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.