L’Oréal Enzymatic Cleansing Cream: Splash cold water over your face, rub the cleansing cream in for 2–3 minutes. The enzymes soften and relax your skin, easing the furrow that has reemerged between your brows since Botox was outlawed as a falsifying agent.
Clinique Toner 0.01 for Highly Stressed Skin: Turn the bottle against a reusable cotton round, sweep it across your forehead. Beneath the sink are three bottles of toner from the days when you complained about your oily skin, fifty dollars of thin pink liquid which now explodes your face into more of a purpling patchwork than it already is. One day you might need it, though—it’s a gesture of hope, not pouring it down the drain.
Bobbi Brown Hyper Repair Moisturizing Balm, SPF 25: Pat, don’t rub, the moisturizer in while your skin is still damp. Apply three times beneath your chin, where your skin feels scaly. Apply in excess around your eyes, praying to erase the inevitable creases you’ve tried to avoid by not squinting against the sun or clouds of smog. Pat, pat, pat.
SuperGoop Road Warrior Facial Sunscreen, SPF 200: A liberal coating, too close to the eyes. You blink irritated tears. All the dermatologists used to say that the best defense against aging is, well, defense. You think that’s what they said. In the right light, in a dimly lit bar, you can still pass for thirty-five. Reassess this number regularly, asking men, strangers, to guess your age. “Don’t be nice,” you say to these windburnt men, “tell me what you really think.” Clinging to this age of potential fertility, you think the day you look thirty-six is when the police will stop you, check your ID, deliver you to the old post office.
NARS Eyeshadow in German Forest, SPF 50: Your eyes are the most like themselves, unchanged from the old world. You hold your skin taut with one forefinger as you smooth eyeshadow on with the other, all the way to the brow line. Eye skin is a different skin, an interesting fact or piece of marketing. More susceptible to sun, wind, toxic airs. One of your friends saw a back-alley plastic surgeon to have her eyes lifted, trusting in his promises of certifications and training from the days before doctors were assigned to more essential tasks like baby care and euthanasia. You saw her one time after that, her skin sewn back so tight she could no longer blink, craning back her head every few minutes to drip in false tears that ran down her cheeks. “I feel good,” she said. “As soon as this settles, I’ll feel good.” But then she was gone, and you didn’t get to ask again how she felt.
Glossier Water-Water-Waterproof Mascara, Black: Things that will never change, your mouth drifting open as you tug the mascara wand through eyelashes that seem, disconcertingly, to be thinning—collecting in clumps on your pillowcases, washing down the drain. Is this happening to every woman?
Shisheido Calm Foundation, Tone 240 with Green Undertones, SPF 30: Shake twice, hold the pump against a stained sponge. Blend the foundation into your neck, just far enough that when you tie your scarf no one will see the line where your skin turns back to itself. “I love a woman who doesn’t wear makeup,” men say to you at bars, staring into your green-lidded eyes. “I like a woman who’s still natural, like they used to be.” All natural, you promise them, a good American girl, begging them, without words, to make you necessary.
Clinique Blush in Rose: A glancing blow over each cheekbone. You swat your hands against your cheeks, seeking the balance between a good blend and disturbing your skin back to an angrier red. Years ago you would dab lipstick on your cheeks, blend and blend and blend until it had settled. Your skin was a pliable thing, able to sustain any abuse: cigarettes, a half-dozen cups of coffee or wine in a day, mascara stains on every pillowcase because you couldn’t be bothered to wash your face. Dolly Parton never washed her face, you remember reading—the things you could get away with, back then.
Shisheido Matte Powder, Tone 240: For a few minutes, your skin will become a perfect thing. In high school you sat behind a girl who applied powder across her forehead and nose two, three times in a single period. She looked the same each time, never changed, but when you lean close to the mirror to search for red tones or flaking patches of skin made clearer by the powder, you understand the perfection she was seeking.
MAC Hydrating Lipstick in Georgia Peach, SPF 30: From the center of your lips, work outward. One, two, three, four swipes. Press your lips together. Smile.
Urban Decay Makeup Setting Mist: Close your eyes and hold your face ready, prayerful, for the spray. There’s no proof, but you believe the mist acts as a last protective layer between you and the unfiltered exterior air. Don’t let anything touch my skin, and I’ll be fine. Hold it at a millimeter’s distance, and I’ll be fine. Cap the bottle and drop it back in the drawer of free samples and retired products you’ll never use. Watch yourself in the mirror for a minute, maybe two, looking for cracks, for any hint of the irritated, burnt skin you have just hidden below the surface. Layered in a scarf and hat and high-necked jacket, wearing your tortoiseshell Ray-Bans that make you feel like Jackie O (two references, right there, you think the world will soon forget). Step into the sun-cut smog of a new day, a good day, a hopeful day—because without hope, what is there?
Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared in Split Lip, Joyland, and Milk Candy Review, and is forthcoming in Story, Pembroke Magazine, and The Best Small Fictions 2020. She’ll be joining Ohio State’s MFA program in the fall. You can find her at ellenrhudy.com, or on twitter at @EllenRhudy.