29 • Makeup
“Come on, please? Mom said I could only go if you came with.” Molly had been cajoling Will for an hour to go to Allison Ludwig’s house for facials with her friends. Allison’s mother was a beauty consultant with a cosmetic company and was doing makeovers on Allison’s friends for her birthday. Molly had been talking about nothing else for a week.
“No, ” Will said. “Makeup is stupid. What do I want to do with a bunch of girls and lipstick all afternoon?”
Molly smiled and poked him in the arm. “Barbara Roberts will be there. She’s Allison’s best friend. I know you have a thing for her.”
It was true. Will had had a crush on Barbara since he was 12.
“Allison’s mom makes the best snacks. You can just sit and watch TV. No one will even care. Come on. I’ll owe you one.”
Molly owed Will about 952 ones by now. She rarely paid her debts and when she did, it was usually in foreign currency. “I won’t tell Mom you’re the one who left the freezer door open, ” she’d say, even when Will hadn’t been the one that did. “We’re even!”
Will gave in that afternoon and went with Molly to Allison’s. Before he could slip away to find the television, Mrs. Ludwig had cornered him and walked him to the dining room table where Molly, Allison, Barbara and three other girls were each sitting opposite a small vanity mirror and a spread of sample cosmetics in little black trays and white tubes. “You can take the seat next to Barbara, ” Mrs. Ludwig said, and gave him a light push to his back between his shoulder blades.
“Oh, it’s okay. I was, umm, just going to watch—”
“No, no. You’re not going to watch everyone else get beautiful.” She pulled his blonde hair, which had grown past his collar over the winter, into a short ponytail with her hand, and put an arm across his shoulder. “Don’t be shy. We’ll make you beautiful too.”
The girls around the table snickered and looked down at their makeup trays.
“But I’m not—”
“Go sit now. You wait and see what we can do to you.”
Will shook his hair loose from her grip and trudged to the open chair, hanging his head. He sat down and kept his eyes in his lap, refusing to look when Mrs. Ludwig instructed the girls on the proper way to wash for a deep skin cleanse, how to apply a foundation base, and how to brighten their cheeks with a subtle rosy blush. He was fidgeting with an eye shadow brush, mixing the blue and green on his tray absentmindedly when Mrs. Ludwig decided she’d help get him out of his shell by using him as her model for all the techniques she was demonstrating. She had him move his chair to the head of the table and by the end of the afternoon, they all agreed that he was the most amazing transformation of the day. “Trade that grubby yellow t-shirt for a pink halter top with a scoop neckline, and you’ll have to beat the boys off with a stick, ” she said as he and Molly left the party.
Barbara followed them out the door as Will tore the plastic headband from his hair and flung it into a bush. He shook his head and roughly tousled his hair with his fingers, which now hurt from being pulled from its natural part and cowlick. He pulled his shirt up to his face to wipe it clean.
“I didn’t know you could look so pretty, Phillips, ” Barbara said.
Will looked at his sister. “Why didn’t you help me?”
Molly shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe because you’re so cute.”
“Simply gorgeous, ” Barbara agreed with a laugh. “Don’t know how Miss Wickham will keep her hands off you in class.”
Will clenched his jaw.
“I think Mrs. Ludwig was right, by the way. I have just the halter top, if you want to borrow it, ” Molly said.
He shoved Molly from behind with both hands to her shoulders. She stumbled a few steps, then began to laugh. “Oh, geez. Come on. So you’re a girl. You’re not going to die from it.”
Will’s eyes blurred. He turned and ran, wind pulling his tears straight back from the corners of his eyes into his hair. He ran four blocks before he stopped beside a tree, leaned over with his hands on his knees, panting for breath and feeling certain that he would, indeed, die from it.
There was no telling people things, he decided. They would believe what they wanted to believe, just like Mrs. Ludwig, and saying something wouldn’t matter. Best to put the energy into getting through the day—or the year—with as little eye shadow as a guy could.
Will picked up his phone and dialed Joe’s number. After a few rings, it switched to a message. “The Telecom customer you are calling has a voice mail box that has not been set up. Please try your call again later. Goodbye.” He never understood why that robotic message said “Goodbye” at the end, as though the string of sounds digitally cobbled together was supposed to sound sincere. “I can’t do a thing for you. Have a nice life.”
Where was Joe? Will wondered. He should have been getting home about right now. Maybe he switched his phone off for the night.
He set his phone on his chest and folded his hands across his middle. Staring into blackness, he pondered calling Barbara.
Barbara had never needed a real man. She needed a man devoted to proving himself because a man who needed to prove himself would do anything for her—anything to be seen with her. Being seen beside Barbara’s beauty was all the proof such a man would think he needed.
There was nothing in the world Barbara would love more, he imagined, than a call from Will “just needing to talk.” His had been an intricately woven dependency and in the years they’d been apart he had come to think less about the sexy pair of legs that promised to open a way under her short black skirt and more about where she must have hid the other six.
Especially in the summer, he shared his space in Pearl’s house with a handful of spiders who found their way in and plenty of room to work. One often greeted him in the shower early in the morning, blinking her eight eyes from the corner in sweet unison, awaiting some unsuspecting insect to fall into her handiwork and die. Not that the fly she hoped to entangle and sip on for breakfast was so innocent. No, the fly could outwit cats and the morning’s rolled up Tribune, but turn around and tumble blindly into her lacy bed sheets and die an intoxicating, asphyxiating death—pursed spider lips running the length of him and he not apprehending his doom until that final slurping sound like when a straw reaches the end of a rootbeer float.
Did the flies know that’s how it worked, he wondered. Did they not see the web and fly into it like a dog crashed into a clear glass patio door? Did they see it and think that only the careless flies get caught, tempt fate by diving and buzzing the strands, now and then get snagged? Or did the spider smile her sexy smile, turn back the sheets and lay out a foil-wrapped mint and handwritten poem, the fly just playing his part, let his hind wings do all his thinking and fall right into her bed?
Will wasn’t sure he knew which it was for him. Of course it was easy enough for a guy to do his thinking from a zippered tent. But for him, that was always more like whispering in an echo chamber, partial sounds drifting and hoping for something to bounce off. Barbara never turned down the sheets for him. He just walked in and laid down on top of the bed covering, wishing against all he possessed for her to take him, knowing all the while she never would.
There was no final slurp of the straw at Barbara’s soda fountain. She took her sips from Will’s soul slowly, left time in between for him to replenish, think he had fortified himself, never quite finishing him off. It seemed to suit her more to keep him around.
He hadn’t spoken to Barbara in 14 years, not since he left Chicago, which was far more about leaving Barbara than leaving the city. Joe moved to the Dakotas to keep a promise to his wife even though she was gone before he came. But Will came to the Dakotas as much as anything because it was a place Barbara had promised never to come to. She gave him a list one day of all the places she would never live. At the top of the list was the Midwest. The rest were named by city, but the Midwest was erased from possibility with a single motion, an entire region Barbara seated herself high above.
Too folksy, too backwater, too earthy, she said. She could never live in a place so close to the source of her food.
When Will left Chicago, he knew he might also hate South Dakota, that he could also be miserable here. But Barbara was slowly draining away his life, and perhaps on the plains it would be a sort of misery he could grow to love.
He opened his phone and clicked on R in his contacts. Barbara Roberts stared back at him from the screen, her blue eyes daring him to step back into the web, tangle his hands and feet in her sticky mesh once again. He traced a finger along her cheek, then let it travel to the green phone icon and pressed Call.
“May as well fluff the pillows, Phillips. You just took her up on an offer she hadn’t made yet, ” he muttered, shaking a fist toward his own face. He quickly slid his finger to the End Call button, but not without hearing her sultry voice. “Sorry I can’t take your call right now—”
“Fool! Every damn time, you do this. She’ll see the missed call. She’ll know she still has you. You might not think you’re set up that way, but you do still do your thinking from behind a zipper.” Will took his hair in both fists and pulled his head from side to side. “When are you going to learn?”
He reached for the pack of Camels on the nightstand and got up. “Damn you, Barbara.” He walked out of his room and down the hall to the back exit, lighting a cigarette before he was even out the door. He sat on the top step in the cool night, head in his hands, and letting the cigarette hang from his lips and smoke drift back into his face until his eyes watered. When he was done, he ground out the butt on the wood step and flicked it over the railing. Pearl would find it in the morning and be incensed. “Too bad, Pearl. You won’t let me have a coffee can up here. One’s bound to land in your flowers now and then.”
He was still holding his phone, as though there was a chance Barbara would call back. She never did, except for the first time, five months after Will left. He was missing his old life and called her. He hung up as soon as she answered. She called him back, scolding him for interrupting her dinner with Nick Sartell, the young and handsome CEO of Simplify, a tech startup, as though he were somehow supposed to know where she was or who she was with. Will said something lame and transparent about not calling her, that it was a butt-dial. She knew it wasn’t true and made some condescending remark.
“Nick Sartell is gay, Barbara, ” Will had said. “Should work out swimmingly for you.”
He had no idea why he said it. He didn’t even know for sure whether Sartell was gay, but he had a sense about these things and was usually right. Barbara hung up on him and never called again the eight times since then that he had reached such a point of despair as would compel him to dial her number.
The smart man would delete her number from his phone, he told himself. Will was clearly not that man. “Never again, ” he told himself each time. “I’ll never do it again.”
Will looked at his phone, turned it in his hand. He stood to his feet, leaned against the railing and threw the phone into the bushes separating Pearl’s house from the historic school house next door.
“Screw you, Barbara.”
Will walked back inside back inside the house. As he closed the door, a bluish glow flickered in the grass along the hedges. After a few moments, the light went out. He was already down the hall.
(to be continued)