It was one of those startling moments once you reach “a certain age.” To be ogled and then approached so unabashedly. Effie thought she had been able to put that cringe element of youth—specifically, of being a girl in her youth—behind her now that she had entered her forties. Three years into the decade that marked the gradual but steady decline, she assumed that she bore the “stink” of age or something. Some ineffable aura (“ineffable Effie,” as her father used to relish calling her when she was in her teens) that would keep men at bay from now on. Yet, for some reason, not this one.
Granted, Effie didn’t feel as though she should be too flattered. He was an old lech. He had to be somewhere in his early sixties or late seventies. At least. Maybe he couldn’t even properly see, if she was being honest with herself—which she so rarely was these days. She applied delusion as regularly as the moisturizer that seemed to be doing fuck-all. But at the same time, she did actually tend to enjoy the cloak of invisibility that came with being an “older” woman. Because it meant she never really had to worry about how she looked; it was no longer “relevant.” Because relevancy, in this society, still meant being visible to a man. Yet by not being so, Effie somehow felt more confidently herself than she ever had during the era of her “bloom”—as someone foul and pedophilic like Nabokov might so grossly put it.
So yes, she had grown comfortable in her obscurity. That’s why, when the old man stopped her with a blatant once-over of a stare in the grocery store to give her a compliment about her beauty, she stood there dumbly for several seconds before processing that it really was her that he was addressing. “Oh,” she said. “Thank you.” Because that’s what you’re supposed to say, isn’t it? Not that you’ve been made to feel extremely awkward. Instead, gratitude is the expected response to such “fawning.”
Effie wasn’t sure what else could be offered to this man, what more could be stated. She wanted desperately to just walk away, but knew full well she didn’t have the gumption to be so rude. Oh, how she wished to be as gutsy and unbothered as one of Barbara Stanwyck’s characters. But she could only study under the “dame,” without ever actually learning anything about how to employ the methods for herself.
Ostensibly wanting to keep the conversation going, the aged man asked, with genuine interest, “Are you a student?” He was confident with this question, at first. But then, as though examining her face more closely through the transparent lenses of her sunglasses, decided that she couldn’t possibly be. She was too “old.” Or at least, too visibly wizened. Even if one could be a student at any age “these days.” The question was likely posed because they lived in a university town, and few people chose to inhabit it if they were not somehow affiliated with the school, whether as teacher, student or some profession that fit in the cracks between (administrative, lunch lady, landscape maintenance, etc.). But Effie didn’t fall into these categories, just as she had never fallen neatly into any category before in her life. Why start now? At this point, the perpetual challenge that posed to her felt baseline “normal.”
What didn’t, however, was anybody ever bothering to notice her, to stop her and say, “How nice you look.” Another of the compliments freely and gratuitously thrown out by this old man. It was enough to make Effie question if perhaps he had a light touch of dementia. Yet, somehow, she couldn’t deny that she was flattered by it, meaningless as it became when he walked away slowly and then stopped in his tracks again for Effie to hear him swooning over a different woman. When she looked back to see who it was, she was half-expecting to see someone even older. But no, it was actually a right proper college student. Some girl who had caked her face full of makeup—heavy blush, too much eye makeup, dramatic lip liner that was deliberately mismatched against her lip color.
Effie had to chortle to herself as she scurried away, feeling as though she had witnessed something she wasn’t meant to. She couldn’t tell if she should be insulted or somehow feel special that she had “made the cut” for the old man’s arbitrary “stop and compliment” gambit. What she started to think about even more than that as she continued to push her sad, empty shopping cart along was how strange it was that makeup looked better on younger skin. Well, not strange, so much as another unfair advantage of youth. What the fuck did they need makeup for with all that supple skin? There was no need of covering anything. Even pimples felt like a badge of honor that proved one’s youth. What Effie wouldn’t give to pop a pimple right now, in fact, as a means of stress release.
Continuing to stalk the aisles for another few minutes before ducking behind a display of canned soup to hide from the old man presently venturing in her direction again, Effie opted to leave. Flee, more like it. Her mind was frazzled anyway, especially thinking about how there went the only grocery store in town she could shop at. She would have to start frequenting the store one town over if she wanted to be certain to avoid ever having another run-in with this appraising apparition. She didn’t think she could bear the idea of another ultimately disingenuous compliment.
When Effie arrived back at her house, she went rotely to the bathroom, opened up the bottom drawer and proceeded to remove all of the makeup she had abandoned inside of it long ago. Taking out each brush, she used them all, one by one, to paint her face in eyeshadow and blush, looking very much the clown. With the tears streaming down her face to match.