The women at the babyshower are all very beautiful. They hold bagels and pink, slimy lox on porcelain plates. They sip mimosas out of delicately decorated teacups. I’m only somewhat acquainted with most of the guests, except for Ingrid, the woman about to become a mother for the first time. Ingrid and I lived together in college. I used to so often see her holding Pabst or $2 margaritas, but now, across the patio, she’s holding a teacup of orange juice while the other hand rests on her enormously pregnant belly. It’s especially surreal because it couldn’t have been that long ago that I drove her to Rite Aid for Plan B after her shitty boyfriend slipped his condom off during sex. But, it actually is that long ago, because now she’s with Martin (who is—as far as I can tell—stable and trustworthy). They have luxurious things like retirement accounts and money to decorate a nursery with all those fancy Scandinavian baby brands made with blonde wood and organic cotton. Today, we aren’t as close as we were in college.
The babyshower is hosted on the patio of a sprawling, mid-century house in Silverlake that one of Ingrid’s friends, Meredith, owns. It clings to the hillside on long, spindly legs, and I wonder how it survives earthquakes without crumbling into the shady ravine below. From the patio, there’s a wide view of the hills with streets zig-zagging up their sides and more big houses that look like they could collapse at any moment. Below that is the Silverlake Reservoir, glistening in the sunlight but tantalizingly out of reach, a chain-link fence encircling its waters. It’s one of those warm Los Angeles winter days. Blue skies and trees on the verge of blooming, except that it’s January. All the seasons melt into each other to create an everlasting spring. I think it’s part of the reason why people who live in this city can’t tell they’re aging: there’s no seasonal change to remind them of passing time. It’s easy to begin to believe that you’re immortal. “Helloooo ladies,” Meredith raps her fork on the side of her teacup. “Thanks for being here today to celebrate our sweet Ingrid’s new baby girl. Who’s excited to meet the little one?” The group of women cheer enthusiastically. Mimosas slosh out of the teacups, sticky sweet on the slats of the deck.
“We still have a whole month before we meet our new B.F.F.,” Meredith makes a pouting face. “But in the meantime, we can have some fun! Let’s play a game!”
The women cheer again but this time with noticeably less enthusiasm. They all want to pour another mimosa and sit in the warm winter sun and not remember the rules for this silly game.
Meredith forges ahead with a game called Watch the Baby. According to the rules of Watch the Baby, each of the guests receives a small, plastic Kewpie Baby doll to hold throughout the party. If you put your Kewpie Baby down for even a minute, another guest can snatch it up. You have to protect your Kewpie Baby at all costs. Whoever has the most Kewpie Babies by the end of the party wins. The winner, presumably, is the most attentive Kewpie Mommy of them all.
The Kewpie Baby in my hand stares blankly into the middle distance with blue eyes framed by long, drawn-on lashes. Its plastic, rosy-peach skin is smooth and unblemished, except for a cute belly button in the center of its plump abdomen. Its arms are outstretched as if it’s saying, Carry me, Kewpie Mommy! I acquiesce.
In my freshman psychology class in college—in fact, it was around the time when I met Ingrid—I learned about the Kewpie Doll effect. The theory states that the more attractive a baby is (the more it resembles the perfect plastic doll in my hand), the more attention it will receive from its mother. Alternatively, if a baby is unattractive (the less it resembles the perfect plastic doll in my hand), the less attention it will receive from its mother.
I don’t know why I remember the Kewpie Doll effect study and not others, but it’s probably because my mom likes to tell anyone who will listen (including romantic partners, and on a particularly embarrassing occasion, my employer) that I was an ugly baby. My nickname for the first week of my life was Popeye because I busted my face on her tailbone on the way out. In the earliest photos of me, I’m mostly bald, except for a shock of black hair that eventually fell out and grew back dishwater blonde. My face is smooshy, like a sun-dried tomato, and there’s a glossy bruise on my right eye, which is puffy and closed.
“You mostly grew into your features, honey,” Mom tells me when I ask her politely to not use my baby photo as the butt of a joke. I received a solid B minus in the psychology class.
We all cling to our beautiful Kewpie Babies and conversation resumes. The women ask me what I do and I tell them that I write. They’re excited because they think I mean movie scripts (which is often what people mean when they say they write in Los Angeles), but when I explain that no, I’m a copywriter, they can’t help but look devastated by how boring that is.
“Sometimes I write short stories!” I tack on, eager to please and to be seen as creative and interesting. I fill my mouth with a doughy bagel, chewing determinedly.
“And what do you do?” I ask the woman to my right after I wash the bagel down with a swig of my mimosa.
“I’m an injector,” she says, as if that makes any sense to me. I think of all the things she could be injecting. Vaccines. Insulin. Heroin.
Before I can ask what an injector is, another woman jumps in: “And she’s uhhh-mazing! Which reminds me…I need to make an appointment with you soon.”
I’m still not sure what type of injector she is when several of the baby shower guests gather around in a dizzying crowd of florals and expensive perfume and the tacky dried orange juice.
“Tell me what I need!” One woman at the front of the throng stands before the injector. She has a charming snaggletooth and freckles across her nose. I think her name is Rose but I’m not sure. She puts her Kewpie Baby on the patio railing and I’m quick to take it before she notices. Ha ha!
The injector instructs Rose to make a series of faces, which she films on her cell phone camera. First, a resting face. Then a smile. Then a frown.
Then the injector and Rose watch the video together and the injector makes little comments like, “You see here by your eyes?” and “Do you scowl a lot when you’re concentrating?”
Rose asks, “Can you keep it natural looking?”
The injector smiles and says, “Yes, it will only enhance your natural beauty!”
One by one, the baby shower guests repeat this ritual. Resting. Smile. Frown. The video analysis of imperfections. I collect several new Kewpie Babies for my plastic brood, each one identical to the last.
The woman who needs to make an appointment with the injector stands next to me.
“Have you ever tried Botox?” She asks me conspiratorially.
I tell her no, and she explains that it’s probably a good thing because it’s a lot of money and it means you have to go back every few months for another injection because the effects of the muscle relaxant wear off with time.
“And I can’t raise my eyebrows!” She points to her forehead. “See? I’m trying!” Sure enough, her eyebrows lay nice and flat across the top of her face. There’s not a single wrinkle in sight. She then tells me about her friend who spent $15,000 on a nose job, ended up hating it, and spent $25,000 getting her nose back to the way it was before. At this point, my arms are full of Kewpie Babies, and no one seems to really care that I’m winning the game. I spy Ingrid through the crowd. She’s sitting in a reclining patio chair, clearly unenthused by the concept of Botox. A floppy sun hat obscures her face. I wish we were as close as we were in college so I could be real with her about the body horror that is birth. I want to ask: Are you worried about the baby’s body ripping your vagina in half? Do you fear shitting the hospital bed when you’re pushing it out? And in another thought: Why hadn’t we stayed close? Reflexively, I hug my Kewpie Babies tighter to my chest. I’ll give them a good life. Dress them up in their tiny Kewpie outfits, feed them miniscule jars of Kewpie Mayo. “And when we turn 30, our bodies change in more ways than one,” the injector is saying to the crowd of entranced baby shower guests. Someone in the group mutters “Amen to that” and there’s a flutter of laughter among the women. “One of those inevitable changes is that our skin stops producing collagen. Our muscles also start to sag. You know, gravity.” “Do you get Botox?” I pipe up from the back. “Actually, no,” the Injector says after a beat. Maybe she considered lying. “It’s such a personal choice. I love helping my clients feel their best. But I know it’s not for me. I’m worried I’d forget what my natural face looks like.” “Well, I think we have a clear winner,” Meredith interrupts, eyeing my handful of dolls. My prize is a $150 gift card to the Koreatown MedSpa where the injector works. I tuck the gift card and my nine flawless, long-lashed Kewpie Babies into my tote bag. “You won!” Ingrid says, waddling over to me as I prepare to leave Meredith’s gorgeous, terrifyingly precarious home. “You’re the Kewpie Mommy.” “I suppose so,” I say. “I can’t wait to meet the new, real baby.” “Trust me, I can’t wait either, I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” she says, patting her belly gently. There are dark circles under her eyes. “I want a beer. And a joint. And I have to pee every five seconds.” “You’re going to be an amazing mom,” I say, sincerely believing it. “Yeah, I fuckin’ hope so,” Ingrid says. “I’m going to have to figure it out.” We hug. I want to hold on to her longer and somehow reclaim the closeness we once had, but I let her go before it gets too weird. I take the long way home, down curvy Micheltorena and Kenilworth, past mid-century mansions, to where it spits you out on West Silverlake Drive. I think about the ways women’s bodies change as we age, or the ways we prevent them from changing. The involuntary ways that we can’t avoid—even in Southern California’s perpetual spring—the sagging, the wrinkling, the thinning, the fattening. And the ways we very much want to see them transform. When I turn onto West Silverlake, the Reservoir is aglow with the setting sun. I really wish they would take that fence down. At the stoplight before turning on to Sunset, I angle the rearview mirror so I can see my face, curious about what features I’d like to freeze in time at the KoreaTown MedSpa. I repeat the ritual, preparing for my own encounter with the injector: Resting. Smile. Frown. I bring my tote bag full of plastic dolls into my apartment where, at some point in the business of everyday life and endless organizing and cleaning up, the tote bag is shoved into the back of my closet. I forget about the Kewpie Babies and the MedSpa gift card, with which I was supposed to perfect my face. One day not too far in the future, Ingrid’s baby is an actual, living, breathing girl who loves being pushed on the swing and sitting on Martin’s shoulders and is going through a phase in which she only eats orange foods: sweet potato, carrots, peeled mandarins. She looks nothing like a Kewpie Baby, with a wild mess of dark curls and big ears that stick out slightly. She has a goofy grin and a hot temper. My prediction from the baby shower rings true: Ingrid is an amazing mom. It’s enough for me. I miss the seasons and that’s why I decide to leave Los Angeles. I have wrinkles around my eyes and mouth, sun-damaged skin, breasts that have given in to gravity, and more than one wiry strand of grey hair that pokes shamelessly out of my scalp. My womb is comfortably empty. The chain-link fence around Silverlake Reservoir is still there, but I find solace in the families of geese and ducks who fly in from the sky to paddle across the rippling water. As I pack up my apartment, I find the tote bag from Ingrid’s baby shower. There’s no MedSpa gift card—lost long ago in the depths of my closet—but nine Kewpie Babies, smelling vaguely of orange juice and looking as perfect as the day I became the Kewpie Mommy.