Alice Martin graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a BA in English and Creative Writing. In the past she has worked, read, and edited for the Carolina Quarterly, Press 53 Publishing Company, Folio Literary Management, and Algonquin Books. Her review “Under the Shadow of Love” was published in the April 2013 Carolina Quarterly, and her short story “Checks and Balances” was published in the January 2015 Cellar Door. Currently, she works for Amy Berkower at Writers House LLC in New York City.
In the morning they look like surgical instruments, laid out parallel on white counters. Shaping scissors, slant tweezers, lash curlers, precision combs. And don’t even get her started on the brushes, their slim black grips and fanned feather heads.
Theresa likes the early mornings in Macy’s. Before the front grates have lifted, before the other saleswomen arrive, and it’s just the low moan of the floor buffers, the hollow whisper of empty space. In this stillness, she feels as if she exists. There are no averted eyes to tell her otherwise.
She smooths her finger pads on the plastic surfaces, sees her darkened reflection looming against the mirrored light.
A year ago, before her mother died of lung cancer, she’d said to Theresa: You used to be so pretty. Now look at you.
At first they filter in, slow moving like dust particles floating in space. One woman drifts to the sterling silver earring display, another stares at the taut-skinned Dior photo of Charlize Theron. They could be admiring, but their eyes are sharp as knives, searching for imperfections.
By one, the store is crowded and the cavernous front room is loud with women laughing, talking, sniffing. Theresa faces her third customer of the day, a middle-aged woman with squinty eyes and a peach puckered mouth.
“You have lovely cheek bones,” she says to the woman. It’s important to find the right feature to highlight. The one the customer will know isn’t a lie. Women know their own faces better than they know almost anything else.
“Well, everyone has to have something, I guess,” the woman says. She thrusts her face forward, chin first, and closes her eyes.
With her eyes closed the woman looks years younger, but that’s something you can’t tell a customer. Every woman wants to think her eyes are her best feature. You always tell a woman she should accentuate her eyes.
The woman has a daughter. The girl must be seven or eight, too young to be pretty but too old to be cute. The first thing Theresa (and anyone for that matter) notices about the daughter is the scar that runs down the side of her face. Puckered and raw pink, it traces a line from the left corner of her left eye to the downturned corner of her mouth.
She watches Theresa closely, closer than Theresa has been watched for years. Theresa can still remember what the weight of men’s eyes felt like when she walked by, like the weight of a sweat-moist hand on the small of her back. She can’t tell which is more noticeable: the looks, or now the cold absence of them.
“Do you want to pick out some free samples?” Theresa asks the girl.
“Oh, don’t encourage her,” the woman says. She opens one squinty eye to peer at her daughter and shuts it again. “She’s not allowed to wear makeup yet.”
Theresa steadies the heel of hand on the woman’s “lovely” cheekbones and draws a smooth black line against her lashes. She considers this idea of makeup as something as forbidden and taboo as lies or sex. She pretends not to notice the daughter watching her.
“What happened to your face?” the girl asks Theresa. Theresa’s hand slips and smears the liquid eyeliner.
The mother’s eyes snap open. “Really, Olivia,” she says. “Don’t be a brat.”
Theresa grabs a cloth soaked in remover and rubs at the black mark the eyeliner left on the woman’s face. “It’s okay,” she says. She fixes her eyes on the little girl. “I was in a car accident two years ago with a tanker. Burned half my face off.”
The mother readjusts in her seat and squeezes her eyes shut just a little too tight.
After a moment the girl says, “Don’t you want to ask me what happened to my face?”
“What happened to your face?” Theresa says. She can feel the mother getting antsy under her hands. This isn’t the time or place to talk about these things. This is a place people go to smooth everything over, even their own faces. Not uncover ugly truths.
“My horse kicked me in the face and broke my jaw,” the girl says.
“That must have hurt.”
“I don’t remember it much,” the girl says.
“That’s a blessing, young lady. You remember that,” her mother butts in.
“I wonder about it sometimes,” Olivia says, ignoring her mother. “The pain.”
Theresa finishes with the eyeliner and takes a step back. The mother’s eyes are open in an instant and she gathers her shopping bags. Theresa doesn’t even ask her if she wants to buy a bottle. She knows this sale is lost. Instead, she stares at Olivia and Olivia stares right back.
“The pain doesn’t matter,” Theresa says. “The pain isn’t anything compared to what comes after.”
The mother takes Olivia’s hand and pulls her away, across the sales floor and toward the exit. Olivia looks back over her shoulder to wave to Theresa.
That night, as the grates go down over the doors with a rumble and the young saleswomen around her chirp pleasant goodbyes to each other (but never to her), Theresa wonders if she should have lied. It’s going to be okay, Olivia. Soon you’ll forget it’s even there. No one will even notice. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Why don’t you try this cover up? You should be grateful you are alive. You’ll be a heartbreaker yet. But you’ve got lovely cheekbones. You have the most beautiful eyes.
Theresa runs her palm over her smooth cheek, where the skin was once mottled and scabbed, but is now just a paler shade of pink. She thinks about weeks of hospital rooms, and skin graft after skin graft. Olivia will hear plenty of those assurances, Theresa knows. They aren’t for her to say. There is only so much words, like most things, can do.