In the last year of my marriage, a relationship that had run its course after 12 years, I gave up on truth and beauty. I was depressed, but I didn’t call it that. I lived as an American expatriate in Singapore, and the island, along with the sadness and resentment enveloping my marriage, was slowly suffocating me. It was so small, and the humidity was oppressive.
Each day was similar to the last. I skipped breakfast, took my daughter to preschool, and returned to my non-descript high-rise apartment, where I lay down on her unmade bed and stared at the ceiling for hours. On mornings when anxiety overwhelmed me, I would attempt to solve New York Times crosswords; I completed hundreds of them. I defaulted to a uniform — black athleisure pants, a gray T-shirt and a pair of black casual sneakers; a severe bun; no jewelry or makeup — and I often fell asleep in the same, in my daughter’s bed, not having eaten dinner, long before my then-husband came home from work.
There was a lone tube of lipstick in my purse — a winey burgundy that I bought over a decade ago because it matched my wedding sari perfectly. It had long ago gone dry.
I was dressing this way, and acting this way, to steer attention from myself. I became skilled at avoiding conversations about my thoughts and feelings, especially in social situations. I would smile and veer the talk toward books or politics, topics I could speak to with relative wit and without much thought. When my therapist asked me about my marriage, I evaded her questions.
On a Saturday in August, my then-husband asked to separate, leaving me feeling blindsided and disoriented. Still, I consulted a perfectly coiffed family lawyer who patiently explained my options as an American living overseas, with limited financial independence and a child. When I told her that he wasn’t contesting custody and had already verbally consented to my leaving the country with our daughter, she said, “Go home.” I should have felt relieved, but all I felt was numb.
Back at my parents’ house in New Jersey, I kept the same uniform and the same routine. I was a freelance writer, and I used this excuse to justify to myself that this neglect was okay.
One day, I received a Facebook invitation. Three friends had established a secret group to talk about, of all things, nail art in the face of the horrors of a Trump presidency. We needed a space for frivolity to counter creeping fascism. I didn’t know why I was included. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a manicure. But these were good friends, and I welcomed the distraction.
At the time, no one outside of my immediate family knew I had separated from my then-husband; I had led most friends to believe that I was back in the United States for an extended holiday. I didn’t have a therapist.
Within days, our threads turned intimate. First, it was makeup, then dresses, sleepwear, failure, desire, sex. One evening, bolstered by my friends’ honesty, I frantically typed things I had never told anyone before. About the anxiety-induced bouts of disordered eating that plagued me in my marriage’s final years. About the exhaustion of just thinking about dating again. (To the latter, one friend replied with a picture of her brother and his dog, and said, “He’s my younger brother — something must be done about his bachelorhood.”) Among all the selfies and posts about glitter, I had finally found the freedom to talk about extricating myself, both physically and emotionally, from an unhappy marriage. It was liberating to write it all down and have friends bear witness. That night I slept better, with a little less fear, a little less disquiet.
Soon, I was returning to forgotten rituals. I planned a week’s worth of outfits from the long-neglected clothes in my wardrobe. I began visiting drugstores and department stores, trying on all manners of glosses and liners and crayons. In a suburban CVS, I surreptitiously swatched a muted brownish-plum satiny lipstick on my inner arm. It reminded me of the true saddle browns I wore as a teenager in the late 1990s; comfortable and comforting. I immediately bought it — the first tube I purchased post-separation. Once outside, I put it on using a nearby car as a reflective surface. It shimmered in the afternoon sun, just like the silvery hairs at my temples.
It didn’t take long for me to start wearing lipstick every day: deep crimson, blackened violet, sheer plum, hot pink. I wasn’t trying to signal to the male gaze that I was once again available, and I wasn’t trying to hide behind a mask. I just liked the act of applying lipstick every morning. It felt like a 15-second reminder that life still contained joy.
The morning our divorce settlement was to be approved in court, nearly 18 months after we separated, I dressed in my mother’s gold jhumkas and applied three swipes of intense matte true red. For ten days, I’d been experiencing vertigo, even though the date had been on the calendar for weeks. In court on this bittersweet day, I clutched the bullet-shaped tube inside the pocket of my long, canary-yellow sweater. In less than 20 minutes, the judge granted our divorce. Back in my car, I looked into my rearview mirror. My lipstick had smudged from tears and sweat. I reapplied a fresh coat. Then I took a picture. I knew I’d want to remember how I looked in this moment, lipstick and all.