Welcome to The Madison Review's web series, The Extended Cut, where we showcase exceptional work that was not selected for the fall or spring editions of our journal. This week we will be sharing a short story that was the subject of some intense conversation around the fiction staff's table. Heavily favored by a few of our members, this piece was valiantly defended for publication. It ended up not quite making the cut, but due to the love for this story from staff members, we would like to highlight it here. Please enjoy this short story, 'Dr. Asher's Magical Invisibility Cream' by Michell Kim.
Michell Kim is pursuing creative writing through the University of Chicago's Writer's studio, while also working in clinical research at Northwestern University. Born and raised in Detroit, Kim currently resides in Chicago. A self proclaimed fan of The Madison Review, and an emerging writer, Kim presents 'Dr. Asher's Magical Invisibility Cream' for your enjoyment.
Dr. Asher’s Magical Invisibility Cream
“Cosmetics are in aisle three,” the employee informed Tracy when she cornered him in the
produce section. Tracy maneuvered past the pharmacy aisle and the aisle with all the greeting cards. She scanned the labels: mascara, lipsticks, nail polish, moisturizers. Then, she found the row she was looking for: lotions and creams. There, on the bottom shelf, tucked between a foot cream and some baby oil was Dr. Asher’s Magical Invisibility Cream.
It was finally available over-the-counter.
Tracy dropped a bottle into her basket, and made a beeline for the checkout.
After fidgeting through a thirty minute car ride home that should've taken fifteen, Tracy
sat at her vanity, holding the bottle. It was an opaque light pink, with the product name printed
across the front in curlicue blue script. Below that were the instructions for use, just three words: “Apply with intention.” It looked like the kind of label you’d find on jars of cosmetics for proper ladies in the nineteenth century. This pleased Tracy.
She looked at herself in the mirror, which she had rigged with bright lights. The bulbs
were spaced at regular intervals around the perimeter and aimed directly at her, lighting her up like a stage. She peered at her face, at the wrinkles encroaching her eyes and her mouth; at the freckles peppering her face from a childhood spent roving in the sun; at the stubbiness of her eyelashes and the sparseness of her eyebrows; at the fat that hung below her chin like a turkey’s. Framing all of that mess was her stringy, craggy hair, the color of white sneakers when they got old.
“This will make me beautiful,” she whispered to herself. She held the bottle of Dr.
Asher’s Magical Invisibility Cream aloft, almost reverently. Then, she pushed down on the pump with one hand and caught the cold, ivory-colored cream in the other. She knew where she was going to start. Her freckles had haunted her the longest so naturally, they would be the first to go. Tracy dabbed a finger in the dollop of cream in her hand and smoothed it across her cheeks and over the bridge of her nose. She waited.
At first, the cream just sunk into her skin and dried like lotion. She didn’t move, she didn’t even breathe, afraid that the smallest of movements would sabotage her. And then, it happened. One by one, Tracy’s freckles zapped out of existence. They just disappeared, winking out like dying stars. Tracy’s husband would be home soon and she couldn’t wait for him to see her. It was such a cliché, she knew, to be the woman waiting at home, primping herself, keeping the house clean, and tossing the corpse of some bird into the oven. She was squandering the gains of the women's movement, probably, but she didn’t care. This was the life she and her
husband wanted. She was happy.
Mostly happy. These days, her husband worked long hours. He came home late so often
that Tracy was starting to suspect he was doing it on purpose. She knew he was still
disappointed, still blamed her, but she thought Dr. Asher’s Magical Invisibility Cream might
help her draw him back. Tracy’s husband came home that night at half past eight. Dinner had been ready for hours. She’d gotten a recipe for roasted chicken from a community newsletter, become frustrated when she couldn’t figure out how to truss a chicken, and taken another trip to the grocery store to buy a pre-made chicken from the deli counter. Now it was sitting in the oven, cold.
Tracy had also forgotten about the laundry, left it hanging from the clothesline instead of
folding and putting it away, but her face was as even and clear as a porcelain doll. She pulled her hair back from her face and tied an apron around her waist at the last minute. When her husband walked through the front door, she was ready.
“Hello, dear,” she said.
“Hey, what’s for dinner?” Her husband brushed past her and threw his briefcase onto the
table. Tracy overlooked this, choosing instead to focus on his classically handsome features, like an ancient Greek statue or one of those nameless underwear models in the Macy’s catalogs that clogged the mailbox. Strong jawline, impossibly charming smile, broad shoulders. He was picture perfect. Tracy shoved the briefcase out of the way and set the chicken down on the table.
“Roasted rosemary chicken,” she announced and went to the fridge to get the salad she had
bought for the meal as well. Her husband cut into the chicken and took a bite.
Tracy ignored this. “Do you notice anything new about me?”
Her husband glanced at her. “New apron?’
“No,” Tracy said.
Her husband glanced at her again. “Haircut?”
“Last week,” Tracy said and sat down across from her husband at the table. “Try again.”
Her husband scanned her face, her narrow shoulders, down to the tips of her slim fingers.
“You’re wearing makeup?” he finally guessed.
“Yes!” Tracy said, then backpedaled. “Well, I always wear makeup, but I got this new
cream today and it made my freckles disappear.”
“Oh,” her husband said, in a way that made her think he hadn’t realized she’d had
freckles in the first place. He still had the sense to add, “You look nice.”
Tracy forced a smile. “Thank you.”
He looked at her side of the table. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“I ate earlier,” Tracy said, “I’m just here to keep you company.”
“Cool. Thanks,” he said.
He put his phone on the table between them and his eyes were drawn to the screen like a
magnet. Tracy watched him as he forked pieces of chicken and salad into his mouth. He didn’t even need to look away from the screen.
That evening, Tracy sat once again at her vanity. Her nightly ritual started with her eyes. She dabbed a cotton pad in some cold cream and rubbed it all over her face. Then she went to the bathroom and rinsed her face with a cleanser. When she returned to her vanity, she began the process of applying toner, essence, anti-aging cream, eye cream, and lotion, all of which promised to keep her skin young and buoyant, long after the rest of her body had withered and died.
After she was done, Tracy leaned into her reflection. Her freckles hadn’t come back. She
marveled at her clear skin and reached for the bottle of Dr. Asher’s Magical Invisibility Cream,
wondering what she was going to apply it to next. She wanted to get rid of the wrinkles, cracking around her eyes and mouth like a plateau in severe drought. She’d never liked the mole on her neck, just under her left ear. There were the dark half-moons under her eyes. The fat under her chin swung pendulously. Could the cream get rid of fat too? Tracy supposed that might be asking too much.
For now, she would go for the dark circles, wrinkles, and the mole. She pumped the
cream into her hand, rubbed it into all the problem spots of her face. Just like the day before with her freckles, within a few moments, the imperfections vanished. It really was like magic.
For several minutes, all Tracy could do was stare at herself. She wasn’t beautiful, not
quite, not yet, but she looked so much better than she had a couple days ago. Her skin looked brighter, younger, smoother. Without those dark circles, she looked livelier, more pleasant. She looked like a whole new person.
Tracy rushed to the master bedroom to show her husband the transformation, but he was
already snoring lightly on his side of the bed. She would just have to wait. She slipped under the covers and scooted over to his body, wrapping her arms around him and squeezing him gently from behind. Tracy’s husband barely looked at her when he left for work the next morning, and retired almost immediately to their bedroom when he came home that night.
Tracy worried it was because he didn’t like her new look, but then that weekend, he
asked her to come to his coworker’s engagement party. Of course, Tracy agreed to go. It had
been a long time since they’d attended an event together. She’d make sure the night was perfect.
Tracy picked one of the floor-length, faded silk gowns from the back of her closet and
straightened her hair until the ends smoked. She carefully applied makeup to her smooth face and practiced her smiles in the mirror: polite close-lipped smile for when she needed to be demure and a friendly smile, showing all her teeth, for when she needed to be interesting.
On their way to the banquet hall, Tracy rehearsed conversation starters and potential
scenarios in her head. She imagined her husband regaling guests with funny anecdotes from his wild youth, and she pictured herself, the beautiful, attentive wife, standing at his side.
Almost immediately after they entered the building, Tracy’s husband said, “Let’s go to
the bar.” Tracy followed him and ordered a glass of wine. Her husband began chatting up his
coworkers and melted into the crowd. Tracy was forced to mingle. She tried to engage a woman in a discussion about the merits of linen in humidity. Tracy said things like, “It naturally wicks moisture,” which she had read in a Better Homes & Gardens magazine. The woman wasn’t as interested in linen as Tracy was and the conversation soon died.
After the woman left, Tracy scanned the room for her husband and saw he had drifted
back to the bar. She watched him from a distance as he talked to other people, laughed with
everybody else. She sipped her wine and smoothed the back of her hair, making sure it was still in place. Damp air filtered through the windows, threatening to unravel her.
Finally, her husband returned, breaking through the crowd like a sunbeam and leading a
young couple to her.
“This is my wife,” he said to them. “Tracy.”
“This is my wife,” the other man said, “Helen.”
Tracy shook the hands of the couple and appraised the other woman. She was young,
pretty, bubbly. The human equivalent of champagne. Face smooth, clear, and soft like the skin of a peach. Tracy wanted to reach out and stroke it. A waiter in a tux passed by holding a tray of bacon-wrapped dates drizzled with a caramel sauce and a bowl of shiny olives.
“No thank you,” Tracy said, but watched Helen take a date in her dainty fingers. She
popped it into her mouth and chewed slowly, savoring it. Tracy’s husband and the other man were engaged in conversation. Tracy watched Helen, standing at her husband’s side, nodding, hanging on every word he said like the perfect wife she was. Tracy bet Helen could truss a chicken and that she never forgot to fold the laundry. Helen probably had a cool hobby like making flower arrangements or blowing her own glass ornaments for the Christmas tree. Helen probably baked cookies from scratch, not from a tube with the Pillsbury Doughboy on it. She probably surprised her daughter’s kindergarten class with the freshly baked cookies at snack time because Helen’s womb could probably bear children.
Tracy’s energy fizzled and now she just wanted to go home. Tracy’s hobbies included: knitting sweaters and matching booties for dogs she didn’t own; keeping an exhaustive written record of her personal finances, of the amount of calories she took in a day, of the dates of hair appointments, etc.; driving through school parking lots during pick-up time pretending she was someone’s mother; organizing and reorganizing her closet and the items on her vanity; clipping coupons to use in a papier-mâché sculpture she was making of a life-size raven; searching for recipes in old cookbooks she rummaged for in garage sales and used bookstores to try to make elaborate meals for her husband’s dinners, inevitably failing, and
then taking out her frustrations by screaming obscenities at telemarketers; donating several
hundred dollars to national children’s charities; and going to a yoga class on Tuesdays with her favorite instructor, an ageless Indian man named Blu.
Tracy was lounging in the living room one evening while her husband was away on a business
trip. She thumbed through the latest issue of Vanity Fair and found a very interesting article.
Apparently, some tests showed that Dr. Asher’s Magical Invisibility Cream may be able
to remove excess fat or skin. Intrigued, ignited, Tracy went to her vanity and grabbed the pale
pink bottle. She would run her own test. She’d try it out on her chin first, on the flap that drooped down and slapped her in the neck anytime she turned her head too quickly. She pumped out two large dollops and then rubbed it into the bottom of her chin with the tips of her index and middle finger. She waited one, two minutes and then, once again, like magic, the chin overflow receded like a retreating tide. Suddenly, Tracy had the narrow chin of an elf. She loved it.
But why stop at her chin? If the cream worked on the fat of her face, why wouldn’t it
work on the fat of the rest of her body like her sausage thighs or the hunks of flabby flesh that
dangled from her upper arms? Tracy pumped more of Dr. Asher’s Magical Invisibility Cream into her hands and went to work rubbing it under her arms, around her upper legs, definitely, especially, the kangaroo pouch of her stomach, and finally that pesky bulge pushed up by her bra next to her armpit that persisted in existing even when she took her bra off. Tracy waited and didn’t think she was imagining the audible hum of her body as it absorbed the cream, imbibed its magical properties. She went to the full-length mirror hanging on the inside door of her walk-in closet and gasped.
Tracy was turning heads at the grocery store and on her morning walk to the mailbox at the end of the driveway. It was nice to get some acknowledgment. Nice to be admired, to be looked at, appraised, by eyes that weren’t her own reflected back at her in a mirror.
Even in her yoga class, full of fit, pretty women, people were staring at her. They stole
glances at her when they thought she was busy meditating, her eyes closed, but the weight of
their gazes prickled her skin. Tracy contorted herself into the poses Blu demonstrated at the front of the room, stretching and folding the limbs of her new body. It was easier to touch her toes with the flab of her stomach out of the way. She felt lighter, better now that she took up less space.
As Blu moved into warrior pose, Tracy thought about her husband. He was coming home
that night from his business trip and it was the first time he would see the New Tracy. She was
anxious about it, but mostly excited, and the jitters made it hard for her to maintain her warrior
pose. Unsurprisingly, she toppled.
“Are you alright?” Blu asked, sweeping to her side through the army of human bodies.
“I’m fine,” Tracy said, righting herself, wiping her hands off on her yoga pants.
Blu peered into her face, his chocolate-brown eyes boring into her own. “Are you feeling
well, my dear? Your face is looking a little wan.”
“It’s Dr. Asher’s Magical Invisibility Cream,” Tracy said, happy that someone had finally
brought it up. Now she could rave about her favorite product. “It’s available over the counter and it really is like magic.”
Blu’s eyes searched her beatific face. “Ah,” he said. He looked like he might have more
he wanted to say, but the other people in the class were waiting, watching so he just gave her a sad smile and moved away, back to the front of the room.
When Tracy’s husband came home, she was perched on the couch in the living room, one foot crossed elegantly over the other. She had tamed her hair into cascading waves over one shoulder like the swaying, tangled branches of a weeping willow.
“Welcome back,” Tracy said. “How was your trip?”
“Fine,” Tracy’s husband grunted. He crossed the living room on his way to the master
bedroom, not even bothering to look at her. She rose from the couch and followed him.
“How was your flight?” she asked, leaning into the doorway. She watched him drop his
briefcase on a chair and tug off his tie. Tracy moved into the room and reached out to touch his arm. He leaned out of the way. He never let her touch him anymore as if he was afraid that
everything she touched would wither and die. He went instead to the closet.
“I’m really tired, Tracy,” he said and he looked it. The skin under his eyes was sagging and gray. His eyes were bloodshot. “I’ve barely slept in the past thirty-six hours.”
“Too tired to talk to your wife?” Tracy asked.
Her husband took off his street clothes to change into something more comfortable. He
brushed past her to the hallway and back to the living room. Tracy followed him again, indignation prickling at the corners of her eyes, and the fingers on her right hand starting to twitch. She caught him before he sat down on the couch, gripping his upper arm. She felt the muscles in them contract. He wrenched his arm out of her grasp, glared in her direction with a fierceness that burned her skin.
“I’m tired,” he said again. “Could you please leave me alone?”
“I just want you to look at me,” she said, “Why can’t you even look at me?”
He did look at her then, with empty, gray eyes. He looked at her face, where the skin was
pulled taut over the hollows of her cheeks. He saw her arms, like sticks against her bony frame. Every time he looked at her these days, there was less of her. Her body couldn’t sustain life; not even her own. He looked away and fell to the couch, silent. Tracy stared at her reflection, looking at it from every angle, ensuring that none of the effects of Dr. Asher’s Magical Invisibility Cream had worn off. They hadn’t. There were still no freckles, no wrinkles, no dark circles, no moles, and no excess fat.
But it didn’t matter. She could rub away the blemishes and impurities, eliminate the
excesses, change her body in all sorts of ways, but she wasn’t going to be able to fix it for her
husband or herself. Tracy was hopeless, incurable. Maybe it couldn’t be helped. Or could it?
Tracy reached for Dr. Asher’s Magical Invisibility Cream and screwed off the top. She didn’t need to waste time with the pump. She upended the bottle on top of her vanity, shook it to
make sure she got all of it out. Then she tossed the bottle onto the ground at her feet and stuck her hands into the mound of ivory cream.
Starting with her face, she rubbed the emulsion all over it and down her neck. Her hands
took turns rubbing it into the opposite arm. She had trouble getting to her back, but she managed eventually with some maneuvering and overextending. She continued down her legs. Would the cream work on hair too? Tracy didn’t see why it wouldn’t. She scooped another big globule of the cream into her hand and massaged it into her roots like conditioner.
Her body hummed.
Finally, she looked up into the mirror, and sought her reflection, but she couldn’t find it.
The lights cast their collective spotlight onto an empty chair.