I am sitting at a makeup table in a Chelsea photography studio. The walls are white. The floors are white. The windows are white. The people are white. The makeup man facing me wants to discuss concealer.
“It’s very subtle,” says the makeup man.
“Not too much, just a little….We feather it. A little feathering.”
“I use this one myself.”
“Just, you know, if I’m out late the night before or whatever.”
I was brought here to have my photo taken for a magazine that is running a feature on my book. I was brought here in a town car. The man driving the town car was wearing a suit. The man in the suit in the town car opened the door for me. Then the man in the suit in the town car closed the door for me. If he’d had a cap, he would have tipped it. If I were a woman, he’d have called me Ma’am. If I were an old woman, he’d have called me Miss Daisy.
“Oh, hell, it’s just great to carry with you,” the makeup man continues. “I carry mine in my bag.” He picks up his bag, and drops the tube of concealer inside it. Then he takes it out. “Just like that,” he says. A moment later, a woman brings me a plastic cup filled with red wine.
“I loved your book,” she says.
“Why?” I ask. She laughs. He laughs. She repeats the joke to the woman beside her. She laughs, too. I am so funny.
The makeup man wipes his fingertip under my eye one last time.
“Such bags under your eyes!” he sighs.
“Those bags are why I’m here,” I answer. He laughs. The woman who brought me the wine laughs. The woman who did my hair laughs. I am too much.
“You are too much,” she says, fluffing my hair.
I finish my wine. Someone brings me more.
“We’re ready for you,” says the photo editor. And then there are the lights, and the reflector panels, and behind them in the dark shadows stand the photographer and the publicist and the editor and the other publicist and they’re all watching, and they’re smiling, and they’re nodding, and suddenly I get a sick feeling in my stomach, a sick nice ugly warm bad good feeling somewhere south of belly and north of groin, and I realize, with horror, that I…I…dear God help me, I’m enjoying this.
Silence, you fool!
I can’t help it.
But it’s true. I liked the town car. I liked the wine. Jesus Christ, I liked the concealer.
You make me sick.
You’re becoming what you hate.
I’ve already become it.
You disgust me.
She fluffed my hair.
When I was young, my father used to take me to the local barbershop. The name of the barbershop was Barbershop. There were two old barbers, two old barber chairs, and a dozen large black and white posters of young men, handsome young responsible men, with square jaws and well-cut jibs, each sporting the same haircut, my haircut, the only haircut in the world: side-part, trimmed around the ears, medium sideburns, square back. My barber was named John. There was a second barber. The second barber’s name was John. They were old, and wore white button-down shirts with yellowed armpits, and they smelled like the blue disinfectant in which they kept their combs. One day, my mother decided to multitask and bring me along with her to the unisex hair salon in the mall. It was called Allure, or Fabulous, or Glam-More. I was in yeshiva then, 4th or 5th grade, and terrified that someone from school would see me walking in and know that I was a homosexual. My house would be raided. They’d find mousse, a vent brush, a straightening wand. “Do you have anything to say in your defense?” the judge would ask. “No,” I would whisper. And then, with a smack of his gavel, the verdict: “Faigelah.” And so, as I would do some years later when visiting porno shops in Times Square, I stood outside the doorway, waited until the coast was clear, and then ducked inside.
So many lights, so many mirrors. Pink walls, pink chairs, the flowery smell of hair spray and gel, the pleasant burnt-metal smell of a blow dryer just after it’s been shut off.
“Aren’t you handsome!” said Dawn, standing behind me, her breasts against the back of my head, her hands framing my face in the mirror before me. Dawn smelled like candy. Cheryl came over to look at my handsomeness, and so did Trish.
“Oh my, what are you doing for dinner, gorgeous?” joked Cheryl.
“He’s mine, girls!”
Real men go to barbers.
You don’t need all this stupidity.
You’re liking it, aren’t you?
She said I was handsome.
“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying success,” says my shrink.
“I don’t follow.”
“What makes you think it’s wrong?” he asks.
“Genesis,” I answer.
I know a forbidden apple when I see one. Shiny, red, what could be wrong? But one bite and bam, you’re naked and covering your shame with a fig leaf. I think about all the douche bags I see—puffing their chests out on TV, demanding Cristal and vanilla candles in their dressing rooms—and I wonder if they ever worried. There had to have been a first photo session, a first interview, a first dab of concealer, a first fluff of their hair. Did they worry then? Because I do. Because I don’t trust myself. Because it feels good, this moderate attention, this occasional praise, and I worry I’ll get hooked. “First one’s free,” says the crack dealer, and fame is the worst drug of them all. At least crackheads only urinate on themselves; fame addicts piss on everyone. And so I wonder if they ever thought, early on, “Uh oh.” If they ever thought, “This isn’t me, I don’t want to be this asshole, I want to stay honest, I want to stay real, this is not me,” and six months later they’re wearing large white-framed sunglasses and fur coats and talking about themselves in the third person and asking to be photographed on their good side when every side of them is rotten. Are they their own worst nightmares, or just mine? If I enjoy it, any of it, what will I look like in five years? What will I sound like? Dinner at the Ivy and back home to work on another Hollywood chase scene? And so, terrified of getting knocked up by the cock of success, I abstain.
A positive review, I tell myself, must have been written by a schmuck, a request for an interview must be a function of a slow news week, a feature on Foreskin’s Lament only means George Saunders was busy, or Junot Díaz caught a cold. Or was scheduled to do Jon Stewart. Or was picking up his National Book Award. Me, I’m free.
There are other writers with me in this studio, too. They don’t seem concerned. They laugh, they smile, they joke, they kibbitz. They enjoy their moment in the sun, while I chug red wine and worry about skin cancer.
The photographer taps me on my shoulder. It is my turn. The rain outside has subsided, and he wants to try to get a few shots of me outside. That’s what they call them in the business, “shots.”
That’s what they call it.
You liked saying it.
My shrink said it was okay.
Your shrink is a whore.
We head downstairs and he tells me how much he liked my book.
Here we go.
He said it reminded him of Dostoyevsky.
Jesus. You’re eating this up.
The photographer positions me on a corner of 10th Avenue beneath a construction scaffold. His two assistants stand in front of me holding silver reflector panels as he sets up his tripod and camera. Cars pass by, staring. Pedestrians stop to watch. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I dismiss every kind word, internalize every bad one. At home, I don’t keep my books out; I put them on the bottom shelf, or turn them around so the spine faces in. All praise is a lie, all criticism the truth. It occurs to me that if any of the people stopping to watch were in my shoes, they’d be taking it in, appreciating it while it happened, enjoying it while it lasts.
“Ready?” asks the photographer.
I take a deep breath.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I am.”
The photographer turns and heads back to the camera, “It really was a great book,” he says. And for once, I believe him. He’s not paid to like me. He’s not paid for his opinion. He doesn’t even seem to think I’d care about his opinion, and so naturally, it’s the one that matters most. He ducks under the small tarp as he peers through the viewfinder, and reaches up to press the shutter, when suddenly a loud car horn causes me to jump. A taxi is coming around the corner, the driver leaning on his horn. He slows as he goes by, and rolls down his window.
“ASSHOLE!” he shouts.
This isn’t you.
I sure as hell hope not.
Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life.
Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life. His new novel, Mother for Dinner, will be published by Riverhead this September.