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It was supposed to be a question, my greeting to customers, but in my desultory teenaged tone it was a bored statement. I hoped shoppers would pick up on my disdain for the whole concept of going out into the world and announcing publicly an interest in looking beautiful. Maybe that would inspire them to browse on their own. But the brunette woman who'd just walked in swinging a Marc Jacobs bag (bright purple!) and talking on a cell phone (also bright purple!) made a beeline for a display of shockingly expensive at-home peels, and I knew if she wanted to buy one I'd have to fetch it from behind the counter.
Sidling closer and eavesdropping on her conversation, I pieced together a few crucial facts: She was an actress, she'd just come from an audition, it hadn't gone well, and the primary reason she felt it hadn't gone well was because she was resolutely over twenty-five and the part was that of a high school cheerleader.
She hung up the phone and picked up the peel featured most prominently in the display, exactly the color and texture of algae. The label, if either of us had bothered to read it, would have boasted that it contained the highest amount of glycolic acid one could legally purchase outside a dermatologist's office. Strong enough to keep a face tight and red and shiny for a week.
"This any good?"
I looked at her purse. Her fingernails, square and French-manicured. Her sweater, purposefully shredded and then covered in sequins in what I imagine was a nod to the fact that it was July.
"Oh, I've never used one of those," I laughed. "I'm way too young!"
I'd gotten the job at Beauty Connection not on my own merits or initiative but through a friend of my mother's. Having little else to do that summer, I could only put up halfhearted protests, and by the middle of June I was spending four days a week ringing up transactions, dusting shelves of nail clippers, and hoping, each shift, to convey to at least one person that even though I worked in a beauty supply store, I didn't work in a beauty supply store; that in fact I was merely taking a break from my chief occupation of trying to become an intellectual.
There would be more people like me once I got to college, I was certain, and they were not the kind of person one was likely to meet at Beauty Connection.
After work I'd spend hours poring over college websites, trying to decide where to apply and what those decisions might say about me. Did I want to be an English major at Brown? History at Wellesley? Philosophy at Swarthmore? I printed out a copy of the Common Application and pretended to work on it tirelessly during my lunch breaks, explaining to my coworkers with a heavy sigh that this was just the beginning—each of the schools I'd apply to would also have a supplementary application with as many as seven questions on it!
When I wasn't conspicuously planning my future, I was carrying around very heavy books, hoping someone would notice and perhaps wonder about me later, the serious young woman who sold loofahs with her nose charmingly buried in—my face flushes hot to admit this now—Infinite Jest. There would be more people like me once I got to college, I was certain, and they were not the kind of person one was likely to meet at Beauty Connection. In college, I'd read and write and have hair that shined in the sun and cheeks that flushed in the New England cold and a collection of large, unflattering wool sweaters through which handsome graduate students would still be able to sense a full and inviting décolletage.
Of course, none of my coworkers ever asked me to talk about David Foster Wallace, probably because they were too busy teaching me how to use the credit card machine for the hundredth time. Customers didn't much care about my inner life, either, and I wonder if it's maybe because I did my very best to make sure each of them knew their questions about what level toner you have to use to avoid brassiness or whether an at-home pumpkin enzyme peel will leave you red-red or just regular red were far, far beneath me. The vulnerabilities they exposed—and that's exactly what one does when one goes to a place like Beauty Connection and asks for help: exposes vulnerabilities—were shocking to me, and instead of choosing to be compassionate, I chose to act like a teenager, which is to say I chose to be cruel.
Beauty Connection wasn't (isn't, I should say, for it's still open) Sephora, which had opened the year before at the mall I passed on my walks to work. The dollars I've spent at that store in the last 10 years (which surely amount to a figure beyond my counting capacity) were (are) dollars spent chasing a fantasy, one in which my face becomes a soft canvas and each 24 dollar lipstick the most refined painter's brush. It's an easy fantasy to chase because it starts with the baseline assumption that you already are beautiful. There's nothing to correct, only things to enhance.
I was afraid that kindness would mark me as a fellow soldier in the fight against physical imperfection, when all I wanted was to be so naturally beautiful I'd never have to ask someone to help me look better.
There's something to Sephora's grouping of products by brand—sure, it's practical, but it also means that even the most embarrassing of items gets to be surrounded by its lovelier siblings. Thigh reducing cream next to lemony shower oil, thinning hair agents next to jasmine deep conditioners—the things you need, even if they're things you despair at needing in the first place, are hidden amongst tiny luxuries. There are no problems to solve, and the salespeople don't know your darkest, vainest secrets because they're not salespeople or even fairy godmothers—they're paid to be fun, friendly, and anonymous.
There's no 'Acne' section at Sephora. No one ever walks in and asks one of the futuristically-costumed employees where they keep the mustache bleach.
Beauty Connection had seven different kinds of mustache bleach, plus a waxing station in the back. It resembled nothing so much as a hardware store, and every day customers would rush in with emergencies chemical and physical and embarrassing. They'd think nothing of asking me what to do about hair dyed the wrong shade of red, or a unibrow that wouldn't stay gone, or how to make sure crow's feet weren't visible under strip-club lights.
I treated them contemptuously because I marveled at their ability to be so naked in their assertion that what they looked like was something that demanded time and money and attention, and because I was afraid that kindness would mark me as a fellow soldier in the fight against physical imperfection, when all I wanted was to be so naturally beautiful I'd never have to ask someone to help me look better.
After school started in the fall I cut my hours to two evenings a week, then one, and, dreading a winter break stuck working the holiday busy season, I quit entirely, convincing every adult I knew that studying AP Economics AND working a mind-boggling 10 hours a week was simply weighing too heavy on my small shoulders.
I did think about Beauty Connection in college, though. I thought about Beauty Connection when I learned that hair really only gleams in the sun if it's been treated with shine spray, that New England cold doesn't so much flush a face as chap it (a chap requiring moisturizer at the exact right intersection of gentleness and strength, I might add), that thick sweaters are pulled off just as easily as delicate ones (and that the lustful glances of graduate students are more to be dreaded than solicited). Some of these things (the part about graduate students in particular) one has to discover through trial and error, but others were problems I solved by wandering into beauty supply stores not unlike the one I'd worked in and laying bare my skin and my anxiety to women who were knowledgable and kind—women who were everything teenaged me hadn't been.
And I thought about Beauty Connection when I saw a picture in a magazine and realized that the actress I'd indirectly called old had been in a movie. When I did the math based on the profile of her I found on the Internet, I realized that on the day she'd come in looking for a peel she'd been struggling not just with her career but with her boyfriend at the time, James Franco. I felt especially guilty that day.
Home last month, ten years since my employment at Beauty Connection, I wandered in while I waited for some prescriptions from the nearby Rite-Aid. I pretended to smell some very expensive candles and wondered if I should buy one of those donuts that ballerinas use to make perfect buns. Casting my eyes around for an employee, I exchanged nervous smiles with a beautiful woman with mermaid-blue hair who stopped organizing a display of lip balms and sweetly asked if I needed any help.
"I'm so dry," I sighed. "Look how red this patch of skin is! It's scaly, almost! It's embarrassing!"
"Aw, you poor thing!" It's definitely the season for that, she told me sagely. "Let's look for a peel to get all that dead skin gone. I'm sure we have something that'll help."
*name changed, though very lazily