Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85 is the author of the memoir This is How I Speak (Impassio Press) for which she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Her short stories and essays have appeared in more than 30 literary magazines and anthologies. “Hope in a Jar” was originally published in 2008 by the literary zine: Mr. Bellers’ Neighborhood. Sandi is the Managing Editor of The Lyon Review.
I’ve become obsessed by wrinkles. Particularly the ones surrounding my eyes and across the map of my forehead that extend like arid rivers across my skin’s terrain. About a year ago, I purchased my first wrinkle cream, Oil of Olay Anti-Aging Eye Gel ($12.99) from the local Duane Reade. This was followed by Olay’s Regenerist Microdermabrasion Treatment and Peel Activator Serum with Lactic Acid ($26.99) which I had to apply twice a week to my face and neck.
Next I turned to Lush’s Sacred Truth, a green mud mask made of Kaolin, Ginkgo Biloba, Linseed Extract, Talc, Papaya, Yogurt and Free Range Eggs, which required refrigeration, and at $32.99, had a shelf life of just ten days. According to the saleswoman, for maximum effectiveness Sacred Truth was to be used in conjunction with Lush’s Breath of Fresh Air Toner ($14.99) and Skin Drink Rehydrating Moisturizer ($22.99) that smelled slightly like wet cement.
When the gingery freckles that playfully dotted my cheeks and my sunkissed arms and legs evolved into age spots (and you can be sure that some Madison Avenue hack in the 1960s looking to score it big with Avon or Elizabeth Arden decided that “age spots” would sell far more skin care products than “liver spots,” “lentigos” or “hyperpigmentation”), I tried Missha’s Illuminating XL 100 ($33.95), which involved my placing opaque latex-thin circles treated with a transparent gel directly on to the spots and letting the gel absorb into my skin for twenty minutes each evening before bed.
After one particularly hard day at the office, I made an appointment at the Antoinette Boudoir Spa in mid-town Manhattan for a rehydrating facial. For the privilege of one hundred dollars, I listened to a Russian cosmetologist berate me for a full ten minutes about how my decision to use face powder instead of a liquid foundation was responsible for my desert-like complexion. I never returned to the Boudoir again, but nonetheless, and with more than a small amount of shame, I did switch to L’Oreal’s Age Perfect Liquid Makeup.
Desperate, I finally consulted a Chinese herbalist on Grand Street who promised that with a specially prepared emollient at ninety-nine dollars per ounce, I would see immediate results, particularly as she said with those “bruised brown rings” underneath my eyes. Without hesitation, I plunked down my American Express card and reached for the magic potion. Only when I got home and read the label did I notice that this legendary elixir supposedly refined after three hundred years’ knowledge of ancient Chinese medicine was actually made in Japan.
All told I’ve probably spent close to a thousand dollars in my attempts to eradicate wrinkles, discolorations and puffiness. After a 20-year skin care regimen that consisted of nothing more than washing my face with Noxzema followed by a thin application of pale pink gloss to my lips each morning, I’ve suddenly become Madison Avenue’s ideal sucker.
And I guess it goes almost without saying that while my skin very often feels softer, even looks brighter, upon the immediate use of these products, any physical benefits I may realize rapidly dissipate.
I am no longer twenty-one. Each morning I wake up and rush to the bathroom mirror expecting to see the same face and body I had then. Each morning I’m disappointed and shocked anew to discover I’m middle-aged. (When pressed I confess to forty-two, though I’m actually a few months shy of forty-four.) Each morning, the shock is fresh, palpable, raw. The wrinkles have now spread to my neck and forehead, and the flesh under my upper arms has begun to sag despite my three-day a week workout at the local gym.
Don’t get me wrong. I know this obsession with wrinkles and my sagging flesh is a symptom of deeper fears. I slather on the moisturizers, toners, day and night creams because it’s simpler than confronting the larger issues, that time is moving swiftly, that it’s been five years since my last book has been published, that despite my working fifty-five hours a week managing a PR department for a national law firm, I still can’t afford my own home, that the time for making the decision about whether to have a child has come and gone. Now when I go to my Ob/Gyn instead of her asking me about birth control, she wants to know if I’m taking my calcium tablets. When I get my vision checked at the eye doctor, she begins speaking to me about bifocal contact lenses. A close friend’s mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My ex-boss’s fifteen-year old son is being treated for heroin addiction. My seventy-five-year-old father recently survived a quadruple coronary bypass. When the HR manager at my office sent me a brochure about selecting a long-term care facility plan for my husband and me last month, it sent me reeling into a tailspin from which I’m still trying to recover.
Gone are the days when I was called “promising, aspiring, up and coming.” Gone too is the belief that I will ever be in a financial situation where I can just stay home and write full-time. As for my dream about being deeply talented, and being recognized for that talent, even someday winning the Pulitzer Prize, for which I wrote a draft acceptance speech while in college after learning that Annie Dillard won her own at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, it now seems more than foolish and grandiose—indeed the dream, and the grandiosity, belong to someone with whom I am no longer acquainted. Perhaps that in itself explains why I stare so hard in the mirror every morning, looking for the youthful features of the person I once was.
Instead, I celebrate the smaller successes—being able to turn out an essay in a single weekend after months of not writing, losing the first three of the twenty pounds I promised myself I would take off, drawing satisfaction from knowing I’m respected and valued at work.
Despite all the jokes about shyster lawyers, law firms by their very nature are inherently ethical and rarely face a true PR crisis—unlike some of the litigation clients whom we represent. I struggle sometimes with a few of the corporations my firm advises, knowing that though most of them have not broken any laws, many still wreck havoc on our forests or oceans, or outsource hundreds of American jobs overseas, or simply, as they have grown bigger or gone public, put profitability before innovation, squelch individualism in favor of commercialization, and sell the notion that mass consumption can cure anything that ails us, be it bad breath, loneliness, or aging. Still on any given day, I speak to journalists about some of the most important issues impacting society—from questions about personal privacy, unfair taxation, or sexual harassment to regulations relating to global warming or pension funds for working class people—matters that are all shaped and governed by laws.
A few weeks ago, I visited one of our West Coast offices which had been experiencing fairly high turnover, and where I had been sent to see if we could generate some local positive press coverage to assist with our recruiting efforts. Compared to our headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, this office was rather small and the attorneys there felt isolated and cut off. Though I had yet to make any recommendations or launch a proactive media campaign, the lawyers made me feel something of a hero just by showing up. They simply wanted to know that they mattered to management, were valued as part of the larger firm, and my being there showed they did.
On the plane ride home, I felt I had accomplished enough that I could eschew the work waiting for me on my laptop and take a break by reading a magazine. As I idly flipped through the pages of the publication, there was a brief story about which daily skin creams were the best. According to the reporter who tested ten of the latest anti-aging products, the most effective for “decreasing the look and appearance of wrinkles and fine lines” was Philosophy’s Hope in a Jar available from the manufacturer’s website for $38.00 for two ounces.
Though I live on email and do tons of internet research, I rarely order products online, worried about hucksterism in the anonymous ether world where no one ever looks directly into a customer’s eyes or has to show you their product beyond a one inch by one inch pixilated photo in 72 dpi. But how could I resist, particularly as the price seemed low in comparison to some of the other lotions and elixirs I had bought. After all, plenty of women, many much older than me, had plump, dewy complexions—I saw them walking on the streets of Manhattan every day, well-dressed, well-coiffed, and largely age spot and wrinkle free. Certainly they had a secret formula, some key to skin care—and maybe finally after all my searching and disappointments, this was it.
Hope in a Jar.
I tore out the story from the magazine and when I got home, ordered it immediately. Our Brooklyn apartment building lacks individual mailboxes, only a small slot by the front door into which the postman slides all of the residents’ bills and correspondence, so I requested the package be sent to my office wrapped confidentially in plain brown paper.
It showed up six days later, a round no-nonsense white plastic container with “Hope in a Jar” printed in large black lettering on the front and directions for use on the back. I unscrewed the lid and looked inside. A thick, very white cream with a faint, clean smell. I scooped a small amount onto my right forefinger and daubed the cream over my forehead and cheeks. I drew a quick breath, put the jar back down my desk and returned to editing the press release one of my staff had emailed me.
My assistant Bailey came in to my office. She is twenty-three, a year out of the Ivy League, model thin, ambitious, and set on a stellar career in public relations. When I hired her I told her that while some of the tasks given to her would not be that exciting, I would nonetheless teach her everything that I had learned about strategic PR over the past fifteen years. She took me at my word, and was always asking questions about why I took a certain approach with a campaign or how come I chose the journalist at BusinessWeek rather than the one at Forbes to pitch a specific topic or lawyer.
I watched Bailey and reconnected with my old self, the one I thought I no longer knew. She’s hard-working, intelligent, eager to please and ridiculously overconfident as only the young can be.
I signed the paperwork she needed me to approve. She eyed the jar of cream on my desk and picked it up. Embarrassed at my weakness (oh vanity!), I began to explain that I had read an article saying the product was supposed to be very good.
“I don’t normally buy products online,” I said. “But I figured why not give it a try.”
Bailey nodded. “Yes. My mother uses it.”
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