Short Story: Lippy
Whenever she visited her grandmother’s house as a child, Ruby would stumble over her own wobbly legs on the way up the stairs. In her grandmother’s room was a wardrobe, where she would pull out strings of pearls, elbow-length cream-coloured gloves, and a pharmacy-bought a tube of lipstick. The latter was a deep shade of violet. She liked the way it looked against her pale skin.
Later, Ruby would gobble up all the biscuits in the pantry while her grandmother took drags from a cigarette between sips of Broker’s. “Where’s your lippy, love?” her grandmother would say, once the lipstick had inevitably vanished with the treats. Each time, Ruby would gasp, hurriedly totter back up the stairs, and apply a fresh coat. Ruby’s mother, too busy arguing with the silence on the other end of her mobile, didn’t notice the lipstick the first few times. Ruby’s mouth remained happily violet until it rubbed off on her white pillowcase at night. After a few visits, once Ruby had grown a little taller and gotten a little wider, her mother sniffed the lingering smell of cigarette smoke as Ruby got into the back seat of the car and whorled around to look at her daughter. “What’s that on your face?” her mother said. “Eugh, it looks disgusting. Wipe it off!” And she reached back and smeared the lippy, so it bruised Ruby’s tear-stained jaw.
Later that night, Ruby at an entire Cadbury Milk Tray in the kitchen as she listened to her mother’s muffled voice through the wall. Her parents would no longer be sending her to her grandmother’s and that, the rising and falling of her mother’s voice seemed to say, was that. Her father, as far as Ruby could tell, remained silent as always. Ruby wished her father would defend her grandmother. She would have liked to see what other lipstick shades her grandmother had.
It wasn’t until secondary school that Ruby began to wear a full face of makeup. She borrowed a few choice items from her mother’s handbag each morning: an eyelash curler here, a concealer, the familiar colour of her grandmother’s gloves, there. But there was one crucial beauty product missing from her mother’s store. So Ruby went down to the pharmacy one day and slipped a tube of lipstick into her pocket. Her jeans hugged her hips a little too tightly, so she worried that the tube would be visible to the guard as she left the store. She felt an inexplicable thrill as she left the shop unapprehended. She had picked a shade that matched her name. Once Ruby began to highlight her facial features and allowed her clothes to cling more tightly to her body, the boys at school began to notice her. She even got a date with Charlie Fenwick. He parked the car around the side of her house, next to the fence, and when he began to kiss her, she leaned into it. His hands continued to explore her body when he pulled his lips away from hers. Her red lipstick was smeared like blood against his sweaty jaw. His hand wandered down to her fat bottom and squeezed. He whispered into her ear, “I love that there’s so much more of you to love, babes.”
After, she snuck into the house and examined herself in the washroom. Ruby decided that she didn’t like mirrors. They were far too delicate, easily cracked, and this one was flecked with toothpaste. But she looked into it anyway, noticing that the only trace of lippy left on her was a smudge on her neck, leftover from where Charlie had kissed her. She touched it lightly, then the inside of her thigh. She thought that perhaps she should be able to wrap her hand around that thigh, like the girls on the telly.
Ruby looked at herself for another moment in the mirror, then promptly vomited into the rubbish bin.
Throwing up got easier after that. The next time, Ruby pushed two fingers into the back of her mouth. In the weeks following, she realised that using a toothbrush was much easier. She lost a pound at a time. Sometimes she would gain one back, and she’d discipline herself with a few day’s worth of plain celery and lettuce.
As painful as it was to make herself vomit, as much as her throat continually burned with the taste of acid, it all became worth it when she stained the mirror with a few more flecks of toothpaste and put on a fresh coat of lipstick. If she squinted, she looked just as pretty as those telly presenters.
Months passed, and Ruby began to notice smudges of her lippy in strange places – not just on her coffee cup or on a boy’s earlobe – but on the ivory of her piano, on her school papers, sometimes in fingerprint shapes on her pudgy belly.
Eventually, she stopped obsessively reapplying it all day. She stopped putting it on in the car at the beginning of the day after she threw up in the washroom at night. She was no longer asked on first dates; she no longer received positive attention in the school corridors.
But she could almost wrap her hand around her thigh.
Before Ruby reluctantly opened the tube of her lipstick that night, she chanced another look at her reflection. She noticed for the first time the deep violet under her sunken eyes and the wrinkles appearing along her neck.
“Where’s your lippy, love?” she whispered and, still looking into her own eyes, pulled the cap off the lipstick.
The tube was empty.