Step 1: Moisturize and PrimeBegin with well-moisturized skin. Make sure to do your research. Some moisturizers are mist-light, and others cream-thick. Some vanish deep in the dermis, while others leave a chalky residue. Oil-based moisturizers can be hydrating holy grails for dry skin or cystic kryptonite for oily pores. Find a moisturizer that’s right for you. Apply it evenly to your face. When dry, prime.
While moisturizer is the foundation for your look, primer is the framework that supports it. Some hydrate, nourishing dry, flaky skin. Others mattify, preventing oil-prone T-zones from ruining your look. Squeeze a dollop onto your fingertip. Tap from cheek to cheek, chin to forehead, leaving dime-sized dots. Smooth over the full surface of your skin.
At the mall for my biweekly visit, I bustle past the greeter with the scarlet lip. Her smoky eye is sculpted perfectly beneath her crisp pageboy bangs. “Welcome to Sephora,” she smiles. I watch her eyes and lips for any movement, my face angled her way. Her brows don’t bunch into a question mark; her lips don’t press into a sneer. This means I’ve done good. I can be confident that, today, I’ve applied my makeup right, despite my scars.
With a straight-backed bop, I pass through the foyer, walk Mirror Row, cut a right at the next aisle, and stop in front of my favorite brand. The display has liquid foundation bottles fat as hazard flares, thin eyeshadow palettes packed with pigments bright enough to spot on my melanated skin, and studded tubular lipsticks with names like Outlaw and Misfit. I grab a bottle of foundation — color Deep 74 Warm — and, while I’m at it, pick up the powder to match.
It’s 2018, and I’m 37. I’ve worn this shade for a decade, since I was fresh out of law school. That’s when Kat Von D’s Lock-It Foundation first dropped; when, for the first time, I saw her without any face ink. While a lightning bolt usually appeared under her right eye and a string of stars around her left, in the ad there wasn’t a speck of ink on her face. Instead, a thick brow, rose blush, and candy-red lip created the perfect promo for her new, full-coverage liquid foundation. Staring at that ad, I saw in Kat what I wanted for myself: a beautiful covering for an etched face. I raced to Sephora to cop my first bottle. At home, I pumped the first dollop onto the web of my hand, smudged the cognac-dark liquid onto my brush and spread it across my cheek. I prayed it would cover my scars the way it covered Kat’s colorful face, neck, chest, and arm tattoos. It did.
Even at $68 for the liquid and powder duo, Kat’s foundation quickly replaced the $43 Estée Lauder Double Wear that lined my medicine cabinet, each bottle turned on its head so I could use every last drop. I couldn’t afford waste. I could barely afford to eat and pay my law school loans. But unlike Double Wear, the Lock-It formula stayed in place throughout the day, even despite the oil slick that always threatened to break through.
I fix my gaze on the display, wishing I had more money for blush and bronzer and mascara and a new lip. But I don’t trip. I’ll be back in two weeks, another payday. I swivel around and step toward the cashier’s counter.
A familiar voice calls my name, breaking my stride. I turn to see my younger cousin, Alexandria, and her smooth forehead, plump cheeks, unblemished chin — the perfect canvas for her stunning beat. Arched brows stack on downturned eyes. Her jet-black hair reminds me of her mama’s, at least as it was captured in old sepia photos. I glance at the badge on her breast. “I ain’t seen you in six months of Sundays. How long you been working here, Alex?” I ask with a grin. I’m pleased she has a job, has graduated from high school, is making something of her life despite her beginnings and, you know, the odds.
“For a few months. It’s only part-time, during the week,” she rolls her eyes before squeezing me tight into a hug. “You come here?” she asks.
I confess. “Every other week. Usually on weekends, though.”
She stares at the products in my hands, then at my face — at my chin, my cheeks, my nose, my forehead, following the procession of dips and dents that wildly pock my skin.
With a perfectly molded eyebrow pulled up into a knife, she pokes, “You know you don’t have to wear all that makeup, right?”
Step 2: Apply ConcealerTo cover dark spots, pimples, and other blemishes, use two concealers: one slightly darker than your skin, then one slightly lighter. The blend will even the dark spots out. To hide dark circles under your eyes, apply a concealer that’s a shade or two lighter than your skin color. A thin application ensures your look will be even and smooth, rather than cakey.
It’s October 2012. Obama is about to be reelected, and I am about to prosecute my first attempted murder trial. I’m early, so I stop at the new Starbucks across the street from the Jay Street subway station. I open the shiny door, excited for my first foamless vanilla latte of the day and thankful there’s no crowd. My usual Starbucks is three blocks away and jam-packed on the regular.
The cashier, Brown Boy, no older than 25, looks up from the counter and into my face. His eyes squint as if offended, his lips curl in disdain. Brown Boy cannot conceal his contempt for my kind of ugly. He doesn’t even try.
Staring at my skin, but not at me, he asks for my order. I stutter and stumble with my words, even though it’s the same drink I’ve ordered every weekday for the past three years. After I’ve managed to squeak out my request, I pay with my credit card and head toward the pick-up counter.
As I pass the pastries, Brown Boy squawks at the barista preparing my drink, “Yo, that Tales from the Crypt nigga was ugly as fuck, son.” Like me, the barista is startled by Brown Boy’s clamor, his comment, his contempt. The barista gives him, then me, a befuddled look before returning to my order. I bow my head and shrink with shame. I will myself not to cry, not to jet without my morning joe, not to call out from work and miss my first major felony trial — a trial I’ve worked on for months. When my order is ready, I avoid the barista’s eyes, take the drink, and hotfoot toward the Brooklyn DA’s office.
After I’ve reviewed my notes and conferred with co-counsel, I head to the Kings County Supreme Court. There, I spend an entire day conducting voir dire for potential jurors. I stand in the well of the courtroom, between the judge’s bench and counsels’ tables, and talk to each set of folks seated in the jury box. I try to connect with them, make them laugh, make them like me. “My mother used to say, ‘Children are better seen than heard.’ Has anyone heard that expression?” I ask with a soft smile. Several nod. Not just the Black ones.
How does my makeup look? Is my face oily? Is my lipstick still there? Can they see the pimple I picked picked picked at until it was a bloody pulp this morning? Are they wondering how someone so ugly can prosecute a case so serious? While I question each prospective juror to assess their suitability to be empaneled on my jury, I worry they will hold my face against me, against my victim. “Well, during the course of this trial, you’ll hear from an eight-year-old girl who witnessed the defendant repeatedly shoot her mother, his girlfriend,” I say. “Would you have any trouble believing her testimony simply because she’s a child?”
After twelve jurors and two alternates are empaneled, the case is adjourned until the next morning. I have tons of work ahead of me, memorizing my opening statement, rehearsing my direct examinations, making sure my witnesses know where to go and what time to be there. But I’ve got more urgent shit to do.
I need to make sure that tomorrow, I’m likeable and credible. I need to be sure that tomorrow, I’m pretty. I’m not new to this. I’ve rushed to the makeup aisle many times before, after noticing a stranger’s questioning glance or cousin’s judgemental gawk. Now, like then, I head to the nearest Sephora. This time, I’m focused on my cheeks and chin, and I ask the sales associate for a concealer to fill in my Crypt-Keeper pocks.
“I think a wrinkle smoother would work,” she says. “Concealers are for blemishes, not for scars.”
When she finishes helping me, I look for a concealer on my own — one that’s water-based and cheap. I put both the smoother and the concealer on my credit card.
At home, before I rehearse my opening statement, before I read over my direct examination questions, before I lay out my polished-but-relatable suit, I wash my face clean, moisturize, prime, and then try out my new products. The smoother recommended by the sales associate crumbles under the coat of foundation I apply. I start to cry. Of course it doesn’t work. My scars are too deep, too wide, too fucked up to be smoothed over.
I wash my face again. Apply moisturizer, primer, and then the concealer. As I dot and blend it into the craters across my skin, I notice that, though their sizes are the same, the dark that engorged each of them has faded. They’re now unnoticeable beneath the liquid foundation that I paint on top. My skin is nowhere near perfect, but noticeably improved. That’s enough to bring me peace of mind for tomorrow.
The next morning, I wake up buzzing, anticipating my opening statement. I apply my makeup the same way as last night. I take the train to Jay Street; I confidently climb the stairs and strut my way toward the new Starbucks. But when I reach the café’s door and see Brown Boy inside, I freeze. I back up, spine sloped and head tucked. I turn and skulk toward the Starbucks three blocks away.
Step 3: Prep Your BrowsOften neglected, brows bring shape and structure to your face. They can be the most time-consuming element. Get them done before everything else, in case they need to be reapplied. Use a kohl eyeliner pencil that matches your natural hair color. The kohl formula will ensure that your eyebrows do not look greasy. Trace along your natural brow lines. Then, fill in the area in between with your pencil. Contour with a concealer that is two or three shades lighter than your complexion.
Remember: eyebrows are sisters, not twins. They do not have to be perfectly matched.
Mama and Daddy have a worn photo album, black and leather-bound, that’s kept in our living room wall unit with other prized possessions like my bowling trophies, framed family pictures, and the new stereo system to replace the old Pioneer that Daddy stole. At twelve years old, I’m obsessed with the photo album. My favorite picture of Daddy’s mama, Mabel, is in there. It’s been a year since Grandma Mabel died, and I constantly need to see her, to touch her face. In the photo, she’s standing in the center of a posh reception hall. A silky, teal dress drapes her body, delicately cinched at her waist. Her hair is nape-long, ironed straight, and then loosely curled. Her smile is elegant and free. Her skin is a roasted umber that, I think, resembles the Georgia earth she was raised on. Her lips have the slightest tint of merlot.
The album holds other sepia-hued pictures from the ’70s: Daddy sitting against a rocky wall in a Bed-Stuy apartment, his elbows resting on his thighs, a joint pinched between his index finger and thumb. Mama, with her almond eyes, brown skin like spiced black rum, and wavy hair laying in a poolside lounge chair, a gilded floral robe tied around her torso and draped to expose her thick thighs, a burgundy halter swimsuit peeking from the robe’s edges, a half-empty cocktail glass in her hand. Cousin Saundra in a close-up, showcasing her blemish-free, tussock skin, sangria-red lips, homegrown-bud brown eyes, rows of pearly white teeth. A loose bouffant fans away from her face and falls into long, layered curls cupping her cheeks and neck. Saundra’s brows are flawless — manicured, proportionate, thick, and precisely arched. In this picture, Saundra is incomparably stunning. But this is not the Saundra I know.
Although Grandma Mabel is no longer alive, every weekend I visit her grand Italianate house on Bushwick Ave and Hart Street. Since my parents split up, Daddy lives there with Aunt Sarah and her son Amin, Aunt Essie and her daughter Saundra, as well as Saundra’s kids — Dwight, Antoine, Arthal, and Alexandria. During the day, Amin, Dwight, and I ditch Antoine, Arthal, and Alexandria because they’re too young to keep up with us. We run Bushwick’s blocks, scale fences, play ball on the cracked concrete courts. But when the boys ditch me because I’m too much of a girl, I return to Grandma Mabel’s house. There, I find Saundra.
In the first-floor parlor room, Saundra, barely 100 pounds, sits in a worn armchair with a wooden hand mirror in one hand and a razor in the other. With the mirror six inches from her face, she slowly edges the razor against her brow, scraping away each wayward hair strand by strand. I sit on the floor in front of her, enamored. Jaw squared and hand steady, she sculpts and shapes the perfect arch, the razor never drawing blood. “Niki, you better keep your eyebrows looking good, baby girl,” she says. With her focus still on her reflection, she stabs the air with one eyebrow, while beginning to shape the other. “If nothin’ else, keep those right. They the sexiest things ‘bout us, you understand?” Saundra’s voice sounds like she smokes two packs a day, but she doesn’t. She needs the hard stuff. Saundra turns tricks and steals from everyone, including Aunt Essie, to afford the crack she smokes and the smack she shoots into her veins. But I no longer notice her blotchy skin, proof of her compulsive picking, the scars and scabs that track her arm, or the blackened lesions that scale her palms and wrists. Despite the addiction holding her hostage since she was just a teenage girl, Saundra’s eyebrows are always, always beautiful.
Step 4: Apply Liquid FoundationWhen it comes to foundation, take the time to find the right shade. The wrong hue can leave your face looking ashy or noticeably different from your neck — a major faux pas. To find your perfect foundation, sample an array of brands. Each formulation is different. Test the shades against your jawline. The foundation that disappears without any blending is your true match.
Now, pump or pour a nickel-sized mound onto your nondominant hand. Using your dominant hand, lightly tap your foundation brush into the foundation. Dot the liquid onto your nose and blend outward. Work clockwise, moving to your right cheek to right jaw to chin to neck to left jaw to left cheek to nose, eyelids, and forehead. Working in sections allows for each area to get the attention it needs for a fresh, even look.
In the third grade, Mama pulls me out of Catholic school. My father’s crack addiction is at its worst. He does not come home or pay bills or help with my parochial school’s tuition. Instead, he takes. Mama’s wallet disappears. Food from the freezer disappears. My tuition money disappears. Daddy steals all this, and then he steals some more.
Mama enrolls me in P.S. 139. But she’s not a fan of the public school’s curriculum.
“This don’t make no damn sense!” she grumbles while frying a freshly floured batch of chicken.
I’ve finished my homework during Small Wonder’s commercial breaks. Mama reviewed it for mistakes and penmanship. It’s free of errors, but still Mama fusses at my back. I watch Vicki’s stiff frame and listen to her robotic voice as she awakens her human brother, cooks the family’s flapjack breakfast, and fixes their stalling car. “Clearly, Ms. Berry’s class ain’t challenging you,” Mama says.
The next morning, I awaken to find Mama in our narrow bathroom. In a silky shirt and wool pantsuit, she leans over the sink, staring at her reflection. She dips a cotton pad into a compact containing pressed powder the color of brandy. Mama pats the cotton pad against the center of her forehead, sweeping it in an outward motion, blending the powder from left to right. Skin glowing, she snaps the compact closed, opens a pink tube, twists its bottom, and presses gold lipstick onto her lips. She rests the Fashion Fair makeup on the sink, swipes a toilet paper square from the nearby holder, and blots her lips, before telling me to throw on my coat, the red Triple F.A.T. Goose with the feathered hood. I know something is off: Working two full-time jobs, she usually wakes after I leave for school. The only time I get to watch her put on makeup is weekends.
Mama ditches her wool coat and bucket bag for her full-length beaver fur — the one Daddy bought her a few years back; the one he’d later steal and sell for a high — and her faux alligator skin briefcase. Her smooth face and gilded lips punctuate her look. With my hand in hers, she struts to the small, red-bricked Rugby Road school. She plants a kiss on my lips before instructing me to go to Ms. Berry’s third-grade classroom. While I’m there, Mama meets with Vice Principal Katz. During lunch, he summons me to his office, where I take an oral exam that he personally administers. Before the afternoon bell, Ms. Berry is no longer my teacher. I have a new desk in Mrs. Powell’s class for the gifted.
Ms. Berry’s class looked like the Flatbush I know, full of Black and brown kids who, like me, live crunched in crackerjack buildings where clear vials with colorful lids litter the ground. Ms. Powell’s class is mostly white. There’s only one other Black kid, George, and I never see him crowding around wrenched-open fire hydrants during the summer. All these kids, including George, live in the Victorian homes that surround the Ditmas Park school — the ones with gnarled sycamore trees, chunky basswood, dazzling deciduous azaleas on their front lawns.
In Mrs. Powell’s class, I make new friends. Spencer plays the piano like I jump rope. Before him, I didn’t know kids could play the piano with sophistication. But Spencer doesn’t know the lyrics to Run DMC’s Raising Hell. Hillary sketches impressive urban landscapes in her composition book. She takes art classes on the weekends. I graffiti my name in bubble letters, dotting the “i” with a dandelion, trying my best to replicate the dope tags I see in subway tunnels when riding the D train. Then there’s Ben who comments during the science fair that his daddy taught him to turn the gas range down after water begins to boil. “It conserves energy,” he says. Conserves? I remember that word for evenings when Mama works night shifts after her daytime job and Daddy is out getting high, and I boil rice to scramble with eggs.
It’s during those evenings when I’m eight years old and home alone in the hood during the crack epidemic that I wish Mama was there, doing her makeup, cooking me dinner, or catching up on sleep. Those evenings lay the foundation of my lifelong worry. I worry about whether someone will break into my apartment through the fire escape; whether Mama will eat dinner while at work; whether I’ll burn down the building while trying to cook my own; whether Daddy has a home, now that he no longer has a key to ours.
Step 5: Add Color to Your CheeksNo matter your skin tone, blush will bring together your look, adding a natural-looking flush to your skin. For the best application, use a densely bristled brush to capture plenty of powder pigment. Smile gently at yourself in the mirror, and stroke the brush along the apples of your cheeks toward your ears. If you have high cheekbones, be sure to lightly blush them as well.
In Bed-Stuy, around the corner from the brownstone where I live, there is a squat, one-story brick building that has had many faces. When I was twelve, it was a tiny game room with an Elmo-red carpet blackened by gum stains and rimmed with now-vintage arcade games. In that gameroom, I copped candy, played with my friends, and wasted weekly allowances trying to grab a fluffy pink bear with an arcade claw. In front of that game room, its owner, Big Rick, my friend Rick Rick’s father, asked me out on my very first date. Later that night, he treated me to McDonald’s after he raped me at a skeevy pay-by-the-hour motel a couple of miles away.
In my teens, after Big Rick finally skipped town, that small building became a Dominican hair salon. Like every Black girl nearby, I went each weekend for a $20 Doobie. The stylist would wrap my hair around medium rollers, crowning my head with them, before pushing me under a dryer. The unrelenting heat scalded my ears and neck. Then the stylist would pull me from hell and back to her chair to torch my hair straight, using only a blow dryer and a flat brush. She finished by wrapping my lifeless hair up and around my head, like a beehive. When I unwrapped it at home the next day, I’d celebrate its length and admire its straight texture. It would last only for a couple of days. Back then, taming my natural curls was worth all that pain.
Now, I’m in my late twenties, and the words “Butch & Coco” blush the black awning above the windowfront. The tiny, Black-owned establishment serves a mean French toast breakfast. It’s Sunday, and I’ve made sure to beat the crowd. I’m at the counter, ready to order, when a smaller woman with a flimsy bravado starts to flirt. I haven’t gotten this kind of attention in years. She’s an Air Force veteran, she tells me, and has watched me come and go from this breakfast spot every weekend for at least a month. I’ve seen her before, too, but never paid real attention.
“You always order the French toast,” she says.
“Stalker, much?” I half-joke.
“Nah, not stalking. Just smitten.”
She’s frontin’. I blush and head for the door with my food. She follows me onto the same curb where Big Rick offered to take me to dinner. I guess I should be flattered, but I’m not. Something about her rubs me the wrong way. I can’t pin it. Her act is more performance than compliment — as if she’s more interested in convincing me to be into her than she is in us having a genuine connection. But, nowadays, my face almost never inspires flirtation. Someone’s finally hitting on you who doesn’t stare at your skin or care about your scars. Girl, perk up! She clumsily pulls out her phone. But before I can tell her the best way to reach me, she gestures with her chin. “So, what happened to your face?”
By now I’ve grown accustomed to strangers’ fixation on my scars, to their focus on what makes me ugly, to the belief that I owe them an explanation. It doesn’t mean it smacks less painfully. I drop my false smile. “I have dermatillomania,” I say, as casually as I can, which isn’t casual at all.
“Derma-what?” she asks.
The empty street begs me to cross. You don’t have to explain yourself. You’re not that desperate, Nicole. “Don’t worry about it,” I wave her off, momentarily blocking her view. “I really gotta go.”
Step 6: Accentuate Your EyesEyeshadow adds depth and texture to any look. Dip a slender eyeshadow brush into a neutral shade and tap to get rid of any excess product. Stroke it upward and across your eyelid, stopping right beneath your sculpted eyebrows. Next, dip your brush into a brighter hue, tap off the excess, sweep it across your lid. Stop at the crease line. Finally, dip your brush into a darker color, tap off the excess, and apply the color to the outer corner of your eye, just above your upper lash line. Sweep the darker color from your eyelid crease to just under the brow bone, stopping before you reach the center of your eyelid. Blend the darker shade into the neutral one.
Define your eyes by lining your waterline — the skin between your bottom eyelashes and your actual eye — with a very fine, long-wearing and water-resistant eyeliner. Press the pencil from the inner corner of your eye to the outer corner. Finish with mascara. Black is the most popular for day-to-day wear. If you have a shorter lash, choose a mascara that separates and lengthens. If you have sparse lashes, use a volumizing formula.
It’s not until my first year in college that white women show me that my place is at their feet or in their kitchen. At Smith, there are no dorms. I live in Gillett House, a brick building wrapped in ivy. Inside, hardwood floors, grand carpets, thick window dressings, high-backed chairs, and upholstered seating are spread around a baby grand.
Every day, the kitchen staff serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner on porcelain plates. On Wednesday nights, the dining staff serves candlelit meals. On Friday afternoons, they roll a wooden cart into the main living room, with dainty teacups, fancy floral tea pots, and sterling silver platters mounded with pastries. I always skip Friday Tea.
At seventeen years old, I’m in Smith’s work study program and earn $10 per hour, barely enough to afford books and a phone. Work study was a part of the shiny financial aid package that convinced me to attend Smith, despite my Mama’s “I’m a Spelman Mom” hoodie and my girlhood dreams of attending the all-women’s HBCU. What Smith failed to mention, however, was that all first-year work study recipients must work in the kitchen.
In Gillett’s kitchen, I rack and wash the other students’ dishes. They don’t need financial aid, and they toss their dirty dishes at me like dice.
At Smith, these wealthy, mostly white, women make me realize I’m piss poor. I try to believe the American meritocratic promise: despite the racism and classism that grip my neck like a vise, I’ll escape poverty as long as I earn top grades while among these women who’ve attended top private schools their entire lives and have trust funds larger than Mama’s life earnings. But this shit is making me hate myself.
I go to Gillett’s third floor communal bathroom, stare at my reflection in the mirror, and pop the zits that are increasingly showing up on my face, chest, back, and arms. I’m obsessed. I pick my pimples while picking at my intelligence, personality, my socioeconomic class, my Blackness: You don’t belong here. Why did you say that in class, dumb ass? Why didn’t you check that professor? Why couldn’t you just let that racist-ass statement go? Why didn’t you call out that classist statement for what the fuck it was? Why can’t you just shut your ghetto ass up?
Before Smith, I attended Bishop Loughlin, a Black, Catholic high school where all my peers came from one Brooklyn hood or the next. I sported Guess jeans, Tommy Hilfiger shirts, Shearling coats, and large doorknocker earrings. I never got pimples. My friends envied my skin. I dated, seriously and otherwise, often many people at the same time. I took college classes, earned the highest grade in my school for the state’s advanced trigonometry exam, won a state award for a creative nonfiction essay about Grandma Mabel. On weekends, I participated in NYU’s competitive science, technology, engineering, and math program. I earned top grades there and at school. I was a member of the National Honor Society. I graduated third in Loughlin’s 1998 class. (I should’ve been valedictorian. They robbed me.) I was the complete package: fly and brilliant.
Now, at a white women’s college, nothing I do is right. In the mirror in Gillett, I don’t see the girl who packed her desirability and intelligence like a pocket knife. The girl with the smooth, clear skin, envied by her besties. At Smith, I hate myself and squeeze blood-tinged pus from tiny bumps, swollen cysts, scruffy scabs, or any minor imperfection that my fingers find. I start to wear makeup to cover my scars.
Step 7: Make Your Lips PopShaping your lips with liner before applying lipstick or lipgloss will give them a full and luscious look. For a more discreet lip, use a natural-toned liner. For a bold lip, use a bright color such as a neon pink or a red-to-orange ombre. Apply the liner by lightly pressing the pencil along your natural lip line. Then apply the lipstick or lipgloss of your choosing.
It’s 2012, and I’ve been a domestic violence prosecutor at the DA’s for more than three years. I’ve just returned to my office from grabbing lunch when I see a new file on my desk. Cracking it open, I see that my latest victim is a nineteen-year-old girl whose ex-boyfriend ripped her face open from ear to neck with a razorblade. I flip through pictures of the victim taken from multiple angles. In each one, the blood-soaked meat of her inner cheek bulges from the gash made by the utility razor.
Beneath the new case sits a mountain of other files. An older woman whose live-in boyfriend stabbed and strangled her, then bludgeoned her face beyond recognition. A young nurse whose boyfriend fed her a horse tranquilizer, raped her while she was unconscious, and released the video footage on the Internet without her consent or knowledge, her face displayed for all to see, the Law & Order SVU theme song playing as an episode runs on the couple’s TV. An elderly mom whose son beat her bloody and black-eyed because she refused to give him ten bucks for drugs.
Every day I confront photographs, videos, 911 recordings, and testimonies full of the unfiltered and uncensored sounds, sobs, fears, and impacts of violence. And each day, I smoke a pack of Newport Lights and pick at myself to cope.
I close the case file and head to my Grand Jury Chief’s office. I wait in her doorway as she holds a conversation about spring curtains and smudged eyeliner with one of the laziest colleagues I have.
I seethe. I have work to do. Victims to call. Cross-examinations to write. But I’ve learned I must wait for the Grand Jury Chief to invite me in. And she does, after she’s done talking about a sexy smoky eye.
“Hey Chief, I just got another serious assault,” I say. “I have seven cases for trial, I’m wrapping up a few cases in the grand jury, and I have dozens of other cases to get discovery together for and keep track of. Any chance you can hold off from giving me more grand jury cases?”
She’s not looking at me. “You know, Junior, if I had only two more of you, this unit would run itself. I mean, you take cases. You bring ‘em to the Jury. You get ‘em done. And,” she swivels her chair to face me, “you don’t complain.” I say nothing, despite the fire erupting in my belly, my chest, and my throat.
Back in my office, I pull out the Lock-It compact in my desk’s top drawer and powder my nose. Then I reopen the latest case to arrive on my desk.
The next morning, per my usual routine, I spend an hour smoking Newport Lights while pick-pick-picking myself into a trance. The same thoughts of inadequacy consume me. You’re an awful lawyer. You’re a fluke. Why did you let Nancy talk to you like that? Marry you? Mary doesn’t even love you! How could she? Look at you.
I dig at my face, my chest, my arms, and my back as deep as I can. I squeeze every swollen mound, no matter how full or slight. When I finish, I curse myself for how ugly I am, for how ugly I make myself, for my open sores, for the blemishes that pock my entire body, for the money I spend every month on makeup, for picking without washing my hands first.
I’ve already visited the ER three times for infections brought on by my picking; the last thing I need is another one. I grab the bottle of rubbing alcohol beneath the sink, pour it onto toilet tissue, pat dry my open wounds, and enjoy the sting. Then I moisturize and begin my makeup routine.
Step 8: Set Your LookFor long-lasting makeup that doesn’t grease, crease, or shine, investing in a quality setting solution is a must. Setting sprays are designed for all skin types and can be used to set a light application or a full-face masterpiece.
To apply, hold the bottle at least six inches from your face, then spritz over your face. Four sprays for a more matte look, and up to eight for a more dewy look. Do not rub it in. That will destroy your makeup. Instead, let the solution dry naturally. It takes mere seconds.
I’m forty years old. It’s been almost two decades since I graduated from Smith. Thirteen years since I became a lawyer. Three years since I quit my prosecutor career. A year since I got married. A month since I was finally able to afford a place other than my mother’s spare bedroom; I split my new rent with my wife, of course.
Standing at my sink’s edge, I glance at the wicker basket that sits on the granite countertop. In it, lip and brow pencils lay next to concealers, dark as bourbon and cigars; a mascara container is strewn across two studded lipstick tubes; a palm-sized Sephora primer bottle lays at the feet of three eyeshadow palettes — two by Anastasia Beverly Hills and the other by Pat McGrath; a Fenty liquid foundation bottle stands upright; an Urban Decay De-Slick Setting Spray bottle flanks it. I grab the setting spray and pump, pump, pump its actuator while waving the bottle inches from my face. I open my eyes and see the beat I apply daily — whether going to the bodega, the gym, or nowhere at all. I admire my well-blended foundation, precisely sculpted brows, blushed cheekbones, lined and glossed lips, highlighted temples, and contoured nose.
My phone buzzes. “Queen A has posted for the first time in a while,” Instagram’s notification reads. I open the app, which directs me to a post from cousin Alex, the one who works at Sephora. Saundra’s daughter. Her photo is a close-up, just like the one of her mother that’s still in Mama and Daddy’s old black leather photo album. Like my sepia Saundra, Alex’s skin is an unblemished terracotta brown, dewy as if set under a mist of its own. Her hair is cut into a curly bob that drops to her jawline. Her doe eyes are capped by thick, perfectly shaped brows. Her caption reads, “This one’s better,” as if any of the pictures before were not beautiful, were not enough.
I think about Alex. All that she’s had to tuck away: Saundra fatally overdosed weeks after her brother, Antoine, was murdered. She was separated from her siblings — Aunt Sarah raised her and Arthal, and Aunt Ruby raised Dwight. She had to grow up fast in Brooklyn. I did, too. I think about how Black girls born into poverty are expected to be wild enough to flip tables yet respectable enough for dinner party invitations; tough enough to throw hands, smart enough to hide fists, to be beautiful, be sexy, be virginal, be successful, be modest, be humble, be articulate, be cool, be quiet, be resilient, be, be…
I wonder how Alex holds up under the pressure. Is it in the makeup?
I like the picture and comment with black heart emojis. I think about sending Alex a text: “Girl, I just want you to know that when I look at you, I see your mama. Saundra was fly, tough, and could sculpt an eyebrow. You’re her, and so much more. You’re beautiful, Alex. And resilient. I’m proud of you.”
But I don’t type a word.
Instead, I fixate on her face, her skin. The picture reminds me of beautiful, sepia-toned Saundra, and of me when I looked that way, too. But the Saundra I knew was toothless and shrunken, all bones and brows. What will my face become when wrinkles coexist with the mutilation of my own doing?
My eyes blink back to the mirror before me. Without realizing it and before I have the chance to stop myself, my fingers have found their way to my hairline and are squeezing an almost imperceptible zit. I listen for my wife. Where in our house is she? I hear nothing, she could be anywhere. I should cut it out now, before she catches me. But I’m already in the act. Blood oozes from the wound. I squeeze some more. I need the hard stuff, every last drop.