No one looked my way as I emerged from under the purple overhang past the sentinel row of queen palms to the deck of the posh seaside supper club where my 25th high school reunion was in full swing. I was late and the party had progressed beyond the point where everyone talks to everyone, all of Beachside High’s Kens and Barbies having defaulted into their old teenage cliques. Their eyes bounced off me the way, I now remembered, they always had, the way they bounced off maids and busboys and parking valets, despite the hours I’d spent with youtube makeup tutorials promising a more youthful appearance to femmes d’une certaine age.
I mean, I looked pretty good, for me. I’d been going to the gym with my actual body. I had a mental file folder filled with things to say about how I’d completed my degrees in molecular biology and had become ensconced at one of the better labs. Bought a condo. Leased a lower-tier Mercedes. I hadn’t been lucky in love, but on the marital merry-go-round of sunny Southern California, that’s par for the course. I’d imagined myself well-prepared for the firewalk of my first class reunion—that is, until I saw them.
That’s when I realized I’d been away too long, that the passage of time had fogged the rearview mirror and I had completely underestimated the power of money to marshal the weaponry of Botox, implants, fillers, lasers, all the cellulite-sucking, fat-freezing, surgical interventions that could be mobilized to halt the attack of time. My classmates looked to me like vampires, the Anne-Rice-Lestat kind, all marble smooth and chic with their luminous pupils and deadly, knowing smiles.
I turned to run, and I would have, should have, but I’d ventured too close to the check-in point and got caught in the mink-lashed tractor beams of a Joan Rivers clone with glow-in-the-dark teeth– I think she might have been a cheerleader.
“Name?” she said.
She was sitting at a banquet table under hanging white paper orbs glowing softly against the final stages of a perfect sunset. She handed me a stick-on tag with my graduation photo printed to the left of my name. I gazed at baby me in the photo, the doe-like, trusting eyes, the tentative smile and chiseled chin, and wondered why I had never fit in. I resembled my Beachside classmates on the surface, but there had always been an indefinable something that was different, something I lacked.
“Girrrl!” a voice squealed. And there she was: Dory. Dory Grau.
When I was in high school, there was nobody I wanted to be more than Dory Grau. She was quintessential Beachside, honey-haired, cerulean-eyed, petite and graceful, heavily marinated in big money and self-assurance. Life for Dory seemed a flying red carpet magically unfurling beneath her dainty size five-and-a half feet, while for me it always felt more like a roll of cracked linoleum I was kicking uphill in combat boots.
Bare, slender arms upraised, she teetered toward me on her stilettoes and hugged me in that overamped and insincere way teenage girls do at dances or when collecting yearbook signatures on the last day of school, and she hung on, too, as if it were V-Day in Times Square with Alfred Eisenstadt in the process of capturing us in an iconic image. Then she released me and peered at my nametag. “Summer! Summer Rain Sampson! How long has it been?”
My parents, improvident hippies, had been killed in a motorcycle accident on the 405 when I was 13 years old. My maternal grandparents had, at the time, recently retired to a ramshackle beach house they’d bought before Beachside property values shot up in the 70s. Gram and Pops raised me through the rest of my teenage years. I’d run into Dory exactly once since graduation, after they passed away. They’d died as they had lived. Together.
In high school, Dory and I had never been close, but we shared many of the same classes. Mostly I sat in a seat somewhere behind her, admiring her sunny smile and glossy pink lips and the way her hair swung perfectly against her neck when she moved, as if she were Aphrodite on a sea-sprayed half shell, always accompanied by a light and favorable ocean breeze.
We were lab partners in science. I did all the work. That kind of friendship.
“The problem with you, Summer,” I remember her announcing one day, looking up from the microscope without ever having bothered to turn the focus knob, “is you have no common sense.”
Stung by her judgment, 15-year-old me had called upon Great Voices of Literature to defend myself, which in high school can only ever be the lamest of moves: “Common sense is not that common,” was my retort, “according to Voltaire.”
“The one we just read in English. Candide?”
She actually snorted. “I don’t read. It’s one of my goals in life to graduate high school with a 4.0 without reading a single book.” At the time, she was already halfway there.
“Oscar Wilde said common sense can kill you. Most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, he said.”
“There’s nothing creepy about common sense. It’s what gets you through the day.”
That was Dory. Vapid and adorable and full of unsolicited and generally disastrous advice. And here we were, 25 years later, and she was about to give me some more.
“Tell me everything!” Dory gushed. She pulled me over to an isolated table near the edge of the railing above the crawling waves where the sound of the surf mingled with Madonna and Journey and Prince’s crying doves. She ordered two Tanqueray martinis, both of which she drank herself, then talked nonstop for two solid hours.
“You’re such a good listener,” she slurred. I heard all about the trauma leading up to her divorce from Ben Something-or-other, an LA music industry accountant who had recently traded her in for a younger version of herself, despite all her years of intense sacrifice living on Chardonnay and organic spring greens while hostessing his glittering entertainment industry parties at their fairytale Bel Air mansion, just a few doors down from Joni Mitchell.
Aided by his ironclad prenup, Ben had ejected her from their Bel Air castle like yesterday’s compacted trash and ensconced her in a gated condo complex in Tustin, where she frittered away her days in the company of two Yorkies and the occasional tin of Pringles while binge-watching seasons of Housewives of Beverly Hills.
“I want you to come to my birthday party,” she said, pulled out her iPhone and friended me on Facebook. “Old friends are the best.”
She bestowed a sloppy kiss on my forehead, then, hugging me with one thin arm, posed with me for a selfie. In the flash I could see the red lipstick leaking up into the little lines around her mouth, the forehead furrows and crow’s feet Botox hadn’t quite fully erased, the prophecy of collapsing collagen puckering the skin beneath her impressive cheekbones, a liver spot on her plunging décolleté. Then she staggered off to the ladies’ room. Twenty minutes later, having realized she wasn’t coming back, I paid the bar tab and drove home through the dark canyon, exhausted.
That night something came to howl outside my bedroom window. The next morning I spotted an ugly little cat in the cactus-and-succulent patch near my front door. There was something weird about the cat, the way it started watching me come and go. It got bolder, till I had to rush past it and close the door quickly to keep it from following me inside.
Dory’s birthday party, according to her Facebook event notification, was “brunch and a spa day.” The only guests to show up were me and Conchita, Dory’s undocumented Guatemalan maid who still took the bus all the way from South Central to minister weekly to Dory’s household needs. In their divorce, Dory explained, Ben had gotten custody of all their friends.
Over Crab Cakes Benedict and bottomless mimosas, Dory told us how she’d put her name into a drawing at a coffee shop, one of those cardboard pop-ups positioned next to the creamers and napkins, with a sign saying “Win a spa day for yourself and up to five friends!”
“You know me,” she said, wide-eyed as a child, “I never win anything!”
An hour or so later, giggling and mimosa-impaired, we parked in an Orange County strip mall and entered a mirrored storefront.
“Welcome to Demimonde.”
We’d stepped into an alternate universe designed by Barbara Cartland: walls covered in lavender silk moiré, French Provincial loveseat, side table supporting a massive bouquet of lavender roses, ebony carpets that, through a trick of the light, seemed like no floor at all.
How do I describe the woman who stood before us? To say she was beautiful would be like saying the Grand Canyon is big or the Aegean Sea around the Greek island of Santorini is blue. All I know is the three of us stood there, staring up—she was tall—Conchita and I with our mouths hanging open, jaws gone slack, and Dory, for once speechless, looking disoriented and displaced as a sun plucked suddenly from its place in the center of a solar system. The woman had a slight, mysterious accent when she spoke. She introduced herself as Caterina Lupescu, the company’s founder. She wore a tailored black cocktail dress with a single strand of lavender-tinged pearls. Her auburn hair was tucked into a neat chignon. But it was the shoes that sealed her spell-cast glamour: Tom Ford 105mm black calfskin pumps with ankle straps and pointed toes, a thousand dollars, easy. I thought about the tattered bunny slippers I kept in my cubicle and wore most days while shuffling around the lab cataloguing specimens of other people’s blood and urine. When Caterina pivoted in those shoes to lead us back for our “spa experience,” I would have followed her anywhere.
For the next four hours, she gave us product samples to try and lectured us about the perils of drug store skin care lines. We exfoliated our hands and lips while she condemned the destructive power of cheap apricot scrubs.
“Diosito,” Conchita purred, rubbing the back of her moisturized and abraded hand against her cheek.
After every few product demonstrations, Caterina primed us for purchase, asking which was our favorite product so far. I knew what she was up to, but it didn’t help a bit.
On one wall was a large photograph of a lavender Hybrid. She picked up immediately on Conchita’s interest.
“I drive one of those.” She smiled enticingly. “You could, too.”
Each time we cleansed our faces, she fastidiously picked up the soiled towels and took them out of the room. Through the open door, visible across the hall, was another, larger room that appeared to be set up for a party, with festive flower and balloon arrangements in the Demimonde signature colors. At the front of the room, on a raised dais, was an enormous throne upholstered in plush purple velvet with huge clawed feet and arm rests.
Conchita was staring at the throne as if hypnotized. “I want to be a queen,” she said dreamily.
“Who doesn’t?” Dory snapped, then adjusted her tone to a low purr. “You’d make an excellent queen, Chita, I know you would.”
“Empowering women,” Caterina said, returning. “That’s what Demimonde is all about.”
Then she went in for the close, calling each of us individually to a small table in a corner of the room. “So,” she asked, purple pen poised over an order form, “can you see yourself as a Demimonde consultant?”
As she held my gaze, my mind flooded with images: a golden staircase, ascending steps lined with Demimonde products, and at the pinnacle, a vision of myself, 40 pounds lighter and skiing in Switzerland. So real it made my toes tingle, I envisioned an Imelda Marcos closet filled with Stuart Weitzman, Miu Miu, Louboutin. Half in a trance, when Caterina pushed the order form in front of me, I bought her entire Age Busting line, with its patented Vita Serum.
Dory and Conchita signed up to be consultants. But truthfully, sales has never been my forte. I’m a scientist, not a salesperson. The products, I thought, were just okay. When it came time to reorder, I ordered from Dory. But things got busy at the lab, and I didn’t see her again until her mother’s funeral.
It was a lavish closed casket affair at the Methodist Church in Beachside. Dory’s eyes were red-rimmed but even with most of her makeup cried off, I couldn’t help but notice the change. The lines around her eyes and lips had smoothed away, and her whole body seemed to have taken on the springy resiliency of her surfing days.
“It’s all Demimonde!” Dory sighed when, in the condolence line, I complimented her appearance.
Someone came up then and hugged me. “Are you a friend of the deceased?”
Dory pulled me aside. “You really should join us,” she whispered. She and Conchita had dozens of consultants already working under them. “Chita got her Hybrid. She’s going to convocation next month to be crowned.”
A few days later, I got my new driver’s license in the mail. I thought at first it was a mistake, that the DMV had somehow switched my image with a photo of Gram. At 80. In her coffin. My eyes, pale and veiny, peered out from under fleshy hoods, underscored by puffy bags and deep blue-tinged crescents. What had happened to my cheeks? In the harsh DMV lighting they somehow managed to look both sunken and bloated at the same time, terminating in loose, floppy jowls. And when had that turkey wattle developed on my neck?
I started cleansing and moisturizing obsessively, four, five, six times a day, but my biggest problem was lack of sleep. The damn creepy cat kept yowling and growling all night, every night, outside my bedroom window. I called Animal Control. For a while it disappeared and I had some peace. But then it came back, hiding under my car, slashing at my ankles with Exacto-blade claws that cut through my pantyhose and left raw bleeding scratches.
I am not an animal lover. “Be gone when I get home tonight,” I hissed at it through the closed driver’s side window, “or else.”
Later that morning, my cell phone dinged with a text from Dory, inviting me to lunch. I thought twice about going. The 405 could turn into a parking lot mid-day, and I really didn’t want Dory or anyone else from Beachside to see me. I could hardly stand to look at myself. In spite of my fanatically religious Demimonde regime, with each passing day, it seemed, I looked and felt older.
We were sitting in the same Beachside restaurant at the same outdoor table where we’d reconnected the night of our class reunion. Dory was dressed like Kate Moss at Glastonbury in 2005: mini-shorts, belt, rain boots, and a boyfriend waistcoat with nothing underneath. Inscrutable behind a pair of Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses, she slurped a bowl of lobster bisque.
I peered at the menu through the 6.5-power reading glasses I’d bought on the way over at Wal-Mart, the third—and strongest– pair in a month, as my eyesight precipitously deteriorated from hold-it-out-a-little-farther to full-on Mr. Magoo.
“Could we get some more bread?” Dory raised the basket toward a passing waiter.
“None for me.”
“You look terrible,” Dory said.
“You look amazing.”
“I know, right?” She was eating a fourth piece of crusty bread, slathering it first with butter, washing it down with a second craft beer.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you eat carbs since freshman year.”
Dory laughed. “I can eat anything I want. I can do anything I want.” She raised her sunglasses and lowered her false eyelashes, then leaned toward me and snarled in a tigress voice: “Anything.” She held up her empty beer bottle and a handsome young waiter came running. She smiled up at him. “One more,” she said, her hand caressing his briefly as he took the bottle.
“And one for your mother?” he said.
I waved him away.
“What’s your secret?” I asked Dory, surprised that I actually wanted to know.
“You’re the smart one, Summer Rain.” She lowered her sunglasses. There was a bread crumb clinging to one of her perfect plump lips. “Haven’t you figured it out?”
The ocean breeze riffled her shining hair. “The way you look, Summer. The way you feel. It’s because you have no downstream. Upstream feeds on downstream. No downstream, well, you’re just food.”
I stared at her, wondering if cognitive decline was another of my many symptoms. “What are you saying, Dory? Are you saying you’re– somehow– feeding on me? Through skin care and cosmetics?” I laughed uneasily, felt a trickle in my Depends. “Are you some kind of makeup vampire?”
“Vampires!” she cackled. “That’s so last millennium. This is the 21st century.”
The waiter returned with a fresh beer and she drained it. “I’m going to tell you something, only because you’re my oldest friend.”
I couldn’t see her eyes behind the sunglasses. She spoke rapidly in a low voice I had to strain to hear over the sound of the crashing surf. “She’s got your DNA, Summer. That’s all she needs. That’s the beauty of it. She doesn’t have to put her fangs in your neck. She can switch you on, and she can switch you off.”
“She? Who? Are you talking about Caterina?”
“Right now you’re on a slow drip, at my request. And that’s only because we’re friends. She can turn it up anytime. It’s got something to do with genes and switches. And her Vita Serum. And morpho— morpho—”
She nodded. “I don’t understand it. She says it’s kind of like electricity. Like, you plug something in, right? And you don’t know how it works, really, but as long as you keep paying your bill, your lights stay on. But the energy’s got to come from somewhere. It’s got to have a source.”
It occurred to me then. “Is that what killed your mother, Dory? Your own mother?”
“My mother.” She gave a short, bitter laugh. “My whole life I listened to her whine about all the things she sacrificed to have me, how I ruined her tits and her nice flat abs. How Daddy forced her to have vaginal reconstructive surgery even though she hated sex. She’d get looped and say it to anyone who’d listen. Half the time she didn’t even notice I was there, but if she did, she’d say, in this sweet, syrupy voice, ‘It’s okay, baby, I’d do anything to make you happy.’ So I let her. I let her make me happy. It was all she had left to give me. She went through every cent of the money after Daddy died. But in the end, she did make me very, very happy.” She grabbed the check.
I sat there blinking.
“She was old. I hate old people. She got what she deserved.”
As she stood to go, Dory reached out unexpectedly and stroked my cheek. “Oh, Summer. You were so pretty in high school. Not as pretty as me, but the old you had her charms. Don’t you miss that? Don’t you want it back?”
And the truth was, I did.
But I didn’t really believe Dory’s vampire story. I’d seen the little white crystals glistening in her nasal hairs. Coke, maybe, or meth might account for the delusions, I thought, for the brief flash of vibrancy addicts sometimes experience before their teeth start falling out and their organs fail.
I told myself at first it was only a side job, a little extra income before property taxes came due.
A few weeks later, in the Demimonde foyer, I sat on the French Provincial loveseat watching a busload of old ladies from a nearby assisted living facility shuffle in.
“Old people?” I asked Dory.
“Age-ist much?” she growled.
Boomers, as Caterina later explained, were Demimonde’s preferred sales demographic, due to their sheer numbers and reputation for brand loyalty. The next phase of the marketing plan targeted Millennials and Gen-Z.
That day, I told myself, I was just earning a few extra bucks.
I didn’t recognize Conchita when she first came in. She seemed to have morphed into Salma Hayek.. Her wild black curls were tamed in a chic chignon topped by a shimmering Demimonde tiara. I think I actually gasped when I saw her, like a friend or relative during the big reveal at the end of an episode of What Not to Wear.
A passing septuagenarian leaning on a light-up walking stick followed my gaze. “Her eyebrows,” the old lady whispered admiringly. “So on fleek!”
“Missus!” Conchita cried out to Dory when she saw me. “Look who’s here!” She grabbed my hand, and with a giddy smile, pointed up toward her sparkling tiara. We stood there, the three of us, under the chandelier, dressed in the requisite sleeveless black cocktail dresses, lavender pearls, and four-figure shoes, as Caterina greeted and sorted the incoming elderly.
With the observing, dispassionate eyes of an empirical researcher, I watched as Caterina collected the cleansing wipes. How she marked each one then closed and locked her office door, sealing herself in with her secrets, secrets I wouldn’t learn until I moved from sales to R&D.
She’s brilliant, really. More theoretical biologist than gerontologist, with a long game to rival Alexander the Great.
I suppose, now, morally, ethically, you’re judging me.
You do you.
Maybe it would help if I told you about the cat.
How, that night, it shot past me as I went in the door. How, instead of catching it and flinging it back outside, I opened a can of tuna. How it ate and went to sleep and stopped its yowling.
It was just hungry.
Image Credit: Untitled, Gertrude Abercrombie (1961)
Tara Williams is a writer and educator currently living at the end of a cul de sac in California’s Great Central Valley. She earned her MFA at Fresno State University. Her writing has appeared (or is about to appear) in Southwest Review, Apparitions Literary Magazine, The Weird Reader, San Joaquin Review, and Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, the literary publication of the Chicanx Writers and Artists Association.