It was near time for the grand unveiling of a whole new her. Only first she had to choose the products that could scrub away the impurities, wipe away the grime, bring forth the glow.

The grocery store seemed an apt starting point, and she ventured to the center of the store, and then to the left. Indeed, it was the toothpaste aisle, and she found herself standing for what felt like hours she didn't have underneath the fluorescent lights. At least it was a 24-hour joint.

They had brightening and whitening, tartar control and rent control, flip top and screw top, paste or gel. Paste always left a film in her mouth. Whitening would be nice, but what about that tartar? Nobody should be running around with tartar, at least that was what they claimed. Surely they had a product that was a gel, that whitened, that controlled tartar, and controlled rent all at the same time. And had a screw top, not a flip top. (The paste -- or the gel, it's always called toothpaste, isn't it, not toothgel -- always gets mucked up in the top of the tube, something that she found neither pretty nor pleasant.) She found exactly what she was looking for although it took more reading than it did to get through a Cheesecake Factory menu, which can of course take weeks or months given the situation at hand. It didn't have rent control but rent was just going to have to wait.

What about body cream with exfoliating powers, to sandblast away the days' troubles in the form of dead skin cells? They had, of course, cream vs. lotion, and these came in all flavors and colors and emollient qualities, as well as myriad reasons for being. There was moisturizing, super moisturizing with cocoa butter, vitamin E formula, stretch mark zapper, cellulite bunker buster, alpha hydroxy complex duplex multiplex, and so forth. Not to mention all those different sizes, from tiny trials to sizes large enough to keep an army moisturized for desert months. They came in all manner of pumps and tubes.

Of course, there was a day when no one needed anything more than a drum of Vaseline. (But those were dark, dark days, apparently, nothing like these fluorescent ones, air pumped full of artificial air and Muzak versions of what had once been New Wave melodies before that whole scene got old.) And of course, there were always the rainbow assortments of femme-fatale-ready, specially-formulated shaving cream (which sometimes wasn't actually a cream, but a gel), and those sometimes exfoliated too, and moisturized, and mowed your lawn, too.

She tossed more items, rolling, into her going-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket hand basket, absolutely dreading the deodorant aisle. If moisturizing is that much of a decision-making process, how complex might it be not to stink? After all, there were sprays and sticks, gels and crystals, rocks, roll-ons and powders. Not to mention, why are there antiperspirants and deodorants, she wondered. Why don't they all do double duty? And did some of them really cause breast cancer, like some Internet chain mails claimed? She wasn't sure she had enough time to figure out how best not to raise some ripe ruckus, and she certainly didn't want to lose a breast to that project.

She took an unfortunate turn down the hair care aisle, which also included lotions and notions, dyes, gels, and mousses, sprays and spritzers, jelly and pomade, more ways to improve oneself than she could count. She tried to keep it simple and bought shampoo and conditioner that were ultra moisturizing, ultra rich, and ultra expensive -- much more so than the generic store brand that had tried hard to have a nice logo to make it look, er, a little less generic, so it didn't look like SHAMPOO, or CONDITIONER. An extra expenditure was no big deal. After all, she couldn't afford to get the frizzies. No one can. There's always that implication in ads that there might some day be a hot man who sees the woman with the frizzies and freaks out and throws the flowers he had all ready to memorialize her beauty down the gutter when he realizes she's some big-haired nut job who apparently can't identify a decent hair product. But at least she had the very beginnings of exactly what she needed for the evening's activities. After all, she had to stay home and wash her hair, to avoid the man who wouldn't stop calling, and to try to wash the other man who had broken up with her right out. Right on.

Then, of course, there were the ravages of time to contend with, and that was a facial issue. She could of course buy something here, at the grocery store, but the way she saw it, her face was worth $50 worth of gimmick in a jar, rather than the $10 version. Although she'd heard claims that the hands tell all, the truth is, a face can launch a thousand ships and a face was what looked back at her every day in the mirror. She didn't want wrinkles, creases, crow's feet, laugh lines, or even dimples, for that matter. What she knew she required was some sort of pricey protection against the ravages of environmental dangers, a bad smoking habit, a dead-end career, and a part-time night shift as a lushy wino.

That was the department store's turn on her to-do list. The saleswoman was overly made up and thrilled to make her acquaintance. (Nothing gets a newfound fair weather friend more fired up than a commission.) She introduced creams, ointments, gels, and exfoliants to the glass table. "It's a little pricey, but you only need a drop," the saleswoman said. (She was smart enough to know that "you only need a drop" is always a lie.) It's what the wealthy women use in between Botox treatments. Yeah, you've got to spend money to be money. You've got to spend a million bucks to look like a million bucks.

There were lots of things in expensive tubes, or contained in heavy, expensive plastic, or encased in jeweled glass bottles.

She pointed to one, in a green tube. It exfoliated, sloughing off dead cells while you sleep, and also contained vitamins and minerals, like Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant, and Vitamin E, proven by some combination of anecdotal evidence and super-strong hunches to be a fountain of youth but not proven by any real study, mind you. It smelled like something one might spread on toast or use to sweeten straight-up, unadulterated green tea.

"Well, if you get this one, you have to get that one. They work in tangent together and each one individually is not as powerful as the sum. These two products are, in effect, married," the saleswoman said, with the sweet, sweet smile of the maid of honor.

Married? What the hell? She wanted to ask if they were happy. Instead she asked if they took Visa.

It felt like weeks but was really far less than a day it took for her to gather up new products to try to whiten, brighten, slim down, deodorize, exfoliate, dehair, defuzz, moisturize, and otherwise transform herself into a normal person, just like in the glossy magazines.

She tore into her purchases excitedly, filling her entire bathroom trash can with discarded cardboard and paper packaging, cellophane and tissue paper. She lined all the products up in some logical order for use, arranging and rearranging until the presentation was perfect.

Then, she lined up the shower-related purchases on her rack in the tub. The fancy shampoo and the conditioner. The ultra-moisturizing shave cream and the super-slippery body wash. The high-end loofah and the latest innovation in razor technology. She turned on the shower; it was time to try it all out, and she couldn't wait for the steamy bouquet of fruit and flowers to emanate through the apartment and whisk her away as she embarked on her improvement ritual.

She was about halfway through her new routine, scrubbing away the layer of ugliness to let loose the inner goddessness, when she slipped on the moisturizing, beautifying, utterly terrifying oil slick that had cascaded off her body and collected on the shower floor. Ah, the fight against aging, the joining of the cult of youth, and at what price? Feeling sexy and beautiful suddenly seemed like a strange thing indeed, when one can drown in an inch of water given exactly the right set of variables. There was a blur of colors against white-tiled nothingness as the world turned upside down and then faded to black.

About the author:

By day Alyce writes stock-related commentary for the financial Web site The Motley Fool. Her fiction has appeared in The Paumanok Review, Drunken Boat , Lily, JMWW, Scrivener's Pen, and The Harrow. She had a piece nominated for storySouth's Million Writers award for 2005.