Danny Celaski was eighteen and finishing his GED when he met Serena Baumeister. He worked at Starbucks, where they had hired him because he was well spoken with large green-hazel eyes that reflected people as he gave them their change.
"You have rare and classic eyes," said Serena as he handed her her passionfruit grande mocha. He felt something brush his hand, cold and prickly, and saw that she was wearing a diamond ring. The next moment she was handing him something across the counter -- a fifty-dollar bill. "That's to buy yourself a break from your manager before I have to run."
He sat across a table from her, sipping from a latte somebody'd refused to drink because of too much syrup. "How tall are you?" she asked.
"Nice," said Serena. "You're built a bit spare, but you have shoulders. Work out?"
Danny shook his head. He wasn't really listening, but he liked the way she talked -- with articulation. Better than most of his teachers.
"You should," she said, blinking guileless eyes at him. Her skin had a dewy, soft-focus look, but by her clothes and handbag he figured she was at least forty. "Of course, you've had to deal with that chin and that nose all your life, so it's never occurred to you that parts of you are top-bracket. Would you mind too much if I looked at your teeth?"
He did, a bit. But when he opened his mouth to show her, she slipped her finger inside to draw his bottom lip down, and it slid softly over his gums. Her finger smelled exactly like the wet lilies in church at Easter.
"I don't do that stuff," Danny said. Nobody had ever offered to pay him for sex -- certainly not a rich chick -- so this sounded a little pompous, even to him. "I'm saving for college," he added, as if that made more sense.
"Wonderful," said Serena. She had the benign, slightly out of it manner Danny had noticed in the few really rich people he'd met. She slid an engraved card across the table, thick and sleek as chalk. "I wonder how you would feel about a little makeover."
"Nothing seedy," said Serena. She opened her tiny bag and took out a tiny white strip of gum. Her teeth, he noticed, were much whiter than his. "I don't want to exploit you," she added. "More invest in you. Say a five-year indenture, and of course I'd pay the cost of the improvements. You don't have a problem with cozzies, do you?"
That woke Danny up. He'd known on some level that Serena had cosmetic enhancements up the wazoo -- you didn't just have skin like that and her mature, precise, slinky way of talking, not together. But he hadn't given any thought to which parts of her were real and which weren't. When he did think about it, staring into her huge, gold-freckled eyes, it made his skin creep.
He said, "No, thanks. Guess I'm a natural kinda guy."
The card inched its way across the table. "If you change your mind."
It took Danny seven months. Most of that time he never thought of the old rich chick who had wanted to "improve" him, as if he were a Victorian house or a block in a bad neighborhood. At a club in the city he met a girl named Rina, who was very exciting but into some bad shit. She had been trying to finish an art degree for seven years, and she shared a roach-infested apartment with a special educator and two guys who sold porn on the Internet. They all had the same habits. Danny went over there and smoked weed and played Scrabble while watching the celebrities preen on TV, but the roaches and the cat turds and the crusty dishes depressed him, as did the fact that everyone there had been to college.
After he'd finished his GED, he'd taken the SAT and a bunch of other fill-in-the-bubble tests and sent the scores to a bunch of uptight schools along with a universal scholarship application. After two months he still hadn't heard back, so he went over to his mom's house to see if maybe he'd put her address on the forms by mistake.
His mom had lucked into a boyfriend who owned a pool-cleaning business and was sending Danny's little sister Monaco to private school. The boyfriend made them pray every day and keep the walls bare except for stark crosses, but you couldn't have everything. All the same, Danny was glad he was on his own. His mom was always down on her knees scrubbing something, and his sister wore skirts to her ankles and had to listen to her music on headphones.
"Honey, you look skinny like a junkie," said his mother. She sat him down at the table and made him eat while they watched the news. Monaco hovered nearby, her eyes closed, humming as she tried out a hip-thrusting dance routine.
"You should talk, with all your pills, Ma," Danny grunted, and glanced back at the TV screen.
And there he saw Serena. She was on the red carpet at some B-level awards ceremony, taking the arm of a B-level starlet in a conspiratorial, sisterly way. Both of them looked like thin columns of light in their satin dresses. Only the Gothic crosses they wore on black-beaded chokers seemed to pull them to Earth. They were so unlike real people that it was startling to see Serena lean in to the camera, bending from the waist.
"What the fuck," said Danny, forgetting he was in a prayerful household. "I know that girl."
"No shoot," said his mom.
He called Serena that night. A butler handed him off to an assistant, who handed him off to another assistant, and by the time he heard Serena's low, mint-julep voice his hands were shaking.
"You got somebody for that job yet?" he asked.
He heard tranquil breathing. "The boy from the Galleria. Do you want to come over?"
"So . . . you don't?"
Again she made him wait. He could almost feel the presence of another world on the other end of the phone, one where the scent of jasmine wafted across an onyx swimming pool that didn't fill up with draggly legged waterbugs on hot mornings. "My requirements for the position," Serena said at last, with a little catch in her throat, "are pretty specific. And you meet several."
It was 2 a.m. by the time Danny found the address at the top of the canyon road. He'd had to wait at a roadblock in his own neighborhood, because the cops were sweep searching -- for what, they wouldn't say.
Serena was in her finished basement, her hair pulled back and her skinny legs tucked under her, watching somebody's home video on a widescreen TV. She said, "I do most of my work at night."
"What do you do?" He couldn't imagine she did anything.
"Personal space design," said Serena. She patted the cocoa leather seat beside her and pointed at the screen. "Jason will get you a drink. Watch this." She raised the remote from her hip.
Danny watched the video. You could tell it had been converted from an old analog tape, and the backgrounds looked sunwashed and grainy. He saw a big pool with dark Eastern trees around it, maples and cone-shaped ones. The camera jerked. A hand covered the lens, and then the camera pulled back to show a teenage kid in baggy swim trunks. The kid had a sharp-boned, diamond-shaped face and sleek, sandy hair. "Hey, hey, why don't you come outta there an' look me in the eye, mosquito bite?" the kid said, grinning and sloshing his drink. He was rich and obviously a dickwad.
The image froze. "What do you think?" Serena asked.
"Could you be him?"
Danny glanced at the screen. Caught mid-laugh, the guy looked like a preppie psycho. "Who's he?"
"That's Jasper," said Serena impatiently. She set her drink down on the coaster and turned to him. In this light she looked gaunter, and he edged away from her sharp, denim knee. "You want to be an actor, don't you?"
"I want to be something that comes with health insurance."
Serena reached out and brushed his temple with her fingertips. "You have his eyes. Look, I want someone to look like him, but no sex required. Strictly staging. I have issues to work out, and I need someone with the right face."
"I can go either way," said Danny, shrugging. "I don't screw around. I took the SAT," he added hastily, so she would know he had values.
"You wouldn't mind pretending to be my husband?"
"Nah." He drew in his breath. "Actually, that's kind of wacked, huh, Serena? So, that dude on the viddy is your husband? What's he doing now?"
Serena licked her finger and used it to smooth Danny's eyebrow. For the first time in their acquaintance, she seemed embarrassed. "Jasper was difficult. He was handsome, high-demand, and he made me desperately sad when he refused to notice me. This was before we married, of course."
"How'd you get married, then? I mean, why?"
"Money," said Serena, shrugging.
"He didn't have it. And you do."
She nodded, very briefly. "Jasper was my sister's boyfriend initially. Hilary lost interest in him and, in time, after I inherited, he married me. My aim was to exorcise repeated rejections. My personal counselor used to say I would never be able to love the world until I processed that experience."
Danny usually tuned out this sort of talk when he heard it. Now he said, to be polite, "Did it, like, work?"
"Of course not," said Serena. She sighed. "I outgrew personal counselors a long time ago. We all do, you know. I don't advise you to go through that stage."
He shook his head sincerely. "So, what about old Jasper? Did you dump him?"
"That was the problem, see." She sifted her fingers through an errant sheaf of long black hair, a youthful gesture. "It was the old Jasper I wanted. The one who didn't want me. And he had ceased to exist."
She had switched off the monitor. Danny tried to remember the boy's diamond-shaped face, but all he saw was the violet halogen lamp over Serena's head. "Did you look a lot different when you first knew him? Was that you behind the camera?"
Serena nodded once briskly. "I was uglier, yes. Changing my face was the first step. You'll be surprised, I think, what a difference a makeover makes."
The next day she drove him to see Dr. Clay Echevarria, who practiced in a cedar-scented bungalow complex set discreetly back from the street and shaded by palms. Inside, everything was a warm, pearly color, closer to flesh than white. The receptionist smiled blindingly and said, "You have such nice eyes."
"Natural," said Serena. "I wouldn't change them for the world."
Dr. Echevarria was a young man, tan and muscular, with a head sleek as a bullet and eyes like a dog's, jumpy but understanding. He kissed Serena on both cheeks and said, "Love the hair, Reenie."
"I want you to show him the story, Clay," she said.
Dr. Echevarria turned to Danny and stared keenly into his eyes. Danny scowled. He could feel the doctor's eyes flitting over his face now -- sizing up the features one by one, then the overall effect. Gauging his potential. "I've never had an operation," Danny said. "I don't like blood."
"Do you like the way you look?" asked Dr. Echevarria softly.
Danny had never given much thought to it. His manager at Starbucks, Jacob, was a vain bastard who had had a nose job and veneers clapped on his yellow teeth. Maddie, the cute girl who worked weekends, had had her boobs done and her thighs lipo'ed. Jacob had given him a speech once about how people treated you better when you were symmetrical, and it was all scientifically proven, but Danny hadn't really listened.
"You feel like you're one of the lucky ones, don't you?" said Dr. Echevarria. "You feel like you're blessed. Maybe not in the ninetieth percentile, but maybe, like, the seventy-ninth. Easier on the eyes than three-quarters of the poor schlubs out there." He squinted at Danny, his coal-black lashes drooping.
"Show him," said Serena.
Dr. Echevarria picked up a remote and pointed at the flat, gray screen built into the wall. The screen turned blue, and a picture appeared. It was a very pale young girl with freckles and black hair, grimacing as she bit into a slice of white cake.
"Me," said Serena.
"Twenty-five years ago," said Dr. Echevarria. Danny could hear a faint thrum of accent in his voice now.
But he had no time to assess the changes in Serena before the remote clicked, and another picture appeared. It was a snapshot of a young man dressed in jeans and an oversized Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt, poking something on a grill. His other hand was stabbing at the camera as if he wanted to cover it, and his face had a look of exasperation. He was much darker and skinnier than Dr. Echevarria, with a peregrine nose, and it was by the eyes Danny recognized him.
Eyes don't change, Danny thought. Somehow this made him happy, though he knew perfectly well that you could change the color of eyes and perhaps their shape as well.
The doctor said, "I grew up in Ecuador, do you know? I was not what you call advantaged. Boys at school used to throw garbage at my head."
"What's the point?" Danny asked, a little too loudly. He could hear a clock ticking somewhere but not see it. The consultation room had no windows, and there was a faint almond scent in the air.
"God only gives us one chance," said the doctor. "We do or don't realize it."
Now the screen split in two, and a picture of the present Dr. Echevarria appeared beside the past one. He was wearing a white muscle shirt, and attached to his arm was a redhead with arms like sticks and a deep, exciting line of cleavage that started near her throat and ended in the depths of her scoop-neck. She had a radiant, lippy smile. "My wife," said the doctor modestly.
"Rebirth," said Serena in a low, urgent voice.
"What do you most want, Jasper?" asked the doctor.
"Low-deduction full coverage," said Danny without thinking. "My dad croaked of lung cancer ten years ago, 'kay? The old lady's still paying it off."
As he said this, he began to tremble, from his calves to his fingertips, with a deep, visceral wanting he had barely been aware of. No one in his family since his grandpa had been able to snag full-time with bennies. It wasn't that Danny was a pussy, it wasn't that he wasn't a self-starter, it wasn't that he wanted the government gouging bigger chunks of his paycheck so that he and thousands of freeloading illegals could get MRIs. It was just that he wanted to stand under that umbrella with other people who had earned the right to the attentions of highly trained doctors and nurses and a virtual army of administrative assistants. Stand and belong.
He blinked, looking up at the numberless, flesh-colored clock, and saw that at least twenty minutes had passed in this room.
"You're a tough bastard, Jasper," said Dr. Echevarria. "Your arms are cut like mine, and I bet you don't even work out, big guy. Not on a regular basis. A kid like you, low body fat, prime of health, what surgery can't you handle?"
Danny shrugged. There was still something he didn't like about it. "I don't know."
The doctor beamed. "More important, what can't you be? One little push, right? Give you a chance and you're off, vroom. What a story you're gonna have, kid. Born in the strip-mall 'burbs, aiming for the stars. God gave you your chance and, boy, are you cashing in."
That was standard Trans-formation-speak, though Danny didn't know it at the time. A year or so later, when Serena took him to the Galatea Club, he would find out that everybody who got physically enhanced had a story to tell. Every other month, someone stepped up on the stage of the starry-ceilinged ballroom and showed his or her Before and After slides and wept while explaining how far he or she had come. You were supposed to feel for them and respect the courage it took to expose their old, forgotten faces to ridicule. Sometimes, in a flurry of twelve-step honesty, someone went so far as to divulge her age.
"I always wonder if a reporter from Celebs Unedited is gonna make it in here one of these days disguised as catering," said Buffy one night, nudging Danny in the ribs. They were watching a sitcom star who was famous for publicly attributing her button nose and baby skin to "good genes and God," as she described her monthly injections with fascia lata from human cadavers.
"They'd need somebody on the inside," said Danny, who was usually called Jasper now. Buffy was called Buffy because of her natural and enhanced resemblance to the famous vampire slayer, an adolescent favorite of the software magnate who supported her.
"Hmm, you the man for the job?" she teased.
Jasper glanced away, his eye caught by the flash of someone's chain bracelet in the wall-length mirror. That gave him an accidental glimpse of himself in his Vegas-casual suit. He dropped his eyes, but remembered what he had meant to ask her. "Buffy?"
"Have you ever looked in the mirror and seen something that shouldn't be there?"
"Like a bad shadow? One that makes you look like you've got a puppet line?"
"No," said Jasper. "No, no, no."
After all the procedures were over, they had finally given Danny a mirror. He saw his face, reshaped with a stronger jaw and a supercilious nose, and in the middle was a band of nothing. Where his eyes should have been was blank space. He thought it was white. He thought it glowed. But the glow, he realized, was really the surprise of seeing nothing. His forehead and cheeks and nose and chin were there, but the nothingness sliced his face in two.
"Excuse me," he said to the doctor, or maybe to Serena. He reached up to touch his eyes, his temples. He felt them there. He could not watch the mirror as he did this, because he was afraid to see his fingers disappear.
Then he said, "You can take it. I've seen enough."
It was a day and a half before he got up the courage to look into another mirror, and then only because he needed a shave. Probably, he thought, recalling an old episode of some show about anorexics who saw themselves as fat, it's because I have no faith in my transformation.
He learned to live with his lack of faith. He avoided mirrors when possible, slathering on his skin-care products blind. When he did have to see himself, he worked to compensate for the band of glowing nothing, as a person without depth perception compensates by imagining the distances his hand can feel.
Still, he was far from cured, and the wrong glance at the wrong time brought back the stomach-spinning delusion. He smiled a socialite's smile whenever Serena told a new person that his eyes, the most beautiful and priceless part of him, were Natural.
Sometimes he thought people were seeing the space in his face when they stared back at him with that rapt, eager look, like people who are seeing the face of Beauty itself; like people who are witnessing the terrible radiance of a hunger that swallows everything in its path. And sometimes he thought they were just seeing a kid who had sold himself for a buck and a medical plan. "Have you ever thought," he had asked Dr. Echevarria once, "that we're all just lumps of raw meat that eventually grow maggots, pretty or ugly?"
And Dr. Echevarria, who knew the proper answer about souls, had answered, "Not you or me, my friend. We are changed within."