Nonfiction | June 01, 2003

My husband, Vince, a month shy of sixty-four, announces over dinner at a restaurant his intent to have cosmetic surgery. “So, should I go for the brow lift?” He pushes his receding hairline toward the lady in the booth behind him; his new wide-eyed stare reminds me of a retooled Wayne Newton. I am too stunned for words.

I see my husband as sixty-four going on fifty-five. His wrinkle-free face useless as a road map for charting the complicated journey that includes an ex-wife, four children, three stepchildren and eight grandkids. His hair is thinning on top, but he is years away from the combover. Early retirement agrees with him. He visits the gym three times a week. Outlifts most men half his age. Outwalks all but a few.

He rambles on, giving details about the surgery, possible scarring and recovery time. I double blink, expecting to wake from a dream or to find I am listening to a girlfriend prattle about her fears of aging, not my husband. “What about a chin implant?” His lower jaw juts forward in what dentists label a serious underbite, although with a dimple in the center I suppose it might resemble Kirk Douglas’s. He lifts the loose skin under his chin, stretches it toward his ears, turning his head left to right. “So, what do you think?”

What do I think? I think he has too much money and too much time on his hands. I think this health guru across from me, who will not let me eat Chinese food but once a year, is not really my husband. With another birthday on the horizon, I think he needs more reassurance about the twenty-one-year gap in our ages. I think anyone who looks ten years younger than his age must be insane to risk health for cosmetic surgery. What I am really thinking is: Who is she?

Two years earlier, Vince had negotiated a successful buyout of his position as CEO of a lumber distribution business headquartered in South Carolina. We retired to Florida’s sunny Gulf Coast, where he convinced me to chuck the makeup and high-heel glamour lifestyle for sandals and the natural complexion of a relaxed, tanned tourist.

Florida living comes easy to Vince—but he would wear running shoes with a tuxedo. His skin glistens in tropical temperatures; mine drips with sweat. His hair, naturally blond, darker with age, lightens to gold under the Florida sun; my dark hair takes on the burnt reddish shade you see on black junkyard dogs in the summer.

By the end of our first June, with temperatures and humidity levels in the upper ’90s, I realized that makeup was pointless. I threw out everything but waterproof mascara and sunscreen. Anyone here wearing lipstick looks ridiculous or out of step, or is a TV anchor. New friends confess about their tattooed eyeliners and tattooed natural blush lips, as if permanent makeup is beauty survival in the Sunshine State. I might have bought into the whole tattoo business except for two things: I hate needles, and in my six-year marriage to Vince I had never felt so comfortable, so accepted, so natural a woman. Too, I was what Vince now called a college girl, on track, after a seventeen-year interruption, to finish my degree in literature. I was experiencing an attitude shift, a reinventing of self, moving away from the outer landscape of physical concerns to the more important internal ones.
As my husband chatters about a facelift, I wonder if I have become too comfortable. My cuticles look ragged, and I skipped last week’s eyebrow waxing to finish a paper on Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

“Well, what do you think?”

I have not spoken since his announcement. I tell him he looks ten years younger than his age. He says, “I’m worried about what I’ll look like ten years from now.”

I mention health risks involved with unnecessary surgery.

“I can’t think of a better way to die than to be put to sleep … if I die that way, that’s okay with me,” he says.

This glib response infuriates me.

Only months earlier, Vince had experienced two health scares. In an attempt at proactive health care, I had suggested we have total MRI body-imaging scans like those Oprah once promoted on her show. When the technology came to St. Petersburg—a white mobile van ironically named Your Peace of Mind—Vince and I were the first two patients. Two days after the scan, a doctor called at 7:30 A.M. to report potential life-threatening blockages to Vince’s heart as well as a mass near his diaphragm that appeared cancerous. Calm retirement living on Florida’s Gulf Coast suddenly developed into a class-five hurricane of rushed visits to cardiologists and cancer specialists. The first cardiologist demanded immediate catheterization; a second opinion dismissed the procedure as premature and risky, ordering a treadmill stress test that Vince passed with the ease of a man forty years younger. Instead of surgery, Vince began a serious regimen of cholesterol-lowering drugs. Doctors also eliminated the cancer scare; they injected Vince with an intravenous dye that lights up cancer cells like antiaircraft fire on a radar screen: negative. Vince emerged a new man, recommitted to his goal of living an active life until past one hundred.

Now I remind him of the two health scares. I say he is being selfish, that his death would crush his family and me. He leans across the table. “Tracy, you went back to college; I’m doing this for me.”

“But, I’m happy with the face I married.”

“You won’t be in five or ten more years….”

“Yes, I will.” I describe my vision of us gracefully aging together—a Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy romance.

“I never said I would age gracefully,” he says, and this is true. “I don’t want you to wake up one day and see yourself married to an old man. Just think, when I’m a hundred, I’ll look eighty-five, and you’ll only be seventy-nine.”

How do you argue against that kind of logic?

Once we are home, I tell him people will laugh behind his back at his vanity, that he may suffer an identity crisis. I remind him that he is the health guru—Vince Crow, the man who never looks his age. Now they will whisper: Because he had a facelift. His face relaxes. I have never seen my husband look so tired or so old.
Five days later, a nurse in blue scrubs preps Vince for surgery at an outpatient clinic. She inserts an IV needle into the back of his hand, or so I guess, for I cannot watch. “Stop worrying,” he says. “Everything’s going to be okay.” I nod and walk away.

While I wait in the lobby for what is supposed to take three hours, I flip through the dog-eared pages of women’s magazines. A previous reader has folded the page of a Botox ad as if marking it for future reference or leaving a legacy for the next reader. The face of the woman model reveals how relaxed life can look at fifty-something for the vain and the privileged. My friends have told me about their Botox parties. They drink wine and fork out three hundred dollars each for a doctor to pierce their facial muscles with a needle and temporarily freeze them, concealing years of wisdom and maturity behind immobile masks.

Another magazine article features interviews with several upset daughters of mothers who recently had facelifts. Seems the mothers look as youthful as their offspring. Mothers beam in their after photographs; daughters appear glum, overwhelmed. I can relate. For days, since Vince’s announcement, I’ve wasted more hours than I care to admit in front of every mirror in our house. What I discovered is that while I was settling into Florida casual, gravity was working overtime on my forty-three-year-old face, conspiring with the sun as if to slowly melt a wax figure. The corner of my right lower lip now droops downward; both eyebrows sag over puffy eyelids that suggest insomnia; a crease between my brows hints at a perpetual frown; and a dollop of fat under my chin jiggles when I open and close my mouth. I flip furiously back to the Botox ad.

At hour four, my cell phone rings and the receptionist in a white uniform points at the lobby sign: Turn off Cell Phones. Outside, I tell friends who are restless for news that Vince is still in surgery. Hour five. Panic. The nurse shakes her head: “Still in surgery.”
My husband is losing his face. During one of the sleepless nights leading up to Vince’s surgery, I caught a cable television documentary with footage of an actual facelift: a woman’s face lifted from underlying bloody, twisted muscles, the excess skin sliced and discarded, to where? Then her face repositioned—slipping and sliding—over nose, mouth, eyes and cheekbones, and her ears, cut off during surgery, reattached last.

Hour six. A woman in scrubs enters the lobby and calls my name. I leap to my feet. “Everything okay?”

She nods. “But brace yourself.” She leads the way, and I am thankful she has warned me.

Vince cannot open his eyes; his face resembles a tick engorged with blood to the verge of explosion. His head is wrapped in bloodstained gauze. Tubes dangle like earrings under each ear. The nurse informs me that my job for the next week is to empty blood from the tubes. I want to scream, Wait a minute! I didn’t sign up for this!

Once home, I guide him upstairs to the bedroom and make him comfortable. Only then do I remember to check the ear tubes for blood. Full. He slides out of bed and staggers toward the bathroom. I uncork the tubes and flush blood down the toilet while he searches for himself in the vanity mirror.

“Don’t look, Honey,” I say.

“Oh my God, what have I done?” I hand him two pain pills and a glass of water and help him back to bed.
The day after. I drive Vince to the surgeon for a postsurgery checkup. The patients in the waiting room, two twenty-somethings who I guess are waiting for breast implants and an older woman, try to look away. Vince’s gruesome appearance seems to disturb the atmosphere of hope. “Guess I look pretty scary this morning,” he says, and they smile and return to their beauty magazines.

I meet Vince’s surgeon, Dr. Drehsen, for the first time. I shake his extended hand, though I would prefer to punch him for talking my husband into such a ridiculous venture. Dr. Drehsen scrutinizes my face. His expert eye seems to lift my brows to their rightful position, suction the fat from under my chin. He is tall, midfifties, with a thick German accent and a penchant for speaking in car analogies. “You vere a lot of work, Vincent,” he says, unwrapping gauze from my husband’s head. “There’s a lot of engine under this hood of yours.” At the sight of my husband’s exposed head, I nearly pass out. A crooked highway of stitches runs along his V-shaped hairline; drops of coagulated blood, like black garnets, are sprinkled throughout his hair. The doctor says, “You’re no Porsche yet, but you looking good, Vincent.”

I leave his office with orders not to wash my husband’s head for three more days.
Week two. The tubes are finally gone from behind Vince’s ears. He has the tight, sunburned look of a stranded sailor after weeks on a raft in the ocean. He is most happy with how wide open his eyes appear now and only slightly concerned that his eyebrows refuse to budge from their newly assigned positions. His face is a blank canvas; my years of studying it to learn how far I can push him are all wasted. I am sleeping with a stranger.

One month later. The purplish bruising and hairline scar are still noticeable. Vince’s barber asks if he is having hair implants. Late one evening, Dr. Drehsen calls for a follow-up. I hear my husband’s side of the conversation: “I think you did a good job, Doc. I think you made me look forty-five again.” Then laughter. I ask him what Dr. Drehsen’s punch line was. “‘Don’t get too cocky, Crow. You’re still a used Cadillac,”‘ Vince tells me.

Week seven
. Vince cannot pass a mirror in our home without checking for signs of progress. The man who could shower and dress for dinner and a movie in under fifteen minutes takes longer to ready himself than my standard forty-five. I doll up for dinner one night; he never notices. When we get home, I prance around the bedroom in nothing but the high heels, a stunt that once raised more than his eyebrows. He stares into the bathroom mirror and decides his hairline scar is less noticeable this week.

One morning, the tone in his voice hints at worry, although his immobile face is giving away nothing. “I look like a lizard man, don’t I?” Mentally, I acknowledge that the corners of his eyes are pulled too tightly toward the temples. I say, “Everything will settle in time.”

Our home has become Mecca for the vain. Friends, more men than women, come to see the before and after results of Vince Crow, the man brave enough to have a facelift and show the pictures. “All you have to do,” my husband lectures in his expert tone, “is let them put that IV needle in you and the rest is out of your hands.” As friends lament their sagging jowls and droopy brows, I think of eighth-grade world history and Ponce de Leon’s search through Florida for the fountain of youth. It appears to those gathered in our living room that my husband has found it in St. Petersburg.

Ten weeks. It is almost Christmas when Vince and I drive to South Carolina to visit with his daughters’ families for a gift exchange in Greenville, attend another daughter’s college graduation in Columbia a day later and eventually reunite with his brothers and sisters in North Carolina for a Christmas dinner. Vince has not told his children or siblings about the facelift, “a surprise from the old man.” No one is amused.

In Greenville, one daughter says, “I hope I’m never that vain.” Then to me, “How could you let him do this?”

Says another, “I can’t believe you would do something so reckless, Dad. I think you looked better before.” Vince laughs, and although I can no longer read his expression, I know my husband’s voice and body language well enough to feel the impact their rejection is having on him.

We drive east to Columbia the next day for the college graduation. Vince finds his daughter among two thousand black-robed graduates and attempts to embrace her, but she backs away. “Something’s wrong,” she says, unable to take her eyes from his new face. “You sound like my dad, but you look like my Uncle Mike.” Vince smiles. His brother, Mike, is sixteen years younger.

In North Carolina, Vince’s brothers and sisters ask the standard question: Why? They openly assert their own personal beliefs that real-life issues are more important than vanity. All this Vince takes in stride.
Six months after surgery. Vince is carded every time he asks for a senior citizen discount. He carries a copy of the old driver’s license photograph in his wallet, happy to discuss the facelift process. While retrieving our mail one day from the post office box, the owner of MailBoxes Etc. pulls Vince into the back parking lot to get the name of his surgeon. He confesses he had a mini-facelift ten years earlier and needs a retouch, but he does not want his son-in-law to know.
Nine months. I can spot my husband in a crowd; I no longer have to memorize the color of the shirt he left the house in.

The story of Vince’s facelift reaches legend status in St. Petersburg. Men at the gym ask about the moisturizer he uses as well as what brand of sunscreen he recommends. In his wallet he carries Dr. Drehsen s telephone number, along with a before-surgery photograph. In Costa Rica, after our week-long vacation in the rain forest, airport security guards deny him access to our plane because, according to Vince’s old passport photo, my husband is an imposter.

Feeling a self-imposed pressure these days, I visit Dr. Drehsen’s office for a facial, the kind that sandblasts your face with crystals to smooth the texture and tighten the pores: microdermabrasion. The technician guides me into a darkened office with mood music of wood flutes and crashing waves. She instructs me to slip off my shirt and wrap about my chest the warm towel she drapes across the bed. She leaves me to undress.

The towel smells line-dried; I lie back and relax, speculating about Drehsen’s patients in other waiting rooms. Breast enhancements behind door number one. Facelifts, number two. Liposuction, behind three.

I think back to an old Star Trek episode I saw when I was twelve. Three gorgeous, sexy women beguile Captain Kirk and the entire male crew of the Enterprise. The women snag hunky husbands on the planet below but revert to shapeless, aging hags when they run out of their supply of the magic crystals that they swallow to maintain their fagade of beauty. The new husbands are ready to run—until Captain Kirk shows up with more crystals. The women gobble them, and everyone eagerly awaits the transformation. But when it happens, Kirk then explains that the crystals are fakes, placebos. The moral? That true beauty emerges from inner confidence and a deeper belief than what we see on the surface.

Suddenly the overhead light startles me. Dr. Drehsen and his technician shuffle into the room. “How are you, Tracy?” Drehsen asks. The technician holds a mirror to my face; Drehsen lifts my eyebrows with icy fingertips. “See? Look vat I can do for you!

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