This Is Going to Sting

Sarah Kalsbeek


Abby, your eyebrow artist, is perched over your face as you wobble on the stool. She squints at your flaky skin and suggests you exfoliate. She says this every time you see her, which these days is once every three weeks because you’ve determined that a well-kept brow boosts your confidence more than most things you’ve tried. You’ve never consciously calculated how much you spend on this, but of course the number ($400 a year) finds a way to slink by. You debate telling Abby, again, that you cannot exfoliate. That your doctor, when she diagnosed you, said do not exfoliate. That, when your husband’s snores wake you at night, the first thing you check is your cheeks, praying that they haven’t become red and inflamed in your sleep. Even though you never exfoliate.
       As she’s smearing concealer with her cold fingertips, masking the skin where she just ripped hot wax off your flesh, Abby asks what product you use to fill in your brows. You take a deep breath–Abby smells like tart blueberries, sharp and sweet–and proudly announce that you’ve been using the Magic Allure Brow Wand.
       She jumps back, shocked.
       You could remind her that she sold you the Magic Allure last month. Instead you are quietly mortified, thinking of all you’ve done with Magic Allure Eyebrows since then. Work presentations, a preschool fundraiser, a condo board meeting. Oh lord, you think. Twice you came on to your husband and he had politely ignored you.
       Abby recommends a new pencil. Just in, she says. She abandons you on the stool, brow still tingling.

When you get home, the apartment is quiet. You shout hello and get no response from your husband, who probably has headphones in. Your three-year-old shouts that he can’t greet you because he’s very busy. It’s your husband’s week to make dinner, which means it is your week to work late, but you come home in time to eat with them anyway. You tell yourself that this is more important than a raise. Which you’d probably just hand over to Abby anyway.
       You head for your bedroom and toss your new pencil in a small drawer, where it clatters against the various eyebrow weaponry that Abby has sold you: wands, brushes, vessels, ampules, pans filled with powders, gels, creams, cream-gels, mousses, pomades. After a pause, you pluck the pencil back out and remove the drawer. You turn it upside down over the waste basket. Most of the contents spill on to the floor; you’ll pick them up later. You slide the drawer back into place. There. Now there’s room for the other things on your mental wish list. Cult favorites culled from the internet–the French sunscreen that won’t irritate your face, a lotus flower plumping gloss for your thin lips, slender neon disposable razors to shave off your peach fuzz, the honey-mint-algae-oatmeal-cactus-flower moisturizing protein mask for your uncontrollable hair frizz.
       You saunter into the kitchen to show off your freshly drawn brows. Your husband is washing vegetables; your son is building a puzzle at his feet. You face them. You are wearing a new dress from that fashion subscription service dedicated to pear-shaped bodies. The dress is way too sexy for work, but you know your husband will like it. He’ll raise his own eyebrows when he sees it, and that will be worth the delivery fee.
       You wiggle your forehead at him. His eyes stay pinned on the kale he is drowning in the sink. You shift on your feet. You put your hand on your hip. You shake out your hair. You move slightly to the left. To the right. You do a twirl. You wave your arms in the air.
       Finally, he looks at you. He doesn’t take out his headphones, but he mouths hey and smiles, and your three-year-old gazes up and says, beautiful, mama!
       Back in your bedroom, you stand in front of the closet mirror. The new dress is on the floor. You are in the lacy underwear you wore to work today (you read somewhere that you’ll always feel confident if you wear sexy panties). Your eyebrows seem to have changed in the time you walked to the kitchen and back. Too wide, too dark, too obviously penciled in. You are bewildered by this transformation, when what you see in the mirror mutates from one moment to the next. Dark powder fallout, which you hadn’t noticed before, dusts your cheekbones. You brush it away and see that your cheeks are freshly broken out with red bumps, painful to the touch. A flare-up. Could be from anything. The spicy hot sauce on your lunch. The walk you took in the sun. The stressful email from your boss at four o’clock. You are at a loss. When your seventy-year-old dermatologist told you, There’s no cure, but I happen to like rosy cheeks, it made you want to slap her suspiciously smooth face.
       One by one, you pick up the eyebrow tools from the floor. As you put them back in the drawer, your three-year-old slides into the room and sees you standing there, nearly naked. He pauses, unsure, considering the sight. He is curious and bright and not used to you being in the apartment without giving him your undivided attention.
       He says, Can I touch you?
       The question weirds you out, of course, but his pediatrician warned you that kids say strange things, and you don’t want him to get some sort of complex about bodies and being naked by shooing him away. 
       Also, he did ask for permission. 
       This could be some sort of critical teaching moment.
       But all you can say is, Why don’t you go play with your trains, buddy? He runs off, and you feel guilty because you’ve been ignoring him for fifteen minutes, and the only time you get alone with him during the week is this half an hour before dinner. You wait until you hear the gentle clacking of wheels on track, then you take out your phone. Just one more minute, you tell yourself. You want to scrutinize others’ eyebrows; you want to see where you’ve gone wrong.
       You’ve spent a lot of time researching #bodypositivity, so your feed is full of images of young women, flawlessly styled, smiling under wide-brimmed hats. They walk on beaches, stand in exotic doorways, pose on cobblestone streets.
       You pause at the photo of a woman wearing a sunshine-yellow dress. The dress is so short it might actually be a shirt. She is standing between two palm trees, eating a ruby red popsicle. Her head is tilted. One arm is lifted high, braced against the tree. You scroll through the other photos in her account. Gorgeous, you think, in awe of every line and curve, every inch of skin, every bikini, every exposed leg. Who takes these photos? Who in her life has the patience? A familiar panic vibrates between your lungs. If you ate a red popsicle against a palm tree, and there was no one around to see, would you be beautiful?
       #Everybodybeautiful, the comments decree. #Loveyourself. It’s like a command. Here, in this fairy-tale space where every woman sees each other and loves themselves, you feel cornered. You scan the photo of the woman in yellow again and make mental additions to your list. Master the perfect red lip. Try spray tanning. Find a palm tree. Lean against it. You sense that you aren’t getting the point.
       You approach the mirror again, studying your thighs. Something just seems wrong. Suddenly, you remember that you have a Brazilian wax scheduled during your lunch hour tomorrow. You hiss at your reflection, because you’ve already spent a shit-ton of money this month, and it will take longer than an hour to get there and back. You’ll have to figure out how to explain the prolonged absence to your boss.
       Your husband calls for dinner. It’s too early, you think angrily, but then you glance at the clock to see he’s right on time. He should at least have given you a five-minute warning.
       You seethe as you attempt to corral your son, who screams at you. Apparently, his trains have one more delivery to make. I need more time! he says. His shrieks are ear-splitting. You scold him, perhaps a bit harshly. Perhaps a bit loudly. You are being unreasonable. You know this. Your husband steps in to whisk the little boy away to wash hands. You stomp off to put on some pants. They giggle as they splash water on each other.

Delia, your esthetician, stands above you, waiting. Oh, right, you say, and place your hands on your lower abdomen, stretching your skin upward. You wait for the familiar rhythm of her work against your body: heat, harden, rip, sting, heat, harden, rip, sting. It’s not as bad as it used to be. As she works, Delia asks if you ever get your eyebrows waxed, and you say, Yes, just yesterday. She turns to you, surprised, and comments on how natural they look, which you think is interesting and mildly annoying and shattering to your self-esteem.
       Delia says, Well, if you ever want to get them done here, I do brows, too. Then she glances at you and adds, Lip, chin, anything you need.
       And you aren’t sure how you feel about that. Soon she’ll be spreading hot wax in your ass crack. Do you want her to then wax your face? You’re being silly. Sure, you say to Delia. Next time.
       On your way back to the office, you walk along the river, cursing yourself for wearing scratchy lace underwear instead of a loose cotton pair. It’s too cold for October, and there’s another once-in-a-decade snowstorm on the way, but still the tourists swarm, wrapped inadequately in drab coats and scarves. Everyone looks a little miserable.
       Ahead, through the pedestrian mass, you see a flash of color. Something bright purple and out of place. As you approach, you see it is a woman in a crop top with puffy short sleeves. She is wearing skin-tight jeans, high-waisted over her full hips. A narrow band of her stomach is exposed to the wind that whips around the skyscrapers, but she doesn’t seem to care. She is seated on the stone railing that looks over the river. Legs crossed; feet pointed. She’s staring out at…what?
       Then you see a man standing in front of her, a phone poised in front of his face. He is dressed like everyone else on the sidewalk, in a black windbreaker and dark jeans. You try to size him up (because, you know, it’s not fair to ogle at her full hips but not come up with a good descriptor for his). But you can’t take your eyes off her. She’s stunning.
       He smiles and speaks to her. She runs to him, giggling, and checks the phone. You suck in a sharp breath of cold air. It burns your lungs.
       An influencer, you whisper. You stop to watch.
       The woman bounces back to the balustrade. This time she leans against it, one foot on the ground, one pulled up, toes pointed like a ballerina, knee curved inward. The pose looks uncomfortable, but eye-catching. The man peers around at the passersby, his smile tightening, and you sense, maybe, a hint of embarrassment. Then his attention is back on her. He raises his phone again, and she tosses her hair. Pose. At some unseen signal from him, she pops back up and retrieves a huge cream-colored scarf from a bag on the sidewalk. She wraps it around herself for a moment (pose), then moves over to a blue bicycle that you hadn’t seen until now. She drapes the scarf on the seat and bends over the bike.
       Pose. Pose. Pose.
       Then they seem to be finished. She moves back to the man’s side and leans against him. He wraps an arm around her, running his fingers through her hair.
       Inevitably, because you are stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, you hear someone swear at you to move out of the way. It is a woman in a camel-colored trench coat and heels, probably on her way back to work from lunch. The businesswoman doesn’t look at the influencer couple as she passes them. Only you seem to notice them, out of this city of moving people. The man is examining the photos, smiling, pointing. He thinks she’s beautiful, you say to yourself. And then, as if on cue, he turns to tell her she’s beautiful. At least you think that’s what he says. Your heart jumps.

That evening, you stand naked in the closet, tweezing the pubic hairs that Delia somehow missed. You once read an article that claimed the average British woman spends £23,000 on hair removal in her lifetime. You never did bother to convert that to American dollars. Maybe you aren’t approaching this like everybody else. Maybe you should try laser removal. Though you can’t afford both that and the weekly manicures your boss suggested (after seeing your bloody cuticles at a work event). How does anyone keep up with all of this? You wonder if #bodypositivity extends to pubic hair acceptance. No, never mind. That’s a different hashtag.
       You hear giggling in the other room. The roars of a father-son dinosaur battle. It warms you as you listen, but soon a cold finger drives into your chest. There is a limit to the amount of physical attention your husband can give another living thing in a single day. And it should be for your son. Of course, it should. You should be out there too, using up your own reservoir. You are a young(ish) mother. You are supposed to feel touched out.
       You look at yourself again in the mirror. There is a new patch of flaking skin on your forehead, another on your chin. The top of your hair is brittle, gray strands peeking through. But, hey, the underside is soft. Does your husband know this? In all your years together, you can’t remember him ever touching your hair. Isn’t that funny, you think. You hold a strand of this soft under-hair and rub it between your fingers. There’s a community you’ve found online, practitioners of the Curly Girl Method, and you’ve stalked their video tutorials and discussion threads to come up with a list of hair care products, which you can start testing as soon as you have a minute to figure out what type of curls you have (2c, 3a?) and your porosity (low or high?).
       You examine your hands, turn them over. The skin is thinning, the veins protruding more each day. Is there something you can do about that? You feel a rising fear of losing something before you’ve nailed it down. Wait, you murmur. Please wait.
       You return to the mirror. Focus.
       Right now, your hair has formed two perfect ringlet curls framing your face. Your ass isn’t all that bad if you bend over just so. And your small boobs are super perky, and perky is cute, right? Look at that, your eyebrows are spot on.
       And so, at dinner you boldly wink at your husband. You hint that maybe later he’d want to check out your new Brazilian. Then you remember that you aren’t supposed to have sex for a good 24 hours after a wax. Damn it.
       But it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t get the hint. He tells your son to stop eating with his fingers. Then he complains about the huge burrito he ate for lunch. His stomach hurts. So. He did get your hint.
       Not interested.
       Once your kid is asleep and while your husband is still in the kitchen, you lie in bed. You take matters into your own hands.
       Because #loveyourself.
       You’ve barely started when you sense a vibration. It’s coming from somewhere deep, but you recognize it. A ball of panic, small and compact, which has been there for a while, quivering quietly. Now, it’s starting to rattle itself free, until, unexpectedly, it’s loose inside of you. It whizzes around like a comet, trailing crackling particles of anxiety behind it, bouncing against your stomach, your bowels. Stop for a second, you tell it, and it does stop. You examine it as it trembles somewhere near your spleen. It’s nothing much, really. A need. A fear. It’s searching for a way to prove that you were here, and that someone noticed. That someone, just once, said, wow. It is a petty and melancholy little thing, your personal ball of panic, but its triviality makes it feel all the heavier, because you know it matters only to you. No one else gives a shit about this jumpy imaginary sphere of yours. Everyone else has too many other things—big things, real things—to worry about. You try to worry about the big things, too. The things you read about in the news. Things greater than your own longing, your own obsessions. But the big things make you think of your son on this crumbling planet (someday without you), and it shakes you so hard that your teeth start to hurt, and your ears start to ring.
       As you touch yourself, feeling sorry for yourself, you think well, this is going to take me a while.
       But it doesn’t take you very long at all. Evidently, you were already turned on at dinner thinking, just maybe, your husband would fuck you tonight. The oxytocin and endorphins start to flood you (alongside a good dose of relief, because you are eager to get this over with and join the handsome, kind man in the kitchen and lean into his shoulder and smell his clean familiar scent).
       But then something odd happens.
       You start crying.
       You bite your lip and clench your eyes shut, trying to stop yourself from sobbing, but the tears rush out anyway, the salt stinging your rosacea-raw cheeks, rolling down your chin, your neck, soaking the collar of your t-shirt. Fascinating, some part of you observes. You are coming and weeping at the same time. And it lasts for a good bit. The ball of panic vibrates, scaring you, thrilling you. At first the weight of your body is heavy against the mattress, but the more you cry, the lighter you feel, and you can feel your mind clearing, too, like you are squeezing water from a cloth, and you think more, more, you need to press out more, until you are empty and dry.
       Finally, you are drained. The last of your sobs echo inside of you. Your body is cavernous.
       You think, that was weird.
       But, actually, it felt pretty good.
       And you are still feeling good from your cry-gasm as you march into the kitchen. Your husband has his headphones back in, but the moment you see him, you worry that he heard you in the bedroom.
       Because he looks right at you.
       And he says, What the hell happened to your face?
       You raise an eyebrow at him, but he just stares, so you look in the mirror that hangs above the dining table. It seems you have clenched your face so tightly that you burst a bunch of blood vessels under your left eye. You press on the tender skin above your cheek.
       What is it? he says.
       I don’t know, you say. You laugh.
       You leave him washing dishes and step into your bathroom. You open the drawers, the cabinet, surveying their contents, your dominion of bottles and tubes. You pull out a $50 exfoliating scrub that Abby recommended last year, which you bought before you were diagnosed with an incurable dermatological condition. You never used it because your dermatologist told you not to, but the flakes around your nose and cheeks are taunting you. You can see them dancing in the breeze coming from the air vent. Under your eye, the speckled swath of burst blood vessels sparkles and shimmies in the glow of bathroom vanity’s light.
       And you say, fuck it. You unscrew the cap and lift out a globbing handful of the stuff. You rub it on your nose, gently at first, then harder, trying to get the flakes to come off. You can feel the sharp particles suspended in the creamy emulsion. You spread it to your forehead, attacking the wrinkles and milia. Caused by sun damage. And your temples, making sure to go all the way up to the hairline. Then down to your cheeks, rough and tender. Don’t forget your chin, which you can tell is about to erupt with cystic acne. Perhaps the scrub will prevent it, you think, so you keep going. Even though you know the scrub won’t really help (cystic acne is caused by hormones). Even though the scrub is expensive (you are using about $10 of it in just this one go). Even though you know that both the product and the rubbing are going to aggravate your rosacea (your skin is already starting to sting). Even though you sense that tomorrow you will likely (definitely) be left sore and raw and fully red in the face.

Sarah Kalsbeek writes fiction in the early morning hours and spends the rest of the day working in fundraising for a medical school. She received her MFA from Northwestern University, where she also served as a fiction editor for TriQuarterly. She lives in Chicago.