I wore black pants, a white button-down, and shiny black dress shoes that pinched my toes. My feet had grown like weeds over the summer, and I hadn’t broken in these new ones yet. They were still a bit squeaky as I paced around the other boys in the dressing room, watching Jamie, the sophomore lead, put on makeup in front of the bright mirror.
His hands were so graceful, so light, so in control, knowing that he needed another sweep of blush here, another dot of foundation there. He kept going, brushing and stroking and painting, an artist at work on a canvas, until his face was a striking masterpiece, thick eyelashes fluttering above dark eyes, golden brown skin soft and smooth. The kind of face made to fill magazines and billboards and TV screens. A face kissed by whatever god you believe in.
“You want me to do your makeup, Elliot?” he asked suddenly.
I touched my bare face self-consciously. I always thought my eyebrows were too thick and my brown eyes too big for my face, but either way, they wouldn’t be seen without makeup. My hands tingled at the thought of all those powders and brushes tickling my face.
“Sure,” I said. I was just a freshman with a few lines, and even I knew what an honor it was to have Jamie offer to do my makeup. He was the leader of our drama club, charm and an easy crooked smile and kindness wrapped up in skinny jeans and worn Converse and bouncing black curls, liked by every single member of the club. You didn’t have to work at becoming his friend; he simply saw you and talked to you and then you were his friend.
He had me sit up on the dressing room table so we were more at eye level. The bright mirror lights warmed my back gently as I watched him dig around in his dark green makeup case, which had much more stuff rattling around inside than its small size suggested.
First he brushed on a foundation powder, borrowed from one of the other guys to match my pale skin tone. Then two quick sweeps of blush, reddish-pink like cupcake frosting. My stomach jolted when he pulled out an eyeliner pencil. I had sat at the bathroom door as a kid, mesmerized, watching my mom draw hers on. She would call it her magic pencil, and I had wanted to be magic too. I had tried it myself when I was home alone, always behind a locked door with wet tissues waiting, just in case, but my hands were too shaky and clumsy around the slim pencil, and it never came out like hers. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to. Boys weren’t supposed to wear makeup, right?
But if anyone saw Jamie with his makeup on, they’d change their mind, because makeup had no other purpose than to cling to the creases of his eyes or the edges of his cheekbones.
“Is it okay if I …” Eyeliner in his right hand, he gestured with his left to my face, and I knew he was asking if it was okay for him to touch my face and keep my head steady.
His left hand cupped my cheek, the touch cool and steady yet still soft. His eyebrows narrowed and his tongue stuck out a little in concentration, and I closed my eyes as the pencil tickled my skin, desperately wishing I could open them and watch Jamie work, like everyone in rehearsal always took a break, sprawling across auditorium seats, to watch him perform.
“You can look.”
I turned around to look at myself in the mirror and gasped. It was like I had spent my whole life looking in a blurry, fogged-up mirror, and now the glass was crystal clear, my reflection shining with that magic Mom talked about. I was–I was beautiful. I thought that was a word only girls could use, something only girls could be. But I was beautiful, undeniably. There was a smooth shape to my face I didn’t know it could have, my cheekbones sharper and more defined than they normally were, my cheeks rosier and fuller, my eyes bigger and brighter. I pressed a finger to my powdery cheek just to make sure it was really me in the mirror.
“Hey, don’t mess up my work,” Jamie said, but he was smiling, his teeth brilliant in the light.
My cheeks burned. “Sorry.”
“No worries. Break a leg, okay?”
I walked to the stage in his wake.
I was prepared this year. Inside my bookbag was the brown paper bag from the drugstore bearing my very own eyeliner pencil, foundation, and blush. I had held my breath in the checkout line, prepared to say it was for my girlfriend if anyone asked, but the cashier put the bag in my sweaty hands without a single question.
I kept the bag hidden while Jamie got ready. I wanted to watch him without anything interfering, wanted to watch the confident strokes and sure turns of his brushes, the easy confidence I hoped he could transfer to me when he did my makeup.
He nodded to himself when he was done, humming the solo song he had under his breath, and I pulled out the bag, creased and wrinkled from all the worrying my fingers had done along its edge.
“Jamie?” I asked. “Would you mind doing my makeup again?”
“I’d love to.”
I hopped on the dressing room table again, my heart racing while Jamie opened the fresh pot of foundation. In just a few seconds he’d be close enough for me to smell his watermelon gum if I really focused. In just a few seconds, his hand would cup the side of my face again. In just a few seconds, I’d be the Elliot he had transformed me into last year.
“It’s a lot more fun this year, huh?” he asked as the brush met my cheek. “Now that your first show is out of the way.”
“Yeah. I’m not as nervous this year,” I said truthfully. Maybe it was because the fear of my very first show was gone, that I’d broken myself in like the no longer squeaky dress shoes on my feet. Or maybe it was because Jamie and I had gotten closer during this show, reciting lines together and huddling together backstage to watch videos on our phones. Maybe I had absorbed some of his ease.
“You’ll be great out there. I know you will.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, my face burning from the praise and from the heat of Jamie’s palm pressed against my cheek. He had moved onto my eyes now, and I kept them closed even if I wanted them to flutter open and see that focused wrinkle between his eyebrows, the way his tongue curled along his bottom lip.
“All done.” He tapped my shoulder lightly, and I spun around.
Looking back in the mirror was like seeing an old friend. One you hadn’t seen in years, and had maybe forgotten a lot about, but still remembered how much you had loved them. And then when you saw them again, all the old memories came rushing back and you wondered how you had forgotten them in the first place. Suddenly I was the Elliot I had been last year, and I could hear the audience laughing at my lines, could see those bright stage lights shining as I took a bow, could feel the smooth karaoke microphone in my hand as Jamie and I sang together at the cast party.
I was ready to do it all again, to be confident and fun and dazzling, because I was the real Elliot again.
I wished I could be this Elliot all the time. I wished that this Elliot could last longer than the powder clinging to my cheeks, that this Elliot couldn’t be erased by a washcloth’s harsh scrubbing or by anything else, that this Elliot would always be the one I saw in the mirror.
I went on stage, chasing the new Elliot I wanted to create.
I held the eyeliner in my unsteady hand, wondering if I’d have to put it on myself. Jamie’s makeup was only half-done, eyes downcast and brow furrowed in stress rather than concentration. He would pick up a brush and start working, only to drop it a few seconds later and check his phone. He was always refreshing his emails, waiting on a response from one of the college acting conservatories he’d auditioned for last month. The stress didn’t look good on him, not the way his glittery eyeshadow did. It made his face seem older, worn like an old shirt. We didn’t have long until showtime, and I hastily pulled up a makeup tutorial on my own phone, just in case I needed it.
He sighed, then put his phone down and began spreading blush on. His movements were harsh and frantic, miles from the usual grace he always had. He threw his brushes back in his case when he was done, then darted to his phone once more. I didn’t want to bother him, or ask one of the other boys, and the eyeliner shook on its way to my eye–
“Oh, I’m sorry, Elliot. I’ll do it, if you want?” His phone clattered back to the dressing room table, and then he was at my side, and the knot in my stomach smoothed out all at once.
“Thank you,” I said as he began.
“They’ll be fine,” I said. “The auditions, I mean.” They were weak words of comfort, but no matter how weak, I couldn’t let Jamie go without hearing them. Couldn’t let him go without knowing that I knew he would be fine, that I believed in him.
“You really think so?”
“I know so.” I cracked a smile. “You know I’m not a good enough actor to lie that well.”
He smiled too, and I brushed off his reassurances of my talent. I knew I didn’t have a future in acting like Jamie did. I wasn’t made for last bows and standing ovations and compliments from strangers. I was good as a side character, could usually get a laugh or two from the audience. But I inspired doubt. You watched me and wondered who I was, how I did in school, what I would do after I graduated, because I was just a kid in a costume. But Jamie–Jamie got on stage and made you believe. In him, in the world, in everything.
“I want this to come out extra good,” he said. “Since this is the last time I’ll do your makeup.”
His words were so final that it hit me at once that this really was it. This was my last time performing on a stage with Jamie, my last time eating pizza with him at the cast party, my last time having his hands on my face, transforming me into the real Elliot. I quickly wiped a tear springing in my left eye.
“Sorry for getting all emotional,” I said hoarsely. “Boys aren’t supposed to cry, right?”
“Boys can cry as much as they want, Elliot. Don’t let anyone tell you they can’t.”
“I’m just gonna miss you,” I sniffled.
“I will too. But it’s okay. Because we’ll always have this, no matter what happens after.”
“You’re right.” My voice was firmer this time.
“And we’ll both be okay. I mean it. You always doubt yourself, you know, but you don’t need to. Because whatever you do, Elliot, you’ll be great,” Jamie said, his voice ringing with sincerity like his every word always did.
I managed a nod, my stomach coiling as I waited for Jamie to resume. Instead, he bent down, and I gasped when his lips met my cheek. They were soft and sure and smooth, just like he was. The gentle touch ended not long after it began, but my whole body burned with the touch left behind, burned with strength, burned with new confidence in myself.
I knew that even after I washed my makeup off, that kiss would always remain.
I held the eyeliner pencil in steady hands. I was ready this year. I was armed with a fancy black coat from the thrift store downtown, fit for the almost-lead role I was, and with hours of makeup practice I had done in my locked bathroom this week. I was even in the scuffed black folding chair Jamie sat in, at his old spot at the dressing room table, hoping the last remnants of his magic would come to me.
I took a deep breath and began, remembering what I had practiced, trying to make the effortless sweeps and swoops of brushes like Jamie did. There was comfort in it, in the gentle strokes, in the creation of it all. I knew I didn’t have Jamie’s skill for makeup, that my cheekbones weren’t as sharp as he could have made them, my eyeliner not as sleek. But I didn’t care, because this was still me, and it was the me I had created on my own.
Looking in the mirror wasn’t quite the revelation it had been in the past. I wasn’t breathless at my transformation, wasn’t in awe over my rosy cheeks and bright eyes. Part of me wondered if it was because my makeup just wasn’t that good. But another part of me thought it was because more of the Elliot I wanted to be had been slowly emerging over the years. That the real Elliot was already there, and I didn’t need the makeup to make him appear anymore.
I grabbed my phone and took a quick selfie, then sent it off to Jamie. He was on spring break from his theatre conservatory, sitting in the auditorium chairs that he and I used to laugh and talk in every day after school. I wanted to make him proud, show him that I was worthy of being his friend, worthy of all the makeup and tips he had given me the past few years. I was finally the Elliot I always wanted to be, and I wanted to make sure he knew it.
I almost dropped my phone when it buzzed with a reply from him, commenting on how amazing my makeup looked and telling me to break a leg. I sent back a simple thumbs-up emoji, knowing we’d talk more this weekend after the show, and I would give him every backstage detail and tell him about the scholarship award I won and maybe things would be like they always were.
I glanced around at the other boys, some still getting dressed, some reviewing lines one last time, some on their phone. One blonde kid did none of those things, but walked around in circles. His name was Luke, one of the new students. He was in full costume, but his face was bare. I could see in him what Jamie must have seen in me during my first show–the hesitant glances in the mirror, the hands fiddling with shirt buttons, the steady pacing of the dressing room floor. Someone who desperately wanted to be part of this world, to become someone more, but was afraid to take the first step.
“Hey, Luke?” I asked. “You want me to do your makeup?”