I turn my face side to side in the mirror. As if there were a better choice. I see no change. I am the same woman, and I have seen her for too long.
“Hi,” I say to my reflection. “I want to tell you about Renew-Able. A face cream that proves there’s more to you than this. Here’s a dab, try it. Oh no! Where’d you go? Who are you now?”
I sell the cream in my spare time. Not exactly successfully. My pitch hasn’t landed just yet. I inspect the glass jar of whipped cream. Expired, like they said, and discounted for employees.
In the living room, I position myself in front of the TV, in front of my roommate Jake. The remote droops in his hand.
“Tell me,” I say. “Do I still look like me?”
“Turn,” he says, stirring the air with the remote, “turn.”
I make myself a carousel.
“Maybe I know you too well,” he says.
“That’s my problem too. Here, you try.” I scoop a dollop onto my finger.
He bars himself with his arm. “No way in hell. I like my face.”
“Coward.” I dab the extra cream on my cheek and rub it in.
“Why do you want to change anyway?” Jake asks, trying to peer around me to watch the local news.
“I’m going to win Helen back. This is proof I’ve changed.”
“Or you could let her go.”
I screw the lid back on. “Let me tell you about an exciting opportunity.”
“You should be over it by now.” He points at the TV with the remote. “Now, see? What did I tell you? The world is going to shit.”
Jake has begun grazing in the backyard because he says it’s the most natural he can get. I tell him he’s overcorrecting. The face cream stuff scares him. He says that when he steps out of the house and into the world, he doesn’t know who’s out there. After the local news wraps, he goes out into the backyard, gets on his knees, stretches out that long neck of his, and rips at the grass with his teeth. I slide open the patio door and bowl an apple toward him. It rolls down to meet his mouth where it slips under mid-bite. There, a nice treat.
All I want is different. I haven’t specified anything in my mind. That’s how this works. You think of what you want, spend the week meditating, take the week off of work if possible, close your eyes most of the day, focus your Buddha-brain. I don’t have that time, but I do try to imagine a better version of myself. My nose shrunken to a truth-teller’s nose, my mouth a permanent smile, my eyes always on the verge of tears. I also think of Helen, but it’s faded.
Helen broke up with me a year ago. She blocked me on all her social media bullshit, which makes sense. I heard from a friend who didn’t care either way about us that she was working at a bar-slash-pizza joint, catering to the new-money downtown trash. With this change, I’m proving that now I’m willing to go the distance. I’m saying that, look, I was a turd, and you deserve at least a shined-up turd.
When I show up later that day at her bar, she rolls her eyes.
“Don’t I at least look younger?” I say. And I think, Youth is not guaranteed, terms and conditions apply.
“You’re not that old,” she says.
“Forty-six and the lines roll in like bad weather. I’m inclement, don’t you agree?”
“Order a drink so I can work.”
I order water, for my new complexion.
The guy seated next to me is on a drinking adventure. He’s trying to get somewhere, but he has no problem seeing the sights along the way. “I can’t tell if you’re laughing or crying,” he says.
“I can’t tell if you’re old or a drunk,” I say.
One of his eyes is bigger than the other, open wider like hunger. “What if I’m something in between?”
I slap him on the back. “We all are, buddy. We all are.” And we clink our glasses.
The smell of burnt pizza crust sears the nostrils. Everyone walks out smelling cooked. Helen stays busy. She lets me drink water after water, saying nothing important to me. Helen looks like Helen. Dark curls, busty, thighs just this side of ripe, and a smile like a flashlight. “Never,” she told me when the face cream first came out. “Never in a million years would I want to change who I’ve become and what I’ve been through. I am a map.”
She asks how my mother is.
My mother is like a daughter to me. She wears pigtails to enhance her new youth. That evening, I stop by my parents’ place on my way home. Mom says, “It’s how I feel up here,” and drills a finger into her temple.
“It’s her intelligence level,” Dad says. Dad, who has a Vicente Fernández thing going on. Naturally, it must be said.
“He says he was born just right,” Mom says, rolling her eyes at Dad.
“You don’t agree?” I ask.
“Do I have to?” And she runs out into the backyard, hops on the tire swing, and shoots off, toes pointing to the stars.
The house, a former immaculate museum of my childhood, is now a mess. Clothes strewn across the couch like snakeskins, bowls with popcorn kernels on the coffee table, my twenty-year-old makeup case loaded with shotgun shells of lipstick on the kitchen table. In the living room, an elliptical machine with my mother’s yellowed wedding dress hanging in front of it, at least four sizes too small: motivation.
Dad shakes his head and continues his online poker game. He leans into his new lover, the computer, a dated brain that sits against the dusty wall of their den. He doesn’t want to blame me for selling Mom the stuff, but he does.
“She looks good,” I say.
“I’m not trying to sell you on it.”
“But you want to,” he says.
And my mind goes, Don’t let me convince you, just ask one of our satisfied customers. I kiss my dad on the forehead.
Back home, I catch Jake eating a Totino’s pizza.
“You son of a bitch,” I say.
He chews every bite with his eyes rolled up into his head. “I am such a liar! But you said no judgements, right?”
He offers me a slice, and I lean against our island counter and stuff that piece of cheesy simulacrum into my mouth.
“She take the bait?” he asks, mouth full.
I swallow. “Nope.”
He swallows. “Sleep with me tonight.”
I nod and nod and nod, thinking. Then, I say, “Only because you asked nice.”
This happens sometimes. We both get lonely as bastards.
“Let me tell you about an exciting opportunity,” he says when we’re both in our underwear, and he leans over to turn off the bedside lamp.
“Tell me I’ve changed,” I say.
Through the dark he says, “You’ve changed.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Why change now? I like this.”
I imagine my own face like a mask I was born wearing. My mother says I always look disappointed. My father calls it concern. Nothing exactly bad or wrong. But what kind of salesperson would I be if I didn’t see room for improvement? That’s what the orientation video told me to ask myself. It also said that even the thought of the cream should make me smile. I grin into the black room.
“It’s for the better,” I say.
“Whose better?” Jake says.
“Promise you won’t go too far.”
“You want a guarantee?”
The Renew-Able cream guarantees results after one week or your money back. Actually, you’d get a credit to use on one of their other exciting products.
“After a week, you won’t know me,” I say.
He rolls on top of me, his weight like the dark embodied. “Oh, I think I will.”
The next day he does a double take when we wake up.
I have to go to work. I teach art to children at a museum. Basically, creative childcare. Or childcare by a creative. Or a child creates a need for care. The children get on my last nerve, but they create the most incredible artwork. It has nothing to do with my skill as a teacher. Rather, it’s something to do with their lack of experience and the absence of severe disappointment.
“What’s wrong with your face, Miss Jen?”
“I’m changing,” I tell them.
“Into what?” they ask because this is the real question, and they have a way of finding the source.
“We’ll see,” I say.
• • •
TO READ MORE FROM THIS STORY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 55 No. 3&4
STEPHANIE MACIAS is a writer, musician, and artist. She is currently an MFA candidate in the New Writers Project at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is working on a novel and collection of short stories.