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Painting Faces

by Maria Kontak

part 2 of 4

We agreed to meet at a quiet spot, not one of our usual hangs.

“It’s too weird for me,” said Beth. She had been my college roommate, an art major. Now she had a thriving art gallery funded by a rich husband just as she had planned it. She was wrinkling her nose in the way that men liked. “But then again, it’s your life. You never wanted what I did, and you were always interested in numbers and business and all that.”

She flashed a smile at the guy seated at the bar who had sent us champagne cocktails, and continued, “I think it’s all that Velma stuff. I know you like her and she’s got some of it right... I mean, I love what I do... And you should too, but she’s a rube, Lauren. Your Velma. I mean, she’s out there in the sticks, in the Midwest. Not that... Well, anyhow, it’s a big step.”

“You mean a step down, don’t you?” I said picking up my cocktail. I smiled at my disconsolate friend and the smile felt right, coming from the spot that I had bumped into for the first time seated in an orange plastic chair. “I think I’m going to do it, Beth, all the same.”

“Well, if it makes you happy,” Beth said, picking up her cocktail and touching mine lightly. “Good luck.”

She tossed back her perfectly cut, perfectly colored ultra-blond hair, and I knew that Beth wasn’t sold, but affection flowed from her crystal-blue eyes.

It had been a one-on-one that was rare for us since we gave up real talk with college graduation. My mind was really made up but I needed to see Beth, to hear myself tell Beth about it, to feel the words before I put my plan in motion.

Shaping words and chucking numbers had become a pattern in my days since my last trip to the Midwest. At first, the shapes formed little clusters, brief notes that I dispatched to Velma. Then larger configurations appeared under my pen, proper letters on stationery that had lain unused for years, and Velma would answer each one, in her own way, in a surprisingly beautiful hand, as steady and soothing as her touch, and it was this that I took with me to my job interview.

I signed the application at the tony department store near my house, then was led to a small room where the designer couch felt stiff, and I sat there staring at the closed door through a vase of calla lilies. The woman who opened the door was unlike Velma in every way. Impossibly thin, she looked like the Grim Reaper as she skimmed my application.

“You have no retail experience. None in cosmetics. What makes you think you would be successful?” she asked.

“I have sales experience,” I countered.

“In aerospace technology.”

“Yes,” I said looking her directly in the eyes, “in avionics.”

She flicked off her reading glasses and met my glance. “And why do you want to work here?”

“Because I think cosmetics are important,” I answered.

“More important than avionics?”

“Well, important in a different way.”

“I see,” she said with a wry smile, folding the application in half, and I tried to calculate the flight time between her desk and the waste basket at warp speed. “We have two openings. You’ll have to take a crash course and then we’ll see where you fit. When can you start?

“Next week.”

* * *

“Why not?”

“Why?” my mother said over lunch the next day. If she hadn’t tipped over her wine glass, I would have had no cause for surprise. But she had, and she sent the fussy waiter away, laying her anxiety wide open in a blotch of red on the white tablecloth for the two of us alone. Mother and daughter as we had become when I had taken my first breath.

“Why would you want to paint women’s faces, darling? In a department store? Where my friends shop? Everyone will know.”

A part of me was with her. She had maneuvered me to the umbilical cord again, and I touched her lovely hand. It trembled but mine was steady, and I knew that the cut must be made.

“Everyone should know,” I said, trying to catch her eyes but they were staring into the blotch of red. “That’s the point, Mom. Women should feel good about themselves, about looking better. Not hide. Give me one reason why I should be ashamed of wanting to be a part of that.”

Poor mother sighed, blotted the seeping red stain with the white napkin, and said what she always did when hope was all she had left, “Sleep on it, darling, and don’t do anything rash.”

That is how Mom got through life, I knew. It was not a bad way, but was my decision so rash? I didn’t think so, that is, until I called Velma in the evening. I didn’t recall what we talked about exactly but I was surprised at her lack of can-do enthusiasm and how tired she sounded. Maybe that was her phone voice. I couldn’t tell. Or maybe I had remembered falsely, but it had struck me as strange.

On the subject of my announcement, Velma said, “Well, it’s good you called. I was wondering what was happening to you.”

I was surprised, too, because her latest note to me had been warm and bouncy. And as Velma talked wearily about a trip she might be making, without giving much detail, I felt a disappointment that she greeted my new career lukewarmly, and even more, that it hadn’t brought us the intimacy I had hoped to lock in.

When she said goodbye, with affection and warmth, I reasoned that in Velma’s world, words meant something and weren’t flung helter-skelter on a whim. Or did she think me rash?

“Time will tell,” she would write in subsequent notes. “One never knows and one shouldn’t be afraid.”

And she continued to write regularly. Her notes offered little endorsement, no certainty, but they seeped good will. Would that be enough, however? Would Velma prove right? Could I learn to enjoy the work day? Day in day out? To step down without embarrassment, as Beth had hesitated to say aloud? Did Mom always know best?

* * *

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2011 by Maria Kontak

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