Everything is mirrors. The legs of the vanity, the vanity itself, the pullout stool. The drawers, drawer pulls, the ivy planters on both ends. The three adjustable face-mirrors that recess behind beveled mirror frames.
Audrey wears her green velvet robe. It grazes her green carpet and matches her green drapes. A broad lace collar frames her face. When she perches on the stool we are almost the same height. I stand behind her to the left. That way I can watch from every angle. I can see her reflection in all three face-mirrors and see the real her too, her flesh-and-blood profile closest to me. I can see four different views of my mother simultaneously. Sometimes, when she adjusts the mirrors, I can see thousands of her, each face nesting a slightly smaller face. The lace vee of her robe gets tiny, tinier, smaller than a stamp, until it vanishes.
“Is there a word for that?” I ask.
“Phantasmagoria, darling,” my mother says.
The mirrored drawers store her tools. The left drawer holds hair-grooming aids: a tortoiseshell comb, her rat tail, a brush, clips, bobby pins, hairpins, brown rubber curlers, perforated aluminum ones. In the middle drawer, she keeps her creams, tonics and astringents. (Soap is the enemy. She does not wash her face. Water touches it only when she swims.) A blue and white box of Kleenex, the cellophane tube of Co-ets (quilted disposable cotton pads), her tweezers, cuticle scissors and emery boards that are made, she has told me, out of crushed garnets, her birthstone. The right-hand drawer (she is right-handed) organizes makeup and—separated from everything else, in its own compartment, her eyelash curler.
Everybody tells me my mother is beautiful. The butcher tells me. The dentist, the doormen, my teachers, cab drivers gaping at her in the rearview mirror as they worry the wheel. Friends from school, friends from camp, camp counselors, the hostess at Schrafft’s. The cashier at Rappaport’s and the pharmacist at Whelan’s, where we get Vicks VapoRub for growing pains. At Indian Walk, the salesman measures my feet for Mary Janes and says, “You have a very beautiful mother, little girl. Do you know that?” When a man tips his hat on Broadway and says, “Mrs. Volk! How lovely to see you!,” my mother says, “Patty, this is Mr. Lazar, a customer of your father’s.” We shake hands. “How do you do, Mr. Lazar?” I say, or “Nice to meet you, Mr. Lazar,” and Mr. Lazar pinches my cheek. “Did anybody ever tell you,” he says, “you have one gorgeous mother?” Thursday nights, when four generations of family gather at my grandmother’s for dinner, the relatives tell my mother, “You look so beautiful tonight, darling.” Then they violate Audrey’s Pronoun Rule: “It is rude to discuss someone who is present using the third person. Never call someone within hearing distance ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Refer to that person by name.” Yet they use “she.” They speak about my mother as if she weren’t there. Right in front of her they say, “Isn’t she beautiful? Did you ever in your life?”
But this face in the mirror right now, people who think my mother is beautiful don’t know this face. I know what my mother looks like without makeup. I know her real face. I know how beautiful she really is.
She spreads two bobby pins with her teeth and pins her hair back. She dips three fingers in a large jar of Pond’s, then creams her face in a circular motion. She plucks four Kleenexes:
and tissues off the Pond’s. Here she sometimes pauses, meets my eyes in the mirror and says, “Never let a man see you with cold cream on your face.” She disposes of remaining shininess using tonic shaken onto a Co-et. Her face is bare, the smooth sleeping face I kiss before leaving for school. Her poreless skin, stretched tight in flat planes, no matter what time of year it is, looks tan.
She dabs on moisturizer and smoothes it in. From the -right--hand drawer, she extracts a white plastic box of Max Factor pancake makeup. Its contents are the color of a -Band--Aid and smell like an attic. Sometimes she calls pancake her “base.” Sometimes it’s “my foundation.” She unscrews the lid and rubs a moist sponge into the color. She makes five smears with the sponge: center of the forehead, both cheeks, tip of nose, chin. Then she begins the work of evening it out, concentrating to make sure the color reaches her hairline and under her chin, and that part of the nose dab is used to lighten the inside corners of her eyes. She is satisfied when her face is all one color, including her lips. This is the moment she stops looking like my mother. This is when her face is reduced to two eyes and two nostrils. It is as flat as the rink at Rockefeller Center. This is when I swear:
“I will never, ever wear makeup, Ma.”
“You’ll change your tune.”
She laughs. “We’ll see.”
She slips her base back in the drawer and flips the lid on her cream rouge. She dots her cheekbones and feathers the color. Opening her compact, she pats on powder, focusing on her nose. She inspects herself from all angles. She taps on pale blue eye shadow with her pinky. Her red -mascara--box slides open revealing a black cake and miniature toothbrush. She swirls the brush in a shot glass filled with water then rubs it against the cake. Holding the brush to her lashes, she blinks against it, upper lids first. She freshens her eyebrows with the brush, shaping them and making sure no powder lurks in the hairs. Then it is time for the eyelash curler. The bottom half looks like the grip of scissors. The working end is an eyelash guillotine. She brings the curler up to an eye. She rearranges her lipless mouth into a black “O.” If she blinks or sneezes while curling her eyelashes, the eyelash curler will pull them out. Her eyes will be bald.
She leans so close to the mirror it mists. She opens her eyes wide, angling her lashes into the vise.
“Don’t bump me,” she warns.
We hold our breaths. She clamps down, setting the lashes. We exhale when she releases them and moves to the other eye.
Now she sits back a bit. She analyzes her work. My mother has painted a portrait of her face on top of her face. My mother is a painting. She takes the pins out of her hair and drops them in the pin drawer. She shakes her blondish hair out and fluffs her fingers through it. If it is Saturday, there’s a chance her nails haven’t chipped yet. She gets them done Fridays for the weekend and even though she is careful, sometimes they chip. When that happens, she blurts a woeful “Darn!” and it breaks my heart.
Finally, she is ready to apply her lipstick, the only color she wears: Elizabeth Arden’s “Sky Blue Pink.” Stretching a smile, my mother paints her lips back on. She mashes them together then blots them on a folded tissue:
She reapplies the “Sky Blue Pink,” blotting one last time.
“If you blot twice,” she instructs, “you can eat a frankfurter and your lipstick still won’t come off.”
Once her lips pass inspection, she is ready to ask me to leave her room. Audrey does not wish to be seen getting dressed. She does not wish to be seen in her underthings. I have seen her in a bathing suit at the beach and once by accident in a full slip while waiting for her at the dressmaker’s. I have never seen her body. My sister says when she’s dead we’ll strip her and see everything. I don’t want to. One morning at breakfast, Audrey’s bathrobe buckled between the buttons and I saw something she would not have wanted me to see. I was miserable.
She adjusts the mirrors and turns her face from side to side. She smiles, raises an eyebrow and flirts with herself. She inspects her teeth for lipstick. When she is satisfied, she reaches for one of the two bottles on top of her vanity. During the day, she opts for the larger one. This bottle is five and a half inches tall and filled with yellow eau de cologne. The top, electric pink, looks like Ali Baba’s hat. The bottle has breasts. The woman who made the bottle, a sculptor named Leonor Fini, modeled it on the mannequin of a Hollywood movie star. The movie star’s name is Mae West. In summer camp, we wear orange canvas flotation vests the RAF nicknamed Mae Wests that make us look busty like the bottle. We pose like calendar girls with our hands behind our heads. Wiggling our hips we chant:
When she is going out for the evening, my mother uses the smaller version of the bottle. This one contains perfume the color of whiskey. It is three inches high and rests on a gold-and-pink velvet pedestal. The bottle is covered by a clear glass dome made in Bohemia, a miniature version of the kind taxidermists use to protect stuffed owls. White lace is printed around the base of the dome and it’s raised, you can feel it with your fingertips. The neck of the bottle, where it meets the round gold head of the -frosted--glass dauber, is wrapped with a choker of gold cord. The cord is sealed with a membrane called onionskin that rips the first time the bottle is used. Draped over the cord is a minuscule measuring tape made of cloth. It hangs from behind the mannequin’s neck and crosses over the front of the bottle where a navel would be. Here a small metallic seal with the letter “S” in the center holds the tape together. Tucked under the tape at the back of the frosted dauber are glass flowers—baby blue, pink, red, yellow, and sometimes dark blue—with contrasting glass stamens and two green glass leaves, all hand-blown on the island of Murano. The flowers are pierced by wires covered with green florist’s tape and twisted into a nosegay until the stems join in a point.
The bottle, its dome and its pedestal are packaged in a box that opens like a bound book. Its green velvet spine is stamped in gold with the name of the perfume and the woman who made it, the perfume’s title and author. The perfume and its box are called a “perfume presentation.” You could slip the presentation between two books on a shelf and no one would know it -wasn’t a book. My mother says the perfume is manufactured in a mansion not far from Paris. She says each bottle has twenty separate parts made in three different countries and takes thirty ladies to assemble. My mother touches the long frosted dauber to her pulse points—the places blood flows closest to the skin, hence her warmest external places, where the scent heats most and disperses widest—the inside of her wrists, behind her ears, and the backs of her knees. In the evening, if she is going out, she dabs below her neck.
When she leaves the apartment, I play games with the bottle. I dress up in her green velvet robe, lift the flowers out of the measuring tape and pretend a man is giving them to me: “Why, monsieur! Merci for zee lovely bouquet! Ooo-la-la!” I pretend I am selling the bottle to a famous customer in my fancy French store: “Madame would perhaps care to buy zee perfume, oui oui?” or that the bottle is a movie star and she needs my opinion.
The name of the perfume is “Shocking.” It is made by Elsa Schiaparelli (ski-ah-pa-raY-lee). I know it is special. Every year on my mother’s birthday, my father gives it to her, every January 21 the same gift. Late at night, after closing our family’s restaurant, he opens the door to our bedroom. “Get up, girls!” He shakes my sister and me awake. We follow him down the hall, past the locked linen closet, into their bedroom so we can witness the event. Every year my mother is surprised. Every year she is thrilled.
“Oh, Cecil!” She clasps her hands under her chin. “Really, you are much too extravagant!”
She throws her arms around his neck and kisses him. She raises one foot behind her, pointing her toe like she does when they dance. She balances against him, smiling down at her daughters. “Girls, I hope you know: Your father is the most generous man in the world!”
Then my father says to us: “Isn’t your mother the most beautiful woman in the world?”
“Yes.” We nod then pad back to bed.
“Shocking,” the smell of my mother.
Always the perfume comes gift-wrapped. My father makes the paper himself. He uses Scotch tape and as many hundred-dollar bills as it takes to get the job done.
Excerpted from Shocked by Patricia Volk. Copyright © 2013 by Patricia Volk. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.