Fiction Friday: The Lipstick Chronicles, Adventures in Retail Cosmetics

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Each Friday I’ll be posting a new installment of the Lipstick Chronicles. This is the pilot. Follow Jennifer, a third generation Japanese-American single mother, as she navigates the perilous waters of the retail cosmetics world in a Southern California mall. 

“Can you pick a lipstick for me?”

Jennifer turned around and peered over the black unit stacked high with lipsticks to see a middle-aged, razor thin, rat-faced woman with slick, dark hair. Her accent was distinctly New York, which was not unusual in Southern California. New Yorkers moved out and, after decades of residency, held onto their accent as a point of pride.

“What color did you have in mind?” She asked the woman.

“Neutral. Isn’t that what’s in this season?”

Jennifer held up a brown one. “Here’s a nice neutral.”

“Every lipstick I own looks like that. Pick another one.”

“Is there a certain look you had in mind?”

“You’re the professional. You tell me what would look best for my skin tone.”

“OK, how about this one?” Jennifer held up a soft pink.

The woman let out a sigh of disgust and pointed at another. “I said NEW-trall,” She stretched her mouth around the word as if Jennifer was the moron. “What about this one?” She pointed at a dark shade.

“Ma’am, that one is red.”

“No it’s not.”

Jennifer held it up for her to see the color written on the bottom of the tube. “Red,” she said.

“Well then, pick one for me.” The woman demanded.

“Ma’am, I don’t know what you already have in your collection. If you could offer some assistance I might be better able to help you.”

“Don’t get sassy with me, young lady. I’m the paying customer. Isn’t this what you do? Aren’t you capable of picking out a simple lipstick? Don’t they teach you how to do that in makeup school?”

Jennifer smiled. “This one is perfect for you.” She held up Blue Mocha, the lipstick for dummies, the one the girls selected to make the most difficult customers go away. It had an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of effect. It looked good on almost everyone because it barely had any color. All people saw then, was their own lip color with a bit of gloss. Not too sticky. Not too color-y.

The rat-faced woman put it on and worked it into her lips. “Is it long-wearing?”

“It has a patented hydration technology. Long-wearing lip colors are drying. The hydration is a particular benefit as we head into winter.”

That seemed to satisfy the woman. She was dry as hell. “I’ll take it.”

“Cocoa Moon Dust is the perfect liner for that.”

“I’ll take that too.”

“Great, I’ll meet you at the cash wrap down at the end here.” Jennifer pointed to the register to her left past the mirrored shelves of foundation bottles and multi-colored eye shadows.

Lipstick customers were the highest maintenance, lowest return on her investment of time and energy. Lipstick customers wanted to treat themselves, but usually didn’t want to or didn’t have the thirty or so dollars to spend on a lipstick. Yet, they’d convinced themselves, that for the perfect lipstick, it was worth it.

But “perfect” was as illusive as a fairy tale ending, the very thing, incidentally, the cosmetic industry trafficked in.

Every season launched “The Same But Different!” Every Christmas was “More Sparkle! More Chocolate! More Burgundy!” Every Spring and Summer was, “More Nude!” And if more of the same wasn’t enough, just add more in general. This season the look was clumpy, gloppy, stiff and sloppy mascara. In other words, make your lashes look as gross as possible. No kidding. The sticks stomping down the New York runways looked like they had spiders growing out of their eyes.

Amelia, Jennifer’s co-worker waved her down. A blonde, heavy-set customer with dark-rimmed glasses stood at the counter frowning impatiently. This was the woman who tried to return a foundation that was two thirds empty because she thought it had gotten old. When Jennifer had refused, this person went all the way to the store manager, who took it back. Since than Jennifer took everything back, even products from other stores, just to spite the store manager.

“Oh god, kill me now,” Jennifer said passing Amelia.

“Yeah, good luck with that one,” Amelia said.

Jennifer approached beaming a big smile. “Hi!” she chirpped. “What can I get for you today? Would you like a foundation? Maybe I can match you to make sure it’s new!”

Amelia let out an audible gasp. The heavy-set woman’s mouth dropped open. “Is your manager here?!” She huffed.

“Sure. Probably. Let me get her for you.” She left the counter. Amelia followed her.

“Oh my god, girl. Why do you keep doing shit like this? You’re so going to get yourself fired.”

“It’s fine. Who’s on?”

“Sandra.”

“Great. Then I have nothing to worry about.”

“Jesus, Jennifer. You can’t count on that.”

Jennifer opened the door to the manager’s office. Sandra was at her desk. “Sandy, can you come see a customer? She’s that one who returned the empty foundation. Do you remember her?”

“How could I forget?” Sandra rolled her eyes. “You need me for this?”

“She wants to feel special.”

Sandra sighed and got up shaking her head.

“I owe you,” Jennifer smiled.

“Yeah, ya do.” Sandra said and marched passed her.

9 thoughts on “Fiction Friday: The Lipstick Chronicles, Adventures in Retail Cosmetics

  1. A great, disgusting piece. Cannot wait for next installment!! Saw Maria Shriver reporting on the Today show the other day: Her false eyelashes were so long, heavy, and dark that – – I’m not exaggerating – – her eyes did not open all the way. She could have done with some neck work, I must say, but seems to have invested in something less expensive. Startling. Will look forward to your next installment. It gets me thinking about writing a behind-the-scenes New Year’s Day Rose Parade story, but a woman host loathing her male co-host for 33 years might be transparent enough to bring a libel suit to my door. I’ll get a boost from reading your story instead. 🙂 Mark says you’ve written a really fine libretto – – I am so eager to see the piece. I hope you can go for the premier in November. hugs and love, s >

    1. Aww thanks! You bet I’m going! We’ll be artists in residence that week. Very lofty indeed. Well, it’s too bad you can’t write that book on the parade. It would be hilarious. Much we need to discuss.

  2. Oh I do like this! The adverts here in the UK are flaunting some weird mascara that is exactly as you describe. Its meant to give you the “sultry come hither look”. All I could think was no wonder its sultry, the damn thing is so thick you can’t open your eyes!

  3. I worked retail for years — thankfully not cosmetics — but I recognize that dynamic. It’s a challenge! Have fun writing about it. My “favorite” customers were the mother/daughter duos I silently referred to as “bitch and bitch in training.”

    1. Oh my god. I’ve worked in retail all over the country and seen it everywhere. Why? because people are people. Those stories are coming. 🙂 Hope you stay tuned.

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