Monday, November 25, 2013

#107: "Makeup" by Hadley Moore


~This piece was originally published in slightly different form in Midwestern Gothic (2012).

So this was what it was. Champagne gold read the label on the box. Anne Marie looked at the silver-colored pot in her hand, its contents like a dessert, a blondish mousse in a miniature ramekin. Against the lip of the pot’s smooth white insides the champagne gold seemed dark, but impossibly pale for its intent.
Was her face champagne gold? Champagne gold where it wasn’t port wine?
            Fifteen minutes ago her mother had returned from shopping in Traverse City. Among the bags she brought home was a tiny unmarked vellum one in which was nestled a tinier box (in which, Anne Marie knew now, had been nestled the still tinier pot of this mousse-like makeup).
"I found it at Macy’s," her mother told her.
Anne Marie had smiled and said thank you and asked if she should wait until tomorrow to open it.
"No. It’s not a birthday present. But listen, Anne Marie, don’t be mad."
And Anne Marie had wondered what she meant. The package looked like it could hold a pair of earrings, or a lip balm, maybe.
"Don’t be mad," her mother said again. "It’s just…I saw it, okay? I ran across it. And I thought of you. You’ll be thirty-nine tomorrow, honey. I mean, thirty-nine. That’s almost middle-aged."
Maybe not a lip balm, but earrings, perhaps, or a brooch.
"It’s not a birthday present. It’s just that it seemed…it seemed time. All right? Now I’m going out again for a bit."
When her mother gathered up her things to leave, Anne Marie had the sense she was being given privacy. She’d need the whole house to herself, apparently, to open the tiny package—and then she’d wondered, panic traveling up from the middle of her chest, what kind of sex thing could be so small. Was her mother giving her a filthy toy? Or birth control? Oh Lord, it made sense: "Don’t be mad," "You’ll be thirty-nine tomorrow," "It seemed time."
"No, Mom!" Anne Marie had shouted.
"Don’t be mad. I’ll be back in a couple of hours," her mother said, and shut the door behind her.


A couple of hours? Did she need a couple of hours to do whatever it was she was supposed to do with the thing?
But it wasn’t a sex toy, thank God, and it wasn’t condoms or sponges or jellies. (Could you get those at a department store?) It was champagne gold. She might have guessed.
The color would have to have this stupid name too, as stupid as "port wine," stupider, even. But it was kind of pretty, Anne Marie had to admit, the blondish mousse (almost the color of her sister’s hair) against the smooth white, the white against the silver. And the pot was heavy for its size, a satisfying heft in her palm. What was it made of? Painted porcelain? Some kind of glazed ceramic? She tapped it with her fingernail; not plastic.
Anne Marie sighed. So this was what it was. She should throw it away. But it was probably expensive, and she had a couple of hours. She could try it, just once, cover port wine with champagne gold.
Really, she should be angry. After years—since junior high—of refusing makeup from her mother, to have this sprung on her: it should make her mad.
Anne Marie dipped her right middle finger into the pot. The makeup was cool to the touch, and she hesitated before looking at the small dollop she’d drawn out. Against her pinkish fingertip, the color was, well, golden. She touched her thumb to it, rubbing it in a bit so the whorls of her fingerprints showed through the makeup, and as she held her hand close to her face, she noticed her forearm pressed to her breast, and the heart underneath her breasts expanded and filled her whole chest.
No. It didn’t, of course. She was just dizzy. She looked at the mirror above the bathroom sink, and there she was, a "before" picture. And after?
The birthmark was an almost perfect quarter of her face, the upper left. She looked like a pie chart, a lesson on proportions: one quarter port wine but one hundred percent ugly; the effect of the stain was disproportional. She had long imagined that without the birthmark it would be easier to keep her weight down, settle on a flattering hairstyle, find pants that fit. Now, she realized that if its effect were disproportional, that meant the effect of the makeup could be disproportional too.
Anne Marie hadn’t worn makeup in nearly thirty years. How could she make an admission at thirty-nine that she wished to be different—or at twenty-five or thirteen? She’d always feared the attention and then the pity. It didn’t take much to attract notice in this town.
The last time she tried makeup, she was ten and had filched some cheap drugstore stuff from her parents’ bathroom. She’d glopped it on and walked down the street to the playground. She wanted to see what it was like to be out in public as a different girl, a regular girl.
A boy from her class was sitting alone on a swing, and Anne Marie sat down next to him. "Hi," she said. "I’m Laura."
He looked at her. "You’re Anne Marie." He paused. "And you’re still ugly."
Since then that was the only kind of attention she could expect from boys—and now men—not cruelty, just this matter-of-fact disregard.
You’re still ugly, Anne Marie told her reflection.
But the champagne gold wasn’t cheap drugstore stuff, and tomorrow she’d turn thirty-nine, and there was makeup on her fingers she’d have to wipe off one way or another, so she might as well do it on her face.
She could be someone different. A different girl. A regular girl.
Not herself, exactly. A different woman. A regular woman.
Anne Marie looked again at her fingertips. Her heart threatening to overflow her body, she wiped first her thumb, then her middle finger below her left eye. She smoothed out the champagne gold and dipped back into the pot. With her forefinger, she drew a line of makeup along the border of the birthmark. She could close her eyes and trace the outline—from her hairline, down along the side of her nose, then a right angle at her cheekbone all the way to the top of her ear. But she wanted to watch.
She filled in the outline and the champagne gold was too dark. It looked like makeup, not skin. She took a step back.
Oh well, she told herself, and her heart contracted. Oh well, oh well, oh well, it doesn’t matter. She squinted, as if to prevent herself from crying, and took another step back from the mirror. But then she peered through her squinted eyes, and saw a flicker of something. She turned down the dimmer switch, took one more step so her heels pressed against the tub, and there it was, there she was: a different woman. Oh praise the Lord. 
**
Anne Marie wished her mother would get out of the house. All day they’d been home together, Anne Marie hoping for a chance to put on the makeup, and her mother puttering, hovering, and now banging around in the pantry and humming something unrecognizable.
So Anne Marie stood at the kitchen counter, waiting to cook in peace, if nothing else, and touching her cheekbone, then her forehead. Over and over: cheekbone, forehead. She looked out the window over the sink, at the clumps of filthy snow under the line of pines in the backyard. It was April, but they’d see snow again up here. Cheekbone. Forehead. She avoided her faint reflection in the glass, and tried instead to picture the makeup face, the different woman she could be if she squinted. It was hard to do; each time she wiped the makeup off, she forgot what she’d looked like with it on, and each time she reapplied it, the effect surprised her.
Her mother emerged from the pantry, breathless and empty-handed. "Do you need help?" she asked. "I was going to straighten up the living room and dining room, but that can wait."
Anne Marie dropped her fingers from her face. "No, no!" she practically shouted. She picked up a carrot and waved it in the direction of the dining room. "Go ahead."
Alone finally, she chopped onions and garlic, and the repetitive motion and food smells calmed her some. Every day for the past week, since her mother presented her with the silver-colored pot, Anne Marie had applied the makeup. She left it on for several hours at a time, as long as she was certain of having the house to herself. Last Sunday after church her mother had gone to lunch with a friend, and the weekdays were easy because their work schedules were different—the two evenings she got off early at the library, she’d even gone out of her way to drive past the florist and make sure her mother’s car was still there before heading home to the makeup and an empty house.
But it was Saturday again. There had been no mention of the gift since it was given, and Anne Marie had assumed her mother knew she needed the privacy every day. But apparently not.
So she would have no chance. Her sister was coming over soon, and her mother had assented to none of Anne Marie’s suggestions for last-minute errands (dessert? taken care of; flowers? there were those daisies she’d brought home from work; oil change? now, Anne Marie?).
Anne Marie dumped the garlic and onions into her pot and let them sizzle in olive oil with a bay leaf and cayenne pepper while she chopped the other vegetables. She did it fast and hard, gripping the fat knife handle so tightly her forearm went numb, but she tensed the muscles and held her breath, resting only between ingredients. Bits of carrot and pepper went shooting off the cutting board, and when she finished she was sweating. She paused and panted and touched her face. Cheekbone. Forehead.
The phone rang. Her mother answered in the dining room and came into the kitchen still holding the cordless receiver. "That was Katherine. She’s bringing Aaron. I guess his dad and Susan came down with some terrible bug."
            Anne Marie’s disappointment was so strong and bitter she could feel it in her throat, but she only said, "She should have called earlier."
"It doesn’t matter." Her mother took a can of chicken noodle soup out of the pantry, and Anne Marie asked, "What is that for?"
"Aaron won’t eat what you’re making."
"Why not?" She dumped in a can of beans.
"Too many vegetables."
"Vegetables are good for him."
"He’s a kid. He doesn’t like vegetables."
"So?"
"Anne Marie, it’s a can of soup." Her mother turned to rummage in the cupboard for a saucepan, setting the phone on the counter where Anne Marie knew she’d forget it. "It’s only soup."
            "It’s a can of salt water."
            She ignored that, and Anne Marie watched her empty the condensed soup into the pan, then add a can of tap water and switch the burner on high. When she went to the sink to rinse the can, Anne Marie turned the burner down to medium low. "You’re going to want to stir this," she said.
            "I know. I’m coming."
"I’d planned to make grilled Swiss on rye. Will he eat that?"
"I think we’d better give him American on white bread. But I’ll take care of it, you just
continue what you’re doing. It smells delicious."
            "When Katherine and I were little, you made us try new things."
            Her mother laughed. "My dear, you’ve forgotten all the meals I fed you of baked chicken with ketchup."
            "That was Katherine."
            "You ate it too, though your favorite was plain noodles with butter. Aaron will grow out of it." She reached over to tuck Anne Marie’s hair behind her ears. "Oh, that nice dark hair, not my mouse brown that’s no color at all."
            Anne Marie shook her head and backed away. Such closeness to her face could prompt questions about the makeup; eventually her mother would want some acknowledgment.
And what a stupid thing to say, about the hair. To look like her mother, still lovely at fifty-eight, Anne Marie would give up her nice dark hair (which was too thick; she kept it cut to her chin to thwart its unruliness). She’d take the mouse brown streaked with gray if she could have the pale freckled skin. Here she was, thirty-nine, only on the cusp of middle age and her mother was the one who could turn heads, her mother, who was almost through her middle years.
Anne Marie’s heart threatened to balloon, and she turned to check on Aaron’s chicken noodle. "Mom, I mean it. You’d better stir this."
            "Okay, okay." Her mother rifled through a drawer and retrieved a small whisk.
They stirred silently. Was it a sin to dislike a child? Aaron was only eight. How long had she disliked him? Since forever, it seemed. Since before he was born. That was impossible, and while Katherine was pregnant Anne Marie had been eager to be a doting aunt. But then the abstract pregnancy turned into the actual Aaron. It had been a few years since she’d made any friendly overtures toward him, but even as a tiny kid he’d sidestepped her hugs, turned his face from her kisses, ducked her attempts to pat him on the head.
And he’d shown up so smoothly brown. She had met Katherine’s boyfriend, Ken, who had very dark skin, so she’d understood the child would be biracial, but it was still a shock to find his little face—much paler than she’d expected, actually, but still clearly mixed—peeking out from the yellow blanket her blond sister held in her hospital bed, twenty-three-year-old Katherine looking all of seventeen, and Anne Marie in her thirties already. She’d felt so old then, at thirty-two, so irredeemably old.
While Katherine was still in the hospital, Anne Marie had wanted to strangle their mother for referring to the new baby’s skin as "cafĂ© au lait"; he was coffee, she had thought, and she was wine. (She was both relieved and disappointed that his skin was plain and perfect: no trace of a birthmark.) For months Anne Marie had practiced the word "black" in her head so it would not be strange in this new context—my nephew is black; he’s biracial—and she resented her mother’s taking this cop-out.
            Now, as she turned down the heat under her pot and put the lid on, she heard the front door open, and Katherine called out, "Hello!"
            "Oh good!" Her mother dropped her whisk on the stove and hurried out to greet them. Anne Marie picked up her wooden spoon and laid it down again. She wanted to stay here and brown the meat, but she knew she was expected to come out of the kitchen, as if for real guests. She picked the spoon back up and headed toward the dining room just as Katherine, their mother, and Aaron entered it from the hall.
            They brought with them the smell of outside, of spring, and Anne Marie resented all over again not having any privacy today. It was beautiful out. If only her mother had taken a walk, she could have put the makeup on and become a different woman for a while, and she wouldn’t be so agitated now with Aaron in the house.
Then when her mother got back she might have left herself. She could have driven out past town, all the way to Lake Michigan, and sat on the sand alone with the image of the different woman in her mind’s eye. It would have been cold with the wind skimming the water, but bracing, and the rhythm of the waves conducive to concentration. She needed to memorize this new self.
When her mother retreated, she retreated to the cityness of Traverse City, the mall and the tourist traffic of Front Street. When Anne Marie retreated, and her sister too, they went to the beach. They took the same route to the same isolated spot, on the east bay just south of Greenriver. Anne Marie couldn’t remember the last time they’d gone together.
But today she’d been afraid to leave and miss her mother’s leaving. And now Aaron was here and she was vulnerable, fully herself in front of him.
            "Hey, Anne Marie," Katherine said. "It smells good in there."
            "Hey." She waved at her sister with her spoon hand. "Thanks." She half-nodded at Aaron, but he didn’t look up.
            Katherine sat down, and Aaron leaned against her. He wore the same Superman t-shirt Anne Marie saw him in a couple of days ago, and he needed a haircut. He was too skinny. He looked like his mom.
Katherine put her arm around him and said, "Why don’t you show Grandma and Aunt Anne Marie what you learned in school last week?" She looked at them. "He’s been doing this all day."
            "What?" Aaron asked.
            "You know what." She whispered in his ear, and he pressed his face into her armpit.
            Katherine rolled her eyes and smiled. "He took a long nap this afternoon, and he got up crabby."
            "I’m not crabby!"
"Oh, I’m terribly sorry. What are you?"
"I’m fine."       
Katherine and their mother laughed, and Anne Marie joined in belatedly. She wanted to get back to the chili. Why should she stay and pretend to laugh for Aaron, when he acted like she wasn’t even here? It didn’t matter to anyone how he treated her.
Katherine shook him gently. "Okay, honey, that’s enough."
He turned around and settled himself on her lap. "Do you know what a syllable is, Grandma?"
"A syllable? Sure."     
What about you, Aunt Anne Marie? Would it be so hard for him to say that? Or to look at her?
"Okay. Mom-my: two, Grand-ma Bon-nie: four." He clapped each sound. "Aar-on: two, Dad-dy: two, Su-san: two, Grand-pa Dave: three."
"Aunt Anne Ma-rie: four." Her mother clapped and spoke in Aaron’s rhythm, as if he were going to do that next.
Anne Marie set her spoon on the table, clapped "Syl-la-ble: three," and realized it was the wrong thing; she wasn’t playing Aaron’s game. "I mean," she started, but she couldn’t think of anyone else’s name to do, so she picked her spoon back up, leaving a small puddle of broth on the table. She looked at the puddle and felt a blush move up her neck to her ears. She touched her cheekbone with the back of her wrist. She touched her forehead.
Aaron slipped off Katherine’s lap. "I’m going to find Riley," he said, and he clapped more names—his friends, must be—on his way through the kitchen and down to the basement where the cat hid from him: "Mich-ael, An-drew, Sam, Jo-ey."
When she heard him on the stairs, Anne Marie turned back to the kitchen and her vegetables, which had begun to stick to the bottom of the pot. She scraped them off with the wooden spoon, and stirred Aaron’s chicken noodle into a cloudy smoothness. Then she pulled out a frying pan and was browning the beef by the time her mother and Katherine joined her in the kitchen. Katherine came in talking about a movie, but Anne Marie was certain they’d been whispering to each other about her.
"What’s it called, this movie?" her mother asked as she took American cheese out of the refrigerator and white bread out of the freezer.
Katherine dipped Anne Marie’s wooden spoon into the pot. She bent over the sink to slurp down the broth. "The Universal Language."
            "Oh for heaven’s sake, Katherine, I heard about that!" their mother cried. "The reviewer made it sound like pornography."
"My god, Mother, what a prude you’ve become; it’s not pornography. There is a lot of sex in it," Katherine conceded, "but the way they handle it is very compelling. I mean, everyone’s had sex, so you’d think there’d be nothing more to say about it, but apparently there is."
"Spare us, please."
"Okay, okay, I’m just telling you it’s a unique and well-done movie." She reached for the pot again, but Anne Marie blocked her with her hip and took the spoon.
Everyone’s had sex. Katherine and their mother continued to bicker, and Anne Marie watched them. They reminded her of actresses, a mother and daughter in a film gesticulating at each other, their movements fluid and too big for real life.
Anne Marie turned the cubes of beef in the pan. She switched off the burner under Aaron’s soup and put the lid on. Everyone’s had sex. It was an offhand comment made on the way to some other point, an exaggeration—though not much of one.
Sex was nothing to Katherine. To Katherine it was as common and unremarkable as breathing. There was a roundness to her sister and her mother, a dewiness that came, Anne Marie assumed, from having been pregnant. Sometimes in her own fleshy body she felt desiccated, but when she looked at Katherine and their mother she saw water.
Anne Marie didn’t want children. She wanted only the badge children were, proof someone had wanted her. When Aaron was first born he fascinated her, not for the obvious things his grandparents exclaimed over: His little hands; look, he has tiny perfect fingernails! His skin’s so soft; it’s true what they say about a baby’s bottom! Rather, she turned over and over the fact that Katherine could move through her whole life with evidence she was desirable.
And her sister wasn’t even beautiful, Anne Marie thought now, with a giddy mix of guilt and relief. If she was, she was drugstore beautiful, Michigan beautiful, the kind that could fade to merely pretty. But Katherine, thirty-year-old Katherine with her long blond hair, her petite and compact figure, her smooth and even skin, was beautiful enough.
Anne Marie checked back in to the conversation in the kitchen to hear Katherine tell their mother how sensitively gay sex was portrayed in The Universal Language. "You should see it," her sister said. "Expand your horizons."
"All right, we’re changing the subject," their mother declared. "Katherine, have I shown you the finalists for living room curtains? Anne Marie liked the blue ones, but I think the green go better with the carpet. The contrast is subtler."
Katherine followed their mother out of the kitchen, and Anne Marie added the beef to the pot, stirred, and lowered the heat. She got out bread and cheese and butter and was slicing the block of Swiss when out of her peripheral vision Aaron appeared at the top of the stairs holding a struggling Riley. Anne Marie turned and locked eyes with him. He looked away. She sliced another piece of cheese, then took a breath.
"Dinner will be done soon, Aaron." Her voice sounded funny, like on voicemail or old home movies, warped and watery.
Anne Marie heard the soft thump of Riley landing. Aaron moved along the far wall of the kitchen and slid onto the banquette under the window. He was like a fish, slippery and silent.
"So, how’s school?" she asked him. "Second grade, huh?"
There was a coloring book and a tin can full of crayons on the table, and he noiselessly pulled those to himself. She watched him open the book and select a crayon. He was entirely Aaron, she thought, impenetrable and whole the way children were. She touched her cheekbone. She touched her forehead. She pictured the birthmark under her fingers, red, like God had chosen the wrong crayon for that part of her face, like He’d colored outside the lines.
Anne Marie dropped her hand. She buttered bread, laying pieces in the pan where the beef had been, then placing cheese on top of bread. She was glad Aaron could see only her right side.
"What’s your favorite subject?" she asked. "Is your teacher nice? Coming up on summer vacation, huh? Just a couple of months more." She didn’t know what toys or TV shows he was into, so school seemed the logical topic for questioning. This was how adults and children conversed, wasn’t it? Adults asked questions, which children had to answer?
Except he didn’t. He bent over his coloring book without even shrugging or looking up from his work or giving Anne Marie—his aunt, not some stranger—a noncommittal "I don’t know."
Where were Katherine and her mom? How long did it take to consider curtains? She wanted them to see this, his rudeness and her trying, so she continued to question him. "Who are your friends? Do you like any girls?"
Nothing.
"Aaron?"
She left the stove and walked to the banquette where he sat. "Does your mom take you to school most days, or do you ride your bike?"
Still nothing. She leaned over him and said, louder, "Aaron! Do you ride your bike?"
His crayon stopped.
"Answer me," she said. "Aaron." She wanted to grab the back of his neck and force his face up to look at her, but when the crayon started again after a few seconds, she just said, "Goddamn it!" and slammed the loaf of bread she’d forgotten she was holding down on his coloring book.
Anne Marie stomped up the stairs, walked quickly to her bedroom—with the word "Goddamn" echoing, Goddamn, Goddamn, Goddamn; she was hardly even sorry for saying it—and jerked open the top drawer of her dresser. She pulled out the silver pot and unscrewed its top. She couldn’t get her finger into the makeup fast enough, but when she touched her forehead she slowed down, dabbed dots around her eye, and let the relief come. She blended and stared at her reflection, surprised again at the transformation, and disappointed at her surprise.
But here she was: a different woman. A regular woman. A woman whom people would acknowledge. She could almost feel her face absorbing the makeup; she could feel Anne Marie absorbing the different woman. This someone else suffused her, wrapped around her heart.
She stared at the mirror. She squinted away the boundary between bare skin and makeup, and she was all champagne gold.
"Anne Marie?" Her mother called up the stairs. "What are you doing?"
Anne Marie hesitated. The different woman hesitated. "Nothing."
"Come on. Everything’s ready."
            "Okay." She ran her fingers through her hair, not sure what she’d intended to do after applying the makeup. She wouldn’t take it off, that was certain, and if she stayed up here it would feel like Aaron had won.
Anne Marie looked at the pot in her hand and tried to measure how long its contents might last. A few more weeks, maybe; there was a big dent in this single precious ounce. After she emptied it, she wouldn’t ask her mother for more, and she couldn’t imagine walking into Macy’s herself to request it from some smooth-faced shopgirl. The mutual acknowledgment that would take sickened her. She was reminded of junior high and high school, when she got by socially—and was aware of just getting by—with a strategy of non-acknowledgment. She would draw no attention to herself, good or bad, and thereby duck the brutality that could so easily have been directed her way. And it worked. She was left alone. But every day of high school exhausted her. All that shallow breathing.
Anne Marie had ripped the label off the pot of makeup to forget the web address and the brand name. She could always search for "champagne gold," but no—when the makeup was gone, her ritual was done. Even so, she wanted to remember how it made her look.
She screwed the cap back on and returned the pot to her dresser drawer. Then she ran a finger over the boundary, squinted, and left her room.
At the bottom of the staircase she paused. The sandwiches she’d abandoned in the hot pan were on a plate, and she crossed the room to get them, shaking her hair into and out of her eyes. She picked up the plate and stopped, wondering if she should feign sickness and bolt back up the stairs, but her mother came up behind her.
"Ready? I poured you some water and there’s wine on the table too. Is that okay?"
"It’s fine." Anne Marie didn’t move, just stood there holding the plate.
"Let’s go then."
She shook her hair into her eyes and turned around.
Her mother gasped. "I knew it!" she said. "I knew it. Let me look at you."
            The plate of sandwiches kept her from getting too close, but she swept Anne Marie’s hair behind her ears and turned her chin back and forth. "I can’t believe it."
            "That’s enough," Anne Marie said, both annoyed and pleased. "Time for dinner."
She backed up out of her mother’s reach and walked around her. In the dining room, Katherine was tucking Aaron’s napkin into his shirt, but she looked up when Anne Marie set the plate on the table.
"Hey, oh my god, what’s that?" Katherine said. "Look at me."
Anne Marie pointed her face toward her sister.
"I’m impressed. You look great. I mean, you always look nice, but wow, it’s different."
            Anne Marie hesitated—Katherine sounded embarrassed. "Thanks," she finally replied.
"Doesn’t she look beautiful!" their mother said.
Anne Marie rolled her eyes. "That’s overstating it, but thank you. Now sit down."
            Their mother pulled out her chair and sat. "All right, let’s pray."
            Aaron clapped along with the prayer, and Anne Marie saw Katherine place a warning hand on his shoulder. Thankfully, their mother didn’t mention the makeup.
"Amen."
"What did you decide about the curtains?" Anne Marie asked. She took a sandwich and passed the plate.
            "I didn’t decide anything. Katherine agreed with you, but I don’t see it."
"There’s no other green in that room, Mom. It would just be odd." Had her voice morphed back into the voicemail-and-old-home-movies sound? She wanted to touch her cheekbone, her forehead, but feared disturbing the makeup. The sense of being a different woman was wearing off.
"We’ll see. Gosh, honey, I can’t keep my eyes off of you!"
"Mom, stop, really," Katherine said and smiled at Anne Marie.
Anne Marie smiled back, but she wanted Aaron to say something. Nothing she did affected him. Even when Katherine made him try a bite of chili and one of Swiss on rye, he didn’t complain or make a face, just swallowed dutifully before going back to his chicken noodle and American on white bread. She willed him to whine and carry on, be blatantly insulting, say something.
She wondered if they ever talked about her. What was it like for him to hear her name? Did he hear it the way she heard his, always with a little start and a hollow ping in the center of her, surprised and hurt, surprised and hurt, every time; or was he able to ignore the sound of her name the way he did the sound of her voice, impervious to any trace or mention of her? Had he ever said her name himself, out loud or silently, one syllable, two syllables, three: Anne Ma-rie?
With something like relief, Anne Marie realized she wanted Aaron gone—not dead, just gone, away, never been. She watched him eat dinner, doted on by Katherine and their mother, and imagined him shrinking. She wished him no longer eight years old, wished him an infant, wished him a fetus, then an embryo, a zygote or whatever came before, then just two cells, then those two cells apart.
The dinner conversation continued, punctuated by gasps from her mother. "I can’t believe it, Anne Marie! You look so different."
Then during a lull when they were mostly finished and almost ready for dessert, Aaron said, "I want to touch it."
"Touch what?" Katherine asked, but Anne Marie knew, and she watched her sister follow his gaze to her own face.
"Oh, honey," Katherine said, and looked away, "that’s…that’s not a nice thing to say. I want you to apologize, please."
"It’s okay. He can touch it." Anne Marie put down her spoon and backed her chair out. She almost didn’t care if he messed up the makeup.
            Her mother reached across the table. "Anne Marie—"
Aaron stood and Katherine put an arm out. "No. Sit down and say you’re sorry."
"It’s not a big deal, Katherine," Anne Marie said.
"For god’s sake!"  Katherine looked at her and widened her eyes.
            "Come here, Aaron."
He slid out from under his mother’s arm and took two steps. "Aaron," Katherine said, "I’ve asked you to sit down and apologize."
He paused, then kept heading toward Anne Marie. He stopped and peered at her, his face inches from hers, and as he brought his fingers to her face, she put her hand on his cheek. He jerked his head away and she dropped her hand, but neither of them moved.
"I’m giving you one more chance to do the right thing," Katherine said.
Aaron didn’t acknowledge his mother. He brought his hand back up and tapped Anne Marie on the forehead, shivered and giggled, then gave her a circle of taps around her left eye. "Now take it off and let me touch," he said. "I want to touch the blood part."
Katherine lunged toward them and grabbed Aaron’s arm, and Anne Marie heard her mother say, "Aaron!"
Anne Marie said nothing, just sat still in her chair, letting him notice her.
"I don’t know why you’re doing this!" Katherine nearly shouted, and Anne Marie didn’t know who she was talking to. But then her sister turned to her. "What did you expect from him?" she asked, and spun around, pulling Aaron down the hall.
"Katherine, don’t go," their mother said. "It’ll be fine." She followed them, and Anne Marie sat at the table winding her napkin around her wrist. The door banged shut, and when her mother came back she said, "Oh honey," and put her hand on Anne Marie’s head. "I’m sorry about that. I’m so sorry. But you really do look beautiful."
Anne Marie sighed and stood up. She picked up her plate and bowl but her mother took them from her. "No, I’ll do it. You go ahead."
Unsure of what she was released to go ahead and do, Anne Marie climbed the stairs with a tightness in her chest and her temples. She wished she could cry, but crying had been out of her reach for years
In the upstairs bathroom she scrutinized her face; she didn’t squint. The champagne gold—such a stupid set of syllables—didn’t match her skintone; it left an obvious line of demarcation, and this evidence of her effort humiliated her.
She’d been right all those times she told her mother she didn’t want makeup. It hadn’t fooled her classmate when she was ten years old, and it didn’t fool anyone now. It made her look more pathetic, like an ugly woman with a perfect manicure or a fat one in an elaborate hairdo. The care those sorts of women took with their nails or their hair threw their ugliness into greater relief. Pretty women could cut their nails short and wear ponytails—and they didn’t need industrial-strength makeup.
It was the effort she hated. The kids in school who drew the worst bullying were those visibly upset by it, or those who made some effort, some public indication they might be entertaining a different, perhaps bigger, idea of themselves than they’d been allowed by their peers. Anne Marie could remember some of their names. Fat Sarah Barton who talked about becoming an actress. The younger Stawiski boy, who wasn’t retarded, exactly—the one who wore a Michael Jordan jersey nearly every day and walked down the hall miming layups. Anne Marie knew how close she was to being categorized with them. But she recognized the rules. Why bother with a fancy hairstyle when a quarter of your face was purple? If she’d come to school wearing makeup, she’d have been crucified.
Flipping channels once, she happened upon an infomercial for a similar type of makeup—not the kind she was wearing; she’d have remembered the silver pot. A teenager with a birthmark like hers, only smaller, sat in front of a mirror flanked by her mother and a makeup artist, one of those conventionally, aggressively beautiful women who showed up in infomercials and public-service announcements, their arms around one-legged children or fat housewives, grinning and crying as though they didn’t notice the starkness between their own harsh beauty and God’s little left-behinds.
The makeup artist explained to the girl that the product gave her options: some days she might not feel like using it, and some days she might. As though it were just like having an extra spring jacket, Anne Marie had thought, or a reversible belt. As though the girl, if she’d really had a choice, would ever pick the stain over plain skin, the way she might pick the blue jacket over the yellow. And where did this girl go to school? Anne Marie wondered whether in a big city you might have more anonymity. But any school anywhere was likely its own claustrophobic small town.
Staring at the mirror now, she was reminded she didn’t have a choice either. She could distract herself with the makeup and its ritual, but she’d known all along: it would always be there—the blood part.
Makeup was the low-tech way to address a birthmark. There were lasers, these magic lasers—but it should have been taken care of when she was little, before she had a choice, before she could know her mother was ashamed of her. What would it be like never to have seen it? To have no memory of its reflection? It was not a thing to be fixed in adulthood; it was something to be erased in infancy.
Anne Marie dropped her eyes and picked at her shirt where it had gotten stuck under her bra. She pulled it into a tent and let it fall back, then crossed her arms and cupped the sides of her breasts, squeezing them up and together. She held herself too long, and the familiar warmth began between her legs. Everyone’s had sex. Letting go her breasts, she pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes until pink rays darted out to meet green and brown orbs, the colors kaleidoscopic. She wanted to stay here, watching the light show behind her wrists, but her eyes ached and the warmth in her crotch was insistent.
I am weak, she thought. Lord forgive me.
She turned from the mirror, her eyes still closed, and leaned over, fitting her fist between her legs over the thick seam of her jeans and pressing in with the base of her thumb. She exhaled once, a loud huh that surprised her, cupped her right hand with her left, and braced her arms against the tops of her thighs as she bent and straightened her knees. This was a need like hunger or thirst—never thoroughly slaked, only held off by its own indulging.
Anne Marie bobbed fast and jerky on her clenched hands. Her heartbeat quickened, and her labored breathing frustrated her, but after a few minutes she was done: one more powerful huh. Something broke inside her, and she welcomed the shame. She continued to breathe hard and backed up to sit on the edge of the tub and rest her browbone on her palms, flexing her cramped fingers above her head.
After a minute she jumped up to look in the mirror again. The makeup was smudged around her eye. She touched her cheekbone once, and her forehead, then did a circle of taps like Aaron had. She opened the cupboard, looking for something to take the makeup off—she was out of the baby oil she’d used all week. There was a bottle of rubbing alcohol at the back of the top shelf.
She wouldn’t close her eyes as she wiped the stinging liquid over her face, starting at the boundary of makeup and skin and moving in a diminishing spiral until she circled her lids, her eye spilling over. The transformation was like peeling dermal layers to reveal the pulp underneath.
Anne Marie switched off the light and felt along the wall to her bedroom. It was too early to go to sleep, but she drew back the covers and got into bed without undressing—she still felt swollen between her legs and she didn’t want to confront her pale and rolling nudity. She pulled the blankets over her head and tried to pray, but nothing came so she clapped her name, watching her hands in the moonlight through the sheet: Anne Ma-rie Cul-pep-per. Six. Aaron had seven: Aar-on Cul-pep-per Cald-well.
She clutched her throat, slid her hands up to her face, inhaled and exhaled behind her fingers. After several minutes her consciousness slipped, and then she was putting the makeup on Aaron, in stripes and spirals, and like whiskers on a cat. She covered his eyebrows and his lips, lined his eyes and nostrils, drew along his jaw from ear to ear. She couldn’t stop. She spread the makeup over his throat and worked it into his hair, around his ears and neck, under the shirt collar. Her hands moved over his shoulders and down his back, frenzied, but then her leg jerked and she jolted out of her dozing, a flash of this half-dream before her eyes.
And then it was there in all its disturbing vividness. She wanted to pray it away, but still nothing came so she said the Lord’s Prayer twice plus the Gloria Patri once for good measure: Our Fa-ther, who art in Hea-ven, hal-low-ed be thy name… Glo-ry be to the Fa-ther and to the Son and to the Ho-ly Ghost…

*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Early drafts of this piece (which is the first chapter of my novel in progress) were sort of okay but bland. Anne Marie made dinner, Aaron came over, and then—nothing. really. I’d fallen into one of my usual traps: the pov character sits around and thinks about stuff. You need some of that, certainly, but too much is deadly.
I was in my MFA program when I drafted this piece and did the initial revising, and my teacher at the time, Maud Casey, wondered what would happen if Anne Marie wore the makeup to dinner, in front of her family. She suggested this a couple of times before I tried it, but when I did I could tell right away it was the right move.
            So the lessons that came out of revising this piece were several:
1) See what happens when you have a character not just think about doing or saying something dramatic, but actually doing or saying it.
2) Sometimes a good idea won’t resonate right away. That’s okay; there’s always the next revision.
3) Child characters can be really useful for believably unpredictable behavior.
****
ABOUT HADLEY MOORE
Hadley Moore’s short stories, novel excerpts, and nonfiction have appeared in Newsweek, Witness, The Indiana Review, The Drum, Ascent, Midwestern Gothic, Knee-Jerk Magazine, and other publications. She is at work on a novel and a collection of stories, and is an alumna of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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