Katie D. 11th - Manhattan, NY
When I was younger, my sister Beth’s vanity was the most magical place in the world.
The table was covered in metallic cases, all in different shapes and all opening to reveal different colors. The pressed powder compacts and eyeshadow palettes created a permanent layer of colored dust that lay on the tabletop, and alway returned no matter how many times it was brushed off. The colors were bright and daring. Electric blues and plum dark purples. When she applied eyeliner it was thick and dramatic and occasionally hot pink. But the lipsticks were the best. They stood out like soldiers across the table, with small clusters sprinkled around and a long line going down the back. The armoire of the cases opened to reveal bright colors that looked like fruit flavored candy. Dozens of reds, but each shade was so different to me that I forgot red was one color and that most people didn’t care about the difference between rose and firetruck and flamethrower. The pinks were my favorite because they reminded me of flowers, but Beth preferred the bolder ones. Silver and purple had been worn away to the smallest nubs. The only thing on the vanity that remained untouched was the small collection of nude colored lipstick. My mother had “gifted” those to Beth. I wished she’d just throw them out.
Every day I would have some excuse to abandon my friends so I could run home in time to watch my sister put on all her makeup. I’d sit on the scratchy carpeting, lean my head against the vanity’s cold metal drawers, and crane my neck to see.
We would talk the whole time: one sided conversations full of stops and starts and almost always about Beth. That wasn’t her fault. I’m a listener by default and she was my favorite person to listen to. Beth got so excited, so determined when she spoke, like she planned on taking full advantage of the only person who’d never interrupt her. When she got going, when her hands waved around and she started talking real quickly, it meant she was doing one of two things: venting or dreaming.
Beth would vent about “this town” or “folks here.” This town was suffocating, dead end, stuck in the past. Folks here were small minded, hypocritical, convinced that my sister was a whore even though she swore to me, in a bitter, wavering voice, that she was a virgin. The venting was angry and vengeful and occasionally punctuated by tears, but just as often it ended abruptly, when Beth realized she was about to say something she shouldn’t.
Beth was careful, always careful to complain about our town, and not our mother, her blatant favoritism and cruel whispers. How new rumors about Beth always showed up right after a fight with mom. Talking about that would have been too divisive, too explosive. I will always appreciate how much Beth tried not to hate me. Sometimes I looked at her and could practically hear chanting. It’s not his fault, it’s not his fault. A mantra that was not completely true but helpful all the same. I like to think it helped both of us. Beth never needed me as much as I needed her, but I like to think she was glad to have me, as a friend, as an ally, as a brother. After all, she needed someone there for the dreaming.
Beth had plans, hundreds of them, for everything she’d do once she left. She’d go to museums, and plays, and movies where they didn’t take out the sex and cussing. She’d live in hostels and learn politics and eat exotic foods and meet interesting people. To me these things were fairy tales. I loved listening to them, but it never occurred to me she’d actually go. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to leave our hometown.
Growing up, home was Southern heat, and river water, and melting ice cream. People said hello to each other on the street and you could walk right into the house next door and stay for dinner. I pitied Beth for not seeing how lovely it was, but any happy memories she had of our hometown had been tainted long ago. Nostalgia, once lost, is irretrievable.
I don’t remember when I first discovered the vanity, but I do remember when Beth first discovered me. I’d snuck into her room while she was out that night (as long as I can remember Beth has never been home at night.) And I was looking at her vanity, opening and closing the drawers quietly and being careful to put everything back where I’d found it. It looked beautiful in the moonlight, elegant and Victorian and completely at odds with the stained carpets and twin bed.
“What are you doing?” it was a whisper shout, angry, but also scared of waking Mom. “Are you stealing?” She teetered over on her high heels, a little intoxicated and very mad. She grabbed my hand, which held a small gold lipstick. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” This was the third question I failed to answer, and for some unknown reason my fist had locked in a death grip around the lipstick. I wanted to explain that I wasn’t stealing, that I just wanted to hold it, wanted to look at it. But I was too scared to defend myself. I was only five, it was dark and Beth was practically a stranger. She looked terrifying to me that night, white and bony and freakishly tall in her heels. She furiously pulled at the lipstick in my hand, her questions getting louder and louder. One hard yank, and Beth was sent stumbling back from momentum, while I was left with a golden cap and a large pink streak on the side of my hand. Beth was holding a delicate pink lipstick. The color was called Horseshoe Bay, after the beach. From then on it would be my favorite.
Beth sighed. “Give,” she said, holding out her empty hand.
I placed it in her palm. Suddenly finding my voice I croaked out, “ I wasn’t stealing. I’m just looking, I swear.” I stared at the carpet, waiting for Beth to move out of my way so I could get to the door and escape this nightmare.
She didn’t move. Just put the cap on the Horseshoe Bay. With a much calmer voice she asked, “Why?”
“I just think they’re really beautiful.” The moment I gave this answer I was embarrassed of it. Beth didn’t say anything. But after an eternity I heard her walk over to the bed and collapse onto it. I dared to look up from the carpet and bolted for my room, locking the door behind me, but not knowing what I was protecting myself from.
One day, maybe a year or so later, I was leaning against the vanity, watching Beth cover her eyelids in shimmery blue powder. I could tell she was revving up to say something. She kept glancing over at me, and giving a sort of half smile when I caught her. She even opened her mouth a couple time, looking supremely uncomfortable, before shutting it again. After half an hour of this, she put down her brush, and turned to me with her whole body.
“You know Elton John?” I nodded slowly. My friends didn’t listen to him, but I’d heard a couple songs, and liked them.
“Well, you know I like Elton John. I think he’s really cool.” She stared at me meaningfully as she said this. I continued nodding, not understanding, but wanting to look like I was. “And it’s nice to have someone to do this with,” she gestured at the vanity table, “and it doesn’t matter to me if you have those kinds of feelings.” Now she’d lost me.
“But, everyone else,” she waved an arm towards the window, indicating our town, our world, “it would matter to them. And Mom…,” she sighed,“well Mom wouldn’t like it.” She dragged her eyes back to my face. “Do you understand?” I shook my head yes, even though I didn’t. I could see this was the right answer because she breathed a sigh of relief and gave me the smile of someone proud of themselves for a difficult job well done. She turned back to the mirror and continued with the eyeshadow.
It took me five years to realize what my sister had been trying to tell me that afternoon. It took me five minutes to agree with her. My mother wouldn’t like it. In fact it might’ve destroyed her. I was her big strong man, her favorite child and her only son. Beth once told me, voice full of bitterness, that the only reason Mom liked me was because I was a boy. My gender was the line in the sand between Beth and I. Every glare and comment reserved for my sister was matched with praise and gifts for me.
But this was not something my family talked about, not something we acknowledged. I said earlier but Beth and Mom had fights, but I don’t think most people would see them that way. They exchanged passive aggressive comments and glares and the occasional whispered curse word. I see family’s fighting in the movies now. They yell and throw expensive plates and behave in a way that my mother, constantly worried about what the neighbors thought, never would.
When Beth finally left, that was quiet too. I was half asleep, looking up into her excited eyes, as she told me that she couldn’t take this town anymore, couldn’t take our Mom anymore, that she promised to call, that she loved me, that I could have everything in her vanity. A quick peck on the forehead and she was gone.
I didn’t get much sleep that night.
By the time I got out of bed, Mom had already started packing my sister’s room. I stood horrified in the doorway, watching her sweep all of Beth’s treasures, my treasures now, into big, ugly trash bags.
“Your sister’s decided to leave us,” she told me without looking up, not stopping her work. Because of course she didn’t think Beth would have said goodbye to me. She didn’t know we were close, that I spent every afternoon sitting on her floor.
My mother had never liked Beth’s makeup, said it was loud and trashy. Now, she swiped all the hated things off the vanity, not knowing they were mine now. Her voice was calm but her movements were frantic, like she was desperate to erase every last piece of her daughter’s existence. I walked towards the vanity, deciding I would save at least one. Leaning against the wall, I tried to look nonchalant as I closed my fist around a lipstick tube on the very edge. Mom didn’t look up, and a moment later she shoved the last of the makeup into the trash bag, and Beth’s vanity was empty.
I didn’t move as Mom carried the bag out the door and to the curb. My sister had been so proud of her makeup. She saved for every brush, she collected every color, she applied it like art, with infinite care and patience. All that hard work, she had left to me. She could’ve taken it with her, probably wanted to, but didn’t. Instead she’d left me a lifeline, a spot of beauty in a town and home that I no longer fit into. And all I had left of it was one tube of lipstick, locked in the death grip of my fist.
I hadn’t yet checked what color I’d snatched. I prayed it was Horseshoe Bay. That would be right. That was the one I’d started with, it was the one I wanted to hold onto. I uncurled my fingers one by one, it was a pretty tube. Gold, like so many of them were. I opened it as carefully as I could, and stared at a bright stick of Desert Almond.
It was a boring, if not ugly, color. Tan with only the slightest shimmer. It was one of the ones Mom had given my sister in an effort to mellow her out, to make her at least look like the quiet, unexceptional child she’d wanted. Beth had, of course, never worn it.
But it was all I had left.
I held onto that lipstick for a very long time.
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