True story . . . I was looking for a sock pattern so I could figure out a heel that I wanted to replicate and came across a short story that I wrote years’ ago. And I just kinda feel like putting it out there since I like where it was going.
Nobody ever comes in The Beauty Inside with an actual purpose. Fine, there may be the odd one who knows exactly what is needed and finds it using stealth like precision; otherwise, they will fall trap to the rest of the lures, like pretty colors or tantalizing scents or “helpful” sales associates. For most people, The Beauty Inside simply beckons and they walk through the doors like lambs to the slaughter. Some are pulled inside by the pulsating music. It’s always something slightly familiar, but the boom boom boom of the bass overshadows what you thought you knew. Others see the iconic stripes on the front and realize, “Hey, I need a lip gloss/eye shadow/perfume/ego booster,” and they too are in. Still others, usually the men, are dragged in by someone else. Hardly any wait outside, for if they do, the bill will most likely be higher. Besides, without the knowledge of what their partners are buying, they will have no clue what has been “improved” and the little compliments that most women go fishing for will remain unsaid. There are a few who stumble in on a hot summer day when the wall of cooled air hits them in the face as they pass by. For some reason, the marketing directors decided years ago that leaving the doors open on days above 85 degrees and cranking the AC just a bit made sense. You know what? There’s a reason those folks get paid the big bucks since it works like a charm. The occasional tourist from someplace in Iowa or Missouri comes in, thinking that they are on to some Big City phenomenon talked about in Elle or Vogue, but if they did a little bit of homework, they would have found a smaller shop in the largest city of their state or visited our Website already.
I say “our” Website because after working here for two years, you start to get a little possessive of the place. My zone – between Lorac and Hard Candy plus register two – is my own patch of The Beauty Inside. You want a killer Smoky Eye? Ask Dakota. You need something to make your high school boyfriend beg for forgiveness at your next high school reunion? Ask Dakota. You need a cheaper alternative to Miorine Eye Deglace? Ask Dakota. That’s what it says on my nametag. You can’t honestly think that Marge and Bert Crowley of Totowa, New Jersey called their first son Dakota, can you? Christ, that name only became popular ten or so years ago. If you had a choice of buying beauty enhancements (or make-up if you hate euphemisms) from Dakota or Dennis, whom would you trust? I won’t think you’re shallow if you don’t even entertain the name Dennis. Neither would I.
I’ve seen all types come in over the years, so much so that Chantal (Catherine if you must know), Midori (truly) and I have invented a game of sorts. We devised the categories years ago: surgeon, dreamer, drifter, helpless, tourist, and other. Surgeons mean business; they are in and they are out, very clinical. Dreamers are searching for the latest craze trumpeted in the glossy pages of the magazines to make them look ten years younger or to give them Sienna’s pout or the volume of Jennifer’s hair. Drifters come in almost by chance and they buy a random assortment of crap that you know damn well they’ll never use. The helpless are the ones I feel for the most. They need something – anything – to make them feel better. Sometimes a cheating spouse is the root cause of a $1000 make-up binge or a sudden weight gain causes the sales of anti-cellulite cream to spike through the roof. I almost feel guilty when working with the helpless since they will buy anything you put in front of them, but when your salary is tied to your sales, you get over it relatively quickly. Tourists? Just what the name implies. It’s the other category that really gets us, but when have you ever played a game or taken a survey when “other” wasn’t listed.
Before the day begins, the three of us decide on the point structure for the day. Surgeons are usually worth the most since it is rare that we get any. During the autumn months, tourists increase in value. The helpless are worth the least – just as in life – and the dreamers are usually variable depending on the item they are after. In all my months of playing, the game has never failed to entertain me. Then again, I find most YouTube videos of people falling entertaining. The only group that we don’t usually categorize are men. Early on we decided against lumping them into a category since it would be unfair to look at a potential hook-up or date in such light. All three of our last “serious” boyfriends have been former clients. Oddly enough, they stopped coming in after the break-ups.
Angie first started coming in about eighteen months ago. At first, we put her down as a drifter since she seemed to be without purpose, but when we noticed that she came in every Thursday at 6:15 exactly, we thought she might be a surgeon. Chantal saw, however, that she never bought anything more than cheap lip balm, the kind that your mom might buy to shove in your stocking to make you think you were special. By the end of the first month, she no longer counted in the game and I had her pattern down.
She enters from the 6th Avenue door with little make-up on and walks to the Stilla counter, applies some eye shadow using our hygienic applicators, and moves on. Angie then walks to the Shesido area and adds the mascara before navigating her way past the spritzers to the Bare Minerals section for the foundation. Her last stop is near the Cargo display for two shades of lip-gloss before grabbing a balm, paying, and leaving with one brief stop for a quick spray of Ralph Rocks. That’s it . . . it never deviates, save for the time that the Japanese tourists blocked her access to the Shesido area and she had to settle for Lorac. She’s never paid with a card, always cash, and she’s never said anything other than thank you. Hell, I don’t even know her name; Angie is just the name I gave her since she reminded me of Angie Carmichael in the third grade at St. Lucia’s Elementary. For all I know, she is Angie Carmichael, but I doubt it.
Angie always struck me as being kind of pathetic at first. Here is this woman, fairly attractive in my limited knowledge, coming into a huge chain store like The Beauty Inside to use our makeup for free. Granted, the make-up is there for people to use, but we are expecting you to buy that $34 tube of mascara at some point. But not Angie. She buys the cheapest $4 lip balm we offer. Is it absolution for using the shop as her own personal dress-up box? Or is there some deep down Catholic or Mid-West guilt forcing her to make amends for the “theft” of some good make-up week after week? Maybe she just has really chapped lips? Either way, it was kind of pathetic watching this plain Jane enter only to leave as someone else. This, coming from a man who spends too much time caring about the shape of his brows and not enough time about his sister’s kids, according to my mother. Pathetic, yes?
About six weeks into my “relationship” with Angie, pathetic was the last word that came to mind. A young mother – a dreamer – had her two kids plus a pocket-dog with her while she was trying to negotiate our narrow aisles. (There’s a reason for that, says our marketing directors. People are more likely to purchase items if they feel claustrophobic as they just want to get out but the guilt usually prevents them from doing so until they make at least a small purchase. Told you there is a reason they make the big bucks.) The mom is blissfully ignorant of her youngest in the front seat, who by now is eating the display of nail “varnishes” and kicking them all over the floor. Angie, who is attempting to make the turn into the aisle for her lip-gloss, sees the young child gum the third bottle of polish and grabs it out of his hand. She leans over and says something to the oblivious mother, who gushes over her sons and dog yet gives Angie the look of death, and goes back into her own world. What kind of woman does that? Not ignore her own kids – millions of women do that – but actually take the time to “parent” someone else’s child. Maybe Angie herself is a mom, separated by a bitter custody battle and she is looking for any child to fill that void. From that day on, I started “writing” Angie’s story in my head.
If she came in with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she was obviously training for the New York City marathon. She had probably been running a ten-mile warm-up through the park, getting ready for the big day. I admired how fast Angie’s metabolism returned to normal as she strolled in without the ruddy complexion or sweating which prevented me from becoming a serious runner.
But if she walked in carrying a book or a newspaper, clearly Angie had been to her weekly book circle where she discussed how Oprah got this one wrong and why people should look to the classics before anointing the next Dickens or Austen or Proust. How the newspaper tied into that was beyond me. Maybe a newspaper circle where she debated the new font choice in the Times.
Every once and a while, Angie wore all black and then she needed to spruce up before heading to the funeral of her best friend/lover/close family accquaintence/groomer. Or maybe she really worked for one of the myriad of places that thought all black outfits brought class to the joint (like The Beauty Inside). Once or twice, the outfit didn’t need a lot of explanation: sparkly top, tight jeans, fuck-me pumps. You get the picture. This outfit was the rarest of all, so I felt some kind of comfort that she had a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse to take up the rest of her time.
One Thursday about two months ago, Angie didn’t come in. 6:15 came and went and no Angie. I asked Chantal if she had seen “the freebie” since I had never shared my obsession about Angie with anyone. “Nope. Maybe she actually bought her own shit and isn’t free-loading off of us,” she muttered. I gave a strangled laugh, but something was clearly wrong. In eighteen months, there had never been a Thursday without her; the Post Office could learn a thing of two from Angie about regularity and efficiency. Where was she? Fifteen agonizing moments went by and still nothing.
Then, I saw her . . . but it wasn’t her, just some dreamer in search of J-Lo’s butt cream. At 7 I called the shop on 8th and Madison, which was about a ten minutes walk from us. “Halley, it’s Dakota. This is going to sound weird, but did a woman about 5’ 7” with dirty blonde hair come in, use a bunch of make-up, buy a Essential Lip Balm in Mint, and leave? Yeah, a freebie.” Shit. No Angie there either.
For the rest of my shift, I popped my head up every minute or so and scanned the crowd. Nothing. I have no clue why it troubled me that this anonymous woman who clearly never gave me anything other than a five-dollar bill and the odd smile was “missing.” That night, I left heading along the path that I had seen her use so often. I shuffled down 6th Avenue, bumping into people while scanning the crowd instead of watching where I was going like a good New Yorker. Maybe she took the subway to get here so I headed into the station and just stood there. For the first time in years, I felt out of place in the city, while people knocked into me trying to buy their Metro cards and racing through the turnstiles to catch the next train. I thought about getting on a train but had no clue which way to go. I’d never figured out if Angie was an Uptown or Downtown kind of girl.
Instead I went home, reheated some Indian food from last night and watched some reality TV. Eventually, still irritated by Angie’s disappearing act, I clicked my way to the NYPD’s Missing Person’s page and read the descriptions of every individual listed. Some were clearly not her: wrong gender, too old, obviously not Puerto Rican. But two or three seemed like they could be Angie. Was she really Maria DeCarlos from the Lower Eastside who had been missing since last Saturday? God, almost a whole week. Her family must be frantic. Perhaps Angie’s real name was Karissa Rosenblatt from Brooklyn. Never thought she might be from Brooklyn or named Karissa. Eventually, I got tired of the guessing game, drank three glasses of wine like a good little boy, and went to bed.
The next day didn’t go any better. Angie, I thought, just got her days confused. Maybe she had a grueling day at the office and she couldn’t make it in for her beautification. But 6:15 came and went as it did successively for the rest of the week and still no Angie. Midori and Chantal started to give me funny looks when I asked about the freebie after my days off. “Why do you care about her? She’s not your type . . . unless you have something to tell us.” My sales were slightly down during Angie’s “missing week;” helping the helpless isn’t so easy when you feel that way yourself. She didn’t turn up on the next Thursday either, even though I had been hoping against hope that she would.
Eventually my obsession with Angie faded as I realized that she wasn’t’ coming back. Maybe she had secretly been buying make-up at another shop or perhaps she was really a Cover Girl after all. Either way, Angie never returned to the shop. Nothing really changed for me. We kept playing the game, deciding eventually to add the men to two separate categories: hello and good-bye. I took the train home every so often for Marge’s tuna noodle casserole. My nieces loved their trip to the American Girl Place with Uncle Denny. A new boy came and another one was close behind. Without Angie, my life went on: coffees ordered, magazines read, gossip whispered, groceries purchased.
My favorite place to buy the groceries is the Whole Foods on 26th Street. It’s not that busy on Saturday mornings, probably because it’s far enough away from the tourist hot spots and at least a three block hike from the nearest subway stop. Besides, they do fabulous samples on Saturday, so I really don’t have to worry about breakfast or lunch. After three trips through the cheese section, I don’t even think about dinner most Saturdays. I can always justify the samples since I usually – usually – buy one or two of the items they put out. Near the deli counter, the sales girl cuts up some exotic cheese from Portugal, promising a nutty punch in a creamy cow’s milk interior. I take two cubes of this cheese, not really caring if she gives me a look of disdain or disgust. Maybe I’ll buy some next time if I can get a few more “hopelesses” to boost the sales.
She hates working Saturdays. All the people who come in clearly load up on the samples before heading out for a day on the town. Ellie swore the change in shifts wouldn’t be permanent after she took her vacation two months ago but here she stands, cutting up over priced cheese for trendy city dwellers who never buy the shit anyway. Take this jack-hole with the manscaped brows. He’s been in the cheese section three times – three times! – and has yet to add a hunk of the cheapest cheddar to his cart. Was ten days with her sisters and their kids in a cramped time-share in Phoenix worth working Saturdays, catering to the weekend warriors? Maybe but if one more person leaves the aisle without buying the Poirier cheese, she might scream. Instead, she reaches into her smock, grabs the tube of Essential Lip Balm in Mint, runs it over her top lip twice, presses it to her bottom one, and smiles while she says, “Can I offer you a sample of our newest cheese, ma’am? It’s from a new line of artisan-crafted cheeses from Portugal. You’ll find that the creamy cow’s milk interior gives way to a pleasing nutty finish.”
“Where It’s At” by Beck