The Face Lady
Looking back at my life, I see now that childhood, not Hollywood, was Never-Never Land. Last year I moved from Culver City to Oxnard, where I am docked for the nonce waiting for Ozzie the Wizard, who calls himself my manager. With him, it is all fresheners, tax deductions, and retro design. He is always promising the moon and nagging me to keep my appointments with the Face Lady on Ventura Boulevard.
In childhood, before I heard of Freud or Absinthe, there was an ice cream truck prowling my neighborhood, tinkling the bell. The sound of children running for ice cream is something I didn’t notice then, but I hear it now in memory, as if a waiter had just delivered the past on a platter and lifted the dome covering it. The movie I had a little part in, Absinthe, had a nostalgic feeling like that. The coloring was autumnal, and there was a scene with butterscotch ice cream.
Here there is a construction crane outside my window. I hear a piano down the hall endlessly repeating “People” and “Misty.” I am waiting for Ozzie to find some way to market my face that doesn’t involve either Facebook or television interviews. Keep some mystery, he is fond of saying. I don’t know where this lying low is going to get us. I work at a fatuous regular job in the Valley–we both know I’m over the hill.
He has arrived, according to my collie, Freud.
Ozzie removes his sunglasses and places them carefully on a special folding pillow he keeps in his man bag so they won’t get scratched. He arranges his pigtail so that it doesn’t get scrunched up in his shirt collar. I could cite many examples of his fastidiousness–his shelf of ersatz Ralph Lauren T-shirts folded like merchandise at the store, the clever ways he avoids freeway traffic, the way he pussy-foots around my dog.
“We’re going to China,” he announces.
“Mainland?” I whisper in a croak.
He has finagled a scheme with a production company in Tianjin, where I will appear on a Chinese reality-TV show about how an ordinary family deals with a foreigner–me, American–boarding with them. The culture clash–their reaction to my face treatments, my reaction to being served donkey flank, or whatever it is they eat–will be hilarious.
“It will be the bomb-diggity!” he says, his thumb and forefinger tracing the crease on his Dolce & Gabbana outlet jeans. He doesn’t realize how often he unconsciously uses the gesture for money.
“I will live in their house?” I picture a hammock in a closet.
“It will be fun. I envy you. I’ll have to stay at a hotel, of course.”
“Poor Ozzie. Stranded in one of those futuristic high-rises built for the Olympics.”
“I’ll die if there’s no Starbucks,” he says.
“Ozzie, it will be a lot more hilarious if you are the one boarding with
the Chinese family. Your pigtail, for one thing, will be so outré.”
“Don’t mock me! I’ve worked up this sweet, sweet deal! They pay our airfare, all expenses, and I worked out residuals for eternity.…listen, there are two billion people in China.
“Two billion? Are you sure? I thought it was one billion.”
While I had been daydreaming, lapsing into memory, the Chinese had fucked themselves double. How did they do that, with only one child allowed per family?
Ozzie shrugs. “Who keeps track?”
“Money?” I ask at last. Ozzie likes to save that information, building up the excitement so he can exult elaborately over his brilliant deal.
“Upfront, ten thousand, then a thousand per week. That’s just the basics. If it’s rated in the top five, there’s a ten percent raise…”
Bomb-diggity is right. I could quit my job at the Peek-a-Boo Boutique. I lose track of the intricacies of percentages and bonuses…exponential growth if it is popular and in rollover renewal. It could last a week, a year, or more. I could become a virtual Chinese woman, expert at mah-jongg, before I get home again to my dog.
Freud and I see Ozzie out and down the hall and to his car. After Freud and I walk and chase a stick, I hurry inside, to make an appointment with the Face Lady. I am leaving for China in three weeks. After thinking it over for about eleven seconds, I have decided not to insist on travel expenses and accommodations for Freud. Who knows what they do to dogs in China. I am going to ask the Face Lady if she will care for him while I am gone. She has kept him before, when I was away for short periods on location. She has such a way with animals, and every time I come back to get him, he looks younger.
It will be like no time at all has passed, I promise him.
When I hang up the telephone, Susan’s photograph on the desk stares at me accusingly. Susan. I half reach for the phone again.
Susan. In the picture you are sitting there on my white couch, with the Ovaltine-colored stain clearly visible, a reminder of the day you got sloshed and spilled the brandy Alexander I had made for you. You said you would never get over Gregory, but I knew you would.
Now you need to be petted and soothed. I wish I were better at that. I wish I knew what to say about your news. It has been three days since you called me with that brief message. I was bewildered. I didn’t know what to say then. You should have told me sooner. I know I must call you before I go away. Can we talk about cancer without feeling we are handling the word with prongs? No, I meant tongs, didn’t I? Susan, I am bewildered. You were always so kind to me. You were with me when I had my moles removed, and you made silly jokes about the little skin tags on my neck, wiggling them and calling them “honey drops.” I giggle when I recall the times we sat self-consciously with martinis at the Café Lucie and pretended we were movie stars. “Cheers!” we would say again and again. It’s not true that I was prettier than you. That crazy agent who dismissed you for bring too short should have been institutionalized. California stifled you. You wailed about how irrelevant you were in LA-LA Land. You knelt before the Hollywood sign (one of the Os) and pretended to pray for fame. Up there you got chiggers, but really you were just itchy with desire to go back home to Louisville and take up with Gregory again. I was wrong about getting over Gregory.
On the bright side, when I am in China I will seek out their top specialists. The Chinese know something about cancer that we don’t. I will promise that when we talk.
Random fears about going to China and living with an ordinary family (I guess that means two parents, one child, and as many as four grandparents):
Being considered an extra large in women’s clothing
Where to go to the restroom
If they have hissing cockroaches
People spitting in public
What I’m curious about:
How they curb their fertility
How they do funerals
If there will be room to do sit-ups or will I have to go outdoors to a public square
Last year I met a Chinese man who told the group at the table his amusing encounter with the English language. The word for Welcome (or was it pleased to meet you?) was something like– BOO-sheeyah Bullshit.
I’m going to get off the plane and some Chinese guy is going to say “bullshit” to me.
What I will miss most:
For five years I had a bit part in a silly sit-com on the FUN channel on cable. It offered little gratification, but it paid the rent, and I did like the people there–Mark with dark face stubble who played the therapist, and Lulu Baggs, who played his sweetheart, Corinne. In real life they got married, and I got confetti in my eye at their wedding. My eye was so swollen I couldn’t keep the scheduled session for head shots to promote the fall season. Last year the show was cancelled and I went to work at the Peek-A-Boo Boutique, where I sell and model bustiers, boy-shorts, baby-dolls, and shape-wear, so this Chinese reality show is like a daydream.
Ozzie takes care of absolutely everything. I do nothing about the plans for spending the indefinite future in China. Yet why do I feel I am setting my affairs in order? This afternoon after leaving work, I stopped for bubble tea at a petite offbeat bubble-tea salon owned by Bettie from New York. Bettie herself is a bubble of California sunshine and joy. Fuck New York! She has a four-foot photo cube, snapshot collages of the stars who have graced her bubble-tea salon. It hangs from the plumbing pipe above. Some of the faces are upside down. They aren’t anybody you would recognize.
I told Bettie I was being flung into China. I was promised tons of money if the show caught on. I tried to sound happy, but I cringed when Bettie said, “You must be careful over there. If you get arrested, you can disappear.”
“Why would I get arrested?”
“It happens to tourists a lot all over, doesn’t it?”
“Ozzie will protect me,” I said with a bit of a sniff, invoking my screwball manager like a talisman.
Now, lying on my white sofa with an Oriental pillow, Freud at my feet, I’m still trembling with the vision of being arrested in China for something I did inadvertently, innocently. I try to imagine Ozzie with his L.A.-shark ways cajoling a Chinese punk gang into laying their hands off me, or trying to persuade the court not to convict me of jaywalking or some other capital offense. Ozzie would smoke his Meerschaum pipe for that scene, I will vouchsafe! He is a frustrated actor, drawn to period dramas with quaint lingo, like vouchsafe.
I remember Ozzie’s face when I was playing that back-alley scene in Absinthe, with the fog machine making everything blurry. He sat on the sidelines, but he squinted as if he were actually in the scene, projecting himself into the role of the man I was supposed to be seeking in the foggy morning.
I shove the Oriental pillow to the floor and sit on it cross-legged, my fingers entwined in Freud’s lovely ruff.
“Ozzie will be there for me,” I say, and Freud begins to bark. He brings me his stick.
When I first met Ozzie, I was an extra in a crowd scene. Between takes he came up to me and said, “No more bit parts for you, Babe.” Ozzie was just starting out then, and even though he never got me a big part, he has been loyal. He would say of some role I thought I had a shot at, “That’s not worth a Gladys Kravitz, Toots.” It was either Toots or Babe. He didn’t like my name, Melanie, and thought I should change it to Thelma, or something equally dorky.
Ozzie is hipster-phobic. He won’t touch kefir. Or lemon grass. And he deliberately pronounces kefir incorrectly. He likes thick steak, flattened and tenderized with garlic salt, and he avoids any foreign restaurant. This is the man who is taking me to China.
Although he is ridiculously square in many ways, he has a super place in Laurel Canyon with up-cycled retro-industrial furniture juxtaposed with antique French chiffoniers and Little Lulu wallpaper. Every bathroom has a bidet. At a party he threw for me after Absinthe, all the guests were eaten alive by mosquitoes. He didn’t use citronella tiki torches like a sane person because they sounded New-Age. He wanted to use whatever Sherlock Holmes would have used. If he had thought it through like Sherlock, he would have solved the mosquito problem. Sometimes I think he is not just eccentric, but worse.
In the first cable series he landed for me, I played an amorous schoolgirl in round glasses with a cartoon-cute dog named Dingo. In one scene I made Dingo jealous by befriending a large tortoise. It soon became clear that Dingo was more popular with audiences than I was, and Dingo went on to have his own show.
Ozzie turned down a chance to manage Dingo. I think he regretted that decision, but truly Ozzie was not meant to manage dogs. He barely notices my lovely Freud, with his natural beauty, his fetching skills, and his dead-stare focus that any actor would die to have. Any skill at all might come in handy for a role. I am always filled with anxiety about my ability to act, and my dearth of handy knacks, but Ozzie just shrugs and says, “You got the stuff, Toots.”
The other day I met a Japanese man in my building when the sewer line was being repaired. He has been in my building only six months, but I have seen him ascend the steps of the back entrance carrying his little bento boxes from Ralph’s. Although it would have been more convenient had he been Chinese, we struck up an acquaintance and he invited me to share some sushi. He served sake with Goldfish, which I thought was so funny, exactly the kind of cultural conglomeration that I expect to encounter when I go to China. I expect Xing Tao beer and nachos, General Tso and Coca-Cola, makeup to slant my eyes.
The Japanese man offered me a plate of edamame.
“It is, literally, beans on a branch,” he said, rather formally.
“I know. I eat these by the branch,” I said. “Hundreds.”
With chopsticks (good practice, I thought), I teased up a piece of sushi.
“This is sea urchin roe,” I said. “You can’t fool me.”
“A restaurant in Van Nuys serves the superior sea urchin roe,” he said.
I loved hearing him pronounce those words, so liquid, like the two shots of sake I had glugged.
“The word urchin derives from the word ‘hedgehog,’ ” he said. “But there are many interpretations.”
He is some kind of linguist at UCLA.
His studio apartment is simple, with artfully arranged cushions and halogen lamps. In a corner several delicate wood carvings of apparent feet stand before a futon.
The Japanese man is younger than me, robustly handsome, with a shock of thick blue-black hair. The Japanese men are growing taller, I think. He wears a tooled leather belt–a design that resembles desert cacti, the ones with the long arms reaching to the sky like the victim of a robber.
“May I call you Davy?” I asked that night. I could not master his long porcupine of a name. Its sounds had no familiar handles.
I had met two Chinese women called Winnie and Sophie who had internships at UCLA. Ozzie arranged for them to help me prepare for my life in China. They had taken American names that are similar in sound to their Chinese names because Americans can’t comprehend their names. This is a common practice, they told me. I sat in a daze and couldn’t think of what to ask them. Later, I thought, I should have asked if they had a Face Lady in Tianjin.
The Japanese man offered me plum wine, and I stayed up late with him to watch the landing on Mars. There was nothing to see, but the studio–that is, mission control–went crazy. It was their wrap party.
He handed me a ballpoint pen and a notebook.
“Please write your identification for me,” he says.
Instead of walking in Mandalay Park I have started biking elliptically to episodes of House. I missed it when it was new. Hugh Laurie, the loopy but endearing Bertie Wooster of the Wodehouse stories, is now a surly, somehow irresistible American doctor. I am on episode fifteen of season one.
There are eight years of House! I could watch him forever, transfixed in a cone of bliss, in Never-Never Land. I can never guess the mystery disease on the show, but I always imagine that Susan’s cancer will show up on one of them. I am biking toward that. I will call her soon. Or write.
In the mornings I bike with Dr. House. Sometimes the tension with others–nobody likes him much–is a little heavy-handed, but he is always cool. He is so good at hanging his head when he is wrong. He is grieving. His leg hurts.
In the evenings, on the sofa, with my face in a mint mask, I watch Hugh Laurie in Jeeves and Wooster. Now and then Freud comments, in his chummy tut-tut tone. In his black-and-white furry outfit, he is my Jeeves.
There is a crisis:
Hugh Laurie is now a musician, with a band. I see in the newspaper that he is playing in L.A. next month, the day after I leave for China.
Ozzie won’t change the date–too difficult with all the papers we have signed, the work-visa thing. It is all over my head.
“I can’t go to China without Hugh Laurie,” I say to Ozzie.
I’ve ordered Laurie’s novel to read on the plane. The man’s talents are infinite.
“You can watch him on your computer,” Ozzie says with a flip of his hand. “Just download it all before you go.”
He looks at me in mock despair when I grunt. “O.K., I’ll have it done for you, he says.”
“Eight years’ worth.”
“O.K. I can do that.”
Good old Ozzie. I will explain to the Chinese family about House, how it is haunting me. It will be our cultural exchange. They won’t have an elliptical bike. They will have real bikes.
“They have a car,” Ozzie tells me.
“Great. Me driving in China. No way.”
Ozzie driving in China. No way.
“Will we have a translator in the Chinese house?” I ask.
What if I show them Jeeves and Wooster? I wonder. They won’t get it. I will have to try to explain it to the Chinese family.
I try out Jeeves and Wooster on Winnie and Sophie, the Chinese interns, when they visit again.
They roar with laughter. They anticipate when Jeeves is going to come up with a bright idea to solve Bertie’s fix. They seem to understand the jokes better than I do.
To my surprise, they have seen House. Many times, many episodes.
“Three years,” Winnie says.
“One year was enough for me,” says Sophie. “Someone should run over him with a truck.”
I have a new fear. My host family is going to find me culturally backward. They are going to be more sophisticated than I am about western culture.
I could just stay here on my e-bike. I will track my mileage and see how long it takes me theoretically to e-bike to China. By then I will be bony thin, my face beyond repair. I must call Susan. She is my friend, my oldest, dearest friend. My thoughts of her keep popping up like obligatory plugs for our sponsor. I am so scared.
Ozzie phones. “Good news. I got first-class tickets for us. We can sleep all the way.”
“No. Not much pleasure,” I reiterate to Susan.
“Somewhere there must have been a fortune cookie meant for you,” says Susan. “ ‘Your life is about to change in profound ways!’ ”
I’m walking with Freud out at Mandalay Beach, imagining a conversation with Susan, apologizing for not calling earlier. I am determined to say all the right things.
The air is constipating my mind, so gray and windy today.
I think that if we did talk the conversation would surprise me.
“Susan, your battle is serious, and I have known nothing of life. I’m spoiled and expect kindness from everyone. And I expect small pleasures all the livelong day.”
I wait for these pleasures the way Freud waits for me to throw a stick.
“I’m such a palooka,” I say. “It was all my own fault that acting didn’t work out for you.”
“Oh, no, Don’t blame yourself.” She is insistent. “When we were roommates, I was always envious of you.”
“No, I was envious of you. That all seems so silly now.”
“You encouraged me,” she said. “I wouldn’t have gone to California if you hadn’t urged me to. It was so far away.”
“Your parents never forgave me.”
“But it was the best thing in my life,” she says. “Going to California, such a bold adventure!”
“This is too soon, Susan.”
No, that’s too melodramatic. Do the line again. Say it like you meant it.
“But I do mean it.”
There are lizards at my feet, slithering into a tangle of seaweed. I am silent, a flood of memories shoving me down like the approaching surf. No doubt the dolphins out there are singing “Home Sweet Home.”
At Ralph’s yesterday I saw a woman with a bucket handbag that reminded me of the one you dangled on your elbow years ago when they were casting for the younger sister in Sweets. You thought it would be just the right accoutrement for the character. In the scene you had to throw a tantrum at a rabbi wearing a blindfold.
“The Santa Ana winds are starting up,” I say to Susan in my head.
I try to be sparkly, but everything seems to come out negative.
Fuck. I can’t talk about cancer. She doesn’t deserve cancer. For a long while she was my responsibility out here, being younger and so timid about auditions. She disappeared for two days once, and I played the scene over and over in my head–me calling her parents with the worst news. But she turned up–a fling in Vegas. No explanation.
Today was my last day at the Peek-a-Boo Boutique. I got to choose any piece of lingerie I wanted as a going-away present. I chose a purple ruffled silk charmeuse chemise, printed with cat paw-prints. The Chinese household will find it exotic on their clothes line, but I realize now that the pattern won’t look so great on TV.
At a little Mexican place I choke down fatty chili with some sprigs of what look like watercress but must be cilantro because if it’s Mexican it’s cilantro. Are cultures really that rigid? In China, do they have some rules for talking about cancer?
I’m going home to throw a stick for Freud.
My heart does a double axel when Susan’s mother telephones a week before I am to go to China. I hear in her voice that Susan is not dead.
“Susan can’t talk right now, but she asked if you could come and be with her.”
My throat tightens. “How is she?” I squeak.
“She was tolerating the treatment, but now it is not so good.”
My apologies tumble and sway, like someone with a club foot jitterbugging. I’m such a bad friend.…please forgive me. I babble on and on, and Susan’s mother is silent. I hear just a buzz on the line, with my own staccato breath.
“I love Susan more than anything,” I say.
“Not more than I do.”
“No. This is very hard for you, I know.”
“She is lucid much of the time, but then she drifts off. She keeps asking for you.”
I have to explain about China. It sounds so lame. Susan’s mother has no interest in China. I arrange to Skype with Susan when she is better.
Yikes! Skype! Did I really say that? This hits me after I hang up. I don’t know if Susan has hair. She probably looks awful. I know we don’t want to look at each other.
Freud has laid his stick at my feet.
I am going to take Freud to the Face Lady’s home on Sunday evening. He is friends with her King Charles spaniel, who has a child’s playhouse, a personal assistant, and a throne. Thanks to the Face Lady’s mega-husband, there is a large fenced-in lawn, separate from the pool, but dogs may swim when invited. Freud likes to hang out among the decorator shrubbery as long as someone will throw a stick for him.
We discuss the plan Friday at the Face Lady’s salon. She harnesses me into her special chair, steams my whole head, then begins massaging my face. Gentleness is not her strength. Talking with the Face Lady is similar to talking with the dentist. You grab an instant when you are not being manipulated and then blurt out a thought as succinctly as possible.
“I have a bag of preparations for you to take with you to China,” she says. “My little gift.”
Mumbling, I promise to bring her some fragrance-free Chinese face products.
She slaps on a stinging toner, then selects a spool of thread.
The Face Lady is from Nepal, and she is an expert at threading. Her spools of colored threads are arrayed like the splendor of a peacock’s tail. She loops a thread on the fingers of her black-gloved hands and sets to work on my hairy face like a spider working its web. Her whirring threads remind me of that toy I remember from childhood, a loop of string through a button. You could make the thread vibrate, the button sing. She works her threads like this over my face and they catch the hard, wild invader hairs as well as the pale, downy ones.
She exfoliates then, as she reports the latest news from her sister, who has settled in a little Nepalese colony in the mountains of North Carolina. Her sister keeps begging her to come there and treat faces, but she would lose her rich and desperate face-obsessed clients.
Her aloe-soaked cloth is so soothing I swoon. I eschew wrinkle reduction, lip enhancement, décolletage treatment today. But I may need oxygen treatments in China.
As she removes the cloth, the Face Lady demands to know what I plan to do about Susan.
“You must go to her,” she says before I can answer.
“What about China?”
“You don’t want to go to China anyway.”
“But Susan’s illness shouldn’t become my excuse for not going to China.” I stare at my crimson face in the mirror. “Or is going to China my excuse for not wanting to be around someone dying?”
“Which is it?” the Face Lady says.
I can’t answer. I ask, “If you learned that your best friend from childhood was dying in Nepal, would you go to her?”
“Without question. Somehow, I would do it.”
She hands me the little bag of travel-sized, face-pampering elixirs.
Instead of rushing home to mollycoddle my face, I saunter down Ventura Boulevard, pondering what should happen. My fresh skin feels assaulted by smog and glare. Do I have a choice about going to China? I don’t even know what my contract says about extenuating circumstances and acts of God.
Either way, I’m a coward.
A blond god on a motorbike zooms past. No helmet, moussed hair mussed and flying, tanned gym-toned torso on display. A thousand of these guys are here in L.A., searching for something, acting like they have already found it.
In theatre class we learned that a deus ex machina was a no-no. That was for the ancient Greeks, who believed the gods could swoop in riding their chariots and solve a ticklish problem. Or for movies with helicopter rescues. Or Independence Day.
You have a choice, the Face Lady had said as I left.
Dr. House always tries to make the choice that is right, no matter what anyone thinks of him.
But should I be taking advice from a TV character? Or from a woman whose expertise is skin-deep? The Face Lady said I had a choice, but it was clear what she would do herself. She would skedaddle to Nepal and watch what cancer does to her best friend from childhood.
What would Dr. House do?
Then it comes clear. If I don’t go to China on Monday, I can go see Hugh Laurie and his band on Tuesday. And then–
At the end of the block I turn and head for my car. Then I remember driving cross-country with Susan to California after college. We had a little money and an ardent need to get somewhere. All the way through Oklahoma we sang “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” her voice in the lead, so clear and true.
Bobbie Ann Mason’s first book of fiction, Shiloh & Other Stories, (1982) won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was nominated for the American Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her novel, In Country, (1985) is taught widely in classes and was made into a Norman Jewison film. Mason’s newest novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret, ventures into World War II and the ways it is remembered. Her memoir, Clear Springs, is about an American farm family throughout the twentieth century and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.