Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fairy Tales of Manhattan: The Deep Blue Serum

Fairy Tales of Manhattan: The Deep Blue Serum (The Emperor's New Clothes)
by Julie Baumgold

"We are going to be using the blue serum from now on," Dr. Ivan Powell told his staff.

The nurses were lined up in the hall between the procedure rooms, women of all sizes and ages with two things in common. They all had skin with a moist glow and many of them wore matching navy sweaters over their uniforms because Dr. Powell kept his offices at 60 degrees summer and winter.

"Whatever they ask for, whatever they are expecting, you take the serum from the refrigerator and I will explain. If they ask you what it is and start telling you that they get Radiesse or Juvederm or Botox or whatever you say, 'The doctor will be here shortly to explain.' And nothing else. Am I clear, ladies?" There was a murmuring and a shuffling that meant assent.

Dr. Powell tried to smile.

Renata, who had been with the doctor the longest, thought Dr. Powell, whose face was without lines or color or expression but not without makeup, looked somewhat peaked. He had been working very hard, flying here and there erasing faces, as he liked to put it, with his medical kits Fed-Exed ahead, unless the patient sent his plane.

She looked at his hands which he injected with his fat stored in the refrigerator vault behind his desk. Over the desk hung a photograph by O. Winston Link of a night train, a steam locomotive shooting white clouds into a black sky. When Dr. Powell opened the special refrigerators, the same puff of smoke appeared.

He held one hand with the other, clutched in front of him like a penitent child, and, when he released them, his right hand had a tremor. Poor man, Renata thought.

Renata walked out into the waiting rooms. Above the cream sofas hung work by Cindy Sherman, the princess of transformation, Richard Avedon, the great retoucher, and Horst. The magazines were stacked with architectural precision and Renata would throw out and replace any copy with the slightest sign of wear. None of Dr. Powell's patients ever dared tear anything out of his magazines.

With surgical scissors she snipped any yellow or dead leaves from the white orchid plants.

Already there were patients outside the glass doors when one of the younger nurses unlocked them. They had arranged themselves, standing sideways or facing the elevators, as though they might make themselves invisible that way. They filed in, sat, and stared down into their phones. They might as well have not been in the same room.

The special patients had already come and gone an hour ago. There was no chance of any of them ever being seen by the regulars. The nurses who were there at 6:30 were told to avoid eye contact and conversation. The patient would waft in and head directly for Room 1-A which had been prepared.

When two regular patients knew each other, however well, it was the politesse to pretend blindness or disappear into the bathroom until the other was shown into the treatment room and thus made to vanish.

Renata called them "the ostriches" for the big birds who would bury their heads in the sand, their rumps sticking up in the air, perfectly visible. It was the "If I don't see them, they won't see me" syndrome. At home, she referred to Dr. Powell's offices as "Youngland."

When they came out of the treatment rooms, still oozing and bleeding a bit, they put on giant sunglasses covering their inflated nasolabial folds.

The folds were now to be filled with blue serum.

"Seven thousand?!!!" a raised voice pierced the usual hush of the office. A few youngish faces looked up.

"That is the price," said one of the three women who did bills and paperwork. Dr. Powell did not accept any insurance at all so the bills, to be paid on the spot, were just paper for their pocketbooks.
Dr. Powell was exhausted and heavily in debt because of the way he gambled long into the nights at illegal places buried in the townhouses of the Upper East Side. He thought five million would do it, one for what he owed plus the vig and four to just go off to a place far away with casinos, no extradition, strong frosty drinks and the great demon sun.

He wanted to feel the forbidden, unhealthy, frightening rays on his face and body for the first time in years. He was a MOHs surgeon and, in the early days of his practice, had dug into melanomas, squamous and basal cells and uprooted them all when possible and even when it was too late.

He wanted to take Billy too, and feel his head on his oiled legs stretched out on some chaise, looking down into that face without a line.

Dr. Powell had plans to rescue himself. He had invented the blue serum which was 98.4% water with a soupcon of old-fashioned collagen (he had a supply) and blue dye. It was perfectly safe and perfectly useless. It cost almost nothing and he gave himself — with the hours he kept and the seven thousand per treatment fee — six weeks.

Gradually, and, in fact, by the time he got out of town, the faces would revert and he enjoyed the prospect. The women and men would begin to see lines and cavities, droops and swoops that they had not seen in years. The pads of fat would deflate. The expression would crawl back onto their faces, to their smoothed brows. They could react, showing anger and fear and joy, for their faces would move once again. It was his own little miracle, maybe even a gift.

Only one of his patients worried him. She was a woman approaching seventy who had been a movie star in her twenties and thirties and still was on screen as the stately or antic or harridan grandmother and even the occasional mother. He had kept her going through her long fading career.

Because he liked her, because her earlier romantic comedies had made him laugh, he kept secret the fact that she had leukemia so that she could be insured by her producers and directors and he gave her back, vial by vial, whatever youth he could.

She had been in that morning and he had given her the last of the real stuff. As usual, he begged her to gain some weight, for her face, no matter how much he pumped it up, had sunken and there was nothing like a few extra pounds after fifty.

"I want my body," she had said and he remembered how she had danced in her underwear on screen like Tom Cruise and how, when they had lunch years ago, she had eaten nothing but carpaccio, dangling it over her mouth strip by strip in a way that might have been provocative if he were inclined that way, and leaving half, after all, on the bed of wilted arugula.

The patients he saw today would be the test cases. When their faces started to go he would have to pack up Billy and leave. He looked at his own face. He had given himself the serum that morning. He would be his own control.

One by one that day, and until they got to the payment desk, the patients had seemed delighted with the blue serum. Because he told them the results were especially subtle, working at a molecular level, none of them wanted to admit they did not see any difference. They pressed the rubber shrouded pads of ice to their cheeks and waited, dreaming of further transformation.

All of them were his regulars, it had been years since he accepted a new patient and then, only after death or the chronic infidelity that afflicted all those who wanted to stay youngish looking.
Dr. Powell entered the treatment room on his silent rubber-pimpled driving shoes.

The patient, Cheray Z., who had flown up from Dallas to see him, was sitting in the table with the surgical blanket draped over her shoulders, ready to freeze and bleed in the usual reassuringly expensive procedures. She had been a great devotee of Restylane, Radiesse, Sculptra, Belotero, the centrifuged fat from her little ass, and full surgical lifts.

"What's that?" she said when he opened the refrigerator and the cold smoke rose and he extracted the blue vial.

"Blue Illusion, it is all that we are using now."

"But Ivan, I came here for you to ...

He was filling the syringe and smiling which he now was able to do since his cheeks were no longer paralyzed by toxins.

"I'm not ready for anything new." And she was up, hopping off the table, scooping up her bag, leaving him holding the syringe, wistful for the old days of pimples and acne scars and snippable harmless growths before the MOHs, before the cosmetics.

At the desk, the nurse handed her the card the doctor had prepared for any defectors. It said that "Dr. Powell would not be accepting any further appointments from ..." the nurse was filling in the name of Cheray Z.

The next patient — he liked to have three of them at a time shivering in the treatment rooms — was a replacement for one of the defectors. She had one of those shiny taut retinoid faces he would have to correct.

"I want the blue serum I've heard so much about," she said. He took Cheray's unused syringe from the vault and squeezed and injected her as her tears fell onto his gloves. Then he massaged the stuff into her face a bit harder than was necessary.

Renata was motioning to him from the doorway. In his office, as O. Winston Link's train coughed into the sky, he took a call from the actress who was sobbing the way only an actress can.

"Please, tell me you did not tell them. I've been fired because they know."

"Of course not! I don't even know what you are doing now. Remember, you would not tell me ... you just said a 'matriarch'. I'd never hurt you. It must have been one of your other doctors."

"I've heard about the blue serum. Why the hell didn't you give me that? The whole thing started because they didn't think I looked well ..."

Dr. Powell pressed his hand to his brows and squeezed them together and took a pinch of skin. It was a new sensation for him and it did relieve the tension.

The office was now filled with patients reacting to their new old faces. There was turbulence in the waiting rooms. One after another they were saying a version of the same thing. They felt naked. Friends said they looked tired and was that a line they saw here and there, a groove and a sinkage, a wen and a fenwick? They all felt exposed ... NAKED.

Billy had packed their bags and little leather carry-ons and readied everything at home. He had bought himself a thong suit, two new Villbrequin bathing trunks for the doctor, and a lifetime's supply of pimpled driving shoes.

Dr. Powell looked fondly at Renata and pressed her sweatered shoulder, something he had never done before. He had provided for her and the others.

They had the tickets to nowhere. Dr. Powell had paid off the men he owed, and now no one would come after him when they disappeared into the deep blue illusion.

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