The interior didn’t disappoint. It was white and shiny, like one of those sleek stage sets on Broadway. Marble steps accented with gold led up to what could have been an actual small stage but instead contained the cash register.
I knew I’d made a mistake. This place was expensive—far too expensive for my budget. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Come on. It will only take five minutes.” I balked. “Five minutes” in Madison World was fifteen or twenty anyplace else.
“You don’t have five minutes?” she asked, as if this couldn’t possibly be true. “Five minutes to look good for your boyfriend?”
I laughed. “I don’t have a boyfriend.” “Maybe after you have this treatment you will.” She hustled me into a chair in front of the window. Having removed my glasses, she was now patting my face like I was a bunny. “Pretty,” she said. “Why are you so pretty?”
This was an unanswerable question and one I immediately suspected she asked of all the women who took a seat in this chair. She pulled a giant syringe out of a drawer and, expurging a thick beige cream, patted it around the upper and lower lids of my left eye.
The result was like one of those magic science tricks—tiny dinosaurs that grow 1,000 percent in water—but the opposite.
Gone were the puffs and the lines. The skin around my eyes was miraculously smooth.
My mood immediately lifted. If I could get rid of my puffs that easily, perhaps I could get rid of all of my lines. Younger face, fresh life. Maybe it wasn’t over after all. Maybe I could get on that big ride one more time.
The voice of Russian youth broke into my reverie: “Did you know we’re having a special? Four hundred dollars for the product and then you get a free facial,” said the modelly guy, who had strolled over to see the results. “A facial, huh? You mean the whole face?” I examined the skin around my eyes. If they had something that worked this well for the rest of my face, I was desperate to try it.
And so I bought the miracle depuffer cream for four hundred dollars and booked an appointment for the facial the next day at three. “You’re lucky,” said the older guy. “Krystal is here tomorrow. She will do your treatment.”
“Who’s Krystal?” I asked. “She is the miracle worker of the skin.” “She’s a goddess,” agreed the modelly guy. “She is the Mother Teresa of youth.”
And on and on they went about this mysterious Russian woman named Krystal.
“All I can say is, whatever she tells you to do, you’d better do it!” exclaimed the older guy.
Fuck. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
Whatever it was, I woke up the next morning determined to get out of it. Apparently the Russians sensed I might do this, because at nine o’clock sharp, I got a call from the girl at the store.
She was confirming my appointment. She told me how lucky I was. Krystal was going to see me, and Krystal was going to change my life.
I didn’t have the nerve to cancel. I expected the treatment was going to be something high tech and slightly medical. Instead, I was led over to yet another lighted makeup counter where I took a seat on a revolving stool. I must have looked skeptical because the crew kept coming by to extoll Krystal’s virtues. She was a skin genius. The older man informed me that I was very, very lucky that she happened to be in New York because she was almost never in New York.
“Where is she?” “Traveling all over the world. She goes to California. Switzerland. Paris.”
“And Russia? Right?” I said. He gave me a funny look. When they finally left me alone, I took off my glasses so I could see my phone. Krystal immediately came strolling out of a short open hallway.
She was very, very attractive. She was wearing a crisp white shirt, a black pencil skirt, and black pumps. She had white-blonde hair and eyes with light-blue irises encircled by a darker blue band. The tops of her breasts were visible through the open-necked collar of her shirt. She was carrying an iPad and a notebook, the kind you buy at the drugstore. There was a sharp air about her. She exuded purposefulness, as if she were playing a role.
She also had a pimple on her chin. I saw it when she leaned in to take a closer look at my skin.
The pimple worried me. Did she not use her own products? Did any of these kids use the products? Like me, they probably couldn’t afford them. None of their skin was that great.
And neither was mine. Krystal stepped back and looked at me sternly. “What kind of person are you?” she asked.
“Excuse me?” “Are you the kind of person who can handle the truth?” “I think so.” “I bet all your friends say you look good. This is true, yes?” “They’re my friends, so . . .” “But I am not your friend. Not yet.” Krystal sighed. “I’m going to be honest with you. Your skin looks bad.”
For a moment, I was stung. Damn friends. Krystal was right. I sighed. “That’s why I’m here. I need to look better.” Krystal tapped my face. “You have a little too much filler in the cheeks.”
Every dermatologist said this and then went on to inject just a little more. “And rosacea!” Yes, I had that as well. So far nothing new here. But there was good news. “If you do everything I tell you I can fix your face. Your skin will be perfect. I can make it go back in age twenty years.”
Twenty years? That sounded like a tall order and probably not scientifically feasible. But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. “And you will not need to use Botox or fillers again,” she added.
That jolted me. Botox and fillers are the twin posts on which “looking younger” rests. If there really were some face cream out there that worked like Botox, even I would have heard of it by now.
And then I realized I had. Queenie had told me about it. How there were these people who got Upper East Side women to buy a whole bunch of products for thousands of dollars and they told them that they’d never need Botox or filler again.
Who would be so stupid as to believe that, I’d asked. I was about to find out.
“I think I can help you,” Krystal said. She bent over a bit the way younger people do when they think someone is older than they really are and maybe can’t hear that well. My sight line was her cleavage. I quickly raised my eyes and stared into her eyes instead. “You have to promise me one thing.”
“What?” I asked. “If I tell you what to do, will you do it?” I hesitated, wondering if I could politely make an escape, but at that moment, the Greek girl threw a cape around my shoulders and a towel was wrapped around my neck and covered with plastic. The stool was turned so that I faced the mirror.
Caped and toweled, separated from my glasses, I was a sitting duck. I widened my eyes and braced for what was to come.
WHAT’S YOUR NUMBER?
“And now we will begin the treatment,” Krystal said. She worked quickly, covering one-half of my face in a clay-like goo. When she was finished, she stepped back so I could take a look She put her head next to mine, like we were two girls in a Snapchat photo.
“We do one side of your face first and then the other. So you can see the results before and after. Exciting, yes?”
“Yes. Very exciting.”
She sat down on her stool across from me. We smiled at each other.
“So,” I said, after a moment. “How long for each side?” She shrugged. “Twenty? Twenty-five minutes?” My heart sank. That meant I was stuck here for at least a full hour.
The thought was agony. I wasn’t a big fan of beauty treatments because I didn’t have the patience to sit through them. What the hell was I supposed to do for the next fifty minutes?
It didn’t take long to find out. Krystal picked up the pad of paper and a pencil and scooted closer. For a moment, I hoped she just wanted to make conversation. Instead she started asking me awkward questions about my finances.
How much money did I spend on Botox and filler a year? “Two thousand dollars?” I asked. She looked at me pityingly. “Most women spend twelve.” She wrote something on the legal pad, which naturally I couldn’t see.
“How much do you spend on your skin routine?” “My routine?” “Cleanser, toner. Facials. A thousand a month?” Certainly not. Krystal nodded and busied herself with the numbers. “Now this,” she said, “is what you spend for one year for your face. And this”—she pointed to another number—“is what you spend over two years.”
I didn’t want to have to ask for my glasses and then put them on over the goop, so I did what I often do in these situations: I pretended I could see.
Besides, I could still read Krystal’s body language. And clearly I was meant to exhibit surprise and outrage. I complied. With a flourish, she put a slash through the numbers and started on a new page. “What would you say if I could make your skin better without Botox or filler and you never have to buy skin cream again for two years for half that price? And what if I said your skin could be twenty years younger in two years for even less than half of that? And what would you say if I could do all that for you and more. What would you pay for that?”
“I have no idea.” She wrote down a number and circled it like a pretend schoolteacher. I began to feel queasy. I was seriously out of my depth.
But how could that be? I was a grown woman in charge of my life and my pocketbook. Besides, how much could this damn face cream be?
She began grilling me about my habits. Did I have discipline? Did I know how to work a routine?
“A routine?” “So you don’t have one. If someone gives you a routine, would you do it?”
I probably absolutely would not. Maybe I was too lazy, but all I could think about was please don’t give me another task. Please, don’t give me another—probably pointless— thing to do.
“I guess I could try,” I hedged. “And what about instructions?” “I can follow them.” “Because you have to do this facial once a month.” “What facial?” I was confused. “I will teach you how to do it. And now we do the activation cream. It’s going to be a little hot.”
She rubbed a clear gel over the goop. It immediately began to heat up.
“Do you feel the heat?” she asked. “Do you feel it?” “Yes?” “It means the product is working.” “So this really works?” She gave me a look. “Of course it works.” She produced “evidence.” Before and after photos on her iPad that she accessed through a link.
“We are not supposed to show them but”—she glanced around furtively—“I will show them to you.”
I wondered if this was some kind of double switchback maneuver. If the product worked, wouldn’t you want to show the before and after pictures?
Krystal explained that the people in the photos were from a small village in Siberia where no one had ever used skin cream before. “Of course we pay them,” she said with a shrug.
I was hardly listening. I was transfixed by the images of wrinkled-apple-faced ladies transformed into smooth-faced beauty queens.
Okay, the results weren’t quite that dramatic. But they were dramatic enough. Enough that I couldn’t stop thinking about how that skin cream might work on me.
I had to have it.
The moment I was ready to talk numbers, though, Krystal wasn’t. All of a sudden, Krystal wanted to talk about god. “This morning I wake up and I pray to god,” she said. “And god answered my prayers.”
“Really?” For a moment, I was puzzled. If I were trying to sell face cream in Madison World I’m not sure I’d talk about god as a sales technique.
“I think you’ve been sent here for a reason,” she said. No kidding. If you are sitting in a chair with mysterious goop on your face you should know you have been sent there for a reason. And the reason is simple: They are going to extract money from you, one way or another. They can do it painfully or they can do it nicely. But either way, you are not going to get out of that chair, you are not going home, you will not pass go ever again until you open your pocketbook and let them pluck out a few thousand.
Again, I asked how much.
Again, Krystal tried to bamboozle me with the half of the two years and then two-thirds of the total math bullshit, but I told her to cut it out and give me the final number already. I began to get another very bad feeling when she refused to say the number out loud. When a person won’t say a number out loud it’s usually not good. It’s what car salesmen do. Instead, she wrote something down, circled it, and turned the pad around so I could see.
This time I didn’t care how aged I looked. I leaned forward to squint at the numerals written on the pad.
They were blurry but I could make out a one, a five, and three zeros.
My mind couldn’t take it in at first—15,000? Fifteen thousand? 15K? Fifteen thousand dollars for face cream? My heart began to beat in my lungs. I knew the face cream would be expensive but fifteen thousand dollars expensive? For a moment I felt as if I’d been shot into another universe. I tried to explain to Krystal in the clearest way possible. “I’m sorry. But I can’t afford to spend fifteen thousand dollars on face cream.”
“But it is really seventy-five hundred a year.” “I’m sorry. But I can’t afford to spend seventy-five hundred dollars a year on face cream.”
“But it is your face!” Krystal cried out, as if I were assailing the holy grail of womanhood. “It is what you present to the world. It is your passport to life.”
The word “passport” reminded me of my most recent passport photo taken six months earlier. I looked shockingly bad.
Nevertheless, my resolve was stronger than a bad passport photo.
I sighed deeply. “I just can’t.” Sensing something wasn’t right, the older Russian guy strolled over.
“Is there a problem?” He looked from me to Krystal accusingly, as if we were both causing trouble in class. As if I weren’t following the script and Krystal better get me back on board. “Nope,” I said, with a glance at Krystal. “No problem at all.” “Krystal is gonna change your life. You’re gonna see. Whatever Krystal tell you to do, you’d better do it,” he reminded me. And he shook his finger.
Krystal announced that it was time to remove the mask. This was easier said than done. Getting the goop off was tedious and time-consuming.
Everyone in the store crowded around to see the results. Of course, there weren’t any. But at that point, it didn’t matter.
With the goop off my face, I knew it was my last chance to break free. If I let them put the goop on the other side I was stuck there for another half hour. Thirty minutes of saying nyet. There was no way I was going to run out into the street with a face full of goop.
They knew this as well. And so, no matter what excuses I made, the Russians batted them away by pointing out that I couldn’t possibly leave with one side of my face looking so much better than the other. “I’ve got a good feeling about you,” Krystal said. “I really do think you were sent here for a reason. I make up my mind. I’m going to help you.”
“But—” “You have a lot of friends, right?” “Sure. I guess.” “I tell you what. You and I are going to make a deal.” I immediately seized on this as a possible way out of my dilemma. Even if I couldn’t afford the face cream, certainly I had friends who could?
“Yes, I have lots of friends,” I said. “And believe me, they’re all going to want to buy this skin cream. I’ll tell them about it, just as soon as I get out of here.”
But Krystal wasn’t going to go for that either. “You will tell your friends about the products. But not until I tell you to.”
“Excuse me?” “Tell no one. You must keep the secret of the cream. Keep quiet and wait until your friends mention your skin. Until they say, ‘Hello, you look great. Your skin looks great.’ Then, and only then, will you tell them the secret.” “Is this some kind of Facebook thing?”
“I predict it will happen in about three to four months.” She pulled her stool closer. “Tell me the truth. Is it really about the money?”
“Well . . .” “How much do you spend on handbags?” “I don’t know.” I felt like someone was sticking needles in my eyes.
“What about shoes? What if I said I could give you a two- year supply of products for ten pairs of shoes.”
“No.” “You spend more money on your feet than your face? How long you gonna live like that?”
“I don’t know.” “How about eight pairs of shoes?” “Please,” I cried out. “Five?” “I just can’t.” “What can you pay then?” she demanded. What could I say? Nothing? I can pay nothing? I looked around. Everyone in the store was staring at us.
“Maybe two and a half pairs?” “That’s not enough. How about . . .” Krystal wrote yet another number on the pad. She turned it around and held it up to my face.
“Yes?” she asked. I looked at the number and gave up. “Yes,” I said. “Yes.”
FACE CREAM AFTERSHOCK
My wallet was four thousand dollars lighter and my schlepping bags twenty pounds heavier as I left the store in shock. I was loaded down with products in different colored boxes. Inside the boxes were masks, ampules, creams, toners, cleansers, and scrubs, all of which came with instructions that included fuzzy photos of the products and the order in which to use them. “So they got you,” Queenie said when I returned to the Village that weekend. “Yes, they did.” “How much?” “Eeeee.” I hedged. Could I tell her the truth? No. I couldn’t even tell myself the truth. I couldn’t digest it. “Maybe two or three thousand?” I lied. I couldn’t explain it to myself. Was it possible that Krystal had somehow hypnotized me into spending all that money? Or was it just that I was too afraid to hurt her feelings or make her angry.
There was another part I didn’t want to admit, and it was that I really wanted that face cream. But mostly, I really wanted that face cream to work.
I needed something to make sense. To not be a complete and utter waste of time.
Using the products wasn’t easy. My routine involved doing drippy masks and having to lie down with slimy pads over my eyes. It meant scheduling time to take care of my skin.
But damn if that face cream didn’t work and damn if it didn’t happen exactly the way Krystal said it would.
For the first six weeks, no one noticed. But then I went to my dermatologist and he exclaimed that my rosacea had improved. After three months, my housekeeper insisted that I looked much younger and happier. After four months, I ran into old friends and they said they didn’t recognize me I looked so youthful.
I knew the effects wouldn’t last forever. The question was, what would I do when the cream ran out?
It happened sooner than expected. Just when my skin was at the peak of dewiness, three of the products ran out at once. And so I did what any sensible person would do and looked up the ingredients online and found other products that claimed to do the same thing and were much cheaper. And then I didn’t think about it, until finally, after the longest winter, the days began to warm up and the residents of Madison World came out, once again, into the sun.
And once again, the jewels glinted behind their plate glass windows while the mannequins sported outfits you could only wear in your imagination.
But not everything was the same. There were more dark places. Empty stores boarded up behind brown construction paper.
And so it was with a strange sort of relief that I discovered the Russians were still there on the stoop, harassing passersby.
I wondered if they would recognize me.
“Hey!” called out the Greek girl. “I really like your style.” I paused. Was this groundhog day? Then I was annoyed. “Are you kidding me? Don’t you remember? I came in here six months ago and got suckered into buying that face cream.”
“You’re one of our customers?” The girl looked at me as if she couldn’t believe it. Was I not good enough for this store or just too wrinkled to be one of their clients? And then I got it. Maybe she couldn’t believe I would be that stupid.
Here, she said, and pressed a sample packet of face cream into my hands. I took it.
IS THERE STILL SEX IN THE CITY? © 2019 by Candace Bushnell. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.