
echo some of my own, because the day I pay Erlich, I feel deflated.
What if I do die on the table? People will mutter: "Live by the mirror,
die by the mirror."
are so enthusiastic, I feel stung. Do I need the work that
badly? I imagine my face with years erased, musing on pictures of
me younger. At twenty-five, wind whips my hair and I stare at the
camera devoid of irony. At forty, my hair is cropped and bushy, and
I look hopeful. After the lift, I'm not going to lie about my age,
but I like the thought of confounding people--as well as my own assumptions
When I was
fourteen, I'd try to imagine myself in two power-laden years: 1984
and 2000. In '84, at thirty-seven, I'd have duplicated my parents'
prickly marriage and predictable, family-centered existence. In the
year 2000, at fifty-three, I'd have grandchildren and look gray. As
these thoughts would gather, my head would fill with fog and I'd think:
Shoot me now. Today, without children, I feel the body of fourteen.
Perhaps, too, because I'm childless and have no way to project myself
physically into the future, nothing drains my desire to prolong youth.
I want the face of twenty-five or of forty -- but with the knowledge
I've gained since.
I want more time to be
young-looking. But is that like going in the closet about age? Is
it like wanting to pass for white if youíre light-skinned and not
all white (whatever that means)? Perhaps if I were planning to lie
about my age or the surgery, but Iím not. The face that wears age,
what does it say? Yes, yes, I know: We are going to die. Does the
smooth face smooth over this grimness? Maybe. Does it lead to smoothing
over other grainy facts? We shall see.
By the morning
of the operation, a Friday, the aging in my face has assumed grotesque
proportions. I am looking at myself as I imagine Evan did at his most
unsympathetic -- in other words, in my most carping way. On the subway,
I reason that the new face will soon look like me, becoming etched,
as it must, by my emotions and expressions. At the office, while Erlich
marks me with crayons to guide his incisions, I banter jokingly. I've
signed forms releasing him from damages for a variety of rare-but-possible
results, like asymmetry. I say, "I'm sure I'll look great, if I don't
die under anesthesia." He says he hasn't lost one yet.
the operating room, next to his office, as casually as if going for
coffee. The anesthesiologist describes my IV cocktail, which includes
a pain killer, an antibiotic, and a drug to erase memory. I'll breathe
normally. As the sedative enters my veins, I slip below consciousness.
The next thing I know, three and a half hours have passed and Erlich
is saying that everything's fine and that I look great. My face is
encircled with bandages, from the top of my head to my chin. I open
my eyes and see clearly. The lids retract only a slit, and I feel
the stitches. In a short while I sit up.
Esther, who has come to pick me up, is there, cheering me, and the
scene reminds me in a weird way of the triathlon races at which I'd
rooted for Evan. I believed in his body, and I believe in mine, in
its ability to obey and contain me. I'm looking forward to recovery
as a space to be an animal, take a break from my mind. I wrap a scarf
around my head and stretch the cheap sun glasses I've been instructed
to bring over padded ears. I ride in a wheel chair to the street,
get in a cab, and arrive home by two-thirty. The freezer's been stocked
with corn niblets, and Esther applies them, packed in baggies, to
at Erlich's eighteen hours after surgery, feeling so limber I sit
on the floor outside his office, awaiting his arrival. He dresses
my incisions, removes two drains in the back of my head, and rewraps
me. Back home, I can work at my computer. For two days, while scar
tissue forms in my chin, chewing food is difficult except in small
bites. A slight bruise forms under my right eye and a darker one on
the right side of my chin. My neck turns light chartreuse, and for
the first two or three days my face looks like an inflated moon baby.
Four days after
surgery, with scarf and sun glasses, I ride the subway to Erlichís
again, eliciting no stares, though, granted, there's a lot of competition
for attention down here. He removes all the bandages, plucks out the
stitches in my eyelids, as well as those in a small incision under
my chin and more in front of my ears.
resume normal activities except exercising. With makeup, the bruises
are nearly invisible; the swelling is mostly down. Friday night I
go out with a friend and Sunday attend a party. Monday, more stitches
are removed, and I'm allowed to ride my bike and work out.
At no time
during this period am I in pain. I feel discomfort, yes, soreness,
tightness. I'm a hardy beast, a fit athlete. I don't smoke, do drugs,
or drink much. I take in stride injuries from lifting weights and
biking spills, so throw that in the hopper. But whatever you've heard
about pain and post- surgical disfigurement, it's not my story. There
are incompetent docs. People die from anesthesia and other risks.
It's important to shop for an established surgeon and talk to his/her
patients. Warnings serve consumers, but scare stories about cosmetic
surgery, which proliferate in the media, are also fingers wagged at
people -- mainly women and males regarded as behaving like women --
made out to be masochists for (a) conforming to superficial ideals
and (b) electing suffering as the price for beauty. No one wants to
look good merely because of social pressure. Attractiveness is fun;
it feels good. In our guilt-seeking minds, it's not possible to have
fun and feel good without paying a dire price. In reality, it is.
The new chin
is a boon to my profile. The scars on my eyelids, fitting neatly into
the creases at the tops of the sockets, can barely be seen. My eyes
look fresh and open. My jawline is taut, no skin sagging. The shadows
around my mouth are gone, and the corners of my mouth, which had been
tending downward, are level.
I look pretty, revitalized, and younger than my years but not necessarily
younger than before. One friend thinks I appear more mature, the chin
creating classical proportions and changing my previous "childlike
look." My friend Sandy -- we've gone through our life stages together
-- says she's not thrilled by the prospect of seeing me look younger,
thinking it will intensify her sense of having aged. I realize that,
in my excitement, I haven't factored in this reaction from peers.
In my desire to look younger, I've lost sight of wishes different
from my own--that some people need space to reject surgery and look
the age they are. How each person uses the body to deal with loss
and desire is so longstanding and complex. For some, the freedom place
is doing nothing.
the phone with another woman when she asks, "Do you want Evan to see
you?" The question hits me in the stomach, because I know it's true.
Though I don't want the relationship, I'm secretly hoping that fixing
my flesh will make him desire me again--so I can be let off the hook
of being discarded. A male friend thinks I have, in fact, erased time
and, knowing that the women in Evan's life have generally been in
their twenties and early thirties, thinks I intended the facelift
to "wipe out the young girlfriends." The shoe fits.
nearly all the remaining sutures have dissolved and I'm almost done
healing, I ask Erlich what he did, now wanting the details. After
incisions are made around the ears and into the hairline at the neck,
the skin is cut away from the muscle and lifted like a tent. Two large
muscles are detached from their moorings, lifted, and sutured with
polyester that stays in the face. The skin is lowered, and that's
when art and craft come in. "It's like doing good upholstery work,"
he says. "You have to find the right angle, so it's neither too tight
or too loose. I experiment until I'm happy. You secure the position
with incisions in the scalp, and their placement in very important."
About an inch of skin was cut off on either side of my face. Erlich
jokes he's cloning me.
implant is "shoehorned" through the small incision in the mouth--the
tissue being very flexible, so that a small opening expands for placement
yet closes with a few tiny stitches. The implant sits on the bone,
beneath muscle, which is why the wearer can't sense it. For the eyelids,
the crucial element is placing the incision in the crease, so it doesn't
show. Fat, skin, and muscle are removed and tiny stitches sewn.
has passed. Friends study my face, getting used to it, and I enjoy
the attention. The dramas of getting over Evan and changing my face
are done. I've cleared the decks to write fiction and a long essay
and most days sit home feeling insecure about my mind instead of my
body. I know how to ride the tension, playing with words and forgetting
that what I put out will eventually be seen. Will my face change me,
packaging seeping under the skin? Satisfied for the moment, my looks
are less on my mind than in a fair while, though a weird thing has
happened: I forget that this face, like every other, changes each
day, depending on sleep and emotions. Evan hasn't seen me. I haven't
rekindled his desire, and the whole deal of him has lost air. I do
have the face, which in a way he inspired -- my parting gift, me.
I'm still fifty-two, still L. Stone with scary parts and no mate.
I collect more looks from strangers these days: the mutual eye candy
that makes theater of ordinary life, the pinball effect where things
happen if you're there to bounce against. The confidence is exhilerating.
If I live long enough to age so much no surgeon can fix it, then I
will have postponed the inevitable. You could say that's what all