Monstrous Femme

Mari has the serums, essences, and exfoliators—both chemical and physical. She knows that Vitamin C and retinol should be used in conjunction, but never at the same time. She wipes sunscreen across her forehead and on her neck where it mixes into her hairline. SPF 40 minimum with reapplication every two hours throughout the day. She moisturizes twice daily and never misses her nighttime routine, no matter how drunk or high she is. According to her budgeting app, she spends approximately $400 a month on skincare. Her food budget is $300.

Avoiding the sun is automatic. A platoon of hats and sunglasses protect her. She checks r/skincare_addiction and follows a 12-step Korean method. She’s done the microneedling with PRF, lasers, and microdermabrasion. Mari has no idea if any of this is working. Her skin feels softer but looks the same.

Her co-worker Penelope tells her about a new serum from an L.A. start-up that freezes cells so that they never age. This sounds like bullshit, cells die when they freeze, and Penelope’s not the smartest. But when she looks for the product online, it has two hundred 5-star reviews. Probably paid or given away, Mari thinks. She decides people will fall for anything and to read more about the ingredients later. On her way home, Mari sees a homeless man smoking a cigarette under a heater.

After an exhausting shower, Mari crawls into bed. Her face feels sticky as she props the laptop on her lap to search for the serum. The humidifier in her room whirrs. According to the website, Calipa Skin Serum is developed by a team of chemical engineers and “alchemists.” Glycolic acid, rapeseed oil, and a special proprietary ingredient that’s patent pending. Two ounces for 40 dollars. The packaging and branding leave something to be desired–but the reviews. The reviews are unequivocal.

This makes my face feel MAGICAL!!!

Holy moly ladies, I bought ten of these. Never stop making this!

My skin finally looks good. Take my money.

The photos show young women with poreless skin, no wrinkles and eerie smiles. EWG Skin Deep hasn’t given it a rating yet, so it must be pretty new. Mari places an order for a bottle and goes to sleep.

The next day is Saturday and her sometimes lover Leo comes over. When she buzzes him up, he walks right into her apartment and drops his jacket, leaving a damp spot on the floor. “Hey you,” he says. His sandy hair still has flecks of snow. They go to the bedroom. He reaches to pull her in to kiss. “No,” She pulls his hands down. “You can’t touch my face. Your fingers have oils in them.” He looks at her to see if she’s serious. She kisses him before he can speak and his beard scratches her lips.

When the package arrives a few days later, Mari rips it open without scissors and examines the small bottle. It’s light blue with a dropper head. She dabs a dot on the back of her hand. It’s opalescent and smells a little bit like her grandmother’s house. She works it into her normal routine that night, between the hyaluronic acid and her winter moisturizer.

After her skin oil has been applied, Mari stands in front of her mirror. Her face feels heavy, but in a satisfying way. The mini-fridge she uses to hold temperature sensitive products clicks on. That spot under the sink used to hold her painting supplies but they took up too much space.

The next morning, she pulls herself out of bed for the reveal. She gasps out loud like in a movie. Her skin is incandescent. It’s shimmery, smooth, and glowy. Somehow, almost reflective. Perfect. She grabs the serum and puts it in the mini-fridge. A holy grail product. Her phone dings. A text from Penelope: Come to my bday party tonight girlie. 7pm.with a link to a Google Maps location for some place she’s never heard of. A late invite. She’s an afterthought, but she might as well go show off.

Mari catches the subway to the party at an old restaurant in the Village. She walks 5 blocks huffing and sweating in her huge coat. It’s too cold to take it off. When she gets there, a drunk woman in a black dress trips out of the entrance and lands face first on the pavement. She stands up and her nose is bloody. “Oh, shit,” she laughs. Her teeth are smeared with red. Her friends grab her and pull her into a car.

Inside the restaurant it’s dark and crystal chandeliers hang in mirrored ceiling alcoves.  She easily spots the back of Penelope’s blonde head in the corner. Mari sits down at a sticky leather chair at the other end of the table. The walls are gilded and the fleur de lis carpet has stains on it. It’s too much.

Two girls compliment Mari on her skin. “I just drink a lot of water,” she says, sipping an Old Fashioned. The blonde one looks her up and down then turns to the person on her other side.

Penelope is getting drunk fast but she still comes over to say hi. One of her underlings is attached to her arm.

“You look great Mar! I’m so glad you came!”

“Thanks! It’s a lot of fun.”

“Yeah!” Penelope looks around. “I’ve got to go say hi to Ben. I’ll see you later,” she slurs.

Mari texts Leo as she walks back to the subway. “Come over tonight?” Thumbs up emoji. At her place, he just nods when she prompts him about her skin. “Yeah, it looks good. But you always look beautiful to me.” She barely holds back an exasperated moan. He doesn’t get it. Leo is a year younger than her. He probably put on drugstore lotion once and now his skin is perfect.

She catches herself in front of the mirror. Her eyes look strange, so she leans closer to look at them but now she can’t remember. How long has she been standing here? She has just come in to do her night routine. It must have only been a few minutes. People are laughing in the hallway outside her apartment. She puts down the serum and crawls back into bed. Leo rolls over to face her. “Did you fall asleep in the bathroom?” he says. His eyes are closed.

That night she has a dream. She’s standing at a cliffside, her hair whipping around her face. At the bottom of the cliff, so far down, something is laying on the sand. It’s peachy and dark red. She can’t make out what it is. Did she push someone? Is that her? A cold choke bubbles up from her throat. Nothing comes up and then, “Help me.” It’s so quiet. She draws a shaky breath. “Help me!” A whisper hiding a scream.

Her thigh twitches, spasming her whole body with it. What? She pushes herself up, awake now. It’s so cold in her apartment. Snow falls in the orange streetlight outside. The heat must be off again from the cheap landlords. She flips on the space heater next to her bed. Inhale for 4. Hold for 7. Exhale for 8. Don’t think about it. Her denial has been sharpened for a purpose.

In the morning darkness, she pushes open her laptop, the blue light illuminating her face and flooding her brain. She opens the Calipa website and orders 5 more bottles. What if they sell out? Or worse, it’s discontinued? It’s a precaution.

Mari has a facial at 8 a.m. all the way downtown, so she kicks Leo out and gives herself an hour to get there just in case. On the train, an elderly woman steps on and hobbles to the seat across from Mari. Lines cover every inch of her face. Her eyes are dull under a mountain of wrinkles, smiling at nothing. Mari’s never seen someone that old underground before. She knows she’s staring but she can’t stop. The train moves. Does the woman not have anyone to go run her errands for her? Saliva pools in Mari’s mouth. She sucks it down. The woman is so old. What if she needs help? There might not be anyone. Her stomach drops. Mari’s mouth opens and she vomits onto the floor of the car. There are exclamations and screams from the passengers around her as they scurry to get away from the mess.

Mari runs out the doors at the next stop, needing water and to get away from everyone who saw. Throwing herself up the stairs two at a time, she leans on the closest building outside. She catches her reflection on a black TV screen in a window display. Her skin is shining and her eyes are bright.

It’s soft and easy to fall into a rhythm. Grooves in the brain. A feedback loop encoded in flesh. Staring at herself feels like nothing.

“Ma’am, are you okay?”

“What?” Mari asks. Out of focus, there’s a woman, almost touching her shoulder, hand hovering.

“I said, are you okay? You’ve been staring at this window a long time.”

Mari grabs her phone. 9:27. Completely missed her appointment.

“Shit,” she says. She walks away from the window, away from the nasty thoughts starting to circle.

“You’re welcome!” comes the shout behind her.

Mari walks back to her apartment, eyes on the ground. With her hat pulled low, all she can see is her boots and the six feet in front of her necessary to avoid hitting someone.

She pulls out her phone to text Penelope.

do u want to get drinks tmrw after work?

Three dots. A pause. Then nothing.

Mari trudges up the four flights of stairs. Why did she even ask? Penelope’s not really fun.

A vibration in response. She checks it.

hey, I’ve got plans. let’s try another time??

Mari’s surprised by the stab of disappointment. She flings the phone onto her bed. Maybe a sheet mask and some TV will pass the time. She wanders into the bathroom.

Someone’s pounding on the door. “Mari, are you home?”

She pushes back from the vanity, knocking her hairbrush and sending it skittering across the floor. What happened?

“Mari, come on. Let me in. I know you are home.”

She lets Leo in and he starts circling her.

“Let’s tell everyone about us. I’m ready now.”

She cringes. “No, I don’t think so.” Why is he ruining it? It’s nothing.

“Why not?” She catches a whiff of alcohol on his breath as he comes closer. “Are you ashamed of me?”

“No, Jesus. I thought we were keeping it casual. You said you wanted to.”

He stops pacing back and forth. “I changed my mind.” The glare of the too-bright streetlamp through the window illuminates his face. He looks sincere.

“No, I can’t. I think you should go.” She doesn’t move to open the door.

“What the fuck, Mar.”

“Don’t be weird, we can keep doing this,” she says, gesturing between them.

“I don’t want just this. I love you.”

“Oh god, Leo. You’re just drunk.” She grabs his arm and walks him to the door.

“No, I’m not.”

“Good night.” She pushes him and closes the door.

A quick email to her boss taking a sick day gets her back on the facialist’s schedule the next day. It wouldn’t do to miss it. To continue seeing the effects, her skin needs regular treatments.

She texts Penelope: will you be at the office today?

No response.

Mari blinks out of it. She’s getting out of the shower to put on her hyaluronic acid while her skin is still wet. There’s a feeling when she looks into her own eyes for too long, like there’s someone else staring back, someone who is not her. The edges blur and her hand reaches toward the mirror. She’s hungry.

In the bedroom, she checks her phone. The date reads Jan 26, two days from now. Did she miss work? In her work account, there are several emails in the sent box with a Jan 25 date. With replies and messages from her. No texts but there is a package delivered email.

The box is heavier than she thought it would be. Unpacking each bottle, she lines them up label forward on the small shelf in the fridge. Safe. The next day, Penelope is avoiding her for some reason. But, someone at work says Mari’s skin looks “dewy.” She keeps that word close to her, tucked into a little pocket in her brain. Sometimes she thinks about it while she stares, when she can think.

The world is turning and Leo is gone. The leaves are falling and growing again. There’s a cubicle, there’s people smiling, there’s a cake, and there’s fireworks. There’s a doctor’s office. There’s a subway car. There’s a bathroom. There’s red and green. Mari doesn’t want to look anymore.