I wake, parting with a dream. I was preparing for my brother's wedding, being lectured by a spliced persona of Helen Gurley Brown and my late grandma, Mom Mom. She is, they are, urging me to invest in an expensive palette of green eye shadow.
“As a lady of the world,” she (they) says (so stern), "You need to be ready for “occasions.”
“I’m not ready for occasions?” I inquire, stricken, adding after a pause, "Expensive green shadow?"
Mom Mom Gurley Brown doesn’t answer though, she just sits there. To top it, she refuses my attempted embrace. She’s not amused and remains unmoved, arms limp. Uncharacteristically humorless, absent of affection. It feels dark, the mood all too sinister for something seeming superficial.
This has been happening lately, dreams like this, warning me I'm unprepared for life. I emerge into morning with unwelcome worries of imperative self-improvement. And there comes an impulse I get sometimes -- always have but its heightened in New York, land of whirlwind spectacle consuming -- that some thick mascara would do the trick. A new blazer. A lace onesie. A Lady Gaga toothbrush that sings. A popping eye color.
I sit up in bed that morning, toss my sheets off and take out a notepad. Like a logical Moonchild, I decide to interpret the dream. Figure I can deduce something concrete.
Mom Mom shows up in my dreams all the time. The familial matron, who could hand-churn me a vanilla milkshake while painting her eyes a subtle smoke, was a lady of all occasions. She started a design business in her 60s, was quite the go-getter. Though boundlessly affectionate, I still harbor a subconscious worry she'd be wary of my lifestyle. Could such a darling, put-together lady accept me with a whole heart when I'm still paying off a DUI, don't wash my sheets weekly, use half and half instead of skim? Seems, somehow, impossible. Might account for embrace refusal.
As for H. Gurley Brown, author, publisher, Cosmo Editor, controversial self-proclaimed feminist? My mother picked up a copy of HGB’s “Having It All” in a sort of jest at the free book table at the hospital she works at, thinking out of it I'd get a kick.
“Woman writer for a woman writer!” She slides it across a hotel table, smart elfin smile. Did she know I was doubting my ability to have a successful and intentional career while maintaining self-care? Moms always know.
Notice bookmark in page alerting, "Don't Worry If You Aren't Smart or Ambitious Very Early." I spend the good part of an hour skimming through it, half-curious at its 80s antiquity, half hoping she’d tell me how to. Some good tips. Don't muck around with hate. Don't be cheap with people. Some terrible proclamations.
“Do you like fat men?” she asks, doling out diet advice. “Of course not!”
But the real emotional through-line, the dream crux: these gals telling me a freaking eye shadow would help me become a "lady of the world, ready for occasions." I get befuddled with the level of attention I should pay to my appearance, have gone through too-long periods when heaps of ill-formed, negative energy goes to considering my looks, my weight, my clothes. Not things I want plaguing me.
It's tricky knowing how to maintain the way I feel best without letting it spin dark or narcissistic, so in response I would ignore it all together, wearing sleep eyes and standing bangs. I'm slow growing out of that as I get older; the further away I get from bad young mental habits, the more I know how to wash up and slide on a nice blouse without adventurous self-loathing. Still, just last weekend while dressing for my brother’s wedding, minutes before I'm due for pictures, I'm combing an owl family from my hair and find myself crying. Freshening a tired face with dying, drying cover up and three of the same pink lipsticks. Makeup or no makeup, negligence doesn't seem to do the trick for me either.
Anyway, late that afternoon I'm in SOHO with my friend Sydney and, as dreams do, it's still static clinging to my psyche. I walk by a MAC store and sidle in, think maybe I'll heed the dream literally this time. I'm taken by the colors, the small dark tubes, the staff dressing just in black -- they’re often kind of mean. I figure, haha, little laugh, Mom Mom Gurley Brown would prefer Estee Lauder, Clinique or Bobbi Brown.
After experimenting with a few high pigment eye dusts, a small woman called Pam with extreme brows asks about my normal makeup regime.
"Honestly, Pam, it’s inconsistent. I’ve gone through times where I spend good time and a pretty penny, and I’ve gone through years where I wear nothing but the skin I'm in. At this point, I just want to figure out a way."
“You don't plan to buy that gold-salmon you’ve got on your eyes right now?” I look at the mirror. Where I expect my reflection I find a dehydrated young Victorian with a serious fever looking surprised.
“Ah, no. This was a mistake. I’m looking for more of a nice popping green. Something elegant. Yet cool.”
Pam coughs and hands me a turquoise called "Aquadisiac" then turns to help someone else. Fifteen bucks for a tiny tub. My gut contracts. To feel compelled to buy this stuff is stabbing confusion for a sometimes-miser with liberal-farted mental dilemmas on buying femininity.
Just then, heavens parting my psyche, I hear the crackling voice of my great mentor, Valerie, ready for all occasions in soft cotton tees, wild hair and a naked face;
"If I could go back to my 20s, I never would have spent so much dough on those goddamn Chanel eye creams." She pauses. "They were just so smooth."
I wipe off the pink with a cotton round and put the green on, shuffle over to Sydney who's trying on lipstick.
"What do you think?" I ask.
Her voice is kind, "Possibly too severe?"
I stop and look around, digesting the environment. The place I have come to buy a piece of preparation for occasions, some personal style. There are mirrors from floor to ceiling on surround. Women and men, in seeming slow motion, pursing lips, stretching out eyelids and dropping jaws, carefully examined by friends, lovers, mordant salesladies. "Ohhhh, YEAHH! I lovvve it." And they do it seems. Deep down.
People hand over credit cards with clown cheeks, bright light hitting from below their facial bones. The cadenza of a pop song booms; dark shelves with perfect boxes reach to a glass ceiling. Equal parts stunning, fantastical, grotesque.
I remember another reason I only have a dying tub of 01 fair, some lipsticks. Overwhelm.
So I book it out of MAC empty handed, realizing that the problem is not whether I should buy eye shadow, it's that I spend good brain space worrying about buying eye shadow. "This is a. Waste. Of. Time," I think. Resolved to go home and make toast.
An hour later I'm standing dumbfounded in front of a Wet 'n Wild display at Walgreens, contemplating shadows while thinking about quality, quantity and the way eye skin must absorb so deep all the strange dye chemicals that make the shadows up. I leave again without shadow, no 99-cent liner or bold color crayon, buying only a quite adorably miniature tub of Vaseline to tame potential lip chap. Winter's coming.
Wouldn't you know, that night, getting ready for Sydney's birthday, I find a high-pigment eye dust called Copper Sparkle, purchased years ago, in the bottom of a pouch I hadn't used for awhile. Little shit had been there all along. Foregoing my usual naked eye, I decide to swipe some on, wondering aloud in my best Lansbury impression if "Copppper Sparrrrrkle will make me feel like a laaaaaady of Ocaaaasions. A bit more prepared for the eeeeveeeening."
By god, by grandma, by Gurley, two eyes sparkling copper in my dirty mirror, it kind of did. Sometimes, I suppose, it really does.