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.

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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