Ilyse Steiner is a writer from Chicago and has published articles and essays in
The Chicago Tribune, Boulder Weekly, PurpleClover.com, DigitalTrends.com, littleoldladycomedy.com and others. She lives with her husband, three dogs and has two sons in college. Her first published piece was an Op-Ed in The Chicago Sun-Times lamenting the difficulty in finding a job after finishing college. She graduated from The University of Wisconsin, Madison.
YOGA PANTS & COLLAGEN PEPTIDES
Rachel nearly ran over an old woman in the grocery store parking lot. After she slammed the brakes and stopped the car, she was astonished when the elderly woman gave her the finger. As if the mere idea of being run over was not an assault on the woman’s dignity, but on Rachel who nearly had the audacity to do so.
“I’m so sorry!” Rachel yelled through the closed windows. The woman turned to her shopping cart filled with grocery bags and marched past.
She was running late but sat immobile until blasting horns jolted her out of her inertia. She glanced at the time and realized that she’d be late, so she floored it across the parking lot towards the coffee house. The café was a bohemian oasis across a strip of suburban mediocrity.
The café door opened, jangling the bell that hung from it. Cindy saw Rachel enter then looked back at her iPhone. She was ten minutes late. Rachel smiled, pulled a chair out and sat tucking her left leg under her right as she unzipped her hooded sweatshirt.
“You won’t believe what just happened to me.” Rachel said. She placed her keys on the wood table and moved the chair closer to Cindy.
Cindy glanced up at her again. She wanted to roll her eyes. Rachel was always late and she always had some kind of story explaining why.
“So, I was pulling into the parking lot,” Rachel said. “and I nearly hit an old lady, and when I slammed on the brake she gave me the finger! Can you believe that? She was well over 80!” She sat back and tilted her head, waiting for a response she wasn’t getting.
Cindy stifled a sigh of disgust and glanced up at Rachel again. And then she put her cellphone down.
“What?” Rachel said.
The woman sitting across the table wasn’t Rachel at all, Cindy realized. Who was this girl with dark, curly hair, thick eyebrows and unblemished skin? The girl’s pink tank top hugged her breasts and slender waist in a way Cindy remembered but hadn’t seen in herself or her friends’ bodies in a very long time. Rachel was on the zaftig side. Rachel had a muffin top. The girl leaned in toward her. She raised her shoulders.
“What’s wrong Cindy?” she said, her dark eyebrows arched.
Cindy’s hand flew to her own thinning brow and traced it. And then she realized what had happened, how this person knew her name.
“Oh! Where’s your mom, Lizzie?” Cindy asked. Rachel must have sent her daughter ahead to make her excuses. And Cindy had just had a senior moment, a realization that shook her to her core.
“What?” Rachel asked.
“I’m sorry.” Cindy said. Her brain clouded again and she imagined tangles and plaques multiplying all over her frontal cortex. “Where’s your mom?” she asked again. This time she took a deep breath and held it.
“Why are you asking about my mom, Cindy? Why are you calling me Lizzie? Lizzie is at school.” Rachel laughed and crossed her arms across her chest.
It was the right laugh. High pitched like Betty Rubble, but no. This was not Rachel. “I’m sorry,” she said. She cleared her throat. “I think you have me confused with someone else.” Her heart had started to race. Her hand rose to her chest and she clutched the fabric over it.
“It’s me Cindy! It’s Rachel.” The woman was pointing to herself as her voice rose. “We went to college together! We were roommates!”
Cindy forcefully exhaled the last bit of air left in her lungs. She laid her manicured hands flat on the table as if she hoped pressing into the wood would ground her thoughts. Rachel was tapping one foot rhythmically bouncing the leg that was resting on it.
“Rachel?” Cindy said, trying to smile while remaining calm.
“Yes! It’s Rachel! Are you ok?”
“You, you don’t look right. I mean, you don’t look like you did the last time we met.” Cindy could not believe her eyes.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Rachel became indignant as she fiddled with the zipper. “I mean, come on Cindy. I don’t work out as much as you, but I try….”
Was this some kind of mean joke Rachel had decided to play on her? If so, this girl was sticking to character. Cindy realized she had to think fast before this got out of hand. She grabbed her purse and dumped its contents onto the table. Just a notepad, two pens, a tampon. She unzipped the side compartment and found lipstick.
“What are you doing?” Rachel said. “You are worrying me.”
Finally, Cindy found what she’d been looking for: powdered concealer with a mirror. She opened the make-up and handed it to the girl sitting across from her.
“What?” Rachel asked. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Look at yourself.” Cindy said and she sat back in her chair and watched Rachel.
Rachel tilted the mirror at her face. And then her lips parted and she gasped. “Oh my God,” she said. She aimed it towards her widened eyes and touched the smooth skin around them. It was all an act, Cindy knew, but she found herself replicating the explorations on her face. The skin around her eyes was thin and papery. A little botox here a little botox there, she thought. Then Rachel’s fingers grazed over her neck. Cindy’s was less taut. A little micro-dermabrasion here. Rachel opened her mouth as if to speak but didn’t. She ran her hands underneath her shirt across her abdomen as if feeling for the excess fat she’d carried since having children. But her flat, belly bore no witness to having babies. “What’s happened to me?”
Then it dawned on Cindy. The woman sitting across from her was not someone acting. Somehow, incredibly, this was really Rachel.
Cindy had consumed a generous scoop of collagen peptides in her black coffee that morning and had eaten a macrobiotic breakfast hours before Rachel had risen from bed and brushed her teeth. Before meeting at the coffee house, she had taken an Omega 3 and multi-vitamin and completed a cross-fit and yoga flow class. Rachel, however, always seemed immune to worries about her wrinkles or grey hair and had no understanding of her slowing metabolism or the benefits of a cardio and strength class.
“How did this happen?” Cindy asked. Her voice cracked. She was unsure if she was asking or demanding an answer.
“I don’t know.” Rachel said and she shrugged her shoulders.
“You must have done something.” Cindy said. “What did you do?”
Her changes were remarkable. Whatever Rachel had done, she was ready to do it too. No matter what it was. How many magazines had she pored over, and products and medi-spas had Cindy visited? How much more physical activity could consume her day, working muscles and burning calories so she could remove all imperfections to maintain her younger than her years appearance?
“Nothing.” Rachel said. She sounded like a girl. “Maybe it’s genetic?”
Cindy snorted. One doesn’t genetically revert to their younger self and say DNA did it or their parents would be toddlers. Rachel was holding back she was sure of it.
“I have to go,” Rachel said. She closed the compact and pushed it towards her friend. “I have to call Benji.”
“Benji?” Cindy said. “You mean your husband Ben?” She rolled her eyes.
Rachel bit her lip. “Yes.” She pushed the chair back, zipped the sweatshirt and rose. “I’ll call you,” she said and hurried towards the door.
Before she got up, Cindy returned to her phone and cancelled the dermatologist appointment for the following week. Instead of leaving the café, Cindy approached the counter and pulled money from her wallet. Maybe Rachel had some secret plastic surgery? Or maybe that old lady in the parking lot had given her some kind of reverse witch curse? Maybe, Cindy thought wildly, she should get in her car and drive around the parking lot looking for her.
“Can I get you something?” asked the woman behind the counter. Cindy rested her forehead in her hand and closed her eyes. The woman behind the counter continued wiping a mug. After a moment, she stepped back and pointed to the lemon-poppy seed pound cake that reminded her of her grandmother.
Maybe it was time to give in to the pastries and relax on the couch. She didn’t know what happened to Rachel, but she couldn’t condemn her for her transformation. Maybe she would find her grandma’s yellowed cookbooks when she went home. The one with the handwritten notes in the margins. She could speed walk with her neighbor another day.