From Reading Ladies Book Club.
A great review from a an even greater reviewer.
Everyone gets wanderlust every once in a while. I know I have. I believed that if I just went somewhere else, tried a new job, went on a life-changing vacation, then things would be better. I’d feel normal. I’d feel fulfilled.
This is a lot like how Lisa Kusel feels at the start of her memoir, Rash. Lisa is a published author with two novels under her belt, but when her third novel fails to find a publisher, her agent suggests she work on something else. Lisa herself feels she needs a change of pace. Her husband Victor, a middle school teacher, is also feeling the urge to do something more, something meaningful. The perfect opportunity presents itself when Lisa learns about a new eco-friendly school opening in Bali. Victor can go teach in a brand-new top-of-the-line school, Lisa can write in an exotic new locale, and their six-year-old…
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What a sweet REVIEW (she gave me 5 stars, bless her heart).
When you read the same sentence
in a book, do you, I wonder,
think the same thoughts as I? Does
your mind conjure the same
image of the maiden with red locks
and fretful stare or
do you see her another way as if
we had two different sets of eyes not
the same I always pictured when thinking
about us and the way our strides are
so alike, the way our noses both turn sideways
a little crooked to the right, the way
our chins both have that little indent
a blurb below our mouths that both
smile the same when the other steps
into the room.
I know you’ve read this book, the one
I read under the covers next to you,
your left thigh warming my small cold body
until I am comfortable enough to turn another page
and read the part about the ship lost at sea
and the drowning men and the girlfriends and wives
and mothers and sisters they left behind and I know
you read that part and for a moment I turn to you
and think to ask what you felt
what you thought about those pages
that give so intimate a description
of sinking, losing breath slowly and inevitably
lungs collapsing, a forgone conclusion, but my
lips, thin like yours, press together and I decide
not to interrupt the story you read beside me
because I know you must have
thought what I thought.
My friend Meg runs a monthly Lit Club gig at The Light Club Lamp Shop here in Burlington, Vermont. It’s an open mic sort of thing, where folks sign up for a chance to jump on the stage and read for five minutes. There’s usually a guest speaker, too; someone with street cred. Someone big-time enough to be allotted a whole 20 minutes.
A few months ago Meg asked me if I wanted to be the headliner sometime. I said sure, why not, so she put me on the calendar for January.
Unbeknownst to many, I am marginally afraid of public speaking. To keep my anxieties in check I try not to even think about upcoming events until they’re suddenly staring me in my face.
This reading, particularly, made me uneasy. I knew there’d be mostly young people in the audience. Or, well, younger people. Lots of college kids, who have nothing better to do on a Monday night than drink beer and listen to their pals’ deep thoughts. There was no way I was going to be hip enough to entertain them. I figured it’d be nothing like the reading I’d just come from in Florida.
That one was held in a gated community for wealthy retirees in Palm Beach County. My aunt and uncle live there and, after my uncle read RASH, my new memoir, he loaned his copy to the head of the book club there. Head Book Club Lady liked the book enough to phone me up and invite me to be the guest of honor at their meeting in January.
I showed up to the reading early enough so I could get my bearings, as well as a strong cup of coffee (decaf is as ubiquitous as water in Florida). By 10:00 the Arts and Crafts room was filled to capacity with well-heeled, chatty older women, all of them dressed as if it were autumn in New England.
When they saw that I had on nothing but a sleeveless dress, no fewer than five of them asked me, “Aren’t you freezing?”
Before I began, I asked if anyone had read the book. Everyone in the room raised their hand. “I bought a copy from Amazon and passed it around,” Head Lady said. “We all took turns reading it!”
“How nice,” I said, frowning at the pile of books I’d lugged down in my suitcase.
So, okay, I wasn’t going to make a sale, but I could at least get some practice reading in front of an audience. A very safe audience of smiling nanas, all of whom loved the book and, by the end of the hour, loved me as well.
The other night, when I read at the Light Club, there were no adoring grandmothers in the crowd. Just a whole lot of hipsters wearing dark Patagonia jackets and multi-colored ski hats.
All the writers who went up before me read from their iPhones.
They read from their iPhones.
As I sat in a corner booth, sipping a Campari and soda, I worriedly fingered my stack of printed pages. “They’re so going to think I’m just an old lady up there,” I whined to my friend Rebecca.
“Shut up,” she said smiling. “You’re an amazing writer. And you’re very cool.” Then she rubbed my back to keep me from dry-heaving.
After the fourth reader, Meg leapt up onto the stage. “I would like to introduce my friend, Lisa, someone I admire and adore,” she announced to the crowd, “because she is able to bring you into her world within seconds of meeting her. And she has an amazing way with words. You are so going to love her.”
Heart pounding, sweat pooling under my arms, I climbed the stairs and looked around at the lithe buzzed bodies strewn around couches and chairs. Perched expectantly on bar stools. Huddled by the door. The place was packed. Like, sardine packed. Standing- room only. All eyes on me.
When I leaned toward the microphone and said, “Thank you, Meg, for that most underwhelming introduction,” most everyone laughed.
I relaxed, just a little. I asked if any of the writers in the audience had ever entered a writing contest with a word limit. A dozen hands flew into the air. Okay, they could relate. I told them that a long time ago I entered a contest for Taster’s Choice Coffee: Tell us about your most romantic date in 250 words or less.
“My boyfriend at the time—his name was Jim—was the opposite of romantic,” I said, “but he was very good in bed.”
A small wave of chuckles rippled across the room. I was energized. Nervous, still, but I could feel their support, like a warm light, shining on me.
Smiles. Vicarious joy.
Then I told them about the time I won the Car Talk Contest: In 26 words or less, tell us why you want to attend our company picnic. “I work for myself,” I said, “so my company picnics tend to be a little lonely.”
“I won that contest too, and was flown to Boston to meet Tom and Ray.”
Many hands clapping.
Then I launched into a Flash Fiction piece I wrote for a contest. “I didn’t win this one,” I remarked with an exaggerated frown, “but I was a finalist.”
They loved it.
I flipped through the papers in my hand and read three poems, and while doing so, I heard snapping. I looked over my reading glasses and, sure enough, a whole lot of those beautiful young people were SNAPPING THEIR FINGERS. (Apparently, it’s the new clapping.)
Anyway, the snapping threw me for a moment, but then I got into the flow, moving on from poetry to a short section of RASH. When I was done, the room erupted in applause.
Even though I was twice their age, it didn’t matter. I know no one in that room remembered the Taster’s Choice commercials that ran in the early 90s, and I bet few of those millennials could relate to my tale about being a 46-year-old woman who ran away to Bali to save her marriage.
But a good story should be able to transcend time and generation. I get that even more so now.
In Florida I walked out of the Arts and Crafts room feeling hugged.
In Vermont I left the stage feeling psyched.
Some people kvelled. Others snapped.
That’s all that really mattered.
I. NEVER EVER
I recently returned from Florida where I spent a week cleaning out my mother’s house so that I can sell it and pay for the memory care facility where she presently resides.
When I finally got around to the bathroom I groaned. Not because it was filthy or because it stoked my ever-simmering sadness, but because my mother never in her life left the house unless she was wearing makeup.
And oh boy, did she ever have a lot of it.
She was the Countess of Cosmetics, my mother was. The Baroness of Blush. I remember as a child sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching her “put on her face.” I was fascinated by the vast arsenal of products splayed out across her large counter top. Mesmerized by the precise dedicated manner in which she applied the foundation, the liners, the sticks and shadows. It seemed like it took her forever, and I can still hear the echo of my father’s impatient voice imploring her to “Come on already.”
By the time I reached the age where many girls begin enthusiastically experimenting with makeup, I wanted nothing to do with it. I was far more interested in embellishing my mind than my face. Instead of blackening my lashes with mascara, I hid in my room darkening my thoughts with Sartre.
It just about killed my mother. She hated that I “didn’t take pride in my appearance,” and she often wondered aloud (jokingly, I think) whether the hospital had handed her the wrong baby by mistake.
“Even as a child, I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to wear red lipstick.”― Patti Smith
It wasn’t as if I were trying to make a statement by avoiding makeup; I just preferred how I looked without it. I preferred how all women looked without makeup, and didn’t really understand why they would want to hide their natural beauty behind artificial colors.
Most of my girlfriends wore makeup, I guess because it made them feel better about themselves. They knew how I felt, but still they often ganged up on me before a high school dance, pleading with me to bedaub my face with synthetic color, insisting that I would look prettier. Better. Sexier.
I always resisted. Regardless of peer pressure, media pressure, or maternal pressure, I knew I was never ever going to wear makeup. Not for any friend. Not for any man. Not for any reason.
II. WHAT WOULD YOU BE WILLING TO DO FOR A CHANCE SUCH AS THIS?
Long ago, before most Russians even knew there was such a thing as the Internet, I was living in Seattle in a tiny studio apartment on the top floor of a five-floor building overlooking Highway 5. I had a minuscule deck outside my window where I would sit and smoke while watching the ever-rushing traffic below me. If I craned my neck just so, I could see the Space Needle shooting up between two ugly office buildings. After crawling back through the window I’d sit at my desk-cum-dining room table and research possible markets for a genetics software program that my super smart friend Tim was creating to allow breeders—cow, cat, plant; you name it—to input genetic data into a graphic interface. He named it InGenius, and, if he ever finished writing the code, it was going to take the software world by storm.
While waiting for Tim to deliver me a shrink-wrap-ready product I got a call from my father (at that point we were still on speaking terms), asking me if I wanted to go to Russia.
“To do what?” I asked with ignited interest. I mean Russia? Boris Yeltsin had just been elected President, and the country was throwing open its previously shuttered doors to the rest of the world. I wanted to be one of the first foreigners to step through.
“You’d be selling makeup,” my father replied.
The cosmetics giant, Maybelline, had recently transitioned their ubiquitous blue-colored packaging to an au courant black, and now they needed to unload a few million units of the old stuff. My father, a man who was forever spawning some unconventional deal, somehow fell in with the owner of the corporate trading company charged with selling off the démodé eye shadows and blushes and lipsticks to fashion-starved Russian women. In order for my father to be in on the arrangement, he needed to come up with the sales rep.
He picked me. The woman who knew nothing about selling makeup, let alone applying it.
“Oh, and you’re going to peddle your own skincare line, too,” he continued. “The company will create it for you.”
“Yeah, I figured you should go over there as a, a personality, you know? Like an American starlet. They’ll eat it up. Your new name is going to be Lissa. Lissa Cazzel.”
“But I have no idea how to—”
“You’re going to have a ball, Lissa Cazzel,” he said interrupting me before I could list my concerns. “You fly to New York next week.”
And so it was that I allowed a Vietnamese woman to glue long red acrylic fingernails over my own short unpainted ones. I submitted to makeup lessons, using only Maybelline products. I slathered baby blue eye shadow across my lids and fiery orange lipstick over my lips, because women in Russia, I learned, lusted for those colors.
I was outfitted with a new sexy skin-hugging wardrobe. I agreed to wear very high ankle-cracking heels and lots of costume bling (after storing away the Tibetan yak bone choker I bought at a crafts fair in Portland).
I assessed my eponymous product line, sniffing the bath gels and rubbing the lotions onto my skin. They smelled like cheap perfume. When I suggested a more subtle scent, I was told that women in Russia love strong smells. The stronger the better.
Two weeks later, I landed in Saint Petersburg with two suitcases full of clothes and eight boxes filled with makeup and Lissa Skincare products, and checked into Hotel Astoria. It was the same hotel where Hitler had planned to celebrate his conquest over the city.
Good thing that party never got started.
And you know what? Other than having the hardest time removing my contact lenses with my red talons, I did have a ball. I traveled all over Russia and Czechoslovakia, and even into parts of Finland, meeting with beauty shop owners and store managers and government officials (as well as unofficials).
Every morning I awoke before dawn so that I had enough time to “put on my face”—my very painted face—before rushing to meet Tanya, my interpreter, in front of the hotel. (As she was a Russian citizen, armed guards barred her from entering the hotel.)
Besides helping negotiate business deals, Tanya was also my tour guide and companion. She instructed me to stay silent and look angry while pushing me along the much shorter Russian-Only lines at museums and other tourist attractions.
Tanya protected me from making bad decisions. During an informal business dinner in Tanya’s tiny apartment (she had to share it with her ex-husband), a Georgian businessman asked me to marry his son, a war hero. When he showed me his photo, I almost accepted his proposition on the spot, since the guy was so handsome. Tanya leaned forward and, with a false smile on her face so the Georgian wouldn’t know what she was saying, told me that the son had been shot in the head during the war and was presently in a vegetative state. His father desperately wanted his son to receive better medical care, and figured it’d help if he married an American starlet.
And, since no business deal in Russia can ever be closed without first making many toasts with many shots of vodka, Tanya also taught me how to drink for hours at a time without falling face-first into my borscht and effectively blowing the sale.
Which is why, when I finally departed Russia, I gladly gifted Tanya the rest of my samples. She would have enough blue eye shadow to last her a few lifetimes.
It wasn’t as if I had any use for them. The moment I landed back home, I cleaved off my fingernails, scrubbed my clogged pores clean, and went back to being au naturale.
My mother kept a framed photo of me from when I was in Russia. The one where I looked “so attractive.”
It wasn’t that my mother didn’t think I was pretty. She just loved makeup so much, she couldn’t help herself.
Mom couldn’t help herself the day I got married, either. After she fastened the back of my wedding gown—a 1960s dress from Paris that I bought at a consignment shop—I turned around to face her. Of course I expected her to say, “You look beautiful.”
Instead she said, “Would it kill you to wear a little lipstick?”
Sure, I’d compromised my anti-makeup beliefs to be able to go to Russia. I also knew it would make my mother wildly happy to see her only daughter wearing makeup on her wedding day. And yes, there was a small part of me that thought my wedding album might shine a little brighter if I smeared some color across my skin.
But I really wanted to be my best unmade self that day.
“No,” I stated with a small smile. “I want Victor to recognize me when I walk down the aisle.”
III. A DIFFERENT SHADE OF BLUE
I’ve always thought my mother was more stunning without makeup, but the only time I ever saw her facially naked was in the mornings when she awoke, or sometimes late at night, if I went to sleep after she did. As she read her book in bed I’d lean over her to kiss her goodnight, silently breathing in her clean clear skin. I loved it when she didn’t smell like synthetic dyes.
She smells like that now. Now that she no longer wears makeup. Now that she needs to be reminded how to use a phone. Now that she has no idea what day it is. Now that dementia is taking over her brain.
She’s still adept at conversation. She remembers the distant past, but has no idea what she ate for lunch. She recognizes people, but often sees or hears those who are not there, like her dead mother or my brother who lives in California.
Remarkably, she doesn’t seem to care about makeup anymore, and leaves her room in the morning completely fresh-faced, straight from the shower.
Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t want to look at her own face anymore, and so putting on makeup has become more of a burden than a desire. The woman who used to check her makeup in every mirror she passed, now avoids them. I wonder if it’s because when she glances in the mirror she sees the shadows framing her reflection, the ones that are slowly smothering her mind.
As much as I miss the woman who cared too much about what other people thought about her looks, I am grateful that she will spend her remaining days looking like her real self.
She was beautiful then. She’s beautiful now. Just a different kind of beautiful.
*This essay originally appeared on Parent.com