Megan Smith Harris
The entire east coast was in the throes of post-traumatic holiday stress disorder. Under the mall’s unforgiving fluorescent lights, everyone – teens, babies, career women, me – looked pasty and unwell, like extras from Night of the Living Dead. We were sick of winter.
I wanted to shout, “Come on you guys – let’s hop on the next flight to Cabo. We’ll be sipping mango daiquiris by sunset!”
But I didn’t. Instead, I crossed the threshold of Victoria’s Secret to return a crotch-grazing fuchsia satin nightgown – a misguided but well-intentioned Christmas gift from my sister-in-law. The salesclerk’s eyes swept over my no-longer “hot” (just barely lukewarm) body, dismissed me as unworthy of a leopard thong and matching pushup demi-bra and turned to a much younger customer. I slunk out, defeated.
I needed cheering up. Maybe I’d buy myself a little something? I hopped on the nearest escalator and was delivered to the velvety interior of Saks. The air was rife with commingling scents – citrus, musk, ambergris, gardenia. I glanced at the perfume bottles arranged alluringly on a silver tray. The labels seemed to neatly encapsulate the cycle of life: “DNA,” “Beautiful,” “Passion,” “Amour Amour,” “Eternity,” “Revenge” and “Escape.”
Only a matter of time, I thought, before some marketing genius created “Dumpy,” “Whore-moan-al” and “Corpse.”
I looked up and came face-to-face with a bag lady. What on earth was a bag lady doing in Saks? I took in the dun-colored coat, greasy hair, sallow complexion and empty eyes. Defeat clung to her like a bad smell. Where was security?
I smiled. She smiled back.
I blinked. So did she.
In one terrifying moment of clarity, I realized that I wasn’t staring at a bag lady – I was staring at my own reflection.
“Would you like a makeover?” asked a disembodied female voice.
I stood paralyzed on the dove-gray carpet.
“Going somewhere special tonight?” the voice persisted.
“Yes … yes, I am,” I lied.
“What color outfit are you wearing?”
I turned slowly. Where was person that belonged to that voice? There were so many mirrors, so much glass … I couldn’t determine her location.
“A pale green blouse and a black suede skirt,” I lied again. “With black boots,” I added unnecessarily.
Finally, I found her, standing in front of the Estée Lauder counter. Black Lycra pants (highlighting every gluteal divot), appeared to have been professionally upholstered to her ass; her ivory knit top, bedazzled with a giant turquoise butterfly, showcased impressive cleavage. Her nameplate read, “Marybeth.” She worked here?
Marybeth’s blonde hair had been backcombed to Barberella proportions and her makeup was worthy of an aspiring drag queen, and yet, she looked inexplicably pretty. Once upon a time she must have been a knock-out.
“Would you like a makeover?”
The question hovered between us like a tiny hummingbird. Yes, I thought. I would like a makeover. I would like my face made over, my body made over, my marriage, house, and finances made over with maybe some career makeover tweakage thrown in as a bonus.
“Yes. I would,” I said, surprising myself.
“Terrific!” she replied and led me to her counter like a baby lamb to Jesus. “Have a seat here, Hon. We’ll fix you right up.”
The concept of being “fixed up” was enticing. Since becoming a mother I was so preoccupied that I rarely acknowledged my own pressing needs, like going to the bathroom and plucking stray chin hairs. Forget about bikini waxes and lingerie, my world was now firmly entrenched in Jockey for Her and elastic waist pants. How the mighty had fallen.
Why did I put my face in the hands of a woman whose maquillage screamed “Barnum & Bailey” rather than whispering “Bobbie Brown?” I don’t know. I just did. After more than a decade of marriage and motherhood I wanted somebody to pamper me, to offer me sanctuary, even if it was a stranger at the Estée Lauder counter in a suburban mall.
Or maybe I just wanted to fall in love with myself again?
I parked my shopping bags and hoisted myself onto the black leatherette stool.
While Marybeth busied herself assembling product, I pondered what I used to love about being me: the curve of my back, my bikini-worthy stomach, my cooking, comic timing, maddening optimism, perky breasts and yes, my intelligence. I used to feel smart. I used to be smart. Back in the day, I’d been a babe, a catch. If I’d been a guy I would definitely have wanted to date me. Now I just wanted to give myself spare change.
The fact was I was no longer dating myself. No dinners out, no flowers. And when was the last time I made myself laugh? Bought a new outfit? Had sex?
If I had stopped loving myself did that mean everyone else had too? Had I been rendered officially unlovable?
Ironically, I had no clue when the romance with myself ended. Clearly it hadn’t been a wrenching break-up but rather a slow, protracted death-by-obligation-to-others process. Was there still a microscopic flame of self-love deep within my soul? If so, could it be reignited?
“We’re going to start with moisturizer,” said Marybeth, effectively puncturing my flammable reverie. “Everybody’s complexion is dry this time of year and this Wrinkle Lifting Serum is fantastic for mature skin.”
Wielding a rubber-tipped dropper, she applied five amber drops of fluid to my face. “This stuff is liquid gold,” she enthused, rubbing it in briskly with her fingertips. “It has restructuring peptides.”
I had no idea what peptides were but the “restructuring” part was appealing.
“At a certain age,” she continued confidentially, “the collagen starts to flow out of your face faster than cheap champagne at an Italian wedding. This serum begins rebuilding collagen in just two hours! See? Your skin already looks fresher!”
I peered into the mirror hopefully.
My need for reassurance was now bordering on pathetic.
“What’s your name, Hon?”
“Claire,” I replied, lying inexplicably for the third time. (I just always loved that name.)
“A green blouse, right, Claire?”
Marybeth stood in front of me displaying a gold case with a full complement of verdant eye shadows.
“Um … yeah. But I don’t really wear any color like that. I prefer …” Nothing, I thought, I prefer nothing.
“Lilac tones would really bring out the blue in your eyes ¬¬– make ‘em pop.”
“No point in getting a makeover unless you zazz things up. Am I right?” A new palette of violet, plum and aubergine appeared in her hand as if by magic.
I hesitated. There was a good chance I’d end up looking like I’d lost the world heavy weight title. But Marybeth was right. I did need to “zazz” up my life – I’d just forgotten how. Maybe purple eye shadow wasn’t the answer … but maybe it was? “Fantastic!” she said, interpreting my vacillation as consent. “You’re going to love it. Now, some primer,” she said reaching for a glossy tube, “or ‘spackle’ as I like to think of it.”
Marybeth laughed at her bon mot whilst dabbing my forehead, cheeks and chin with the miracle compound. It felt good to be touched so gently, to have someone single-mindedly focused on my wellbeing. “Close your eyes. Relax. You’re going to look beautiful.”
I closed my eyes and tilted my face up like an obliging child. She applied foundation in long feathery strokes and nattered on about her Christmas ¬¬– a feuding family, incontinent dog, alcoholic boyfriend.
It was incredibly soothing.
My mind wandered. I thought about an obituary I read that morning concerning a woman who died of a stroke at 47. Forty-seven! I was older than that … essentially one foot in the grave … foot … feet … were my feet as wrinkled as my face? Would the Wrinkle Lifting Serum make my toes more youthful? Did people ever get their toes injected with Botox? Ugh. That would be crazy … right up there with “vaginal rejuvenation” – another wack-a-doodle concept being marketed to women to make them feel worse about themselves … market … I still had to go … what should I make for dinner?
“Open your eyes!” said Marybeth.
I opened my eyes and looked in the mirror.
Staring back at me was an attractive woman with brilliant blue eyes. She wasn’t 17, but she wasn’t pushing a rusty shopping cart overflowing with garbage bags and soda cans either. Hunh. The purple eye-shadow really did make my eyes pop.
“What do you think?”
“I think,” I said, admiring myself, “that I’ll buy that Wrinkle Lifting Serum.”
“Terrific!” said Marybeth.
I handed her my credit card. “And throw in the eye-shadow too.”
She smiled and handed me my small bag of hope. I glanced at my watch – there was still plenty of time to get my hair done, buy a new outfit and take myself out for an exquisite dinner. It was going to be one fabulous date.
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