My mother's new boyfriend is a plastic surgeon. Some of his patients need reconstructive surgery because of accidents or fires. Others want a straighter bridge, higher cheekbones, or a smoother neck simply because they can. My mother falls somewhere in the middle. A car accident left a gash from one side of her neck to the breastbone, which the doctor expertly stitched up. Then, just to be nice, he gave her a facelift. He's successfully wooed me with multiple choice: fix the bump on my nose, lift my eyelids, or puff up my lips with collagen. I like the sound of rhinoplasty, a cross between rhinoceros and plastic, which is exactly what I want to be. Wild like a beast, unbreakable like Lexan.
The first time I met him was at dinner. I sat at a table near the window, where I could look outside at the cars and evening joggers and not have to think of something to talk about. They walked in side by side, her arms wrapped around him like a deflated inner tube. He whispered something into her ear.
"I'm Roger Mechanic," he said, extending a hand. "I'm banging your mother." He laughed as if he'd made a clever joke. I wracked my brain to make sense of it. Bang on a can. Bang up job. Boob job. Booby trap.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Mechanic," I said.
"Doctor Mechanic," he said, adding that his two loves are fast cars and fast women. My mother giggled.
I never thought of my mother as fast. She cruised through life. In the entire time she was married to my father, she never wanted a bigger house or fancy jewelry. She never threw anything at him or locked herself in the bathroom. This is better than most women I've heard about. I only remember one time when she was visibly upset. I came home from school to find the contents of my father's dresser in the living room. My mother was digging through the pile of shoes, socks, ties, and sweaters, down on all fours, like a dog playing in the sand. I watched her from the top of the stairs, thinking, this is what they call the breaking point. I never asked her about it, and eventually the event was buried in family history.
The night she introduced me to her new boyfriend she seemed a different person, more generous. When she spoke, her eyes lit up and locked on mine. She admired my new skirt, rubbing the silky fabric between her thumb and forefinger. She invited me to go shoe shopping, then a bikini wax. She complimented my hairstyle—I'd recently cut bangs—and probed about my love life. She wanted to know who I thought was sexier, Brad Pitt or Bill Clinton. Maybe she was drunk.
"How did you two meet?" I asked her. She said she fell in love with Dr. Mechanic while lying on the surgical table, simultaneously taken by the concentration in his eyes and the fluorescent overhead light. She said that in her entire life, including the day she married, the day she divorced, and the day I was born, she never felt an excitement like this. I believe her, having had quite a few operations myself. It's about a lack of resistance, a moment of confidence, the important decisions having already been made and reconciled. It's about stillness, a shallow, satisfying breath.
My mother and I have the same birthday. Today she turns fifty-five. I will be thirty-two. I hear that time speeds up as you get older, that one night you go to bed in the prime of life and the next day you wake up old. It's not that you look old, and you don't act old, but you sense it, from the tip of your eyelashes down to your toenails, which is exactly where the anxiety begins, in the parts of your body that are noticeably dead. But it's not too late, you think. You run your tongue over your gleaming white teeth (they run in the family). Past that, you can taste your salty center. The core of you is intact, it's just the outer shell that needs a little work. So you go to someone, anyone with competence and the patience to listen, and tell him you want a tune-up. You tell him you want to be new again.
The nurse signals to me that it's time to go in. She buzzes open the door and points to an empty room. Dr. Mechanic is nowhere in sight. I have the option of sitting on the vinyl examination table or a brown tweed rolling chair. I hop onto the table, cross my legs over the edge. It's more business-like this way. When he comes in, I want to cut to the chase. On the wall opposite me, there is a poster of two women in profile, one with a bulbous, hooked nose, the other with a skinny sloping nose. The artwork belongs to Andy Warhol, and is supposed to be ironic commentary on American consumerism, but here in Dr. Mechanic's office, the poster has an inspirational effect. The rest of the room is sterile and unfussy: a tray of silver surgical tools, a rubber glove dispenser, a wall of closed cabinet doors. I imagine that if I opened those doors I'd find jars of cotton balls, arranged in orderly rows, stacks of gauze and spools of fabric tape. I appreciate that there is nothing alive in this room. Except for me. Nothing flawed.
All during the dinner with my mother and Dr. Mechanic, I could feel their giddy energy. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement. My mother's voice acquired an upward lilt. She gestured wildly with her hands. Every once in a while she would squeeze his arm, though whether it was to reassure him, or herself, I couldn't tell. In between her exclamations, he took over as the ringleader. Part of it had to do with the inflections in his speech. Everything with enthusiasm and showmanship. He described the food as being "out of sight!" and the service as a "miracle!" He called my mother "doll face" and me "doll face two." There was also the sight of my mother sitting next to him. She looked younger, more vibrant, and not just because, after her facelift, the skin around her cheekbones was taut and shiny. She glowed from the inside out.
While Dr. Mechanic paid the bill, my mother and I excused ourselves to go to the bathroom. We walked into the single stall. I sat on the toilet while she checked her face in the mirror.
"Don't you think he's the best?" she said. She pulled out a tube of lipstick from her purse and carefully glided it across her lips. "He's a fantastic fuck, too," she said.
I nodded, a little too vigorously, the sake swishing inside my head. I replaced her in front of the mirror. I washed my hands in the sink, then rummaged through her purse for more make-up. I wanted to powder away the blush from my cheeks. In the reflection of the mirror I could see her standing behind me, her lips doubling mine in the distance.
They have to break your nose before fixing it. That's how it works. I did my research, which is something I rarely do, looking for answers. I went online and read about all the procedures. Dr. Mechanic performs over thirty different kinds of operations. There are before and after pictures on his website. My mother is in one of them, not smiling, though she looks like she wants to.
A nurse comes in to check my pulse and blood pressure. Her actions are silent and swift and I am surprised by how obediently I respond to her unspoken requests. It's all so familiar. I squeeze my fist to expose a vein in the crook of my elbow. I do not flinch when she sticks the needle into my arm. I smile encouragingly as she hooks up the IV. A short man with glasses and a mustache walks in. He introduces himself as the anesthesiologist.
He makes an injection and I feel my blood cool. This is joy, I think. Permanence. Poise. Soon I will see Dr. Mechanic. I like him. He's throwing a birthday party for my mother and me at his beach club.
The anesthetics are starting to kick in. I feel a deep sense of well being. I take a final quick survey of the room, its barren comforts. Cotton balls. Balls-to-the-wall. Ball game. Game on.
Dr. Mechanic is standing over me. His eyes, the only part of his body not covered by surgical garb, regard me approvingly.
"Time to play," he says.
Rhinoplasty is an outpatient surgery, and just like that, I sign my release papers and shuffle out the door. The fresh air stings my eyes. My mother is waiting for me in the car.
"Wow, he really did a number on you," she says, looking me over. "Was it fun?" I nod, drowsy and pleased.
"In a fetishistic way," she says. "Like those people who like to be asphyxiated before sex."
She sweeps a few strands of hair away from my face. I wince when her palm brushes up against the plastic nose mask.
As she concentrates on driving, I sit back in my seat and rest my head against the window. I follow the flow of traffic, moving me along like a wave, rocking me until I am sleeping. I come to just as the car pulls into the parking lot.
"Ready?" she says. I nod.
The sun hangs above the horizon. The dusky light makes everything soft around the edges. My mother looks beautiful. Her lips shimmer. Her hair is newly cropped and streaked with red highlights.
I think about my face, how it must be swollen, but I don't care. I feel like I am on center stage. The plastic nose cover is my costume. I love the way all the objects around me conspire to the same production. The seagulls directing the scene from above, giving the cues of my entrance and exit. The waves crashing one on top of the other, competing for my attention. The eroded cliffs, abandoned gas stations, boarded up storefronts, quietly setting the scene. All the silent participators of this breathtaking plot—they let time pass them by and the entire significance of my role at this moment, in this fracture between ecstasy and pain, passes them by, too.
We walk down to the beach. Dr. Mechanic sits next to the fire pit roasting hot dogs. He's wearing Bermuda shorts and a pink polo shirt. In the glow of the firelight, I can see the cracks in his skin. He looks different. More human, I guess. I'm not sure I want to admit this.
I think about the operating room, how it is a place where I could thrive. All my basic needs would be taken care of. There is a working sink, plenty of light, a bed to sleep in. I picture myself lying on that bed while people fixed me up, making adjustments and repairs. Maybe I have grown fat—obese—lying on this bed all day long. I have not had any exercise. I picture the doctor. I like how his eyes look right at me, his movements measured, not too rough or too cautious, but just so. He holds a stapler, a black metal stapler, because this is what I imagine and because I've heard that the real thing is not much different. He takes it to my stomach and presses. I hear the click. I relax.
Dr. Mechanic greets me with a high-five. His face is flush from standing over the fire. My mother grabs his neck and shakes it between her hands. He pretends to choke her back and soon they are in a face-off. They scuffle and pull each other down, rolling around in the sand.
"Did you see the cake?" he asks, still locked in a strong-arm with my mother. Fine grains of sand dot his five-o-clock shadow.
The cake is a tribute to baking technology, my mother's face rendered so lifelike I hardly believe that it is made out of flour and sugar and not flesh and blood. Upon closer inspection I see the swirls of brown frosting that are her eyes and eyebrows, the candy-red color of her lips, the pink patches on her cheeks. The texture is too dense to be skin. There are no pores, no fuzzy hairs around the mouth, no tiny discernible scars.
"It's for you, too," he says. He pulls me over and gives me a little squeeze, then moves aside as my mother slinks in between us. We wrap our arms around each other and form a semi-circle around the cake. A stranger walking by would look at us and see this: that we are happy; that some of us are in a period of transition (my nose mask), but we are no doubt a good-looking group; that we are friends, maybe more.
My mother pours champagne into three plastic flutes. She raises her hand for a toast.
"Happy birthday to us!"
She grins broadly. Her whole face sparkles. I think about the cake again, how soon it will be cut up into little pieces, an eye, a nose, a mouth. How we will force it down, one body part swallowing up another. How frosting will stick to our tongue and we will not be able to scrape it off. How a chin will lodge itself in the folds of our stomach. How we will learn to accommodate.
My mother sits next to me at the picnic table. I turn towards her and she leans in, inches from my face. Her breath is wet.
"Do you know you can get your vagina tightened?" she says. "It's called labiaplasty." Labor. Laboratory. Lab rat. Rat out.
I reach for a hot dog. She rests her head on my shoulder. Strands of her hair fly into my mouth.
"We could be the same," she says.
Everything is disconnected. I know it is not just me. It is the horizon, darkness tugging at color and light. It is the space where water meets sand. It is the lost parts of ourselves that have since been replaced, reorganized. Cars speed off in the distance and closer by there is the sizzle of the fire. I listen to the sound of my own swallowing, marvel at the muscles in my throat, the way they escort food down my esophagus. I wonder about this act of self-reliance. How, after all, my body is able to take care of itself.
I picture the operating room again. The doctor picks up the stapler and fastens skin to skin. Chink. Chink. Chink. Chink. But the doctor is nowhere in sight. It's not the sound of the stapler I'm hearing but my mother's fingernail tapping the picnic table. I can see all her veins crisscrossing beneath her flesh. I look long and hard at that hand. I take a bite of the hot dog, then another.