“Can we all just agree that Jennifer Aniston is a vampire?” Elaine booms from across the conference room table, lips peeled back from her teeth, mouth gaping wide. I realize after a moment that this is a smile. My mind is far away; I am trying to remember if I put on primer before my foundation this morning. I keep touching my cheek. It feels sticky.
Everyone around the table is laughing and agreeing that yes, Jennifer Aniston is aging well. I feel like they are looking at me. I wonder if they think that I am aging well. I push the corners of my mouth up: this is also a smile. I look at Elaine. She drops her gaze immediately and I know I have done something weird. I reach for my water bottle and take a long drink; at least a gallon a day is absolutely necessary for aging skin. I am twenty-nine, which I know is not old, but I see age creeping in the crow’s feet forming next to my eyes, in my widening pores. Vigilance is necessary, even in a losing battle.
“Alright, ladies, let’s take a look at the numbers,” Billy says with a smirk. It’s the look of a handsome man telling a group of women to stop talking about silly women things. It’s the look of a man who is very comfortable in a room full of women so long as he is in charge of it. Billy is a mid-level supervisor, a lower rank than half the women in this room. If Billy were a skin care product, he would be a physical exfoliator: showy, abrasive, and popular, but if you take them home they’ll ruin your skin and the planet.
Two Fridays ago, we all found out Elaine was sleeping with Billy when she got drunk at happy hour and kissed him in front of everyone.
“Elaine,” Billy chastised her with a smile, signaling for the bartender to bring the check. “What happened to keeping this between us?”
She laughed. “Everybody knew anyway.”
I hadn’t known. Elaine is pretty and kind. She is the only one who asks if I’d like something from the coffee shop downstairs. I have silver earrings that are shaped like little elephants and every time I wear them, she asks me where I got them. If Elaine were a skin care product, she would be strawberry hydrating mousse: it smells amazing and would be a great moisturizer except that the fragrance in it is actually irritating to the skin. I guess I just mean that the reason I like her is the same reason I hate her.
It had only been thirty-two days since Billy broke things off with me. No one ever knew about us. We were laying in my bed. He reached for my cheek and I batted his hand away. Hands are dirtier than toilet seats: you don’t want them anywhere near your face. He rolled his eyes and stared at the ceiling for a quiet minute.
“You know, when I first met you, I thought you were so beautiful,” he said, and I felt wonderful.
Then he continued. “But you’re just so weird. So distant. Sometimes when I’m with you I feel like I’m with a human casing without the actual human in it.” He shook his head, gave a small laugh, like he couldn’t believe he had actually said that out loud. “That’s – Jesus, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. Anyway, I think this should be the last time we do this. I met someone else.”
After he left, I sat on the couch and stared at my reflection in the black tv screen for a long time. My throat felt raw, as if I had been screaming, but the apartment was silent. I need help, I thought, but I could not name what for.
For the next week, I gave up researching new products. I threw out my routine: I didn’t double wash with an oil based and water cleanser. I didn’t add chemical exfoliants, then dermatologist grade retinol, serums, moisturizer, masks and treatments that alternated by day. I let my makeup rot on my face overnight, and put more on top the next day.
By day three I shook every time I looked at myself in the mirror. I was crying in a bathroom stall over my lunch break. My skin was peeling. My pores were exploding. Wrinkles were deepening. I itched everywhere, like I was preparing to molt. I kept picturing myself applying powder to my own dead corpse on the autopsy table.
I left the bathroom on unsteady feet and walked to Billy’s office. He looked startled.
“Um…can I help you?” He asked. Could he help me? I wondered.
“You can touch my face,” I said, walking closer to his desk. “Here, you can touch it.” I turned my head, offering my right cheek.
“Have you been drinking?” he asked, pushing his chair back. “I don’t want to touch your face.”
“I’m real,” I said with my raw throat, completely sober, as I always was. “You can touch me.”
He paused for a beat, studying my ruined face. “I know you’re real.” Then, he picked up his office phone. “I need to get on a call. Sorry.”
That night, I massaged my skin for twenty minutes with a cleansing oil. I followed with micellar water and glycolic acid pads to clear off the dead cells. Tears of relief poured down my stinging face. I changed my pillowcase. I drank eight ounces of water. I got nine hours of sleep.
Now Billy is clicking through the slides, lecturing us all about “the numbers,” but I can’t remember if I put primer on this morning, and I imagine my foundation melting off my face, pooling onto the table, forming a little lake.
Everyone at the table starts laughing. Someone must have told a joke.
“Are you alright, Lauren?” Elaine is watching me.
I make my face smile.