I had the same bare face I’d always had, but sitting at the cosmetics counter in Eaton’s Department Store waiting for the first round of my reinvention to begin, I felt conspicuously flawed. Daneen had pointed me to a stool—“Start there and move down the line”—and she’d gone off to shop. While the cosmetologist assembled her brushes and bottles, I watched a clump of traffic-darkened slush slide off the side of my boot and plop onto the shiny floor. Then I closed my eyes and succumbed to the rub rub, pat pat of a stranger’s hands, to the possibility of my metamorphosis. I was trying to pay close attention to what was being done, to the techniques I’d need to know to recreate whatever miracle was taking place.
When told to, I opened my eyes to the mirror. A wave of nausea replaced my excitement. I looked like my grandmother had after her eyesight had failed but she’d kept up with the rouge, smearing gobs of it across her cheeks. I said thank you too ardently.
At the next counter, my face was cleansed and exfoliated and toned until it seemed like this cosmetologist couldn’t stand to do anything but erase the last one’s work. When that was finished, the rosy cheeks were all mine but just as much a trick, and just as temporary.
Daneen returned while I was sitting at the third counter, drifting on the gentle touch of a makeup sponge. “She could use a little contour under her cheekbones,” she said. And then, “This shadow will work best with her eyes.”
It embarrassed me, Daneen talking like that to someone so much older, someone who wore a lab coat and did makeup for a living. I started to feel like a prop in her show. But when the woman spun me around to the mirror, my irritation fell away. I looked amazing—my eyes bigger, my skin flawless, my face defined. I looked like somebody else.
Daneen put a hand on my neck and smiled at me the way the 4-H girls back home smiled at their horses. “We’ll take everything you put on her.”
I tore my gaze from my reflection. “Daneen, I can’t afford all that—I still have to buy Christmas presents!”
She waved off my protest. “It’s my present to you.”
It was the first time she did that, subsidized me, and maybe if I’d said no right then, I’d never have become so beholden, so mired. Maybe my acquiescence that afternoon was the first mistake, the error that multiplied over the years. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. Maybe everything is about accumulation, about how things add up and liability compounds, day after day, year after year.
I let Daneen pay for those cosmetics. Two desperate hours later, when I could find nothing in the entire department store that felt like the right reciprocal gift, I offered to buy her dinner downtown.
The restaurant was dimly lit with tall, carved wooden chairs, heavy and serious. We sat at a small table along the back wall. Daneen ordered a carafe of wine and told me how much she dreaded going home for Christmas, dreaded having to spend time with her frosty parents and dreaded, even more, the inevitable obstacle course of old boyfriends. I nodded like I had the same problem.
Every so often, she detoured from talking about life back home to tell me again how amazing—how different—I looked. But while I was figuring out how much to leave for the tip, she took a harder look and saw something else. “You’re like a sponge, Meriel,” she said, “absorbing everything but holding your own shape exactly.”
Ledger of the Open Hand
by Leslie Vryenhoek
$19.95, paperback, 324 pp.
Breakwater Books, May 2015