Colder than I Should Be

By Jessica McGlyn

“I’m here for the ‘essentials services’,” the woman air quoted, winking as she approached the new receptionist of the Bethesda Beauty Center.  “Why should I suffer wrinkles just because of some silly old pandemic?!”

The receptionist looked up, very slowly, from the Tik Tok video playing on her phone. Annoyed that she had to deal with a customer, she shoved the sign-in sheet across the counter. While the customer’s remarks had been meant to be cute, a means to build connection, the receptionist found her to be needy and pathetic.

In after only six weeks at the Bethesda Beauty Center, the receptionist had grown accustomed to women like this – the plumpness squeezing out and over the top of pricey jeans, edgy too-young haircut, streaky bronzed cheeks. With her youth and height and model thinness, with her naturally full breasts and a perfectly symmetrical face, the receptionist assumed every customer envied her.

The customer, for her part, was thinking, “These Gen Z kids are so rude and entitled! Sitting in that cush seat all day pushing paper around. If it weren’t for people like me, she’d be on the breadline!”

The customer tugged hard at her mask, causing her ears to jut out even more. The receptionist felt a pang in her belly. No amount of Botox and filler could save this woman. What a sad waste of money, she thought. Why do women like this bother trying?

“It only took me 20 minutes to drive here,” the customer said, apropos of nothing, as she sanitized her hands and picked up the sign-in pen. “You know how awful DC traffic can be. But with COVID and the quarantine, this place is like a ghost town. I’m absolutely loving it!”

The receptionist smiled politely. Women like this, with plenty of cash and not much else going, were always complaining about the traffic. The receptionist, fresh out of college with no real job to go to, watched every penny. Cars were a luxury she could not afford. She rode the city bus to work. The 30N to be exact – a steel virus trap crammed with crumpled commuters, tired eyes glaring out above dog bandanas and dirty masks. Sweaty, smelly people trudging in from the outer wards of the city, with pandemic-essential jobs just like her.  Though they were nothing like her, she knew. She was sure she was better, smarter, special.

The receptionist handed the woman a patient chart. “If only Dr. Theroux could touch up my roots while she’s at it,” the customer laughed, poking with the pen at the grey spirals shooting out from the top of her head. She’d been fretting over her hair for months since the government had shut down the salons.  She’d toyed with the idea of touching up the roots herself, but envisioned scorching her scalp with those chemicals, all her hair falling out in clumps all over her bathroom floor. She guessed greying roots were a better look than bald.  

In contrast, the receptionist did not care about the salons. With her good genes, she had no need for keratin or hot oil treatments. She did not care to understand the government logic, amidst a deadly virus outbreak, of declaring cosmetic procedures essential and salon services gratuitous.  She was not the curious type.

What the receptionist did care about was money —money for rent, and HBO, and sushi takeout. Money to keep her afloat until one of the real jobs she’d applied for —all put on ice now with the virus — came through. She dreamt about what she’d do with all the money she’d be making someday. Money to buy a high-rise luxury condo in Navy Yard or Logan Circle. Money for new shoes and dresses and vacations to Italy and France. Money enough to avoid interacting with this woman and her kind forever.

The customer continued her effort to engage the receptionist, as a matter of good manners, wit and charm of which she felt greatly endowed. As she filled out the paperwork, she prattled on about the sweltering heat, local politics, crime on the rise, things along those lines. The receptionist was only half-listening, with an occasional nod of the head, or concise response, at the appropriate times. The receptionist wished the customer would take the paperwork to the creamy leather Mitchell Gold couch on the other side of the room.  The customer did not seem to notice the receptionist’s lack of interest.

“Any medications?” the customer was reading the chart out loud, line by line. “Does my daily Grey Goose martini count?” she snorted, looking up from her paperwork at the receptionist. She didn’t really drink Grey Goose, or even vodka, every day or ever. She said it because it jumped into her mind and made her feel clever. 

The receptionist felt her brain melting. Every word uttered from the woman’s mouth was chalk screeching across the board. She felt too good for this job, too smart and too educated. Why has this happened to me, she lamented.  

Worse yet, the day prior, Dr. Theroux had cut her salary by ten percent.  “We’re in a crisis. Wouldn’t you agree, Sweetie? It’s only prudent we tighten our belts in these tough times,” the doctor had said, in a vaguely Charleston drawl the receptionist suspected was a fake. The doctor of the long blonde hair extensions and the fluffy black eyelash extensions. The doctor whom she had secretly dubbed “Dr. Dreamhouse Barbie.”

Dr. Dreamhouse Barbie was no more poor than Southern, the receptionist knew.  She’d seen the doctor’s red Lamborghini sparkling in the parking lot. She’d seen the pictures of the estate on the Potomac. She’d heard about the prize mares kept in Loudoun County and the beach house in St. Augustine.  

“…baked brie, roasted red peppers, organic soy milk, absolutely impossible to get with the pandemic, even at Whole Foods, have you noticed?” the customer was still talking. The receptionist, pondering how much she despised Dr. Dreamhouse Barbie, had only caught the tail end.

“Yes, it’s super annoying,” the receptionist humored her, imagining having enough money to buy all the baked brie Whole Foods had on offer. Snapping herself back to attention, she focused on the computer in front of her, that had just beeped in warning.

“Uh oh, your credit card’s expired, we’ll need a new one,” the receptionist said, staring at the screen.

The customer had forgotten about that credit card. She had so many, it didn’t matter. She rifled through her Balenciaga. As she pulled out an AMEX black card, Dr. Theroux, in a creme Chanel number, swaggered through the front door, pulling up her mask with the grace of a ballerina.

“Well, hello there Poppy, so lovely to see you again,” the doctor drawled, air kissing the customer’s right cheek, left cheek, and right again. “You’re looking as pretty as a peach. It’s been too long.”

The doctor was quite happy to see this customer. Business had been dwindling since the outbreak. With all those cancellations, she was beginning to entertain the notion that she might have to down-grade to a Lexus.  Reliable customers like Poppy gave her hope to carry on.  

For her part, the customer could not help but notice the doctor’s smooth and shiny hair. She wondered where the doctor might be getting her roots done, for surely, she was not a real blonde. She thanked the doctor and agreed, yes far too long, filing away the mental note to get the name of the underground hairdresser.

The receptionist, who had known this customer as “Penelope” was not surprised by the sobriquet. She thought the woman reeked of Poppiness, of boarding schools and Junior League and galas raising money for arcane causes. Of course, the doctor would act like she’s just run into some long-lost sorority sister. Birds of a feather.

From the corner of her eye, the doctor caught a glimpse of the piles of folders on the receptionist’s desks and cringed on the inside. She had asked the receptionist every day that week, sometimes twice a day, to file the folders away in a prompt manner. It was like talking to a sponge cake.  She was sure that this woman was either extremely lazy or excessively stupid.   The receptionist would nod and say, “yes ma’am”, but the folders remained piled on the desk. If the receptionist had not been so attractive, a good promotional tool for the cosmetic procedures the Bethesda Beauty Center offered, she would have fired her.

The doctor swiveled on her heels towards the receptionist, “Heavens to Betsy, it’s an icehouse in here. Might could you turn down the AC just a hair, Sweetie?”

The receptionist replied, “Of course Dr. Theroux,” through her sweetest ice-tea smile and adjusted the thermostat on the wall. They’d had that same exact exchange every morning, and one or two time more during the day, that week.   The receptionist always felt too hot. Dr. Dreamhouse Barbie always felt too cold.  The receptionist would comply with the request, wait for the doctor to get distracted with patients, then turn the AC back up behind her back. The doctor, in between patients, would poke her head out her office door and again ask Sweetie to turn the AC down.

The customer was grateful that the doctor had taken a stand. She was starting to feel a bit chilly herself but was unsure how to make the request of this Gen Z who so far showed little aptitude for customer service.

The doctor, satisfied that the environment would soon again be to her liking, returned her attention to the customer.  “Sorry, Dear, but I’ve got to take your temperature before your treatment,” she said, pointing down the hall to the exam rooms. “All these government rules don’t amount to a hill of beans if you ask me, but here we are.”

“I know, it’s absolute madness,” the customer concurred, as the doctor placed the gigantic plastic thermometer against her forehead. “Shutting down the entire economy just to save a few old people, a few sick people that were going to die anyway!”

On this point, all three women could agree. It made no sense to any of them that restaurants and malls and gyms were shuttering over some silly virus. After all, it wasn’t like Ebola, with people covered in bloody boils, their skin oozing off the bone. Everyone was over-reacting, panicking in a media-created frenzy.  And as a result, all three women were made to suffer.

“Well, I’ll be, 96.4 degrees, you are good. To. Go,” said the doctor, placing the thermometer back on the counter. The customer raised an eyebrow. The receptionist noticed the expression and thought it might be just a nervous tic or indigestion, it was hard to tell through her face mask. She was counting the seconds before they would both leave her alone to look at her Tik Tok videos.  

“Really?” the customer asked, her shoulders shuddering.  “96.4? Are you absolutely sure about that, Doctor?”

The doctor was confused by the question. It was impossible to get the temperature reading wrong, the numbers on the thermometer were so huge. She was worried by the worry in the customer’s tone, she could not afford another cancellation.   

“My oh my, yes darlin’, what ever is the matter?” she asked, placing a hand gently on the woman’s shoulder. The receptionist noticed Dr. Barbie Dreamhouse’s tone change, the same way it did when they discussed the files or the thermostat.  Dr. Barbie Dreamhouse always had to get her way. 

The customer felt her eye twitching. Her life flashed before her. What if I somehow got the COVID? What if this is a side-effect no one tells you about?  What if I’m dying? The immunity she had felt she had been blessed with was quickly dissipating.

“Well, it’s just, 96.4? Isn’t that way too low? Shouldn’t I be 98.6?” the customer asked, hugging herself in a tight ball. “Aren’t I colder than I should be?”

The receptionist used all the power within her to keep from busting out laughing. What a dumb cow.  It ought to be a crime for stupid women like this to have all that money. The virus might give you a fever, yeah, but being cold was more than fine.

Unlike the receptionist, the doctor let out a hearty, though not unkind, laugh, as her whole body shook.  She was relieved that what had been troubling one of her best money-makers was no problem at all.

“Why, bless your heart, that 98.6 is nothing but a bunch of poppycock. People are a bit colder, on average, scientifically speaking of course. In fact, we had one in here last week, 94 degrees if you could believe it,” the doctor rubbed the customer’s shoulder, as though to warm her up.  “You’re perfectly fine, Poppy, you’ll outlive us all. Now give me a moment to go on back and get the room all ready.”

The customer breathed out a sigh of relief, her shoulders visibly relaxing. The doctor swiveled around on her four-inch red heels and chasséd down the hallway. The receptionist took the paperwork back from the customer, who was still hugging herself, eager to send her on her way. Cognizant that Dr. Barbie Dreamhouse seemed to be in a mood and might spot-check her work later, she scrutinized every line of the sheet.

“You still need to sign and date at the bottom,” the receptionist said, pointing to the empty signature line with her pen. The receptionist was annoyed that this woman wasted all that time yammering instead of paying attention to the paperwork.

The customer signed the paperwork, noting the receptionist’s snippy attitude. Gen Zs are just useless, she thought, handing back the signed form. She was quite ready to get away from this entitled idiot and get on with her beauty treatment, now that she knew she was not dying. As she started walking down the hall toward the exam room, she stopped in her tracks, suddenly remembering something she’d forgotten.  She turned back around towards the lobby and yelled out to the receptionist.

“Say, wasn’t there another woman working the desk before?” she asked. “A nice Hispanic lady? Pretty, in her forties maybe? I’m blanking on her name.”

The receptionist nodded, searching in her mind for the name of her predecessor whom she had never actually met but whom Dr. Barbie Dreamhouse would bring up from time to time in a snotty comparison.

“Yes, Elena, I’m filling in for her…indefinitely.” The receptionist halted a bit, unsure of how much she could say without getting in trouble with Dr. Barbie Dreamhouse. 

“Yes, Elena, that’s right. I can’t believe I forgot her name, “the customer nodded. “I always enjoyed talking with Elena. She’s such a sweet woman, always made great conversation, has a warm way about her.  Where did she move onto?”

The receptionist paused briefly, considering what Dr. Barbie Dreamhouse might say about revealing the details. This customer would likely not stop badgering her until she got an answer. The doctor probably wouldn’t approve, but it was no big deal, just like the filing and the thermostat. And regardless, Elena would never find out. She wasn’t coming back.  

“Unfortunately, she’s sick, been in the hospital for weeks,” the receptionist said, allowing a dramatic pause, which the customer quickly filled.

“Sick?  With what?” the customers eyebrows arched up, wrinkling her forehead even more.  

“COVID. It’s not looking too good.” The receptionist replied, hoping the woman was satisfied enough to finally leave her alone.  She could see, however, from the woman’s posture and stillness, that the customer would not leave, and she kicked herself.  This is going to backfire on me, the receptionist thought.  Dr. Dreamhouse Barbie will not be pleased if this customer is worried she’ll get sick here and cancels.

“Don’t worry ma’am, we’ve cleaned and sanitized everything, we’ve all been tested, we’ve taken every precaution,” the receptionist tried to reassure her, with the most confident tone she could muster. “There’s no place safer in the world than the Bethesda Beauty Center.”

The customer barely heard a word the receptionist was saying. She was trying to picture Elena, her pleasant smiling eyes, her cheerful demeanor.  She was trying to remember their last conversation, what words were exchanged, the offer of chocolate mints she had kept on her desk in small glass bowl. She was remembering Elena always talking about her two kids in high school, but couldn’t remember their names, or if they were boys or girls, or if they played basketball or soccer, or liked math or not.  The memories made her nauseous.

“Oh, of course, I just, I mean, it’s just so, it’s just so…” the customer stammered, standing in place. “It’s just so terrible, what’s happened to poor Elena. So absolutely terrible. Such a nice lady, with a family and all. My god, it’s just so awful”

The receptionist watched her from afar, nodding agreement, relieved that it appeared the woman would not be cancelling. “I know, it’s terrible. We’re praying for her,” she said, thinking it was the thing the customer wanted to hear to close the loop.

And she was right. The customer nodded, turned on her heels to walk down the hall, and entered the exam room where the doctor was waiting. When she heard that door close, the receptionist stuck her form in the folder and threw it on the pile.

Jessica McGlyn is based in Washington, D.C. and is a member of the Capital Hill Writers Group. She writes short stories, mostly in the speculative fiction genre.