I love the names: Sumptuous Scarlet, Ruby Slippers and Wet Wet Red. I’m at the cosmetics counter in a drugstore and I have a row of red marks on the side of my hand like a cat’s scratch: British Red, Pomegranate, Berry Burst and Raspberry Bite. I am going for the reddest. The darkest red there is.
Red lipstick says: this mouth will do you in. Whatever you do, don’t make me pout. If I’m dark and wet and pouted up, you’re done for.
There’s a mirror on the drugstore counter, a white disc of fluorescent light that I tilt, and there’s my mouth, ultra-glossy and covered in Liquid Garnet. It socks me back to my early 20s. I remember living in residence, tearing an envelope with such haste that rose petals flew out all over the elevator, swirling in the updraft — a valentine.
That night I made out with another boy entirely, my back against the red brick wall of the dormitory, a snowstorm devouring the town. It was almost silent in the storm, just my blood pumping in my temples and the snow hissing against the hood of my nylon jacket. My lipstick smeared on his full mouth, a faint red ghost of transference. I had transferred, in that kiss, every drop of love I had in me.
The girl at the cosmetics counter tells me that red is the only lipstick that bleeds.You’ll need a lipliner, she says. My Liquid Garnet has already smeared a little and gives me the look of a child playing with her mother’s cosmetics. There is an old woman at the counter beside me. She has on a plastic rain bonnet and she’s walking with a cane, and it’s taking her quivering, pale hand a long time to pluck the right change from her coin purse, but when she turns to smile apologetically at me, I see she’s wearing a lipstick more fiercely red than the one I’ve chosen.
There is something so blatantly sexual about red lipstick. That’s why it’s shocking on the mouth of an older woman; it has a wrecked grandeur that I admire. I remember parties my mother had, how sophisticated I thought the cigarette butts with the ring of red lipstick looked in the ashtrays. I could put together the whole woman the smoker must have been from just this one clue. Cleavage and perfume, spiked heels, rhinestones, eyes sooty with mascara, narrowed knowingly behind a veil of smoke.
There’s also nostalgia in red lipstick. Wearing it invokes the spirit of Marilyn Monroe, of all women who were brave enough to be vulnerable and bold at the same time, mysterious and coquettish, willing to announce their desire in a blazing, wet spill of crimson red.
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