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Face Me

2012 Lilith fiction contest: 1st place winner

Lori follows Sharon down the sunlit hall and into the bathroom, dim as a cave. She wants the makeover Sharon promised, even though it’s Shabbes and they’re not supposed to touch makeup. Sharon’s family doesn’t snap electric switches on Shabbes, and using cosmetics, as far as Lori can tell, might potentially be even more forbidden than turning on a light. But Sharon says a lot of things you’re not supposed to do on Shabbes you can do if it’s to get a husband. In an hour their youth group starts. The younger kids play games and sing in the synagogue, but Sharon and Lori will stand out back, in the alley, talking to the seventh grade boys. Sharon says Ronny G. will be there.

“Is makeup ok to get a boyfriend, or only for a husband?” Lori asks.

Sharon raises an eyebrow and says, “One thing leads to another,” and they crack up. That’s what the rebbetzins at their Orthodox day school say to their all-girls class about why they can’t dance with boys: one thing leads to another.

The bathroom curtains are drawn across the windows on the far wall, and one small nightlight burns in the corner, a bulb behind a frosted glass shield that stays on from sundown Friday until Saturday night. The thick air smells of talc and potpourri roses and chlorine floating up the driveway from the pool in the backyard. As her eyes adjust, Lori walks up to the mirror that covers an entire wall of the bathroom, floor to ceiling. She is so tall the feeble light catches under her chin, showing her neck and jawbone and cheek on the right side, while her nose sends a dark shadow looping over her left eye and forehead.

The left side looks dark, hollow, maybe sexy. Lori isn’t sure which side to like. She doesn’t like either.

“You left the door open,” Sharon says, going back to shut it. The lock clicks.

Lori is suddenly thirsty, drought-thirsty. She doesn’t wear makeup, not really. Only lip gloss. She peers into the dimness and sees the sink; the nightlight glints off the chrome handles. At home she’d just drink from the faucet, but it seems tacky here. She can’t do it in front of Sharon.

“C’mon,” Sharon says. “What are you waiting for?”

Lori goes to the counter that spans the far wall, where plastic compacts and shiny tubes of mascara and lipstick fill a three-foot Lucite tray. The only places she has seen this much makeup are Robinson’s and May Co. Perfume bottles, the ambers and caramels, stand at the back of the tray. A crystal bottle casts faint rainbows on the pink-and-gold wallpaper in the half-light.

At Lori’s house, her mom keeps all her makeup in one drawer. Weekdays, before her mom heads for work at the library, she puts two streaks of Sheer Apricot across her lips. On Friday nights, while Lori sits on the edge of the tub and watches, her mom unloads the drawer and puts on Cheryl Tiegs Covergirl Clean makeup. Then her mom and dad drive off for their weekly date. They don’t care about Shabbes.

Sharon opens a drawer with brushes and combs, compartments for barrettes, hair bands, bobby pins. She quickly clips her bangs back, pinning loops of feathered brown hair to her scalp. Sharon’s done this a million times before, including on Shabbes, no big deal.

Bobby pins slide right out of Lori’s wispy hair. Jabbing one against her scalp, Lori grimaces in the wall-mirror, taking in her head-to-toe wrongness. The straps on her new wraparound skirt tie at the waist in a protruding knot. Ridges have formed over her belly, and her skirt pockets bulge, where her blouse is tucked in. In the same reflection she sees Sharon lean across the counter, her long plaid skirt smooth across her hips. There is nothing lumpy on Sharon.

Sharon uses her thumb and index fingernails to wiggle the stopper out of a bottle of Chanel No. 5. It’s a sample in a tiny glass tube, like something scientific. She positions the tube against her index finger and turns it over once, twice.

“Smell this,” Sharon says. She holds her palm up, fingers extended as if she is giving Lori something. Lori breathes the air over Sharon’s empty hand, careful not to let her nose touch. The scent is rich, dizzying, warm as another body in the room.

Lori pulls back. “Won’t your mom be mad if we use her stuff?”

Sharon tilts her head so her long hair swings out of the way as she touches a place just under her right ear. “Nah,” she says. She shifts her head to the left and dabs behind the other ear. “She won’t know. We’ll leave while my parents are asleep.” She gives Lori a sly smile. “Or whatever they’re doing.”

“Ew,” Lori giggles. “Gross.”

Sharon’s mom, dark-haired and slender, shorter than Sharon, grew up in Morocco. She can yell at Sharon in French and English, and she doesn’t care if Lori hears, but Sharon’s dad is the scary one. He pinches Lori’s cheek in greeting, or squeezes her hand so hard she can’t feel her fingertips, and he keeps his blue eyes steady on hers the whole time, as if his eyes don’t know what his hands are doing. He is tall and the fedora he wears on Shabbes makes him even taller, but he has no neck. His head sits right on top of his suit collar, over his round chest and belly, like a little ball on top of a big one. Before lunch he carefully hangs his hat and jacket, laying his tie over one shoulder. Then he cuffs his shirtsleeves as far as they will go around his thick forearms. He has numbers on one arm from when he was a boy, in Germany. Lori passes him the chicken and the spicy carrots without looking at his face, so she doesn’t have to see his freaky blue eyes, but then she ends up staring at his arms instead. Which is still better than thinking about him with Sharon’s mother during their Shabbes nap.

“You can’t do makeup without perfume,” Sharon says. She drags her index finger in a long line up the inside of Lori’s right arm, wrist to elbow. It gives Lori a chill, like a fingernail on a blackboard, though there’s no sound, just the feeling that shifts magically from her arm to her spine. “There,” says Sharon. “Now we’re ready.”

Lori examines a compact with filigreed gold ribbons and pearls encrusted on the top. The white powder pressed inside is so fine it shimmers, as if it were made of pulverized glass.
Sharon gets to work like a pro. Her elbow carves a sideways arc in the air as she applies mascara. She stands two inches from the mirror and paints black liquid eyeliner inside her lower lids. Isn’t that going to smear on her eyeballs, Lori wonders, tapping the compact on the counter, making a small pile of white glitter-dust. But of course the liner won’t run. Everything stays where Sharon puts it.

“Crack that powder and you’re dead,” says Sharon, picking up a blush. “That’s my mom’s favorite.” She shakes the brush to get rid of the extra blush before sweeping it across her cheeks. Under Sharon’s olive skin the cheekbones show without rouge, but the added pink makes them seem to be moving, rippling. She takes the pad from the gold-and-pearl compact and sweeps up the powder Lori left on the counter. Then Sharon fake smiles with her teeth showing and circles the lipstick around her mouth. Twice. “Like it?” Sharon asks, pausing to judge.

Her face is a glowing oval of color. Her chin comes to a point like the bottom of a heart.

“Oh god,” Lori says. “Totally gorgeous!”

“Thank you, dahling,” Sharon says in her fake British accent. Then she appraises Lori.

“Let’s do something about you.” She opens a bottle of liquid foundation. Lori stares at the foam pad in Sharon’s hand coming closer and closer to her face until her eyes cross, and the pad blurs to a white and grey blob. She smells the bouquet of perfume at Sharon’s wrist, and under that Nivea hand cream, and something sharper, tangy — nail polish remover?

Sharon takes out the blue mascara. She stands on tiptoe. “You’re such a giraffe,” she says.

“Thanks a lot!” Lori huffs. “I love you, too!”

“Good for kissing tall boy-ohs,” Sharon sings.

Lori snorts. “As if there were any at Ezra Academy!” But they both know there is one: Ronny G. How can Sharon be so sure he’ll show up at their youth group today? She turns suddenly, wanting to ask Sharon, wanting to know, but the mascara wand stabs her eye.
“Ow,” she says, staggering away from Sharon, blinking madly.

“Stop fidgeting!” Sharon sighs. “There’s only one way this is going to work.” She pushes the makeup aside and sits on the counter.

“Now come here.” Sharon takes Lori’s wrists and pulls her close. Lori’s belly bumps into Sharon’s legs, and she sucks in her breath to make it flat.

“That’s better,” Sharon says. She stares at Lori, and Lori blinks. Where is she supposed to look? Until she realizes that Sharon isn’t really gazing into her eyes. Sharon focuses somewhere north of Lori’s eyeballs as she saturates the arc of skin between brow and lash with acquamarine. Lori can stare all she wants — Sharon doesn’t notice. She studies Sharon’s green irises, the threads of gold in them like tiny veins, the dilated pupils. There are whole maps of Sharon she’s never seen, the slightly indented circles of skin around her nostrils, a tiny velvet mole that summits from Sharon’s smooth, tanned cheek. But the truth about Ronny doesn’t show.

Then Sharon grips the back of her head. “Hold steady,” Sharon says, maneuvering a rollerball lip gloss around Lori’s mouth, getting the syrupy color inside the line of lip pencil.

This is what Lori loves: Sharon knows exactly what to do.

“Go mwahh,” Sharon says, and Lori smacks her lips.

Sharon opens a powder blush. She puts her hand under Lori’s chin, tips her head back.
Lori feels floaty with her head tilted. She closes her eyes and breathes in the smell of Sharon-Chanel. The nightlight makes a bright spot in the dark field behind her left eyelid. Her skin warms under the tickle of the blush brush. She can predict Sharon’s butterfly strokes across her cheeks, anticipating the rhythm. Then Lori lets go. She lets go the bathroom, lets go time. Lets go her belly, which settles against Sharon’s knees as the air rushes in. She pretends, for a moment, that the fingers on her chin are Ronny’s, that he has tilted her head back to kiss her, that the light stream of breath blowing across her neck belongs to him. But she knows he won’t smell as good as Sharon, as creamy and perfume-y. Sometimes Lori stands in line behind Ronny at the water fountain, or in the playground, waiting to play handball. He smells like pizza.

Sharon releases her chin. She hops off the counter and leads Lori to the mirror. “What do you think?”

Lori stares. She looks beautiful — is beautiful. She looks the way she dreams she looks.
It’s not any one element, not the dark lashes that make her eyes pop out or the luminous cheeks or the outline of her pink mouth — though these items are essential, Lori sees, not one can be dispensed with — but the totality, the way the face has been taken apart and reassembled into something new.

Lori wheels around, giddy, and throws her arms around Sharon in a bear hug. Lori wants to say something, to say thank you, but the words aren’t right so she kisses Sharon.
It’s a fast kiss, a smooth lip-second, but long enough for Lori to taste the mineral flavor — is it her lipstick? Sharon’s? — so delicious, like pennies but warm.

She likes the way Sharon feels, her slim shoulders, the softness of her breasts. All that is familiar from a hundred hugs before this one. What surprises Lori are the things she’s never imagined. The swell of Sharon’s bottom lip. How close Sharon’s tongue is, its mobility and heat, just on the other side of her lips. What’s surprising is that Sharon hasn’t pulled back.

It’s Lori who lets go. Her neck is hot. She turns to the counter where the makeup is scattered and hunts for something, peeking sideways to see if Sharon’s eyes have narrowed to slits the way they do when she’s mad. But in fact Sharon stands there, staring at her with curiosity, like Lori’s in the middle of telling a story and Sharon’s waiting to hear how it ends.

“Whadya do that for?” Sharon says.

“Um, nothing.” Lori picks up the big gold compact again, thinks about sliding it into her pocket. Puts it down on the counter instead. “Sorry,” she says, though she isn’t.

“Whatever,” Sharon says.

There’s a knock on the door. “Sharon? Are you in there?” her father asks.

In a sweeping motion, arms colliding, both girls turn suddenly toward the door, as if it were about to open. Two lipsticks and the gold compact hit the floor with a clatter.

“What’s going on?” her father asks. His W sounds like an ominous V.

“We’re doing our hair,” Sharon says. “Almost done.”

“I want you out,” he says.

“O-Kay-ay,” Sharon replies. “Be right out.”

In the silence, breathing is impossible. Then the heavy footsteps fade down the hall.
Instantly, Sharon is on the ground, tweezing shards of the glittering, compressed powder between her fingers as gently as broken glass. She deposits them in the bottom half of the gold case as if they were puzzle pieces, as if her mother wouldn’t notice the jigsaw cracks.
Who knocked it off the counter, Lori wonders. Not that it matters; even if she didn’t do it, she did.

“Take off your makeup,” Sharon hisses. “Hurry!”

Lori goes to the mirror. The wraparound skirt still doesn’t work, her blouse is too tight, but it will be ok, she can talk to Ronny, if she can keep her face. She crosses her arms.

“No,” she says, “I’m not taking it off.”

“What do you mean?” Sharon’s voice is high and strange, almost pleading. “You have to,” she says. “You can’t let my dad see you like that.”

“I don’t care,” Lori says.

Sharon stares at her — not directly, but at the Lori in the mirror. Now Sharon’s eyes turn to slits. The mirror has some kind of magnifying effect, concentrating the beam of Sharon’s rage so that it burns Lori.

“Fine,” Sharon says, her voice hard. “I’ll tell my parents the makeup was your idea.”

“I don’t care.” Lori whispers it this time. Her stomach twists as she speaks.

Sharon arranges tubes on the pearly tray. “And I’m not going to youth group today. You go without me.” The lipsticks click as she fits the halves together.

Lori feels the powdery air turn heavy. Moving at all is like walking through water, and she swims slowly to the counter. “I don’t want to go without you,” she says.
“Then go home.”

Lori glances at the mirror again. The makeup is still on but her face looks different. Darker. “Where’s the remover?”

Sharon passes her a bottle, and Lori puts some of the thick cream on a tissue. She makes slow, robotic circles on her cheeks, over her eyelids. The tissue is quickly sodden and her face turns a blur of blue and black, like a painting left in the rain.

“What are you doing?” Sharon says. “You can’t take it off either, can you?” She holds the makeup remover upside down and shakes a blob of cream onto a fresh tissue.

“Face me,” she says.

Lori turns right away. This is the sound of the usual Sharon, the bossy confidence, the Sharon she is used to. Sharon bends Lori’s head forward and she keeps it there; she does what Sharon tells her. The first stroke of cream feels cool on her skin but Sharon wipes gruffly, over and over, till her cheeks begin to blaze. Sharon strips the blush, the foundation, the mascara, the shadow. Lori squeezes her eyes shut, telling herself don’t.

Don’t cry.

“Almost done,” Sharon says, as she swipes at stray bits of color. Lori knows without looking that her old self is back in place. She keeps her eyes closed because if she doesn’t open them she can still see her gorgeous reflection in her mind. The made-up face is truer than the plain. But that doesn’t matter now. After they restack the compacts and stand the rows of lipsticks at attention, they will re-emerge into Sharon’s house, the world of Sharon’s parents, the dazzling sunlight where Shabbes rules instead of the dim bathroom where it is suspended.

Sharon stops wiping. Lori opens her eyes. The only color left is at her lips and the contrast against the rest of her skin makes them look thicker, suffused with blood and turning red-gold in the nightlight glow. Sharon reaches for a fresh tissue. Fast, before Sharon can clear her lips, Lori licks them, top and bottom.  

 This story is a chapter in Elena Sigman’s novel-in-stories. Her fiction has been published in Little Star and Orim: A Jewish Journal at Yale. Her essays have appeared in Salon and elsewhere, including the anthology Dog Is My Co-Pilot: Great Writers on the World’s Oldest Friendship.