Never underestimate the things that money can buy. Obtain the right people, give them enough money and prepare yourself for a miracle.
In Alex's case, two miracles were involved: the one that saved her life and the one that saved her face. Well, they didn't actually save her face; they built her a new one. Apart from the healing, nature had nothing to do with the face that Alex brought home from the hospital.
Eighteen months ago, on a warm September morning, she was driving her red MG along the Marin county coastline. I never liked that car; it spent more time in the shop than on the road, and what did we need with a third car anyway? But the biggest drawback, I complained, was the size: Something that slight was dangerous. Alex, who had spent a good deal of her glorious youth in that car, paid me no heed. Whatever Alex disagreed with she sweetly ignored, a habit that infuriated me. I can't tell you how many times I stood waiting for a response that never came.
On a steep switchback in the redwoods, not far from Stinson Beach, Alex was sideswiped by four young men in a Jeep. By the time I learned of the accident, she was undergoing surgery at San Francisco General. Broken collarbone, cracked pelvis, broken tibia, crushed ankle, collapsed lung, punctured kidney, ruptured spleen, broken nose, jaw and cheekbone. At some point the doctor's voice fell away and there was only a roaring in my ears.
As soon as Alex was stabilized, her parents had her airlifted to Stanford University Medical Center. For me they arranged accommodations at a nearby hotel, where I stayed for most of the ninety-one days it took various gifted surgeons to save Alex's life. While she might have survived her injuries in another trauma center, the restorations would not have been as graceful, nor would she have been walking again so soon.
Her face, though: That's where the real talent took over. Alex's father is the president of a rental car company; her mother is the principal shareholder of the world's third largest cosmetics firm. I don't know how or where they looked, but a prodigy was procured. A man known by one name: Malik.
Only in a rare light, at a singular angle, can you see any trace of his work. That's because he did everything from inside her nose or her mouth, or at her hairline. No scars was the whole point. And you would not believe what can be done these days with artificial bone and skin.
He could have matched the side of her face that wasn't smashed up; he did give her that option. No, Alex told him, she wanted something new. A chin out of a book. A nose that had never been. This of course pleased him. Plastic surgeons don't want to replicate, they want to invent; they want to pull back the curtain and take your breath away. Eight surgeries later he did just that.
Her parents wanted to sue; her sisters cried. I tried to speak but couldn't.
She is beautiful—who would dispute it? Attractive before, stunning now.
In the first few weeks after Alex came home I would often find her in the bathroom, studying her reflection as if she were trying to understand it. She would turn this way, that way, then stare at herself straight on. After forty-one years she was meeting a different person in the mirror; the adjustment could not have been easy. Even though Malik had given her the face she wanted, I wondered if she ever mourned her lost image, if she were ever sorry. I couldn't ask her that.
In bed, looking down the length of her slim body, it was hard to imagine the injuries she had suffered. After the other surgeons were done, Malik performed his laser magic on her scars, all but erasing them. Only minute silvery lines remained: at her ankle, along her shin, etched on her lower back. She had lost some weight; otherwise this was the body I had adored for thirteen years and I couldn't stop marveling over the fact that she was here. Whole and safe.
When I looked at her face, which could still startle me, it was her eyes that gave me comfort. A soft and steady brown, her eyes had not changed: Alex was there.
In our early days, when love eclipsed everything else, when just the sight of her jacket on a chair made my heart quicken, when all we asked of life was the chance to be together, we would spend long afternoons lying in bed, gazing at each other's face. Alex had a sensual face: broad forehead, strong jaw. Her nose was rounded at the tip, her lips were wide and full and inviting. She had laugh lines around her eyes, which I thought made her even more alluring, and all year long her skin had a ruddy glow; she looked healthy, animate; a skier just off the slopes.
Now the tan was gone, her new skin was flawless. Each of her features was trimmed down: the forehead narrowed, the chin chiseled, the nose tapered. Her mouth was utterly changed, the once lavish lips replaced with a more demure pair. Why had he changed her lips?
Well, it's a lot to ask, isn't it? When I fell for Alex, I fell for her face, the original one. Suddenly I was supposed to love the face of a stranger—and a younger one, at that. During the final surgery, Malik couldn't resist a nip and a tuck around her eyes; Alex looked like a thirty-year-old. I was still my staid forty-three.
It wasn't like we could take up where we left off. She was a phenom, a triumph; frankly I was in awe of her. Much of the time I didn't know what to say, how to proceed. I gave her room, made small talk, pretended. We both did.
I did break down once in front of her; I couldn't help it. We were sitting at the kitchen table discussing a menu for dinner, and suddenly I wanted—needed—to see Alex the way she had been. It was like missing a close friend who had passed away, the agitation that comes with remembering she is gone. So keenly did I miss Alex's face—the real one, the one somewhere underneath—that I started to cry. Alex rose from her chair and wrapped her arms around me, and murmured that everything was going to be okay, that she was the same, that really she hadn't changed at all. "I love you," she whispered, "I love you." At that point she still did.
Change is an odd thing. It's with us all the time, yet we can't feel it, can't gauge it, until afterward. I don't know how many weeks had passed before it occurred to me that I hadn't heard Alex laugh, not in the endearing way she used to. Alex had a laugh like no one else. For a couple of seconds she would just stare at the person speaking, as if absorbing the full force of whatever had amused her, and then she would let out a single startling whoop. Now her laugh—which wasn't frequent, come to think of it—was more of a chuckle. When I mentioned it to her, casually, carefully, she looked puzzled and said, "Really? My laugh is different?" I don't think she had any idea that she was changing by the minute, growing into another version of herself, the one her doctors had set in motion.
The season was in full swing now and Dana and I could barely keep up with the orders. Hidden Cottage Herbs was outgrowing its greenhouses; it was time to start looking for a second facility, maybe even a partnership.
"I found another van," Dana said. "Great price. 34,000 miles. The racks are already in it."
"Where is it?"
"Millbrae, but they'll drive it up here. They're bedding growers—were bedding growers."
"We'll need another driver," I said.
Dana looked up from the flat of garlic chives she was trimming. Sun from a skylight shone down on her straight blonde hair; she always wore it parted in the middle, bangs across her eyebrows. Her eyes widened. "How about Garret?"
Garret was Dana's brother and I liked him a lot. He was handsome, boyish, disarmingly good-natured. Men and women alike fell hard for Garret, not understanding that he was indiscriminately charming. Garret had helped us out on a few occasions and I knew he could win over even the edgiest customer. The problem was, he had no sense of schedule or urgency, and spotting something en route that intrigued him, he was apt to drift off course.
"Maybe," I sighed. "We'll see." I poked another four seeds into a pot and looked up. "Ricky wants more hours." Ricky was our go-to guy, the one we depended on to do everything from deliveries to van repairs to irrigation maintenance.
Dana shook her head. "He's already working ten-hour days. He's getting expensive."
She was right; we had to watch the overtime. I finished seeding the basil and reached for a bag of marjoram seeds. "Is it worth it?" I asked. "Expanding?"
Dana shrugged. "If we can find a partner, it might be easier." She plucked another chive plant from the flat and neatly shaped it with four quick snips. It was her favorite job here; she loved the smell of fresh garlic, how it lingered for hours on her hands and clothes. "How's Alex doing? Is she back at the shop yet?"
Alex owned a hat store in north Berkeley, not far from our house. Business was good, no matter what time of year, and most of that success stemmed from Alex and her knack for putting people at ease. For one thing, she wore hats herself. She used to say that the hat she selected each morning dictated the sort of day she would have: a cowboy hat granted confidence, a cloche brought out playfulness, a beret bestowed tenderness, a newsboy cap gave her daring. There's no quicker way to break out of a mold, she believed, than by jamming on a hat. People entered her store, game but tentative, and strode out happily, bold new versions of themselves. They'd look at the glossy photos on the walls—gorgeous celebrities in audacious headgear—and they'd see Alex, laughing with other customers, handing them Panamas and Trilbys, moving to the beat of the Caribbean music she played, and in no time at all they too would be trying on fresh looks, smiling at themselves in the mirrors.
"Actually," I said, "she's selling her lease."
Dana looked up, her scissors in mid-snip. "What?"
"It's true. She's tired of hats. She doesn't even wear them anymore."
"Wow. What's she going to do?"
"I don't know. She wants to get stronger, I know that. She's joined a gym and hired this trainer who specializes in injury rehab."
"Does she still have a lot of pain?"
"Only in her leg. Her back is pretty good now." I stood up and stretched, groaning. "Speaking of backs."
Dana nodded. "All this bending over." She slid the last flat of chives onto the rack and wiped off her scissors. "Something I've been wondering. How is it between you two these days?"
I looked over at her.
"Yeah," Dana said. "That."
"It's okay," I said, sitting back down. "Fine." Dana was my closest friend, and the only person I knew who would ask me a question like that.
"Because the other day I was thinking about it. I was thinking how it must be sort of like sleeping with another woman, you know? I mean, it's Alex, but with a hot new look." She grinned. "Like getting your cake and eating it too."
"You'd think." I twisted the tie on the marjoram seeds and tucked them back in the drawer. "It's hard, Dana. It's going to take time."
"Well, yeah, I get that. It was a shock for all of us."
"She doesn't look like Alex," I said. "How am I supposed to be okay with that?"
Dana looked at me steadily. "I don't know, but you're going to have to figure it out. You can't just keep wishing for the old Alex. You're still in love, right?"
"Shelley, the thing is, Alex didn't break any contracts. It's her face, her life. This new look, it's obviously something she really wanted to do. How long are you going to resist it?"
I didn't answer. Dana had a talent for getting right to the point.
"And you have to remember," she added, "she hasn't changed fundamentally."
I stood up and walked over to the window, beyond which I could see the verdant rows of plants in one of our greenhouses. "I'm not so sure about that," I said. "What about the hat store? What about her laugh? Have you heard her laugh since she came home?"
"I guess not," said Dana. "But I haven't been around her that much. She's been through a lot—maybe she just doesn't feel like laughing."
"Maybe," I said, doubtful.
"Shelley," she said, "be in the moment."
Dana was right. I resented Alex for wanting to change, for making a decision that was hers to make. If I was unhappy, whose fault was that? When you got right down to it, how much effort had I made on our behalf? I'd just been treading water, hoping day by day to feel less bad.
"Be in the moment" was Dana's mantra. She and her brother seemed to have a gift for this, perhaps a genetic advantage. I kept spinning away, losing sight of the world in front of me, stranding myself in days long gone.
Now I began to regard Alex more closely, more calmly, ignoring the tug of memories. It certainly wasn't hard to look at her—believe me, everyone looked at her. And looked. In stores we got better service, in restaurants, better tables. It was as if her beauty were a kind of currency or luck: People simply wanted to be near her. I felt myself letting go, forgetting sometimes that Alex's face was not God-given. The idea that I could be newly seduced, that I might fall in love all over again, edged into my thoughts.
And I could see that Alex felt it, the change in me, the growing receptiveness. She became more animated, more willing to confide. "I don't miss my old face," she said, "not at all—that clown nose, the big lips." She paused. "But I am nervous about the way I look now. It's a big responsibility." Alex had no false modesty about her appearance. She said it was like being given the keys to a luxury car, one she didn't quite know how to drive.
Beyond brief phone exchanges, usually regarding a financial transaction (Alex had a trust fund), Alex's parents still weren't talking to her. Presumably they had paid Malik for his services, but they were appalled at what he had done to their daughter and considered the transformation a conspiracy: He and Alex had plotted against the family genes with no regard for the feelings of others. While Alex had never had a close relationship with her enterprising parents, I knew that this condemnation bothered her—probably because it roused her guilt—and I resolved to be as supportive as I could. For love and loyalty, she could count on me.
And so things between us began to improve, or so it seemed. Having sold the hat shop, Alex was helping out a couple days a week at the nursery, answering phones, grooming plants; I think she enjoyed it. At home we worked in the yard together, weeding the vegetable beds, staking up the dahlias and delphiniums. We sponged the living room walls a restful Tuscan gold and painted our bathroom a deep emerald green, which inspired stencils of bat rays and turtles. We barbequed oysters and ate them on the deck, tossing the shells into the flower beds below. On Sundays we sprawled in the sunroom, reading the paper and drinking French roast till noon. In short, a comforting dailiness was returning to our lives; in the car, at the table, in the bedroom, Alex's face was becoming, simply, Alex.
If only Nicole Wolf's name didn't keep popping up. She was Alex's physical therapist. Born and raised in London, she'd migrated here for her graduate work, first at Boston University, then the University of Southern California. I didn't doubt the extent of Nicole's knowledge or how important she had been in Alex's recovery. The limp was gone and Alex had stopped taking pain meds; both her legs were stronger, the calf muscles taut and well-defined. She was in the best shape of her life, Alex told me; she felt "fantastic."
I had no idea how much money Alex had spent on Nicole, nor did I want to know. I just wondered why, at this point, Nicole was still needed. I also wondered why she was beginning to prescribe our menus, as well as our personal care products.
The first time I saw Nicole was at the gym. Indulging my curiosity about her, I had stopped there one day after work. Alex had told me that Nicole was "a nice-looking woman with short brown hair." I was not prepared for the bronze super-human I saw on the treadmill, resplendent in a vermillion bra top and black shorts. Her arms and thighs were gorgeously muscled and you could have broken a plate on her stomach. Her dark hair fit snugly around her head, reminding me of armor. As I approached, Alex, who was on the neighboring treadmill, saw me and waved, then said something to Nicole who turned her head my way and smiled. Her teeth were alarmingly white, the incisors curved and larger than normal, ready for anything.
Not long after that she came for dinner, her first time here (as far as I knew). Once again I was struck by her radiant health—teeth, nails, skin, hair, all sleek and shining, as if they were living their own robust lives and Nicole was their host. She was wearing an indigo suit, a white blouse and a pair of gold earrings that I realized were vaulting gymnasts. When she shook my hand she hurt me a little.
Naturally I was uneasy about this formidable figure who spent hours and hours exercising half-naked with my partner, manipulating her limbs, instructing her to do God knows what. I studied them surreptitiously, behind the irises Nicole had brought (I have to give her credit: She brought flowers and wine, she didn't talk too much and she left before I started wishing she would). I never saw any sign of flirtation between her and Alex. In fact, Nicole focused her avidity on me, asking me all about my business and how I liked being an entrepreneur and did I know a good accountant. Alex, listening to us, was gracious and at ease, happy to see that her roasted eggplant pizza was such a success. Across the table, in a new peach-colored blouse, with her dark honey hair swept up, she was breathtaking. If anyone was enamored that night, it was me.
Dana finished her cosmopolitan and ordered another. The server looked over at me. "Another Merlot?"
It had been a bad day. The memory function on our fax machine had failed and several orders were floating in the ether; Ricky called in with a broken shoulder (skateboarding); and Garret managed to back the new van into a light pole, mangling the fender. When Dana suggested a drink after work, I jumped on it. We were sitting in the lounge at Skate's on the Bay, which fortunately wasn't crowded. Only three other tables were occupied, and these with quiet couples.
Dana squeezed a lime wedge into her frosty pink drink and shrugged. "At least it wasn't another car he backed into. He said he'd pay the deductible."
"That's okay," I said, "no need." I was feeling expansive, restored, thanks to the wine. We were sitting at a table beside a massive salt-stained window. A few feet away two seagulls rocked on the gray waves. "How long did they say the repair will take?"
"They said it'll be ready on Friday. How long will Ricky be out?"
"I don't know. Maybe two weeks—he's not sure; he needs medical clearance."
Dana gave a sigh. "Two weeks." She shifted in her chair, looked at me dubiously. "Maybe Alex can come in?"
I shook my head. It had been over a month since Alex had helped us out. "She doesn't have the time. She and Nicole are starting a business."
"Well, I'm not sure how they'll market it, but it's a two-pronged approach to self-improvement—not to be confused with spiritual growth of course. Nicole will deal with the body and Alex will be a sort of beauty therapist."
"A beauty therapist?"
I nodded. "She's taking some kind of accelerated program, learning all about the latest cosmetic techniques—lasers, resurfacing, chemicals peels, fillers, Botox. She wants to evaluate people and tell them what their options are. She's researching clinics so she can do referrals."
"Ambitious," Dana murmured.
"Oh yeah. It's all she's talking about lately. That and our diet. She's purged the fridge. I don't think there's anything in there right now but kale and soy milk."
Dana looked puzzled. "You two have always eaten healthy stuff; I didn't think there was anything to improve on."
"Well, Alex does. And she hasn't stopped at the kitchen; she's gone through the bathroom too, tossed out the Loreal and Jergens. She's got us using this pricey line of skin care products from England. Splendour, it's called. Nicole turned her onto it." The fog had rolled back in; surprisingly close, a sailboat slowly came into being. I took another swallow of wine.
"Nicole Wolf," I sneered. "I bet that isn't even her name. I bet her real name is Hortense. Hortense Broadbottom." Dana laughed.
"And everyone made fun of her because she was fat and pasty, so she turned herself into a hard-body and sprayed on a tan." Frowning, I ran a finger along the slick edge of my glass. "And then she came to America and started stalking my girlfriend."
"Are you jealous?" Dana said.
"I'm getting there. All the time she spends with Alex. And that accent she pours on that makes everything she says sound so goddamn charming." I took the red plastic toothpick from Dana's napkin and snapped it in half.
"Things were going so good"—I arched an eyebrow at Dana—"yes, especially that, and then Alex climbed on this health and beauty kick. She gets out of bed at night and makes notes. Every five seconds she has a new idea for the business. Naturally she's spending a lot more time with Hortense."
Dana folded her arms on the table and looked at me squarely. "Shelley, you have nothing to worry about. Alex adores you. Besides, she'd never cheat; it's just not who she is—you know that."
I did. No one who knew Alex would question her honor. Her license plate cover read: "Do the right thing—even when no one is looking." She once told me that she could understand the impulse to cheat; she just couldn't fathom anyone actually doing it.
"It's not so strange," Dana went on, "that Alex is starting this business. She lived it; she's a walking advertisement." I turned my head and looked at the bar, regarded the colorful rows of liquor endlessly reflected in the mirror behind them. Bars made me think of Christmas.
"There are worse things she could be into," Dana said. What if she suddenly wanted to do one of those extreme sports—skiing off cliffs. Ice-climbing. What if she wanted to move to LA and become a soap star?"
Looks For Life. Alex was the one who came up with the name, as well as the investors. Given her business savvy and connections, money would not be a major problem. Lucky girl, that Nicole, whom I knew was saddled with student loans and presumably a sizable car payment (she had recently acquired a black Mercedes SUV).
As a way of marketing Looks For Life, Alex had begun writing a book about her ordeal. The first part, she told me, would recount the accident and consequent surgeries; the second part would explain the procedures on her face; the last part of the book would "demystify" cosmetic surgery and help people understand their many options. "I know that my case is exceptional," Alex said, "but that's just the point, letting people know that amazing things are possible, that they don't have to live with looks they don't like."
Although I had never confessed this to anyone, it frightened me a little that Alex had molted her prior visage with such apparent ease. If it cost her anything beyond money, she had not let on.
"But is that always the answer?" I said. "What about liking yourself just as you are? I mean, people born disfigured or scarred in accidents, I can see the value of surgery then, but not for—"
"Not for the rest of humanity? So if you are merely ugly you should learn to live with it?"
She was looking at me in a way I didn't recognize. I was used to returning to her eyes for reassurance; velvet brown, flecked with gold, they were the same eyes I had fallen into the day we met—now they made my stomach clench.
"Sounds like that old myth," she went on, "about adversity conferring character. Why should people suffer? I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to make life easier."
"It just seems like the wrong message," I said, faltering.
"But hair dye and makeup are okay? That's absurd. You can shave your legs, but you have to keep the cellulite. You can cover up your broken veins with makeup but not lasers." She reached up and removed her earrings, dropped them on the granite countertop. She looked bored. "Shelley, surgeons can do more these days than cleft palates and cataracts."
I felt confused. Who was this woman with all the answers? Where was the Alex who had sidled away from arguments, leaving me to reach my own conclusions?
"I know," I said, "but people in general are not beautiful. You would have them all running to plastic surgeons? How many people can afford that?"
She regarded me with exaggerated patience. In a flat voice she said, "You're right. Most people can't afford it. But then I won't be dealing with 'most people.' Obviously."
And there it was again, that snobbery. Where had that come from? Alex had never condescended; it was one of the things people loved about her: the way she accepted their foibles, urged them to laugh at themselves, have fun with life.
Our friends had noticed it too, this change. Maureen and Lorrie, the couple we were closest to, the women we had spent ten days in Hawaii with, mentioned to me that Alex was "more removed" now, that they sometimes felt uncertain around her, and not because of her beauty. It was something else, they said; they weren't sure what. "She's so..." Maureen paused. "So eloquent." Which was not a word that customarily sprang to mind when you thought of Alex.
We weren't spending a lot of time with Maureen and Lorrie, or any of our other friends, these days. With everything going on, Alex had little time for socializing, though she had mentioned making some new friends at the gym, people with similar goals, I imagined. People with perfect bodies.
And yes, I was becoming self-conscious about mine. I am a middle-aged woman, reasonably attractive, only a few extra pounds—less than ten, I'm sure. I have short ash blonde hair (more ash than blonde now), which I don't and won't color, and aside from mascara and moisturizer, I put nothing on my face. Aging, I have learned, is a matter of forgiving: Pardon each new wrinkle and spot as it arises, and you're done with it. I was beginning to lose that assurance, beginning to pause at the mirror and wonder what Alex saw when she looked at me, what treatments she might recommend. And what about my body? What about the way her hands had paused last week on my waist, on the twin bulges over my belt, the way she looked at me and said nothing. What was she thinking then?
Dana drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. We were in the van, stuck in traffic on Highway 80. In the back was our last delivery, six flats of cilantro for Dillard's nursery in Emeryville. Ricky was making deliveries in Lafayette, though he was probably done by now.
"Hope we get there before they close," said Dana.
I tried to see what was going on in front of us, but there was only a river of cars and trucks. "Maybe there's an accident."
"I doubt it. Eighty is always bad now." She put on the left turn signal, then turned it off. "Left lane's no better than this one. Tell me a story."
The sun was beginning to set over the bay and the windows of the high-rise condominiums on the left were blazing gold. Summer was nearly over; this morning when I left the house I got my first heartbreaking whiff of autumn, a mixture of leaves and smoke, a stirring sharpness. Beautiful, serious autumn.
I couldn't smell autumn at the moment, only the exhaust of a few thousand vehicles. On the right a big burgundy pick-up surged ahead. There was a decal on the cab window of four flying ducks, and below that the words: If it flies it dies. "Morons," I murmured, settling back into the seat.
"I feel fat," I said.
Dana kept her eyes on the road. "You are in no way fat."
"You're not that either." She looked over. "What's up?"
"I don't know. I just wonder if maybe I should put more effort into myself."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, you know—hair, skin, teeth. Maybe I'll get my teeth whitened."
Dana accelerated a few feet. "Is this about Nicole again? Because her teeth do not look natural. Nothing about Nicole looks very natural." Nicole had stopped by the nursery a couple weeks before; Dana had given her a tour.
"But that body," I said, gazing now at the side of a red Jeep that had what looked like bullet holes in the door.
"So she's got a nice body." She looked over at me again, tapped my thigh. "Got news for you, dearie. You are way prettier than Nicole."
I smiled back. "Thanks." What would I do without Dana? We had known each other longer than I had been with Alex. Dana was a rare breed: a woman who had left the lesbian circuit when she fell for a man—a geologist named Bodie. I didn't hold it against her; I liked Bodie, a big bear of a man who made me laugh.
"And like I said, I don't think Nicole's after your woman." The traffic began to break up; we were gaining ground. "Remember when she came to your place for dinner and asked all those questions about our business? Well she was the same way when I showed her the nursery. She's focused on one thing and Alex is the way she can get it. I don't think she's a home-wrecker, I think she's a gold-digger."
It was true that Nicole was the one who had approached Alex about starting a business. It was also true that Nicole had accumulated some debt.
"How's it going?" Dana said. "The business."
"It's going. They've found some office space near the gym, and Alex is working with an editor; they're doing the final revisions on the book."
"That was fast. So she has a publisher?"
"Oh yeah. That wasn't any trouble at all. Horrible accident, miraculous surgery—throw in Malik's name and a few before-and-after pictures and you have a bestseller."
"Absolutely. Alex has already told me that she'll be doing book tours soon. I wouldn't be surprised if she wound up on TV. Oprah."
"You're probably right," Dana said, nodding.
"And I bet Hortense figured all that out from day one."
One thing for sure: I could probably afford to spend a little more time primping (I showered, dressed and was out the door in under twenty minutes), but no way was I going to wind up like the woman in the Lexus who had just edged by us. For a moment our eyes met and she tried to smile—perhaps she thought she managed it; what I saw was a grimace, the skin so taut it appeared to be covered with cellophane. Her eyelids were drooping under the weight of false lashes, her mouth was a fire red gash and her hair—the color of cantaloupes—was elaborately rigged on top of her head. She was fierce, this woman. She had time in a stranglehold and she was not giving up an inch. She was losing, she knew it, but she was not giving up.
It was a scene from a Lifetime movie. Candles burned low; a pair of cold halibut filets in the pan, their lemon butter sauce turned to wax, and me slouched at the table, finishing the bottle of dinner wine.
"You're still up?" Alex said when she walked in. It was 11:42. I edged a hard look her way and nodded toward the stove. She glanced at the fish and frowned.
"You should have eaten. We ran late. There's so much to do, all the paperwork to get ready. You know how it was, starting the nursery." No apology, I noticed.
"Alex, you've been with Nicole four nights this week. Can't you find some time during the day? After your work-out?"
She hung her jacket on the hook near the door and headed for the study. "Malik warned me about this."
"About what?" I followed her down the hall.
"About jealousy. That you might become unreasonably jealous."
This irked me, the thought of her and Malik discussing my feelings as if they were possible side effects.
She sat down at her desk and raised the cover of her laptop. "I just need to check my email."
"I don't think I'm being unreasonable," I said.
She kept her eyes on the computer screen. "Maybe not. But I want you to understand that I just can't give you all the time you need right now. I'm starting a business; I'm writing a book. I need to stay focused."
I stood there staring at her faultless profile.
"I love you," she sighed, looking up, "I never stopped. What do I need to do to prove it?"
"Act like it."
Perhaps because of the wine, my fatigue, the words came out with less authority than I'd intended, more a plea than a command. Clearly it was time to go to bed. I turned to leave and Alex said, softly, "I can do that." I stopped, surprised. "I can do that," she repeated, rising from the chair. She smiled at me, a smile so true, so unexpected, that I felt it in the soles of my feet. She opened her arms, approached me; for a long moment she simply held me close. "I love you," she breathed into my neck, and then her mouth was on mine and she was kissing me as if it were her dying wish, and somewhere between there and the sofa we fell upon, I was convinced.
It was two days later when I saw the notes from Nicole. I was in the kitchen washing up some breakfast dishes; Alex was in the shower. She had left her phone on the table and I heard it chime, indicating a message. I knew she was waiting for a call from her publisher so I dried my hands, picked up the phone and saw that it was a text. I wasn't in the habit of reading Alex's messages, and I'm not sure what made me do it then, but I opened the text and saw these words: "Can't w8t 2 do u. C u at 8 —N." This was followed by a winking emoticon.
My chest was concrete, I couldn't breathe. I read the message again, and again. "Do u." Maybe she was talking about a new exercise. Maybe it was gym-speak, slang for work-out. I hit the phone's Back key and found two earlier messages that hadn't been deleted, one from yesterday: "I love your lips —N," though it could have been, "I want your mouth." Nicole had deployed two symbols, a heart for the verb and a pair of lips for the object. Quite an arsenal she must have had in that phone. The other message was even more ominous, just three little words: "I loved it —N."
Now I knew why Nicole had been so pleasant to me the night she came to dinner. She was winning. She had won.
Alex's remorse was not overwhelming. "I'm sorry," she said in a voice that didn't break. No tears. No abashed looks at the floor. "I was waiting. I wanted to be sure." I think she was annoyed at me for intruding on her privacy. I had brought it on myself, she seemed to imply, her back to the kitchen counter, her arms tightly folded.
Within a week she was moved out and our paths didn't cross after that. Although her office was just a few miles away, I didn't see Alex again until I went into Barnes & Noble nearly a year later and found her book—sure enough—on the bestseller table. A SURGEON'S GIFT, it was called. On the cover was a misty photo with a pastel blue background: a pair of hands gently holding a scalpel. Good Lord, I thought.
On the back cover was a blurb about Malik, with his photo alongside. Dark eyes, ravishing white smile. The Soul Snatcher, Dana called him. Beneath Malik's picture was a larger one of Alex. She was looking at the camera straight on, much as she had looked at me that last time. I gave a gasp, which the people near me must have heard. Over the past few months my memories had defaulted to Alex before the accident, when she wore hats and danced in her store and laughed like nobody else. Here was the woman Alex had become. Lovely as she was, I'd forgotten all about her.
Title graphic: "Through the Glass" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2012.