I saw her again recently. I have a certain, limited amount of sympathy for her. I imagine she deals with plenty; the sleep-deprived standing over her, tapping their nails, desperately awaiting the transfer of the key. I can picture them masquerading as reasonable, patient people. The hotel, where she works as a receptionist, is a piece of junk. Two velour couches—one green, one blue—a buffet; dull, poisonous music that I sometimes hear piped through my bedroom wall. My apartment building is right beside the hotel, which didn’t become a problem until recently. I think the hotel owners want to knock down my building and extend their business, although nothing can be proven just yet. From outside, the hotel’s decor is comfortable but disjointed, as if it can’t make up its mind, as if there are hundreds of minds that can’t be made up. The people in charge tell me nothing will happen, that my apartment will be safe, but nobody believes a word they say anymore. There is a certain recalibration happening right now. I see it quite plainly on the streets—people deciding what they do and don’t believe. People are finally deciding. This sort of rigorous thinking can lead to a bad and torturous night’s sleep. Tiredness, bags under the eyes.
And there she was, the receptionist, standing beside my building, smoking. In and out. In and out. Working her way through a pack of Marlboros. What the smoke must be doing to her insides; her lungs two gnarled, little nubs like the humps of a dying camel. She was no great beauty but she projected a certain high regard of herself. She must have a death wish. I would too, if I worked there. Still, she possessed a sort of off-putting haughtiness. Her face peering out from under a hood—criminally large pores, ruddiness to her cheeks, an unholy combination. There were products she could use, products that she probably wasn’t even aware of.
I looked at the hotel. I know what they get up to in there, I said.
What the fuck do you want me to do about it, she replied.
Me, I’m nothing out of the ordinary. Late-thirties, single, this apartment is the same one I’ve lived in for the last five years, with its low ceilings, subtle grey and cream colour palette, the duvet I saw a famous singer owned and I sourced; a project that required the opening and closing of hundreds of tabs. I like to source items, that could be considered a hobby. I like to buy fresh flowers and enjoy them for relatively short periods of time. Then—in the bin. Then from that bin to the larger bin in the basement. That is the flowers’ journey. I’ve been here since my last relationship ended with complaints, exhaustion, a large blue plate hitting a wall. Towards the end of our time together, neither me nor my boyfriend could look at each other directly. Now, I’ve a roommate I never see. She hasn’t been here long. I keep thinking I will see her the next day or the next day or the next day, but I eliminate the possibility of that chance as much as I can. Sometimes, I find it absurd that there’s someone on the other side of my wall. Does her whole body hum with a great restlessness too? When she has men over I hear her speak to them in tones of utmost compassion. Every single article tells me that these are the tones men like, but when I try it—well, it comes out very strangled, very put-on. I don’t like myself when I speak that way. These men ask a lot of my roommate; they have their requests, they have their invocations. It’s one reason not to get involved with people—they ask a lot of you. I’m not a recluse but I find it disheartening to go out into the streets. I must say I find everything unspeakably ugly.
I keep my routine and never deviate, although new products often catch my attention. There must be some consistency in this life. It’s a highly ritualised way of washing, a complex system of layering. There are steps that must be followed. It’s true what they say—you have to put in the work to get the results you desire. When it comes to my routine, unlike for other things in life, my patience is infinite. The days of cleanser, supplemented by toner, are over. You have to question why those days were ever tolerated. Now, there are hundreds of bottles in stylish packaging that makes me smile. Now, blessedly, there is a narrative to follow and that narrative is your skincare routine. The slathering itself is its own sort of pleasure. I undertake it as a spiritual process. I keep my bottles and tinctures—chosen for particularly needed elements—in our shared bathroom. It’s a cluster of highly expensive items that are hard to ignore, but at the same time difficult to penetrate. These bottles are uncooperative and impossible to understand unless you’ve read the material.
What does my roommate think when she sees these bottles lined up? She probably thinks I’m the vapid sort—people do think that of me from time to time—the sort to stay in the hotel and use the jacuzzi and raise my arms above my head in the four-poster bed and press the room-service button to bring endless amounts of amusements. I don’t suppose my roommate would understand my ablutions. I see her sensible shoes laid out in the hallway; I hear her boyfriends discussing the ills of capitalism as if it has just occurred to them. Don’t hate me, I beg silently. I’m just one woman. There was a time in my life when I couldn’t do a single thing that was asked of me. I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t shower, I couldn’t call my friends. Everyone has had a time like this—when they look in the mirror and, sure enough, an unknown animal stares back. My what big, vicious teeth you have. My routine was like putting a layer of skin back on; skin that had been thoroughly shredded by the world. It was like plastering over certain, obvious cracks. Now it takes precedence over everything else.
It is dictated, as things so often are, by the day and by the night. In the morning, I put my face in a sink of cold water. I shriek in this water. I fight it. It reminds me of when a schoolmate held my head under the lake one, two, three seconds longer than necessary for horseplay. Then I use a spritz of hydrating floral mist. I apply a vitamin C serum for a brighter, firmer, more even complexion. An anti-oxidant complex of l-absorbic and fermic acids. I then use a hydrating serum to lock in moisture. Pro-vitamin B5 and pineapple ceramide. I use illuminating drops here and there, nothing too flashy. I’m not someone who likes to draw attention to themselves. These are the morning steps when the sky is still aqua-coloured and not buckling under the weight of clouds. The weather lately, well, it has been awe-inspiring or as the woman on the news says—the woman with the gift of muted commiseration—frightening. My more optimistic self thinks the weather is just trying something out. Going for a different look. I know how important it is to vary your appearance, keep yourself alive. Despite the incredible potency of these ingredients, they are lightweight. Science. I feel literally nothing.
At sunset when the unnerving specks of red fill the sky, I’m grateful for my nighttime routine. My face is a smooth, round toy. I cleanse with the purifying wash. I use the dropper to apply hyaluronic acid. If it’s Tuesday, I apply my Babyfacial and wait for the required twenty minutes. My face is as smooth and round as an infant’s. 23%AHA/BHA glycolic, lactic, citric, salicylic acids. I remove every trace of dirt. I feel the cold finger of the dropper against my skin. There are rumours of layoffs at my company, and while I massage in the acids I think about that. Many of the women in my company wear simply amazing clothing—purchases that will be impossible if they are laid off. I get a gloomy feeling when I think about clothing being packed up carelessly into boxes and returned. I get a gloomy feeling when I think about the hotel. I sometimes see people on the balconies drinking, carousing and merry-making, as if they are following a fun but rigid script written by the people who run the hotel. They drink from large, glass bowls. I’ve seen them spill things on each other and giggle. They act like nothing matters, and maybe it doesn’t but I don’t want it shoved in my face. The sight of them brings on a wave of nausea. They would probably laugh at a person like me, a precise person concerned with rules and self-improvement. What they don’t know is my nighttime routine isn’t always exact. I’m allowed to live too. I sometimes try a product that I’ve seen defended online by a woman with crazy, fanatical energy. I do try different things. I don’t doubt that even the strangest, ficklest, riskiest product is penetrating the upper and lower layers of the epidermis. I fall asleep on my back, perfectly in control.
I don’t remember when I first noticed, but it must have come about after a period of diligent but unconscious observation. The product in the bottles was minimising at a rate that didn’t correspond with my usage. At that stage, I didn’t go as far as to measure them. Yes, my life is small and embarrassing but no more than anybody else’s in this century. I hesitated over this. It’s not so easy to take out a ruler and start measuring the shared bottles in your bathroom. It’s not so easy on the soul. It does suggest an unforgivable mistrust of people, a total disengagement from the rules of normal, human relations. The bottom line is that nobody wants to use a ruler. But sometimes it’s necessary. Yes, sometimes it’s necessary. It made sense that it was the cleanser I noticed first, the green cleanser that I used daily, the one that changed things for me. What power it had. No doubt it was disappearing. It was disappearing in a way I couldn’t be solely responsible for. I’m not an impulsive person. I don’t apply product I don’t need, throwing it on blindly and clumsily. My roommate was using my items. The ruler gladly confirmed this.
This discovery corresponded with the most distressing noises from the hotel. It was a subtle act of persecution; I know, from reading I’ve engaged with, that they do similar things to hostages to drive them insane. In my place they would build more square rooms, square rooms with single, leather chairs and mini-bars, rooms for guests to have good times, good and transient times. It was just this sort of obsession with good times that led a person to steal from those they lived with. It was the atmosphere of the city itself. It was transforming us all into guests with no rules, no boundaries, no consideration. That was right—no consideration. Nothing was solid anymore. My bedroom wall could be hacked through. I had noticed holes in the walls. Someone repellant from the hotel could walk right in. That was the possibility that most kept me awake at night. There was a chance they could take over our whole building, and no one would tell me. I would be the last to know. I would awake to a crying, uniformed girl trying to make my bed with me in it, protesting her minimum wage with every harsh and perfect fold. I would awake to a doorman standing at the foot of my bed, unloading a stranger’s luggage. My life—and this is a true and common feeling these days—is in no way my own. I’m simply waiting for it to be plastered over.
Over several months, I took to stealing glances at my housemate on the occasions we were in the shared living space together. If I asked her a question she often found it difficult to answer as if she were a person who thought deeply about matters, and not a thief and a cheapskate. When we spoke, a series of thoughts ran through my mind, racing, racing thoughts that I had no control over: Does her skin have a new and particular sheen? Are her pores tighter? Is the redness reduced? Does she look ten-odd years younger? Has she sections of flakiness that suggest she’s engaged in an intense exfoliating regime that will produce initially sinister but eventually deep and long-lasting results? Are the fine lines underneath her eyes disappearing? Are her cheeks becoming plumper, softer, more radiant? And is it worth it, time she spends alone with my bottles and tinctures? Does she have her fun?
My roommate and I talked about politics, coffee, current disappointing trends in the city, the hotel. She had brilliant nails, but otherwise expressed no interest in skincare or beauty. She mentioned this or that boyfriend. She had a lot of opinions; she was fairly confident that she was in possession of an exceptional mind. She was the type who would rather be right than be loved. Being right—what did it amount to? Each to their own. I’ve learnt to accept that. Each to their own. When she answered I stared at her face for what could be considered an unnerving amount of time. I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of one of my glacial looks. She would have quite a nice face, if she weren’t a liar. The night after our first conversation, out of stress and sadness at things unsaid and accusations unmade, I added a new step to my routine: a moisturising mask powered by biocompatible actives, a mix of synthetic and plant-derived extracts. Suddenly everything was simple, unquestionable. There was no doubt that I was a woman in the world. I had thoughts about containment, detachment. I would like to manage my skin as if it were independent from my body. The sky that night was incandescent. It was a colour the sky should never be. But beautiful all the same. Beautiful and fresh. You wouldn’t mind if it fell on you.
The same night, loud and familiar music from the hotel poured through the cracks in my bedroom wall. At night I liked listening to my roommate’s boyfriends talking to her. Their defences were lower at night, and they would say unusually sweet things. My old boyfriend used to whisper to me at night too and what he used to say was: calm down, calm the fuck down. I couldn’t sleep and, although I had no doubt that the people in the hotel would kill me at the earliest opportunity, I got dressed. I pulled on a wool dressing-gown and a pair of runners. They were expensive runners but, if you weren’t aware of such things, there was no way that you would know.
I hadn’t been in the hotel lobby before. I’d only glimpsed it through the windows. These quick glances had done it an injustice. The ugliness of the place demanded real engagement. Was I supposed to believe that the people who stayed here were more refined than me? That their routines were somehow more sophisticated? How could you feel sensual and whole in a place where the furniture was nailed down? If you touched anything it was likely to fall apart. It occurred to me that being trapped in a room like this all day must be like constantly reliving a trauma. The receptionist was there. My heart went out to her. The skin seemed to be hanging off her face.
Where is that noise coming from, I asked her.
None of your fucking business, she replied.
Well, I smiled back, pretty friendly. She was unconcerned by the unconvincing two-dimensional furniture, the ceaseless music, the endless screech of suitcase wheels, the fake plants, the clandestine operations that took place under her very nose. All of it masking as civilisation, progress. All of it masking as luxury. I backed out the front door. I went back to my bathroom, to the comforting blank tiles. White and clean. Every day, that receptionist gets up and puts on a blouse. The courage of normal people can’t be underestimated. At the same time, I would like to tell her some hard and difficult truths. Did she think that when the end came they would save her just because she was at the front desk? How blind were you allowed be these days, what was the margin? I splashed water on my face and it stung. I applied, out of sheer terror, one item after another, not differentiating between acids. I paid no attention to my usual system. It was the repetitive action I wanted. Of course, the bottles were lighter still. To an untrained eye they were the same, but my eye wasn’t untrained. It occurred to me that my roommate could be replacing all my bottles with water for no other reason than to make me feel foolish. Some people get a kick out of that. It’s a perversion. Imagine slapping water on your face and hoping for results? Could there be anything more ridiculous? She and the receptionist could be collaborating to drive me insane and sloppy. In my company you’re not allowed be sloppy, or dishevelled. I could be laid off. One roll of the dice, one spin of the wheel, one bad day: that was all it took to get rid of me. I leaned over the sink. It had been so long since I’d been touched by another human being who loved or cared about me; all the attention I lavished on my face was no substitute. My face was becoming hooded and wrecked, and the bottles were getting lighter. Every day a new disaster happened.
By September, I had began to notice scraps of paint and plaster on my bedroom floor. The process was beginning. I didn’t have to hear the drills to know they were drilling. What would they do to my room when they occupied it? What would it become? And where would I live? The weather in September was remarkable. The sky was red, as if on fire. The madness of everything had finally been exposed. One night, I went over to the hotel again. It wasn’t like I could help myself. I slithered. I kept close to the ground so I had the element of surprise. The lobby carpet was standard, geometric squares; soon my own bedroom—which I loved for its light—would have the very same carpet. It wouldn’t be mine anymore. It’s completely impossible to hold on to a single thing you love. It would just be somewhere else for people to go and have their dull assignations. I hid behind a shrub and watched the people in the bar. All the women were thin and all the men were suited. That life belonged to someone else. Places like this existed to make people like me feel like slugs, and then eventually crush us. I pitied their lifestyles, but at the same time I wanted to inquire about every woman’s skincare routine. A superficial desire but I was no dumbo. Read the news! Examine the weather! The level of ignorance that permeated the hotel bar was stifling. I had an unopened bottle of wine in my dressing-gown pocket, and I ripped its lid off. I took a slug. I was a slug. I was still capable of wit and ingenuity. I still had the innocent, good looks of a baby. I rested my hands on the reception desk as if I was making a plea.
I will not let you destroy my apartment and my entire way of life, I said.
What the fuck is your actual problem, the receptionist said.
My problem was the same as everyone else’s problem and that particular problem was where I would live. When the hotel was built, when everything was in order, I would pack my skincare routine into a single box, and unpack it in another bathroom. All the knowledge and effort I’ve ever put into my life would be concentrated into this one box. I would still have the same hopes for it; it’s the hope that’s never killed not even by the harshest, most unforgiving lighting. Perhaps, I would not make things easy for the hotel people. One minor act of rebellion—I could rip up the floorboards? They would find some way to turn it to their advantage. No I would go peacefully. People like me always do. We turn the violence inwards. It’s unlikely that me and my roommate’s relationship would survive this severing. I would give her a goofy, goodbye hug, and even in the middle of this moment of longed-for genuine human connection, her cheek touching mine, I would not be thinking about her towering intellect, or her kindness which is manifested deep down in a place products can’t access. I would not be able to stop myself thinking: what are the products of mine that have brought such a dreamy softness to each cheek of hers? If she is using the serums consistently and without fail, if she is beginning to see changes, I would know. A woman always knows. You shouldn’t think I don’t get tired of myself.
There was danger certainly but not for me alone. My boyfriend used to say that: think about the danger for others! Think about the danger for the people who huddle under the bridges. Well, perhaps they are hardier than me. Perhaps, I’m more sensitive and that’s why my skin has to be so delicately furnished. The weather is still going through profound changes. There is very little anyone can say in defence of the world anymore. People try to defend it on the news, and other people raise their hands, as if halting an enemy, and stop them. There are layoffs and they aren’t just in my company. They hang new murals in the hotel lobby. They really are the vilest images. They bring a sense of foreboding, as if they are visions of the future. Fields of corn, piles of dead bodies. The sight of them makes me too feeble to even complete the barest steps of my routine. I can hardly cleanse. Exfoliating has long been out of the question.
And one day my bedroom wall is just gone. I can see right into a hotel bedroom. There are no guests as of yet but everything is prepared; tucked and tidied. I shouldn’t be surprised. A large chandelier hangs over my bed, and it is not only my imagination. There is a chocolate on my pillow. I didn’t put that there, I think. I can hear my roommate’s boyfriend tell her he needs more from her. More and more and more. I once heard similar things. Relationship pressure can force one to organise, it can force one to build on their product list. I try to forgive my roommate, but I don’t warn her about what is coming. Her bedroom will be next. I lock myself in the bathroom. I need to become new. I layer everything on at once. I scream at the sight of my disgusting face. There are scabs which will need to be taken care of. I stay in the bathroom. I put my face into a dirty towel. There are enough lotions to last me two, maybe three weeks. I don’t expect anything to get better.
‘Plaster’ will appear in The Writer’s Torch: Reading Stories from The Bell, an anthology featuring 18 short stories from the 1940s and 50s originally published in The Bell magazine, with responses by contemporary writers. The anthology, edited by Phyllis Boumans, Elke D’hoker and Declan Meade, will be published later in the year by The Stinging Fly Press.