We all have to start somewhere. I was 22 years old and in my last undergraduate year of college when I had the idea to write a nostalgic, character-driven, coming-of-age story that explored loss, love, and generational angst. Blue Eyeshadow was the result. Despite its many imperfections, I will always love this story because it was my first attempt at writing "serious" fiction. I even won an award for it. Thankfully, I write better now than I did in 1997, but few things I've written since have made me as happy as this little story does. Without further ado...
She was only eight in 1983. But she dreamt about being eighteen. When she slept, visions of blue eyeshadow, teased hair, pink spandex, off-the-shoulder sweatshirts, leg warmers, and gaudy earrings flashdanced before her eyes. Sometimes she would fantasize about Eddie Murphy. Not the 90’s debonair version, but the Beverly Hills Cop/Saturday Night Live Eddie with nappy hair and a gap-toothed smile. She would think about how much she adored the King of Pop when he was black, pre-maternity Madonna, and of course, Simon LeBon. Sure, she was only eight back then, but Duran Duran still made her drool.
A long time ago, she decided that she really didn’t care too much for this new millennium pop culture. Everything was saturated with smut. The mere thought of Jerry Springer made her cringe and Miss Cleo was too pathetic to even be funny. Sometimes she would brainstorm ideas for reality shows to air after Survivor became passé.
During the week, she’d sit in class contemplating her unfortunate existence in contemporary society and as she looked around the room scrutinizing her peers, she had a hard time hiding her disgust of their trendiness and conformity. And when she walked across campus, she took a mental note of how many of the same over-priced Tommy Hilfiger shirts she’d seen that day and how many girls had the same haircut. Or better yet, she’d try to figure out which overrated television actress was responsible for the current week’s repetitive coifs.
She knew that if she’d been a teenager in the 80s, then right now, she’d be thirty-something and successful. Instead she suffering through college with Generation X stamped across her brow in some sort of invisible ink, decipherable only to patronizing stuffed-shirts twenty years her senior. So she longed for the easy-going 80s and cursed the cruel gods for breathing life into her a decade too late.
Her distracted air made people uneasy when she was in their presence. Of course, it was always when she was in their presence because most people seldom chose to be in her presence. Which, by all means, was absolutely fine with her because she had a low tolerance for people anyway. So on those rare occasions when she had no alternative other than to partake of the company of others, they would observe that her mind seemed to be off someplace, like whatever she was thinking about was more deserving of her attention than them. She spoke rarely, and only when spoken to, these provoked dialogues characterized by careful brevity. When she’d lived on the college campus, this behavior prompted her first and only roommate to move out, and instigated the rumors that kept another girl from filling the vacancy. Whereas even the most anti-social person would have eventually become lonely and resentful of being shunned, she cherished her reputation, routinely polishing and admiring it like a prized possession. Besides, she’d always agreed, “Familiarity does breed contempt.”
Still, perhaps if she’d forced herself to smile every now and then, she would have at least given the appearance of being approachable, likable even. She didn’t realize it, but such an expression would have lit up her countenance, transforming her completely. She was already exceptionally pretty. But as it was, she would never think so. When she was younger, she had despised the chestnut waves that fell just below her shoulders, heavy and thick. Now, her hair was merely tolerable, although she seldom bothered to do anything with it. When she was in high school, she had dyed it red like Molly Ringwald’s in Pretty in Pink, but the drastic hue, set against her dusky skin, had been too harsh. Then there was that time in the fifth grade when she’d asked her mother, a beautician, for a Jherri Curl.
“I want a Jherri Curl.”
“A what?” Her mother’s voice had that incredulous lilt it got whenever someone said or did something beyond her comprehension.
“I want curly hair. Some of the girls at school are getting their hair Jherri Curled.”
“Don’t be silly. You can’t get a curl with your kind of hair.” Her mother’s tone was conclusive and she turned and beckoned to one of her waiting clients.
“Why not! I can’t do anything with my hair! It’s ugly!”
“Go sit down. I’m trying to work here.” Her mother began parting her client’s Jherri-Curled hair.
“No! I want a Jherri Curl! I hate my hair like this!”
“Did you hear what I said? Go sit down or wait outside.”
So she had never gotten a Jherri Curl. Instead, she started sleeping in those hard green rollers every night, but the curls would always fall while she walked to school in the morning. Besides that, lying on those rollers all night made her wake up with a headache every morning. So eventually she stopped longing for different hair. Instead, she longed to be old enough to make her own decisions. If she were a teenager, she would have gone out and gotten her hair Jherri Curled anyway, along with whatever else she wanted done. She would have worn Enjoli perfume and blue eyeshadow to school with her miniskirts, ankle socks, and heels. No doubt, she would have been popular among the other girls and she would have traded those colorful rubber bracelets with her friends. They would have worshipped her if she had been a teenager in the 80s. She knew it. And the boys. She would have had many boyfriends. Guys that looked like they stepped from the pages of Teen Beat and Bop magazines. And she certainly wouldn’t have dated “nice” guys like Anthony Michael Hall or the fellows in New Edition. Instead, she would have gallivanted around town with rebels like Prince and Billy Idol.
Two years had passed since she’d gone to inquire about the apartment. Two years since James had become a part of her life. The memory of that first meeting was still vivid. It had just begun to rain when she’d turned down his street and she didn’t have an umbrella. Yet, she walked without haste. The ad in the paper had read, “Inquire before 6 p.m.” She didn’t own a watch, but she knew she was just in time. The house sat before her, an ordinary red brick two-story structure with a spacious porch, a neat little white swing that looked out of place, and a stone walkway framed by tiny yellow and pink flowers. The walkway irked her. She had never been partial to “quaint.”
She was standing at the bottom of the porch deciding whether or not she should continue when the door opened. “Are you going to knock or stand there getting drenched?” A man who looked to be in his mid-thirties held the screen door open, beckoning her to enter. She remembered thinking that he looked like Harrison Ford, ruggedly handsome, yet refined.
She stood where she was. “I’m here to see the garage apartment,” she said, a little too loud.
“Well, it’s not where you’re standing. Come on in out of the rain.” The man stepped back, still holding the door. A crooked smile decorated his face, yet she was still apprehensive. She’d been expecting a buxom, grandmotherly figure, not Indiana Jones.
She moved towards him. The wooden steps were slick with rain and there were no rails for her to grasp. The man stepped out, leaning toward her as if ready to grab her were she to slip. As she entered the house, he held out a towel. “Thanks,” she had muttered clasping her hands around the extended end. She felt the man’s hand resting lightly on her shoulder blade as he guided her through a dimly lit room that smelled strongly of cigar smoke and incense. She could here blues music, soft and melancholy, coming from somewhere in the house. A black Labrador appeared, padded up to her, and began sniffing around her ankles.
“Jackson, no,” the man admonished and the Lab slunk back into the recesses of the room. “Have a seat.”
She hesitated, wishing he would turn on a light.
As if reading her thoughts, the man moved to a lamp and clicked it on, bathing the room in a soft yellow glow. “Go on and have a seat. Don’t worry about getting the furniture wet. It’s seen worse.”
Her eyes scanned the room and she decided on a leather armchair near the entrance. She laid the towel down on the chair and sat on it as the man disappeared around a corner.
“Can I get you anything to drink?’ he called out.
“No. Uh, thank you. I’m fine.” Her voice sounded small. She looked around the room. Besides her chair, there was a large brown leather sofa and a wicker futon with a hunter green cushion. A large bookshelf, overflowing with books, papers, and magazines took up the wall facing her and a similarly cluttered coffee table was in the middle of the room. An entertainment unit rested against the wall to her right and several crates of albums were lined up next to it. At the sight of the albums her eyes lit up.
“So, you came out on a nasty evening like this to see my apartment, huh?” He was standing behind her balancing a silver tray, atop which sat two mismatched mugs and a saucer of Oreos. “I’ll admit to you now, it’s not much to look at. Kind of small, but comfortable. Nothing fancy. It is over a garage.” He set the tray down on the coffee table. Jackson crept up, eyeing the Oreos. The man gave the dog a cookie and handed her a mug. “Careful, it’s hot. James’ specialty. I hope you like Café Mocha.”
She forced her eyes away from the albums. “Who is James?” She lifted the mug and felt the steam curling up from the caramel-colored liquid. It was warm against her lips.
“You’re looking at him.” He smiled. Later she would come to realize that James smiled each time he spoke and this was just the first of many she would reluctantly come to adore in the following months. When he smiled, he did so not just with his lips but with his eyes, which were the bluest she’d ever seen. At that moment, she knew she would take the apartment, even without seeing it first. And she also knew he would rent it to her, even if others had inquired before. Then, less than a week later, she moved into the tiny, one-bedroom above his garage, and not even a full month after that, she woke up in bed with him for the first time. She shared herself with James. And he shared himself with her, she who disdained interpersonal relationships. And everything that had once been solely his, became hers as well. Jackson, his books, the albums. But the albums were her favorite.
Then, a year later, he sat before her, those same blue eyes she’d once found inviting, frowning while attempting to pry from her some display of emotion. The intensity of his unwavering gaze seemed to beg of her, if not genuine expression of feeling, at least a semblance. And although her stubborn heart was breaking, she refused to let him see the damage he’d unintentionally done. Her eyes met his, but her vacant gaze concealed her contempt. Not blinking, she stared at him, into him, while her dominant inner voice screamed at him, cursing him for what he was doing to her, and her submissive inner voice, the one that felt and loved, and hurt and grieved, pleaded with her to self disclose. But she’d never told anyone how she felt. So she remained mute, staring at James and listening to him talk about job transfers and Memphis and big opportunities. The black hole that was his mouth opened and closed, and to her it seemed to be in slow motion. And he continued talking about the promising future she had and how she’d forget about him soon enough. But all she really heard was that he was leaving.
Someone else had spoken of “promising futures” once. Another man. A man, who like James, left her searching for a future that she was convinced would never come. She was three years old when he left and eleven when he returned, or rather, when her mother, fed up with her moody daughter, and smitten with her latest beau, sent her to live with her father.
“I think it’s time you got to know your father.” Her mother had said one morning as she leaned in the doorway of her daughter’s bedroom.
She was sitting on the bed, her back to the entrance, searching through a box of cassette tapes.
“Just for a while,” her mother continued. “Money is short.” She went on for some time, stuttering and repeating herself before finally retreating from the room to avoid the awkward silence that would ensue if she remained.
She had decided then that she would run away from home before she would go and live with a stranger. Not even the biological relationship could make up for the fact that she’d only known of his existence through yearly Hallmark cards that always arrived after her birthday, and the annual visit from the Ups Man bearing a token Christmas gift. She would run away before she would live with someone who never wanted her.
Fate had its way; however, and she did go to live with her father, prompted not by her mother, but by her mother’s live-in boyfriend who took the liberty of placing a kiss on her pre-teen lips one morning.
And there she remained for seven years. Until her father began to speak of college and careers. Scoffing at her dream of moving to Hollywood to become the next John Hughes, he spewed endlessly about SAT’s, ACT’s, and admission requirements. “Get some extracurricular activities,” he said as he slid college brochures under her bedroom door and forged her signature on applications. “Schools like that.” As if she cared what anyone would like.
Watching reruns of Bandstand made her nostalgic for teenage years she had never even experienced. Although she was only in grade school then, she longed to be a part of the MTV generation. She wanted to raise hell with all the other post-disco youth, sink her teeth into some grape Bubbalicious and smack, pop, and chew with her mouth wide open. It made her angry to think that she missed out on the opportunity to Crush Groove and get Footloose because she was sitting in a third-grade classroom perfecting her cursive. Hell, she should have been one of those girls in Pat Benatar’s Love is a Battlefield video, the one where Pat proclaims, “We are young! Heartache to heartache!” and all the women go dance in the street. But back then, she wasn’t even allowed to go near the street.
She continued to live in the apartment after James left. He’d sold the house to an elderly woman who ran an in-home childcare service. The only provision James left with the woman was that “the girl” be allowed to rent the apartment for as long as she wanted. James left Jackson with her too. She supposed that not only did Memphis not permit twenty-year-old girlfriends for thirty-six-year-old men, but that they also didn’t allow Labrador Retrievers either. So in the year after he left, she passed the days in the seclusion of her apartment when she wasn’t in class. Jackson served as a constant and unfortunate reminder of his former owner, a conclusion to which the canine had obviously arrived, as he was careful to stay out of her way. She waited for the day when she would cease to think about James. Still, it was hard, and the albums made it harder.
Two hundred and seventy-two albums. They were hers now, compliments of James on the eve of his departure. She was in class when he’d entered her apartment without permission and left the crates in the tiny living room. Affixed to the first crate was a Post-It, that read, “Because I know how much you love.” And that had been all. Not, “I know how much you love these records,” or even, “I know how much you love me.” Just, “I know how much you love.” She had left the albums siting there, the cumbersome crates taking up too much space in the small room. And they remained untouched for two months until one afternoon something compelled her to go to them. She randomly selected a record. As she ran the palm of her hand across the surface of the album, her eyes lit up, an allusion to the smile her lips would never permit. The Culture Club. The cover of the album was cold and smooth and she was sure that the photo on the front was as crisp and sharp as the day it was developed. As she stroked the album, her eyes just continued to flash in that unique way she had of smiling. That day she moved the crates of records into the corner of the room. She never played any of them; she just took some out every now and then and held them to her breasts or stroked the covers. Tears for Fears, Adam Ant, Simple Minds, Flock of Seagulls, Cool and the Gang, The Psychedelic Furs, The Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, Prince and the Revolution. She knew all of the songs. Sitting Indian-style on the floor, she would thumb through the crates for several minutes, sometimes spending hours in this fashion before replacing the albums. Yet, it wasn’t the memory of her first love that she associated with the albums, but an era in which she could have been incredibly happy.
It eventually came to pass that she ceased thinking about James altogether.
She stood examining herself in the mirror. The Police was wailing in the background, something about, “Don’t stand so close to me!” As she stared into her eyes, she shuddered. Her father used to say that her eyes reminded him of brand new pennies. He even started calling her “Penny” until she asked him to stop. He had never earned the right to address her by cute nicknames. As she gazed at her eyes, she wondered that if they did indeed look like pennies, did they symbolize her worth? Chump change. She opened the medicine cabinet. Her hand was shaking.
He had been staring at her all semester. Sometimes if she caught him looking, he would look away or pretend to be looking at something behind her. But she knew he was looking at her. And when he realized that she knew, he stopped trying to feign otherwise, his bold eyes unashamed as they bore into her. Strangely, she wasn’t annoyed by his intrusion, but rather, she was dismayed to find herself intrigued. She wondered what it was about her that he seemed to find so compelling.
One evening she was standing behind the counter at the convenience store where she worked, shaking her head in disgust at a tabloid headline. “Woman Gives Birth to Gorilla Baby” She heard the door open and looked up to find him standing before her. He looked the same as always, tall and lean, his dreadlocks hanging like black ropes around his tan face and resting on his shoulders. His black eyes were narrow and he did not smile, although his expression was not unpleasant.
“Did you have gas?” she asked, knowing that he didn’t.
He just stood there. Staring so hard she wanted to scream.
“Do you need something?” She almost choked on the words.
“That was my question for you,” he murmured.
Her lips parted but no words came.
“I want to know why you’re so miserable.”
She flinched as if he’d moved to strike her.
He continued, “I know you get off soon. I’ll be back.” And with that said, he left as quietly as he’d arrived. He didn’t even wait for an answer. When she clocked out two hours later, he was standing outside leaning against the wall. They walked up the street, their shoes making the only sound. She began to speak.
“It’s like that Twilight Zone episode where the couple wakes up in a strange bed, in a strange room, and in a strange house. And they get up and realize that they’ve got on these strange clothes and so they go through the house and everything is so weird. Like, the food in the refrigerator is fake. Even the refrigerator is fake and all the furniture is fake. And the couple is panicking, I mean, they’ve already got these hangovers and the fake stuff—the weirdness— is just making it worse. So, anyway, by the end of the show, it’s discovered that they’re like, on a different planet or something and the audience is left hanging. But, I guess all that matters is that everything is not what it used to be. I mean, it looks like real food, and
real furniture, but it’s not! And the two, this couple, they’re just prisoners. Victims. And there is absolutely nothing they can do.” She paused, then, “And that’s how I feel. Everyday. Like everything’s weird and I don’t belong. Like I’m that couple.”
She stopped walking and looked up at him. He wasn’t looking at her though; his eyes were focused on a spot above her head, perhaps the tall trees or the night sky beyond them. When he did look at her, he was smiling and he took her hand. “Like we’re that couple,” he whispered and they began moving again. In silence, their fingers intertwined, they walked without a destination but at least pursuing one together.
She began to apply the eyeshadow, her hand trembling with each tentative stroke. Nevertheless, she continued to brush it on, with a steadier hand now, and faster too, with a kind of mechanical intensity. Each time the small applicator came in contact with her skin, it was like soft kisses.
When she was done, she opened her eyes and the image in the mirror stared back at her. Her eyelids wore the blue shadow like a frame, hiding nothing, and adorning what was already there. The corners of the reflection’s mouth were turned up slightly, resembling what could be called a smile. If she ever smiled. And as she stared in the mirror, she felt a slight tingling beginning in her stomach. For the first time in as long as she could recall, she felt something close to happy. She closed her eyes again and felt dizzy so she leaned against the sink. But the mounting elation, unfamiliar, but compelling, continued its seduction. When she absently brought the eyeshadow brush to her lips she felt a giggle threatening to erupt from the dark cavern of her soul. And she thought that couldn’t be possible because her soul never permitted laughter. Never permitted laughter. So when the first giggle escaped her lips, she reeled around because she thought someone was in the tiny bathroom with her. But when she realized that the only intruder was the new sound of her unfamiliar laughter, she laughed even harder.
And she thought about the 80’s. Jordache and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, ankle boots, patent leather, the Izod alligator, and…blue eyeshadow. And she laughed and thought if she could go back in time, hell yeah she would have been a teenager in the 80s! But this only made her laugh even harder, because she knew she would never have that opportunity and she’d have to settle for the present. And for once, she was okay with that.
Copyright: This written work is the original and fully copyrighted work of Joi Maria. You may not use this work without written permission.