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June 17, 2024

Going Hungry 51

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Fifty-one: Unmasking

Rainwater had filled the birdbath outside the window over the sink, and even though it was cold and still drizzling, two sparrows were sparring over which should bathe first. Gloria watched them, wondered why they were bickering over the bath when there was so much water in puddles in the yard, and thought of how some people say that humans are the only creatures who wage war. It's not true. Cats fight each other for sex, wolves fight each other for territory, sparrows beat each other ... for a bath and some birdseed. It's just a matter of magnitude.

A small sound behind her claimed her attention and she turned away from the window, and nearly jumped out of her skin. "Oh my god!" Lolo had entered the kitchen quietly, looking very different from the woman who had left for work at the cosmetics counter the day before. "Sorry, Lolo -- are you sick?"

Lolo frowned a little. "No, no. Just no makeup." She shook her head sadly. "May I make some coffee?"

"Sure. No problem." Stunned by the change in the woman's appearance -- uneven skin tone, pale lips, circles under her eyes -- plain old middle-aged woman eyes, not dramatic and exotic -- hair falling down her back, and her bangs rumpled -- Gloria turned hastily back to the sink to hide her horror at how lousy Lolo looked. Holy shit, it was all makeup.

"Usually I don't let myself be seen without my war paint," Lolo said as she filled the coffeemaker. "But I didn't want to wake Philli up."

What, you didn't want to inconvenience the woman whose husband you were banging? How considerate. "I don't wake her up early, either. Ben can get himself off to school on his own ... I've just grown used to getting up early, because Will had to get out the door with a good breakfast, and Ben moved in on the morning food offering." She finished the frying pan, drying it and putting a potholder in it to keep the other pans in the stack from scratching the non-stick surface.

"You're a good sister. And you have good brothers. I could not stand mine -- too much machismo and posturing. 'You're just a girl, all you're good for is babies and tamales,'" she mimicked. "So I didn't even learn to cook, just got out of the house as soon as I could."

"Did you live in Mexico?" Gloria said, not really wanting to know, but refusing to relinquish her possession of the kitchen.

"Los Angeles. Gang turf, smog, filth, drugs. I came north to get away from that culture. I have never been to Mexico, never wanted to go there. So many of the women who come over the border are afraid of their own voices -- it can't be a good place." She poured a mug of coffee and sat down at the table, looking shrunken and displaced, not looking directly at Gloria.

Silence stretched into minutes as Gloria scoured and rinsed the sink. What do I say to this woman? What can she say to me that won't make me want to smack her? "How's the new job going?" Why isn't my mother up to keep her buddy company?

"I hate it very much. I stopped wearing my watch because I was checking the time every three minutes, which was rude because the way to make sales is to make the customer think they are the center of your universe."

Is that how you snared my father?

"I prefer selling cars," Lolo continued. "When you have a car to sell, you have something to show, something to let the customer touch, something of weight. The customer knows what they want, they just want you to agree with what they want. With cosmetics, if the woman is young, she wants to know if the products will make her look beautiful. How can you know if they will? If the woman isn't young, she wants to know if the product will make her look young. So you have to lie, say 'Of course! Try some of this cream, too!' It's crazy." She snorted with a self-deprecating laugh. "Of course, look at this face," she said, waving at herself. "With no makeup, I scared the hell out of you."

Gloria winced. "Just ... unexpected, sorry."

"I know what I look like after the evening cold cream and shower. My makeup is my mask. I can be someone different when I'm all made up. But you can't sell cosmetics by telling someone that they have to cover up who they are or what they are or how old they are. Women want to hear that the perfume or the foundation or the eye shadow will make them beautiful and young. Maybe I just don't like how women think about themselves. Selling cars, I mostly worked with men. Men don't worry about youth and no pimples, they just want to spend what's in their wallets."

It was a bit much for Gloria to hear. Feeling her face blush with anger, her mouth blurted out a sarcastic, "Oh, really?"

As the two women stared at each other across the kitchen, Lolo's expression turned furtive, even fearful. They had come to a crossroads of understanding, and the outcome was not likely to be comfortable.

"I know about you and my father," Gloria said.

"He was different," Lolo whispered, her lower lip trembling.

"He was married," Gloria gritted.

"I know ... I knew ... it was wrong ... I told him that, told him we couldn't ... but he -- "

"He what? He wouldn't take no for an answer? That doesn't sound like my dad to me."

"He wouldn't. And yet he still made me feel like I was someone who could do anything, someone strong, intelligent ..."

"And beautiful in your makeup mask? Did he know what you really look like?" Gloria wanted to stab Lolo with her words.

Lolo's eyes filled with tears and overflowed. "Yes," she fell back to a whisper. "Yes, he did. He wasn't interested in the makeup, he loved me best ... like this." She began to sob. "I miss him so much." She got up and left the kitchen, leaving her mug on the table.

Gloria's eyes welled up, too. When was the last time I said I missed him that much? Any of us? We've been grieving, but not admitting how much of a loss it's been. And damn it, it wasn't her chasing after him, it was him going after her. Perfect Dad hadn't been weak, he'd been a crumb. She sat down hard on a kitchen chair. He'd been the aggressor in the relationship, not the victim. And Lolo, far from being the femme fatale, had been a woman sucked into her father's charm just like the whole Melton family had been. We all loved how he was, how could she not, when he wanted her to love him, too?

Suddenly, with a twist in her guts, Gloria understood why Philli had opened their home to Lolo. Philli had been jealous of her husband's mistress, but she had also somehow recognized that the mistress had been, not an interloper, but an unlawful possession of her spouse. Lolo was a belonging of her husband, almost like a pet that he had abandoned with his death. Good job, Gloria, you just drop-kicked your dad's hamster. Disgusted, she got up and looked out the window above the sink again. Another sparrow was in the birdbath, or maybe the same one, they all looked pretty much alike. A scrub jay sailed in, flapped his wings and darted at the sparrow, blowing him off into the shrubs. I just did that to Lolo. Over nothing even as tangible as a birdbath. Over a memory of a dead man, a dead man I apparently didn't even know well.

She walked back the hallway, rapped twice, softly, on Will's -- Lolo's -- door, then turned the doorknob and opened the door about two inches, to hear the woman weeping inside. "Lolo, I am sorry for what I said. I was rude and ungracious, and I will not say anything like that again." She shut the door quietly, well aware that nothing she could do would ever make the words she had said be forgotten.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-05-02
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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