I started painting my lips blood red a few years after we quit going door-to-door to spread the news about Jehovah and the end of the world. For the first time in my life I was allowed to believe in a future where the world didn’t end in a firestorm. I was glad we were rid of the church, but our community was gone. I didn’t have to believe in a vengeful God anymore, one who dictated what my body was allowed and not allowed to do. I was free. I didn’t know what that meant.
I was 17. Everything in my body hungered. To belong, to feel real, to connect with something sacred or eternal that didn’t have anything to do with doom. My face still looked like the face of a girl who believed in the end of the world. When I put on that blood red lipstick I wasn’t that apocalyptic girl anymore. I looked like a woman who believed in the future, in her own power.
I remember the first time I slid on the burgundy matte lipstick the department store makeup goths had convinced me to buy. Vicious, I thought, pouting in my bedroom mirror. I checked myself out, dressed all in black, my hair parted hard in the center. I left my room and ran into my Puerto Rican grandfather. We were a multi-generational home. He looked at my mouth and spoke to me in the love language intimate to the offspring of immigrants; he talked mad shit. Tu boca parece culo de gallina. Your mouth looks like a chicken’s asshole.
He would know. Before he became ill, he and my grandmother raised chickens in their backyard. Mornings there was always a ruckus when the chickens lay. My sisters and I would cluck back at them when we ran to the coop to scoop our breakfast from the straw-lined nests. Our grandmother had to replace her chickens constantly; they were routinely stolen by undocumented immigrants who had crossed the Otay river valley by her house and were hungry. She complained but never locked the coop. She too had known hunger. She and my grandfather, who were not part of our church, were the only constants in my life that had nothing to do with the end of the world. Their love was a haven.
Outside of family and church, I didn’t know who I was, and so I hid behind my dark red lips. My red lips invited people to treat me as though I were bold. I reacted as if I were bold. I wanted to be wild, a dancing queen, raunchy and flirtatious in the legacy of red-lipped women throughout history. I became wild, raunchy, flirtatious. It was exhilarating but ultimately, exhausting.
I stopped wearing the red lip and found I didn’t need it. The seed of wildness had taken root, growing into something unexpected, a sense of empowerment. The sacred and eternal were already inside of me. I just had to live my way into the knowing. The community I was seeking was also seeking me. My life is full of women who embody wildness, bruja warriors who take no shit and can rock a red lip but just prefer not to.
Once or twice a year I pull out one of the countless tubes of red I still own. It’s more of a process now. I have to exfoliate the dead skin from my lips and wear lip liner so the color won’t feather into the fine lines that grow deeper each year. A red lip still makes me feel bold. When my pout is complete, I hear my grandfather’s voice from where he is stationed with the ancestors. I take my culo de gallina lips out in the world, knowing I am always in my power, and loved.