sealed with a kiss

When Brown Lipstick Was the Only Thing I Could Control in My Life

Photo: Photo Illustration by Stevie Remsberg/Photo Getty

I stole the lipstick. Straight from my babysitter’s purse. Her name was Sarah and she was 16. One Sunday, I sprang from my church pew, walked over to hers, and sat on her lap. Divine intervention had deemed her our babysitter.

Sarah would work at McDonald’s in the morning and then come babysit us after, smelling not of the French fries you want me to say, but the recycled grease they’re submerged in. She’d change out of her McDonald’s polo shirt and into a T-shirt, and I thought that was the most glamorous thing in the world: shedding a long day’s work clothes.

Sarah was wildly alluring to me in general and I blame her matte brown lipstick. That ’90s staple, a part of the whole naked look that started our obsession with layering on makeup to appear makeup-free. What a con!

We lived in an industrial neighborhood in Michigan where the population has been in decline since the 1950s yet some people stayed, working at the hospital, retiring, going to church, going to McDonald’s after, hanging on. Sarah wanted to be a country music singer. She’d crank the knob on my mom’s boombox and blast the radio, singing along so loudly the neighbors would call my parents later, just sort of curious about what that was all about. We’d dance in the kitchen and Sarah would grab our hands and slide us under her tented legs. It was fun as hell. Her voice was full and beautiful with a slight smoky husk. She was never going to be a country music star, and even 8-year-old dumbass me knew that. She sang louder to drown out the doubt.

Now the beautiful brick elementary school (where I nabbed a substitute teacher’s pressed powder) has closed and malaise has been replaced with a fentanyl problem.

I stole Sarah’s lipstick — a cheap plastic drugstore brand — and stashed it under our TV cabinet. I never wore it. I’d like to think it represented some hidden future me who wore lipstick to work and unhooked my shift dress after. Would I get that? Or would I be swallowed up by this small town, smoke cigarettes, and marry my schoolyard “boyfriend” with the twitch? When my sister tattled on me in the bathtub, I had to give the lipstick back and I felt as if something had been stolen from me. Afterward, Sarah told us scary stories about the devil showing up on your doorstep with hooved feet.

It would be poetic to say I stole cosmetics out of some deeper craving for more in life, but greed can toy with your perception that way. I just wanted to own lots of makeup and be a grown-up already. When I had my own cash to buy endless tubes of lipstick, I’d forget them at the bottom of my bag for years until I finally realized I was never a lipstick person anyway. Too much upkeep.

My mom got sick of the cold and the nothing and we moved to a thriving suburb in Houston where my world opened up. I took Latin (lol), learned how to swim, and met friends who weren’t white. It all made me hungrier. I ran to New York for college, and after class I’d babysit. I was walking my 5-year-old charge past McDonald’s one afternoon and he told me, “Did you know McDonald’s is evil?” Well, yes, I said, but they have great milkshakes. We’d get home and I’d wear the same old clothes I wore all day. But I was getting closer.

When Brown Lipstick Was the Only Thing I Could Control