A HALF BOTTLE OF CHATEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE TURNED out to be excellent preparation for Tess's appointment with Lana Wishnia at Adrian's.
The spa had done much to obscure the bookstore Tess had so loved before it sank beneath the weight of one of the more curious bankruptcy cases in Baltimore history. From the outside it was now just another door in another suburban strip center. But that frosted glass door opened into a foreign world, a butterscotch-colored anteroom with fabric-swathed walls and two more frosted-glass doors marked salon and spa. Tess felt as if she had fallen into the bottom of a caramel sundae, or one of the more perverse compartments in Alice's rabbit hole. Come to think of it, Adrian's was probably full of potions that commanded "Drink Me" and "Eat Me," although with less immediate results than their Wonderland counterparts.
"You are Lana's four o'clock?"
The voice was unmistakably the Velvet Frost, but its owner was far from the style maven that Tess had envisioned. She was dumpy and middle-aged, with a large part between her front teeth. She did, however, sport acrylic nails, winged eyebrows, and fiercely streaked hair.
"She is running late." Was Tess paranoid, or was the woman blaming her for Lana's tardiness? "I would have called you, but you did not leave a contact number. May I get you anything while you wait?"
Tess looked at the magazines arrayed fan style on a low, maple-and-glass table in front of a chenille sofa in the same maple hue. They were not real magazines, just handbooks designed to create impossible dreams in the women who were forced to wait here because Lana-or Tatiana or Esme or Jean-Paul or Horatio Hornblower-was running late. Tess wanted to ask for a magazine with articles, or even a newspaper, but she felt as if she had already acquired too many demerits.
"No, I'm fine, just fine."
"Tea? Coffee?" Even the easy questions sounded quizlike here.
"No thank you."
"Mineral water? Wine?"
"Wine would definitely be redundant."
The receptionist narrowed her eyes as if she thought Tess might be trying to slide a rude word past her. "You are new to us, yes? Then you must fill out a client card."
She handed Tess a clipboard with a questionnaire as long as anything a doctor's office would require. Tess perched gingerly on the edge of the backless sofa, one of those low-slung pieces of modern furniture that seemed to be designed for Candid Camera stunts. Only a person with steel thighs could rise from it with a shred of grace intact. Dutifully, she checked off a series of "no" boxes-pregnancy, medications, chronic pain-pausing only when she reached the lengthy portion on plastic surgery. She had not even heard of some of the procedures named.
Tess seldom gave much thought to what she wore or how she looked, but the checklist and the Velvet Frost's curled-lip inspection were making her self-conscious. Covertly, she glanced at one of the many mirrors in the room. She had a few freckles, souvenirs of a summer spent mainly outdoors, but her face was otherwise clear and unlined. Her hair was at an unruly length, neither long nor short, but that was the price of growing it out. Her makeup routine consisted of darkening her lashes and penciling a narrow line beneath her eyes to keep them from disappearing into her face.
True, her clothes were not particularly distinguished, not by Adrian's standards. She wore black trousers and a black T-shirt beneath a man's vintage shirt, a butter yellow Banlon with black stitching. Her one concession to adulthood was a newfound preference for expensive shoes and boots, but only because she had learned they were a good value, sturdier and more comfortable than cheap ones. Today she had on a pair of black cowboy boots, whose two-inch heels put her within shouting distance of six feet.
I yam what I yam, she decided, glancing toward the salon side of Adrian 's, presumably full of women trying to be anything but. Meanwhile, white-uniformed men kept leading women out of the "Spa" door, holding their charges by the elbow of their terry-cloth robes as if they were recovering from major surgery.
"Salmon and asparagus," one attendant whispered to his client, whose face was covered with a pale green goo that made her look as if she had just been smacked with a key lime pie. "All you want, but nothing else. Your… uh, urine will smell, but your skin will look fabulous. But only asparagus and salmon, nothing else for seven days, or it won't work. It's all about the salmon."
"Belly or Nova?" the woman asked, and Tess's head shot up at the familiar voice issuing from the green cream.
"Tesser!" her cousin crowed with pleasure, and Tess remembered too late that she was here under a semifalse name and thoroughly false pretenses. At least the old family nick-name didn't give her away. "Since when do you come to Adrian's?"
"Oh, I thought I'd start paying a little more attention to my appearance, get a manicure."
"Well, it's a start."
There was no malice in Deborah, although Tess had not always understood this. Her cousin simply lacked the usual filters: If a thought passed through her brain, it headed straight to her mouth. Tess had come to think of Deborah as sort of a walking James Joyce novel, albeit one narrated by a preternaturally self-satisfied matron. They had been competitive as girls, and even as adults, until they finally stopped to wonder what, exactly, they were competing for. They had chosen different paths, but not as a rebuke to each other. And they had the foxhole of family in common, a powerful bond.
Deborah peered into Tess's face. "Isn't this awfully far off the beaten track for you? I thought you never went outside the Beltway if you could help it."
"Yes, but everyone says this place is the best."
Her cousin smiled, happy to be complimented for her taste in spas. "It is, and it's convenient to Sutton Place Gourmet, not to mention a Starbucks."
"No caffeine," her attendant practically squealed. "Are you trying to undo everything we've done?"
Deborah giggled. She was not a stupid woman, and it was doubtful she believed that this young man had any interest in her beyond her lavish tips. Yet she clearly was enjoying their flirtatious shtick.
"Not even one mocha?" she wheedled.
"Decaf, no whipped cream," he decreed, and she nodded, as if his word were law, but Tess knew that her cousin would be clutching a venti with the works when she roared out of the parking lot. The Weinsteiri side of the family did not run toward sacrifice. "Now let's go make sure that Carlos does a fabulous job on your hair. Not so red this time. Something softer, a shade that sneaks up on a person. I didn't do all this work on your face just to have the Castilian wonder screw up the presentation."
"Have fun," Deborah called to Tess over her shoulder as she headed into the salon. "You ought to think about getting a seaweed wrap next time. Or a kosher salt scrub."
"Does that come with belly or Nova?"
But Deborah had sailed out of earshot, so all Tess's flippancy earned was a frown from the Velvet Frost.
"I believe Lana is ready now. You were lucky to get this appointment. She is our most popular girl." The voice thawed perhaps one degree. "I did not realize you were one of the Weinsteins. Is Deborah your sister?"
"Cousin," Tess said, feeling the lack of challenge occasioned by telling the unadulterated truth. "First cousin."
"Ah," the Velvet Frost said, and Tess could see her calculating: not one of the Weinsteins of Weinsteins Jewelers, just an impoverished twig from another part of the family tree. Tess's advantage was lost as quickly as it had been gained.