Scandalous Women in History

Malerie Willens

Fall 2018

After being hired as a beauty technician with Rémy at Saks Fifth Avenue, Kim was given a lab coat the color of a pencil eraser, and told she’d be going by “Kendra.” She wore her long auburn hair pulled back, exposing a creamy, freckled complexion and lippy pout. Over the next several months, magnified beneath the department store’s halogens, she would see approximately three thousand faces at various stages of decay. On her first day of work, she learned the merciful cant of the makeup counter:

“Say ‘extracting’ for popping zits and ‘cleaning’ for getting rid of blackheads,” explained Jade, her boss. “Most important: don’t say ‘wrinkle.’ Say ‘fine line.’ And stay positive. If someone’s oily, suggest a product to eliminate shine. ‘Shine’ sounds dewy, not greasy. Watch Dane when he gets here. He’s our star.”

Dane arrived forty-five minutes late, looking stunning in cowboy boots. “Good morning, everyone,” he said, although only Kendra and Jade were there. He threw down his bags and slipped into a gray lab coat with a gliding disregard. He restocked the lipstick display, swinging his chin-length hair from his eyes with shampoo-commercial verve. He moved with willowy precision. It was impossible to imagine him sitting still.

Side-work done, he approached Kim. “And you are?”

She hesitated. “Kendra.”

He didn’t so much shake Kendra’s hand as present her with his.

“Is Dane your real name?” she asked.

“It is now. Né Douglas: world’s worst name. I don’t go by Doug because I hate diminutives. Dane came to me in a dream. It’s strong and simple, right?”

Customers were beginning to buzz around Rémy’s three-hundred-sixty-degree counter, the largest at Saks. “Are you Danish?” Kendra asked.

“Hell if I know. I was adopted.” He leaned over the counter to take a customer’s liver-spotted hand in his.

Kendra spent the rest of the day watching Dane regale his customers with tales of intrepid ribosomes and their unctuous promises. There was the soothing emulsion, the stalwart pentapeptide, and the light-deflecting pearl. Dane’s spiel made Kendra suddenly self-conscious about the dull, flaky skin around her eyebrows. Under the cover of familiarizing herself with inventory, she scanned the counter for an exfoliant to unearth the fresh bright layer of skin beneath. She felt her face absorb imaginary nutrients, growing stronger and softer.

Dane spoke of the most florid, delectable ingredients: heliotrope, Copahu wood, watery violet, oak moss. Sicilian bergamot, Chinese peony, white cedar, and the elusive blue rose. A dash of neroli, a trace of blood orange. According to Dane, no customer ever questioned the origin of Copahu wood or disputed the existence of the blue rose, which did exist, Kendra would later find out, although it was more purple than blue.

Dane made enough on commission that day to pay half a month’s rent. After work he took Kendra to a place he liked—one of the few remaining dives on the Bowery. She asked him if there was anything she should know about the job. She wanted the sort of insider information not in the training manual.

“Learn by doing,” he said as he filled their glasses with wine from the carafe. “The trick is not to overthink.”

“What about the boss?”

“Jade’s joyless but harmless. Poor thing. She thinks her gamine haircut’s chic but she looks like a pinhead.” He took a sip of wine. “Now tell me about Kendra.”

She confessed that none of her previous jobs had ever really worked out. It wasn’t that she was lazy, but she’d never understood the fuss about an honest day’s work. She’d tried public relations, ad sales, and dating rich men, all of which demanded a fanatical belief in the product—or the appearance of such—that she’d been unable to supply. So she’d quit them all, on principle.

She did not tell Dane that she’d also tried credit-card fraud and shoplifting, beginning with hair mousse at age fifteen. She’d seen her mother pocket cough drops at the drug store and cufflinks at Bendel’s until just before her death, never once getting caught. Was it her mother’s unhurried elegance, the fact that she’d always been unusually pretty, that protected her? It seemed to exempt and implicate her at the same time. All mothers are tricky but Kendra’s was spectral, too gauzy to hate or love.

She admitted to Dane that it was nice being at a new bar with a new person. She’d been unemployed all summer, languishing in her apartment, rereading the same magazines and the jacket flaps of books. Now autumn was chopping up the air and she’d have money in her pocket. It was good to be out of the house.

“Here’s to you,” Dane said, clinking his glass against hers.

He told her he’d come out at twenty and spent the next few years in a funk, chastising himself for being gay. But the gloom got boring, so he settled into a routine of slutty revelry, forcing himself to live fast, provoking strangers on the street and dear old cousins, wearing his shorts too short and his tank tops too tight. It was fun until it wasn’t and he’d felt even more morose than before. Now he hoped to level out. He took antidepressants but said he wasn’t depressed. “Whatever helps,” he added, sucking in his cheeks just slightly, as though posing for a picture. “Does the eighty-dollar cream with good packaging do more than the drugstore brand? Fuck if I know. I’m all about the placebo effect.”

He finished off his glass of wine. “Tomorrow you’ll meet Nadia,” he said. “She’s extraordinary.”

The next morning, Nadia marched in to Rémy like she was there to serve papers. “This is the nasolabial fold,” Dane explained to Kendra, unaware that Nadia was standing behind him. “It’s the diagonal line that starts under the nostril and extends down to the outer corners of the mouth,” he continued, running a finger along his own lineless face. “And these,” he continued, pointing to the area between his lower lip and the chin, “are the puppet lines. You want to call them that because it sounds fun, not clinical.”

“Or you can say ‘marionette lines,’” added Nadia in heavily accented English.

Dane turned around and saw her. He took her face in his hands. They were both around six feet tall.

“Nadia left on Friday an alien and here she is today, a citizen,” he said.

“Congratulations,” said Kendra. “Where are you from?”

“Romania.” She said it like Ru-men-ya.

“Just like Nadia Comăneci,” Dane teased.

“Stop it,” she told him, “You know I can’t stand eet.” She told Kendra, “Usually I say Moldova, because with Romania, everybody knows gymnastics and maybe they know Ceaușescu. Both of these I don’t want to talk about. I say Moldova, people know nothing. No bad and no good.”

Nadia was her real name. She was dark, with a wide jaw and almond eyes. Her features had an aspect of cruelty to them, and it was unclear whether she’d endured it herself or inflicted it on others, or both, or maybe neither.

Kendra’s first week at Rémy induced a bodily response. The genial gold light and the sweet, heavy air made her feel buoyant and warm. The change felt efflorescent, metabolic, though what this blossoming was, this transformation, she could not say. Dane and Nadia spun around the makeup counter like old marrieds in their kitchen, anticipating each other’s movements without colliding. Kendra sometimes felt like a minor character in a musical. The three of them arrived each morning at ten. For Kendra, the transition from the city’s concrete and construction to the sunny, synthetic whir of Saks was a relief. She’d rush up from the subway, maneuvering the sidewalk crush of pedestrians, and feel a palpable slowing as she entered the building—a softening, a brightening. An average day brought her in contact with around twenty faces. She’d give her attention to the special topography of each, fielding questions that ranged from the merely inquisitive—“Where do dark circles come from?”—to the semihysterical—“Why do I have dark circles even though I sleep nine hours a night and my mother never had them?” At day’s end they’d all hang up their lab coats, rinse the makeup off their hands and forearms in the employee bathroom, and leave for the bar on the Bowery smelling of soap.

One rainy morning, Kendra hurried into work as she always did, shaking off the subway frazzle and stuffing her bag into the cubbyhole beneath the perfume display.

“Someone left this for you on the register,” said Jade, who seemed to take pleasure in sneaking up on people. She handed Kendra an envelope with her name typed on the front.

Kendra walked around to the other side of the counter, away from Jade and the customers. The note read:

I am the indentation on the pillow just after you’ve left bed. I’m the bits of hair in your brush, the sheen your thighs leave on the leather seat, the way your boots still suggest your stance even after you’ve taken them off. I’m your glasses once you’ve laid them down, I’m the way they make other people look (like you) when they try them on. I’m the cowlick you comb down, the cleavage you hoist up, the wart that keeps growing back on your thumb. I am uncontrollably you, unstoppably so, and I keep existing and existing: pushing, pulling, staining, straining. You can make your bed, wipe the chair, comb, cup, cradle and coddle and still I keep coming at the world with my you-ness. Lucky world.

Kendra put the note back into the envelope and slid it into her lab coat pocket. Allowing herself to fall into the morning’s rhythm of work, she could feel the letter’s crisp rectangle against her thigh. She rubbed bronze eyeshadow onto a woman’s inner wrist and penciled in another woman’s brows, occasionally tapping her pocket, counting the minutes until lunchtime.

She reread the letter while eating her frittata. Was it a love note? And did the writer actually know her? She did have a wart on her thumb, but she’d never worn glasses or even contact lenses.

She paid for her lunch and walked the two blocks back to Saks, wishing she felt flattered instead of tricked. The few admiring notes she’d received before—one while working at the college espresso bar and another that had been slipped underneath the door of her first apartment—had not made her feel especially desirable or alluring. Instead they seemed to mock her vanity, her constant sense of being watched. She’d always been ashamed of her self-consciousness, which made her even more self-conscious.

She couldn’t recall any unusual client interactions or attention from passersby. For the rest of the day she monitored the browsers and buyers and other employees with suspicion. You are you, the note seemed to say, and the essential you—whatever that is—remains, despite your attempts at reinvention. Depending upon how you looked at it, Kendra thought, this was either affirmative or terribly bleak. Maybe it was a joke.

“Apache Tulip,” said Dane. “Such an unappealing name.” Kendra’s throat burned slightly with her first sip of wine. She’d joined Dane and Nadia at the bar, but her thoughts were with the note, which now lay in her purse, seeming to generate its own heat.

Nadia downed her tequila shot without a grimace. “Oh my God, eet’s the ugliest color I ever saw. Who’d buy it?”

“Please,” said Dane. “I can sell snow to Eskimos. And Apache Tulip’s tolerable. The worst is that horrid new shadow—the split-pea one.”

“I think eet’s Delilah,” said Nadia.

“No, it’s Jezebel,” said Dane. “Or maybe Imelda Marcos.”

Kendra couldn’t remember the name, which was part of the Scandalous Women in History line, but she knew it wasn’t Delilah, Jezebel, or Imelda Marcos. She was tipsy and tempted to read the note aloud, but Dane and Nadia wouldn’t stop until they remembered the name of the split-pea colored eyeshadow.

“Squeaky Fromme?”

“Ethel Rosenberg?”

“Leona Helmsley?”

“I got it!” said Nadia. “It’s Eva Braun!”

“Eva Braun!” they said in unison.

“And today I sold two,” Dane said.

“On your sick planet, dees is a good thing,” said Nadia with a smile.

“Do you ever feel bad?” Kendra asked him.

“About what? Why should I feel bad?”

“I think she means about lying to the people,” Nadia said.

“Lying, schmying. The people feel great when they leave me. Everyone knows confidence makes you prettier.”

“But selling something awful and expensive that you know doesn’t work?” said Kendra.

“Please. Nothing works. Name one thing that works.”

Kendra could not, at that moment, think of anything that worked.

“See? You’re stumped!” said Dane. “Accept it, ma petite, and it’ll set you free. No cream works better than any other cream. No perfume will get you laid.”

Dane was drunk.

“Reading your horoscope will not make tomorrow better than today,” he continued. “Wearing glasses will not make you look smarter.”

“But Danuçu,” said Nadia, “you are always reading your horoscope and wearing the perfume.”

“True. Now that I don’t rely on outside help, I do what I please. Don’t you see? I rely on myself . . . but I’m open to whatever makes life easier. Whatever gets you through the night.”

“I agree with this,” said Nadia. “I always say, ‘Te faci frate cu dracul, pînă treci puntea.’ In English it’s like, ‘you can become friends with the evil until you cross the bridge.’ You can tell I’m pragmatist,” she added with a gentle boozy belch.

“But you’re sending people into the world looking like crap, they’re paying all this money to look like crap. And you get their hopes up—”

“No one’s sending anyone anywhere, Kendra. They’re grown-ups. They can think for themselves. Plus,” Dane said, flopping back against the Naugahyde, “I’m wasted. Don’t listen to me.”

Kendra was wasted too. They all were. They leaned into each other in silence. Kendra felt the wine pickling her gut. She couldn’t decide whether Dane and Nadia were freer than she was, or more cynical. Maybe those qualities went hand in hand.

On the subway home, Kendra’s thoughts returned to the note in her purse. She was seated near an ad for single malt scotch with a Gaelic-sounding name, thick amber ribbons streaming into a lowball glass with three perfect ice cubes. Though not a scotch drinker, she felt a yen for the peaty burn.

When she saw ads for booze in a subway or a magazine, she looked for messages hidden in the liquid. Her friend Pam’s Uncle Frank, a big-shot advertising man, and a bachelor, had taught her to do that. In middle school she and Pam would spend weekends swimming and eating turkey chili in his condo, and he’d dazzle them with the secrets of subliminal advertising, showing them ads for brandy and scotch in Playboy and Penthouse. There were lips and breasts and silhouettes of naked women, barely discernible in the swirling psychedelic liquid. Words like “sex,” “love,” and “yes” were planted there too, transforming the ads into games of Where’s Waldo that still captivated Kendra. Neither she nor Pam ever spotted the words or images on their own. They’d curl up next to Uncle Frank in their bathing suits, coltish and leggy on the leather sectional and breathing in the scent of his cool licorice breath. He’d guide them to the word or image with a flourish. Once Kendra had seen whatever there was to see, she couldn’t believe she’d ever missed it.

Uncle Frank must be an old man now, Kendra thought. He might even be dead. She pictured him in his aviator glasses, and could not remember the color of his eyes. She looked at the scotch ad again, adjusting her gaze. There were no hidden words. Just scotch, and now she wanted some.

Later, in bed, in the dark, she pulled the blanket over her face and tried to concentrate. Had Dane written the note? He liked to screw with people, after all. She was glad she hadn’t told him or Nadia about it. If she’d mentioned it and Dane had written it, she’d feel pathetic. It would also mean that he had a cruel streak.

And if the note was a joke, Kendra wanted it out of mind before she really began chewing on it, working it like taffy. She turned on the nightstand lamp and reread it. She walked over to the filing cabinet at the far end of her studio, pulled out a white envelope, wrote “Dane” on the front in block letters, put the note in the envelope, licked the glue, and sealed it. Then she took a swig of seltzer and returned to bed. She set her alarm for eight o’clock instead of the usual eight thirty.

She was the first to arrive next morning, as planned. She placed the note in Dane’s cubbyhole and began to organize the lipsticks. Jade was next to arrive. It normally took her until midday to summon a personality; she spent her mornings in a trance, punching buttons on the credit-card machines and organizing the previous day’s receipts. Then came Nadia. She settled in and began making herself up with rough, impatient hands, imposing a sort of Eastern Bloc savagery onto her broad features. In ten minutes she had smoky eyes and her contours loved the light. Dane was late, which gave Kendra time to reconsider what she’d done—it was underhanded, she knew. Waiting for Dane to arrive was like having stubbed her toe. Caught in the second between stub and throb, she braced for impact.

When she heard the clup-clup of Dane’s cowboy boots, she was lining a customer’s eyes and couldn’t turn to greet him. Would he read the note right there? The customer was chatty, in need of reassurance, and by the looks of her—alligator bag, serious jewelry—she could pay for it.

“I bet you’ve got great stories from this place,” said the woman.

Kendra couldn’t think of any, but agreed anyway. “Amazing,” she replied, surprised at how convincing she sounded.

“The people that come in . . . you must get some nuts. And so vulnerable, with the beauty thing and all.”

“Definitely.”

“You ought to write a book.”

“You think?” Kendra had moved to the woman’s lips, but she kept talking.

“You could do a typical day in the life, or divide the book into chapters by customer.” She spoke like she’d washed down her morning coffee with Adderall.

“This has a patented enzyme that recognizes the vermilion border,” Kendra said. She gave the woman the lip liner so that she could try it herself. “That’s the line that separates your mouth from the rest of your face—your lip line. It’s guaranteed not to stray outside—”

“—Whoa-whoa, go back.”

“To what?”

“What did you say it was called?

“The lip line?”

“Yeah. ‘Vermilion’ something.”

“Vermilion border. Humans are the only animals who have it. There’s no demarcation between lip and face in other species.”

“It’s genius! There’s your title: The Vermilion Border.”

Kendra had to admit, it was a good title. “Are you in publishing?” she asked.

“I’m not, but I know some top people.”

She reached into her purse and brought out a cell phone. She held the phone out at arm’s length and looked sternly at it. Was she calling a publisher? An agent?

“It’s voice-activated,” she said to Kendra. “Call home.” Then a pause. “Hi sweetheart, it’s me. I’m running late. Can you change my Ingrid appointment to a quarter past? Grazie. Ciao.”

“Button-pressing’s obsolete,” she said as she dropped the phone into her alligator bag. “In six months we’ll all be voice-activated.”

It struck Kendra that the woman had likely forgotten about their book venture over the course of her ten-second phone call. The Vermilion Border was probably one of many genius ideas the woman would have that day, one of a thousand pet projects to dissolve by cocktail hour.

“I think I’ll pay,” the woman said.

“Nice run.” It was Dane. Kendra wondered how long he’d been watching. “You just sold a day’s worth of product.”

He looked completely unfazed. Kendra waited for something—a strained expression or a hint of concern in his voice. Nothing. Had he even read the note?

“How’s your day going?” she asked.

“Weird. But every day’s weird lately. Weird’s the new boring,” he said, leaning his elbows on the glass counter and grabbing a customer’s well-tended hand in a way that seemed to flatter her.

Kendra found Nadia taking a break in the lounge, hunched over the newspaper.

“I’m doing crossword to help with the English. You think it’s good idea?”

“It won’t hurt. But a lot of that stuff is puns.”

“What is ‘puns’?”

“It’s like jokes with the language.” Kendra thought for a moment. “What did one termite say to the other termite when they sat down for a drink? ‘Is the bar tender?’”

Nadia was baffled.

“It’s where you mix up words to be clever.”

“Why is mix-up clever?”

“It’s not. I always thought puns were lame.”

“This I agree.”

“Have you talked to Dane today?”

“Of course. Why?”

“I don’t know. He seems a little off.”

“Off?”

“Not quite right.”

“Maybe I ask if he’s okay.”

“I’m sure he’s fine. Don’t mention anything. I don’t want to make him self-conscious.”

“Have it your way,” Nadia said. It was a favorite expression. She’d learned it as a teenager, she’d once explained to Kendra, when Burger King first came to post-Communist Romania.

At six o’ clock Dane was applying lip gloss to a little girl while pitching her mother on matching tubes of Mata Hari. Within minutes they’d paid and left, and Dane, Kendra, and Nadia were on their way to the Bowery. Kendra hoped the booze would make Dane talk. If he wrote the note, she wanted to know as soon as possible.

“If I’d had matching mother/son lip gloss when I was a kid, I’d have led a much happier life,” Dane said, squeezing the lime into his highball.

Except for the three of them, the bar was empty. The normally silent jukebox played unrecognizable synthesizer music. Kendra wished she’d taken a photo of the note before giving it to Dane.

“I didn’t wear makeup until I was in my twenties,” said Nadia.

“Neither did I,” said Dane.

“Seriously,” said Nadia. “My mother never.”

“I can’t picture you having a mother,” said Dane.

“What do you mean? Everyone has mother.”

“I can’t picture it either,” said Kendra. It was hard to imagine Nadia as a child.

“I’m offended at this,” she said. “My mother is wonderful woman. I love my mother.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dane. “I didn’t mean anything bad. You’re just so independent.” He sipped his gin and looked contrite. “Tell us about her.”

“She’s poet.”

“You’re kidding,” said Kendra.

“She’s a little bit famous in Romania. She also is a teacher. A professor in college.”

“That’s amazing,” said Dane.

“Why are you surprised? I have very artistic family. It’s not like we’re potato farmers.”

Kendra wondered what Nadia’s mother’s poems were about. The Romanian countryside? Politics? Eternity?

“My mother right now is fighting a new law. It says no women older than sixty can remove their tops on the beach.”

“Because their breasts are saggy?” asked Dane.

“Yes. Because the government says nobody wants to see it.”

“That’s really cruel,” said Kendra.

“I know. It’s awful. Romania’s a bad place to get old.”

“Everywhere is,” said Dane.

“What about your mothers, both of you?” asked Nadia.

“My mother was glamorous,” said Dane, “but not nice. She taught piano out of our house. She’d sit there in a minidress with a cigarillo dangling from her mouth, ashes falling on the keys. It was totally normal then to smoke wherever. She’d bang those keys so aggressively. She was all technique, no finesse.”

“Do you play piano?” Nadia asked.

“Yeah, but there’s never one around. No one I know has a big enough apartment. What about your mother?” he asked Kendra.
She did not tell them what came to mind first: that if you shoplift and get caught, you will be charged with theft. If you don’t have any money on your person, you will be charged with burglary. “Equipped to steal” is what you’ll be charged with if, for example, you have a slit in the lining of your jacket for concealing stolen goods. You’re likely to be charged with deception plus theft if you’re caught exchanging stolen items.

Instead she told them that her mother always slept in her jewelry. Kendra had never been sure whether this was because she fell asleep with the same catlike indolence that characterized her waking hours, or whether she wore it to bed as some sort of gesture. Of something. In her early twenties, Kendra tried wearing jewelry to bed but it would itch her skin or catch in her hair. She couldn’t escape the sensation that something foreign was nibbling at her neck, her wrists. She’d take off the necklace at three in the morning, then fall back asleep until the bracelet began to bother her. By sunrise, the earrings, too, would be sitting on the nightstand.

“I never got to wake up in my jewels.”

“That’s a little bit sad but I don’t know why,” said Nadia, who paid for the next round of drinks. “Okay, guys,” she said. “I can’t keep this secret any longer.” She pulled the note from her purse and slapped it onto the table as though placing a bet. “I will read,” she said: “I am the indentation on the pillow just after you’ve left bed. I’m the bits of hair in your brush, the sheen your thighs leave on the leather seat, the way your boots still suggest your stance even after . . .”

Kendra reached for her wine and drank, hiding behind the glass. She knew the rhythm of each sentence, rising and falling with Nadia as she read it through to the end.

“I think this is a beautiful note, no?” said Nadia. “I don’t understand everything but I think it’s romantic. It’s not typical ‘baby-baby’ stuff.”

All Kendra managed to say was, “Wow.”

“Somebody fancies Nadia,” Dane teased. “God, why don’t I ever get love notes?”

“Do you think this is love note?” asked Nadia.

“More like infatuation,” said Dane, “but that’s good.” When he noticed Kendra’s silence, he asked, “Are you jealous you didn’t get a note? Aw, Kendra wants a love note.”

Kendra laughed it off, staying long enough to finish her drink and blaming her departure on aching sinuses, which wasn’t exactly a lie since red wine inflamed them.

In bed she tried to piece it together. Did she and Nadia share a stalker who left the same note for both of them? Had Dane received the note as planned, then given it to Nadia?

The next morning, Nadia arrived in full makeup. Her posture seemed straighter and she moved even more briskly than usual. She even spoke more assertive English with her customers.

Dane and Kendra watched her, elbowing each other when she flipped her hair out of her eyes or giggled in ways that seemed out of character. Jade was too busy being busy to notice.

“Come here a minute,” Dane said. “I have to tell you something.” Kendra followed him into the employee’s lounge. He took his time pouring them Styrofoam cups of coffee. Kendra grabbed hers before he started in with cream and sugar and stirring.

“You know Nadia’s little love letter,” Dane whispered.

As if on cue, they both turned to check that they were alone.

“It was my note. Some secret admirer left it for me and I decided to give it to Nadia.”

“Why?”

“Because I knew she’d appreciate it. It cheered me up. And I said to myself, ‘If you can do something that’ll make someone’s day, then do it.’ So I did it.”

“Do you know who left it for you?” Kendra asked, surprised at her ability to converse so casually about her note, the note she was given, the note she gave Dane. The cups of coffee sat steaming, untouched.

“No idea. It’s the first time I’ve ever gotten something like this.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Seriously. If someone’s interested, they’re normally much more direct.”

Kendra’s relief felt like a tropical breeze. She really did have a secret admirer who was not Dane; neither Dane nor Nadia knew the note was originally hers; Dane was kind and generous for giving the note to Nadia; and she had made them both feel desired. They had all three been given the same note. She felt light and serene, like she’d just worked out or stolen something.

“Why didn’t you give it to me?” she asked.

“I considered it but I thought it might weird you out. I knew Nadia wouldn’t be as critical.”

Now Dane sipped his coffee.

“The note was weird.”

Later that week, Jade casually told Kendra she was doing a good job. It was the first real feedback she’d gotten, and it made her think that maybe she’d found her calling. Not necessarily in cosmetic sales, but sales in general, face-to-face encounters with new people every day. After learning that Dane hadn’t written the note—that her admirer was indeed a stranger—its unsettling sentiment began to fade, leaving only a vague and pleasant sense of having been noticed—until the next one appeared.

“Someone left this for you. On the register,” said Jade. Three weeks had passed since the first one.

In the subway station this morning, a man in silver body paint and a top hat stood perfectly still atop a milk crate. Every few minutes he changed position but otherwise he was motionless. He rarely blinked. You couldn’t even see his chest rise or fall. His cardboard sign said robotman.

Later, at a different station, a man contorted his body in impossible ways. pretzelman is what his sign said. He turned himself inside out on a purple yoga mat next to a stack of performance videos for sale.

Robotman versus Pretzelman. Who wins in the game of life?

Before Kendra could decode it, she felt Jade reading over her shoulder—Dane and Nadia were with customers, and three others were at the counter looking for help—so she folded the note and put it into the pocket of her lab coat. Rather than clarifying anything, the second note had only added to the mystery of her secret admirer—who was most likely, she realized, a crazy person. She approached a petite, blonde-haired woman in her midfifties, Kendra figured, whose trepidation made her seem older and more frail. Her face was symmetrically pretty with big blue doll eyes, and she spoke with the wistful whine of the Rockaways. Her pantsuit was a size too small.

“I’d like to get a few things, but I’m not sure what.”

She had a date that night, she confessed, and needed a little boost. Something to give her an edge. She recounted her history in brief: name, Bea; occupation, paralegal. Born in Queens, married thirty years, widowed, no kids, recently relocated to Riverdale. She bought the mascara Kendra recommended, but lingered afterward. Kendra offered to do her makeup for free, though makeovers were normally reserved for people who’d spent considerable money or seemed as though they were about to.

Kendra enjoyed depriving herself of the chance to reread the note that lay in her pocket. It reminded her of being fourteen and going out to dinner with her family, knowing there was a boy who liked her, wanting desperately to talk to him on the phone but relishing the ache brought on by denial.

“I don’t want to look too made-up,” said Bea. “It’s not me.”

“It’ll be natural. You’ll still look like you, only fresher.”

“Fresher sounds good.”

Kendra sat Bea down and snapped a smock around her, shifting the light so that it illuminated only her face. Bea sat up straight.

“I’ve never had my makeup done by someone else,” she said, maintaining her stiff pose, barely moving her lips when she spoke. “I feel pampered.”

“It’s good to pamper before a date.”

“I kind of like this guy and I don’t want to disappoint him,” she said, closing her eyes so that Kendra could work on them. “He’s very educated. A voracious reader. Politically active. I went to college but it was like a hundred years ago. Who remembers?”

“I can’t remember anything either,” said Kendra, daubing pink cream along Bea’s puppet lines. “How did you meet?”

“I’m embarrassed to say.”

“Was it online?”

“Yes! If you can believe.”

“Sure I can. It’s common now, even if you hate the idea.”

“That’s what they tell me.” Bea opened her eyes when Kendra moved to her cheeks. “It’s such a strange process, dating when you’re my age. We’ve been out twice and I think it went okay. You can never really tell though, can you? He at least seems interested.”

“Are you interested in him?”

“I think so. They say the third date is very revealing. If we can survive three dates, maybe it’ll be something.”
Kendra smoothed and blended, powdered and plucked. She swept gold over Bea’s cheekbones and neck and transformed her lips into luscious, fruity things. Bea examined herself in the hand-mirror, turning her head three-quarters left and then right and back to center.

“I look dangerous.”

“Is that good?” Kendra asked.

“It’s great! He won’t know what hit him. You’re an angel,” she said.

She thanked Kendra, then gathered up her bags and walked off. But she returned a few minutes later.

“This is embarrassing,” she said, “but . . . oh jeez, I’ll just show you.” She reached into her purse, pulled out a crisp white sheet of folded paper, and handed it to Kendra. It was an e-mail she’d printed out:

Hi Bea. I’ll collect you at seven. I figured we’d grab a bite somewhere near the Ninety-Second Street Y. That way we can walk to the performance. I thought Thai or Northern Italian (I know places), if that suits you. FYI, the play is called “The Awful Grace of God: A Portrait of Robert F. Kennedy.” It’s a one-man show and it’s supposed to be terrific. Don’t let the title worry you . . . after JFK was assassinated, Bobby quoted Aeschylus in a speech, something about the awful grace of God. They say the play is quite uplifting in spite of all this.

Excited to see you,

Irwin

“It’s nice, right?” Bea asked.

“Very.”

“I’ve read it like three times already today. This is going to sound silly, but you don’t happen to know how to pronounce this, do you?” Bea pointed at one of the words. “I thought I’d look it up on the Internet but now I won’t have time, with the makeover and all, and I’m not so good at using my cell phone for that stuff anyway—”

“It’s Aeschylus,” Kendra said.

“Oh—Aeschylus—okay. I thought maybe it was E-shill-us.” Bea widened her eyes in relief. “Good thing I asked. I’ve read the word before but never said it out loud. Why would I, right?”

“I can’t pronounce half of our ingredients,” Kendra said.

“You’re a doll,” Bea said, squeezing Kendra’s hand the way a favorite aunt might. She folded the paper crisply in half and put it back into her purse. “Okay then. I’ll report if it’s good news.”

Kendra watched her until she was gone. She hoped Bea would seduce Irwin. And stop worrying about Aeschylus and Bobby Kennedy. She wanted her to feel dangerous and adored while getting swept up in the surprise of a good romance. Maybe she’d do a striptease, drunk and slow and a little embarrassed, call in sick the next morning and maybe the morning after that.
She wanted this for most of her customers. They came from everywhere but they all breathed the same scent while they lingered at the counter: the slightly noxious odor whose top note, the first to fade, consisted of the three-hundred-plus fragrances being hawked at Saks. The middle note was the molasses exhaust of Fifth Avenue. And the base note—the olfactory anchor—was the musk of the people themselves, never the same twice, impossible to name.

Malerie Willens’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Granta online, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She’s currently working on a novel and stories.

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