I was down to Florida on a surgery vacation—pre-op, lounging poolside at a hotel on South Beach, a boutique place opposite the ocean. Ubiquitous electronic bass popped and bellowed from invisible speakers mounted to nooks and crannies. I had gone down because it was worse than disgust: I could no longer tolerate my reflection.
It started, this problem, while I was in a department store buying a suit for a summer wedding. The room was set up like a funhouse, with several mirrors angled toward each other, and in the forward one, I could see myself in the rest. At a particular angle, from the side but not in profile, I looked apish. My nose: bulbous and swollen. My chin: doubled and buttery.
I glanced away and tried to concentrate on the shoulders of the suit jacket, the cut of the pants, but I returned to that reflection, and suddenly, I could not take my eyes away. I stared at myself from this new angle, and anxiety rose up so greatly that I called out to the attendant, a young woman half my age, “There are too many mirrors!”
I had tried to sound lighthearted, but the thought compelled a certain dread in my voice. She knocked, “Are you okay, hon?”
I scoffed that I was fine, and stripped. There I was, naked, with this lovely young woman standing just outside the door, imagining how I would look to her: the tan I wore, burned sienna, the color of downed pine needles; my stubbornly sagging ass, where cellulite rolled over itself like melting marshmallow; the gaining pudge in a U at my mid-section. I felt impotent, and I understood, suddenly, a woman’s fright at menopause. I left the dressing room dazed, wanting to disappear rather than face the girl outside.
Whatever was in her eyes, it flashed in order to sell me the suit.
So I went to the wedding, date-less, bloated and silly in my bone-colored suit, which spotlighted every misplaced, gravity-yanked lump and bump. There I was without a date, hoping to impress a pretty babe or handsome fool, shaking hands with everyone who said nothing about my appearance, which I took to mean I did not look wonderful and spectacular, even with my practiced lean-against-a-support-beam, my hand tucked into the front pocket of my new jacket as I held champagne like a dandy. And I sweated! So badly I had to use my handkerchief!
I went to the bathroom and used the hand dryer on my handkerchief. I studied, in the mirror, my Roman nose, my Incan cheekbones, and my tired eyes the dull brown of a dead stick, while joyous music and raucous laughter rumbled outside.
I said, “You cannot feel this way.”
I left the reception early, barely able to face the youthful bride. At home, I slept terribly. The next morning, I called my surgeon in Florida, who until then had done only minor work under the hood of my body, a kind of mileage-based maintenance. I bought my ticket. We set up the consult and surgery for the same day, time being of the essence.
I flew down, checked in, and killed time out at the Carnahans custom pools, which in the summer were dominated by Europeans, women in tiny suits, children with queer accents splattering practiced English, men in Speedos, etc…
I had brought my e-reader like a good New Yorker and was reading the New Yorker absent New Yorkers when a very curious horse appeared in the corner near the D.J. stand.
The curious horse was Dada, a carousel relic repainted by an artist named Flashdance, a tiny white girl with the word LESBIAN tattooed below her slender collarbone, with dreadlocked hair and an African nose, whose black and white publicity poster rested on a tripod beside the art. The life-size rendering, titled only “Horse,” sported blue and white candy-striped legs and hoofs. Its wide ass was a dreary, Gotham gray, but it’s body dazzled in pink and blue, and two eye patches had been placed above its snout where its eyes would have been, though the eyes themselves had been yanked and moved to the flanks like a mutant fish. Several baffled, boisterous attendants had wheeled the horse across the pool deck on a wagon under the manic Spanish of their manager. As the artwork was set near the D.J. stand and the attendants put up a temporary fence that bore the sign ART: Please Do Not Touch, this manager studied the lunatic piece, moved to tears.
One of the attendants slapped him on the shoulder. “Come inside. Let’s have eggs and a beer.”
The manager nodded mechanically. “It reminds me of my childhood, in Peru. Racehorses are beautiful in my country. I feel the artist embarrassed it.”
I watched all this, and an emotion swept over me, as though this man could have been my father. I wanted to comfort him. But his coworker, young enough to be his son, led him away as he sobbed.
For a while, I lounged. But the sun wasn’t much with all the foliage around the pool and buildings over the foliage. I was getting restless because I couldn’t eat pre-op, so I got up and jumped in the water. I must have splashed too close to some little girl, because she started shrieking. Her mother snapped at her to be more polite, I thanked the mother, and the mother huffed, while the father was off flirting with a younger woman.
So I looked at the girl. She stuck her tongue out at me, and to look away, I glanced over her head at the horse.
I started across the pool. I climbed the stairs on the low end and foot-slapped across the deck to the D.J. booth, against which I leaned like a dandy. I stared at the artwork, with its pink and blue body and gray ass and those eyes glued to its flanks so that the near eye stared cycloptically at me.
Suddenly, the artist appeared. Flashdance. She came out from the cargo bay, up the stony ramp, wearing a boxer’s faux-satin robe, in red. She held in her hand a can of gold spray paint. She crossed the pool deck, the robe down to her bare ankles. She had the stature of a jockey, and glanced at me only briefly to imply I must move back. There was something attractive about her, despite the mole eyes and smooshed nose, and the ratty dreads that needed an astringency. Where the robe opened in front, her tattoo of LESBIAN screamed across her collarbone in the same blue and gray as the horse.
Inside the exhibit, she sprayed the word Captive on each flank, in glittering gold.
She came out from behind the short fence, which was like a pen, and I asked her, maybe a little pompously, “But what’s the statement?”
She ignored me and started across the pool deck in her robe, Flashdance stitched in green-gold across the back—the color of fake jewelry.
My eyes fell upon the little girl, with her European tan and tight one-piece, and her black hair wetted back off her forehead like a horse’s mane. The girl stuck her tongue out at me, again, and taunted, “She ignored you,” without much of an accent.
I parted my hands. “I’m getting old.”
“You are old.”
Her mother caught up. “Francesca, shush!” Then, to me, over her magazine, “I apologize, really, mister. Is little girl.” A deep French to the accent, dominatrix-like, embarrassingly curt.
Apology accepted, I went back to my lounge chair and pretended to read that one author from the New Yorker who has since been disgraced, and read him in a studious manner, though it would turn out he was making up what he passed off as truth—all this while that one eye on the near flank stared at me…
Then, a fire alarm! But first, I have to report how I was left in a curious position by the fire alarm.
I had rented a convertible Mustang, and that afternoon I bumped and pounded over to Dr. Beitman’s office, for what was to be hours under anesthesia as all sorts of work was done to my face and stomach.
I bumped and pounded meaning I had the bass going in the Mustang. When in Rome. I pulled up to a light on Collins Avenue and other bass overtook my bass, and the rumbling of a chopper whacked my head. I had spread sun block on the balding crown, and when I would get to Beitman’s office, dressed in linen like Hemingway, they would have to wash it off. Back at the light, white drips of sweat fell down my cheeks like peroxide tears, as though I was pussing from an invisible wound.
At Beitman’s, I was laid on the slab by a pretty nurse who pretended to admire I was going to such vain lengths. Deftly as a bleached geisha, she scrubbed my bald head.
Sooner or later, for I had fallen asleep (dreaming about that Dada braying at the child in the pool), Beitman entered. “Franny! Tons of work we’re doing today! You’ll get this over in one visit. Lucky for you! Space in the O.R. is always exciting! You didn’t eat, did you?”
“No, doc. I feel like horse shit.”
“Well, I’ll stencil you for the face lift, show it all to you, then we’ll send you out to wait your turn, brother. We’re doing your eyes, too, huh?”
“Chin. Lypo on the belly. Nose job.”
“Yes, though maybe on the nose job, maybe next time on that. We’ll see when I talk to the anesthesiologist. I’m looking at your vitals here. A little worse than last time. Been staying away from cardio? Eating badly? What’s your primary say about all that? I don’t want to keep you under too long. You know, you could die. You won’t, but you could. So we’ll see. But definitely on the others. And yes, we’re bringing you back to your—hmm—thirties, I would say.”
Beitman was a small man, and I had seen him enough times to imagine his caffeinated fluttering about, his lab coat like a kind of hero’s cape, in and out of room after room as he churned onto the streets of Miami and off to the corners of the globe prettier people than those who came in. Right at that moment, the bass drumming that served as the soundtrack of his waiting room, though the volume was kept at a reasonable level, at least by Miami standards—suddenly, that music ceased, and a dirge came on, full of Roman Catholic awe and solemnity. But then a bass drum started, of course, and soon the dirge and bass were united in unholy matrimony, and surely, if a music video had been playing, it would have started with a nun in full dress, but by now she would have stripped to a tanga and gyrated compulsively.
Beitman got into a chair and scooted over. I kept my eyes closed and heard the wheels roll across the white tile and remembered the screeching of wagon wheels as “Horse” was dragged across the pool deck. My back sweated on that butcher’s paper.
He stenciled me with perforated lines as though I was a package, in black marker, the tip of the marker coolly menacing the tender flesh of my aging face. The sensation was not unpleasant, a gentle pressure like a lover’s touch. He painted lines across my forehead and chin, down my cheeks to my jaw. He drew something on my nose for the nose job he wasn’t entirely sold on. As he stenciled me, he spoke: “You know, Franny, you usually just come in for a nip and tuck, but when someone comes in for a litany of procedures like this, I have to ask, how are you feeling lately? No depression? No suicidal thoughts?”
I shook my head and heard him sigh as he yanked the marker away abruptly.
“How are the kids?”
I felt the marker resettle coolly, reassuringly.
“Yes, but I mean, but how are they doing?”
“They’re fine. I spoke with Jack the other day. Last month. Six weeks ago. His birthday. Twenty-eight.”
“Keep your jaw still. Okay, good. As long as you’re feeling okay. So what prompted the surgery, then? Just age?”
“Yes,” I said, becoming impatient. I couldn’t have this conversation and keep my jaw still.
“Nothing you can do about that.”
When he was done, it was explained I was “second-to-next” in the queue, that it would be a while, but that I couldn’t leave because once it was my turn, the anesthesiologist needed me on the bed asap, especially with such borderline numbers.
I went out to the pre-op room. It was me and a gigantic Swedish-looking woman, though when she said hello, it was with a pleasant Southern accent, maybe Virginia, her voice younger than she looked. She kept two cloth bags by her feet, one for her laptop, which rested on her knees, and another that contained toys and animal crackers for a baby, though the baby was not present. But she sneaked an animal cracker every now and again, and I wanted to tell her she was playing with fire, eating prior to the surgeon’s scalpel.
Fire all right, because just as she went and lay down, in the private operating room, everything went crazy. I was sitting in the pre-op room, and for a strange instant, just a moment, strange especially when looking back, I thought the fire alarm was part of the music.
There was much fluttering about, and Dr. Beitman swept in with his lab coat like a cape. “Out! Out! Bomb threat!”
“A bomb threat?” I asked, standing calmly—for I decided to remain calm in such circumstances, like the prayer. “At a doctor’s office?”
“Who the hell knows? C’mon.”
Beitman led me to the waiting room, turned to his staff, and led them away heroically in his cape-jacket. The Virginian was gone, and before me stood a confused looking older woman in expensive jewelry struggling to identify toward where she should step, the fleeing Beitman, or me.
So I led her out. We were on the sixth floor. In the stairwell, by the time we got to the third floor, the heiress told me she had to pause because of her asthma. She was incredibly wrinkled, with ratty, manic eyes, stringy blonde hair, and a pulled face as though she’d been electrocuted. Earlier, I’d heard her talking in a proprietary way about Channing Tatum.
“I think I’m having an attack.”
“Then we’ve gotta get you downstairs. It’s a medical building. There’ll be doctors outside. C’mon.”
She was gasping for air, her mouth opening and closing like a beached guppy as she remained on the landing, hands on her knees like an infielder. “I don’t want to die in here.”
“Let’s go, then!”
She started moving, and I got the sudden urge to run and couldn’t—I was fearful that the bomb threat was real, forget my prayer, and at any moment the building would explode. I’d been there for 9-11. I’d had nightmares for months about being smooshed like Flashdance’s nose, my body obliterated by the tumbling steel and concrete. All that would be left was the plastic of me, and they would identify my remains by serial number. My children would be horrified—at my death, at the plasticized desperation of my post-divorce life.
I took her hand, scaly and dry. She looked at me with the most grateful eyes. I realized she needed me and couldn’t move after another flight, so I picked her up like a groom. She smelled like the inside of a cast. She tried to kiss my cheek with her dry lips when we got to the exit door, but I told her, “None of that!” and she, there in my arms—having been saved by me—got insulted! Upset!
When I put her on her feet, we were just outside the six-story building on a ramp, facing an empty, squat stucco hut, the sort you find sprinkled about South Miami. Across the street stood a vast luxury apartment complex for university students. I could see Beitman mulling on the sidewalk with many others, near one of the complex’s courtyard entrances.
Sirens came from all over, and bang, they turned down the road just as we were about to cross, so we moved to our right and positioned ourselves in front of the stucco hut, which it turned out was a “gym” about the size of the hotel swimming pool, the cracked lot empty but for one car, a red Fiero, dusty, the back bumper falling off. Taped to the back window of the Fiero, in scribbled handwriting on yellow poster board, was a sign that read, Workout Place. It was also scribbled on a sign in the front window of the little building. All windows were open without screens, and a ratty boom box played within, which I could hear now that the sirens had turned off: generic 70’s funk.
I felt a little like Superman. I led the woman across the street. There, many doctors, nurses, and patients waited, engaged in speculative talk regarding the reality and size of the bomb, which led eventually to the question of how long it would take to declare the building safe. The street was cordoned off from both sides, and there was a rumor we would have to move a block away.
I engaged in chatter, but everyone greeted me with strange eyes, and I remembered that Dr. Beitman had stenciled my face. I wandered over and looked at my reflection in a mirror on one of the fire trucks, but one of the firemen, who was not a small human being, growled, “Stay away from that!”
A curious thing, as well, just to report, because it’s worth it: The music stopped in the stucco hut, and out of that little building came one man in a terry cloth Marriot bathrobe; one woman with her mascara running, in very short spandex shorts and a pair of high heels; one boom, holding his microphone like a jouster; and one cameraman, who dumped the camera into the back of the Fiero and tried to leave but was blocked by police officers, who ordered him to park his car again, get out, and stand across the street with the rest of us. Shortly thereafter, a midget smoking a cheap cigar and dressed in a pinstripe suit like a Mafioso exited the little building, glanced around perturbed, and went back inside. The officers said nothing to him.
I would find out later Beitman had been trying to close that “gym” since it had opened. It was a place where they shot porn.
Well, the day was blown. By the time they cleared for reentry—the threat was a hoax—it was too late to get on the slab. At the hotel, I intended first to go up to my room, wash off the stenciling, but I decided not to. I left the markings on my face. They were war paint, to fight a certain, middle-aged battle. And I wanted strangers to see me that way. I felt better drawn as I should be, covering who I was—less isolated and clandestine, like when a plagiarist is discovered.
On the way out to the pool, I ordered a glass of cheap champagne from the hotel bar, but there was a back-up, despite that only three customers sat on stools, and I was told a boy would bring my drink to me. I grabbed a towel from the pool attendant, who doubled as the lifeguard, and went over to my former chair on the pool deck.
It was late in the day, and by now a D.J. had arrived and set up a canvas to block the sun. I’d heard the bass drum even inside the hotel, but when I got out onto the pool deck, it was as though an invisible symphony was dedicated to the task of making dreadful monotony using as few synthetic wind instruments as possible, while a manic wingman banged his way toward a Latin-infused hip-hop beat. I despised the rattling of South Beach. I thought of the bomb threat and the heiress with her smell and asthma, who, if there had been a bomb and I had not carried her out, might have died in that building rather than climb down three more flights of stairs.
Beside the D.J. stand stood “Horse.”
The mother and daughter were still out at the pool, though by now both had gained impressive tans and sleepy countenances. The early afternoon featured a blinding sun, which for a while had been directly above the pool. But I was too late given my spot poolside, for the sun had settled down in the sky at such an angle that I was cast into the chilly shadows. The mother stared at me, and I remembered that my face was all stenciled up.
I got up, though I had just lounged. My intention was to walk into the water Christ-like, my chest out proudly. I’d scrub off my face. But I didn’t do that. The first thing I did was stick out my tongue at the little girl, and not in a nice way, either, but like a schoolyard bully, daring her.
“Hey!” she said, where she was posing on the pool stairs. “Mom! Did you see?”
When the mother looked at me, I stuck my tongue out at her, too.
“If I rinsed it off my face,” I said, gesturing at the stenciling, “I’d be crying the tears of a clown.”
For some reason—I guess I know it now, but I didn’t know it then—I said, “My son turned twenty-eight last month.”
I made my way—victorious, in a sense—across the pool deck. Many Latin
Americans had joined the Europeans on the other side of the pool, where, when the wind blew, the sun splattered the deck, and they could pick up a touch of color for tonight, when they would smash around South Beach, glancing and studying, some touching, delicate, if they were good at it, like the stencil.
But I would touch! When I got to “Horse,” it was daring me with that flanked eye! We were Dada, me with my stenciled face and “Horse” with its metropolitan candy stripes and blinders.
I read the sign. I knew I was not supposed to do. I did it anyway.
I say this with lust spent and lust felt and lust growing again, the way lust leads to lust. I reached out and touched its flank, right where Flashdance had sprayed the word Captivity. I felt electric pulse up my arm. A bass beat! A bomb blast!
Nicolas T Larocca is Associate Professor of English at Palm Beach State College and lives in Delray Beach, Florida with his wonderful wife and two dogs. He has published short stories and essays most recently in the Rush Hour and Mason’s Road, and is the recipient of the Robert Wright Prize for Writing Excellence.