The passage of time is different in Cairo: not administered in eye-dropper doses of nine-to-five days, but in large sun-drenched dollops you just absorb, like a plant. Looking in the mirror, I noticed that while my stem was holding up, the face showed little sign of springtime blossom. There was ruefulness in the eyes, as if they were apologizing to themselves. I like to think of myself as a truth-seeker, a lover of reality, dedicated to the exploration of inner and outer worlds. So I went to my desk and located the business card of a well-known plastic surgeon. Reality is an elusive companion. I want to look my best when I run into it.
I met Doctor M some years ago when a friend took me to a luncheon at his weekend villa, a place with palm groves, stables and a pyramids view. A maid served iced lime juice as we gathered in the doctor’s study, where he’d prepared a slideshow of his handiwork for his dozen or so guests. He showed us pictures of remarkably large breasts awaiting reduction, and hawkish noses turned pert, but he was justifiably proud of the children he’d rescued from deformity due to burns or cleft palates. It was fascinating, if a little gruesome before lunch. I left the study to use the bathroom and encountered the doctor in the salon on the way back. I think he was waiting for me; he certainly flirted. He was older and handsome but bore an uncomfortable resemblance to my father. Besides, he was married and his wife was in the next room.
I subsequently ran into Dr M at parties every now and then and at some point heard the unsurprising news of his divorce. I was always cordial with him, figuring the day would come when his professional services might be of use. Sure enough, the day came. I found his office on the Nile’s west bank in Mohandeseen, a dense and incoherent quarter, its cut-rate, high-rise buildings filled with a mixture of residencies, commercial and professional establishments. His receptionist, a tiny crone with her grey hair pulled back in a thick braid, was reading Paris Match with a cat sitting on one of the outspread pages. ‘The doctor will be late,’ she informed me in French. ‘He’s been called for an emergency surgery.’ I told her I was happy to wait. An hour later I faced an exhausted Dr M across a massive fin de siècle desk.
‘How’s your love life?’ he asked.
‘Fine, thanks. Yours?’
‘I know. Actually, I wanted to ask about my face.’
‘What about it? It looks fine.’
He was flirting, but I got down to business:
‘What kind of face lifts do you do?’
Wordlessly, he ushered me into the examining room where I sat on a stool facing a wall-sized mirror. He stood behind me, leaning his legs against my back, took my face in both hands, yanked it upwards, then released – several times. The effect was grotesque, as was the fact that his groin nestled casually in the nape of my neck. He’s tired, I reminded myself, and was about to protest, but he was already trudging back to his desk
‘I suggest a mini-lift, just the lower quadrants. I’ll make you a discount. I usually charge 30,000 pounds (about $5,400) but for you, half price.’
‘That’s very generous,’ I commented, wanting to ask about less invasive options, things like fat injections. But the doctor had lost interest; he may even have been falling asleep. I thanked him, saying he’d given me a lot to think about. He walked me out and motioned to the receptionist that I needn’t pay. She eyed me suspiciously and bid me au revoir.
On the way home I passed a hotel where I had worked as a DJ one New Year’s Eve shortly after arriving in Cairo. I’d worn a red silk miniskirt I’d had made in what was then called Bombay and done the midnight countdown backwards in Arabic, thinking ‘what a way to make a living’. I found that skirt in the closet recently, a nice piece of goods, but tiny. I might still get some use out of it, but as a pillow case, or the way things are going, a headscarf. I guess I’ve come a long way since then. But so has Cairo, though it hasn’t gotten old so much as new – the flat, generic newness of our era, a time formerly known as the future.