“Some may call me a narcissist, and I’m inclined to agree with them. But is all of my mirror-gazing truly narcissism if I hate what I see there?”
BY ANDY NICASTRO
“I wish that confidence was all you could see in my eyes
Like those interviews in locker rooms with talented sports guys
I wish I had no self-awareness like the guys I know
Who float right through their lives without a thought
And that I didn’t give a shit what anybody thought of me
That I was so relaxed you’d think that I was bored”
— John Grant, “Silver Platter Club”
I stand in front of the bathroom mirror, thumbs placed along my jawline, index fingers at my temples. I gently pull the skin back on my face, and assess the effect. It’s while I’m doing this—contemplating the benefits of a facelift—that my husband walks in and catches me in the act.
A quick ripple of shame courses through me, and I quickly release the skin, which sags back into its rightful place on my fifty-four year-old skull.
“What are you doing?” he asks, though the small smile playing on his lips indicates he knows exactly what I’m doing; this man who would love me even if I weighed three-hundred pounds or if I’d lost my nose in an industrial accident.
“Nothing,” I say, feeling like a kid with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.
“You look fine,” he says, retreating from the room.
I’m left alone, staring at my reflection, my focus wandering from one age spot to the next—the result of years spent irresponsibly basking sans sunscreen at the beach or poolside, not to mention in a succession of tanning beds—playing a nightmare version of “connect-the-dots”. My eyes travel to the deepening creases extending downward from the sides of my nose, then to the sagging sail of skin extending from chin to neck, and I immediately vow to schedule yet another appointment for Botox and dermal fillers.
I mentally inventory my bathroom counter: there’s the little rolling device made up of tiny needles that looks like a pastry tool which purportedly increases collagen production, there’s the shiny white appliance that is supposed to tighten my skin using electrical current (which, I might add, could be used as a less-humane option to waterboarding), there’s the tube of Retin-A, the jar of skin bleach and the cover-up stick for the aforementioned sunspots, the Toppik hair-fiber powder to conceal my ever-widening bald spot, and a barbaric suction device to remove blackheads that left my face covered in hickeys that could easily be mistaken for measles and which took days to heal. Again, shame: so much time and effort wasted in what has been the most futile attempt at restoration since Cecilia Giménez tried to fix the Ecce Homo (Google it). Hours that I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I will rue on my deathbed for not having spent reading a book, traveling, or simply helping another human.
Six hours later, I’m at my very first spin class ever, sweating profusely, wondering if I might be having a heart attack. With every rotation of the pedals, I’m vowing that if my face has to rot, then goddammit, my body is going to look good as it can. There are a number of beautiful young men in here, and I try to remember a time when I would have observed them with lust rather than with the pure envy I’m feeling now. Grow the fuck up, I think, turning my gaze back to the instructor and giving myself a mental slap across the face.
Driving home afterward with a chafed taint and dry heaves, I force myself to review my life; to locate even an ounce of gratitude. I survived the AIDS plague when so many of my friends didn’t, and I made it through a brutal ten-year addiction to meth that should have, in all honesty, put me six feet under years ago. I think of the three dear friends I lost in rapid succession last year, and grow angry at myself for not appreciating the gift of good health and the privilege—denied to so many—of growing old.
I’m not entirely self-centered, I tell myself. I’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to help people, I encourage and support my friends, and I care—maybe too much—about the state of the world, the marginalized, and the suffering of others. Yet, even while my better angels are driving the car, the demons of self-loathing are always riding shotgun, waiting for any opportunity to take the wheel. “Who I am is more important that than how I look,” I say to myself on repeat. Still, I know that if compliments were currency, each “you’re a good person” is worth maybe a dollar, while every “you’re fucking hot” is worth a thousand.
Some may call me a narcissist, and I’m inclined to agree with them. But is all of my mirror-gazing truly narcissism if I hate what I see there? Well, yeah, probably. I vow, yet again, to not give a fuck about aging and to appreciate the fact that I have the hard-won wisdom of fifty-four years on this planet. I’m told that this wisdom can benefit the younger generation, and maybe that’s true, but I’ve yet to be sought out for advice from that demographic. Maybe they’re waiting for my neck wattle to reach my chest before they feel confident I might actually know something about anything.
If and when those kids do finally come to me for advice, I will warn them to not get caught up in the shallow pursuit of perfection. I will tell them, solemnly, that their insides matter more than their outsides, and that while they are striving to look their best in this youth and looks-obsessed culture, it should not take precedence over bettering their minds and their souls. I will tell them that they are already beautiful, and that aging is a luxury denied to so many. I will encourage them to focus on loving themselves, just the way they are. Just like I am fighting to do.
Then, if what’s past is prologue, I’ll probably tell them leave me the fuck alone so I can figure out how to finance that goddamned facelift.