Everything is ready for the ritual; me, the nurse with the silver tray, and Dr. Edmund Powers. Everything is ready, but I have been waiting a full two hours to get inside the doctor’s office and get started. The nurse is bustling around, a crisp white vision of medical efficiency, carrying small metal trays, whose contents defy gravity and rattle without sound. She darts across the room and scurries into the labyrinth of unblemished walls the colour of lightly suntanned angels, and enters through a pristine, heavy glass door, then disappears. In seconds she reappears empty handed. Her coming and going heightens my excitement, knowing that soon a tray will be prepared just for me.
I have avoided conversation with the other women, who surround me in the sunlit waiting room, feigning interest in the glossy magazines stacked in meticulous piles on ornate marble side-tables. We sit in muffled reverence, a conspiratorial hush, until the nurse passes us with another tray.
“Won’t be long.” She sing-songs without eye contact, and pin-drop silence follows.
The waiting has become a contest of bored bravado, each determined to appear more relaxed, more confident, the most casual about what will occur, but I am growing anxious as the silence and minutes accumulate. Behind the Reception desk, a display trails numbers in bright red led light across the wall. Periodically the numbers increase by one, or two, and I pass time trying to figure their meaning. Shares? Dollars? Clients? It is a statistical riddle too hard for me to solve. The young woman at the desk seems uncomfortable with my myopic stare and I give up trying to guess.
Meanwhile, the woman beside me twists escaping strands of hair back into place, picks at perfect cuticles, and I study every pamphlet on the side table, each poster on the walls. Idyllic, beautiful men and women smile down, seducing us to try something new and different, but they are all so blessed. And so very, very young.
Another thirty minutes on and I am waiting alone. The other women have been spirited away to somewhere deep in the plush beige corridors of vanity and self-doubt. The sun floods the room with brilliant white light that filters through floor length panoramic windows as pre-storm heat. My mind wanders to George and his absence of interest. Why do I do this? I know it isn’t for him, but is it for the eyes that sit in judgement as we pass on busy footpaths? Or could it actually be just for me? I am afraid of the answer and settle on a complex soup of all these possibilities, and mentally slap myself for asking the question.
I try to find distraction in the world outside, but this is the city and glass and concrete monoliths block any view except the ominous grey clouds that threaten to attack with a storm. There is absolute stillness in the waiting room, except for the constantly moving numbers on the wall behind Reception.
I watch the mysterious numbers as they trail along in hypnotic monotony and feel my eyes begin to close until the nurse approaches, leans down, and for no reason in the empty silence whispers into my cheek.
“Mrs Berry, Dr. Powers is ready for you.”
“Hello… Geraldine. How are you, my dear? It must be forever since I last saw you. So sorry for the wait.”
The great Dr. Powers greets his clients with the flair of a host welcoming guests to an exclusive party. I accept his well-manicured outstretched hand and feel the cool velvety touch of wealth in his skin, smell the potency of expensive men’s perfume. His age is indeterminate, but he is charming, handsome, and his razor-sharp focus on the lines and folds of my aging face is flattering. George no longer pays attention, except on the days when he suggests Dr. Powers, and I spend hours in front of a mirror, analyzing the difference between youth and age. Between being truly happy and just existing.
The doctor seats himself on a carved wooden chair upholstered in red velvet, behind his massive mahogany desk, while I settle in vinyl, nervously fingering the handles of my bag. He opens my file, underlines the notes with a long slender finger, then looks at me with his near black eyes.
“I am told you would like a full ‘refresh’ today? A little filler here, some Botox there. And the special.” As he speaks, he smiles, gestures around my lips and eyes, my forehead and sagging cheeks.
“Yes, please, a good top up. It has been a while.”
I catch a reflection in the full- length mirror on the wall beside me and pivot away before I can catch the face looking back. Time is a cruel thief. I know that it is ruthless and unforgiving. If only…
“Geraldine,” Dr. Powers’ oily tone pulls me from thought, “about The Deal, my dear. Are we still good?”
“Yes… Yes of course.”
“Then we may as well get started.”
I know the ritual well and have lost count how many times I have done this before. The bed is large, soft, and comfortable. I recline as the cool black leather glides to horizontal and tilts a little, my head just a fraction lower than my feet. It feels so good, to do this small something for myself, when I am always doing for everyone else. I surrender and giving in feels seductive.
I can sense Dr. Powers’ presence beside the bed, his breathing imperceptible behind the blue surgical mask. The door opens and shuts as the nurse enters and I know the drill. The nurse will ask.
“How many today, Doctor?”
And he will answer three or four, the number his deft fingers and analytical eyes tell him I need.
“Four of each today, and one ‘special.’” Just numbers, but they tell how many vials are needed. How much wreckage there is to be repaired. The nurse hurries away and returns with a familiar silver tray laid out with rows of tiny glass vials, syringes, a canula, a jar of thick white paste, a small plastic spatula, a half dozen sealed sterile dressings. And a scalpel.
I can tell that the ritual is about to begin when Dr.Powers leans in and asks,
“How does your face feel, Geraldine?” His reassuring, gentle hand on my shoulder.
The anaesthetic paste has worked its magic, and we are ready. I resist the urge to subtly scratch a cheek, to prove the ointment’s efficacy, and breathe mindfully in and out, beating back the rising panic of expected pain. The image of the tiny blade is hard to ignore, but I can feel nothing. I hear myself exhale, and relax into the moment, excited to anticipate happiness again.
There is a strange slumber-like quality to my thoughts, as Dr. Powers stares down, framed by the ultraviolet light of an arc-lamp, and I feel the tug of a canula, the press of needles and knives on my face. I think about George, imagining his delighted smile and eager embrace when I get home. A delighted child in a donut store, eager to taste his newly appealing wife.
Dr. Powers holds a small hand mirror to my face, and I am shocked to see a thirty-year-old version of myself looking back. The knife, the needles, the syringes, have excelled, turned back the years, sculpted wasteland into beauty.
“What do you think, Geraldine?” Dr. Powers asks. “Breathtaking, isn’t it?”
But I am lost for words.
I stand at the reception desk, credit card ready, and wait for the young woman to respond. When she does, her eyes scan my face, her chin tilting to one side, eyes narrowing. She waits, scrutinizing the work of her boss.
“Dr. Powers is incredibly skilfull, Mrs. Berry.” The woman taps the card on her machine and returns her gaze to the computer screen.
“It’s declined, do you have another?” she looks up and notices my confusion. “Or do you want The Deal?” Her patience is draining from the conversation.
“No, I don’t have another. Of course, sorry,” I say in sheer panic, "I’ll take The Deal.”
A sheaf of stapled, typewritten pages comes to mind. A contract, a disclaimer with so many aforementioneds and in the unlikely event thats. I had skimmed through the fine-print all those years ago, until I came to Addendum Six: The Deal. There was something about options, costs and card-holder liabilities, the usual, unintelligible legalese. And I had signed, sealed and dispatched it, mostly unread, to the hidden place where all forgotten things wait.
I notice the red number tick over by one: 375 to 376.
“What is that?” I ask.
“Oh, that’s Corporate’s idea.” She says with pride, as if I should know, and points a finger downward.
It is odd but I have never noticed anyone else in the building, not in hallways or in lifts, not a sign of Corporate life.
“We are proud of our acquisitions and it’s great PR, " she says, her voice trailing off as she picks up her bag and heads for the exit.
There is another sudden change on the display, from 376 to 377 and she pauses.
“That’s you. See?” she calls out, but I cannot help feeling that this has something to do with The Deal that I have made and almost forgotten.
“My lucky number.” I answer, but she has already vanished.
This has been a very long day and I am exhausted. The waiting, the anticipation, the longing for a miracle.
I glance down to see my phone click over from 5.59 to 6 p.m. A white plastic calendar catches my eye on the reception desk and reminds me that it is my sixtieth birthday tomorrow. I have the habit of paying attention to things like this but a feint gasp leaves my still slightly numb lips.
“It is precisely six o’clock on the sixth of June.” I think, as a small shiver riffs through my senses. The elevator descends, and I exit the building into a blinding thunderstorm.
The car trip home takes longer because of the rain. Pulling into the driveway, the house is in near total darkness, lit only by the porch light. I am hoping that George is not angry because I have been away for so long. Furious because dinner is late.
I hurry through the house, arms outstretched to preempt complaining. For as long as I have known him, George has given in to a kiss and an affectionate hug, but I cannot find him in the darkened house.
“Hello! George!” I call, “your new wife is home!”
The stairs disappear under my feet by twos as I race up, shouting George’s name, hurrying from room to room, until I come to our bedroom and slam on the light.
George is laying on the bed, frozen in death, his face a portrait of confused surprise. A piece of neatly folded paper lays across his chest, one hand still grasping a corner, and I gently pull it from his fingers and sit on the edge of the bed. His hands are icy and I know there is nothing I can do to bring him back, and I carefully unfold the letter, needing to find an explanation. I read.
Dear Mr. Berry,
Re: Outstanding Invoice: $3000.50 for services by Dr. E. Powers
We wish to inform you that we are taking urgent recovery action following the failure of your wife, Mrs.Geraldine Berry, to meet her financial obligation for services rendered today.
We are granted full authority to execute The Deal, previously recorded on her behalf, and you will hear from us immediately after receipt of this letter, from which time your existence is no longer required.
Please consider Your Soul as payment in full and be assured that we will not pursue the debt further with your wife.
On behalf of:
Dr. E. Powers
Recovery & Debt Collection Division
I sit beside George sipping my Manhattan and drinking in the enormity of what has happened today. I smile, knowing that tomorrow I will have the happiest, most perfect, most beautiful birthday I have ever had.