4:10 A.M. is the best time to be in Highland Park. Figueroa is desolate. At any other hour, Fig’s a street normally abuzz with fast cars and the assault of sirens. A scruffy black cat scurries beneath a parked car— the only other thing awake in this rare, still darkness. My heels click on the cracked sidewalk. I have to be in Beverly Hills in a half hour. I make it in 20. The 110’s a breeze: empty and easy. I find a parking spot close by a big beige apartment complex. Birds chirp.
It’s a Saturday and I’m not going to the strip club in the desert. I’m doing J’s makeup instead. I’m going to help her get dressed, pressed, rehearsed, powdered, shadowed and shined. I have to make sure she’s calm, collected, dressed and out the door at 5:50 A.M. for her guest spot on CNN. She lured me over to her place with an eyelash issue.
“You don’t understand. I can’t put fake eyelashes on myself,” she said. She wanted glamorous fake lashes so elegantly seamless that no one will know she had them on. “Can you do it for me?”
“I’ll show you. It’s easy,” I said. I figured we could meet briefly in a bathroom. I told her about the best espionage black eyelash glue on the market. Promised her that no white gooey line would give her away. But she wouldn’t have it. “I need you here at 4:30AM,” she said. I like to be needed. Besides, I wanted to be there for her to do this one scary thing.
I’m no makeup artist. I’m nothing close to a stylist. Most of my clothes are from Forever 21 or from garbage bags donated from generous friends. But, fake eyelashes I know by rote. I can apply them with a hand mirror on my knee and one hand tied behind my back. One thin dab of glue. Ta-Da.
J didn’t need a stylist, really. Her wardrobe was lady chic; not Lady Gaga. I have her text messages to prove it. She’s been sending me photos of herself in potential CNN-worthy shirts: emerald green sleeveless, silky royal blue tank, dark blue jersey and her electric smile with the words, “Which one is best?”
She got the call to appear on CNN last minute to talk about her choice as a 27-year old woman to have a double mastectomy and to have her ovaries removed when she found out that she had precancerous cells. She was going to have a conversation with the world about vanity, our bodies and taking responsibility for our health. She was going to tell a million people, especially women, that she felt deformed and ashamed, but not now. Thanks to the sexiest woman alive, Angelina Jolie, she had cried for the first time in ten years about making that brave and necessary choice—the choice to live without her boobs and her ovaries. That making her decision was perhaps sexy and beautiful. She was going to tell women to love themselves. She practiced her responses with me in her bathroom.
“It’s not a death sentence,” she said as I applied gold shimmery Mac eye shadow to her lids and warned her before I dipped a chocolate color into her crease with her long makeup brushes. I watched her apply a surprisingly Barbie pink blush called “orgasm” to her delicate, angular cheeks.
She wanted to look and feel like herself: unruly curly hair and nude lip gloss; mischievous twinkly eyes and a gorgeous wide smile. “Do I need the eyelashes?”
“Your eyes are perfect. You don’t need them, but if you will be more comfortable, we should.”
I showed her the ones I brought: long dramatic stripper lashes of the hyper-femme variety. Compared to her soft subtle whips;mine were furry lethal tarantulas.
J told me about her double mastectomy once, casually, over a chopped salad (dressing on the side) as if it were a small and forgettable thing. Her mom had breast cancer also and opted for the same procedure. J froze her eggs for cancer research. I had read about the cancer gene mutations that run in families and about certain tests that detect the cells. I’ve read that with the surgeries, risks of cancer are reduced dramatically and I flirt with hope while sipping my coffee.
It’s 5:30A.M. and we still haven’t glued on her eyelashes. We have decided on a necklace and earrings; her hair will drift off her face so she won’t mess with it. She’s got on the tight dark blue shirt.
Rings are considered. “Do you talk with your hands?” She does but she won’t.
In 2007,when my mom’s cancer went into remission, I reapplied to grad school and got in. Mom valued education and pushed me get my MFA. Grad school started in June. Her cancer came back to the exact same spot. Three months later, she died. I remember washing her hair in the sink with Vanilla scented shampoo and wrapping it in a towel while J blow dries her curls. But today, I have hope. I also know there are never any guarantees. My health insurance was cancelled this week. I can’t afford it right now and I’m not in the strip club. The fake eyelashes remain in their plastic package. I am happy to be there with J while she does a brave thing. She inspires me to do the next brave thing: I am going to design a class to teach at UCSD in the fall.
I blow on her face to remove the brown eye shadow that has spilled on her temples. Later, when I see her on CNN, I will obsess about those walnut shaped shadows under her eyes and curse myself for not using a washcloth doused in rubbing alcohol. I’ll wonder if it’s eye shadow or the lights and then I’ll catch her phrase about dating and forget about the lashes.
We rehearse the prompt: Is it awkward to tell guys you date about your inability to bear children or your double mastectomy?
She practices saying, “Dating in LA sucks with or without your ovaries.” In her bathroom, sweating over eyebrow pencils and mahogany lip liner, I don’t care how dismal my bank account is. I don’t think about my awful work week—The unpaid hours and difficult kids, deadlines and getting written up for being tardy. I will be teaching adults in the fall at UCSD and I will pee myself when students address me as “Professor Crane.”
J frets over the lashes one last time so I place them on her eyes to show her the effect. She says “I just want to be myself.”
“You don’t need them,” I say. Just then the driver calls to announce he is outside. “I’ll be out in a minute,” she tells him. I place her wallet and her keys inside her purse. “You’re going to be amazing,” I say, but I don’t need to.