A Situation in Beauty

          You. The one he left me for, bring me to a halt, in this crush of women shoppers armed with huge buckled handbags, saloned hair and spiky heels. I, all crow’s footed and pale, stand frozen—like a shopworn mannequin—at the dewy, in-the-flesh sight of you. I’d been filling up another hollow Saturday afternoon with aimless dabs from expensive pots brimming with promises, when I spotted you in this swarming makeup department—now, because of you, my make-war department. Such self-satisfaction in your pose, as you appreciate your soft complexion in the mirror. Lucky it only shows flaws that are skin-deep. Is it deliberate or haphazard that you’ve paused before the wands loaded with the chimerical hues of Arden’s “Enchanted Collection”?
          You, who I’ve never seen this close up before, with your blonde tangles, shadowy eyes, and unspoiled skin—so smooth and kissable. No doubt his lips have traveled every inch of it. Those same lips of his that said vows to me fifteen years ago, and declared just last Valentine’s Day, “You’re still a beauty, you’re all I want.” Such a bitter question nags me now: were my husband’s words red-blooded want or gutless guilt talk for wanting you more?
          The salesmen working the women’s beauty area sashay, soft-sell and spray. “New for spring, treat her to pure Beauty,” they croon. Their silken voices urging me to buy what can’t cover this up, or smother with florid puffs of hope. A salesman maneuvers around the knot of shopping bags and coats slung over arms and stands before me, blocking my view of you. How dare he? Can’t he see his elixirs are no match for watching my husband’s lover? I glare at the man. He’s tailored and pretty and cocks his crystal bottle of spray cologne. “Special offer today,” he purrs, “’Sweet Revenge.’” A perfumed cloud fills my lungs with the sickeningly sweet odor.
          I’ve fallen into the sinkhole of the cheated, betrayed, the past due.  And now here I am, caught in envy’s vicious spell.
          The salesmen walk the floor, their voices sing-songing promises. An offer for “Flower Bomb” over here, a puff of Jovan’s “Fire” over there. The men urge, they offer, whisper, “Just for you, ‘Pure Poison,’ ‘Atomic Rapture,’ ‘Guilty.’” Words and potions urging me on to flame.
          I edge closer, past a woman with helmeted platinum hair and another in tight, shiny, black, thigh-high boots with murderous heels. You stand there oblivious, while I watch the fuzzy arm of your pink sweater reach for an eyebrow pencil, then another, and another. I’m pulled toward you while you try to color in what’s missing there—on the surface at least—until I can see the chalky beige film of your makeup foundation.
          I’m as near to you as two women side-by-side at sinks in a bathroom. You are tall, fit, and lean. For an instant, I sense him there on you—part fresh rain, part turned earth, a touch of citrus. A scent as familiar to me as breathing and so subtle I never noticed it was missing until he’d left. That mere hint fills me with thunder.
          Without catching your eye, I search you up and down for some fault, some fatal flaw that must be there, a crack to take home with me to consider, to relish while I lie awake at night, to imagine widening slowly over time, tormenting you—growing with each year you are with him until, finally, he tosses you away, too. But all I find is a small, innocuous mole resting on your neck below your delicate petal pink ear.
          You must have sensed danger in the air—not the bottled kind—because it begins to show around your soft mouth. A tightening, a flattening of your sexy pout to a straight line. Then I watch a tremor run right through you when you turn and recognize me as her.
          There it is. Panic imposing itself upon you. What a joy it is to watch your sly eyes scout the space for a quick exit, away from me, last season’s cast-off!
          You drop the pencil, you pull your colossal purse against your chest. Seeing you right there in front of me, catching your eyes as they scuttle about, I feel the whole nasty stench of it. Oh, I want you to hurt. I yank out all the ugliness inside me and hurl it at you like a blade. “He’ll cheat on you, too,” I snarl.
          Before I can utter another blast, a dapper knight steps between us, wielding his fragrance swatch, his mind on his wares, oblivious to the fury in the air. “Try ’Happy by Clinique,’ it’s more than a state of mind,” he purrs holding it up to my nose.
          I two-step, stretching around him to keep my eyes trained on you. You’re not leaving my sight. I’ve just begun. I push past him and see you’ve pivoted and are heading off. I yell, “Don’t turn away from me, I’m talking to you!”
          You stop and face me, your eyes burning like two blue flames. “You’ve got real nerve. I can do whatever I like.”
          You tower over me. No matter, I have you exactly where I want you, where I can mow you down with my words. “You’re a cheat. You’re a destroyer.” Your nose is as delicate as fine china, your features unnatural in their perfection, their balance.
          “I owe you nothing,” you seethe.
          But you do. You owe me big. “You think you can just walk into someone’s life and ruin a fifteen-year marriage?”
          You glare, toss your wild mane around to make your point, and then sigh. “You are so clueless. Jack and I have been together for half your marriage.” You then twist away, you dodge, you slither, then pause and glance back as if to witness a burning building before it collapses.
          I stand there lost. Thunder heaving through me with no place to land. You’ve struck me in a soft, bare spot with one sharp, blow—like only a woman knows how. I scan the floor for you but you are gone, while your words, “half your marriage,” sting me over and over like lashes.
          I turn to retreat to some dim, benign corner, and am met by a trio of startled salesmen. They stare at me. Observe me. They murmur. They signal. I hear them call me a situation. They call me a situation in beauty. A situation on their floor.
          These salesmen see I’ve lost all my color, can see the rage that moved in months ago and settled in me, can see it has shot to my surface, and runs through me like a fiery river. Can see the beat-up boat shoes I found this morning in the broom closet, the ones I bought him right after our wedding. Can see all the CDs in his collection that I snapped with my foot one-by-one, can see where I scrubbed his leftover toothpaste sprays from the sink back splash, and fed his succulents to the garbage disposal. Can see the trail he left—the long strands of blonde hair on jackets I showed him, how when I asked him if there’d ever been another, he looked straight at me, clear-eyed, and deeply brown. “You worry way too much,” he’d said kissing me on my head.  And I believed him, cherished his calming tone, his reassuring touch, how he so easily forgave my mistrust. 
          These salesmen know what has landed me in this emporium of hope. They gather around me knowing they must act fast. They say stupid things. “Bad day, Hon?” Inane things. “She’s not fabulous like you, Hon.” They say trite things. “He’s a fool.” They tell me I’ll take him to the cleaners. They tell me that I’ll keep all our friends. They tell me the she-demon did me a favor, that it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
          I want to tell them no, that my husband will be back. That my Jack will come to his senses because why else would I still hear his hearty voice, still listen for him in the shower each morning, still think each text is from him, still feel his hand slide into mine. But these salesmen stare at me dubious. “I always thought he’d be back,” I manage, as something breaks inside me. I gulp it back and look down at the floor. I sense their eyes on me, feel them see me, my brokenness and I want to crawl inside the mirror on the counter, hide behind the giant vase of scarlet poppies.
          “She was heartless, an icy reptile,” I tell them.
          “Yes, yes,” they chirp, and I believe them, and it soothes me to hear this.
          These salesmen tell me they see this all the time. “The hairdressers, the beauty salesmen—honey, we’re on the front lines.” They take me by the hand, sit me on a high stool, wave their colored wands, brushes, pencils. They promise me scents to recast my mood, powders and creams to recolor my life. They’ll even toss in a special gift promising a brand new me. They tell me they’ve been there. It will pass.
          They won’t let me go until I’m spritzed with Deadly Desire, doused with Brutal Bloom, anointed with Fire. Passion behind my ears, Flower Bomb on my wrist, Sweet Revenge in my décolletage. When they are through, I am wrapped in potions, oils, and mists, painted with pots of Flame and Thorny Rose and powders of Ice and Smoke. Watch the shop displays tumble, see the atomizers pop, and the powders smoke. Hear the crystal shatter. Watch out, Jack.
 

Andrea Marcusa's literary fiction and essays have appeared in The Baltimore Review, River Styx, Epiphany, New South, and others. She's received recognition for her writing in a range of competitions, including Glimmer Train, The Ontario Review, Ruminate Magazine (fiction) and New Letters (essay) and she's a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee. For more about her work visit andreamarcusa.com.

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