I’m at my grandmother’s house. My dad is downstairs in the living room talking to my grandfather, eating a sandwich.
Lucky for me, my Aunt Lyla is home and she let me come upstairs to her bedroom. It has a blue and white shag carpet. Feels good to rub my toes in it. The carpet looks like a National Geographic photo of the ocean from far above. Mostly dark blue with peaks of white waves.
Aunt Lyla has a crawl space in her room. She climbs in there and drags out an old Barbie camper. It’s intact, but the camper is smelly and faded and a really terrible shade of orange. The same shade as the couches in the basement of my house. The ones that got replaced with matching furniture from the big store on Old Country Road. We took the highway to get there. My sister and I made a game of trying all the recliners in the store.
Do you want to play with this? Aunt Lyla holds up the camper. You can’t have it, she says. I’m saving it for when I have my own kids.
Aunt Lyla is the youngest in my father’s family. My father is the oldest. So, Aunt Lyla and I are close enough in age that she could be my older sister...if I had an older sister who was ten years older than me. I like to call her just “Lyla” and pretend she’s my older sister. Sometimes I think it would be fun to have an older sister. That way, I wouldn’t have to be the oldest.
Can I put on makeup, Lyla? I ask her.
Aunt Lyla, she corrects me.
I am the first grandchild on my father’s side. That means I’m required to call all my
father’s siblings aunt or uncle. No matter if they are young, like Aunt Lyla. No matter if they all still live at home with my grandparents, like Uncle Hank.
But you have to wash it off before you go home, Aunt Lyla warns. She opens a drawer and takes out several plastic bins with eyeshadow and blushes and lipsticks. She has more make- up than the woman who sells Avon to my mother.
And Aunt Lyla has a waterbed. The mattress jiggles when you put your hand on it. Her boyfriend Sal bought it for her. It has a velvet cushion all around it. The headboard isn’t really a headboard at all. Shelves on either side and mirror in the middle. Aunt Lyla put some statues of creepy, German children on the shelves. Hummels, my grandmother calls them. My mother has some too.
Not today, but sometimes, I get to lay down on the waterbed. The liquid mattress surrounds the sides of my body. I feel like I’m floating in the pool...but with flannel sheets and blankets.
It’s hard to get up off the waterbed.
That thing is terrible for your back. That’s what my father said when Aunt Lyla showed him. But Aunt Lyla didn’t seem to care. She ignored him. I did too. Even asked for a waterbed for my twelfth birthday. My mother said girls my age didn’t need waterbeds.
I sit at the vanity and move Aunt Lyla’s makeup mirror closer to me. It’s just the right size and angle. The sides of the mirror light up. Little circles of light. If I get close enough to the mirror, everything else in the room goes blurry and I can imagine that I’m in the dressing room before a rock concert.
I read the buttons at the bottom of the mirror. I know what they say already, but I read
them anyway. Every time I get to do makeup in Aunt Lyla’s room, I sit in front of this mirror and read the buttons.
Daytime Work Nighttime
The buttons make the lights around the mirror change color.
Daytime—bright yellow with a bluish tint.
Work—greenish. Aunt Lyla says office buildings have terrible lighting. Fluorescent
lighting. Like in the classrooms at school.
Office lighting makes everyone look sick, Aunt Lyla says as she looks at my face in the
I skip to the Nighttime button. The rosy light agrees with my face. Older. I look like
someone you would take seriously. Besides, it’s the same button Aunt Lyla uses when she is getting ready to go out with friends.
She comes over to the vanity and reaches for her mascara. Aunt Lyla dips her head in front of mine to get more mirror real estate. Then she pumps the mascara brush in and out of its container and taps her lashes gently. All of a sudden—like magic—long black wisps appear on the end of her eyelids. Eyelashes that could reach out and grab you.
Aunt Lyla snaps her body back up and stands next to me. She tosses the sides of her hair. She smells like hairspray and Jean Nate body splash. Clean and stiff.
Can you braid my hair? I ask in my sweetest voice.
My mother doesn’t braid hair. Only ponytails. And I can’t figure out how to braid my own hair.
But I love French braids. So, I have to get Aunt Lyla—who is in beauty school—or Delfina—who lives across the street—to do them. My hair is thick and brown and heavy. Most of the time I don’t like it. It makes my neck hot when I wear it down. It makes my head hurt when I tie it up. But when my hair is in a glossy French braid, it looks better than anyone else’s.
Yeah, Aunt Lyla says, but I gotta do it quick. Sal will be here to pick me up soon.
Aunt Lyla gets to work on my hair, and I start on my eyeshadow. I already did my cheeks with peachy blush. And I colored my lips with bright pink lipstick. I even blotted with a tissue.
I look deeply into my own eyes. I want to look like Jem—the cartoon I watch on Saturday mornings. Jem and the Holograms is the only cartoon my friends and I still watch. Jem is an orphan and a do-gooder and a rockstar at night. She has pink hair and star under her eye where a beauty mark should be.
I chose lime green and turquoise and purple. The purple is darker than I was expecting but I can’t stop now. I want to fit as much color on my eyelids as possible. It’s not every day I get to do make-up in Aunt Lyla’s bedroom.
Can I put on mascara?
No mascara. I’m afraid it will hurt your eyes when we take it off, Aunt Lyla answers. I’m never allowed to put on mascara. Even for dance recitals
Okay, I sigh.
Aunt Lyla notices my face.
You look awesome, she says with a wide smile. I’ll teach you how to put on mascara
when you’re older.
When you’re older.
When you’re older.
Always...when you’re older.
I look in the mirror again. Suddenly, I look exactly my age. Sixth grade. And my blush
looks like a clown’s. And—on account of the purple being too dark—I look like I have two black eyes. I blink away tears as quickly as possible.
Aunt Lyla grabs a scrunchie off my wrist and ties the end of my braid. She pops the cap off a magenta can of AquaNet and sprays my hair. A sticky mist hangs in the air. I grimace, trying hard not to sneeze.
Okay, let’s go. You can’t stay up here by yourself, Aunt Lyla says. I’m never allowed in Aunt Lyla’s room by myself. Neither is my sister.
I take one last look at myself in the mirror. I don’t look like Jem. I look more like one of the Misfits—the rival rock band on the show. Jem’s enemies.
Maybe it’s okay to look like a Misfit.
As we walk down the stairs, Aunt Lyla explains how I should get my own mascara when
I’m old enough.
You should never share mascara though, she warns me. And I feel her warning deep in
my bones. This is important woman-to-woman talk.
Never share mascara.
This rule will guide my adult life.
We get into the kitchen and Lyla sits at the table. She pulls long white leather boots over ripped acid wash jeans.
My grandmother puffs her cigarette and says, Those need cleaning.
Aunt Lyla grabs the Windex and paper towels from the kitchen counter and goes to work on her boots. Soon the white boots are gleaming. She totally looks like Jem, I think. Aunt Lyla is tall and thin and has very long legs.
When is Sal coming? My grandmother asks.
Soon, Lyla says without looking up.
My grandmother turns to me and in a higher voice than usual says, Elizabeth, your makeup looks good. She almost sings the words.
She doesn’t really think that. But she is trying to be nice, so I say thank you back.
Come here, my grandmother continues, You need some mascara.
Aunt Lyla says I have to be older, I say. I curl my lip and shrug my shoulders.
Yeah, my grandmother agrees, you’ll be old soon enough. Old like me, she laughs and
then clears her throat.
My eyes widen. I can’t even imagine being old like my grandmother.
My grandmother grabs my chin and with her other hand wipes some excess lipstick off
I pull away.
Don’t wipe it off, I whine.
I’m fixing it, my grandmother pulls my arm and instantly my face is close to hers. She has a strength that belies her petite stature. She takes a tube of lipstick from the sideboard. In my grandmother’s kitchen, there is always a bowl with gum, car keys, Virginia Slims, and lipstick on the sideboard.
Here, let me fix it, my grandmother says softly. She traces the arches of my upper lip with pink creamy tube. It looks like the soft artistic crayons we use in art class.
Her hand shakes a little. But when it’s time to look in the small hand mirror she holds up, my lips are perfect. It’s exactly how I tried to do them. My lips look better than I could ever do, but all I can manage in response is a mumbled thanks.
Sal’s here, Aunt Lyla says.
What do you think? My grandmother turns my body around to face Aunt Lyla.
Beautiful, Aunt Lyla smiles and kisses my cheek.
My grandmother raises her eyebrows and speaks loudly now, That’s what I always say...if I was on a deserted island and could only have one piece of makeup...it would be lipstick.
My grandmother looks at me earnestly, like she’s been right all along, and we are all just figuring it out.
I start to think of other items I might want on a deserted island. I think of plenty of things I would want to have before lipstick. Like matches or an axe.
Aunt Lyla interrupts my thoughts, No way, ma. Mascara. Mascara is the only thing you need if you are on a deserted island. I’m confused about why both these women would bring make-up to a deserted island. Do they think about deserted islands on a regular basis? Should I be thinking about them?
I’m desperate to offer a suggestion though.
Blush, I say. I would bring blush.
Not blush! They both say it at the same time.
You’re on a deserted island, my grandmother says.
Yeah, Aunt Lyla says, you don’t need blush because you’ll already have a tan. Aunt Lyla kisses my grandmother on the cheek and says, See ya later.
Don’t stay out too late.
Aunt Lyla leaves and the screen door bounces a few times behind her before deciding to stay shut.
My grandmother smiles at me. Go get the cold cream, Liz.