I made a huge mistake yesterday.  I looked in the mirror. Here in my mind’s eye, I am a crisp, shiny red apple, but in the mirror, I more closely resemble that cucumber you forgot about for two months in the back of the refrigerator.  Remember how it was swollen and foamy?  Remember how it collapsed in your hand when you tried to throw it out? Remember the little brown puddle it left on the shelf? Yeah. I’m closer to that cucumber now.

Other people can get old and bent and black wiry hairs can grow unchecked from their noses and I would never even notice, or I would think it were cute, but I hold myself to a stricter standard.  I expected time to merely blur my features, a slight softening of focus. Instead, what I see in the mirror is the wilted face of my dead mother on top of the thick serviceable body of my dead grandmother. I have a full head of grey hair, unlike my long departed Great-Aunt Mae, who shuffled off this mortal coil with only a spindly blue tuft remaining on the top of her head.  This is of little comfort, however, because if I squint a little bit, my hair might have a slight blue tinge.

To shake off my funk, I got in the car and drove to Publix. I grabbed a few things and got on the quick line because I tend to brood when I stand idle too long.

It didn’t work, though; I couldn’t stop my brain from churning.  I thought about the plan Nature has for women, which is to live strong and healthy through the childbearing years, after which everything breaks down, shuts off or wears out. Only two stages remain in a woman’s life: useless and death.  Some plan. I need a lawyer, a heavy hitter; one who practices God law.

Anyway, just before it would have been my turn, the lady in front of me bolted from the line to fetch something she forgot.  Most of her stuff had already been rung up, so I was just stuck there clutching my groceries. I turned and looked at the guy behind me and rolled my eyes. The guy took the eye roll as an opening and walked through.

“Do you know how old I am?” he said.

Uh-oh, I thought. This guy had a funny look. It seemed as if he had just switched himself on.  His eyes were so blue and glassy I could see my reflection in them.

“I’m 55 years old.  You wouldn’t believe it, would you?”  He was very animated.  His fine yellow hair moved all together as one piece, like a hat.

“No, no, you look very young,” I said, my eyes scanning for the forgetful shopper.

“My doctor can’t believe it.  Just look at my chest!” he said.

I looked at the checkout lady. Her eyes were on the man’s chest.  It was apparent that no one had ever said those same words to her before, either.

“People want to know the secret of my smooth chest,” he said.  “Do you want to know my secret?”

I didn’t answer, but I suppose my stunned look could’ve been taken as assent.

“I take very good care of myself. I never married, so no woman has left her mark on me. I am unblemished.”

Mr. Unblemished was now unbuttoning his shirt.

“Just touch it,” he said, moving a bit closer. “Feel my skin,” he said. “Just run your hand over my skin. Feel my skin.”

“Oh, I can see you look very young,” I said.  “Yup, that is some young skin you got there.”

“Do you know what else keeps me so young?” he said.

“Nope,” I said. I didn’t want to be rude.

His manicured fingers were lovingly stroking his waxy, hairless chest.  He was spreading his shirt wider.

“No children have been able to stain my life.”

There was not a freckle anywhere. His skin was pale and rubbery, like Naugahyde or the plastic tummy of a baby doll.  It didn’t look as though he were made up of actual human parts.  Disney could have put this guy together in his animatronics lab.

By now the checkout lady was ringing up my two bunches of kale and one quart of Greek yogurt. I ran my card through the scanner, checked the right box and scribbled my name.

“Fun talking to you,” I said, backing away.

He looked deflated when he saw I was leaving.   If I were a nicer person, I probably would have given Mr. Unblemished some more attention, but talking to him made my wrinkly old skin crawl.

Outside in the parking lot, the sky was an impossible blue, perfect Miami weather, the palm fronds moving with the ocean breeze.  It occurred to me that the older we get, the less our physical appearance represents who we are.  An outsider looking at my husband, Victor, for example, would almost certainly peg him to be a homeless man.  The faded Hawaiian shirts, a size too large.  The battered nylon travel pants, worn publicly, regardless of occasion.  Victor, who is two full years older than I am, and sure to be developing cataracts and bunions by now, and God knows what else.

I got into my car and caught sight of myself in the rear-view mirror.  My hair.  Was that a faint bluish tint?  My eyes seem to be getting smaller every day, lost in the increasing skin folds my family is prone to get as we age.  My mouth is crooked now.  Why is one side of my face sagging more than the other?  And then I thought of Mr. Unblemished and how lost and alone he looked.  I needed to forget about him entirely.  The vision of his pink, hairless chest was doing me no good.  I shook my head.  Put the car in reverse.  Imagined going through my house and removing all the mirrors, or better yet, slathering them all with Vaseline.  Then I drove away, out of the parking lot, spooking a flock of wild green parrots into a cacophonous cloud swirling against the flawless tropical sky, like so many pointless dreams of youth.

TAGS: , , , , , , , , ,

IRENE ZION has been married to the same curmudgeon for 40 years. She has 5 children, none of whom sufficiently appreciates her. The one you probably know is Lenore, who frequently gives her mother hives. Irene paints oil portraits and makes her own frames. She has been described as an outsider artist. Most of her paintings creep people out, especially her family. She finds this to be greatly satisfying. She writes non-fiction for TNB and loves every minute of it. She is writing fiction now too, but is too chicken to show it to anyone. She has two golden retrievers who will inherit anything of worth she leaves behind. Her kids will delight in dividing up her famous cork collection and her notorious stockpile of bubble wrap.

93 responses to “Mr. Unblemished”

  1. Ben says:

    My friends and I like to think May West tried smothering all the cameras on the set of ‘Sextette’ with Vaseline. It mostly has the effect of making the whole world dull.

    People look like who they are. Flaws are way more interesting than perfection. (You look nothing like Nana.)

    • Irene Zion says:

      I used to agree with you about flaws being more interesting than perfection, Ben, but actually I was thinking about having only youthful flaws. Aging flaws are not interesting.

  2. Melissa says:

    You are beautiful kiddo.

  3. So THAT’S why I became an old cucumber. My wife and kid blemished me. I should’ve guessed!

    Thanks, Irene, for the awesome story.

  4. Christine W. says:

    Awww Irene, you are beautiful inside and out! My concern with aging is not about my looks or wiry nipple hair curb feelers. I’m more concerned with incontinence and going bat-shit crazy. I’m doing kegels like mad to avoid the diaper.

  5. Sung J. Woo says:

    This morning, I listened to the quartet of Terry Gross interviews she did with Maurice Sendak. The last one, recorded last year, was all about mortality (and one of the most moving interviews I’ve ever heard on Fresh Air). It took me about an hour to recover from this, and now, after reading your essay, I’m right back in it!

    The more I live, the more I believe life is just really, really cruel. I understand the scientific/evolutionary aspects of why things have to be the way they are, but I have a hard time accepting it. I don’t think I’m alone, either. It’s not a coincidence that antidepressants are bestsellers for the pharma industry. To live is to suffer.

    – Sung

    • Irene Zion says:

      Do you know any of those preternaturally upbeat people, Sung? We’ve established that I’m old but I’ve only known two such people. The sky is raining down caustic fire, and they see warmth and light. I am baffled by them.

      • Sung J. Woo says:

        Shiny happy people…I sort of love them and hate them at the same time. Mostly, I think I just want to be them…!

        • Irene Zion says:

          I have tried to plumb the depths of my two shiny happy friends. I nag them to teach me the configuration of their thought processes so I can be like them, but they don’t understand what I’m talking about.

  6. Frank says:

    Hmmm… Well, after reading through the entire piece -creeped out by Mr. Smoothie, unfortunately identifying with both Victor and your observations about aging, and of course finding it way more appropriate than it oughta be, I finally figured it out, and present two observations:

    1) You should have stopped after the second sentence. Perhaps -probably? -a record short piece for TNB -but possibly just as thought -provoking, and a story with about as many ‘endings’ as readers…

    2) Huh… As if I didn’t have enough trouble with mirrors as it already is. Well, gee, thanks a lot, Irene…

    -Frank

  7. Loved this, Irene. You’ve got such a distinct, wry voice.

  8. Karen says:

    Loved the story Irene, Mr. Unblemished a bit freaky. Of course, none of this applied to me (your much older friend). Have noticed that cameras (even more than mirrors) are distorting things beyond imagination!!!!

  9. Sally says:

    I feel your pain! Until I see myself in a mirror or my reflection in a store front, I am twenty years younger and 20 pounds thinner – with smooth skin and auburn (dyed) hair. That mirror brings me back to the reality that I have become my mother – a wonderful person to be but not who I think I am. Guess I’ve just decided – it is what it is. I keep lifting the weights and doing the cardio to try to delay the big issues but someday that won’t be enough. Until then I’ll just look in the mirror as little as possible.

    I’ve seen a few of the Mr. Unblemished types but have always stirred clear because they truly make me sad. Plastic – I’d rather be real and wrinkled!

    • Irene Zion says:

      I’m studying hypnosis now, so that I can trick Victor into seeing me as I used to be back in the day.
      If that doesn’t work, I’m off to Little Haiti to study voodoo.

  10. jmblaine says:

    Ah yes, the voice of Irene Zion –
    it makes me nostalgic
    for the old neighborhood
    of TNB
    back before things were so
    gentrified.

    In this format
    you are as young
    & lively
    as you ever were.

    • Irene Zion says:

      That’s the great thing about TNB.
      No mirrors!

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Hey, an Irene Zion piece. It really is a holiday now! Mr Unblemished brought me to mind immediately of the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. He also sounds as if he arrived in your circumstances as if summoned. I find myself wondering what his thoughts are when he looks in the mirror and doesn’t have an audience. I suspect he thinks something extreme. Do people ever think closer to extremity than when they look in the mirror?

      JMB, I often think that of the old neighborhood when I watch present-day Sesame Street. “The people whom you meet when you’re walking down the street” is a nice way to encapsulate a certain time for us, as well. We each had our stints being mirrors for the other.

      • jmblaine says:

        Irene is the glue.
        She posts & then Uche
        comes out in the street
        & I get to say:
        “Uche! Where you been?
        Good to see you….”

      • Irene Zion says:

        Oh that is the perfect analogy, Uche! Now I’ll always see him in my mind’s eye with a hookah.
        I think the fact that he spoke to me, a perfect stranger, and in a line at the Publix, shows that he may be low on friends also. He didn’t seem to realize that I saw him as a sad sack, though, which made me feel a bit less guilty about leaving him hanging there with more to say.

  11. jmblaine says:

    All my mirrors
    are funhouse.

  12. Irene Zion says:

    If I gave Victor funhouse glasses, could he still drive?

  13. Bob Scully says:

    I liked the comment that this would have been a thought provoking story with only the first two sentences. I did enjoy the whole piece though.
    Only recently have I begun to begrudge the less flawed body of my youth. Skin that has seen too much sun, joints that have scraped two pieces of cartilage together too many times , etc all remind me daily of how old I am. However when I was 20 I had no wife, no children and no grandchildren, so maybe the scales of life balance out.

    • Irene Zion says:

      You are such a good person, Bob. I’m not in the same league with you. I’m greedy. I want my husband and children and grandchildren AND a younger body.

  14. Amy says:

    It actually made me sad to hear the guy with the smooth chest say he was not blemished by a woman or children. What kind of life is that? Does he know what he is missing by not allowing himself to feel true love for a woman or child? I don’t understand it, but if beauty is what he is looking for than he can keep looking in the mirror.

    • Irene Zion says:

      In Mr. Unblemished’s mind, he has figured out life’s grand puzzle. He is immodestly proud and seems to think everyone should be in awe of him. No, he doesn’t have the slightest inkling that anything could be missing in his life.

  15. This is very good writing!!!

  16. Judy Prince says:

    A great piece of writing, Irene! Mr. Unblemished — my kinda guy, fer sher. But Victor sounds more stylish.

    • Irene Zion says:

      A man that can go stylin’ the homeless look is rare as hen’s teeth, if truth be told.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Irene, you’re now not only the Queen of TNB, you’re the Queen of Witty Aphorisms, to wit:

        ‘I was thinking about having only youthful flaws.’

        ‘If you are able to laugh and cry at the same time, you are now ready for Pilates!’

        ‘One of the most ridiculous cruelties of life is that we only realize we were young and pretty when we are old and hideous.’

  17. Pamela Kawer Norinsky says:

    You did it again, made me laugh and cry at he same time. I love your writing! Solved the aging problem by avoiding mirrors as much as possible!!!

  18. sara a z says:

    in my pilates class, i wished i could announce that i just had a baby so ppl wouldn’t judge me but then i thought i must be crazy for thinking they’d assume i’m one of them– a sorority girl about to graduate college. i’ve decided i just don’t care!

    PS you are beautiful, mom

    • Irene Zion says:

      One of the most ridiculous cruelties of life is that we only realize we were young and pretty when we are old and hideous.

  19. Jim Simpson says:

    True, Irene. We never appear quite the way we think we do, at least in our “mind’s eye.” (Since I was a kid, I always thought I looked like an international spy, when in reality I look more like a dork of English and Dutch heritage.)

    Who asks a perfect stranger an opening question the way Mr. U. did? Really! I thought Publix was a decent place where decent people could shop for groceries without being harassed by freaks and riffraff like that — I’d complain to the management if I were you.

    Nice touch with the Quaker parrots at the end. I remember those from my days in FL; I always wanted to catch one, but those street-smart suckers were too wily and quick.

    • Frank (Irene's & Victor's Friend) says:

      Jim- (c: Irene)

      …”Really! I thought Publix was a decent place where decent people could shop for groceries without being harassed”…

      No, Jim, how quickly we forget! You’ll need to recall Irene’s previous Publix story, when Victor ascended the escalator and was -shall we say “treated”? to a, shall we say “show”?

      Ah, Publix -a measure of old Southern Gentility at its best…

      -Frank

      • Irene Zion says:

        Now I had forgotten about that. Victor didn’t see the young lady’s actions on the escalator as being harassment, though, far from it. He offers to run to Publix for me all the time now, hoping for a repeat.

  20. Irene Zion says:

    Funny, but whenever I think of you, Jim, you are always wearing a proper trenchcoat with a Burberry scarf. I just assumed you were a spy with writing chops. (You’re just protesting because you have to keep your job a secret, right? We are very discrete here. No worries.)
    On the parrots…I love the names for groups of animals, but the very best is that for parrots: A Pandemonium of Parrots.
    Only people who are around these flocks could understand how super perfect that word is for them.

  21. Kate says:

    Wouldn’t you know it, Ben stole my reference to Mae West in Sextette. If you ever want to feel young, you should watch that movie. An 84year old woman lumbers about the set trying to pretend that she’s still attractive.

    • Irene Zion says:

      I ‘ve put that on my list. How wonderful that Mae West had enough confidence in her feminine wiles at 84 to make such a movie. If I’m lucky, I’ll be the kind of demented at 84 which makes me feel wanton and desirable. That way, I’ll be a source of entertainment for my kids, rather than a burden.

  22. Mel says:

    You forgot the varicose veins in your legs and wrinkly stomach.

  23. jmblaine says:

    Victor is
    the Walrus

  24. Tim says:

    That guy sounds like a sex pervert.

    • Irene Zion says:

      It could well be that my antennae are malfunctioning, but I didn’t get that vibe from him, instead, he gave off a child-like aura. Just another lonely soul searching for perfection.

  25. Tim says:

    The ad generator on this website seems pretty effective. I’m reading about how to ‘plump’ my lips.

  26. Just spare a thought for the poor billion women in Asia, who have to go through the aging process in a heartbeat (for more information on this joke, please see the following cartoon strip: http://a.yfrog.com/img614/7751/aekrd.jpg). They go from “twentysomething” to “oooooooooooold” in a microsecond. It’s odd. My wife is terrified. She’d count the days but there’s no way of telling when to expect it…

    Oh, and that guy does sound like a sex pest.

  27. Stephanie says:

    Everything about this made me smile, Irene.

  28. Irene, you continue to live a wonderful and amazing life.

  29. ksw says:

    is a cacaphonus cloud better than a serendipitous symphony?

  30. D.R. Haney says:

    Nobody escapes unscathed, I guess. I find myself envying people with kids until I see kids throwing tantrums in stores, and then I momentarily think I’m lucky until I realize how little I matter to anyone, and without a shiny helmet of hair in recompense.

    When you find that lawyer, ask if he or she will accept my case on a pro-bono basis. Marlon Brando once said of Frank Sinatra that he’s “the kind of guy who, when he dies, is going to give God shit for making him bald.” I don’t know if Sinatra did so, but either way, I would like to petition God for damages while, in theory at least, I’m alive.

    It’s inspiring to see you back here, Irene, with the kind of piece that put TNB on the map.

  31. Irene Zion says:

    All three of my boys entered their twenties with thick, heavy hair and left their twenties without a wisp. Consequently, I have come to appreciate and even prefer the Yul Brynner look. Things could always be worse. I figure I’m ahead of the game since my girls still have hair.

    I distinctly remember times when I thought: “Why doesn’t someone discipline that child?” and then realizing that it was my kid and I was off daydreaming again. There are no beds of roses.

    Having you be so nice to me is like the Pope smiling at the altar boy. Means a lot.

  32. Marcia in Illinois says:

    Was it at Publix that the woman with no underwear mooned Victor? How come I never meet any weird people in supermarkets? Oh, yeah, I live in Central Illinois.

    Re mirrors, here’s my advice for anyone over 55: Never look into a regular mirror with your glasses on. If you have to use a magnifying mirror to take out those pesky black whiskers, never look at anything other than the body part you are specifically working on.

    I think you look fabulous and write even better!

    Who would pick great abs over being happy?

  33. Richard says:

    Your prose is so witty and dry and clever that I’m always jealous when I read one of your posts. All the turns of phrase and asides that would never occur to me. So glad to finally read a post of yours again. And yes, we may be at the mercy of our genes when it comes to our physical forms, but the human brain has reached the point where it can outsmart (if for a short while, at least) our genetic destinies. Hence, sage essays written by mothers wielding light sabers.

    As a blemished child, I long sought to attain the sort of perfection demonstrated by Mr. Unblemished, until I realized that blemishes (within reason) are what make us interesting. And human.

    I have never felt like having a child, either, and for a while not even a wife, since those things would interfere with my writing career. But the writing career is pretty hollow if you have no one to share it with. As I have come to belatedly realize. And embrace.

    Hi, Irene!

  34. This line was all the more funny and touching because I’ve met him and don’t think I’d think this… “An outsider looking at my husband, Victor, for example, would almost certainly peg him to be a homeless man.”

    Ken Doll Man. Ewww. Lucky him not to be stained.

    I’m smack dab at middle age and horrified by the acceleration toward decripitude. I now have no doubt what genetic proclivities have been lying dormant, and it is not pretty. Of course, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I actually exercised more, but that won’t happen until the second twin is e-mailed to my editor. (I do blame the writing for a recent decline in being able to see things close up.)

  35. Kat says:

    It’s like Christmas morning when I see a post from you! (Hanukkah? Kwanza?)
    It is so Irene of you to have an exchange with a Plastic Man at Publix. How DO these people find you???

    As for aging and mirrors, I’m with Sara: I just don’t care. If I think I’m seventeen then I’m seventeen. I just have to learn to deal with the pitying looks.

    And Victor probably sees you exactly the way I do—as the beautiful girl you were and are.
    XO

    • Irene Zion says:

      Access to people like this is no trouble. You forget. I live in Miami, where we actually have naked zombies.

  36. Steve Bieler says:

    Ms. Zion: If I had known you were going to write this about me, I wouldn’t have started that conversation with you in the checkout line. I thought women WANTED to observe my unblemished chest. Isn’t that what eye-rolling means? Keeping this expanse of skin unblemished takes work, but just try telling people that. No one understands. (But I’ll keep trying.) Next time I’m in Publix I’ll just hang out on the escalator. Signed, A Youthful Person

  37. Chuck Muscles says:

    Dear Youthful Steve,
    Exactly! No one understands my strict stud maintenance regimen either. I would love to share tips with you. (I have some great ideas!) I will meet you at whatever Publix you’d like. We are going to be best buds!

  38. Zara Potts says:

    Yay! Irene!
    I’m so late but that’s because I was getting a face peel to try and combat the lines on my face that make me feel like a big old dried leaf.
    Mr. Unblemished sounds like a dick.
    I’ll take flaws any day.

  39. Irene Zion says:

    Too bad. If you ever want to rent them out, I would pay cash money for your flaws.

  40. Tawni Freeland says:

    I think my son and husband are worth every wrinkle on my freckled old mug. Mr. Unblemished sounds like a self-absorbed yawn and a half. Enjoy your perfect skin, sir, you perfect snooze.

    I love your writing, Irene. This piece is so thoughtful and lovely. xoxo.

  41. Hóg says:

    It was nice of you to share your kale & yogurt with the homeless guy rather than the 55 year old Ken doll.

  42. Raymond Massa (Lonny friend) says:

    I am both saddened and excited. Saddened because it took me so long to discover that Lonny’s mother is ALSO A WRITER. And excited about discovering both this and that you describe yourself as an outsider artist. Joy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *