The Problem with Pretty Lipstick
by Anna Lewis
Sex isn’t love. Most women learn this most important lesson about men when they’re about 17. I’ve missed a bunch of developmental milestones because of my autism, but this is the hardest to catch up on.
It’s hot enough for crop tops, hot enough for our thighs to stick to the leather of my VW Bug, and hot enough for the handle of the makeup store to burn my hands as I open it for Amanda.
I lead her over to a moderately priced aisle and we discuss shades. We both try on purple and decide it suits me better than her.
“Have you eaten yet?” she asks.
“If by ‘eaten’, you mean sobbed convulsively in my car and stuffed brownies in my mouth with both hands while listening to Adele on loop, then yes.”
“Stop seeing him,” she says.
My purple-lipped reflection pouts at us from five different mirrors.
“You aren’t anything to him.”
“He lies to her now.”
“And you think that makes you something?”
* * *
But it’s cold at four in the morning. I have on a hot pink jacket. I park and text Ryan. I wait and look out my window. I used to live in this apartment complex, and I’m dating a man who worked across the street from it. The only change to the apartments is a coat of paint that makes the buildings look uglier and older.
He texts me to come straight into his room, but to take off my shoes and not wake up his roommate. I can hear every step my flip-flops make echo throughout all 800 apartments. My feet are cold.
When I get there, he’s only in underwear in his bed. This kind of thing would have made me uncomfortable mere weeks ago, but I’m resigned to anything now.
“Sorry I couldn’t clean,” says Ryan. “I worked 56 hours this week.”
I sit next to him on the bed. Sometimes it smells like the candles she lights, sometimes like sex, sometimes he tastes like her. But she’s gone now on a trip and all it smells like is old Burger King.
One time, it smelled like rain. The moon was misshapen and its light was too bright on his face. He was wearing a red shirt. He wasn’t supposed to say he cared about me, wasn’t supposed to ask me to stay. Geese had just come around, and feathers were swirling through the air and mixing with the puddles. I woke up facing him. He pulled me in and kissed me and held me. I used to be pretty.
Burger King isn’t my favorite smell. But I breathe through my mouth a little while and look at the calendar on the wall. It has a note from her saying she loves him like crazy and she’ll be home soon. It’s going to be the reason I check into a mental hospital. I mouth kiss him and he closes his eyes.
“I’m not going to be able to control myself today.”
“I have autism. I don’t really know what I’m doing,” I say.
“God, it makes me anxious when you say that.”
He flips me over and pulls up my dress.
“This never happened,” he says. “I’ll deny it. She’ll never believe you.”
He goes as hard as he can and it hurts me, then puts something on that makes it worse. An upside-down tear drips down my nose onto her pillow.
“You’re mine now,” he says. “I’m going to do this to you every day, just like her. Say you’re mine.”
“I’m yours,” I say.
His phone rings, but he ignores it and continues. He marks me all over and finishes.
“You better not make a sound,” he says.
I curl up next to him while he calls and talks to his mom about her, and their anniversary and the fucking lamps she can make because she doesn’t have autism and she’s so creative.
I put underwear on and cover myself with a blanket. I’ve already figured out I’m not supposed to cry or talk about how I feel because he sighs or straight up tells me to shut up. Then he tells me why how I’m acting is why he wants her more and he won’t see me again if I can’t behave. His eyes are so brown. Does she really not cry this much?
* * *
“Where were you? You were supposed to be here an hour ago,” says Amanda. She and another friend from work have drinks at the table already, and I swing my purse onto a chair and immediately take a shot of the nearest tequila and stuff in two lime slices. When my other friend goes to the bathroom, we have a hissed conversation about our boss.
“I’m sorry, he said he’d meet me for dinner but he didn’t come until the middle of the night.” My eyes are usually very carefully lined but they’re shadowed now and blurry. Amanda gets a powder compact and brush out for me. I dab it under my eyes, using my phone camera as a mirror.
“Dude, I’m telling you. I’ll call the store supervisor and get him fired before he does this to someone else.” She sips her mineral water and watches as I almost poke my eye out because I’m shaking my head so hard.
“No! Don’t. You don’t know how much trouble I’ll be in.” He wouldn’t do this to someone else! He cares about me.
The large TV behind her has a college football game on and a circle of orange students are cheering and passing around a pitcher of beer so loudly that I barely catch her next words.
“What are you going to let him do to you before you stop?”
I bury my newly-made face in my hands. I can’t tell my gentle friend what I would let him do before I stop.
“The worst part is,” I say in a low voice under the clamor, choking back tears, “when I make a mistake or act wrong or worried…he’ll tell me that’s why he loves her and spends time with her and not me…because she doesn’t act like me. She doesn’t have autism. I want to be as good as her. I can do anything she can for him.”
“That’s not ok.”
“I don’t think he cares.”
“That’s obvious. Hey, just so you know, me and the girls were going to throw you a surprise party but I wanted to give you a heads up because she might come.”
“Oh God. So that would be like ‘Surprise!’ when I walk in, and then I’d see her and kill myself. That’s the new surprise.”
I have another drink and Amanda sighs.
“Yeah, that’s why I’m telling you now.”
“Maybe it’ll be a good thing. She’s starting on day shifts now, so I’m going to have to see her. It would be excellent if it didn’t trigger a mental breakdown every time. And if she’s there, Ryan will probably stop grabbing me if I talk to Anthony too much.”
He says that’s what should make me know that he’s genuine and that I’m not nothing.
“I’m surprised she hasn’t killed you. If my boyfriend so much as texted a girl the way he does you I’d have killed her.”
“I know. If I was her, I would have literally brutally murdered me by now. God, of course she’s even sweeter than me! But she doesn’t know everything. She says she just feels sorry for me and doesn’t want me to get hurt for being too attached to him.”
“Bullshit. She’s scared too.”
“She’s got nothing to be scared of.”
* * *
There’s a scene from Fantasia where Chernabog, a giant devil god the size of a mountain with flaming pits for eyes, lifts his giant shadowy hands and stretches them down to wake legions of the dead. When I’m reaching for meat in the deli case, and I can see her icing cakes in the bakery, I can practically hear the theme music from this scene start in my head.
When she gets off she and him get stuff from the deli and go on a picnic together. He tells me ‘hey’ and and I want to kill myself with the dull knife we use to cut bread. Amanda has actually suggested this, along with rubbing in hot sauce, as an appropriate death for him.
He’s supposed to pick me up for dinner. I take an unscheduled break to put on my pink jacket, go through the rain to my car, and put my head on the steering wheel and cry. Then I hurry to get off my shift on time.
“You’re in a hurry tonight,” says Anthony with a smile as I basically throw a customer’s meat at them and resume sweeping furiously. Normally I would linger with him and chat as long as possible. I’m the only one who stays a few hours late to wrap cheese. He likes Disneyland.
“I’m meeting someone at 7:30,” I say. “But I’m going to have to go in my deli clothes.”
“Isn’t the first thing you do when you get home shower?” he asks.
“Oh, the first thing I do when I walk in the door is strip off all my clothes. I actually had to stop myself from automatically doing that at a friend’s house.”
“All I have time for when I get off is a shower and bed.”
For a second I’m frozen, hallucinating, imagining this shower and bed scenario, and he looks concerned.
“I’ll clean your boards if you want,” he says, and I smile and thank him. Another co-worker walks by and says he’ll help me sort the bread and I snap, “What are you even doing in my station???”
At 7:30 precisely I throw Anthony the broom and run to clock out. He wishes me luck.
Ryan isn’t here. He hasn’t texted. His girlfriend texts me and says they’ll be late. I wrap myself up in jacket and go back to the deli. Anthony looks surprised as I sneak in, hairnet-less, and lean against the cooler where customers can’t see. He’s tossing wings in hot sauce. I’m about to cry again.
“You’re not in the proper uniform,” he says, smiling at me.
“My hair is too adorable to fit properly,” I say.
“Adorable and full of yourself,” he says. “I admire the confidence.”
“Is that what you think?” I say in barely a whisper. He pauses tossing the wings but doesn’t say anything and I continue in a louder tone.
“What’s your favorite animal?”
He tells me it’s dogs, and we talk about his dog. I like cats better. His favorite thing to do in Portland is the zoo, just like me.
I get a text from Ryan and slowly make my way to the front, waving goodbye to Anthony again.
He’s over an hour late and we get in his car. I ask him why he had to come to this store for his lunch supplies. He used to text me and ask if I was ok. He says he forgot.
“Do you want to go to dinner?” he asks.
I feel so physically ill. I want this to be over. But I can’t. I pick ice cream because there’s a better chance of me being able to choke it down.
We go to ice cream and he doesn’t laugh at my jokes. Never has.
“Do you want to stop seeing me?” I ask.
“Yes and no,” he says. “I like seeing you. You’re fun. But I’m worried you won’t be able to handle when it’s over.”
I don’t say anything. If he thinks I’m fun, he doesn’t know me at all. If he thinks I can handle being apart from him, he knows me even less.
We get in his car and drive to a park. I say that since we didn’t go to dinner I get another half-hour with him. He holds me close but won’t let me near his tummy, which is the actual squishy and comfy part.
“Can’t you find anywhere else to be comfortable?” he asks. “You’re tiny.”
I bury my face in his chest and he holds me close until my time is up.
He can’t find his key in the dark. He uses my phone as a flashlight, goes back to the bathroom, looks around the car. He finally shines the light on it under the seat but can’t reach it.
“You’re smaller,” he says.
I reach for the key and hand it to him. Out of nowhere, his hands are in my hair and he’s kissing me like he never has. He finally pulls away.
“Promise you won’t ever stop caring about me,” I say in a whisper.
“I won’t,” he says. Forehead kiss. Pinky promise. “We’ll Netflix and cuddle soon, alright?”
He drives me home and my phone buzzes. It’s her wanting to know where he is.
“Oh no,” I say, smiling. “I think she’s worried about you.”
Her: “Is Ryan with you?”
Let her wonder what we’re doing.
Her: “OK I just wanted to make sure he’s safe.”
Me: “He should be on his way home soon”
I reluctantly get out of his car and notice I’ve dropped a lipstick. I tell him and he laughs and asks if I did it on purpose. I blush and mutter ‘no’. “Maybe a little. Oh no, I left a lipstick and my underwear and cute selfies of us under her seat. I sure hope she doesn’t find them and get furious and leave you.” He shakes his head and I hug him briefly and watch him leave.
I’m just falling asleep and pretending he’s holding me still and holding the bear he got me close when I get a text from her.
“Thanks. He’s home with me now.”
On one hand I need an anxiety pill or to throw myself into oncoming traffic. On the other…Amanda was right. She’s a little scared too. She’s afraid of losing him.
If I’ve never had him, why am I so afraid of the same thing?
◊ ◊ ◊
Anna Lewis lives with her cats and enjoys rainy days and instant coffee. She aspires to be like her literary hero, Lucy Maude Montgomery, and her life’s ambition is to move to Canada.
4 thoughts on “The Problem with Pretty Lipstick”
A compelling story. I’m very interested in this character. Very sad though.
I agree. This had me hooked from the start and I didn’t want it to end. Very interesting protagonist! I’ve never read anything quite like this before, so kudos for the originality.
Well done character piece about a down and out woman painfully engaged in psychological self-mutilation. Compelling in a way, but might be hard to take in larger doses. AGB
So true to life. I am drawn into the female character’s heart and become her. Some really good writing here.