I was at work on Monday morning, an editorial assistant in an office in downtown San Francisco, and I wasn’t clean. I had spent the weekend on an impromptu road trip that started with digging fresh-baked pies out of a bakery dumpster and ended with sleeping in a Mitsubishi Diamante on the side of the Interstate 5 and now I was sitting in my cubicle wearing the same outfit I had been wearing when I left the office on Friday afternoon.
“No one will notice,” I told myself, “if you skip one shower.”
But the idea continued to haunt me. What if someone were to notice my wrinkled blouse, my pie-crust-impacted soles, the telltale berry stains? There is nothing I hate more than making a spectacle of myself. So I decided to use my lunch break to shower at my friend Emily’s nearby apartment, where I was charged with maintaining Emily’s cat while she visited her family in Chicago.
There is a truism that other people pay much less attention to you than you assume, that everyone is too busy worrying about their own berry stains to notice whatever defects are glaringly obvious to you. This is a treasured belief of mine, calming as it does an aversion to embarrassment so fierce and atavistic that it feels more like a muscle memory than a considered preference. But it’s also not true.
Once I may have thought that keeping my head down and my mouth shut would lead to a life of ease: no fights, no conflict, no awkwardness. But I learned better long ago. In fact, a lifetime of trying to avoid humiliation has lead me into as much degradation as a hurled banana cream pie. Every decision I have ever made is calculated to avoid making myself into a spectacle. Unfortunately, an outsized, clownish effort to avoid making oneself into a spectacle is often the very best way of ensuring one does exactly that.
And so I rushed to Emily’s that day, determined to avoid embarrassment and set things to rights. I pulled off my clothes, already more than halfway through my allotted break time, and stood in her bathroom for five long minutes trying every possible configuration of knob and button, but nothing would make her shower turn on. Finally, defeated, I decided to take a bath.
I hadn’t taken a bath since I was a child, and now I remembered why. I sat in Emily’s tiny tub, pouring water over various body parts in turn, feeling like a beached whale being kept alive by solicitous members of Greenpeace. My hair was much too long to wash in this way, so I piled it on top of my head into a soapy castle and later tried unsuccessfully to rinse it in the sink. I also decided to shave my legs in the sink and cut myself in the process: another ten minutes was spent soapy, bleeding, and naked in Emily’s flooded bathroom, trying to clean up the growing mess I made with every step. With seconds to spare, I rubbed on some lotion that Emily had in her bathroom cabinet, put back on Friday’s clothes, and set to work on my makeup, a light “professional” coat of lipstick and powder that gestured at the idea of makeup without visibly improving the deficiencies of my face.
Usually I finish my makeup with a quick puff of pinkish golden powder. The powder is fine and subtle, with just the slightest hint of glitter, and imparts to the harried face a beatific touch of radiant, settled calm. I unwrapped a brand new box for the occasion. It didn’t occur to me that a brand new box might boast a higher concentration of glitter than what my old box had had. One swipe, and my face was covered in glitter. I looked like I tripped and fell into a junior high dance.
Here’s the thing about glitter: there is no way to remove glitter. Trying to wipe it off only rubs it deeper into your pores, until it’s basically embedded in your skin, all these little points of radiance shooting from your pores like light through a sieve.
Again I told myself, “No one will notice.”
There was no time to fix the mess I had made – I dashed back to the office to make my afternoon meeting. I splurged on a taxi, whose driver kindly shared with me his garbled but nonetheless vehemently held opinions concerning the number of Mexicans now living in California. It’s a testament to the subtly of his arguments that after eleven minutes I still wasn’t sure whether or not he was in favor of Mexicans, though I probably could have hazarded a guess.
By the time I reached the office lobby again, my makeup had begun to cake and melt in the late August heat. Nothing on earth looks more pitiable and desperate than stray remnants of glitter clinging to a damp jaw line. I surveyed the damage in the elevator’s mirrored doors. I also now noticed for the first time that my suit jacket had several fundamental structural inadequacies. The right lapel was permanently bent askew and hung flapping limply, like a flag of surrender. But there was something else. The lotion. Emily’s lotion had its own smell – insidious, noxious, sweet and rotten, like tropical decay.
I dashed into my meeting half an hour late, with dripping, shampoo-slick hair, reeking of maggot-ridden mango, my jacket crushed and mangled, my face glowing like one of Rembrandt’s milkmaids. The room was quiet. All eyes turned towards me, the spectacle.
My boss looked up from her PowerPoint presentation to say, “What is that smell? I noticed it the minute you walked in! You know I don’t like you to wear perfume around me, I’m very sensitive to fragrances. And is that – pie on your shoes?”