Allie Rowbottom’s debut novel, Aesthetica, alternates between the world of nineteen-year-old nascent influencer @annawrey and that of the thirty-five-year-old Anna Wrey who wears the scars of countless elective surgeries that, when seen in the full context of industrial beauty, don’t seem particularly elective at all. More than anything else, Aesthetica investigates the fallacy of reversibility. When young, don’t we all imagine that life is a series of attempts that can more or less be undone without permanent consequence? Once we step into the light of reality, we realize that there is no fairy godmother waving a magic TV remote with a giant double arrow button reading REWIND. The particularly graceful move in Aesthetica is to advance beyond the commonplace observation that plastic surgery is a futile attempt to flip the hourglass; instead, Rowbottom asks us to imagine a cosmetic procedure that would undo the undoing, reverse the decisions a public figure might make to look like the fantasy version of their true self. Of course, death is the great irreversible, but it would be giving away too much to talk about that ever-looming spectre in an introduction.
I wake in a frigid room. A muted TV beams unhappy light. I’ve been dreaming and inspect my body to remember what’s real, where I am. Pleats in my skin from stiff sheets tell me: the princess-themed hotel in Burbank, the pool I lingered at all afternoon, the mother and daughter I followed; I am thirty-five, not nineteen, a woman, not a girl. I touch my phone. It’s not yet late, though I have slept through dinner. I find the TV remote, press the volume, and voices rise up. Your favorite childhood food items only elevated! a host says. Chicken and Stars, a contestant answers, and background music brings the mood down. The TV flashes family photos as the contestant’s disembodied voice talks about his sister’s prolonged illness, her early death. Our happiest memories took place in the kitchen, he says.
I stare at the monotonous screen, walk behind my eyes through my mother’s kitchen. The rice cooker and electric kettle, the microwave splattered inside with tomato sauce from the soggy English muffin pizzas she’d make for Leah and me after school. We’d sit at the blue-tile table, a hand-me-down from my grandmother. Our feet dangled from the chairs. Red sauce gathered in the corners of Leah’s mouth and she never seemed to notice, or care. She cared about animals, habitats, the plight of the displaced sea turtle and horseshoe hare. And she cared about us, the world of us, filled with a language all our own, composed of voices, characters we’d made up: mean old “Farmer Cowhide’s” country twang; high class “Queenie’s” pitched whine; rakish “Rhett’s” sleazy drawl. And “Doomer,” a foreboding growl Leah assumed on the nights she tried to keep me awake.
“Wait, did you hear that?” Doomer would grunt, just as I was drifting to sleep. “There’s someone in the house.” A murderer, rapist, child molester.
“Don’t get me riled up,” I’d plead, truly afraid but also often giggling. We both knew she was faking. But sometimes we’d forget. Sometimes, as Doomer, Leah would scare us both so bad we’d call for my mom—Mom! Naurene!—who would arrive, annoyed to have to sit on the edge of the bed, keeping watch, until we fell asleep.
I get out of bed, shuffle to the bathroom, count my fifty Vicodin, sift pills like memories. The Galveston Pleasure Pier, beignets and sundresses. The summer Leah and I learned to dive, the summer of the sailor’s bracelets that shrank around our wrists and were always damp. The summer we pooled our chore money to adopt an endangered red wolf named Granny, and all we received in return was a pamphlet showing Granny’s picture, some facts about her life. Leah cried in frustration. She had imagined a forest ranger would deliver the old wolf in a crate, to live out the rest of her years in my mother’s backyard. “Granny’s better off in the wild, honey,” my mother said, wiping tear-sopped hair off Leah’s face. “You wouldn’t want to confine her to a pen.” She made us English muffin pizzas, then put us to bed, and in the morning, Leah and I sat at the table and identified a new animal to advocate for and save (whales, it turned out).
I select the final pill, swallow, then sit on the princess pink toilet with my bathrobe bunched around me and tally phantom calories. A hundred and forty for the English muffin, seventy for the tomato sauce. Counting is an instinct I can’t silence. Counting is like hunger itself. I used to think it would protect me. As if in reducing the essence of something—a story, a meal, a body—to a number, I’d know its truest value.
I’m allotting two hundred calories for cheese when I hear knocking, pounding, heavy enough to shake the hotel fire door. I jerk upright and imagine men in sunglasses, men in masks, faceless men sent to silence me. I wipe fast, slide against the wall, put my eye to the keyhole. I see nothing and open the door a crack, then all the way. The vision was overblown. The hall is empty. The Vicodin has kicked in.
Sometimes when it goes to work, when it mixes with AMPs or benzos or whatever else, I see things, hear things, that aren’t really there. A common side effect, like chemical drip or dry mouth. And worth it, to arrive in that permissive, powerful place I have always wanted to inhabit. Drugs erase time, age, mistakes; drugs don’t work the way they used to. But they’re better than nothing, the closest thing I’ve got now to what Instagram once promised.
I close the door, turn, un-turn, re-turn the bolt to make certain it’s locked. I swing the safety latch, look again through the peephole, then return to the bathroom: my pill bottles and makeup and serums, the discarded bathing suit bottoms I didn’t bother to pick up, the mirror I shouldn’t face. I don’t need to look to know I’m a mess. I bend down, scoop up the suit, hang it on the door handle, and turn to catch my reflection, pretty and pulled together. I lean toward the glass, make a kiss face and the reflection changes. I step back. “Don’t start with this,” I say aloud, though it’s too late. Before my eyes, my face becomes a landslide, running downhill. There’s filler under the skin, collected in the troughs. And still it falls. Doesn’t it? I can’t trust what I see, can never know what about me is real. Which laser facial designed to smooth fine lines and sun damage burned white ridges into my chin? I see them if I squint, don’t I? Which dermal filler, and how much of it, migrated from my marionette lines and changed the mobility of my mouth? It slopes sadly now, incapable of smiling. And who botched my first nose job, who botched my second? Which strip-mall med spa, which injector, aesthetician, plastic surgeon—and there have been many—left a lip lift scar in the middle of my face?
My phone is by the toilet where I left it. I open the camera, take a selfie and pinch the screen to see myself, distorted, a Picasso muse, every flaw a drama. Is this how I really look? I often spend hours trying to know for certain. I press the shutter again, again, again, then step back and pinch the ugly selfies I just shot, parsing the distortion of the lens from past procedures, the passing of time.
“No way to stop time, but a good idea to try.” This is what I tell my customers, women who come to see me in the black and white striped store where I wait for them.
I wait among the serums and sheet masks and red-light wands; the makeup named after Instagram filters I pat over eye bags and nasolabial folds.
“Not anti-aging, graceful aging,” I say, and load women’s shopping baskets with promises of transformation, erasure, control. Empty promises, I’ve always thought, illusory. The women shouldn’t trust me. Even as a child, I believed the solution to age and plainness was to transform the body itself, not cover it; to shrink or expand as needed through starvation, exercise, the Adderall girls in my high school took to stay satiated and small, the injectables and surgery that came later. I never bought into the surface stuff: serums, creams, makeups. The only meaningful change comes from within, I still believe that.
But now, every answer, every solution, contradicts. I read recently that long-term benzo use, opioid abuse, leads to early dementia, perpetual forgetting. I read that Botox weakens the forehead; when it wears off, you look older than ever. I read that a frozen face has been proven to make a woman happier than an expressive one; she looks in the mirror, sees less trouble, and becomes it. Before I left Texas, Houston, work, to come here, spring rains had started, torrential storms rising up out of nowhere, then gone again, the world washed and reeling in their wake. But the sky reverts to normal, like it has forgotten its rage. Like it never felt anything at all.
This is the best I can hope for, a clean slate before the next storm, next tragedy, next decade. My expectations are realistic. Realistic expectations are important for anyone contemplating cosmetic surgery. It’s the people who want to look like someone else entirely—Kendall, Kylie, a Siamese cat—that get into trouble. I just want to look like myself, my true self, stripped of time and the violence of past mistakes.
So I’m here, in Los Angeles again, the only city in the world with Aesthetica, performed only by Dr. Perrault, the only surgeon capable of undoing, in a single procedure, every procedure that came before. For now, anyway. I have read that infection rates are worse than reported, read the FDA is investigating Aesthetica and will pull it from the market any day. Because patients have suffered autoimmune responses, their body rising up to reject their new face; patients have suffered infection within the first twenty-four hours, the result of contaminated flesh, sepsis. There have been deformities. “Aesthetica erases everything,” Dr. Perrault said during our virtual consult, “though as with any surgery there’s risk involved.” As if he had to say it. I booked the procedure then and there. I entwined myself, willingly, in a fast dance with death.
I drop my phone in the pocket of my robe, leave the mirror and move around the Princess Suite, tidying up. Plastic wrappings from coffee cups, the flip-flops I kicked off in different directions when I returned from the pool. I’ll need the room neat and clean when I come back post-procedure. If I come back.
I’m gathering wet towels to pile by the door when light glints against the edge of my vision, refracted from the window’s glass. I go to it. In the distant sky, a firework show has started. I watch for a moment. Explosions blossom like flowers on a nature show, fast forwarded from buds to full blooms. I rush to the bed, fish my phone from the messed-up sheets, take video I’ll never watch. Certainly, I’ll never post. Instagram is an app for bots and grandmas, now. It’s been six years since I shared anything. Not that I don’t want to. It’s what I know @annawrey can’t give me, after all this time.
The grand finale makes the sky a bouquet. It wilts into the dark. I open Instagram, fall belly down on the bed. I’m signed into a fake account and rather than log onto @annawrey, I search her as I would anyone I followed once, liked, then ghosted. She loads slow and outdated, a museum of my past selves, every image the remains of a girl, frozen in time, waiting for me to return and rescue her. There she is, high ponytail and puppy filter, riding shotgun in Jake’s Land Rover. Vegas baby, she sing-songs. I watch her cut off and repeat, persistent as the lost, calling to be found.
As a girl, I wanted to be discovered. Fifteen years later, as a thirty-five-year-old woman, I want to undo the past and disappear. And yet that reporter has found me. I could make a difference to other women, she writes, every time she DMs @annawrey asking for my story, my experience with Jake. She says a name like mine could help gather other names. “But the choice is only ever yours,” she adds. As if she has to. Choice is a power I am well aware is mine to wield. A feminist, post-feminist right. To give my story, or keep it to myself, keep myself hidden and safe. My choice to surgically alter my body, impregnate my body, stay natural, stay alive, stop living.
For a moment, I try to consider the words I might use to come forward, where I’d begin, which transformations I’d include, which traumas, where I’d say they end. I try not to imagine Jake or his lawyers, what they would do to shut me up, the story they could make of me, so easy to discredit. But the opioids have pulled a shade down in my brain anyway. Around me, the Princess Suite has dissolved. I scroll the @annawrey museum. Hunger rises up, stoked by every picture of my past: @anna holding up a grilled cheese sandwich at the grand opening of LA’s latest gastropub; @anna seated at a kitschy diner behind the highest stack of pancakes, sugar dusted; @anna dressed in silver at a Vegas steakhouse, cutting a massive ribeye, watching the juices pool; all meals I ordered, photographed, but didn’t eat. A waste. A familiar fantasy, that I might return to the girl I was and consume what she did not. I would eat it all now, shameless. I would start a foodie feed, the upside-down version of the identity I constructed when I was a teenage girl, the alternate story. I see both grids, both girls, when I see @annawrey. I see stardom, what I chose, what became of me, and everything I missed.
I put down my phone, pick up the landline, press a button and listen to it ring.
“Room service closes at eleven, hon.” The woman at the front desk has an awake voice. I tuck the pink receiver to my shoulder, check the time. I’m nine minutes late. “But the bar is probably still open,” she says, and something about a limited menu.
I hang up, stand up, find those flip-flops. Hunting for food makes me brave. Or the pills have peaked and I’m less paranoid than euphoric. I unbolt the door, face the hallway.