“When Mary first came to us, she had a pickle stabber for a nose,” says Nicky Boyd the host of “Make My Day.” The camera cuts to a big profile shot of Mary’s head. “She had yellow, jagged teeth,” Nicky continues. “And deep furrows on her forehead and around her mouth.” The camera moves in on tight shots of the front of Mary’s face.
“Plus she had a weak chin that got lost in the folds of her chicken neck.” Nicky is remarkably upbeat considering the gravity of Mary’s condition. At chicken neck, someone off-camera prompts the audience to cluck. I’m already laughing. Not at Mary, mind you, but at the whole tacky production and the funny-looking people in the audience. My first giggle is actually an unexpected hiccup.
It’s 1989, so I’m watching this on an old TV set. I’m spared the precise, high-definition details. But even on my small, forgiving screen, Mary, 60, Elgin, Illinois, looks bad. And, of course, her mousy brown hair is a mess, she isn’t wearing any make-up in the picture, and she’s frowning to accentuate her pre-surgery lines and wrinkles. Even though I’m 20 years younger, on a day like today I probably don’t look much better than Mary. Since quitting my job to drink round the clock, I began imbibing at the crack of dawn. There was only about a three-hour respite between last night and this morning. If it weren’t for cocaine, I’d be blissfully passed out right now.
The camera pans the audience. All around there are serious looks of concern and negative head shakes at Mary’s (before) photos. One of the women pulls on her nose to check its length. Another covers her mouth in embarrassment at her own misshapen teeth. Some of the women pinch the flesh under their necks and whisper to their neighbors. The few men who are sitting in the audience are caught laughing. The camera moves away quickly.
I sit forward in anticipation of the big reveal and wonder if they’re going to go to a station break first. Yep, commercial time. Moving quickly, I head for the kitchen to make a fresh drink. I snort a line that’s already been set up on the kitchen counter. A series of five long, silvery lines against the backdrop of a Travertine counter. Beautiful. Then, because it’s only three in the afternoon, I decide to make this drink a bit less strong so I’ll be able to last until dinner when I can ratchet it up again for the final stretch. When I come back, they’ve returned to regular programming. Up on the screen is a huge shot of Mary’s tortured face, like a mug shot. Think of Nick Nolte’s famous DUI picture. Thank God I’m not as bad as Nolte… not yet.
Nicky Boyd stands next to the big screen with her hands and arms slightly outstretched as if to say “I ask you, what are you gonna do with a face like this?”
I kneel down directly in front of the TV – vodka in hand – so I can get a better look at Mary as she’s introduced. Nicky, a super-thin, 30-year-old wearing a black shirt and pants and a pink doctor’s smock keeps pacing back and forth in front of the photo, priming the audience. She has the loveliest, long, blonde, silky, straight hair. She flips it often. She’s attractive all right, but her good looks are mostly about her hair. I’ve always envied creatures like Nicky, especially when I was younger. Back then I was jealous of the competition. Now, looking back, the envy is more about missing out on the life I wanted and thought I deserved. These girls, with their long, blonde hair, appeared to be so smooth, so confident. They got first pick of the available men: in school, at work, at a party, in a bar. Maybe if I’d ever have let my blonde hair grow long and used a good conditioner, my life would have turned out differently. But instead of letting it grow out, I’d give up and get it all chopped off. I didn’t have the stick-to-it-iveness for a long, healthy mane, but I still wanted to stand out. I wanted to make my own unique statement. I was in my heyday when women like Twiggy and Mia Farrow came on the scene. Maybe if I’d just done that one thing – grow my hair long – I wouldn’t be sitting here now alone, jobless, man-less, and a lush. Watching daytime TV.
Nicky walks back to center stage and now I can see that to the left of her is a freestanding archway holding up a gauzy curtain. Mary is behind it, and I can see by her silhouette that she’s wearing a dress and heels.
“Come out, Mary, and greet your public,” says Nicky. The drummer of the band executes a loud, thunderous roll. Suddenly Mary pulls the curtain to the side, and steps out. The band switches to Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.”
At first all I can see is that Mary is wearing a green satin, sheath dress with a large gold, glimmery scarf around her shoulders. The scarf is probably to hide her lumpy arms. You can’t address everything in just one makeover. She’s wearing lots of undergarment support because her whole body is flattened inside the dress. Her large middle-aged bosom is squashed and minimized. Her breasts look like a mogul on a grassy lawn. The shiny fabric is ultra smooth. Just like her new face.
“Let’s see,” chirps Nicky. The camera moves in for a tight shot of Mary’s face. At the same time a super enlarged (after) photo appears in the backdrop beside her big (before) shot. The camera switches from Mary live to her gigantic photo-shopped image. Her nose is shortened and aquiline. Her face has the surface of a melted candle. The furrows on her forehead and around her mouth are gone. Back to Mary standing at the edge of the stage. Suddenly, she breaks into a huge horizontal smile. It’s likely her face can’t move up or down because of a new cosmetic treatment: Botox. I read all about it. I’m always researching the latest cosmetic procedures. At the rate I’m going, I’ll need lots of help in the near future. The camera moves in tight on Mary’s mouth. Where there was once a snaggle-toothed mess sits a set of bright, white Chiclets. Naturally, her make-up is done perfectly and her mousy, brown hair has been cut chin-length in a shiny, bouncy bob with lots of blonde highlights.
The first quick gasp escapes my throat. I feel my mouth and chin tighten and my neck begins to ache. Here come the tears. I inhale another big gulp of air and my face blows. Tears and snot begin to spill. My face takes on a grotesque expression. I’ve never been a pretty crier. I move back to the couch, put down my drink and grab a box of tissues. I’m crying for both of us – my life now, and Mary’s life after. But I wonder, am I allowed to have this much self-pity when I’ve done it all to myself? Haven’t I orchestrated every broken relationship, every dumb-ass misstep in my business career?
The band strikes up a stripper beat and Mary swaggers out onto a ramp that extends from the stage out into the audience. When she gets to the end of the ramp, she twirls a circle and a half and almost loses her balance on the last half-turn. She heads back toward Nicky. The camera pans the audience. There’s clapping and nods of agreement about the effect of the transformation. A few women shout “You go girl,” and there are several fist punches in the air. I notice many tearful, contorted faces, which only makes me cry harder.
It’s not just that I’m in need of a beauty makeover myself that brings me to tears. It’s also the thought – the dream – of getting a second chance. A shot at starting over. Doing my life differently this time. Mostly just doing IT, whatever IT is that I’ve been regretting not doing, with a bit more flair, buoyed by the confidence of youthful beauty. At this stage of my evolution and demise, I’d settle for getting a second chance now, at 40. Forget about my misspent youth: getting involved in drugs and alcohol in my early teens, screwing up in high school, dropping out of college, jumping from man to man, city to city, job to job. If I could just get a chance to start over again, I’ll stop commiserating about all the past mistakes. Maybe I can start off tomorrow with a clean slate. Today is already fucked.
I decide that tomorrow I’ll go to the mall and have those girls in the cosmetics department give me my own mini-makeover. Maybe I’ll buy new beauty products. I don’t mean the drugstore brands. Perhaps I’ll spring for Lancôme or even better. I can afford it. Then everyday I’ll dress up in something really sharp and go out and face the world. Even though I’ve put on some extra weight – a lot, actually – I can still find something cool in my closet to wear. Then instead of sitting at home drinking and drugging and watching TV, I’ll take myself to an upscale bar and restaurant for lunch – the kind of place that would normally intimidate me. The kind of place that attracts classy clientele.
I won’t sit at the bar and flirt with the bartender. I’m too old for that. And it looks pathetic in the middle of the day. No, I’ll take a table for two. I’ll order my usual: vodka rocks with a splash of soda and a squeeze of lime. Then I’ll read the menu slowly while I sip – repeat sip – my drink. As I daintily pick at a Salad Nicoise, I’m going to smile at everyone I see until a handsome, mature gentleman approaches me. Right now, between the booze and the coke, I’ve got a good buzz going. And because of the shot in the arm I just got from Mary’s renovation, I’m sure that meeting the man of my dreams can still actually happen. Forty isn’t so old, even though I know that the average 40-year-old man is looking for a 20-year-old woman. I’ll meet a man who’s not your typical dog. This guy will be the rare individual who appreciates a woman his own age. He’ll delight at my wit. He’ll adore my quirky sarcasm. He’ll view my addictions and other failings as interesting peculiarities – a déjà vu from growing up in the ‘60s. He won’t find my alcohol and drug use a problem. If anything, he’ll want to protect me when I’ve gone too far.
I go back to the kitchen to freshen my drink. I look out the window, and notice a young family – mom, dad, a kid in one of those expensive Italian strollers and their show-quality English springer spaniel. They’re walking briskly on this cold Chicago November day. Even though I’m ten floors up, I can still make out their faces. They look fresh, innocent, and happy. That’s what I want back – a fresh innocence. But wait, did I ever have that? I’m also aware of the shift in emotions that’s taking place already. Most of my resolve to go to the cosmetics bar tomorrow, or to have a nice lunch somewhere and meet my Prince Charming is beginning to dwindle. I get these surges in hopefulness a couple of times a day. They’re quickly replaced by confusion and despair. What’s more, it looks like I have to make a run to the liquor store and place a call to my cocaine dealer in order to get me through the night. To hell with tomorrow.
Standing in the kitchen, drink in hand, I mutter, lifting my glass to nothing but the outside of my mahogany kitchen cabinets staring at me, swimming closer in waves then receding. “Cheers, Mary.”
As the next sip of vodka spreads warmth down my throat and into my belly, a rare wash of kindness spreads throughout my heart. “I really mean it, Mary.”
Pamela Walters started writing in grammar school and won an Illinois, statewide writing competition in 8th grade. She was an advertising copywriter at agencies in Chicago and New York for 25 years. In the past few years, one of her short stories was included in an anthology published by Harlequin. She wrote two books. One was self-published, The Out Of Work Coloring Book. She’s seeking representation for her second book, Peanut Shells Stuck To My Veil; two chapters from the book have been published in literary reviews. Pam resides in Carmel, CA.