There were eleven steps in the program—one less than AA—to be completed over fifteen days.
April 14, 2023
Angela Lim checked in ten days ago after she stuffed and barfed an entire tray of pasta alfredo at the Shangri-La Weekend Buffet. On her way home, she saw the advertisement on a faded billboard on the side of the highway: RECENTER, REFOCUS, RECLAIM YOUR LIFE WITH GUIDANCE FROM OUR CERTIFIED GURUS. When she went online, the website didn’t specify how exactly these gurus were certified, but the testimonials were promising, the center had a spa, and there was a limited-time offer. She didn’t have enough in her checking account, but credit card payments in installments were luckily fine. Don’t be stupid, Angela! her mother had yelled over the phone. The name of the place isn’t even grammatically correct! But the website did state that step one of recovery was saying goodbye to people who hold you back. So, sayonara, mum. While you’re at it, sayonara H&M retail job.
There were eleven steps in the program—one less than AA—to be completed over fifteen days. At the end of it, one of them would be selected to be the center’s new spokesperson.
Everyone had their own room, but there were no windows. Food was provided, but everything was gluten-free, fat-free, sugar-free, flavor-free. There was no TV, no phones, no news, no Internet. There was a sauna you could use at 4 p.m., and a middle-aged Taiwanese lady who smacked the toxins out of your body. If you needed to cry, you had to go into the Quiet Chamber and bawl in isolation so that you wouldn’t upset the others with your negative energy.
At the center, you cleansed the totality of your life, sloughing off skin with bamboo loofahs imported from Guatemala, drinking black tea sourced from a farm on the outskirts of Nepal. You scrubbed from your social sphere people who brought you to the center in the first place. For Angela, that meant her two friends from work, her dog who was persistently disobedient, her best friend since childhood, her sister, her mother, her ex who dumped her even though he promised they would get engaged.
Sometimes, the treatment was challenging. That meant you were on the right track, said Miss Jia Hui, the cohort guru. Miss Jia Hui looked like a pilates instructor who went through a divorce but came out the other end stronger than before and who now adhered to a keto diet. Angela felt a special kinship with Miss Jia Hui through this imagined backstory.
There were six other women in Angela’s cohort, who all seemed to have much worse issues to deal with than Angela, which made her feel less of a freak. They were all older, too, with expensive dye-jobs and cuticle-free nails. Chinese tai-tais who had everything yet somehow found a reason to be miserable; they seemed to flippantly regard the center as a retreat instead of the life-altering opportunity that it was. Angela recognized one of them, the wife of some Tan Sri businessman. All this time she’d seen pictures of her in the Tatler, she had assumed the wife was a well-adjusted woman. Here though, the wife could barely finish writing an entry in her one-minute journal without being carted off to the Quiet Chamber.
Everyone’s progress moved at a different pace. No one was supposed to make comparisons, but Angela was the first to adapt to the mantras. You have to be open and receptive to change, Miss Jia Hui said, but you also need to learn restraint. Temptation veers you off the path, but fidelity can be a prison. It was difficult grasping the nuances at first, but Miss Jia Hui said with the right guidance and the right haircut, you, too, would be able to make these choices perfectly.
No haircut could save them from their own hot messes. Sure, progress was not a competition, but these other women were already losing.
On their second day, a woman in their cohort kicked up a fuss and protested that the rules were inane and vague. But Miss Jia Hui said that that kind of mindset wouldn’t get her anywhere. The next day, she was gone. Angela assumed they kicked her out of the center. Everyone deserved a chance to reclaim their lives, but the woman had made everyone very uncomfortable, and that kind of energy was not going to fly here.
For their final assignment, everyone had to write a life-term plan applying the lessons they had gained. For the first time ever, Angela had clarity. She knew what she wanted in her career, in a man, in her days. Gone were the times she floundered and borrowed identities because she didn’t have one of her own. Emerging from the center, Angela would carve a new way of being for herself.
The time came for the big announcement, which was during breakfast. Angela was convinced it would be her, she who had exhibited the most exemplary promise. When Miss Jia Hui announced the name of another woman, some pukimak crybaby who furtively stuffed her Botox-ed face with prohibited Snickers bars every night after lights out, Angela nearly hurled her vegan protein smoothie at the wall. But then she remembered the lessons and Miss Jia Hui’s tranquil voice of reason, and she smiled demurely and clapped politely as the new face of Inner Beautiful Wellness Center went up front to collect her certificate and cheap sash and sob like she had won Miss Universe.
Though she was not fairly rewarded for her achievements, Angela realized that what she had attained instead was priceless: it was enlightenment, being enlightened enough to finally understand that Inner Beauty was a game of charity, where fatuous delusions were awarded to those beyond salvation. Angela was thankful she was spared from tacky pity prizes. It meant she was truly, fully cured. And she would write all of this down, word for word, in her Google review. She would tap all five stars and click submit. She would feel nothing but peace in her heart. But the website must have glitched, she thought. Above her posted review was a single yellow star.