beauty school

In the sixth story Beverly Hills office where Riley awaits her injections, two waste receptacles have been built into the supply cabinet: TRASH and NOT TRASH.

TRASH and NOT TRASH, their labels announce decisively. TRASH is round. NOT TRASH is rectangular. She leans over slightly, curious as to the contents of NOT TRASH, but nothing besides a plastic bin liner can be glimpsed from this angle. Standing up would offer a better view, but staying seated feels like the more polite thing to do. The doctor has already performed his initial consultation. Explained the process. Disclaimed the fine print. All that's left is for him to return, offer another round of reassuring smiles, and shoot her face full of neurotoxic protein. She doesn't want to be caught poking around when he comes back in. Doesn't want him to think she's grown bored, waiting.

Earlier, before the doctor entered and introduced himself (impeccably poised, his own face kind but suspiciously unlined), she allowed herself a few pensive moments at the window. On the landing below, two women in casual work attire were engaged in an emotional discussion. One of the women was visibly upset, carefully wiping tears as she recounted, one inferred from her gesticulations, some intra-office drama. Something about the delicate way the woman dabbed at her lower eyelids--folding and refolding the tissue to obtain a clean, dry edge--impressed Riley deeply. Clearly the woman knew she'd have to return to her desk, after this venting session was over. Clearly she meant to retain some sense of composure.

The only way Riley knew how to cry was full-throttle and full-throated, set and setting be damned.

She watched as the upset woman eventually spent herself, and the companion who'd been listening sympathetically took over the conversation. Her response won the rapt attention of her coworker, who cocked her head as if to consider a fresh viewpoint. Nodding. Laughing. Two sets of shoulders relaxing. Heads shaking with good-natured disbelief at the tribulations of the workplace. Another day, another potential HR bomb defused.

TRASH and NOT TRASH. The stickers on the inside rims of the compartments are perfectly centered and trimmed, their simplicity and indisputable dichotomy inviting. Her old boss would have approved. Oh how he loved his labels. Needed them, desperately. For everything and everyone in his life. The simpler, the better. Winner. Loser. Rich. Poor. Beautiful. Ugly. Young. Old. She knew exactly what labels he applied to her. He never bothered to keep them secret. And sometimes, when all the dusty books full of sadness and confusion and loss and self-loathing come tumbling down--just because one has accidentally been cracked open--she let them hurt her, again.

But not today.

Today she is here, back in the old stomping grounds, on her terms. On her dime. The months and the money that have come between her and Baxter are like bricks in a wall built painstakingly, with much bleeding and bruising. He's on the far side of it, fussing and fuming his way through life as always. And she's over here, laying brick after brick on a new foundation. An independent architect, calling her own shots.

Today didn't come cheaply. This dip in the fountain of youth is costing her dearly. Digging a chunk from her wallet and her pride. But Riley doesn't feel poor today, or ugly, or even old, 21-gauge needles notwithstanding. She feels like someone who escaped and lived to tell about it.

She feels like someone who's finally learned the difference between TRASH and NOT TRASH.