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Under Pressure

Kelsey Britt

It was six weeks until Christmas. White cashmere sweaters and thick, puffy North Face jackets that would be too warm for San Francisco in the winter—but just right for Tahoe ski season—filled the store windows. I was walking down Grant Avenue towards my favorite coffee shop in North Beach, dodging brown stains on the concrete and blasting the David Bowie playlist I’d made the day before. 


I had my ancient headphones in—the ones I knew I needed to replace because they would sometimes shock me—and I’d just had a consultation at a medical spa about getting my pussy hair lasered off. As I dodged the people carting red and green shopping bags on their shoulders, Bowie in my ears, I was trying to decide whether the extra hours of befriending and flirting with the creepy alcoholic men I served drinks to at the club would be worth not having to shave my asshole ever again.


But just before I reached the intersection near Dragon’s Gate, a man standing in front of a salon stepped towards me. He was holding a sample of something I assumed was a kind of hair product.


Looking at the man’s outstretched hand, I wondered whether I should walk into the street to avoid him, or whether I should just pull out my phone and stare at it. But in my moment of hesitation I caught his eye, and he held the packet further towards me. I thought about the day before, when I’d walked by someone trying to hand me a CD of his music, and I’d just brushed past the guy, looking straight ahead, not even acknowledging his humanity. I told myself to just smile, take the sample from the man standing in front of the salon, and keep walking towards coffee.


With the squishy white packet in my hand, I exhaled and kept walking, my mind already reverting back to the pussy hair conundrum. I told myself that maybe I could even get my legs done too, if I took out a little bit of credit card debt––Aya, my girlfriend, would disapprove, but, with all the razors I went through and the extra time I spent running the water in the shower, I’d end up saving money for us in the long run (not to mention I’d be helping the environment).


Before I walked even ten steps, I heard the man say, in a voice that was loud enough to cut through Bowie’s singing, that someone’s green eyes were absolutely gorgeous, that he wanted to give her an extra sample because there was something special about her. I paused and looked back, wondering who he was talking to, and I saw that he was looking at me. I wanted to roll my eyes. He was clearly just trying to sell me something. This man: He looked like someone I would see on the pages of Italian Vogue, dark, chocolate brown hair, defined cheekbones, slender body––if I saw him in a nightclub, he would ignore me. I told him thank you, but I had to go.


As I spoke, the man started walking closer to me, the buttons on his shirt gleaming in the cloud-filtered sunlight. Just as I was about to turn my body, he asked where I was from. After a moment of hesitation, I took out one of my earbuds and lied, telling him that I was from San Francisco. (Since the 2016 election, I’d felt embarrassed to tell people where I was really from.) He paused, his head tilting a centimeter to the right, and then he said to wait right there, that it wouldn’t be long, he just wanted to grab another sample for me, something special. He walked into the brightness of the salon. I thought about walking away. It would be rude, yes, but, as I knew my therapist would tell me, I didn’t owe anything to this man. 


Before I could turn around, the man peeked his head out and asked me whether my skin was sensitive. I paused, unsure why he was asking about my skin and not my hair. It was a hair salon after all. And then I said that I didn’t know. He looked at my face and told me that it was probably sensitive. Then he instructed me to come inside. Told me he just wanted to give me a sample of one of their skincare items. That it would only take a minute. 

He motioned for me to come in. Thinking that I was coming inside just to take a sample––it wouldn’t take that long, it was just easier this way––I found myself walking into the salon: white walls and black chairs and gleaming surfaces.

The only other client in the salon had a blowout and a Fendi bag. The other people working at the salon were all women, and they were all dressed in black. Their hair and makeup were perfect. I didn’t take a seat even though he told me to. He asked me what I did for my skincare routine. I told him that I just moisturized. I left out the facial cleanser because the salon smelled of “rich people” products, and I suddenly felt ashamed of the $5 facial cleanser I bought at Target. When I would go home, I would be going back to the shitty, one-bedroom apartment, at the edge of the Tenderloin, that I shared with Aya, her Chihuahua, and the occasional cockroach. He asked if he could show me something, and so I walked over to the chair beside the collection of skincare products that he had put on the counter. I told him I was in a rush, and he asked what I had to do today. I just had a lot of stuff to get done. He asked me if I needed to work, and I responded with something about just being busy. I didn’t want to tell this man about the pussy hair lasering, and I definitely didn’t want to tell him that I was a bartender and that today was my only day off this week and I had planned to spend it knitting a sweater for Elsa, Aya’s chihuahua, and studying for my physiology exam. 


He promised, again, that it would only take a minute, and then he said, “Please just sit in this chair.” I hesitated, and then, as he began lining up three white bottles, all with small crystals on the outside, I sat down in the chair and took my other earbud out, telling myself once again that it wouldn’t be that long. As he opened the bottles and arranged them on the counter in front of the mirror, he asked me what my name was. I told him my real name, Carley, which I instantly regretted. Immediately, he asked where I was really from, and then after a short pause, my belly feeling uncomfortable, I told him again: I’m from here, born and raised. He asked if I lived in the city, and I said yes. He said I must live close to my parents. I told him not really, they lived in Marin now. In that moment, the lie just out of my mouth, I imagined what it would be like if my parents lived in Marin. If I’d grown up in San Francisco. I constructed a grand childhood in my head, parents who voted for Al and Barack and Hilary, after school trips to the ocean, marches in the Pride parade every year. He asked me what I did for work. Feeling unsettled, I told him that I was a cryptocurrency investor.


He cocked his head, a funny smile stretching nearly to his cheekbones, and then he asked me how old I was. Even though I was 27, I told him that I was 22, just to make the cryptocurrency investing sound more impressive. He told me it was too bad his manager wasn’t there: she had been thinking about whether she should buy some Litecoin, and he was sure I could give her some good advice, but, regardless, it wasn’t too bad sitting here with him? Was it? He didn’t bite after all. As he was talking, I glanced over at the mirror. I was all frazzled auburn hair and red cheeks. I flicked my eyes back to his face, relieved I wouldn’t have to talk to his manager. Looking at his white, straight, perfectly sized teeth as he smiled, I thought about how he could be in a commercial for teeth whitening strips. 


Perched on the edge of the seat—my body overheating in the coat that had been too warm even outside—I looked at the samples on the counter. I wondered how awkward it would be if I just put my feet down on the tile of the salon floor and told the man I had to go. If I just walked out those doors, into the grayness and the piss smell of the San Francisco streets. It would take me five seconds to cross the floor. I took a deep breath, my therapist’s voice in my head telling me that it didn’t matter if I offended him. But just as I got the courage to put one of my feet on the ground, the man sat down in the chair in front of me. He arranged himself on the metal seat and looked at me, his expression unreadable. 


Take off your coat, he said. You must be hot. 


After a few seconds, I took off my coat, glad for the rush of cool air that hit me. I tucked a clump of my hair behind my ear, my feet still on the ground. My arms pressing closer to my ribcage. At that moment, the man put his hands in his lap and leaned forward, his eyebrows rooting down in what could have been an expression of sympathy. Then, his voice taking on a graver tone than it had earlier, he told me that my skin looked great. But unfortunately, I had some fine lines around my eyes and some dark circles underneath them. That my eyes were so gorgeous, that they really popped, but that the dark circles, well, they were noticeable. That was why he had stopped me.


Even though, in the back of my head, I wondered why I was there having a stranger tell me what was wrong with my face, I found myself nodding along to what he said. He asked if I knew why our skin ages, and I told him no. In a voice that could have been in a pharmaceutical drug commercial, he said something in esoteric, science jargon about collagen, none of which I understood, and then he said that there were two ways to address it: Botox, of course, which added collagen but also paralyzed the muscles, and creams and serums. I nodded, as if I agreed, even though I’d never really cared much about preventing the effects of aging. At certain moments in my life, I’d even thought of aging as a blessing. What a relief it would be, to no longer be an object of desire for men to ogle, to touch. Even if it marked my own cellular decline, my own slow march towards death.


He took out some cream, told me to look up. He started putting it underneath my left eye. He was so close to me that I could smell his cologne, something leather and floral. Expensive. I wondered why I was letting this person put strange chemicals on my face, but I didn’t stop him. The cream was cold, and as his fingers moved in circles above my cheekbone, in that fragile place underneath my eye, I wondered if he could see the hair above my lip––another place I needed to get lasered off. He kept talking about collagen and aging, and he told me to keep looking up, which I tried to do, even though it was difficult to talk and look up at the same time. The pad of his finger moved in small circles underneath my bottom eyelashes, right at the edge of my eye. I fought the urge to blink. 


Then he was done. The space under my eye felt wet and cold. He handed me the mirror, asked me if I noticed any difference. There was a difference. A noticeable one. He said that the product worked even better over time, asked me to smile, and then he pointed out the lines that deepened around my eyes as I smiled. He told me that those would only become worse as I aged. I nodded, wondering if I would have the same wrinkles as my mom when I got older.


I shifted in my chair, put one foot on the ground. I told him that I wasn’t sure how I ended up here, in this chair. That he was very persuasive. I tried to make it a joke, to make my voice lighthearted like I did when men made inappropriate comments about my body at the club, but I was actually wondering how I let myself end up in this chair. I wanted to leave. I envisioned myself walking out the door and turning right onto Bush Street. Heading north, standing in front of the counter at Reveille and ordering a flat white. I started grabbing my coat and pushing myself to the edge of the chair, but, at that moment, he said he wanted to show me one more product, and then he’d let me leave. Without waiting for me to answer, he said, it’s perfect for someone who is busy, or just lazy, in their skincare routine. Perhaps like me, he added, winking. He smiled. His eyes smiled too, and I wondered whether he ever took acting training. 


I stayed, the edge of the chair right underneath my sitz bones. He then asked me whether I brushed my teeth every day. Whether I showered every day. Feeling my cheeks heat up, I said yes, I do, and I thought about how he could probably see my yellow teeth from all of the coffee I drank. How my face was probably greasy from the Up & Up moisturizer I put on last night and from walking around in a coat that was too warm for the outside temperature. I was sure he could see all of that, just like the lines. He said it would just be one more thing to add to the teeth brushing and showering––worth it, with the color of those under eye circles. With a flash of those whitening-strip commercial teeth, he said it was a facial peel but that he would just try it on my wrist. That he just needed one teensy more minute. I wondered why it would go on my wrist if it was just a facial peel, but I pushed up my coat sleeve anyway. He told me to push up my sleeve even more. To not be shy.


I pushed it up, exposing the faint blue veins on my wrist and the barely visible scars from my teenage years—the ones I’d made to remind myself that I was still alive. This man smiled, and then he painted some goop on my wrist a couple inches long and nearly the whole width. It was colder than the stuff he’d put on my face, and it glistened under the light bulbs on the mirror. As he dabbed it on my wrist, right over the scars, he asked me whether I had a boyfriend. I said yes, not wanting to tell him about Aya. I held my wrist out, waiting for the gunk to be removed, and he asked if my boyfriend worked in cryptocurrency too. I said no, he was at Google. He asked me if we met here, in the city, and I said yes, that we met while standing in line for coffee. How adorable he said, and then, in the same breath, he asked me when was the last time I showered. 


My belly clenched, and my heart started pounding. I wondered if I smelled. I told him last night, and then I thought about how I should probably start using a washcloth because just using my hands to rub body wash all over my body probably wasn’t exfoliating anything and would only make my skin age faster. Holding my wrist, he rubbed circles over the blue veins and the scars with his thumb. Little chunks of skin and dirt started to ball up on the surface. I wondered if he thought the stuff coming off my skin was gross. I thought it was gross, and I felt mortified that he was seeing it.


He took a cotton ball, and he wiped my wrist. Showed it to me. Told me that it wasn’t nearly as bad as some people. And then he chuckled. He leaned forward and smiled at me, as if we were co-conspirators in it all. My heart thumping in my chest, I could smell the leather and flowers again. He asked me which products I thought I needed the most. I wondered if it was a trick question. I told him I thought they would all be useful. He told me that he thought the one that addressed the dark circles under my eyes would be the most useful for me at this point in time. That so many things could cause those dark circles. Lack of sleep, straining over a computer looking at Litecoin all day. Fights with boyfriends. That my skin was so nice––but those dark circles, they really were noticeable. That my boyfriend would probably enjoy seeing me without them. 

My feet sweated in my shoes. I told him that I really needed to get going, that I would think about it. I saw frustration flash for a millisecond over his face. But then it was gone, and he told me that they were having a sale. Their products were normally quite expensive, so it was a good deal. That I didn’t want to miss out on it. I nodded, still paralyzed in my seat. My heart going even faster. He said that this was Grant Avenue, things were expensive here, and then he added, but if you grew up here, you know that.


We looked at each other. He was smiling now, acting playful, but I could tell that he didn’t believe I grew up here. Or that I was a Litecoin investor. Or that my boyfriend worked at Google. The skin underneath my eye still felt wet. I looked at my purse that I bought from TJ Maxx nearly three years ago. I didn’t want this man to think I was poor, or that I was cheap. I wanted to leave. 


It was on sale, I told myself. Surely it couldn’t be too expensive. I’d buy it, and then I’d leave. Grab the coffee and go back to Aya. So, I told him I’d take the undereye one, and I stood up, rummaging through my purse, and took out my credit card. I handed it to him, hoping it wouldn’t get declined. He walked over to the register and swiped it, handed me the receipt to sign and began putting together a small plastic bag.


I looked down at the price typed on the receipt. Three hundred and fifty dollars. For a four-ounce jar of cream. I could feel my face become hot. Tears pressed at the edges of my eyes, and I thought about telling him to reverse the transaction. But as I looked at him putting together the package, the image of his smirk still locked in my head, I couldn’t make myself say the words. He handed me the bag and said, I hope you enjoy. We looked at each other. He was still smiling. The package was so light in my hands. Within a second, his face changed, went blank. He backed away and went over to the sink a few stations down and began washing his hands. I watched the soap suds foam around his fingers and up his wrist. Then, my legs shaking, I willed myself to move. I grabbed my coat and started to walk towards the door.


Just before I stepped onto the street, I turned back. I saw he had moved to stand next to one of the female employees who, with her slender body and dark hair, looked like she could be his girlfriend. He already had more sample packets in his hands. He glanced at me and looked away, not bothering to say anything else. I walked onto the concrete of the sidewalk. The Christmas colors of the storefront displays looked even more garish and pointless than they had earlier. Nearly stepping on a pile of feces on the sidewalk, I could feel the pressure build behind my eyes. 

I started walking towards the coffee shop, my legs feeling foreign and heavy. It was just a little cream on my face, gel on my wrist, I told myself. Nothing close to what had happened to me when I was a girl. My fingers gripped the paper handles so tightly that I could feel the sharp edges of my nails pressing against the thin skin and muscle of my palm, threatening to bore straight down to the bones.

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