My first inkling that something has gone tragically wrong is when I hand the parking attendant my valet ticket and see a wicked, knowing smile -- I know what you've been up to and trust me, you shouldn't have -- spread across her face. I try to smile back at her, but my cheeks are frozen stiff and my eyes feel as if they'll pop out of my head if I try to force the muscles. So I sit in the car and drive sufficiently away to escape the attendant's stare, then flip open the visor and check for signs of disaster: $350 and a trip to the dermatologist, a little vial of poison strong enough to paralyze a horse and here I am, looking exactly like before, except that smiling is out of the question.
The problem is, I like being able to laugh once in a while, and I don't much enjoy feeling that my face has become too tight to accommodate my eyes. The reason I've even subjected myself to the tyranny of the needle is so I can smile in the presence of family members without having them discover a whole new web of facial lines they think I've gone out of my way to earn. I can wear all the makeup in the world and dim all the lights, receive everyone with the most gracious welcome and offer compliments that would melt a stone and still, the standard greeting from my parents and aunts and even my 98-year-old grandmother is:
"You look terrible."
You're too thin, you work too hard, your skin has turned yellow from sitting in front of the computer all day. Why don't you write a screenplay for a change; you might actually make some money! Who the hell reads books anyway?
Now, it isn't as if I hadn't heard all the clichés about plastic surgery and Botox or that I'm such a nature girl; I just don't like to fool around with age. The nearest I've ever been to nature, in fact, was one night of camping in Idaho after which I realized why my ancestors moved out of caves and into air-conditioned hotels with room service. Truth be told, the only reason I haven't gone under the knife yet is that I'm too fearful of entrusting my face to a stranger who obviously didn't think much of it in the first place.
In other words, it isn't the end of innocence I'm mourning; it's what will happen the next time I see my relatives.
I turn the car around and go back to the dermatologist.
"I don't want to bother you," I tell her, feeling a bit uncouth as I sit once again in the black chair with the spotlight shining on me, "but it seems to me the Botox hasn't done a whole lot of good here."
She pauses graciously.
"You did have a lot of lines," she says after a while, making me suspect she's in cahoots with my relatives.
I want to say that I didn't really mind those lines, but I know she'll never believe this --just as I didn't believe Sarah Jessica Parker when she told Barbara Walters she hadn't fixed her nose because she liked it.
"I still have a lot of lines," I say. "They've just shifted. From one side of my eyes to another."
"Yes," she's undaunted. "They do that. The face compensates."
Do I have to ask the obvious?
"You can get more Botox," she preempts. "For the new lines."
I'm suddenly reminded of all those elegant women with thousand-dollar purses and seven strings of pearls I see at La Scala -- how you couldn't find a single line in any of their faces even with a microscope; how they all speak and move with unusual poise; how, come to think of it, that poise looks a lot like my own at this very moment.
I'm thinking, too, of the people I hold responsible for this fiasco -- my family members who wouldn't be caught dead with Botox or anything else in their face. They all believe in growing old graciously; they just don't tolerate it in the younger generation.
We've all suffered; our lives were hell; our husbands are tyrants; we're lucky to have made it to this age but you have no reason to complain and certainly no reason to look bad -- all you need to do is eat more, get a layer of fat under your skin, sleep till your cheeks turn rosy and if you're going to write at all, write a screenplay!
"Anyway," the dermatologist is getting impatient. "I happen to think you looked a lot worse before."
What is this? Various shades of black?
She tries another tack.
"It will wear off in three to five months, you know."
Just like Martha Stewart.
By the next planting season, Martha will have her "good life" back and I'll have my old lines -- plus, no doubt, a bunch of new ones, no screenplay in the works, and a whole host of family events to look forward to.
Maybe I should sleep late and gain a few pounds, get an expensive bag and some pearls, stop expecting that my face will have an expression when I dine at La Scala.
"Of course," the dermatologist reads my mind, "you may feel differently by then.
You may come back for more Botox."