“So. Am I beautiful?”
Careful, this could go badly for you, my friend. One wrong word and it’s the do-I-look-fat episode all over again. “I will only answer that if allowed this caveat: you are the most beautiful woman I have ever known. And you’ve dressed formally only twice before tonight, so the difference, the new of it, adds thrill and excitement.” I approached as she bit her bottom lip to resist the smile hiding there. I reached out and she tilted her head into my hand as I cupped her neck and traced the edge of her ear with my thumb. You’re doing great; keep it up. “You are absolutely the most gorgeous woman I have ever seen in my entire life.”
She let loose a huge white smile and I leaned in for the well-deserved reward of a kiss. “Stop, you’ll smear my lipstick. Who invented this shit anyway?” She turned to the east wall of our apartment living room where a wall mirror took the place of sheetrock or a window. “But I do look good.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Don’t get used to it.”
Don’t get used to it. That’s what she said. But my relationship with makeup predated any real interest in women or, at least, any ability to consciously act on that interest.
“What’s it do?”
“It smoothes my skin and the rest of my makeup attaches to it.”
I was in fifth grade and sat on the bathroom counter between the double sinks watching my elder sister as she practiced her newest ritual, one she would perfect and carry into adulthood, performing facial manipulations whenever and wherever the mood or circumstance demanded her attention—homes, hotels, cars, walking down the street—going to work, going out, coming home, staying in.
But in fifth grade, girls were foreign to me, a mysterious sect whose secrets could only be revealed through intense observation and interrogation of the one closest at hand, my seventh grade sister. “You’re going to get in trouble for doing that.” Did I mention that my skill in communicating with these agents of intrigue had not been honed?
“No I’m not.”
“Go ahead. Momma bought it for me.”
You can see how the conversation went. And this—though I don’t remember them all—must have been the prototype for hundreds of those morning conversations.
Two months ago.
“We have to go to the dinner. I’m getting an award for our fundraising at the hospital—Volunteer of the Year.” She snuggled against my arm and whispered something I didn’t catch as my attention was split between her and Al Michaels telling me what a lousy year the Rams were having—again. I turned off the TV. “Please, don’t be stubborn.” That last part, the “-born” came as a kiss on my earlobe and I knew I was done for.
“What do I need to wear?”
“I love you so-so much. Just a regular suit.”
I looked at her. “I haven’t worn a suit since I was a pall bearer at my uncle’s funeral five or six years ago. You’ve never even seen me in a suit.”
“I’m going to dress up, and you know how I hate it.” She pulled a thin catalogue—a little too handily—from between the couch cushions and flipped it to a folded page. “What do you think?”
The long red dress slid down the page with my eyes, pausing momentarily to touch the subtle curve of her breasts and panty-less waist before coming to screeching stop that ripped the side from hip to ankle. I swallowed. “Nice.”
I glanced to the right at the suave fellow pictured with the red-dress model, loose tie, open jacket, staring at something away from his companion. Gay. I took in the model’s matching fire-engine lipstick and looked away too late.
She snatched the magazine back and took a last look before depositing it on the coffee table. “Yes, I know. I’m going to have to wear makeup.”
“I know you hate it.” I had heard the rant on numerous occasions including once when she interviewed for a job writing copy at an advertizing firm where, as I should never have pointed out, she would be promoting the “pseudo-face that women are required to wear while men stroll through life naked.”
“Or with a beard.” Another thing I shouldn’t have said back then.
Years ago, again.
“Why do girls wear makeup?” Two years later and I was in my customary morning position waiting for my ride to school, our ride. My sister’s tenth-grade boyfriend had his license and as long as I never told mom or dad, he would give me a ride to school, dropping us off a block away because it was against the rules to ride with a student who wasn’t a sibling. It saved us a seven block walk.
“So we look good.”
“I think girls look okay without makeup.”
“What’s her name?”
“You like somebody. Who is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are too. What’s her name?”
“I know her brother.”
“Do you want me to find out if she likes you?” She stretched her face and closed one eye, dragging a blue-tipped applicator across her eyelid. “We’re in first period together.”
“You would do that? Really?”
Ten years ago.
“Why are you staring at me?”
“I like the way you look.”
“The way you watch me is a little weird, you know?”
“First, I’m putting on my makeup wearing a bathrobe, not doing a striptease out of an already-revealing dress.”
“Okay, and thanks for that by the way, what else?”
“That’s not enough?”
“You said ‘first;’ that means there’s more.”
“Fine. Second, I’ve known you for three weeks and the only time we talk is in the mornings with you sitting on the floor outside my bathroom door like a puppy that knows he isn’t allowed in.”
“Well, you’re the one who opens the door. And besides, it’s comfortable.”
“I open the door so the mirror won’t fog up, and I put the rug out there on the third day because I thought you would be more comfortable.”
“Oh. Well, I am, thank you.”
“I think you need to keep your apartment.”
“You just asked me to move in last week.”
“Yeah, but we sat in a coffee shop for three hours yesterday reading and writing or whatever, and we hardly spoke.”
“We’re speaking now.”
“That’s my point. I don’t want to see you anymore. You’re too weird.”
Back to my counselor, my sister sweet.
I sat playing with a contraption I thought must be based on some medieval torture device. It was cool. “Jan broke up with me.”
“Who?” She reached over and took the device.
“Jan Brahmans. We’ve only been going out for a week.”
“Was it because you got a car?”
“No, I got that before we started going out.”
She stuck the rounded edge of chrome to her eye and squeezed the scissor-like handles together. “Is that why she started going out with you, dufuss? So she could say her boyfriend’s got a car?”
“Why would she do that?”
She moved to her other eye. “What about this—did she ask you to take her anywhere?”
“What are you doing with that thing?”
“Curling my eyelashes. Cool, huh?”
“Whatever. Saturday she wanted me to take her to the mall, but I had to mow the Striplings’ and Aimsworthy’s yards. Mom and dad are making me pay my own insurance.”
“Same thing they did with me.”
“Why don’t you drive to school?”
“Duh, my boyfriend’s got a car.”
I watched her across the room, cornered by three doctors—I think they were doctors because they all had really nice suits and haircuts and shoes that weren’t patent leather. They smiled their white teeth at hers and tried to maneuver her further from the party, tried to separate her from the pack. It looked like Dr. Blue-Tie had the best chance—she touched his arm when she talked to him, made an effort not to bite her bottom lip but licked it instead, and tilted her head sideways as if he were already caressing her cheek.
She was beautiful.
She had called a friend and found a lipstick that wouldn’t smear—paint really. The dress fit perfectly, and loose black curls brushed her shoulders as she spoke. Dr. Brown-Suit had departed the field of competition, leaving Blue-Tie and Doesn’t-Stand-A-Chance. Her nipples, perked as they always did when she had drunk just the right amount of liquor, single-malt scotch tonight since the doctors were buying, but they were ordinarily resting in her natural camouflage of two loose shirts and a sports bra. Tonight only the taut layer of thinnest red held them back.
Three hours later the disappointed doctor, passing his card to her as if to a business associate, gave me a handshake, a once over, and a smile. I was pretty sure I could read his mind. But he didn’t realize she seldom put on the paint. Maybe not after tonight though.
In the car, with me the sober designated driver, she slurred at me. “I’m so sorry I deserted you at the party.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I told her this knowing simultaneously that the nonchalant tone fell apart and that she would not likely notice. I was livid. She could have gone without me and allowed me to pretend she hadn’t deserted me, berated me later that she had needed me there.
“I promise I will make it up to you.” She leaned against my shoulder and was asleep before I could come up with a response that had just the right amount of vitriolic sardonicism.
“Sis,” I told her from two decades away. “I wish girls didn’t wear makeup.”