Manhattan, New York, in the near future
“Oh my God, Sam, will you look at this?”
“What are you talking about?”
“This headline: ‘NEW ACTRESS OR OLD? INGENUE SLATED TO WIN BEST ACTRESS’.”
“Just listen: ‘Twenty-three-year-old ingénue, Indira Adira, is favored to win the Oscar this evening for her role as Melanie Hamilton in the remake of the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind.’”
“Come here, Ruthie,” murmured Sam as he cuddled his wife from behind and nibbled on the back of her neck. “Let’s get back to what we were doing.”
Ruth pushed him away. “Stop, Sam. You’re mussing my hair.”
“Aw, come on—”
“No, wait a minute. ‘Speculations abound that Ms. Adira is, for all intents and purposes, Dame Olivia herself as she renders to pitch-perfect perfection the role that made—’”
“Will you shut up? I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet. ‘But the good doctors at NYU Medical Center know better. In a slip I had to swear on my mother’s eyes I’d keep secret, a surgeon-in-the-know divulged that two years ago, at the time of the aging actress’s disappearance, her brain was transplanted into the body of that beauty queen killed in the midnight crash on FDR Drive just north of Battery Park—’ ”
“I’m not done, Sam!” Ruth stamped her foot, but the sound was lost in the plush carpeting of their spacious Second Avenue penthouse. ‘Of course, anyone today with five million bucks can have that same procedure at any of our great teaching hospit—’”
“Oh, forget it. My breakfast is getting cold,” he muttered before retreating into a smoldering silence.
Nevertheless, they made the deal that very day, the February morning of their fiftieth wedding anniversary, but perhaps the idea of a brain transplant had been poking at her imagination and bubbled to the surface only then. Samuel S. Shapiro, renowned Broadway lyricist, and his wife, the former Ruth Berg, New York’s top agent for those multi-million-dollar condos in the sky, had been dancing around the breakfast nook, reminiscing about their first date.
“Tell me again how it felt.”
“You mean like a gravitational pull?”
“Yeah, and that tingle in your knish.”
“Don’t ‘Oh, Sam’ me. You were trembling when we tucked ourselves into that car of the Wonder Wheel in Coney Isl—”
“No, that was later, when we made out in the lifeguard’s chair. And what about you? You said the look in my eyes ran through you like liquid fire.”
At that moment, a shelf of clouds backed away, and a great streak of sunlight blistered the surface of the East River before streaming through their soaring, wrap-around windows. From there, it bounced off the étagère with Sam’s prized collection of Roman military weapons, and zigzagged through Ruth’s mascara-thickened lashes to stab her in the right eye.
“Stop a minute, Sam.”
“Stop rubbing my tuchis. That’s what.”
“My eye is tearing. I better check my contact lens before my mascara smears.”
“Okay, okay. You don’t have get sarcastic.”
And that’s when Ruth stopped dancing—she was no Ginger Rogers anyway—and disengaging from Sam’s embrace, she whipped out the gold-bejeweled hand mirror she routinely kept in the left pocket of her silk dressing gown. Then grabbing the tissue tucked inside her sleeve at the wrist, she turned her back to the window, focused on the needle in her eye, and blinked away a bead of mascara. That’s when turning, she noticed the headline in the Arts & Leisure section of The Sunday Times that was strewn across the well-worn club chair Sam thought of as his.
“Why don’t we do it, Sam?”
“What do you think I’m talking about? Trade in our bodies.”
“Are you crazy? Our lives are perfect just the way they are.”
“Aw, Sam, look at me. My hair is thin, and speaking of hair, I’m sprouting enough on my chin to make a hairpiece for each of us.”
“You’re still my sexy—my beautiful sexy wife.”
“No, Sam, I’m a flatulent old cow. Let’s be honest. It’s like when I was a kid and had a nose like a carrot that swerved to the right. When I’d come home crying because the kids would call me Rudolph or Pinocchio, my parents would say I should be glad that I had an aristocratic nose, that my face would grow into it. Like hell. All I wanted to do was kill myself. Nothing is worse than being ugly. Then, finally, when I was sixteen, they gave me a nose job for my birthday.
“And look, Sam, we could have another fifty years together. Wouldn’t you want that?” “Oh, I don’t know, Ruthie. It sounds really dangerous.”
But by the next day, they’d agreed on the details and put their names on the list.
“Here’s the deal, Sam,” said Ruth, her ’phone still in hand. “All we have to do is pay up front, specify the kind of body we—”
“You mean like Jewish or Gentile?” Throwing back his head, Sam broke out into a goofy peal of laughter until a silver thread of spittle trailed from his mouth.
“No, silly. Like the features: male or female, how old, tall, hair color, eyes, you know what I mean.”
“Okay,” said Sam as he caught his breath and wiped his mouth.
“But then, as soon as they have the right match, we have to go ahead. Otherwise we forfeit the money.”
“Oh, baby, I want big tits!”
“For you or for me?”
Melting into a fit of giggles, they soon doubled over, gushing into gales of infectious laughter until Ruth stuffed her knuckles in her mouth and Sam stung his fist thumping it on the table. To forestall another gust of laughter, Sam, clearing his throat, asked, “So, seriously now, how’re we gonna do this?”
“You mean like how we’re gonna pay for this or which one of us goes first?”
“Well, I think you should go fir—”
“Because it’s your idea, and you want it more than I do. Look, we both know how important your appearance has always been to—”
“And a glitzy appearance will help me sell more condos so we could pay the money back fast.”
“Yup, we wouldn’t have to even liquidate any of our investments. We could simply borrow from my union pension, I could take care of you, you could take care of me, and then we could go back to work. Not at first, of course, but after we recover.”
“It’s a deal.”
“Now don’t forget the tits, Ruthie.”
They were in Ruth’s private suite at the NYU Langone Kimmel Pavilion awaiting the gurney to take her into the operating room.
“Oh, Sam. I know you’re trying to make me laugh, but I’m so doped up I can hardly understand you.”
“I just want you to know that I’ll love you,” he said, patting her shoulder and then fussing with her blanket, “even if the surgeon turns out to be a shmendrik.” Sam squawked with laughter.
“Stop it, Sam. When you make me laugh, the IV pinches.”
“I have to go now anyway. The orderlies are here to wheel you into the operating room.”
Ten hours later, goggled, gloved, and gowned in urethane-coated nylon, Sam dozed in a leather power recliner. A cadre of nurses wearing face shields, masks, and coveralls were wheeling Ruth in from the recovery room. At the count of three, they lifted her onto the bed and connected a tangle of tubes and cords to various machines. Some monitored her vitals; others infused her veins with opioids, electrolytes, antibiotics, and immunosuppressants. Sam sat up and rubbed his eyes as the bleeps, pings, and buzzes dragged him back to awareness.
“What’s on her head?” Sam asked a nurse.
“An anti-microbial surgical helmet to protect her skull and the bandages around it. Sterile air enters channels on the forehead to flow over her head, pull away the heat, and escape through the exhaust.”
Ruth groaned into wakefulness as a kaleidoscope of colors resolved into Sam’s concerned face.
“What’s that spacesuit you’re wearing?”
“Never mind. How do you feel?”
"Like I’ve been in labor all night. My head’s throbbing, and I have this fishy taste in my mouth. But more important, how do I look? Are my tits on straight?”
“Shush. The nurses are listening.”
“What’s my face like?”
“I can’t tell. Too many bandages. All I can say is after all this, I sure hope I can get it up for you. And this time without an upset stomach from the Viagra and the stink of your lubricating jelly.”
“Yes, Sam, yes. We can screw till our eyeballs fall out. Just not now. I have a headache.”
The squeak of the nurse’s shoes in the corridor announced her approach. She stepped into Ruth’s room behind a fake smile. “Mrs. Shapiro, the doctor says you’re ready to begin physical therapy.”
Ruth had been transferred that morning to the Inpatient Brain Injury Program at the NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital. She’d spent the rest of the morning in their salon having a mani-pedi and a mid-length blonde wig styled into a trendy shag with mauve highlights.
“More than ready. It’s been two weeks since your surgery.”
“So, now what?”
“Let me introduce you to your therapist, Gino.”
Spicing the air with the scent of Chanel’s Allure Homme Sport, Gino approached her as she sat facing the window, legs crossed, robe parting, reading the latest issue of InStyle. With a suggestion of intimacy, he leaned in, resting an athletic arm along the top rail of her wing chair. His blunt-fingered right hand, the nails buffed to a pink flush, reached out to shake hers.
“How are you today, Mrs. Shapiro?” Speaking hardly above a whisper, he asked in a cashmere-textured voice, “Can I call you Ruth?”
Ruth raised her eyes from the magazine, swiveled her head, and swallowed hard. “Call me Ruthie,” she said, as she appraised his square forehead, widely spaced dark eyes, slightly aggressive jaw, and full lips.
His gaze locked onto the fullness of her breasts. “Later today, I’m going to measure your skeletal muscles—you know, biceps and triceps, quadriceps and pectorals, all the muscles that enable you to move. They’ve had a chance to atrophy, but we can rebuild them starting tomorrow. I just need you to sign the consent form the nurse will give you.”
She gave him a flicker of a smile, and he responded with a collusive wink, aware of her admiring gaze as he turned to leave the room. Bubbling with a youthful titter, a familiar melodic trill from years ago, Ruth withdrew the mirror from her pocket to admire her new face, that of the Slavic model strangled in Acapulco two weeks ago. After flipping a wing of wig hair out of her eyes, she primped for a few more minutes, booked an appointment at the salon for a bikini wax, and ordered room service to bring her lunch.
“Can I order you anything, Mr. Shapiro? A sandwich or a cup of coffee?”
“No thanks, Nurse. She should be back from physical therapy soon.”
“Probably in just another minute. Only three weeks working with her therapist and the doctors say your wife can be discharged tomorrow.”
Sam’s wrinkled face eased as he released a breath of relief.
“Well, I know you’ll be glad to get her home instead of having to sit and wait for her here every day. You must love— Wait, I hear the wheeze of the elevator.”
Ruth’s light steps on the corridor’s freshly waxed floor accompanied her rendition of Rosemary Clooney singing “Tenderly,” as she made her way from the elevator to her suite. “You took my lips; you took my love so tend—Oh! Hi, Sam.”
“How’s my favorite knish?” Sam swept the air with his arms to embrace her.
“Not now, Sam.” She waved her hand as if shooing a fly. “I’m all sweated up.”
“Would you like me to warm your bath towels, Mrs. Shapiro?”
“No, I’m too tired. I’m just gonna fall into bed.”
“Ruthie sweetheart, the nurse told me how hard you’ve been working so you can come home.”
“Yeah, I’m beat. I just wanna sleep.” Ruth plopped on the bed with the yawn of a hippo sunning on the banks of the Congo River.
Sam’s color rose. He wanted to voice his irritation, but instead he just sighed with exasperation, threw up his hands, and grabbed his coat.
But then, as he was crossing the threshold, Gino charged into the room. “Ruthie, Ruthie, I found your Rolex. You left it on the couch.” He fastened the watchband where she liked it, high above the wrist so the diamond-studded face adorned her whole forearm.
Then he kissed her palm.
“Hmm, that tickles,” she said as she purred.
Sam watched from the doorway.
Sitting up, Ruth contracted her eyebrows to pitch Gino a warning. Their eyes locked, and as soon as a signal passed between them, she dropped her gaze like a nun.
Expressions of incredulity and anger crossed Sam’s face. He slapped the couple a venomous look, turned on his heels, and stomped toward the elevator.
A few minutes later, after Gino left, Ruth took out her mirror, blotted her smudged lipstick, and sank into a dreamless sleep.
From the parking lot, his eyes blurry with rage, Sam nosed the car around snaking lines of traffic, past lurching buses, and through hives of startled pedestrians oblivious to the middle fingers, shaking fists, and high-pitched obscenities hurled at him. Yet somehow, despite drifting from lane to lane, he managed to find First Avenue and blunder his way uptown. Only when he’d passed the entrance to the Queensboro Bridge did he remember where he was and how to find his own building’s garage. All he really wanted was to smash his head against the steering wheel to stop the catastrophic pain flashing through his skull.
His every memory of Ruth, all that he’d loved so fiercely for so long, would now be forever tinged with suspicion. At best, their marriage would be a watchful truce.
I should never have agreed to this, he ruminated. This woman is not my Ruthie; she’s some slut using her pizazz to fleece me out of the money Ruthie and I worked so hard for. And that effing partner of hers, another crook, young enough to be my grandson, God forbid. I’d like to kill them both, starting with him, strangling the bastard, watching my thumbs crush his windpipe as the light drains out of his eyes, his face contorting, his swollen tongue protruding between his teeth if I hadn’t already knocked them out.
And her? That bitch. I’d like to hack her to death, to see her eye sockets turn to gelatin and her lips twist in a final plea of contrition until death slowly claims her body.
He was at this gateway to madness when the garage attendant wished him a good evening.
My blood pressure is so high I can feel my veins fizz. I better take it easy. Sam collapsed into his club chair to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Where the hell does she keep the Valium?
Okay, so she’s infatuated with that parasite. She’ll get over it like I got over that stripper—what was her name— Kitty? Couldn’t have been too long after Ruthie and I got hitched. And that burlesque queen at the Winter Garden I was writing lyrics for. Now there was a broad! Sam exploded with laughter, doubling over in an agony of hilarity, more hysterical than joyous, squawking, honking, and snorting before stopping with a shudder. What the hell am I doing? I could lose her.
And so, hoping for a rapprochement on this, Ruth’s first evening home, Sam set the table with their double damask Irish linen and best cutlery, crockery, and champagne flutes. He chilled a bottle of Dom Pérignon Rosé and went to Restaurant Daniel to bring home their seven-course tasting menu. He was sure to include her favorite, their thinly sliced, citrus-infused striped bass served with a cucumber daikon salad.
“Hi, Ruthie, I’m glad you’re home,” Sam said, his voice floating in a high singsong before greeting her with a peck on the cheek.
“And I have a surprise for you.”
“Come into the dining room. Look what I got for you, your favorite dinner from Daniel’s.”
“Oh, Sam. It looks beautiful,” said Ruth, plastering a social smile on her new face.
“Just like you, Sweetheart,” said Sam, returning her smile and then dismissing it before it could harden. “Let’s start with the wine. I’ll heat up the food when we’re ready.”
With some ceremony, Sam lifted the bottle from the ice bucket. Then stripping away the foil, he twisted and removed the wire cage around the cork. Looking up into Ruth’s expectant eyes, he slowly eased out the cork. Their heads tipped back in a shared sigh of relief when the cork popped.
Sam poured a puddle of wine into each flute, allowed the bubbles to subside, and then filled them two-thirds full before returning the bottle to the ice bucket. He handed one flute to Ruth and raised his in a tribute of admiration.
“For you, still the prettiest woman in New York.”
“City or State?” asked Ruth with a playful smile, as her eyes peeked over the rim of her tipped flute.
“Sam, maybe we should take it easy on the wine.”
“What do you mean? We’re celebrating, right? And the night is young. Hey, remember when we used to get drunk in Coney Island?” Sam’s voice, though not yet slurred, had started to thicken.
“Oh, a lotta water has gone under the bridg—under the Wonder Wheel since then.”
“Water under the—” Sam choked on a false bark of laughter. “That’s funn—”
“Take it easy, Sam. We’re both a little high. You better heat the food so we can eat.”
They made it through the third course. But after that and the requisite oohs and aahs, a tightly coiled silence began to fill the room.
Like a noxious gas.
Even an explosion could not have punched through it.
The bottle of wine empty, the tablecloth spattered, they were both well-oiled when Ruth said, “You know what? The fish is cold. I can’t eat it.”
“What do you mean? It’s sherfect.”
“No, it’s cold!”
“So, don’t eat it. Eat his shlong inshtead!”
“Cut it out, Sam. You’re getting nasty.”
“Like hell! You think I’m blind? I saw you playing up to that boy toy.”
“Come on. I haven’t done anything.”
“What kind of idiot do you take me for?”
“Sam, you’re delusional. I was just flirting a little, trying to get through those grueling exercises. You don’t know what it’s like to have to lift weights for hours on end.”
“I’ll bet. Was that with or without his shlong inside you?” His eyes blazed with a demonic fury. “Look, I don’t know whether you cooked up this deal to fleece me out of my pension or you had your eye all along on fooling around—maybe both—”
“Will you listen to yourself, Sam? It was a deal. We made the deal. We agreed. And I never needed your money anyway, remember? I just wanted to be with you. Before you turned into this green-eyed monster. Now you can go to hell.”
Enraged, Sam slapped the table. Springing to his feet, he leaned into her and buried his fist in her nose.
The spike of pain rippled through her skull.
“Monster?” he screamed, as tiny bubblies of spit sprayed her face. “Is that what you think I am? I’ll tell you what you are: You used to be a flatulent old cow, but now you’re a horse-faced liar with an ass to match.”
Leaping from her chair, blood spilling from her nose, she screamed “Enough! Stop!”
Her voice pierced Sam’s ear like an icepick.
He rammed her against the étagère.
Her knees buckled.
His collection of Roman weaponry rattled.
She smelled the old-man stink of him. “You’re hurting me.”
He reached around and grabbed the hilt of the gladius, the sword the dealer claimed Octavian used against Mark Antony. Unsheathing it, he planted his left foot into the carpet. Bending his right knee, he lunged forward and with razor-sharp accuracy, thrust the tip of the blade into her right eye. “Is this better?” And then dragging the point down, he slashed her cheek to the bone.
A sticky line of blood squiggled down her face. With an animal whine and a knife snatched from the table, she charged.
Staggering back, he tripped, and fell against the table, the chairs scattering like bowling pins. Psychedelic lights danced before him.
While he reached back for the table to regain his footing, she jabbed him in the neck leaving a gash like a little red smile until it spurted ribbons of blood.
He lowered the sword while assessing the wound with his other hand.
But she was young, strong, and quick.
She threw down the knife,
Stomped on his toes,
Caught him with a crisp left to the gut,
And wrestled the sword away from him.
Leaning forward, holding the hilt with both hands, putting some muscle into the strike, she called to him as she arced the blade through the air. When he spun in response to her call, the edge slid right through his neck.
To her horror, his now flamboyantly colored head fell onto the carpet, leaving a sash of blood and a drizzle of brain as it rolled under the table.
She stepped back, her hand clamped over her lips. What have I done?
The lobby intercom buzzed.
“A young man is here for you, Mrs. Shapiro.”
“Tell him to wait. I’ll be right down.”
She pulled out her mirror.
Her cheek was oozing a putrid discharge.
“Oh, my God, I’m so ugly!” Her right eye and half her face were gone.
With hardly a second thought, she plunged the sword into her lower abdomen again and again until it opened up like a can of stew, its chunks spilling onto the carpet.