Gaurav knew something about granting wishes. “Dr. Gupta!” the women cried. New patients were tense at first, but the regulars came in eagerly, hopping onto his exam table as though it were a barstool.
He told his patients about the band. “So talented!” they exclaimed. He beamed as he injected and dabbed, injected and dabbed. “A weekend warrior,” he said fondly, holding their heads in his saxophone hands.
Foreheads were his bread and butter—meandering deltas and fine tributaries he could all but erase, the epidermis made into rich, virgin soil. When Lilly sighed over photographs of society women in the newspaper, he saw his own skill. The women looked radiant, untouched by life.
Over time, patients like Sissy and Catherine came to feel like friends. They confided in him, complaining of in-laws and kitchen renovations. He listened sympathetically. He enjoyed that they brought him into their fold, inviting him to events, air kissing him like a celebrity. When he and Lilly got married, they sent expensive gifts. Lilly fingered the cream stationery and kept their monogramed notes in a drawer.
She was thrilled to join their club, even though she never read the books. Anna Karenina and Light in August sat on her nightstand like bricks. Words got added to the tangerine notebook. Lilly approached the first Saturday of each month as though she had a job interview, selecting a conservative outfit, studying book reviews online. Convinced she was taking it much too seriously, Gaurav told her that the books didn’t matter; the women simply wanted to get together for a glass of wine. Lilly ignored him, shrugging off his assurances.
He hadn’t understood the book club’s appeal. But was it so different than the band? Maybe his attempts to reassure her were like Takeo’s remark: well-intentioned, but hard to swallow. Maybe Lilly, too, wanted to believe that such things could come naturally. Maybe effort, more than age, revealed our vulnerability.
* * *
Back in the building, Gaurav stepped into the elevator. Just as the doors were closing, a slender hand reached out to stop them. Gaurav winced—it was a long-running fear that one day his fingers would be crushed, ending his career. Elevators; cabs; subways. The city was riddled with doors that closed without warning.
“Top floor, is that right?” he asked, noticing her familiar face.
Claire, he remembered, summoning the name. She was in her fifties, tall and slender, with unusually prominent cheekbones. She and her husband were on the building’s Board. “The penthouse!” Lilly had marveled. “I wonder how big!”
But Claire and her husband didn’t seem showy. Occasionally Gaurav spotted them walking hand in hand, exiting the building on their way to dinner. Their children were grown; it was just the two of them now. He got the impression that they shared an easy tranquility between them, a quiet life satisfied by one another’s company.
“Violin?” Claire gestured to his case.
Gaurav looked down. He had forgotten he was holding it. “Sax.”
“A hobby of yours?”
Normally he would have gone on eagerly, the band’s card at the ready. Instead, he felt himself flush. “A hobby,” he repeated. Wasn’t that all it was? “Yes.”
Claire had a gentleness about her face as she regarded him. “It must be hard to fit that in around your practice.”
“I’m not the only one with the good memory, it seems.”
“Oh, the women were thrilled to have a plastic surgeon in the building. Though we fear you’re secretly assessing us. Especially in this horrid lighting.” She laughed self-consciously.
“Never,” he assured her. Though he wondered, as the elevator made its ascent, how many times he had done exactly that, taking apart women’s faces in his mind and assembling them back together. Erasing lines and filling in creases. Smoothing and plumping, as his expert hands could.
He peeked at Claire with her aristocratic profile. Her auburn hair was swept up in a knot, and her clear, blue eyes reflected amusement, intelligence. You look like you could have been a dancer, he wanted to say.
Did she know how many women in the building had come to see him? Many were holdouts, women who had vowed never to have work done. They were pleased by the results, always. Still, there was something sad about how they had caved to the pressure, trading their original details for something more sleek.
How sad, that no one was safe from insecurity. You could be on the building’s Board, perched in the penthouse, and still feel its long-fingered reach. The women at book club had probably looked at Lilly with envy. They didn’t know about the tangerine notebook, the constant fretting. Lilly herself didn’t know that he loved her most when she wasn’t trying so hard.
The elevator chimed. Gaurav hesitated, wanting to say something. He stuck his saxophone case between the doors to keep them from closing.
“Even in this light,” he said, clearing his throat, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Claire looked at him, startled, and then laughed. “Thank you for that.” When the doors closed, she was still smiling.
Gaurav headed down the hall feeling lightened, pleased. He imagined Claire carrying the compliment up to the top floor and sharing it with her husband. Her husband would think the surgeon had gotten it exactly right. Gaurav imagined them walking to dinner, hand in hand, not worrying about anything other than what was between them.