Steam filled the darkened room, along with the smell of eucalyptus.
“Just close your eyes.” Her voice was low, with a pleasant accent, neither American nor British. The tips of her long blonde hair swung against my shoulders. She stroked my jaw to let me know she was about to begin, then covered my eyelids with damp discs of cotton.
The room was narrow, like a berth on a train. Lying there I remembered why I don’t like facials. It has to do with the claustrophobia of the small cubicle, the disorienting fog of heat and steam, and the upside-down face of the aesthetician, with a smiling red slash and teeth where her forehead should be.
She removed the discs and I looked up at her. Her pale skin was poreless and faintly powdery, like fresh drywall. My face was bathed in her sweet chlorophyll breath. I had an urge to flee, to run out the door in my silvery smock and paper slippers. But in three days I was going to a wedding, the wedding of my ex-husband, and I wanted to look my best.
A thick magnifying glass on a metal arm swung over my face and her eyes grew huge, like fish swimming by the glass of an aquarium. She ran a finger along my jaw line where a line of small white bumps lurked.
“Guess it’s been a while since we’ve seen you.”
“Yes. More than a year, actually.” Do not feel shame, I told myself.
“Okay, lots to work on here.” She swivelled away to turn up the steamer and prepare some new unguent. The air in the room grew thicker and whiter. The two of us floated in our little heaven.
She gathered her hair back into a low ponytail with a scrunchy so it wouldn’t get in the way, and bent over my face, like a monk in prayer. Her eyes were very blue, tilted up at the corners. Upside down, this gave her a slightly sad or rueful expression. I tried to read the name tag pinned on her uniform. G-something. Gwendolyn? Gloria?
Settling on a stool behind my head, she squirted some lotion into the cup of her hand and began to smooth it on my face, stroking up from the jaw. It felt cool, menthol and tingly. The touch of her hand triggered a little swoon of tenderness in me. How long had it been since anyone had touched my face like this? The agenda-free caress: we never get enough. As G. began to paddle away at my jawline and faint Balinese music wafted into the room through a vent in the ceiling, I went over the chronology of what had happened with Eric one more time.
The marriage had survived so much, with adulterous skirmishes on both sides. Sometimes we were just looking at each other across a great distance, two people on opposite banks of a cold rushing river. But we had lasted. How many other couples had stayed together, among our friends? Two or three. One co-dependant toxic pair, a dullish, okay one, and a loving, thriving, enviable couple. Until the woman got cancer, and died.
In fact it was when Eric and I were getting along smoothly that the trouble hit. “Looks like we’re in it for the long haul,” he had said to me on our anniversary, raising a glass. Our Elmore Leonard version of tenderness.
“I’ll start with some extractions and then I’ll work on the puffiness, “ said G. “I like the hijiki mask, myself, for circulation and lift. It’s Japanese seaweed with lots of anti-oxidants. Plus some alpha-hydroxl.”
I found the pseudo-scientific language of skin care silly, unquantifiable and almost religious. But I wanted to put myself in her hands.
She got to work tweezing my face with her index fingers, pushing out tiny pencil-points of black. This was the fun part, really. Everyone likes squeezing zits, whether they’re yours or someone else’s. Grooming stirs deep reptilian-brain pleasure. As she squeezed, an image came into my head of that lifeguard…Gord. From Guelph. I worked with him at summer camp. He had big welty pimples and pitted craters on his back, like Richard Burton’s face. During afternoon rest period a bunch of us would lounge around behind the staff quarters, on the broad, satellite-dish rocks of Georgian Bay, and Gord would let me work my way through the moonscape of his scarred back. A sweet, peaceful interlude.
Most of my friends are single now, or divorced. One widow, about to remarry. When Eric and I were together, sometimes I wondered what our friends thought about our marriage. Do they wish they were us, or are they grateful to be living their uncoupled, unencumbered lives? People stay in a marriage either out of fear and inertia, or choice and love. Probably a bit of all four.
“So how’s your week been so far,” said G. as the steam hissed companionably.
“Not too bad. Getting ready for a wedding in a few days.”
“Not yours!” she said, rearing up in delight.
“Oh no. Just someone I know.”
“We’ll make you outshine the bride,” G said, nipping away at my jawline, at those tiny hard white ones.
“Well, I’d be very happy if you did,” I ventured, “because she’s marrying my ex-husband.”
G. didn’t know what to say to this. But something about the whole cleansing routine was disinhibiting me, as they say in the geriatric world. Out with all the toxins, I thought, including those little black dots of impacted memory.
“It turns out they’d been sleeping together for some time,” I said with a sort of chuckle. “While we were together.”
“Huh, wow,” said G. “Not good!”
“No, not good indeed. I think it had been going on for years. But I’ve never did manage to sort that part out.”
“Did you know her? The bride?”
“She was his therapist, actually.” Another cackle escaped me. Really, the whole saga was hilarious. “I even saw her a few times myself, to discuss our relationship.” G. tactfully sat back for a moment, then bent again to her work. The skin of my face began to sparkle with a pleasant pain, as if I’d been lightly slapped.
“So what was she like?”
“I found her humorless and kind of arrogant. But she was attractive, in a blowsy sort of way.”
“What kind of therapy did she practice?”
“Short-term, results-based. It’s about changing your mental habits, rather than talking about mum and dad. Although some of that might have been a good idea too.”
“I’m sorry. That must have been sooo hard for you,”
A therapist line! She was good at this.
“As a matter of fact, it was.” Two tears swelled in the corners of my eyes, and rolled down my temples. G. swabbed them away with a cotton disc.
“I had my suspicions for a long time before he told me. Occasionally I’d flay away at him, interrogate him. But he said I was just being paranoid, and feeling old. We’d been together for 22 years, after all. And unfortunately I saw him as someone who was incapable of lying. He used to be so transparent when we first met, an open book.”
“That rings a bell,” said G. with a thin lopsided smile.
“He couldn’t even hide a parking ticket. But then somehow he caught on. He learned how to lie right under my nose.
“Oh yeah.” Half her mouth smiled.
“I mean, I can lie, like most women I’m pretty good at it, but I didn’t think he was capable of it. I was almost impressed that he had pulled it off.”
“Men are such douchebags,” G. said, shooting a tiny black projectile out of my cheek. She finished the extractions, which left a trail of stings on my skin, like a hot rain falling. Then she began massaging my face, drawing her hands up from my neck and gently paddling away under my jaw.
“Gets the lymphatic system active and draining.”
“What about you?” I asked, straining my eyes up to find hers. “Are you married?”
“I think so,” she said. We laughed. “My husband’s a musician, so he’s away a lot. On the road.”
“Oh, that’s a tough one. My husband used to do consulting for the oil companies up north, he’s a geologist. He was on the road a lot when we first met and I was so lonely. I used to travel too, but by the time I met him I was ready to just sit around on the couch with someone.”
“Marriage and couches, man, they go together.”
“So I fell for a guy who was around. But he happened to be married.”
“Oh yeah. As in, married-married?”
“Right. Which messed us up for a long time. But I always claimed it was my husband’s fault, for leaving me alone so much in the beginning.”
More tears, which G. tenderly swabbed away.
“We were careless with each other, that’s all,” I said. “It’s a miracle we made it as far as we did.”
“Why did you stick it out?”
“Oh, you know. Love.” G. laugh-snorted. “And something in me knew he ought to be the father of my kids. Which was true, he’s a great dad. The kids adore him.”
“That’s huge. Seeing my husband with our kids is just such a turn-on for me.”
G. was using a brush to paint a gritty white paste on my cheeks and forehead.
“What products are you using?” she asked.
This was a question I always dreaded.
“Well, I buy all those toners and cleansers, then they sit on the back of the toilet and I never use them. I wash my face with soap, usually.”
“Glycerin soap. And I use Kiehl’s moisturizer.” Kiehl’s was old-school, a New York pharmacy that used to make little vials of patchouli oil in the hippie days.
But G. didn’t criticize. She kept painting away.
“I think you’d find that exfoliating once a week would make a big difference.”
“I’ll try,” I said meekly.
Somewhere on the floor above us, a phone rang, and high heels clicked across the floor.
“Chris keeps asking me to go on the road with him,” G. said. “But I hate being ‘the girlfriend’. You go to the club, the guy on the door stares at the clipboard for a long time and you say ‘I should be on there, I’m with the band,’ and finally he gets bored looking for your name and waves you in. You’re always feeling not, like, official. Then I sit around backstage eating all the vegetables on the snack trays.”
“Yeah, those trays with all that celery! Celery’s a non food.”
“But if I start giving the guys feedback on the sound mix or whatever, I feel like that girlfriend in Spinal Tap, the one who wants to make the band wear costumes based on their zodiac signs…”
She turned around to rinse her brush in the little sink. I could feel the potion on my face tightening, as if I was wearing pantyhose on my head.
G.’s brows lifted and her red mouth smiled.
“But he really likes me to be there in the audience, I know that. So I try to go.”
She consulted a sheet of paper on the counter and ticked off two items on a list. My tears were now blocked by the drying mask.
“So after Apple was born, I stayed home and started writing a blog, with recipes and parenting stuff, which eventually kind of took off. My traffic is insane now! But I do believe that domestic life can be, like, a spiritual path.”
“Or not,” I said cheerfully.
“Then I realized that I was still home all day long, only working harder! So I hired a nanny, plus an intern to write my blog, and I signed up for an Ayurvedic skincare course.”
“The balance thing?”
“Right, and that’s when things really fell into place. The products are natural, and it’s one on one, you know? Which is extremely rewarding.”
“Well, the work suits you. You have a lovely touch.”
“Thank you! It’s so nice to get feedback in person. There’s too many haters online.”
“And, you’ve stayed married.”
“Yeah. Although it’s still up and down-y.”
“I think we expect too much from marriage.”
“This year I started to make some of my own lotions and masks, too. It’s like cooking, only for your face. Here’s my website.”
She took a sky-blue card out of a drawer and put it on the counter beside my glasses and earrings. Now that the close work was over, she pulled off the scrunchy and shook out her blonde hair.
“So how did you find out? “ G. asked. “About her.”
“It wasn’t any one thing. Small nothing moments that I look back on now and think, how stupid could I be, why didn’t I pick up on that.”
“Whenever Chris gets a crush on someone I can always tell,” said G. Now I could look at her right side up now, which was a relief. She had a perfectly oval face and her smile was thin, wide, and wry. “He starts kind of posing in the mirror when he’s getting dressed. And fussing about what to wear. Or buying something too hipsterish.”
“My first clue was when I went to see a friend who was dying. She asked me how things were with Eric, and the words just came out of my mouth. ‘I always feel jealous,’ I said, ‘although I have nothing to be jealous of’. As soon as I said it, I realized that it was true—he was somewhere else, really.”
“You feel it in your bones,” G. said. “Like a cold draft. It’s awful”.
“Marriage is kind of a performance, right? You both agree to play your roles. That’s part of the security of it, knowing what comes next. Then one day you realize that the two of you are just running the lines, and nobody’s home.”
“So tell, about the big reveal.”
“The moment, the moment you found out.”
“We were sitting at our kitchen table. We had been to a friend’s birthday party. I was a bit drunk, and that’s when I tend to hammer away at whatever’s bothering me. I was railing away at him. And somehow her name came up.”
G. trundled her chair to the side of me and held up an appliance that looked like an electric toothbrush. She pressed a switch on it and a thin, powerful shaft of light shone out.
“I’m going to do a few passes with this—it helps stimulate the production of collagen, which pushes new cells to the surface. You might feel a slight tingling.” She began moving it over my face, as if writing on it.
“He had bumped up his therapy sessions to twice a week, and so I made a joke, like ‘you’re spending more time with her than me’. Then, drunk, I said, ‘You might as well be sleeping with her’. And he didn’t say anything.”
“His face got really pale, and he kind of gathered himself up. It was obvious that he’d been preparing, rehearsing, for this moment.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘I do have feelings for her.’ Nobody says that! Like something out of a nineteenth century novel. It broke my heart. What he meant, of course, was ‘I love her’”
“Uh-oh,” said G, sweeping back and forth with the light.
“I realized that I had to catch up quickly, like a film on fast-forward, to something that had been going on for some time. The odd part was this rush of relief I felt, that my sense of being unpartnered wasn’t something that I had imagined. So I wasn’t crazy after all.”
“You’re really pinking up here, “ said G. admiringly, patting my cheek.
“Anyway, I guess you know what I’m talking about.”
G. turned to the sink and rinsed her hands. She dialed the steamer down a notch. The Balinese music sounded like soft mallets on bones.
“It involves some names.”
“Feel free to change them,” I said merrily. “It’s all the same story.”
I hadn’t felt so light for ages. Telling someone about my husband’s betrayal was the best spa treatment I could imagine. And I felt a swell of affection for him now, for the two of us having come through it, both knowing exactly what the other one had endured.
“It was during the band’s last tour of the American southwest,” said G. with a doleful timbre to her voice already.
“We’d been talking about starting a family. Chris wasn’t opposed, but the whole question of where we would settle, how often could he be on the road and all that, was on the table.”
“How old were you?”
“And you were acting?”
“Yeah. That was a problem. There were times when I was a little bit more famous than he was. And frankly, it bugged him. He wouldn’t admit it, but it always came out when we argued. “
“Careers are overrated,” I said.
“Once, we were at some event and I overheard Chris saying “Gwyneth is a great cook but only when the camera’s on her.”
“Yeah. And I began to notice that on the nights when it was more about me out in public, we’d come home, and…”
“Ix-nay on the sex.”
“Right. What women used to do.”
“Well, I’ve never been more successful than my husband so I can’t speak to that.” I felt quite giddy. My broken marriage seemed like nothing more than a story now, one passed around circles of chuckling women.
“So you quit show biz?” I was getting the picture that G.’s career had been considerably more glamorous than mine.
“Yeah. I tried being a country singer for a while, which was fun—but it overlapped too much with Chris’s career. Then I took some time off. I went to an ashram in India for a couple weeks, which was, like, life-altering. That’s when I decided that I wanted to do something very modest, but intimate. Service, you know?”
“Like in AA.”
“Anyway, that’s when I realized that I wanted to work on people’s skin.”
I was sorry, at this point, that my skin wasn’t more well-tended, for her sake. But on the other hand, I had given her a weedy garden, a challenge. And our time together had been intimate, more private than anything I had experienced for some time.
“I think we’re done here, Rose,” said G. “I’m going to give you a few samples of that mask, it seems to be working for your skin. And remember—exfoliate, at least once a week. Getting rid of dead skin will make a huge difference.”
I made a silent vow to follow her advice.
“So are you going on the road again with Chris?”
“Well, both kids are in school now. It’s just easier all round if I stay home.”
“You’re very good at what you do,” I said. I patted her arm. The tipping would happen upstairs.
“Thank you.” She gave me a wad of foil packets, free samples of masques and moisturizers. “And I won’t say, have fun at the wedding.”
“I’ll try not to throw a drink in anyone’s face.” We laughed.
“You’ll be fine,” she said, swiveling a round mirror towards me. “Take a look.”
I flipped the mirror to the unmagnified side, and braced myself for redness, or at least, that slightly raw, post-facial look. But my face was calm. The green of my eyes had deepened. And my skin looked fabulous.