Today is National Lipstick Day. Who knew there was such a thing? Another new marketing gimmick for ‘stuff’. Turns out I have the perfect short story for today. Written a couple of summers ago, when it was hot, and you could run into a department store on a whim.
What if there has been no turning point in your life for twenty-two years? You wait for something to spur you into a change. There have been fluctuations, and movement, but no critical moments. Never have you thought: My Life Starts Now. Not even when you decided to live alone after having spent ten years in different flats with a variety of flat-mates. That decision was easy; not pivotal. It was what you preferred and you are content on your own. But where is the big plot of your life?
You’ve believed in letting life unfold. Not for you frenetic stabs at this or that. Life has ribboned out, but rather distractedly. When you look up from the steering wheel of your imaginary buttercup convertible as it rolls along a green and pleasant land you don’t see any huge signs marking junctions or routes you could take instead. The highway glides over vale and hill, then loops to you don’t-know-where.
The real bus you’re sitting in this afternoon wheezes on as you take in the cityscape from the top deck. The bus is hibiscus red, the roads and pavements are grey but it is summer and this year it is hot, people are a riot of colour. Those ditsy floral dresses, those linen shirts, those wide pastel culottes, those man-sandals. The bus inches along the jammed road. They will pedestrianise this thoroughfare one day, the city mayor’s office has a plan, because see how the street is rammed with shoppers. You gaze down at the glitzy store windows. It’s then the slogan catches your eye. THIS LIPSTICK WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE.
Who allowed that? The Advertising Standards Authority let that pass? Can a lipstick change your life? Heck, can it change anything?? Can it change your summer a teeny-weeny bit??? You lean forward, press the button so the ‘Bus stopping’ sign lights up with a ting. You run into the department store and prowl the cosmetics counters until you find the brand emblazoned under the slogan. Brand L. The heat is making you crazy, 30 degrees in London, yes, it’s making you pathetic, and making the pavements sigh, but never mind. You stand by the counter and say to the girl with triple-mascaraed lashes: ‘I want to change my life.’
She’s ready to serve but slightly startled. ‘The new lipstick?’ she asks. She’s smart. She pulls out a tray of sample colours. ‘Which shade would you like to try?’
‘All three of these will change my life?’ You sound like you’re gasping for air, but actually your shoulders are shaking. You’ve begun to laugh in a way that is unseemly. You control yourself and eye up the round smudges of colour. Your finger hovers over a vivid pink. Let me guess, you think, Watermelon Squeeze? Candy Too Sweet? Profound Rose? You have form here, you know about these things.
‘This?’ The sales assistant doubtfully dabs the rosy stickiness on your lips. ‘Oh,’ her voice rises in surprise, ‘This bright colour does suit you.’ Who is she convincing?
‘I’ll take it. It will change my life. Lipstick can do that.’
She looks at you sharply; are you mocking the brand or cosmetics in general? You ask: ‘What’s the name of this colour?’
She hands you a shiny packaged tube. You peer at it. Judicious Use. You give up, your shoulders heave and rock.
‘Are you alright, darling?’ A light touch on your hand. She’s not sure if you’re crying or laughing. At this point you’re not sure either.
‘What kind of name is that?’ You give a little hiccup. ‘That’s a stupid name for a lipstick.’
She holds out her hand for the offending item.
‘Two years back I created names for lipsticks,’ you tell her as you return it. ‘It took hours, no, days, for one season’s line. For brand Y.’
‘That’s such a good brand,’ she responds.
‘Pink Bluff, Poppy Chase, Catalina Nudie, now those are names for lipsticks. The brand founder loved the list I came up with.’
‘Do you want to try another shade?’
She retreats behind the counter but you can’t stop telling her.
‘And then I did the next season. Jaisalmer Bride, Sahara Sky, Balinese Sunset. But I never felt like buying any of those lipsticks, you know. I just stuck to my usual.’
‘Are you buying this? Is there anything else you’d like?’
‘Daring Rosie, Bolder Goldie, Cheekier Mauve. I must’ve named forty lipsticks and glosses.’
She takes this as acquiescence that I’m a hooked consumer. ‘That’ll be sixteen pounds, please. Do you have a store card?’
‘Plum Perfection, Flawless Coral, Immaculate Sex.’
‘Very nice indeed. Tap your credit card here please.’
‘Then the founder-lady wanted something new. She liked to travel she said. So I came up with places with Y. To flatter her and her eponymous brand. Yakeshi, Yangon, Yamuna.’
‘Do you need directions to anywhere else in the store? There’s tea and cake in the café.’
What does she think? You’re not an old lady who needs tea! You’re only forty. Alright, plus two. ‘York, Yaroslavl, Yazd.’
‘The exit is that way,’ she points. She hands you a cute little silver bag with your cute little lipstick in it.
When you go out the next Saturday, just for a wander in your zone, you wear your perky ‘Use Judiciously’. Who named this? How did they get away with it? Droll but if it’s part of a This Lipstick Will Change Your Life campaign this name doesn’t cut it. You wonder if you should’ve bought another shade, one with a better name! ‘Slay Dragons.’ Did somebody do that already?
You ask for your turmeric latte at the local café and you grin pinkly, ‘Hi Naomi, am I stuck in a rut?’
‘Hi.’ The young woman at the till is drooping in the heat, but her smile stays cheery. ‘I don’t know you well enough to know.’ Oh my. A considered answer.
‘Same order every time,’ you point to your drink and your almond croissant.
‘You’re not the only one.’
It’s too hot in the café. This never happens, but it’s happening this July. You sit out on the bench under a tree, sipping, nibbling, perhaps nipping at life. Life is using you judiciously. It’s not wearing you out or treating you bad. In your case it’s just trundling along, not doing much. Leaving life to unfold may not have been the right move. But you trusted in life. And prayers. And now look.
An elderly couple seat themselves on the bench on the opposite side of the road. The lady’s skirt flares, her varicose veins are out to catch the summer air. His short-brimmed straw hat barely keeps the sun off the red tip of his nose. They munch into their sandwiches. You smile across at them, you feel indulgent. You might want a sweet man by your side were you ever to turn into a scented old lady, but you don’t want to be them. Not him, not her. You want to be you. Changing your life, or not, one judicious lipstick at a time.
First published in Confluence journal, February 2020