She enters this corner kingdom of marvels with a little push from the woman behind, someone who thinks nothing of it, the place or the push. But Merilew is sweating. Her throat is closed over a hot pebble of fear. Her hands are knitted together, as if praying. A tidy handbag swings from her forearm. It still aches from last night. She steps forward, out of the way of those who pass by, and nary a glance tossed her way.
What makes it easier is the anonymity. No person here is anyone Merilew might know. All are nose-deep into the array of colors and lovely packages, gossiping with friends or enjoying a solitary visit, eyeing a lipstick or powder as if there are secrets to be discerned with scrutiny. Patience. Maybe there are.
There isn’t much time. He, the one she has been married to thirteen years and two months, is at a meeting four blocks down, a restaurant that serves men best, he says, with its room for cigars, made intimate, exclusive, with lustrous dark wood and burgundy leather-clad banquettes. She looked into the windows once and felt annoyed.
Today he is trusting her, for a change, to enjoy her time downtown; two hundred dollars is only part of a thank you for being a good partner. They’ll eat at Jake’s Grill later.
“Buy yourself lacy lingerie, a good new dress,” he suggested as he dropped her off at the department store. “I’ll be back in an hour and fifteen minutes to meet you.” He pressed his cool lips to hers, then patted her back.
She had watched him proceed along the sidewalk, his mammoth shoulders squared, arms barely swinging, each foot set down heavily as if to leave his mark even there. In a charcoal pinstripe suit he looked like a CEO. In shorts and a white T-shirt he looked like a well-turned-out but serious wrestler, not someone taking a small break from racing up the corporate ladder. He looked like a man who would bend your needs to meet his. Or could bend you into a knot. He had a certain knack, he admitted.
He fit well down here, geometric, tall, hard as the ponderous, arrogant skyscrapers. Merilew waited until he disappeared around a corner and thought, Go!
Inside the store, there are more displays than she imagined, glittering, sleek and topped with pretty words or models’ faces. It is a room of curvaceous shapes and lucious color, of silver and light–though she feels she has stepped into a cave, a special scooped out refuge where only the savviest females are allowed. Their own special club. But she has not worn make up for thirteen years and six months. He would never suspect this is where she has gotten to behind his back. He wants her “fresh-faced and simple, it’s one of your better virtues”, he has said many times. After a surreptitious swipe of a leftover coral lipstick resurrected from her bottom drawer, he impressed upon her that he meant it. Hence the sore arm, soon to show a bruise. But she has been captivated by this store for months. She can’t ascertain its magnetism except that she has seen herself grow pallid and listless when she studies her mirror at home. Not really herself, not even who he thinks he sees, either.
Her hand flutters at her throat. She is ridiculous standing here, mad to think she can get away with experimentation he won’t deduct.
“May I help find something for you?” Jade, a sales associate with pink hair and cat eyes speaks up.
Her eyes are, in fact, barely discernible beneath emerald green smudges of eyeshadow and black liner added like two wings, two thick lashes that look furry. But her smile is inviting as she tries not to telegraph the truth: What is this woman doing in here? Old fashioned ruffled blouse and too-long black skirt. Fancy leather jacket from, what, 1990? Maybe vintage? Then: Face like porcelain. Long nose. Bordering on exotic. Eyes…so blue and scared.
“No, thanks, I’ll look around if that’s okay.” Merilew licks her lower lip, then forms her mouth into a crescent moon smile.
“No problem. Just find me when you need assistance.”
The first stop is rouge, or blush as she remembers to call it. But there isn’t just one section, there are many. She sees it now, how the store takes you from brand to brand, from one island of wishfulness to another. A maze of enticements. A hall of mirrors. She ambles toward an elegant display as if this is the brand she is seeking. But as she touches everything, she thinks, the wonder of eye shadow names, ancient amber, blue note frost, midnight disguise. The last appears shimmery black but purple bleeds through as she rubs a fingertip across it. What a terrible name for what could look like violence. Merilew shivers, turns toward the next aisle.
Razzle dazzle me, set me free for an hour, she thinks as she finds blushes aplenty and so many pretty ones: I’d forgotten how it is: roses of morning and sunset petals; baby pink, almond latte, barely blushed, midway mauve. She takes the creamy “midway mauve” and dabs her fingers with it, then tries to pat it onto a cheekbone while searching for a mirror.
“Over here is what you’ll need,” Jade offers generously.
It’s like a movie dressing table, a cozy vanity with puffs of cotton in a clear jar, brushes and wands of all sizes and shapes for adding more colors, Q-tips for smoothing, sponges and wedges for something else, she can’t imagine what. The mirror is illumined by large globe bulbs. She sits in a tall swivelling stool and sees her light blue eyes flash, the lightning of anxiety. Faded auburn hair straggles over pinched shoulders as she leans close. She steadies her hand, then spreads the color, her tender skin marred by a streak of mauve.
She jerks back. It is alarming to see her face changed by something not meant to be there. It seems akin to lavender, rich as the scent of the flower, not her color or floral choice at all. The curve of the bones of her face jump out at her. She takes a tissues and rubs it off, skin reddening, stinging. Tears pop up to aggravate her. She feels ignorant, foolish. This won’t work, none of it. She needs to leave, go find a dress that he will appreciate, look for lace things he will love. What is she doing? Here, of all places? She’s lost her mind, maybe, so steps down, beige leather purse with its documents that identify her as his his his clutched to her waist.
“How about this to clean things up?” Jade asks.
She brandishes a small bottle of make up remover and fat cotton balls. Jade dabs and daubs with cautiousness, washes away remnants of mauve and soothes her skin. Merilew leans back, feels the touch of a fresh cotton ball like the kiss of a dandelion.
“We’ll start over. Are you going some place special?”
Merilew’s giggle sneaks through discomfort. “I might.”
“Then I’d be glad to help it happen for you. Let me look at your face, your overall coloring. You’re ivory pale; we’ll be careful with color.”
“Yes, please,” and she wonders if she means that. Now that she’s here. Now she has elected to put what is forbidden upon her face. Her light eyes stare back at her, wide open, blue as a spring sky. They startle her.
Jade gathers various products from different places with the speed of a pro. Merilew feels more relaxed, knows she is in the hands of someone who understands things she doesn’t, who may even discern an inner potential she has misplaced, a spark of someone better, smarter. Freer. More whole.
“Can I close my eyes? Is that too odd?”
“Shut them only if you trust me!”
“I’m Merilew, by the way. I have to trust you. I don’t have a clue what to do with all this stuff. It has been….over a decade.”
“Wow, that right? Well, then, let my magic begin.”
As she sits there feeling the lotion, the fluffy brushes and deft pencils, each one she feels as an offering to her–of who knows what except they feel so kind, so sweet to her skin. Like little fishes dancing past her in turquoise water, a relief of rain on parched lips, like a million tiny valves being opened to her heart and soul slip through. She rests and imagines that she will emerge transformed beyond recognition and that she will be able to do something with her life as she has never done before.
Of course, that is a daydream. This is so risky she cannot believe she did it though she is still glad to to lean back into this oasis of time.
“Are you out shopping alone for fun?” Jade asks.
“Not exactly. My husband is at a business meeting.” Her eyelids flutter as eye shadow is smoothed over delicate hillocks. “I have been charged with purchasing only things he likes.” What is she saying? “You know, got to keep them happy, got to play the game.”
The words fall like burning matches into the happy din around her.
“Will this make him happy?”
“You know, Jade”–she feels a hot flush, how open she is being–“nothing actually, deeply makes him happy for long. My hair isn’t right or my dinner is overdone or I look at him the wrong way when he needs another way….”
“Been there, done that, never again. Sorry, but hold still so I can figure out what to do with your sparse but nicely arched eyebrows.”
“Make them bold. Like…Joan Crawford.”
“Joan who? Oh, like in those old classic movies?”
Merilew shrugs. “Yes, I like that. Her. She was sassy. Maybe a little bossy.”
She feels her eyebrows grow from timid to perhaps inquisitive and wonders if they will act more expressive. She tries to not show too much of what she feels since he prefers her quiet, calm, to be capable enough but not overtly so. Good natured and grateful. Helpful. If she isn’t, she pays.
“Is that where you’re stuck? Back then, nineteen forties? Just asking… but so you know, we’re living in the twenty-first century. And you can be gorgeous in 2015, believe me. You don’t need make up, anyway, to be honest. Lucky you!” She guffaws as if she made a joke. “But you should buy something from me, anyway!”
Merilew wriggles; the eyebrow pencil pauses, then begins again. She has said too much, as if she thinks this is the sort of place women can say what they won’t elsewhere. Like a hair salon, somehow therapeutic though not that she has been recently. She places her palms flat on her purse, stays stock still. Her breathing keeps her company as Jade’s hands draw a line here, blends the hues there, presses a gloss stick to each lip, then removes the stain to start again.
The rumble of a man’s voice as he speaks to someone, perhaps his girlfriend, finds Merilew so she startles, murmurs “Sorry”. Has he chosen her a perfume? Is he guiding her with hand at the nape of her neck, right out the doorway? Or if he is just saying farewell so he can get a cup of coffee across the street, let her have her own time. Maybe he’s saying, “Have fun!” She imagines it’s her husband and his hands are in his pockets as he lopes past her and whistles on his way out, then holds the door open w ith his shoudler for a smiling woman coming in. And when Merilew is done, she will meet him and buy an iced coffee. They’ll sit and talk as sun kisses her face and dust swirls brightly, the cafe all brilliance and warmth. Contentment.
Of course not.
But...what if he forgot to meet me? If he decided not to come home tonight? If he came home and said he was leaving me, we aren’t right together, after all? Her breath catches in her chest and her fingers go to her mouth whereupon they make contact with a luxurious lipstick. She licks a fingertip, finds it sweet.
Her eyes open as her pulse leaps.
“What do you think, Merilew?”
In the mirror she searches arctic blue eyes that seem deeper set with swaths of summered bronze on eyelids, a dash of peach on each bony rise above. They dominate even new eyebrows that exclaim, then reach for points unknown, arches like graceful bridges linking her wide, smooth forehead to luminous center of nose and mouth. She has a widows peak that at last looks right as it draws attention to the auburn waves framing her face. Her prominent pointed nose is complementary to two glistening coral lips. The warm tones make her think of shells and sea and palm trees, running barefoot. Sculpted cheekbones are a landscape configured of tender peach and honey. This Jade is an artist, that is truth.
“I look like someone else.”
Jade frowns. “Are you a good or not-good someone else?”
She turns her head to one side, then the other, leans close to her image. “I look like I’m about to have a grand afternoon. I think I wouldn’t recognise me on the street. It’s a tad frightening, exciting to see how all this can change a woman. But it’s more surprising to me that I am even sitting here. I walked in that door. I was looking for a change. Maybe it’s been a little rebellion. It might be something else. I’ll leave. I might find nothing will be the same.” Merilew leans over and bestows on the sales woman a smile that would illuminate the dark. “You’re wonderful, Jade.”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s all that, it’s just make-up! Your face was a great canvass. Glad you’re satisfied with my ideas.”
Merilew slides off the chair, takes off her jacket and tosses it in a heap on the stool. Then she pulls out the tail of her blouse. She sleeks her hair back into a long ponytail, securing it with a common rubber band dug from her ladylike purse.
Getting out two big bills, she says, “I’ll buy it all.”
“Fantastic! Follow me.” Jade hesitates, then turns. “Before you pay, I have to say you’re far more, much better than he thinks.” She reaches out and touches her customer’s hand lightly like a nod, an agreement, a quiet understanding.
Jade calls after her. “Your leather coat!”
Merilew leaves the beauty bar. She spots him leaning against the building where they parted. He is checking his watch, running his hand through the blond thatch of hair, then stands up tall and brushes off lint or something displeasing from his suit coat. He swivels his lion’s head all around. Merilew shudders, thinking he glances right at her but she crosses the street, moves faster toward him as he searches groups of pedestrians.
Her stride lengthens, she is coming close, she is looking at him and sees his eyes flicker over her. And then he turns away to find his wife. She keeps on walking, sees the corner and the green lights and the people rushing across a wide, congested thoroughfare and she slides in among them and her feet are flying, her heart a drum calling for bravery, for a life to be truly lived and she is panting as she flees like a creature leaving a place that must be left and she steps up and finally Merilew, eyes and mind blazing, is safe, she is safe on the other side.