Maybelline has a way with men.
I’ve tried to pick it up by watching her in the restaurant where we both work, how she presents the bill to her customers with a little flourish. “Thank you!” she writes on the bill in her large flamboyant script and then a winking smiley face “Love, Maybelline” she adds. Sometimes she’ll shorten her name to “Maybe”. Men like her light flirty air – Maybe Babe they call her – rolling the thrill of its suggestiveness on their tongues. Then again, everything about her is suggestive. Well Mummy thought so when she and Daddy had dinner at the restaurant one night. Her eyes followed Maybelline around surreptitiously all evening; Daddy of course didn’t spare Maybelline so much as a glance; that would be risking too much.
I’m not like Maybelline.
“Your flatmate’s quite something, isn’t she?” Mummy says later her voice steeped in disapproval as I’m removing their plates and Daddy has gone to the bathroom. And I know immediately she means Maybelline’s aura of allure, how she carries her perfect round breasts before her like ripe fruit offerings, half bared to view, the artfully careless way her hair falls, covering one dark, heavily shadowed eye, the swinging curve of her hips as she scoops the plates up in a smooth graceful arabesque as she passes, the red half-smile, teasing, hiding. Of course she doesn’t actually say any of these things but it’s what she means all the same.
I shrug dismissively and carry the plates away. Do I plod? I feel heavy.
“She’s ok.” I reply when I return. “She’s got a lot of boyfriends.” I don’t add “unlike me”. But Mummy hears it anyway.
“Saaandra,” she says reproachfully “You’ll have plenty of time for all that after your studies. You’re doing so well!” She frowns. As if “all that” might be an infection I’m in danger of catching.
“Mmmm” I say.
”So these boyfriends of Maybelline’s. Do you ever see them? Do they come to the flat?” There’s a repressed but eager shine in Mummy’s eyes.
I wonder what she would say if she could see Maybelline’s bedroom. Next to the elegant restraint of my neat and orderly cream and white bed, the smart oak desk, the pale beige carpet, Maybelline’s room is shocking. I remember peeking into her room for the first time while she was out, just after she’d moved in. I caught a glimpse of a scarlet four poster bed draped with hangings, a lamp hung with bright orange fringes, numerous candles, the bed cover dizzy with dazzling embroidery and tiny Indian mirrors, before hastily shutting the door. My heart pounded with guilt and furtive pleasure. It was as if I had seen a forbidden shimmering mirage. As if I’d slipped through a crack into a larger reality, more dangerously vivid and alive than my own and then instantly retreated into something small and narrow. And safe.
Mummy is looking at me expectantly, curious.
“Oh!” I catch myself. “Sometimes. They’re really good looking guys, they come to fetch her in their fancy cars. To go dancing at clubs, I think.” I’m embellishing a bit, wanting to live up to the hidden eagerness in her eyes, provoke it into showing itself openly. The cars haven’t been that fancy really; once there was a Merc convertible and the men are more slick and self-assured than handsome. I don’t tell her that I hear them coming back together in the early hours of the morning, that I hear their stifled laughter followed by hot silences through the thin partition wall between our bedrooms. I don’t tell her about the sweat-saturated cries which drag me out of my cool virgin sleep, my neatly buttoned up tamped down envy.
And then Daddy comes back and we both know this isn’t for his ears.
How could I have guessed everything would change?
One late Saturday afternoon there is a knock at the door. Maybelline is in her room getting ready to go to work and I am fuzzy with studying on the sofa. Thinking this can only be one of her men, I stumble up to answer the door.
As I expect, a man stands there. But he’s nothing like Maybelline’s usual sleekly groomed and suavely dressy boys. He is a stolid looking man, sunburned from working outdoors and wearing an ordinary checked shirt and jeans. His hands are calloused red and rough, his expression earnest yet guarded. He looks at me uncertainly. I hear Maybelline clipping behind me in her high heels, coming to see who it is.
“Is … is … Marie here?” he’s hesitant, softly spoken, almost shy.
“Sorry. I think you’ve got the wrong flat. There’s no Marie here.” I begin to close the door when he catches sight of Maybelline. His eyes widen in shock and strangely, relief.
“Marie! Marie! Please … Marie …” His voice is now hoarse and urgent and he pushes past me towards Maybelline. Maybelline, who has turned white beneath her makeup, whose open cherry red lips now gape soundless as a wound against the sudden pallor of her skin, can only stare at this stranger with a look of horror in her eyes. He doesn’t dare touch her, only stands before her. Mute, beseeching.
“Maybelline? Do you know this guy? What’s going on, Maybelline?” I’m confused, afraid, feeling out of my depth.
“It’s alright Sandra.” Maybelline’s voice is raw, skinless. “This is Hendrik.” Her eyes glint bright with grief. “My husband”.
“Come back, Marie, please,” Hendrik says quietly.
A panic-stricken rebellious expression flares across Maybelline’s face and she makes a desperate sideways move, a last minute futile attempt to escape, to run away. “Marie!” he implores. “The children!” She stops suddenly, still turned away, as if he has stabbed her, cut her down. “They really miss you, they really miss their mother!”
And Maybelline breathes out, in tiny tearing gasps, her life torn into bits with every breath.
I contemplate myself in the mirror in her room. I’m wearing her gold sequinned top. She left all her furniture and clothes behind – said I could have them, that she’d never have a use for them where she was going. The top is tight fitting and cut much lower than Mummy would like but I’m going to wear it anyway. I pick up an eyeliner I’ve found on her dresser and begin to shade my eyelids in dark glittery smoke-coloured smudges. Maybelline it says on the side.
‘One tasteful beige and cream room to let,’ I say to myself softly, trying out the words.