MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Why She WroteWhen She Wrote
I’VE SPENT most of my life making documentaries. And I’ve spent most of this time hiding behind the people in the documentaries. If they were sad or glad, rich or poor, smart or dumb, killers or philanthropists, they would do the talking, they would do the confessing. These were their stories being told, never mine.
What scares me about the alternative? I guess me. I have no trouble speaking my mind in private or asking other people their deepest secrets. I’m not shy and am known to be quite outspoken when it comes to my opinions (especially in an editing room). But I’ve always kept my personal true confessions close to the vest. I have lived a life inhibited when it comes to self-revelation.
And so, why a change of heart now? Why a book of true and sad and sometimes silly essays? Well, many years ago I was working on a film about the Gray Panthers, a group formed to confront ageism, never thinking I would be a member. Maggie Kuhn, the founder, and I became friends—though generations apart. I once asked Maggie about getting old and fighting back, and she said it was the next great frontier. The great thing about aging, she said, was that at last you could say what you wanted, and do what you wanted, and be who you wanted. All of these years, the subjects in my films have given me their stories. Now it’s my turn. I am now at that age where I feel as if I can say what I want; I have no reason to hold back. So, finally, here are my stories.
Is this what it feels like to spill it all out? Well, I’m still not 100 percent front and center. In this book, I’m somewhat undercover—some of the time hiding behind a Priscilla or a Melissa or an Anthea or a Trudie. And sometimes I’m simply me. All me? The truth of what is me is yours to handpick. The “I” is not always me—or is it? Your guess. I’m telling you what I’ve been told, telling you whom I knew, telling you what I thought, telling you what I do, telling you who I imagine. Maybe I’m hiding a bit, but trust me, I never lie about what I think to be true. You don’t have to like the different voices here, but they always tell it like it is or how they believe it was.
The camera is on me now, along with my somewhat imaginary friends, and all my dirty linens are hanging out there. So what if they’re polyester?
“DR. BAKER,” I said, “I look awful.”
He looked at me with a tragic smile and said, “Fear not. We can do a lift. You’ll be just fine.”
“I’m fifty-six,” I said. “And I think it’s about time. Don’t you?”
He put his arm around me and said sorrowfully, “It’s time.”
“Is there anything less invasive than a lift?” I had heard about a nip-and-tucky kind of thing.
“We’ll fix you up. Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll look seven years younger.”
“And how long will that me last?” I asked.
“Some seven years,” he said.
He gave me a mirror, a hand mirror, under the brightest of fluorescent lights. It said MAGNIFIER X8.
I looked in. I got dizzy and started to gasp. Clearly there was no way out.
In the mirror I saw a wrinkled, witchlike, scrunched up, squashed face.
The mirror spoke to me menacingly, whispering in my ear. It said, “Without any doubt, you are not the fairest of them all. You are not fair at all!”
I put the mirror down quickly so Dr. Baker would not hear it.
“How long will it take?” I asked the doctor cavalierly. “This new me?”
“If you do an eye lift, two weeks. Without that, maybe nine days,” he said. “In any case, it varies. And you can tell them at work that you’re going on a vacation.”
“Okay, I’ll do both eyes and face,” I said. I wanted to get it over with at once.
And the hand mirror said, though indirectly, I had no choice.
I made a date for the new me, three months away.
How would I face myself, I thought, with a new face?
And how awful I really looked! Why hadn’t anyone told me?
But then again, not everyone has fluorescent lighting and a x8 magnifying mirror.
Most of my age-appropriate friends said I looked pretty good. But let’s face it, they had age-related dimming vision.
* * *
I left his office and hailed a taxi. My heart was still racing. Was I brave enough to go through with this superficial scalping?
To make matters worse, the traffic was awful.
I told the driver to slow down, please. He took it personally. He said he hadn’t had an accident in twenty years.
I explained, with my regular excuse, that I thought I might be pregnant.
He looked in the rearview mirror, and this is the truth, he said, “You don’t look like you could be pregnant.”
Okay, Dr. Baker. That was it.
The driver must have been a plant. The cab had been too easy to get. Baker probably owned the cab company.
We laughed a little, the driver and me, and I told him he was right.
I admitted to a bad back and told him I was forty-eight.
Lying about increasing numbers had become part of everyday life.
I remember nostalgically the days when I asked them to slow down because of my pregnancy, and taxi drivers would congratulate me and ask if it was a boy or a girl.
And now I have to lie even more. I have to lie at work about going on vacation.
Lies, lies, lies.
But there was no other choice. It was now or never.
This was the right time to eradicate the old me. I knew it.
I must be perpetually one age—and I picked fifty-one and six months.
This would be where I would stay forever.
* * *
You see, I must be young at any price.
Young was in.
I worked in media.
Nobody wanted advice from an old broad.
My bosses wanted a young audience.
Had it occurred to them that an older brain could think smart and young?
I thought most likely not.
In any case, I had to hide my age.
For those who knew the true number, they must be rehearsed to say, “My god, you don’t look your age!”
That might give me comfort.
I told my husband and my son about my upcoming operation.
Each extolled my present beauty and assured me of my imminent death by surgery.
“It’s ridiculous,” my son said. “You’ll look like Michael Jackson.”
My husband said, “You look fine just the way you are.”
“Okay, okay,” I said to them both. “I’m beautiful enough. But not young enough. Maybe I’m young enough, but I’m not young enough for the rest of the world.”
* * *
Then, while waiting for this miracle, my Barnard College fortieth reunion arrived.
I opened the door marked with my graduation year.
Old ladies glared at me through thick glasses. I closed the door quickly.
This must be the wrong room, I thought.
Hadn’t they heard of contacts? Old ladies with advanced degrees and high IQs.
Barnard College was a place where brains were supposed to be more important than beauty.
I pretended that was true but never bought into that philosophy.
I opened the door again and walked bravely into the room.
“Oh my God,” said an elderly classmate. “You look exactly the same as when we graduated.”
“You do too,” I said.
This old lady was me as well.
And we were lying to each other.
The day came.
After a sleepless night, my superficial self arrived at Dr. Baker’s office at 5 a.m.
In addition to being fearful of the anesthesia and ultimately of my death, I was betraying my liberal, earnest, sixties self.
Could this artificial mannequin be me? Could this still be the Woodstock, March on Washington, antiapartheid liberal? Could I be this deceptive mid-fifties liar? Lying to taxi drivers and trying to keep seven years at bay? What happened to the honor system?
I moved onto the gurney.
I was then prepped by an annoying nurse who gave me enough Valium that I would have allowed the Boston Strangler to do the operation.
I had given my life to vanity.
Here I was—brainless, vain, terrified.
The last thing I remember is being too drowsy to run away.
What kind of woman would do this to herself anyway?
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five …
I awoke several hours later, seemingly alive, with a helmet wrapped around my head and swollen eyes, and immediately puked.
I was given apple juice in a paper cup, a saltine cracker, and the mean nurse who would take me home. It was a package deal.
She was twenty-four-hours inclusive.
Nurse Ratched eyed me with clear resentment.
She was older even than I and looked at me as if I was a foolish and frivolous female.
Ratched clearly had done this many times before and did not approve of “rich bitches who lie.” She coldly washed the dried blood from around my eyes.
Blasé, she had seen it all.
She was disdainful.
She knew how shallow I was.
We spoke little and as soon as her shift was up, she left me alone with my face.
This new face was black-and-blue. These new eyes were swollen. The punishment was severe.
I had earned this suffering and had even spent money on it.
I informed the office that I was on vacation.
“Where?” they said.
“Hades,” I answered, and they laughed.
And so it came to pass that the turban was taken off, the staples removed, stitches pulled, blood gone, the face refreshed at a price too dear to explain.
* * *
Did I look better?
I guess so.
I returned from this “vacation” not with a tan but with yellow and light blue streaks, and anyway, those who didn’t know the truth knew I was a workaholic—so where had I been?
And so I made an announcement: “Guys, I had a face-lift.” No one seemed surprised.
I went public and in and out of every office on my floor. The responses predictably came out as follows:
“Oh, you didn’t need it.”
“You were and are so beautiful.”
“You look ten years younger.”
You can count on these lies.
* * *
But with this healing and this extra seven years of nothingness came this inexplicable feeling of “Why not try more? Why not try to please this spiteful x8 magnifying mirror? Why not be consistently dissatisfied with my appearance and other age-old parts?”
Every wrinkle would obsess me.
I looked at myself ten times a day.
I was known to bend over to peek into a side-view mirror of a stranger’s car.
It seemed to me that one side of my face looked younger than the other.
And so I finally understood the aging Hollywood star who said, “This is my profile shot. Left side only.”
But the truth came in the pudding one Friday.
A temporary assistant named Violette, who of course had purple punk hair to match her name and tattoos and string bracelets all signifying some revolutionary cause, was assigned to me.
It wasn’t until the end of the day that I noticed she had a gold ring in her lip. This tribal assistant, twenty years old, was also into alteration. Which to me signified that we had something precious in common.
“Violette,” I said. “You did a great job today and I’m sorry I worked you so hard. What do you do usually?” I asked.
She said she was in her last year of college and that she hoped to devote her life to saving species whose extinction would herald the end of the universe. Fish were dying—amphibians, plants. The streams were getting too warm. The planet was belly-up.
“You know,” I said to her, “I was part of the March on Washington in 1963. I made some of the posters.”
“Oh,” she said, thinking possibly I was involved in Lincoln’s assassination.
We chatted about birds, and plants, and fish in danger. I told her fish were low in calories.
Violette was vested in the future.
“Oh, you’re an honest kid,” I said. “You tell it like it is. How old, Violette, do you think I am?”
She thought, unfazed. “You remind me of my mother. I don’t know—sixty?”
“Close enough,” I said, devastated. I was fifty-seven that very week.
So then who was I fooling, really?
The taxi driver knew I was not with child and the child knew, even with my new face, that I was like her mother.
“Violette,” I said, “would you ever have a face-lift?”
Twirling her lip ring with her tongue, she thought and said, “By the time I’m that old, there probably won’t even be a planet.”
“Do you feel good about yourself?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Because I feel badly for the world, that helps me feel good about myself.”
“I guess so,” I said. She was selfless and I was selfish.
Violette packed up to leave and went off to save the world.
I rouged and powdered my face with a little more passion than usual.
Did I feel better pulled and still numb? Yes and no.
Yes, for the camouflage of losing make-believe time.
No, because who was I fooling, really?
And yet, disturbingly, before I left the office, I called my dermatologist, Dr. Green.
“I need some refreshment,” I said to the nurse. “Botox or whatever else she has. I think I have a new crevice on the right side of my lip.”
“Let me see if Dr. Green can take you—hold on,” she said. Then, “Dr. Green’s got something new for you. She’d like you to try it. Can you come right away?”
“Yes. I can be there in twenty if I can get a cab.”
“The doctor will wait.”
* * *
And so I jumped into a cab. It jolted and jerked. I didn’t even pretend a pregnancy. I told the driver I had a bad back.
He asked me what I did for a living. Once upon a time they asked me if I was an actress.… Exhausted, I said, “I’m in real estate.”
He looked in the mirror. “I thought you were an actress,” he said.
It was worth it! I thought. Look who I fooled! I imagined all the beauties he thought I might have looked like.
And then he said, “I know who you are. You’re Judge Judy.”
“You really are Judge Judy, aren’t you?” he insisted.
“I’m not,” I said.
“No, really, I’m not.”
“All right,” he said, “but I know the truth.…” He smiled, knowingly.
The verdict was out. I was fooling nobody. I looked like Judge Judy.
Did I feel better about myself? Well, I was alive.
But the bottom line was that I heard a metronome ticking in my head that I had never heard before.
Maybe Dr. Baker had implanted it.
And maybe Dr. Green had wound it up.
Or maybe I was just plain crazy.
Time, time, time.
I rushed into the dermatologist’s office. I couldn’t wait for the new fix.
I would try it,
No matter how much it cost,
No matter how much it hurt,
Fooling no one.
Copyright © 2017 by Sheila Nevins