A light tap on her shoulder and a blowing in her ear brought Tessa back to reality. It was Joelle Robbins, her smooth customer of a roommate.
Tessa liked to think of her as her sidekick in times of desperation. Really, she was her savior, and today was no exception.
“What’s this?” Joelle grabbed the eye cream kit out of her hands. “Are you getting this? Because it’s kind of expensive.”
Tessa put it back on the shelf without a second look. “Not today.”
Without realizing it, she followed Joelle around the store like an honest page girl. Sultrix was Joelle’s castle, at least when Bianca, their boss, wasn’t around, which happened to be often. Bianca spent countless hours in the back poised over her computer. There was talk that she had reviewed sex toys and had an accompanying blog established for this purpose, but gossip was par at Sultrix, expected even.
Joelle had a habit of looking over her shoulder even when it was a known fact that Bianca was not on the premises and gave the impression that she might break a rule at any given moment although she never did. What came out of her mouth could be unpredictable, but her actions, Tessa could count on.
“Where have you been?” Joelle’s eyes blinked and she shook her head. Ever so gently, Joelle pushed Tessa toward the corner of the store to a chair surrounded by shades of hot pink and silver.
Joelle had ten minutes to whip Tessa into shape, patting the chair for her to sit. She sighed.
“Tessa is a messa.” Tessa usually laughed with her. Today, her head pounded in agreement. “I was worried sick all night. One minute you were there and then poof. Tessa. Gone.”
This was Tessa’s cue for a lengthy explanation to satisfy Joelle’s undying curiosity. Joelle turned away for supplies, hemming and hawing, followed by grunting as she pulled the snarls out of her hair. Tessa would have preferred Joelle to ramble about her relationship with her body, Joelle’s usual discourse when Tessa’s silence claimed too much presence. “My body is so mad at me today,” she’d say. Or, “These aches are relentless. My neck. My body must despise my posture. My body hates me.”
This morning, it was Joelle who was speechless. Taking the spiky, round brush, Joelle tugged at the hair at the base of her neck, which provided nothing but pauses to accentuate disgust and even stronger pulling, her hair stuck in the brush like clods of dirt.
“Did you even shower this morning?” Usually, they were all too aware of each other’s comings and goings.
“Splashed water on my face.” Tessa knew that was better than nothing.
“Where did you sleep? Hmm? The jungle?” Joelle asked.
“Not exactly,” Tessa replied. “It was dark.”
“Jungles are dark,” Joelle said.
“There were windows.” Dirty windows, but art on the walls. Canvases splashed with blues and reds.
“Where? Where did you go? You left me there all alone. Why did you leave me?” Joelle gathered foundation, brushes, and sponges, as all her questions went unanswered.
Tessa recalled the light that filtered through a broken blind, and the space around her felt enormous, as if she laid in the body of a whale, only there was the smell of coffee. Dark roast. Oh, how she had wanted a cup of coffee, and none was offered. When Tessa woke she had guessed she was adrift in a warehouse. She was correct. But the “guy” was nowhere. Tessa’s question wasn’t “Where?” It was “Who?”
Joelle scowled and busied herself, looking for a spray bottle. She found it and set it down, fumbling. She eyed the clock. Only seven minutes remained to whip Tessa into a presentable Sultrix employee.
“Tessa, such a messa.”
She swung around to face Tessa and the folds of her black skirt swayed with her soft, maternal hips. Joelle exuded heat, her tresses of red hair, her voice, full and soothing, and her body temperature set to warm. She paused long enough for Tessa to absorb the cushion of her breasts in her face, if only for an instant. A spicy scent lingered. They were close like that. Tessa clung to her, wanting more than anything to reach out, hold her. I fucked up, she wanted to admit. As Joelle held Tessa’s chin in her hand, Tessa thought she saw torches in her roomie’s eyes, or perhaps it was her shade of eye shadow. She was such an expert.
Joelle dabbed foundation on the left side of her face only. It was a little game she enjoyed to showcase the “before” and “after” effects of her work. On one side, she used all of the beauty aids, the makeup, the blusher, the lip pencil, all on just on one side of her face. The other side of her face would be bare and naked to demonstrate the “before” face. Her little game created a kind of macabre mask, with neither side netting the result that Tessa wanted. With one side untouched, she felt half-dressed. Tessa wanted to argue they had no time for this but lacked the energy to argue with Joelle’s methods.
“Did you or didn’t you?” Joelle asked.
“I woke up naked.” Tessa closed her eyes as Joelle dusted powder on her face. “Are you happy with that answer? Is that what you wanted to hear?” Tessa kept her eyes closed, fearing an onslaught of judgments.
Instead, she got silence, and then more sighing, and then more prepping and dusting of her face.
“I don’t know, okay,” Tessa said.
“What do you mean you don’t know? Oh, Tessa.” And there it was, her disapproval showing through. All traces of tenderness left the building. Joelle would be a strict mother someday, Tessa thought.
“Oh hurry, Joelle,” Tessa said. “Bianca just looked at me.” One mention of their boss could propel Joelle into hysterics. Not this time.
“At least I know who I’ve slept with,” Joelle said, slapping generous amounts of foundation on her chin, time no longer relevant. Joelle seemed lost in some memory. “You could have got yourself killed.”
Tessa stared at herself in the mirror, wide-eyed; her face appeared lopsided. The made-up side was heavily polished in a gaudy presentation of product; the other, worn and gray. Neither side won. No amount of product could save her and she felt defeated.
“Look at me, Joelle. Do I really look ready?” Tessa shook her head at her.
Scanning the room for Bianca, Tessa was stunned to see a customer of the male persuasion, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap. A man in Sultrix appeared like a lost lamb or a dragged corpse in this estrogen-heavy playground, and a rare event. Two more steps in her direction, and he became familiar.
“Oh my God, it’s him,” she tugged at Joelle’s sleeve. “Oh, God. Finish me. Quick.” Tessa fanned her face frantically.
“What?” Joelle’s method of applying makeup was shattered. In her opinion, makeup was not something you rushed. Rushing the makeup was time wasted and only welcomed a looming disaster, but she could have never anticipated Tessa dropping to the ground in a crouched position.
“What is wrong with you?” Joelle said.
“That is him. Him. The guy,” she looked up at her, whispering.
“What guy?” She turned back around and eyed the guy in the cap like she’d never seen a man in her life. “Him?”
“Do you see another guy around?” Tessa asked.
“From last night?” She looked down at Tessa curled in the fetal position.
“Yes. That’s the guy…from last night,” Tessa latched on to her ankles.
“C’mon, Tess. Get up. Get up.” Joelle tried to kick her off her ankles, but Tessa’s grip proved fierce. “Well, that solves that problem. Of course you didn’t sleep with him. He wouldn’t be here if you did. Right?”
Joelle took off her black jacket and threw it on top of Tessa.