I decided the time had come when I reached into my duffel bag for what I thought was my brown wool dress and came up instead with an inside-out Cleveland Browns sweatshirt. There I was at a four-star hotel—O.K., so I checked into a four-star hotel with a duffel bag—getting ready for a business dinner and coming to grips with the fact that I had brought clothes more appropriate for a tractor pull at Meadowlands Arena. Some insect repellent and a can of Right Guard were where my makeup should have been.
I travel a lot. Sometimes my bags don't get unpacked and repacked, they simply get added to. And they never get added to with the thought of going to dinner as the wife of an executive. They get added to with the expectation that one might-even when changing planes somewhere—have an opportunity to swim, ice skate, snorkel or jog. Therefore, the bottom of the duffel bag has a sort of perma layer of aerobics togs, long underwear, diving mask, knee pads, Reeboks and tapes for my Walkman.
And so, on my return, I—a sports fan who considered it the apex of grooming to rinse my hair burgundy and stick gold glitter on my face for Redskins games—decided to grow up. I would enter middle age gracefully. I would turn myself over to the grown-up ladies' salon down the street from my office in Washington.
They have at this salon a total makeover program called something like "Your Big Chance." For a couple hundred bucks they would take the old me in and spew a new me out.
May 27, 1990
The old me opens the heavy wooden door at 10 a.m. and runs smack into a sales rack of $189 serious, career-advancing blouses with little ties at the collar. All the other ladies waiting for the elevator are wearing them. They probably don't even own Cleveland Browns sweatshirts. Short of being invited to Face the Nation, I am hard-pressed to think of where I would wear such a blouse. I try to readjust my mindset, lest I blow my Big Chance.
Upstairs an impeccably dressed and coiffed woman—a woman with no pores whatsoever—hands me my schedule.
I will be exercised, steamed, rubbed, facialed, waxed, made up, hairdoed, pedicured and manicured. After this, I presume, I will not look like a lunatic football fan but, rather, will acquire that cool, understated wife-of-an-owner image.
The exercise session is easy. A pony-tailed, preppy woman stretches my little group to relaxation music. It is infinitely more pleasant than the exercise classes at my health club. Those feature 19-year-old former high school track stars screaming out orders to the soothing backdrop of 20-decibel rap music.
Once stretched, I'm off to be steamed. A pretty blonde woman (who also has no pores) puts me in a little hotbox. This is to rid me of toxins. I must like my toxins because in 60 seconds my heart and lungs and entire epidermis are screaming at me. I can't move my arms.
Several years ago, my husband and I steamed potatoes by burying them in the ground at the edge of a volcano in the Azores. Now I know how those potatoes felt. Toxins intact, I flee the steambox.
The massage is so wonderful I am sure it is removing my pores. The 16-nozzle shower that follows probably sluices them down the drain.
It is while having my legs waxed that I begin to feel that maybe God wanted me to go to tractor pulls at the Meadowlands. I mean, here I am, half-naked, coated in scalding wax, having my leg hair—which I don't think ever offended anyone anyway—ripped out by the roots. And the ripper-outer is giving me the unsolicited information that while most men are no damn good, her husband is O.K. because, "I made sure I married someone who doesn't watch football and stuff on TV."
I am getting the overwhelming feeling that I am to spend this day as a square peg being knocked through a round hole. While waiting for my facial, I examine the other patrons. No one in this room has ever dived for sponges or worried about a pennant race. Two women on a settee next to me are talking. "Every summer, my sister flies in for a day and we come here to be made over. It's what we really enjoy doing together," says one.
My mind flashes to my own sister. A trophy-winning first baseman, she has recently replumbed my mother's bathroom and is now enrolled in a heavy-equipment repair course. It occurs to me that with a little pipe dope, my sister could fix those annoying leaks in the salon's 16-nozzle shower.
The face lady does not criticize my pores. She says my throat is aging prematurely, but she has some cream that will save me. I assume all the owners' wives, and probably the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, use this cream. I commit to buy some. I tell her my tiny broken capillaries are caused by my skin-diving mask. She looks puzzled. She says she will use moose makeup on my face. It takes four beats for me to get Bullwinkle out of my mind and realize she said mousse makeup. In an accent I can't place, she tells me she's making up my face in my perfect makeup shade: turtle shopping. I am embarrassed that I cannot understand her, so I commit to purchase a bottle of turtle shopping.
In the waiting room, again, I am parked next to a tray of sample perfumes. I try a bottle embossed with ancient Greeks falling into each other's arms. Probably a bottle of this belongs in the bottom of my duffel bag next to the Right Guard. It is getting expensive to become the wife-of-an-owner.
The hair man, who himself looks like the wife-of-an-owner, sneers at my long locks as if someone had just plunked a string mop in his chair. I am getting crabby. "So how about those Orioles?" I say with mean spirit. In return he snips, mousses, shakes and squeezes the mop.
When I come up for air, I catch myself in the mirror. I look again. My eyes—how nicely lined and shadowed—widen. I am slowly being turned into...Phyllis George! My God, I think. I am going to have to buy those tailored $189 blouses with little bows, and wear black pumps.
I would be more worried, but in a flash a pedicure lady who speaks little English but sighs in several languages plops my feet into little tubs of hot soapy water. She hands me Vogue. At this moment, I would kill for a copy of Hot Rod or Field & Stream. I mean, do you know anyone, or even know anyone who knows anyone, who looks like the women in Vogue? I am thinking that men liked me just fine with gold glitter on my face and burgundy hair. As a cabdriver told my husband once, "You sure are lucky to have a woman who knows her quarterbacks the way she does."
While I soak, a nice lady comes by to bring me my little bag of must-haves: the cream to save my prematurely aging throat, some moisturizing sunscreen to save my outdoorsy face, and the turtle shopping makeup—$114. I recall that the last time I bought a bag of better-life products I spent $80 and lost them six minutes later. I left them at the 7-Eleven when I stopped to nuke a quick burger.
My toe cuticles are now being relocated by what feels like a chain saw. I'm getting cynical. With those cuticles right where they were, I got through college, met and married a great guy, landed a swell job and always loved my country. The news comes on the salon radio. The O's are winning in the sixth.
It is when the toe-and-finger lady asks me about polish that I begin to crack. I am a misfit here. There is no hope for me. I may look like Phyllis George, but I feel like Calamity Jane.
"I don't really want any paint on my fingernails and toenails," I tell the woman. She looks at me as if I have spoken in Urdu. "You see," I stammer, "it's just that I have to help my husband clean the rain gutters tomorrow and it would probably chip and...." She sighs. Just then the phone rings. The finger-toe maven is informed that her one o'clock client's nailwrap has dissolved in her Jacuzzi.
I slowly rise up toward the cash register, where I will shortly become $329 poorer. Phyllis George, albeit with naked nails, is looking back at me from the mirror. I suddenly have a tremendous craving for a hot dog with mustard. A cold, gummy one, like the ones you get at the stadium. I decide I cannot go to my office looking like this. But I can go to a hot dog truck. And then I can go home.
I peel off my nylons. I put on my Reeboks. My Browns sweatshirt. My sweatpants with the window caulking permanently embedded in them. I pull my hair into a ponytail. Wipe the blood off my cuticles. Sit down in front of my 31-inch television and put on ESPN.
I am happy. My husband loves me.
And he's never going to own a team or be governor of Kentucky anyway.