Recently out to coffee with a long-time friend. This and that chat. A few quiet moments. She was upset about something. I kept the silence going a bit longer than needed and finally said, “Something bothering you?” She went through the typical reactions of someone accosted with that query — first surprise that I’d noticed, embarrassment a bit, resignation, a giggle. “Something strange is happening,” she said, twirling a finger around her eyes, cheeks, forehead. “I have the wrong wrinkles.”
Her face was wrinkled about right, as far as I could tell. A good-looking woman. I tried to appear concerned. “So are they … all wrong? Or just some of them?”
She brightened, leaned in. “You do notice! You were always observant…” Like most observant people, I’m not always sure what I’m observant about. “So what’s problem again?”
She leaned back with a heavy breath. “Okay. To be honest, I have mostly the right wrinkles. Ones that should be on my face. But lately I’ve noticed wrinkles that shouldn’t be there. Strange-looking ones I never saw coming, never saw on either of my parents or grandparents or anybody in my family. I’m including extended family like aunts and cousins. Not that I’ve seen all my relatives lately, but from what I remember … Actually, I have seen most of them. On Facebook.” She started to point again. “I’m talking about wrinkles like this one and … this one. I should look in a mirror to make sure I’m showing you the right ones.”
“You mean the wrong ones.”
“Yes! You can tell, can’t you?”
I didn’t want her to think I couldn’t tell, but I couldn’t tell.
“It’s the straight ones that shouldn’t be there,” she continued, elbows on the table, index fingers poking around, “My family doesn’t have straight wrinkles. All our wrinkles are curved, arc-like. Except, of course, for the crinkly, teensy ones bursting from our eyes…”
“Very Helen Mirren.”
“Yes! Helen Mirren! That’s exactly right,” she said, happy to compliment me. “Anyway, the straight ones seem to be more like creases, not wrinkles. Our family doesn’t have creases.”
“Hmmm,” I said. “Creases are sort of like furrows that stay there.”
“Yes! And why I have them, I don’t know.”
I nodded, also not knowing. “Well, they look fine to me,” I said. “And … I don’t know if this is relevant, but I vaguely remember when you were younger and you furrowed, that’s where the lines are now. So it makes sense to me.”
“Really?” She didn’t like hearing this. “I don’t remember furrowing where the lines are now.”
“You did a lot of furrowing. You laughed a lot. You still do.”
She didn’t like hearing this, either. “So, now… I always look like I’m laughing?”
“No, no. You look like … you laughed a lot when you were younger.” I was digging a deep grave for myself. “And you still laugh, and that makes you look younger.”
We both knew I was making no sense whatsoever.
“These aren’t laugh lines,” she said. “They’re over here under my jaw and just past my cheek” She was having a bit of trouble locating them with a finger. I reached over and helped. “They weren’t there when I used to laugh.”
“That’s true. You’re right. I had your wrinkles confused. These,” I said, leaning in, “I never saw them before. Even in … their incipient stages…”
“Yes,” she agreed. “They appeared out of nowhere. They’re alien. They shouldn’t be there.”
I nodded. “So,” she began, “I’m thinking of doing something I said I’d never do. Go to a plastic surgeon.”
I feigned being taken aback. “Isn’t that frowned upon nowadays? Getting your face stretched and buffed so you can’t frown anymore?”
“Yes, but I think it’s only fair that I have only wrinkles that are mine. I imagine it’s perfectly acceptable to get rid of the ones that aren’t yours.”
“… Well, of course! No one would condemn you for doing that. Just make sure the plastic surgeon knows which wrinkles aren’t yours, and which ones are, so he doesn’t remove the wrong ones. You know the stories about wrong legs being amputated and whatnot. You have to explain to him that the wrong ones are the right ones.”
While I was making perfect sense, I guessed that this wouldn’t be the right way to explain it to a surgeon.
When I got home I didn’t immediately go to the bathroom mirror. I waited twenty minutes or so, so I could justify to myself that I wasn’t really interested in my wrinkles, because I’m not. After all, I had a good quarter-century of cuteness — and that ended a good quarter-century ago. Vanity isn’t a huge issue with me. I had my day in the partly-sunny. The mirror didn’t reveal much. Looking very closely, I picked out a few unknown to me wrinkles. They looked like all my other ones. And I already knew about the sags, which someone told me were actually fallen wrinkles. I didn’t like them, but they were mine.
I clomped to the bathroom upstairs where the real mirrors were, including ones you could hold in your hands. Now my face looked like a funhouse. There they were. One way over on the side, another under my chin, another near my left ear. Wrinkles that weren’t mine. They started and ended in odd directions, as if pasted on by a child. No symmetry. They didn’t accentuate anything, weren’t doing any framing of features, served no purpose. It was like someone took a pencil and scribbled on a Rembrandt.
I’ve heard people say that they’re proud of their wrinkles. They’re stripes of honor. You’ve earned them. Generally, I agree with these folks.
I guess I just don’t remember all the Life Campaigns I’ve been in, and wonder why many of the ribbons I’ve been awarded through the years have been slapped on so haphazardly.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com.