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This was the bit that Ruby never understood. For me, makeup was never a process of putting on, but of keeping on. Keeping things in the right places, shapes, and sizes. Where her mascara might cover up her eyelashes with something dark and sticky, my mascara kept my eyelashes from foresting around into my corneas. It kept my eyes fastened tightly into place.
“It isn’t about wanting to look pretty,” I tried telling her. “It’s about…” I scrunched up my nose at myself in the mirror, looking for answers in between its little pores. For a way to explain myself. For a way to say: If it weren’t for my foundation, my chin would’ve slipped down to be a third elbow years ago. “It’s about maintaining order.”
But Ruby didn’t believe me (big surprise) and only rolled her mascara-free eyes at me instead.
One of these days, I thought, they’re going to roll straight off her face and then she’ll be sorry. Then she’ll wish she’d worn her makeup.
But it’s not my problem. Not anymore. She’s been warned. I’ve been warning her ever since our eighth birthday.
You’d think that our being twins might’ve made it easier on Mom to remember our birthday, but there was something in the fact that we weren’t identical that just seemed to baffle her. We got used to her forgetting about us early on.
Instead of cakes and parties like the other kids got, it was left up to us to reward ourselves for surviving another year. At six, we gave each other permission to practice one new skill on the other (for me, it was drawing — a full magic marker mural all over Ruby’s little body; for Ruby, it was kissing — lips, ears, eyes, and hands). At seven, we traded tickets for One Free Lie, a ticket that promised full sibling corroboration on any story to any grown-up. At eight, we decided to let each other off the hook and instead reward ourselves by sneaking into Mom’s room and playing with all her Mom-things.
Ruby dug immediately into Mom’s books and card boxes, rifling through love letters from men we’d never heard of and doctor notes about problems we couldn’t pronounce.
For me, there was only Mom’s vanity. A dark wooden desk with a tall, rounded mirror and little flowers carved into its frame. The mirror had gone yellow and murky around the edges and the wood was scratched and stained from years of use — being passed down all the way from Grandma’s mother, Mom explained. But it wasn’t the vanity itself that drew me; it was all the fairy-sized bottles and boxes that cluttered it.
It all smelled and looked so much like what Mom always wanted to smell and look like. Touching her lipsticks to my lips and dabbing her perfumes up and down my arms and legs, I felt closer to her than I’d ever felt before. It was closer than any hug or meal or shouting match, stepping inside Mom like that. Stepping inside the meadowy-pink skin of who Mom most wanted to be.
Ruby kept two of the letters for herself, one from a man named George who’d written to tell our mother that he loved her the same way a poet loves the moon. The other letter Ruby never let me read, but I could always tell when she’d been reading it because it was the only thing that ever made her cry.
And though I covered myself from head to toe in powders, creams, and colors, I only kept one thing: a little round box, pink with gold paper latticed on top, and tiny balls of Easter-colored powder within.
Painted, I went for a walk around the neighborhood to show off my new face, certain even the leaves and clouds and dandelions would be jealous. But then, as I walked down the same walk I’d walked a hundred times before, the world started tilting sideways. I turned my head down to match it, confused, but the world only kept tilting and tilting till I got seasick and had to beat it back home to throw up. That’s when I saw it.
Rinsing out my mouth, I looked up into the bathroom mirror and realized it wasn’t the world that was tilting sideways — it was my left eye. My left eye was sliding down the side of my face, drooping like an almond in a half-melted candy bar.
First, I reminded myself not to scream. (Mom was never good about loud noises; especially not on weekends when cocktail hour shifted to the A.M.) Then I ran my hands fast over my face and body, checking to see if anything else was melting, and came away with palms covered in perfume, powders, lipsticks, and creams. Mom’s Dream Mom covered me — everywhere but my eyes, I realized. Everywhere but my eyes.
I bolted back into Mom’s room. She was still asleep on the couch then, so it wasn’t hard; the only hard thing about it was figuring out what kinds of makeup I was supposed to use. Eye shadow? Eyeliner? Mascara? Did I need to tweeze my eyebrows? Curl my lashes?
I decided to do it all, use it all, anything to stop the slide in my eye.
“You aren’t going anywhere,” I promised my eye, and almost wept with relief as I brushed on the last clumpy stroke of mascara and watched the ball tighten back into place once more. The eye was still crooked, but at least it was still. “You aren’t going anywhere ever again.”
Mom was only too happy to buy me my own makeup kit (it was easier, she knew, than trying to keep me from breaking into her room again), but Ruby wouldn’t take any of it. Didn’t want it. Didn’t even want to try any of it.
“It’s not like my face is all messed up,” she’d say, sticking out her tongue.
“Don’t worry,” I told her, coloring in my eight-year-old lips with grape-purple lipstick, “it will be.”
After that, I started sneaking up to Ruby’s bunk at night to apply as much makeup as I could, certain that if I didn’t, she’d wake up to find her nose and lips all tangled together on her pillow.
The game didn’t last long, though. Instead of waking up nose- and lipless, she’d just wake up pissed and fuming. And when she finally did catch me at it one night, jerking up and nearly putting her eye out on the mascara wand, Mom decided it was time we started sleeping in separate rooms. (Ruby got the one that locked.)
Of course, there wasn’t much about me that didn’t make Ruby pissy. Even living apart after college, it was like she could sense my every touch-up trip to every random bathroom no matter where we were — I guess maybe it’s the same way that some twins can sense when the other one’s in danger. And if it wasn’t my makeup, then it was my thing about twice-touching all the doors and windows before leaving home. And if it wasn’t that, then it was my thing about rubber banding all the cutlery together. And if it wasn’t that, then it was my boyfriend Jack. Especially Jack.
Jack the Architect. (Heart-chitect.)
Jack who appreciated the stability in things.
Jack who understood the value in fixing things tightly into place.
“He’s handsome, sure,” Ruby would say, and squint her eyes like this too might be some clue. “But there’s something about him that’s just not right, Cara. There’s something…weird about him.”
I was never in the mood to hear Ruby talk about him, but somehow she and Mom were always, always in the mood to try and make me listen.
He’s too perfect, they’d say. He’s too nice. Too Insert Thing Here. But I knew what they really meant.
He’s too perfect for you, Cara. Why would anyone want you?
It wasn’t in either of them to pretend any harder, to try and hide the fact that they both thought I was crazy.
“You aren’t crazy,” Jack told me again and again, squeezing my bottom or checking the oven timer. “You’re creative. You’ve just got a mind like no one’s ever seen before.”
Still, I didn’t have any illusions about being easy to live with. Not that Jack ever complained, gladly helping me rubber band all the cutlery each night.
“It’ll keep them from rattling around when we open and close the drawer,” he’d say, smiling.
“Oh, come on,” Ruby would argue, rolling her eyes or drumming her fingers. “There’s got to be something wrong with this guy. What if he’s a serial killer or something?”
If he’s a serial killer, I thought, then maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll kill you next.
I always felt guilty for thinking that way, but it never stopped me from thinking it just the same.
She’s jealous, I tried telling myself. She’s just jealous and that’s why she doesn’t like him.
But I didn’t have any brain makeup to keep all my thoughts from sliding around to the wrong places, so it wasn’t long before I started watching Jack instead of seeing him when he came home. Wasn’t long before I started wondering about Jack instead of thinking of him while he was gone.
Finally, I resolved to say something, to talk to him about it somehow. Who are you really, Mr. Always Puts the Seat Down?
Mr. Always Asks Me About My Day.
Mr. Never Minds About My Crooked Eye.
I waited at the door, anxious, ready, the entire speech planned. And then his smile wiped it all clean off the table.
His lips — lips that had always been so perfect, so handsome and full — were crooked.
He noticed my stare as he hung up his coat. “Everything okay, honey?”
The back of my throat lurched up. “Oh, yes, of course, of course, everything’s great,” I said, perhaps too quickly. “How was work?”
Something about standing desks and office chairs and — How does he not notice it? How does he not notice his mouth crooking around like a damn clock hand?
My thoughts were sliding around again, I realized, and so I jumped up to grab my compact and make sure my nose and eyebrows were still where they were supposed to be.
Maybe he doesn’t notice it because it’s not really happening, Cara. Ever think of that? Maybe you really are crazy. What if it’s just a normal old mouth like it’s always been? That crooked stuff is all just Ruby. Ruby getting to you like she always does. Ruby wishing she had her own Jack to come home to and a George to write her letters.
I took a deep breath. There was something about all that fresh powder on my skin that never failed to calm me down. I tilted the compact to try and glimpse Jack through the mirror, but then snapped it shut to stop myself.
It’s not crooked. It’s only a mouth. And Jack’s not crooked either. He’s only Jack. Perfect Jack. My heart-chitect.
“— I mean, right, hon?” Jack laughed, getting glasses down from the cabinet. A sideways laugh from his sideways mouth.
“Right, babe,” I said, and buffed on a fresh shield of foundation.
His lips kept tilting all through dinner. He ate forkful after forkful of spaghetti in his vertical mouth, wiped red sauce from the corners at his nose and chin, but if any of it bothered him, he never let it show.
It went full upside-down as we changed into pajamas, and yet, even after he brushed his teeth — his tongue dangling from where the roof of his mouth should’ve been — he still didn’t notice it. Or, at least, didn’t care about it. Wasn’t bothered by it.
He wanted to spoon, but his mouth was crooking around again, the skin twisting like dough, and I couldn’t bear to have it so close to me. We laid belly-up instead, me staring into the white popcorn ceiling and him sound asleep, breathing easy. He held my hand.
Why doesn’t he notice it? Why can’t I stop noticing it? Staring up, my eyes watering, I drew together faces and shapes in the popcorn. It’s because you’re crazy, Cara. That’s why. Just like Ruby said. You’re crazy. You’re losing your mind. Just like Mom — Shit, I thought, blinking carefully to keep the tears from blurring my eyeliner. It’s happening to me. Just like Mom. Just like Mom —
Mom who’d had her chances at Jacks and Georges, but then left them out to dry while she pickled in her own suspicions, obsessions, and self-loathing. Mom who’d spent years wondering why her daughters needed her when no one else ever seemed to. Mom who was probably still passed out in her magazine-inspired living room, empty wine bottles knocking together in the trash and beneath the sofa. — Mom who’d let the meadowy-pink Dream Mom eat her up and murder her.
I looked to Jack asleep beside me, squeezed his hand tight, and slipped out of bed as quiet as I could. His mouth was coming back around again and, in a snap of inspiration, I realized how to make it stop. How to make it stick.
Once it’s stopped, I reasoned, I’ll be able to think straight. I’ll know what to do. I’ll be myself again.
Grabbing a lipstick from the bathroom, I slipped back into bed, suddenly grateful for all those nights I’d spent hovering over Ruby with my makeup bag.
I moved slowly in the dark, the old mattress creaking and the cotton sheets shifting, and reached to touch his spinning lips — except they weren’t spinning anymore. They weren’t tilting or moving or melting or even crooked. They were still. Solid. And right where they were supposed to be.
Gently, I touched a fingertip to those lips, baffled, wondering —
I jolted, fumbled the lipstick. A voice. A voice from inside Jack, but somehow not Jack.
Cara, it said. Let me out —
The lipstick tube bounced off his chin and Jack coughed and sputtered, waking up. I snatched the tube back and started up a coughing fit of my own, springing out of bed before he could ask just what the hell I was doing.
“Cara?” he managed, his bedroom voice finding me from where I stood in the bathroom, gripping the sink for support. “Cara? Are you alright? What was that?”
“I’m fine,” I called back, turning on the faucet full blast. “Just a nightmare, hon. Go back to bed.”
I stood there watching myself in the mirror, letting the water run and run. My makeup was still perfect, my nose shine-less, my eyes shadowed and neatly lined, my lashes dark, my lips thoroughly and pinkly sticked. I couldn’t remember what I looked like without it and was half-sure that if I ever tried taking it off, it’d be my lashes and eyebrows that’d dab off on the cotton pads, my skin that’d rinse down the sink — and then all I’d be left with was a big blank Nothing. A hole where a person should’ve been.
“Just a nightmare,” I told myself. “That’s all it was. Just a nightmare.”
Let me out —
My cellphone was still in my jeans, crumpled on the floor by the hamper. I grabbed it without thinking and dialed for Ruby. It rang once, twice, three times — I hung up. Threw it back into the laundry.
Cara, it’d said. Me. Not anyone else.
Turning off the water, I nodded to my mirror-self.
Cara, let me out.
Jack was already asleep again as I spread out my supplies on the bed. Foundations, mascaras, lipsticks, tweezers — they all glittered there in the moonlight like a disassembled smile. And at the center of it all sat the base, the beginning: the Easter pink button of Mom’s rainbow blush.
Jack always slept naked but for socks and an old brass ring his father had given him when he was a boy, so there was no difficulty there. Just lift the covers and expose the torso.
There shouldn’t have been any need for makeup on him. There never had been before. He was like Ruby: strong, beautiful, confident, smart. Able to hold himself together using only himself.
But that doesn’t mean someone else can’t still take you apart, I thought, and set to my work.
I powdered his middle up and down with the rainbow blush till he glowed brighter than the moonlight in the window. Then I took my eyeliner and traced his bones and muscles (things I didn’t want moving around) with neat black lines. And there he was, prepped and ready. Nothing else to do but finish what I’d started.
Blowing a kiss to my Lucky God, I took up the lipstick once more and drew a wide red mouth right down the center of him.
He opened up beneath the red just as smooth as a zipper down a jacket, and there, tucked in the center of him, was me.
Me. My face. My cheek nestled against his liver and my forehead kissing the bottom of his diaphragm.
I dropped the lipstick.
My face smiled up at me.
She was beautiful. No makeup, I realized. No crooked eye. She was bright and clean and full of color. She looked joyous.
She looked loved.
Let me out, she whispered, her eyes rolling up to make sure Jack was still asleep.
And then, from somewhere outside myself, I reached down and lifted her out. Light, I thought. She’s so light.
Try me on, she said. Go on. Don’t be afraid.
My hands trembled as I brought her face up to my own, a face that wasn’t weighted with creams or powders or mothers. She was me, and together we were naked. Together we were who I’d always most wanted to be.