I’ve been playing with different forms of writing lately – poetry, prose, short story – and recently enrolled in a One Story writing class. This is one of the short stories I wrote, all inspired by the photograph below.
Every Thursday after the dinner dishes are cleared, Isabel sits down to do her makeup. Claire forgets where her mama goes to, even though Daddy reminds her each night that she’s away. Scuttling up on the second kitchen chair, Claire joins her mother next to the small, circular mirror stand.
“Can I try?” She asks, gesturing to Isabel’s assemblage of makeup sticks. Eyeliner, eyebrow pencil, eyeliner. Claire likes the way they look all neat, together in a line. Like fancy crayons. “I want to draw my face, too.”
“I’m sorry, but you still got a few years to wait before you can start using lipstick like your Mama,” Isabel responds, looking down warmly at the little, pink-clad figure beside her.
Besides, she says to herself, it’s more like putting armor on than drawing a picture. She thinks ahead to the council meeting before her. It would be a long one. Especially with Judith there. She always manages to beat around the bush and then some with every item on the agenda. Being VP of the library board has made her cocky. Isabel muses. Always interrupting. Rude. Especially to me. Even though Isabel is technically one rung above her as President.
“But why?” Claire chimes, pulling Isabel back into the present. “You make it look so fuuunnn!” She draws out the word and giggles near the end, knowing how it will charm her mother. Claire always admires how beautiful Mama looks after she paints her face. Her lips are always so glossy and shiny and red. Mama usually kisses Claire goodnight, but not on Thursdays. Not with those lips. She got to keep them from getting all messy.
“No, Claire-Bear,” Isabel repeats, “Mama doesn’t even wear makeup that often, and you know it’s only special for her library meetings on Thursdays.”
Her library meetings. Isabel looks back in the mirror at herself determinedly. Not today, Judith. She slants her eyes and turns up her chin confidently. Today, I’m gonna look straight back into flat, cold, icy eyes. I’m gonna say my mind, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. And my lashes are gonna be so fierce, you’re gonna be hard-pressed to look away. Rubbing her lips together a few times to moisten them, Isabel starts lining them a dark purple. Today, this mouth is gonna say exactly what’s on my mind. She’ll keep it professional, of course. Even though Judith barely can. But I’mma make sure to entrance you. Ain’t no one gonna disagree with what these flawless lips have got to say.
Claire fidgets silently for a few moments, swinging her legs up and down in the chair. She considers challenging Mama’s refusal, but knows that will only shoo her from the room. And Claire didn’t want to be shooed. She’s not ready to leave just yet. Instead, she sighs audibly, and concedes.
“Ok. Then…” She stuffs her hand inside the bosom of her Tutu and pulls out a slender pink chapstick, decorated with little cartoon strawberries. “I’ll just use my own.”
Isabel whips her eyes away from the mirror. “Where did you get that?” She asks sharply.
“Daddy got it for me.”
“Whatchu mean, child? Daddy’s buying makeup for you, now?”
“No!” Claire squeals, protesting. “It’s just chapstick, Mama. We got it at the grocery store, cuz Daddy knows I like strawberries” She lifts her hand and starts lining her mouth in a tiny imitation of Isabel. Her small forehead crinkles in concentration.
Isabel inspects her daughter searchingly for a few seconds. She knows for right now, it’s all fun and games for Claire. Copying Mama while she puts on makeup. Hell, Isabel used to do the same thing with her own mother in the mirror. I used to be the same way, she reflects to herself, Wanting to be as beautiful as my own Mama. Little did younger Isabel realize that it wasn’t all just for show. As an adult, she now sees the act of painting her face as a defense-mechanism; a preparation for battle. Folks respect you more when you look good doing it, she had learned. Especially as a woman. Especially a black woman. Oh dear. I hope my little Claire isn’t picking up all of this too fast. She continues to stare at the tiny child in front of her.
Finally, Isabel relaxes her shoulders and leans back. “Mm. Ok, sweetie.” She reaches forward and strokes the top of Claire’s head, smoothing out the loose frizz that has come out of her bun. Inhaling the sweet, fruity fumes, she murmurs, “Smells good, at least.”
“Uh huh,” Claire says, more to herself. She is still applying the stick of strawberry to her mouth, working slowly from the outside-in. Isabel turns back to her mirror, and continues applying the rest of her face; eyeliner, shadow, mascara. Claire looks up curiously every now and then, asking questions like, “What’s that skinny brush for? Aren’t you scared you gonna poke your eye?” And so on. The only other sound is that of the heater humming in the distance of the small kitchen.
Finally, Isabel puts her pencil down. “Time for Mama to go, baby. And for you to go to bed.”
Claire wrinkles her nose, but willingly scoots from her chair and jumps down. “‘Night, Mama.” Her baby slippers shuffle along the wooden floorboards and tap-tap-tap-tap up the steps. Just before reaching the top, Claire looks down and flashes Isabel a toothy grin. “Go get ’em'” and disapears upstairs.
After one last look in the mirror, Isabel takes a deep breath, braces herself and stands up. Watch out, Judith. This face is fresh, these nails are painted, and the claws are coming out tonight.