I’ve never been very good at applying makeup. My mom never wore very much, and my two oldest sisters had left home by the time I was interested in learning from them. My sister Jo, the professional, intimidated me with her tool box of eyelash curlers and liquid liners, so I gave up for a while. Still, I wanted lessons, and I got one once—from a hooker in the bathroom of a Max & Erma’s in Columbus, Ohio.
I found her trembling in front of the mirror, with her jewelry jangling as she daubed her eyes with torn toilet paper. She was talking to herself in front of the mirror.
“I said I wasn’t going to do this. I said I was done. I put an ad in the paper, and he—I—“
She was repeating this in variations: she didn’t mean to get back into this, but it was just one ad, one more guy—a little extra cash.
She stood there, shaking and digging through her purse nervously. Once she had pulled out a lighter, I figured she would start smoking in the bathroom lounge chair when she retrieved a pack of Mistys and set it on the counter next. They had already banned smoking in restaurants, but I thought she might just need to have a cig to calm her nerves. Yet she didn’t want them. She continued to search, tossed out her keys, and a few other articles on the counter.
That’s when she pulled out a stick of black eyeliner, drew close to the mirror, and rolled back the ball on the little Bic lighter. There was no spoon and no needle like I’d feared—just her cheap liner to carry her through with the rest of the evening.
I don’t know why, but I had to ask her what she was doing because I’d never seen it before. I’d guessed it was for sanitation purposes, but she told me it was to make it go on smoother.
As she applied a thick, dark line on her lids, she steadied herself on the counter with her left hand and asked me if I thought she was crazy. I told her I didn’t, but that she didn’t have to continue her evening with that guy. From my table where I was sitting with my date, I’d seen him order beer after beer. I’d heard him swear loudly and watched him giggle as he pinched her thighs. I warned her that he looked mean, that she should get out.
She argued with me, telling me that he was the one who drove and she didn’t have enough money for a cab. When she was finished with her touch-ups, I said it looked good, and it did.
Next—what compelled me, I do not know—I opened up my clutch and got my liner out and asked for her lighter.
She handed it over, and said that the trick was to hold the sharpened part at the tip of the flame just a second or else the entire pencil might catch fire. My black N.Y.C. pencil liquidized, and she cleared the way for me at the sink. It was a false start, because it was too hot and I pressed too hard, causing the point to crumble into a flat charcoal bead. The second attempt worked, though.
“See. There you go. Looks good on you,” she said. That’s when she collected her things and dumped them into her bag.
Determined to carry on with the evening, she examined her appearance in the mirror one more time. She popped a piece of Wintergreen gum, and said, “See ya” as she walked out the door.
When I returned to my table, I told my date what had happened, and we watched them awhile and debated about whether or not we should get her attention and give her money. After 15 minutes, the guy paid for the check and they exited the big front doors and walked into the gray January city snow.
For months, every time I’d burn my eyelids from overheating cheap drug store eyeliner, I’d remember her and wonder if she was still taking customers. When I got a sty from utilizing her application method, I stopped. Even now, when I think of her, I would like to think that he was her last call, she probably didn’t because when you find something that works just well enough, sometimes it doesn’t matter how many times you get burned. Sometimes it’s because you can’t feel it, and sometimes it’s just because that’s how you’ve always done it.