PERFORMING WHO | In India-Rose Channon’s short story, Riley paints her face on every day.
by India-Rose Channon
The first thing I do when I wake up is paint my face on. The eyes come first, for obvious reasons, and often I do them twice, one at a time to get it right. When I first started painting, they’d always be lopsided, the left one curving down too much or the right one just a little too wide. I’m pretty good at them now, but that’s only after years of practice. The mouth comes next and the nose, and then, if I’m really hungry, I’ll eat before I finish up. I’ll sketch out a jawline sometimes. Not always. Eyebrows are easy. I can do them in the car on the way to work, if I don’t have time.
Today is a soft day. Like clouds parted gently by the sun. That’s how I want to feel, so I blush my cheeks peachy and rose-bud my lips and draw my eyes wide, with sky blue irises. I put on a blouse, a skirt, look at myself in the mirror. The nose is a bit off. You can almost tell it’s painted, but not unless you look really close.
The other people I work with don’t tend to switch up their faces much. They’re all very good at it; their noses are the same every time, their eyes the exact same shade as yesterday and the day before. They put on different eyeshadow sometimes and change their lipstick, but that’s it. No new features.
The flats are waking up when I get outside. I don’t see many of my neighbours – everyone mostly keeps themselves to themselves – but I’m sure they’re all lovely. My car is a yellow mini, like sunflowers. Sometimes I wish I could paint that too.
I’m working on the east side of town today. Starting on a road called Willow Lane. There aren’t any willows on it, but it’s beautiful none the less. Big old cottages and converted farmhouses, with walled in gardens. Rose bushes and sunflowers and cherry trees trail over the walls, giving away all their secrets. The first house looks old old. It has like this lamp outside it, the kind you see in Victorian films. I used to want to be a makeup artist on films like that, but it was all a bit much for me.
I work for Avon, and it’s not just for the makeup.
I like trying on new faces every day, and you just can’t do that in an office job. I tried that once, when I worked at McDonalds, and it would take ages every morning for my colleagues to remember who I was. Wasn’t very affirming.
When I knock on the door to the old old house, a man answers. I smile and shift the catalogue in my arms, but before I can even say anything, he looks over his shoulder. ‘Maureen!’ His voice is scratchy like a cassette with the insides pulled out. ‘Maureen! ’s for you!’
He wanders away into the depths of the house and I wait. The hallway is pretty. Old lady pretty, but still. Maureen comes down the stairs in a pinafore patterned with ducks, wringing her hands. There’s still traces of flour on her fingers and in between the diamonds of her ring. She’s painted her face soft today, same as mine, but her eyes are sharp and green. I wonder how she mixed that colour up; it’s stunning.
‘Avon.’ I hold up the catalogue, pushing it towards her. They tell us to get it into their hands, just get them to take it for even one second, then they’re yours. Maureen stretches her hands out easily, taking it before I even have to try. ‘There’s a whole new range of lipsticks for the season,’ I say as she flips through the pages. ‘Beat the January blues and all.’
‘Very nice. Is that one you’re wearing now?’
“Today is a soft day. Like clouds parted gently by the sun. That’s how I want to feel, so I blush my cheeks peachy and rose-bud my lips and draw my eyes wide, with sky blue irises.”
We talk for a bit about the new range and then I leave her with the catalogue, glad to have had such an easy start. The next couple of houses aren’t quite as smooth; a teenager opens the next door, arms folded, eyes already rolling. She tells me her mum’s out and when I offer her the catalogue, she laughs and tells me my eyeliner is smudged on my left eyelid. I get back in the car after that and check it. She was right.
The one after that is a single man. He’s not interested either. Sometimes I think if I caught them on a soft day, they’d want it more. But maybe they’re just not the kind of people who’re into makeup. They must draw on their faces with something different, pens or chalk or paints.
I like to pair my softer faces with dresses or blouses. When I was in my teens, I went through a phase of only painting strong faces and I would wear them with all my beautiful dresses that my mum sent me at Christmas. People didn’t seem to like that very much and back then that was good, but it’s better now if I stick to what people like. It’s hard to sell things to people when they don’t understand what you are.
The house after that is a man too, but he’s a lot more attentive. When he opens the door, he leans on the doorframe, smiling down at me. He’s done his smile well. It almost hurts to look at.
‘How could I possibly refuse?’ He takes the catalogue from me and sets it down on a round table behind him. When he looks back at me, I see he chose the same eye colour as me today. It makes me giddy.
‘I saw you here last month, didn’t I? Collecting?’
I nod, very aware now of my slightly wonky nose. ‘Willow Lane is one of my regulars.’
‘Lucky Willow Lane.’ His eyes are always on mine. Even when I look down and then look back up, he’s still staring right at me. Smiling and bright and so well painted. ‘Am I your last house?’
‘Nope. Got a few more after you.’
His face falls and that hurts too. ‘Oh. Well. Maybe some other day.’
‘Some other day what?’
We go to a café in town. I drive, and he tells me about the people on the lane, who’s most likely to want the catalogues, who owns the biggest dogs, how to get around that grumpy teenager. Five or six catalogues sit untouched in my clear plastic box on the back seat.
I always worry, with drinks, that my lips are going to run. That I’ll look up from a sip and my mouth will be gone completely, and I’ll have to rush to the toilet to draw it back on. Wouldn’t even be able to explain, what with no mouth and all. I’m sure other people worry about it too, but I’ve never seen it happen to anyone before.
He gets an espresso and he gets me a hazelnut latte. He doesn’t have kids or a spouse or much family. Like me. After the coffee, I ask him to come over and he does.
‘Riley,’ he says, inside me, underneath me, his fingers digging new purple marks into my hips. ‘Rileyrileyriley.’ He’s called Matt, and that doesn’t seem right to say. I put my fingers in his mouth and he sucks and none of his makeup comes off, not even a little bit.
He falls asleep right after, snoring, but not obnoxious. He’s snuffly, like a hedgehog or something else small in the leaves. His face is so beautifully done; his artistry shows. His eyelashes lay against his cheeks as though they know with absolute certainty that they belong there. I bet he always gets his eyes to match first time.
When I wash the paint off, I almost leave my eyes, thinking how it would be to wake up and see him first thing, instead of the mirror. I’ve never let them stay over, or they’ve never wanted to, so I don’t know the right etiquette, but if I leave it on it’ll smudge and who knows what he’ll wake up to? He could probably do with washing his face off, but I don’t want to wake him.
I take off the eyes last and throw all the wipes in the bin. The lid, greedy, snaps back down and I worry that it’s bothered him, but he’s still fast asleep. Still snoring. I’ve learnt how to find my way to bed eyeless, but the snoring throws me off and I bash my ankle against my bedside table. It’s worth it.
He wakes up before me. I only know because his gasping pulls me into waking. He sounds like he’s having a nightmare and I reach for him, but his body slips away from me, like a weasely piece of soap.
‘What’s wrong with your face?’ he says, and I hold one finger up. Give me a minute. Maybe I missed something last night, like there’s still an eyebrow floating above nothing on my forehead.
In the bathroom, I sketch a rough pair of eyes onto my face and the most rudimentary pair of lips I have ever painted. There’s nothing wrong with my face, aside from the shoddy features. By the time I get back to the bedroom, he’s half-dressed, holding his shoes to his chest like a child on the first day of school. He won’t stop staring at me. His face hasn’t smudged at all, but his skin is so much paler than it was yesterday. Maybe he went over it all while I was in the bathroom.
I go over to him, but he won’t let me near. He keeps backing in to the walls, and so I give up, and sit on the bed. ‘What’s wrong?’
He makes a kind of gurgling noise. It’s not very attractive. ‘Your face.’
He’s still upset. What did I do wrong now? ‘I’ll do it properly in a minute, I just wanted to make sure you…’
‘Where did it go?’
We stare at each other, the whole bed between us. I feel weird. Fuzzy. My face is hot, and I can feel every stroke of makeup on my skin. I haven’t felt like that since I was a kid and I could never get it the way I wanted to look. My face not matching my inside.
‘You don’t have a nose,’ he says.
‘Well, obviously. I haven’t painted it on yet.’
‘Painted? What… Riley, what the fuck is this? Is it a joke?’ He looks around like he might see cameras pointing at him from every corner of the room. ‘What are you?’
‘I’ll go fix it,’ I say, getting up. My hands are shaking, so I’m not sure how good it’ll be, but clearly something is freaking him out. It’s almost like he’s shocked I have to paint my face at all, which is ridiculous. Everyone has to. That’s what we all do in the morning; get up, choose ourselves, put ourselves on.
I go back to the bathroom. Maybe he doesn’t have to paint. Maybe his face is permanent. That makes my chest feel tight, as if all my catalogues are weighing down on me. I never thought anyone could have a permanent face.
I have a meeting today, with friends. I’d planned on sharp lines, stubble on my jaw, dark eyes, the way I usually go when I’m seeing them. It feels itchy, not to do that. To put my face back to how it was yesterday. I want to smudge it all and start again, uncomfortable with the soft eyebrows, the rose lips. The way my cheeks are smooth as buttocks.
But I do it anyway. I put my face back the same way it was yesterday, so as not to jar him. When I come out of the bathroom, he’s gone.
India-Rose Channon | @inkyrosey
India-Rose Channon is a disabled poet, fiction author, and song writer who mostly writes queer stories. She has been published in the Manchester Anthology and her writing has appeared on the Hysterical Women blog and Fizz. She holds an MA with distinction in Creative Writing and currently volunteers as a copy editor.