Kate Finlinson ~ Exaltation

We were young Mormon girls incu­ri­ous about good groom­ing, resigned to greasy hair that stuck to our fore­heads and dan­druff from the dry salt air, itchy in our desert skin and mod­est in our dress. We were fas­ci­nat­ed with our flaws—even high­ly con­cerned about our imper­fec­tions— but we want­ed to believe that being good might make us beau­ti­ful.

I was the President of my Mia Maid class. We were near­ly six­teen years old and all strivers, avoid­ing temp­ta­tion through bak­ing, babysit­ting, and sundry crafts— except for Mel. Mel avoid­ed temp­ta­tion, but she didn’t like prepar­ing food, didn’t wish to be entrust­ed with small chil­dren, and pre­ferred not to spend her time mak­ing quilt squares and col­lages. We tried not to be offend­ed. It both­ered us most that she loved rats. She kept hers in a mul­ti-lev­el cage in her room— she drew us a dia­gram once. She talked about let­ting the rats race down her arms, rolling up her sleeves to prove it. We squirmed when she described their tails. Mel had a large pur­ple birth­mark that began at her hair­line and trav­eled down the right half of her face, dip­ping around her eye and taper­ing off under the apple of her cheek. She nev­er seemed to care about it and we pre­tend­ed not to notice.

Sister Greer, a moth­er-of-three who worked part-time at a beau­ty counter, taught us the Gospel every Sunday. She once invit­ed us to her house for makeovers. I cleaned up for church. It was impor­tant to look neat and rev­er­ent in the house of the Lord, but I went to school barefaced and bleary-eyed. I knew I’d wear make­up some­day. It was a part of my future I could hold off on, but I didn’t mind get­ting a pre­view.

Sister Greer set her din­ing table with hand mir­rors, sponges, and prod­uct sam­ples. She assigned Mel a seat next to her.

It doesn’t take much,” she warned.

I pulled my hair into a scrunchie and dabbed my sponge in liq­uid foun­da­tion.

Moisturize first.” Sister Greer point­ed to a white sam­ple. “We have dry skin.”

Do you have ker­ato­sis pilaris too?” I want­ed her to know I was aware of the raised red dots I had all over.

She nod­ded. “It’s com­mon. Just mois­tur­ize and exfo­li­ate!”

The lotion soothed my chapped cheeks. I noticed Mel turn­ing over com­pacts, inspect­ing the labels.

Is this brand cru­el­ty-free?” she asked. “Companies test this stuff on rats. Bunnies, too. I signed a peti­tion. It’s so wrong.”

Let’s assume the best,” Sister Greer said.

Don’t you think it’s sad?”

It will be OK just this once,” I said, oblig­at­ed as President to rein­force Sister Greer’s author­i­ty. I imag­ined a bun­ny wear­ing lip­stick that matched its magen­ta eyes, not see­ing any harm. Though I’m sure she felt tempt­ed to dis­obey, Mel slapped on some foun­da­tion.

Applying make­up wasn’t easy. I need­ed Sister Greer’s guid­ance:

A lit­tle goes a long way!”

Blend out from the cen­ter.”

Don’t for­get your neck.”

She sup­plied dozens of eye shad­ows in nude and brown and taupe and gray and shell with names like vix­en and tru­ant and kit­ten. I dis­liked the insin­u­a­tions of those names and had no desire to be sexy. Trying to be sexy was about impress­ing boys and I valiant­ly feigned dis­in­ter­est in them since pair­ing off was pro­hib­it­ed. Sister Greer didn’t apol­o­gize for the sug­ges­tive names.

I tapped the pow­der onto my lids, then fin­ished my look with pink lip-gloss. So much effort! But it made a real dif­fer­ence. I looked bet­ter than my Sunday best. I glowed with poten­tial. I caught a glimpse of my future self: the shim­mery, mois­tur­ized, even-toned me that would be capa­ble of mak­ing eter­nal com­mit­ments, of strength­en­ing my home and fam­i­ly, of build­ing Zion, the king­dom of God on Earth. I didn’t know I’d feel so delight­ed, so pret­ty and pow­er­ful, but Sister Greer must have.

Makeup had helped the oth­er Mia Maids too. Except Mel, who wasn’t smil­ing. Foundation couldn’t cov­er her birth­mark. She looked too much like her usu­al self. I felt dis­ap­point­ed for her, even embar­rassed, but then Sister Greer hand­ed her a fan­cy jar from the depart­ment store beau­ty counter.

Let’s get this right,” she said.

No thanks,” Mel said. She slid the jar across the table to me. I slid it back to Sister Greer, who twist­ed off the lid and set the jar in her palm.

Five sec­onds.”

I don’t think I want it,” Mel said, reluc­tant to turn her face toward our advi­sor.

I couldn’t resist the temp­ta­tion to watch. I want­ed to see what Mel could look like, who she might one day be.

Sister Greer attend­ed to Mel’s birth­mark as if apply­ing pale put­ty was an act of pure devo­tion. With a del­i­cate hand, she applied the pre­cious balm, a thick skin-toned spack­le, care­ful­ly blend­ing the edges. Then she held a mir­ror up to Mel’s face.

Much bet­ter,” she said.

Mel’s entire face was now a flat white. I could only detect traces of her birth­mark: a hint of pur­ple in Mel’s hair­line, a touch of blue at her brow bone. Sister Greer showed us how easy it was to erase her sad dis­tinc­tion.

It was like a mir­a­cle. I saw an end to Mel keep­ing rats in her room and talk­ing about how much she loved their long tails. I imag­ined the new Mel would become instant­ly more pleas­ant and coöper­a­tive, that this small change was all she’d need­ed to final­ly be one of us.

She didn’t smile. She didn’t blink rapid­ly as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. No grate­ful tears. She shook her head.

Sister Greer seemed thrilled with her work but need­ed some back­up. I clapped. The oth­ers fol­lowed. Even a major flaw could be fixed!

Mel sighed. “It’s very strange.”

It doesn’t take much!” I said.

Mel fid­get­ed with the com­pacts. Sister Greer leaned to whis­per in her ear.

Did you know you were beau­ti­ful, Melanie?”

Mel reached to the floor for her back­pack, prepar­ing to leave.

It’ll be hard to wash off.” She turned over the jar and read the label again. “I’m pret­ty pos­i­tive this brand isn’t cru­el­ty-free. I wish I could free all the poor rats from those hor­ri­ble cages.” She turned the mir­ror face down. She wiped off the lip-gloss with the back of her hand. But as she packed up, I made sure she put the spe­cial jar in her back­pack.

We were all beau­ti­ful Mormon girls that night, and I couldn’t let go of that tri­umphant feel­ing, the sense that we were tru­ly togeth­er on the path to per­fec­tion. It was some­thing, to know we might be good and also some­day beau­ti­ful— wor­thy of any future we want­ed— even Mel. That night we thought of her as some­one we’d want to include, some­one we’d be kind to or even one day con­fide in, some­one whose face might not pre­vent her from ever know­ing real hap­pi­ness.

~

Kate Finlinson is a grad­u­ate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She has pub­lished her work in Crazyhorse, Cincinnati Review, PANK, Joyland, and else­where.