IT WAS FAT THAT brought Arnie to the Beverly Hills office of Dr. Lawrence Birnbaum; fat that laid him out on the operating table to get suctioned. Fat nestled in a stubborn little bundle at the "V" of his chin, tucked beneath the tough mouth that had been so helpful taking him from a middle-class life in New Jersey to an $800,000 house in West L.A. Fat lay on the belly that had heretofore been perfect, but now presented itself in such an arrangement that his stepson had taken to patting it for luck. (All patients' names have been changed in this story.)
How old are you, Arnie?
"Fifty, but I like to think I look 40. I'm 5-11, a size 42, and when I looked in the mirror I saw a very attractive guy, except I had this minuscule pot."
How much of a pot, Arnie?
"I'm telling you, it wasn't that bad, but like I'm a foodie and last year my wife and I went to Milan and they have the best food in all Italy. When I came back, I got lazy and I stopped running, and it just started coming on. When a skinny guy looks like he's in his fourth month, see what I mean, it's time."
Off to the lean and melancholy Birnbaum goes Arnie and his minuscule pot.
A stay in the hospital is not required: The doctor puts Arnie in an operating room at the back of the office. He gives him a powerful local anesthetic and makes an incision in Arnie's navel. He wheels in the P.S.I. Aspirator suction pump and penetrates Arnie's bellybutton with a 3.7-millimeter blunt-nosed cannula, a drainage tube that is attached to a three-foot, translucent plastic hose. Fifty-year-old Arnie, attached like a fetus to his mother the machine, except in this case the ancient process will be reversed and the nutrients drawn out. Fifty-year-old Arnie, self-made and feisty, dreamy now as a prenatal infant in his twilight sleep.
Birnbaum presses the pedal of the machine with his foot. There is a pause and then a gurgling sound. First, through the hose, there is nothing; then, in a sea of yellowish body fluids and blood, comes the fruit of Arnie's good life: the pasta with white truffle sauce from Pane Caldo Bistrot; the sublime French pastry from L'Ermitage. Fat cells, actual fat cells, noisily pulled through the hose and deposited in the clear plastic container of the vacuum pump; the suctioning continues and the proportion of blood rises to the proportion of fat. The doctor, sweating, shoves the cannula back and forth under the belly in a sawing motion, tearing fat from fiber, battering Arnie like a boxer.
And 20 minutes later, Arnie is on his feet again, and one week later, he's bragging about it to his business partner, and three weeks later, over at the Four Seasons Hotel, he's still glad to talk--on the shady side of the pool, which is so much less damaging to the skin, of course.
"I'm as value-driven as the next guy," Arnie says, in his soft, laid-back voice, "but why should I have bags under my eyes when for $1,500 I can get rid of them? Why should I walk around with a potbelly when for a few thousand dollars I can look good in my clothes?"
His voice rises, West L.A. momentarily supplanted by the street.
"I get disgusted--no, disgust is too strong a word, say, 'I lose respect'--for people that are mean to themselves, who have the money but don't live."
He pulls up his shirt.
The side of his waist is still black and blue from the internal bruising, but his waist is three inches smaller than it was before surgery, and his stomach--his stomach is a marvel. Smooth and flat, lean as a 17-year-old boy's. You see a belly like this on a Malibu lifeguard; you see a belly like this at the movies when Dennis Quaid takes off his clothes to do a love scene. He holds the shirt up proudly, for a long time, the sun filtering down.
Arnie has been reborn.
WAS IT inevitable, suction lipectomy? The Gratification Now ethos of the Yuppie '80s supplanting the grim, no-pain-no-gain spirit of the previous decade? A weary people, jogging home one final day, contemplating Cher's hard-body health-club campaign with a rancorous glance, as a single thought snaked through the national brain:
"Oh, forget it. I'll suck the fat out."
Or maybe it's just a question of technology catching up.
Whatever, this method of vacuuming out pockets of fat in the body has become a full-blown trend.
Formally introduced in this country seven years ago by French physician Yves-Gerard Illouz, endorsed by the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, suction lipectomy has, according to a survey of that organization's 2,900 members, nudged aside breast augmentation to become the most popular cosmetic procedure in the United States, increasing from 1984 to 1986 by an astonishing 78%. And it's not just the Beverly Hills ladies who are climbing on the table at $3,000 to $4,000 a pop: Middle-aged businessmen are going in to trim their love handles; schoolteachers in the San Fernando Valley, wistfully eyeing high-cut swimsuits, use savings to reduce dimpled saddlebags.