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Above all, you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the ever-changing and turning world of gloves and shoes and stuffs swaying up and down among the faint scents that come through chemists’ bottles down arcades of dress material over a floor of pseudo–marble…
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

 

Sometimes on her breaks Ruth strolls in and out of the counters of the grandiose hall of the makeup department. Past glistened women desperate for any eye contact, holding jars of miracles. She catches glimpses of herself in the mirrors.

Her eyes feast on the rows and rows of color, like a neatly ordered painter’s palette, the pyramid of tubes of lip gloss, gilted compacts bearing a prism of tiny mirrors. Occasionally she would smooth one finger over a glittery palette of eyeshadows with enigmatic names. Types of flora and fauna. Names of movies stars, presidential wives, ordinary girls. Marilyns and Audreys and Sophias and Jackies and Julies and Kathys.

She watches rows of women propped up on chairs, being powdered and glossed and soothingly lied to.

The seductive salesmen with slicked hair and shiny faces preen over them, a flurry of brushes drawn from the tool belts slung around their slim hips.

The frosted lilies working behind the glass counters ignore her when they see that she is not looking to buy.

The tricks are translucent but still you must submit to the ritual.

The eternal question: Would you like to sit down? Do you have time?

They flatter you. They are your friend. You are the sole object of their attention for those minutes. They are like gigolos and confidantes and fairy godmothers all wrapped up into one. They can play straight. They can play gay. They play to your vanity. They worship you. They tell you that you have nice skin. They guess your age much younger than you actually are. You sit greedy for attention, gobbling it up.  You are meek, suppliant. You wait patiently as they dab, smooth, pat. You offer up your face to his gaze. He paints on a surprised expression. You look downwards. You look upwards. You are a good girl.

Make me over into someone new, someone who doesn’t think such things, someone with memories wiped clean.

Mold me.

You are their raw material. Their Galatea. A fistful of clay, gray, gray, gray, like Ruth’s eyes, like the army of everywhere pigeons, like the crisp malice of the autumnal air. If the whole city of London was sliced open all that would come out would be a mess of intestinal gray. (In the world of cosmetics gray is not gray is not gray. There really are countless shades.)

Such lovely lips, eyes, lashes. Such young skin, those brows, that neck. There is always some neglected attribute to draw out, to compliment. You drink it in. It is nourishment you have not received for a while and even if you receive it often you are always thirsty, thirsty for it. To be admired by the vast unknown.

How did you get lured in? You were looking, searching, for something. Something to conceal, to hide, to disguise those flaws, no not the bit of redness there, the shine here, the crow’s feet there, the flaws deep inside, the filthy thoughts, the prurient mind. One magical product that would perform all this. You offer yourself up to the counter. No, you need concealers and highlighters and foundations and powders. A product to cancel out the other products.

And finally the reveal. You use the hand mirror they provide. But his adoring eyes have already served as your mirror. Look at you. So lovely, lovely, lovely. The black-clad crowd crowds in for effect, the formerly bored frosted lilies now fawning over the mannequin (that’s you!), the slicked-back boys with shiny skin oohing and aahing, clapping their hands with glee.

The girl behind the counter takes over from the male makeup artist. He is an artist. He doesn’t handle financial transactions. Earlier, to try to push the expensive makeup brushes on top of the purchase, he said: I am an artist. I must use my tools. You are my canvas. The salesgirl who has played the admiring spectator before now steps in front, clipboard in hand. All cool and business-like. The illusion is gone. They are not your friends. Or, to keep that illusion just a little longer, you know you must buy something. It’s part of the exchange, the ritual. She tallies it up. She barters with you still flush with attention. At home is a full makeup bag. But is there a price for seeing oneself anew in the mirror?

This is for the eyes. This is for the lips. This is for the skin. They haggle over the skin.

The skin is necessary of course. You need the skin. Without one of the tricks in the bag it all falls apart. It is a house of cards, your new identity. The makeup artist miraculously reappears to finish the sale. Look at how lovely you look. Your skin looks so young so dewy so glowing. You are reborn. You are luminous. You are lit from within. You flutter under the male flattery, docile, obedient.

I’ll take it. You say. I’ll take it. I’ll take the eyes, I’ll take the lips, I’ll take the skin.  I’ll take it all.

Wrap up my new face and throw it in a bag.

They give you a face to take home, an actual paper face with colored in instructions. These masks like memento mori.

Faces, other faces. I can take mine off and breathe.

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KATE ZAMBRENO's first published novel, O Fallen Angel, won Chiasmus Press’ “Undoing the Novel—First Book Contest” and was named as one of the best books of 2010 by Bookslut. Another novel, Green Girl, was published last month by Emergency Press. Heroines, a critical memoir revolving around the women of modernism, some of which was incubated on her blog Frances Farmer is My Sister, will be published by Semiotext(e)'s Active Agents series in Fall 2012. She is a prose editor at Nightboat Books.

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