Bobbie Ann Mason

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):
Compost
Breathing grit
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:
Kefir
Home-style pota­toes
My dog­gie
.…..
Oh, shit.
China.

 

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.”

Say 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.