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War Paint



Society can exist only on the basis that there is some amount of polished lying and that no one says exactly what he thinks. — Lin Yutang

I stood beside David in the atrium on the top floor of the San Diego Natural History Museum and scanned the artwork on the walls. David was one of four photographic artists represented in the exhibition. “So weird that they’re calling this show the ‘color of water’ when your work is black-and-white,” I said. “Maybe it’s a metaphor or something.”

An approaching woman interrupted David’s eye-rolling acrobatics. She was about my mother’s age, with a no-fuss, Midwestern mom haircut that complemented her turtleneck and denim button-down combo. But it was her face that caught my attention.

It was like staring at an optical illusion. I struggled to identify the underlying image (her features) beneath layers of distraction (her makeup). Something was off about her lips. I watched as they moved this way and that to form questions for David about his work, and after a minute or so I figured it out: she had two mouths — her actual lips, and the coral paste she’d smeared over them, in the shape of her lips, but a few millimeters to the left, as if she had been trying to center them beneath her nose.

The plight of her eyes was more obvious. Her lids were naked, lashless — I wondered if she’d Tammy Faye’d them to extinction. Beneath each eye she had a straight, Sharpie-thick line of dark-blue liner. I was reminded of school, when I’d use a bold marker to underline a topic so I wouldn’t forget to go back and address it. I was so busy examining her eyes that I missed what her mouths were saying. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

“I said, you must be very proud to have such a talented husband,” said the woman.

“Yes.” I willed myself to look only at her pupils and not the surrounding area. “I’m a lucky woman.” I turned and shared a smile with David. Once my gaze had been broken, I kept my eyes from drifting above her turtleneck. “I’ll let you two talk some more,” I said. “I’m going to get a refill on my coffee.” Once I was out of sight, I snuck a glimpse of myself in my tiny compact mirror to make sure all my war paint looked the same as when I’d applied it that morning.

After the show, David and I walked over to the Prado for lunch. It was a warm Saturday afternoon, perfect for dining al fresco and sipping honey-scented white wine. While we waited for our food, David started to make small talk.

“Did you notice —”

“That poor woman’s hatchet job? Yeah,” I said, and followed it up with a wounded, How could you think I would miss that expression.

“I really wanted to say something,” David said.

“You’re not serious.” I studied his face. “You are serious. God, I’m so happy you didn’t. What would you have said? Wait, how did you know it was so bad? Every girl you dated before me wouldn’t know her concealer from her highlighter.”

“First of all, I recognized that it was a disaster,” David said. “I’m trying to have a conversation with her, and all the time I’m thinking, Don’t stare at her bad makeup. It was serious badness, and not in a Michael Jackson kind of way.” David savored his quip with a sip of wine and then continued, “I would say, ‘My wife has professionally done makeup for many people and helped people achieve a better look by not doing so much underlining.”

I winced. “I would have died,” I said.

“No, I’d do it in a nice way. I’d turn it into a compliment. Like, ‘You have nice eyes. Perhaps they’d look better with a more natural look.”

“Trust me, a woman knows — there’s no way to nice up the news that for all her apparent effort, she didn’t look as good as she thought.”

“Didn’t you help your coworker that one time by suggesting she stop using that dark lip-liner?”

“I never said anything to her,” I confessed.

I found David’s philanthropic interest in other women’s makeup endearing, especially given his past attitude toward cosmetics. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said he’d never dated a woman before me who wore makeup. I’m surprised that David — a guy historically drawn to bare faces — ever clicked on my online personal profile, in which I declared “red lipstick” as one of the five things I couldn’t live without.

“Why’d you never tell me I’d look better with a ‘natural’ look?” I asked. “Sure, I don’t cake on the foundation and powder, but I do it up with black eyeliner and lipstick. That never bothered you?”

“I like the way you wear your makeup — it complements rather than distracts from your features.”

“So, you think if someone does a distracting job, they need to know about it — from a stranger?”

David leaned forward, into his seated argumentative stance. “If I was walking around with my fly unzipped, I’d appreciate it if someone told me.”

“Well, yeah, but that’s totally different,” I countered. “I’d want someone to tell me if I had toilet paper on my shoe, something I didn’t spend 20 minutes carefully attaching to it.”

“What if someone is a repeat offender? What if they’re doing it every day and it looks terrible — shouldn’t somebody tell them? What if someone’s dressing terribly? Don’t all those makeover shows encourage us to help them?”

“Yeah, if you’re someone close, someone they trust,” I said. “Especially if they’ve been dressing that way for years — the way people dress, that’s their identity. How would you like it if I said those jeans you’ve been wearing all these years look terrible on you?”

“I’d say, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘Let’s go shopping,’” David said.

“Smart-ass. You know what I mean.”

We halted the discussion when our server delivered our plates. David took a bite of his skirt-steak panini and chewed over the points we’d each made. “I say you tell someone,” he said.

“I say you don’t,” I said. “And, may I add, you didn’t. So, clearly, on some level, you agree with me.”

“I just didn’t have the right opportunity,” David grumbled.

“Well do me this one favor.” I set down my glass and gave him my serious face. “The next time you have the urge to save someone from their own poor judgment, wait until I’m out of the room.”

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