A tiny tube of a maraschino cherry red lip lacquer, as cheap as it is sparkly, sits buried in the portable plastic drawer in my bathroom cabinet, nestled somewhere between a smattering of medicine cabinet staples and seemingly indispensable would-be cast offs: cotton swabs; half-used prescription strength pain medicine; a stash of tampons; old eye shadow, liners, and blush in a variety of garish and more conservative hues, too ugly or old, but too expensive to throw away; birth control in various incarnations; empty travel size bottles of shampoo; half-full travel size bottles of conditioner; barely used bottles of legion, over-priced hair products I can’t stand, and also can’t stand to throw away; a roll of waxing strips; nail polish; nail polish remover; nail clippers; bent tweezers; en emery board, never used; a stray band-aid, mostly wrapped, possibly useless in its diminutiveness; and the obligatory bottomless bottle of ibuprofen. This drawer is the purgatorio of toiletries and pharmaceuticals.
It is a well-traveled tube of lip gloss, having accompanied me, somewhat inexplicably, across many state lines, logging no less and certainly much more than 12,000 miles total in multiple cross country, maybe even cross-continental, trips. It’s not that I find it so invaluable or indispensable as to take it most everywhere with me and to use in such sparing amounts as to hoard it. I do not exactly covet its contents, and barely ever open it to examine them. In fact, I can’t name more than a handful of times I’ve actually smoothed it on in any serious way for more than five minutes at a time in the past two to seven years. I truly find its texture (both tacky and gritty), its aesthetic (well, also tacky), its flavor (plastic-scented candy), and its overall effect so inherently repulsive that it should have, quite some time ago, been cast aside. If it ever had an expiration date, I never thought to look. Whatever it might have been has long worn off and surely passed. Even now, for posterity, I probably won’t bother to confirm.
But I can’t throw it away, and it looks like I won’t, not any time soon. Even though the color is garish and most everything about it is reminiscent of a seedy strip club, and other things, places, moments, people, which conspire to demean women and reduce them to nothing but fragmented parts of a fractured whole. Even though if you try to wear it for more than just a few short minutes, it will end up smearing your pearly whites in a most unflattering way. Your lips will feel both the sense of a temporary relief from unsavory dryness and concurrently robbed of all moisture, creating the condition you hoped to stave off, with the illusion of success. Of a kind. It will more than likely cause your lips to smack and partially stick together as you attempt to pry them back open, should you choose to do anything above and beyond forming your maw into a sultry (?) pout by, say, trying to form words. Yet, like many things I find repugnant, I won’t shake free of it and I can’t rid myself of it. It’s all at once historic, nostalgic, tragic, foolishly comical, and appalling. Pathos in a little tube of liquid polymers and wax? Perhaps.
Pedal back just under a decade ago, and though that little splash of sparkling maraschino wasn’t consistently center stage, it played a supporting role often enough in the dressing up, the recurrent parading of one’s sometimes wilted peacock feathers, which occurred at Smith College when we were mere kittens, just 21 years of age, give or take. Intellectual pursuits were engaging and sometimes all-consuming, yet never gave the ultimate satisfaction we were looking for, whatever that denouement. Often feeling cloistered in the academic ivory tower of an all woman student body (sex-wise, strictly speaking, for historical and argument’s sake), we would seek out the necessary, or available, outlets. Sometimes this meant traveling by PVTA bus (Purveying Virgins….) to Amherst to the parties at the three other co-ed schools within the consortium. More often, this meant Quad parties, or even smaller room parties with a half-dozen or fewer friends.
We painted our faces in the equivalent of stage makeup and dressed in cheaply constructed, throwaway party clothes from Wet Seal and Forever 21. Attempting to highlight our assets, of which we concurrently thought everything and nothing at all, women (or mere girls) dolled up like RuPaul, but sporting none of the requisite hardware of a male drag queen, made us a parody of ultra-femininity. It wasn’t precisely our intent on many of these occasions, and yet essentially, in these moments, we would dress in drag. We donned feather boas and wore unwieldy high heals, with less than sufficient fabric covering our persons to stave off the New England chill. Just a few more than enough citrus-tinged vodkas and sodas spiked with rum helped stand in for something better suited to the task of slapping away winter’s prying fingers. The DJ’s music pulsing from the brick lined windows drew us in to the house just across the way, and the throbbing heat, of bodies pulsing together to a familiar rotation of hip hop and pop, melted away the memory of the frigid outdoors. A sheen of perspiration slithered across exposed torsos and backs, and rolled across our temples and past our noses and lips, as it unflatteringly blurred our clown makeup. We’d flaunt and strut in our insecure vanity; for each other, for ourselves, for undesirable nobodies we thought to tease and to slap away all at once, for imaginary men, indifferent boys, and “gateway lesbians.” (There is something, I now realize, about this designation that seems so conversely rife with objectification and doused in its own irony-tinged truism.)
How was it we were so young and vain, and at the same time, so wrapped up in insecurity, so disbelieving of the wholeness of our being, and our agency, that this masquerade was seemingly the pinnacle? Or at least the highest peak visible in a valley surrounded by such small hills: our gleeful outlet, our weekend validation, which required a witness but likely would have been better off without one.
So young? Well, it wasn’t all too long ago, admittedly. But it seems like forever and a day, because the setting and the players are quite different now, yet altogether just the same. I often feel pity and compassion for the kid that was, and passed through something somewhere to write this now. I often think I would like to wander back to those moments, maybe for a do-over, or to bask in the glow of friendship, and yet I’m also grateful those moments are passed – some of them. That little tube of repugnant lip gloss stands as testament to the silliness and the frivolity, the joy and the seeming limitless sorrow and confusion of being too young to get it yet. Even so, I won’t be putting it on again any time soon.
But maybe for just a moment.