Saving Face

We are dining in a favorite trattoria, two couples, when my friend Judith, who prides herself for being two days younger than me, announces: “I’m having work done.”

Because she and her husband recently moved, I assume she means renovations. Removing walls. Installing cabinets. But then Judith abandons her bowl of pasta porcini and says, “Watch.”

Palms down, she places her hands under her jaw line, then lifts the skin up and towards her ears. Her face becomes so taut I’m reminded of the iguana I’d once photographed in Cozumel.

“Tell me you’re not?” I ask. But Judith nods like it’s already a done deal. She’s done her homework and has recently conferred with doctors Aston, Baker and Sherman— “the absolute best!”

Hey, you forgot Barnum and Bailey, I resist tossing in, conjuring up the lardy lips of Leona Helmsley, the stub-nosed Michael Jackson, while wondering: how does Joan Rivers blink?

As a good friend I offer up a genuine compliment. “You do not need plastic surgery. You look terrific, never better!” But Judith ignores me and scoops dough from a wedge of semolina. Mouth stuffed, she mutters something about our rapidly approaching “big birthday.”

“Screw you, Judith. That’s at least a year away.” I massage the knot in my gut— where her boot has just landed.
But she’s made up her mind. Even her husband, whose belly keeps the table an awkward two feet away, seems nonplused. He possesses an Archie Bunker approach towards the subject of facelifts, likening the extravagance to shelling out for another piece of expensive jewelry. His attitude reminds me of my father who’d nixed my mother’s campaign to get me my very own nose job as a sweet sixteen present. Mom had hers in ’44 before it was fashionable or even perfected. She was instructed to wear a small metal clamp with screws that were tightened to reduce the swelling. Her nose, though void of its hump, was left with more ridges than a Ruffle’s potato chip.

Sympathizing whenever hearing this tale, I allowed her the fantasy of seeing a perfect nose on me. And so, I would pose, statue still, while beaming behind me, Mom held a pocket comb against the bridge of my nose, concealing my budding bump, to glimpse at what I might, one day, look like. Until then, I hadn’t realized a bump existed. I was in the habit of looking at myself straight on. Profiles were something dark and formless that we cut-out in art class. For years my self-consciousness festered the instant I received a sidelong glance. At once I wanted to flee, to hide my imperfection from each and every viewer. 

I excuse myself from our table and find the ladies room. Waiting for a stall, I peruse the lady line-up along the sinks: women applying lip-liner, powdering their T-zone shine, fluffing, primping— even a flosser or two. This is when it happens: I become claustrophobic, uneasy, smothered by some invisible pressure to measure up. Something feels amiss— out of place, but mostly out of reach. Is it my bump, I wonder? I feel an aura of déjà vu that causes me to glance over my shoulder. But wait, there is no bump. I had it hammered out years ago, under the advisement of an ENT doctor to improve a sinus condition.

It’s been said that while wearing the cast, I’d suffered a personality change. I awakened one morning and there I was—Gidget! Overnight, I went from Sande B. to Sandra Dee. The ski-sloped shape of the plaster provided some false sense of security. I became as perky as a cheerleader using words like shucks and darn. I wore my hair pulled in a high ponytail for the first time. I had lost the self-consciousness that followed me like a pesky twin, since the day I turned my head sideways in the mirror, and Mom happily sculpted the make-believe-me.

I skulk back to my table feeling bloated, recalling our waiter’s little white lie− when he swore there’s hardly any butter in the risotto. The room has mushroomed with so many young-fit-attractive women. It’s as if they’ve jumped from the frescoes and slithered into the banquettes. Chills invade my scalp. What if I’m left behind? One day find myself the only one who decided not to turn back the odometer and mileage traveled by this multi-decaded face. Judith is not the only one of my friends to go under the knife as my grandmother was fond of saying. How can I forget my childhood friend, Paula, who after marrying an Adonis, nineteen years her junior, underwent rhinoplasty, had an eye lift, neck lift, silicone implants and was featured on 20/20 as a guinea pig for the latest laser technology? Growing up, Paula was perpetually premenstrual while I was simply… pre-teen. I envied her evening ritual of dotting every zit with Noxema. While Paula moaned with cramps, I ate a dozen brownies and never got a pimple. Now, well over fifty, she gets to look— ten.

I guess it is possible that soon everyone I know will soon be nudging their contours North, while I allow gravity to seek the opposite pole. When I return to our table, my husband stands to pull out my chair. He’s giving off his signature beam, in the wake of which (if I catch it just right) I can almost see myself as he sees me: straight on, smooth, nearly perfect− owning the face I may just decide to keep.