Danny watches as Ruth upends the bags from the vintage shop onto her bed: a pillbox hat, a tangle of colorful, musty-smelling scarves; costume jewelry with giant yellow beads and oversized rhinestones; a wrinkled blouse with a pattern of trapeze artists; and a book called Teen-Age Glamor by Adah Broadbent. On the cover is a drawing of a teen-age girl, stylized in the manner of 1950s magazine illustration: she stands before a mirror, wearing a party dress with a puffy skirt and a gigantic bow emphasizing her tiny waist. She is about to apply lipstick, but her eyes appear to be closed, as if in bliss. One foot, in a kitten-heeled pump, is extended in a balletic pose. Danny studies the illustration and turns the book over to look at the photos of the illustrator and author who, the bio explains, “teaches in Ohio’s largest high school and is also a popular lecturer on color and charm.” The author photo shows a handsome woman, laughing, her head tilted upwards at a confident angle.
“Sit there,” Ruth instructs Danny, gesturing towards a vanity crowded with makeup implements and nail polish bottles. Danny sits reluctantly, avoiding a glimpse of his own face in the mirror: pudgy cheeks and double chin; small, close-set eyes; hair that is neither curly nor straight and always unkempt. He sighs and sits slumped at an awkward angle, while Ruth opens Teen-Age Glamor. She begins reading aloud from the chapter on accessories. “Scarves,” she announces: “In frigid cold or tropical sunshine, luxurious fur or sheer chiffon, they have given an elusive air of mystery and enchantment.” They raise their eyebrows at one another, delighting in the quaintness of these words, and Danny plucks one of the scarves from the pile—a souvenir scarf from Paris with a pattern of poodles and Eiffel Towers. He drapes it loosely around his neck, drawing himself up a little straighter. Mystery and enchantment, he thinks.
Danny turns towards the mirror and adjusts the scarf, looking past his own reflection to see Ruth, sitting on the bed, absorbed in the book. Behind Ruth, he catches sight of another figure, a woman with short, dark hair, dressed demurely in a cream-colored suit with a collared white shirt beneath it. This older woman sits daintily on the edge of the bed, her legs crossed at the ankles, beaming at him. It takes him a moment to realize: it is the author of Teen-Age Glamor, Adah Broadbent. Ruth continues to study the book, while Adah Broadbent recites the text from memory: “Off-the shoulder or low-necked evening dresses require something ethereal and glamorous around your shoulders to create a beguiling picture.” Ethereal and glamorous, he thinks. Danny pulls off the Paris scarf and chooses a gauzy black one, patterned with pink and white roses.
Ruth puts down the book and steps forward, looking at him in the mirror. His skin tingles as she rearranges the scarf to hang more evenly, selects a strand of white beads, and fastens it around his neck. He feels Ruth’s hands gently brushing his hair, tucking it behind his ears, and fixing it with a bobby pin. All the while, he can see Adah Broadbent in the mirror, looking on with a smile of blessing. The author continues reciting: “Most important, accessories should emphasize your outstanding feature.” He wants to ask what his outstanding feature is, because he believes his features are remarkable only in their ugliness and capacity to disappoint. “Your eyes,” Adah Broadbent says in response to his question, even though he hasn’t asked it.
He feels Ruth’s hand underneath his chin, tipping it slightly upwards, and the lipstick moistening his lips as she applies it. She places the pillbox hat on his head, and pulls the black lace veil down, tickling his upper lip. Ruth steps back to admire the effects, nods. “Off you go!” Adah Broadbent chirps. He stands up suddenly, startling Ruth. He doesn’t know where to go, but understands that he must go out into the world and allow himself to be seen.
“Wait,” Ruth tells him, and holds up her phone to take a photo.
In the photo, Danny sees his own image: a glamorous woman whose eyes glint from beneath her lace veil, her lips curled just slightly in an ironic, knowing smile. This woman has a devil-may-care attitude; she holds her chin up defiantly. Danny laughs, a sound that mingles disbelief and wonder and embarrassment. “See?” Ruth says. “Beguiling.”
When he follows Ruth out of the room, he has to stop himself from glancing backwards to see Adah Broadbent. But Danny knows Adah is watching him. He assumes a model’s haughtily erect posture and flings the end of the scarf behind him with—the phrase comes to him—an air of insouciance. As he and Ruth leave, Danny hears Adah laugh approvingly and recite one more line: “Insouciance is glamor, and glamor is your very being.”
Sandie Friedman teaches academic writing at George Washington University. Her essays and fiction have appeared in publications including Atticus Review, Construction, Mutha, The Nonconformist, The Nervous Breakdown, New Flash Fiction Review, and The Rumpus. With her husband, Bobby Miller, she publishes a project combining microfiction and photography: sandiebobby.com.