The Institut des Technologie de la Beauté et Autres Caprices Féminins had been closed and boarded up for several years… possibly decades, since no one in the neighborhood could remember it during its heyday when the heavily carved door swung wide, its little gold bell tinkling merrily for hundreds of visitors every day. Women from all walks of life (and some men too!) were devoted to the wonders that could be found and enjoyed within its magical walls; floor after floor, passageways leading to ante-rooms, personal salons and examining offices, therapy cabinets and cure-chambers, closets and “storagettes” readied and fully equipped to “make miracles”… that was the exact term that its clientele whispered to each other and special friends who were lucky enough to be invited, for it was a “special place”… not for the crude, the brazen, the loutish, the pretentious, and the “common”.
Oh, make no mistake, the staff of the maison did not bar financially struggling and challenged clients. There was no class-resentment… only “classless resentment” as they liked to say. All clients from rich to poor had to exhibit warmth, kindness, and a desire to learn graciousness if it did not already exist in abundance. The fee-structure was based on a sliding-scale carefully investigated and monitored for accuracy and fairness. Wealthy patrons couldn’t pretend to be poor to get in, and if there was any subterfuge detected, (which it inevitably WOULD be!) that person was not only barred for life, but their family was as well… and their humiliation would be leaked to the gossip-press to increase the shame, complete with photographs in the rotogravure. Oh, the delight the staff would take when someone was caught. Pointing, laughter, and perhaps a sympathetically given “parting gift” of a charming lipstick or mascara secretly loaded with itch-powder or swell-jelly! Oh, the merriment!... especially if the photographers with their huge box-cameras were waiting in the street after being tipped off to capture the full effect of the Institut’s talents gone-horribly-wrong!... flash powders going off with muffled booms and additional laughter and screeching from delighted children in the street… perhaps accompanied by thrown vegetables or poops from the horse carriages.
As raucous as all of this was outside the edifice, the inside was a very different story. The farther one passed into the Institut, the more magical were its wonders. Not only the lotions, salves, tinctures, and tonics but the techniques and regimens had been researched from the most exotic corners of the world and gathered sometimes from quite ancient sources in long extinct cultures. Each client was serviced for what their individual needs and challenges were… not just to “look younger”. That was an easy goal to achieve and considered banal. No, the people lucky enough to find out about the Institut (and to be admitted!) were seeking much more, much deeper and all-consuming. Indeed, some clients never looked younger per se, even after months or years of patronage. But! They experienced the true magic of the place and its staff; the acquisition of… radiance. True radiance. A light coming from inside, regardless of their own physical and fleeting appearance.
The staff admitted that they themselves were only partly responsible for the successes; the clients were screened and chosen carefully for their own innate aptitude, whether born through luck or bred by loving parents. Each client had to already have a propensity, and a curiosity, a willingness to BE a bearer of light. All the exercises and potions were only a channel to release and enhance that beauty; the truest beauty that any culture, whether sophisticated or simple, has ever really possessed and taught its generations of children, century after century, millennia after millennia. Entire empires have risen and fallen, but that one virtue has survived the worst calamities; the expression of light and love that transcends race, age, religion, class, and time.
What a strange thing it was to see this once-lush and even mysterious building fallen into disrepair and sadness. Its fanciful architecture which had been designed and executed with so much whimsy and obvious care now appeared almost grim, perhaps even forbidding, resentful, sour. The grimy windows, miraculously still unbroken, staring down like deadened eyes on passersby in the street who dared not look up into them. It was said that to break the windows or even to attempt to look inside would bring a curse, not only of bad luck, but worse; a despair, quiet and gradual, almost imperceptible, until it was too late, too late to resist its awful seduction, down, down into the grey.
It was in this time that vast financial upheavals in the great cities caused urban space to be sought with greater and greater fervor. There was no room for wasted buildings, no matter what the circumstances. No matter that they were beautiful, or historic, or sweet, or even cursed, they all had to make way for the new, the bigger, the “better”, and the more profitable. Block by block, street by street, city by city, nations began to chew themselves, swallowing their histories and heritages in their relentless and insatiable appetites. Trees, gardens, flower beds, fountains, cottages, townhouses, brick, bronze, marble, stained glass, turrets, towers, everything was fodder for the beast… a beast literally eating itself, and defecating the uneatable… for now. For as things were lost and rebuilt, lost and rebuilt, the ugly and the mediocre became the norm for each generation whose expectations were lower. After all, everything should be disposable, and that message became the anthems and mottoes, the lessons and the commandments.
It was also in this time that a lady of great importance took an unlikely interest in the old building as she passed by it with her assistant. She was the wife of a powerful man, and was known to adopt odd and often eccentric hobbies fueled by whimsical notions which entertained her friends at garden parties and galas. Her husband, bored but busy with… whatever, indulged her fancies with his money and connections, and nodded smilingly when she would come to him with a new request or a happy announcement of a “success”. She took a child-like pride in her achievements often small but sincerely attempted, and her happy heart didn’t seem to mind his bland responses. She was younger than him, not by much, but much younger in her soul. She made inquiries as to the history and ownership of the building, and her husband’s staff did the footwork, technical and official to determine if it was available. The building had literally passed into a strange, almost freakish limbo of bureaucratic oversights and lost paperwork… no families appeared to own it. No estates or corporations, no trusts or consortiums… even the official zoning documents, deeds, and maps of the block were missing… or had never existed.
And so, through the machinations of the powerful and the political, the building and its contents (if there were any) were acquired by the lady. As a birthday present, coincidentally. The papers, mostly in the society columns, made passing references to the event, and the ribbon cutting even to get inside for the first time was thoroughly rained out; the bright red satin ribbon stretched across the grand but derelict doorway, hanging bedraggled and now a sullen maroon before it finally pulled away from the peg on the left and fell onto the muddy pavement. No one cared… well, of the seven or eight people who had shown up, huddled under wind-yanked umbrellas while the great lady chuckled sweetly and tried to thank them for showing up. The carved door seemed almost angry as she approached and turned the heavy brass and strangely twinkly key in the lock. But the lock did indeed release with a happy and almost hearty clink as if it had never been idled by decades of non-use. (Had someone recently oiled it?) Then, with the help of a couple of the gentlemen present, the lady and her guests managed to shove the reluctant door open over a gravel-carpet of gritty dust and rubble that squeaked and protested loudly. “Like fingernails on a chalkboard!” the lady laughed trying to bring some levity to what might end up being a forlorn afternoon, for, as they entered the dank entry chamber, the grey light seemed to be fading quickly in the dusk and drizzle of a gathering twilight. She shivered a little but hid it from everyone except her best girlfriend who had taken her arm in sisterly support.
The lady’s young assistant brought up the rear, closing the door behind them all and, interestingly, with almost no resistance or grinding now. The great door almost seemed to be eager to latch smoothly, and the earnest assistant chuckled about it and said something although everyone had moved too far off to hear. Their footsteps echoed as they moved farther and farther into the empty hall. Only rubble and dust were here now. No furniture or furnishings. The windows had no curtains or valences, and were so caked with dirt that now what little light was left outside was only a darkened slate casting no shadows on the floor. It was so dark that the assistant worried in her thorough and efficient way that the lady and her guests might trip, so she scurried to the nearest wall searching for some switch that might work, although she again chuckled to herself at the absurdity of the notion that there could be any light in such a lost place… and then her hand wandered over one of the old push-button switches from a lost time, and the entry chamber was suddenly flooded with the warmest, and warming golden light, like a bolt of friendly lightning that filled the farthest corners of the distant ceiling, painted in heavenly adventures of fantastic creatures and fables, gods and nymphs, dryads and dwarfs, billowing clouds and volcanoes, and the great sparkling crystal-laden mountain of a chandelier, larger and more heartbreakingly radiant than any of them had ever seen… even in their dreams. It was then that the voice, very peaceful and equally warm came to them… was it “hello”?... or… ?
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