He wove through the ballroom, past swan princesses and pirate kings, dodging breasts and codpieces as they vied for prominence. The reflection of crystal tears flashed as he drained his martini, the dancers distorted by the bottom of his glass. Not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle to be seen. A vampire masquerade – the revelers pumped with Botox instead of blood.
She leaned against the bar, arms spread-eagled to draw admiring glances to her décolletage. Her breasts nestled together, separated only by a faint curve of shadow.
He handed his glass to the bartender and leaned beside her. “I’m glad we came. Fun crowd, don’t you think?”
“I suppose. Same as usual. Why someone can’t come up with something more original than a swan princess, I don’t know.”
He slipped a finger between her feathered breasts. “Dr. Fried did a fantastic job. They’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.”
She shrugged him off, and faced the bar. “Everyone’s beautiful,” she replied, staring at the figures whirling in the mirror.
The next morning, he came downstairs to find a midget sitting at the breakfast table. Not a midget, a dwarf. The head bloomed like a peony, overshadowing the rest of the body. He didn’t know what to say. Her eyes glistened at his confusion.
“Don’t be rude. Say hello to Rollo.”
Rollo nodded, head bobbing over bacon and eggs.
He sat across from Rollo and peeled an orange into a spiral before asking, “What’s he doing here?”
“I can see that. Why is he doing it here?”
“I hired him. He lives here.”
She was enjoying herself. The sparkle of vivacity added warmth to her beauty.
“Did someone quit? I didn’t know we needed another servant.”
“No one quit. Rollo isn’t a servant. He’s an accessory, a complement.”
“I see. Like a scarf.
Rollo belched, and she beamed.
The day after her surgery, he watched her walk across the bedroom with the dainty steps of a geisha. He couldn’t remember which of her body parts was closer to perfection – bandages swathed her legs from the knee down.
She scanned the date book on her desk. “The fund raiser for burn victims is on the twenty-eighth. I scheduled you for a tummy tuck on the nineteenth. You looked a little paunchy the other night when you stood next to that Phillips from your office.”
“Phillips is fifteen years younger than I am.”
“That’s no excuse. I did not like him at all. He was hanging onto Frank Thompson as if he owned him. I’m sure that he’s after your job. We don’t want anyone getting the idea that someone younger might be more suited to your position, do we? You know how obsessed Frank is about maintaining a youthful image for the company.”
He looked down at his stomach. It didn’t look the slightest bit paunchy. He remembered the gut that his father had developed in later years, and that he used to look exactly like his father. In those days, his father still doled nuggets of wisdom such as “Figure out your goals, then go after them like a tiger.” He had taken the advice and torn his way to wealth with flexed claws, but the goals were all achieved long ago. “All right, I’ll have the tuck. Just remind me the day before.” Remembering his father’s laugh lines, he asked, “Do you ever wonder what you would look like without surgery?”
She laughed and shuddered. “Only in my nightmares. Can you imagine? Growing old and wrinkled while everyone around you looks young and beautiful? No, thank you. I’d never leave the house. That reminds me, I need you to walk Rollo for a few days, until these bandages come off. Make sure you take him all the way around the block so everyone can see how sweet he looks in his new booties and hat.”
That evening, Rollo and he strolled past the house three doors down, and found a contortionist balanced in the middle of the lawn like a flamingo’s ghost. A few days later, an armless man pruned rosebushes at the house on the corner. The armless man waved his shears as they passed.
The bandages came off, and she craned to examine the arc of her calves in a mirror. “I won’t be home tonight. I have an appointment with Dr. Fried. He wants me to overnight at the clinic.”
He watched Rollo wind around her legs like a cat. “Overnight? What are you having done?”
“Bone sculpting. It’s nothing serious, just a few shaves from my ribs and the back of my head.”
“What’s wrong with the back of your head?”
“I don’t know. It’s feels lumpy. Here.” She took his hand and pressed it to the base of her skull. “Feel that?”
“I think it’s supposed to feel like that.”
“Dr. Fried said it could be a little smoother.”
“If you say so. I’ve got an appointment with him tomorrow at three. Just a collagen plumping. Do you want me to pick you up?”
“No, I’ll have Ramon bring the car around. I should be home by noon.”
“Call me if you need anything.”
“I will. Can you feed Rollo tonight?”
Pelvis on pelvis, the nightclub pounded. He scanned the coral reef of dancers, their perfect limbs writhing in invisible current, and settled on high breasts, a flowing mane of hair, and a wine stem waist. His choice eliminated about half of the crowd – the men and those who chose to look like men.
He closed his eyes and ran a finger across the bottles of liqueur that lined the bar. Opening his eyes, he found that his finger rested on the poisonous hue of Midori. Not his favorite color, but not the worst choice, either. Green, then. He turned back to the dancers.
He counted six. Of them, only two had hair the day-glo green of Midori. He descended to the dance floor and wove through the crowd, sliding past the assembly line hips and thighs until one of the Midori girls pulsed before him.
She was beautiful. They were all beautiful.
He awoke to find a boy staring down at him with eyes like magic eight balls. All the rage at the moment with the pre-teen crowd. Anime-inspired waif faces peered with pensive yearning from playgrounds and schoolyards. The boy flared nearly invisible nostrils, dispelling the illusion of melancholy.
“Grandma? Grandma! It’s time to get up. I can’t be late today. I have a test in first period.”
The Midori head rose from the pillow, not a hair out of place.
He went home to find the house dark and still. He tripped over Rollo in the living room.
The bandages came off, and he had to admit that the back of her head was more beautiful. He fingered his skull with worry and made an appointment with Dr. Fried. On the day of the surgery, he ran into his accountant’s wife in the waiting room. Beside her sat a bearded lady.
He didn’t know where to look as the wife streamed gossip. She noticed his discomfort and laughed. “You can stare if you want to. She doesn’t mind. Do you, Ursula?”
Ursula combed the beard with her fingers. “No, Ma’am.”
Once invited, he couldn’t tear his gaze from the wisps of dark fleece grazing Ursula’s ears or the brown downiness of her arms. She had the beard of an Assyrian king – a rhythm of oiled ringlets cascading over her breasts. The nurse called his name, and he nearly forgot to say good-bye to the accountant’s wife as he shook Ursula’s hand. Even the backs of her fingers were furred.
He gingerly patted the bandage at the base of his skull, wondering how much bone Dr. Fried had removed, and if the sear of pain was normal. “I saw Miriam Baines at Dr. Fried’s yesterday.”
“Oh? How did she look?”
“Beautiful. She had a bearded lady with her. Ursula.”
“A bearded lady? With a real beard?”
“It looked real. I wanted to touch it, but I felt funny about asking.”
Annoyance flitted over her face, quickly smoothed away to prevent creasing between her eyes. “Huh. I wonder where she found a bearded lady. That won’t do. That won’t do at all.”
Five dwarves sat at the breakfast table the next morning. He stood against the counter and sipped orange juice. The dwarves occupied all the chairs.
“Are all of them staying here?”
“Don’t be a grouch. They’re adorable. Rollo looked so lost without his family. You can take the two littlest ones into work with you. It’ll be fun.”
“I don’t want to take them to work with me. Who’s going to watch them?”
“They don’t need to be watched. They’re very well-behaved. Show him, Rollo.”
Rollo whistled and the two most dwarfish dwarves hand-sprung across the tiles and landed neatly. They bowed from the waist and returned to their seats.
“Well…maybe. Just for today.” He looked at her for the first time since entering the room. “Did you have something done yesterday? You look different. You look beautiful.”
She leaned among the dwarves, her face a slender bud beside the misshapen heads, and smiled up at him. “I know,” she whispered. “I know.”
At the office, he stood next to the Vice President in the elevator. The Vice President winked as the dwarves entered. The Vice President’s elephant man winked as well.
He took her to dinner at Pastiche for their anniversary. The restaurant didn’t have booster chairs, and the dwarves looked mournful with the table truncating their faces below their eyes.
She scanned the diners. “I can’t believe that cheekbones are back in again already. It seems like just yesterday that I had them taken out. Look, everyone has them. I’m calling Dr. Fried first thing in the morning. I’ll make an appointment for you, too.”
“There’s Fred Bennett. I’m pretty sure it’s Fred Bennett.”
“Over there, with the Siamese twins.”
“Stop waving. You’re making a fool of yourself. The Bennetts have a Human Torso, not Siamese twins.”
“I could have sworn that was Fred Bennett.” Rollo rested his nose on the table. “Shouldn’t we ask the waiter if he has phonebooks they can sit on? No one can see them down there. I can barely see them myself.”
“Rollo, sweetie? Would you guys mind standing in your chairs while we eat? Thanks, you’re a peach.”
As they left the restaurant, a man entered – a man with a beautiful face and a beautiful body. The entire restaurant gasped at the albino pinhead leaning on the man’s arm.
He drove home in disgruntled silence, and she spoke sharply to Rollo’s wife when the children climbed into the back window and imitated bobbleheads.
She slit open a creamy envelope and read the invitation. “The Smiths are giving a masquerade party at the club. Do you feel like going?”
“I guess. Is there a theme?”
“The usual. Swan Princess and Pirate King. B.Y.O.F.”
“The dwarves need new outfits. Something brighter so they stand out.”
“I already have a designer working on it. She’s sewing neon tubing into their clothes. The colors change every five minutes.”
“Good. I didn’t see them all night at the last party. Everyone wondered who the hell I was.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You always exaggerate.”
Voices and music stifled the air. A reflection of crystal tears flashed in his empty glass, and he wound through the living labyrinth to the bar.
He asked for a blue martini. The bartender swirled Curacao into the colorless vodka. It still tasted like a martini when he sipped it, for all its blue hue and lime-stuffed olive. The band tossed a riff of surf guitar at the crowd, and the dancers threw up their hands and spun with dervish frenzy. Swan princesses and pirate kings lined the walls, obelisks watching over their temple.
He had lost sight of her hours ago. Rollo and his brood dove into the fray of freaks as soon they entered the room. She followed and was swallowed by the chaos crowd.
A fat lady waltzed with an illustrated man. A dog-faced boy bounded around a gorilla girl. Flippers slapped and stumps thumped. A giant cradled a golden-haired midget against his chest.
Ursula sailed past him, in the arms of a three-legged man. He thought she threw him a smile, but he couldn’t be sure through her beard.
The swan princesses and pirate kings never lowered their frozen stares, and the freaks never stopped laughing.
A man shouldered in next to him and leaned over the bar, waving a bill to attract the bartender’s attention. While he waited, the man asked, “Which one’s yours?”
“I’ve got five dwarves out there somewhere.”
“I guess they’re hard to keep track of in a crowd. That’s why I got the giant. That’s him over there. You can spot him a mile away.”
“He’s a tall one.”
The bartender pulled the bill from the man’s hand. “Another blue martini?”
The man frowned, his eyebrows raised in disapproval. “Blue martini? You’ve got me confused with someone else. Whisky on the rocks. Same as last time.”
His hand trembled as he set the blue martini on the bar to avoid spilling it as he examined the man’s perfect profile. The dark eyes were similar, as was the curve of the mouth and the solid chin. He involuntarily traced the dips and ridges of his own face, his lips stretching in silent disbelief as his fingers affirmed the likeness.
The music and the laughter intensified and sickened him. He stumbled to the restroom. A long line of cool white stalls damped the noise as he leaned over a sink, retching.
The nausea passed, and he splashed water over his face.
Stall doors slammed. “You all right, buddy?”
He lifted his head and looked at the faces in the mirror. The dark eyes, the curved mouths, the solid chins. One of them was his, but he wasn’t sure which. He blindly flailed his hand, but only smooth, impenetrable glass met his touch. He slid to the floor.
“He needs a doctor. Somebody see if there’s one out there.”
“What’s your name, buddy? Who’s here with you?”
His faces looked down at him. He drifted in a sea of unknowing. In the distance, an island slowly sank beneath the waves.
“Buddy! Come on, who are you?”
The door burst open. Comforting hands cradled his face and a familiar voice called his name.
He clutched Rollo, lifting him in his arms as he rose to his feet. Burying his face in Rollo’s neck, he whispered, “I’m okay now. Everything’s all right. I know who I am.
“I’m the one with the dwarf.”
They lay by the pool, reflections rippling their bodies. Rollo played croquet on the lawn with his children.
She rubbed oil onto his back. “Your appointment with Dr. Fried is tomorrow. Tell him to touch up your eyes while he’s at it. They look a little puffy.”
Rollo hit a ball and missed the hoop. The dwarf children shouted laughter.
He turned over and watched the play of light on his stomach. A drowned tiger, submerged in a sunlit pool. “How would you feel if I was shorter?”
“Shorter? How much shorter?”
“I don’t know. I just think I’d like to be shorter.”
“After all you went through with the bone extensions, I can’t imagine why you’d want to be shorter. You’re just overtired.”
“I’ve decided my boobs are too small. Dr. Fried said he can fit me in next week.”
“They’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.”
“But they’re not perfect. Oh, and guess what? We’ll have six freaks at the next party. The Baines are moving to a condo and they don’t have room for their bearded lady anymore. Ursula’s starting with us next week. Isn’t that fantastic?”
The sun’s never-changing face beat against them, two familiar strangers, as he thought of Ursula’s downy fingers. He imagined Ursula tracing his chest, striping his body with acceptance and contentment.
He watched Rollo – freak, father, man – scoop up the dwarf children and whirl across the lawn, a carousel of laughter.
Wondering how Ursula would feel if he was shorter, he said, “Fantastic? It’s perfect.”
E.N. Wilson is a freelance writer. She lives in a swamp with her husband and a cat, and wrestles alligators in her free time. Fortunately, she doesn’t have a lot of free time.
My mother is a self-confessed plastic surgery addict. That, along with the current spate of reality makeover shows, made me wonder when it became unacceptable to accept yourself, how far will society take it, and what are the ramifications of focusing self-image solely on the permutable skin.