It was the Fourth of July, so I bought blue face-paint at the dollar store and spent forty minutes putting it on right. Half my forehead, I left plain; the other half, I painted blue with three naked-flesh stars showing through. Below my eyebrow, the solid blue turned to stripes: four vertical ones, stretching from hairline to jawline. If you saw me from the left, you’d have thought I looked like your average ten-year-old boy. But then I’d turn to the right, and—kapow! Not so average after all.
I got the idea from my mom, from one day when I was watching her so Dad could go to the store. Even though Dad didn’t call it “watching her.” He said his usual something, like “kiddo, why don’t you keep your mama company?” and I knew he wanted to sound jokey because he only calls her “mama” when he wants me to know, “hey, we’re not talking about sad things here.” So I put on a not-sad face and sat beside Mom in the living room. Guiding Light was on; the pretty blonde girl pushed a pregnant lady down a staircase, and I thought the girl was scary even though she was so pretty. But when I looked at Mom, she wasn’t watching the screen.
Without paying me any attention, Mom pressed her wheelchair’s controls—I heard the digital beep-beep that means she’s going to move—and steered around me, into the hallway that goes to the back of our house. She rolled right through her bedroom to the bathroom. I hung behind, not wanting to seem like a spy but not wanting to let Dad down.
Mom picked a tube of lipstick out of the top drawer and held it close to her face like she was smelling it. When she spoke, I felt a little half-scared shiver, although maybe I was still thinking of that pregnant woman. The way she landed on her stomach. If she felt her baby squish.
“Ben,” Mom said. She sounded the way I sounded the time I had strep and barely spoke for two days, and then when my voice came back it sounded thick and froggy. “Do you think that woman is beautiful?” Mom was looking at herself in the mirror.
I asked her what woman, and she said, “Cassie.”
Cassie was the pretty blonde, the one with the high heels who hated the pregnant woman. But when Mom said Cassie’s name, she was still staring at herself.
Mom’s hand was shaky as she lifted it to her face. She didn’t put the lipstick on her lips. She drew a bright line down one cheek, like a line of blood connecting her eyebrow and chin. Then she put the uncapped lipstick on the bathroom counter, leaned back in her wheelchair, and smiled at her reflection.
“I think she’s beautiful,” Mom said.
Alaina Symanovich is an MFA student at Florida State University concentrating in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Superstition Review, Sonora Review, The Offbeat, Fogged Clarity, and others. In 2016, she was awarded Best of the Net for her essay “The M Word.”