Beauty secret

She is twenty-three years old. She is sitting on the subway, gaze trained on the smartphone cradled in her hands. Her biggest problem right now is that her preferred hair salon is closed for the next two days, and her bangs need a trim. Fine, feathery strands flutter over her brow and into her dark eyes like hanging vines.

She navigates to Instagram and progresses through a CAPTCHA, shaking her head gently to shift her bangs out of her vision. Her wrists ache with the weight of her bangles, two on each side, each adorned with a series of tiny gold flowers. The CAPTCHA is a three-by-three matrix of blurry, pixelated red chalices in seas of green. Please click on images with a red rose in a garden. 

The doors open with the sound of recorded bell and a stranger sits next to her. He rests his head back against the frigid glass, discretely watching her fingers fly across her screen. With Instagram unlocked, her feed is a ribbon spooling out: multicolored, endless. Her thumb pulls the forward motion of her feed to a stop on a video post called, tantalizingly, HOT GIRL TIPS. The woman presses play and bows her head over her phone, submerging herself in the world conjured by her AirPods; the stranger leans over, as subtly as possible, to read the parade of subtitles moving briskly in the bottom-half of the clip. His glasses slide down the bridge of his nose, coming to rest at its bulbous tip. The wheels of the subway car clatter noisily as it turns a corner.

Hot girls hydrate their face. The best textures are thick liquids and waxy balms. Pump or scoop out a quarter-sized amount and never pull at your skin. [HOT GIRL demonstrates by squeezing out a dollop of baby-blue cream into her hand. She lifts her palm toward the camera; the cream drips down like runny yogurt.] Always pat the product in. Don’t ever, and I mean ever, go to sleep without washing your face.

The windows of the subway car flash; they have emerged onto the outside portion of the track. Sunlight floods the space with the shock of a surprise kiss. The clear, warm radiance brings out the small, hidden details in the world of the subway car: the faded diamond pattern on the seat upholstery, the threads pink as cherry blossoms, the glint of a bubblegum wrapper discarded under the swinging legs of the girl sitting opposite.

The woman doesn’t look up or around. With a press of the thumb, she activates the accompanying scarlet heart on the HOT GIRL TIPS post, immediately generating a stream of similar content. Photos of pimple extractions, the pus oozing suggestively. A gooey dash of lash thickener dripping down like a teardrop. Hot and spicy lip plumper. A teenager showing off her pastel-colored skincare fridge, opening the metallic door to reveal a wave of cold air gusting over the surface of her vanity. A tiny razor gliding over a rosy cheek, the blade neatly skirting blackheads as it creates a trail of peach fuzz. A press-on nail edged in green rhinestones, glued above a frayed cuticle. Exfoliating acid for the face and body. Glossy opaque plastic packaging, stickered over with cartoon lips, torn wide open. Tubes of clear, shiny liquid that pop open with a wet, sticky sound.

She rubs her forehead with the back of her hand, frowning. The HOT GIRL returns in the next post, wagging her finger at the camera.

Hot girls have a six-step routine. Cleanser, toner, serum, moisturizer, sunscreen. 

Off-camera, someone yells the set-up for her punchline: Wait, what’s the sixth step? The hot girl gives an exaggerated wink, making finger guns at the camera. Then she pitches forward, close enough to see her pores under a layer of powder, and screams. Her face hurls from composed, curated, picture-perfect beauty to abject despair, nostrils flaring, tonsils aglow in a red-lipped mouth.

The woman on the subway reels back, ripping her AirPods out of her ears, her head colliding with the window with a hard smack. She yelps and falls sideways, smashing her shoulder against the stranger and knocking his glasses off his nose and onto the mica-speckled floor. Her phone leaps out of her hands, arcing through the air with the otherworldly grace of a star, before cracking against the floor, where it rejoins the universe of objects.

“Ah, shit,” she says, to no one in particular. She reaches down for the glasses, which she returns to the man after confirming, with a sigh of relief, that they remain intact. Then she collects her phone and inspects the new chip on the screen protector. It’s still possible to make use of the device, so she reopens Instagram, quickly, as though life depends on this, and in a way it does—you know how it is these days—and progresses anew through the CAPTCHA. She is ten minutes from her stop, and the garden of her mind waits, as patiently and resolutely as a dog, for her to feed it. Please click on images with a cloud in the sky.

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