Carlos Duarte knows that he's fabulous. He's got a better sense of style than half the fashionistas in New York City, and he can definitely apply makeup like nobody's business. He may only be in high school, but when he lands the job of his dreams--makeup artist at the FeatureFace counter in Macy's--he's sure that he's finally on his way to great things.
But the makeup artist world is competitive and cutthroat, and for Carlos to reach his dreams, he'll have to believe in himself more than ever.
When I was twelve, I convinced my mother to let me do her makeup for Parents’ Night. When I was finished, my sister, Rosalia, who was fifteen, said, “Ma, aren’t ya even gonna say anything?”
Ma said to me, “All right, so it looks nice, Carlos. But I don’t think I should be encouraging something like this. I’m not gonna go to your school and tell your teacher, ‘See my face! Isn’t it pretty? My son did my makeup. Didn’t he do an excellent job?”
Rosalia asked, “Why not?”
Ma said, “You know why not! Don’t make me say it.”
Rosalia put her hands on her hips. “You know what, Ma? Carlos is talented, that’s what he is. He’s probably gonna be famous one day for being so talented, and you should be happy he can do something this good so young!”
After Ma went to Parents’ Night, Rosalia and I went to McDonald’s. Rosalia told me again she thought I was talented and that I was gonna be famous. I asked her to buy me an extra bag of chocolate chip cookies and an all-chocolate sundae to prove she really meant it.
• • •
By the time I got to Sojourner Truth/John F. Kennedy Freedom High School, I knew if other people could get paid as makeup artists, I could too. I already had a job after school being an assistant to all the teachers in a day care program. I didn’t love my job, but I did love being able to go shopping for makeup at Little Ricky’s on Thirteenth Street, where they had the wildest stuff. I’d run home, lock my bedroom door, and try it out immediately. Sitting on the side of my bed, studying my face in my two-sided makeup mirror (one for normal view, one for super-close-up) was like school after school. It was me practicing the thing that I knew would make me famous someday.
No matter what any of them said, the girls at school had to admit I was an expert. And the boys who got away with eyeliner because they were supposedly rockers even asked me for tips on how to put it on straight. I was really happy to tell them, because crooked eyeliner is so whack, it makes me nuts.
My friend Angie suggested, “Carlos, now that you’re sixteen, you should come to Macy’s and try to get a part-time job at a makeup counter.” She worked there on Saturdays and she bugged me from the beginning of school in September. “You have to go and apply for a job before the holidays. That’s when they need all the help they can get. I bet you could work for any company you wanted—Chanel, Bobbi Brown, Dolce & Gabbana. Any of them.”
I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating, but the idea of it made me stop breathing for . . . well, a few seconds at least. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it first. I guess I’d only pictured doing Mary J. Blige’s makeup before a concert, or maybe Rihanna’s, or taking a month off from school to go on tour with Janet Jackson because she insisted if she didn’t have me she couldn’t do the tour. I hadn’t thought about working at a department store.
Even though I was sure of what I could do, I thought working for Macy’s was a long shot, a fantasy that was nice to talk and dream about, but soooo unlikely.
I asked her, “Angie, do you think a big, famous store like Macy’s would really hire me? I don’t have any professional experience.”
And good old Angie said, “Honey, all we have to do is get you an application. Then we’ll come up with a fake résumé. We’ll put my cell number on it. When they call, I’ll answer, ‘Greenberg’s Department Store’ and tell them, ‘Carlos Duarte? You’d be lucky to get him! He’s fabulous!’”
Angie worked on the tenth floor in the Linens department at Macy’s. But selling pillowcases and Martha Stewart sheet sets didn’t mean she knew a whole lot about how they hired people in the makeup department. “I’m pretty sure it’s not that easy, Angie. Can’t you make friends with somebody at one of the counters and ask them how they hire?”
And of course Angie said in her typical I-was-just-playin’-’cause-I-don’t-really-have-enuff-courage-to-do-what-I-said Angie way, “I can’t go down there! They all look so beautiful . . . and so mean.”
“Are you kidding me? ‘They all look so beautiful’? I’ve passed by makeup counters hundreds of times, including the ones at Macy’s, and the people who work at those counters have on a ton of makeup, but that doesn’t mean they’re beautiful! And if they look mean, maybe it’s because it’s hot standing around under those fluorescent lights wearing that much makeup whether you want to or not. Can you just get over yourself and go down and ask them? Get me a stupid application? This is important! And besides, it was your idea in the first place!”
“Maybe if I lose five pounds by Saturday when I go to work, I’ll get up the courage to ask one of them.”
“But, Angie, they don’t care how much you weigh! And I guarantee you, you have a prettier face than most of them. Look, if you want, I’ll get up early on Saturday and come over to your apartment and do your makeup. That way maybe when you see that your makeup looks better than most of theirs, you’ll be able to get up enough courage to help your very best friend get the job you know he deserves!”
As usual, when Angie’s insecurity took over her brain, everything I liked about her, including her common sense, suddenly disappeared. “If you want the job that badly, why don’t you just show up and ask them yourself?” She was all huffed up.
“Angie, it was brilliant of you to think that I should apply there for a job. And I totally mean brilliant. But that makes sense, because you’re brilliant. Most of the time. But now, could you tell me what sense it makes for me to go there on Saturday and ask how I can apply for a job and what would make me qualified, then show up there the next Saturday acting like I’ve had so much experience? I mean, what do I say when they ask me, ‘If you have so much experience doing this, why did you need to come in and ask how somebody gets hired to do it in the first place?’”
Angie was losing it. “I don’t know! Just tell them you thought maybe different department stores had different ways of doing things!”
“Yeah, and that would make me sound like I’d worked in dozens and dozens of them, wouldn’t it?” I shook my head sadly like I couldn’t believe Angie was trying to snatch away my dream for a career in makeup after putting it under my nose like a liver dog treat to a puppy. “Forget it, Ange.” I put my hand up between us. “Don’t give it another thought. Maybe I can Google it or something and find out that way.” Then I added pitifully, “Thanks.”
“Ohmygod, Carlos! All right! If you do my makeup, I’ll go down to the first floor on my break and ask one of those mean, snotty-looking would-be models how to apply for a job there. Making it absolutely clear that I don’t mean for myself! And I’ll do it whether I’ve lost five pounds or not.”
“Ooooh!” I squealed, and yes, I do definitely squeal, I have to admit it. And the more excited I am, the higher it is. “Do you promise?”
“Yessssss, I promise!” Angie rolled her eyes and shook her head. Then she said, “If you promise me something!”
“Anything, Ange, anything!” I knew she was gonna ask that, when we both worked at Macy’s, I do her makeup every Saturday, and I was more than happy to say yes.
She looked at me very seriously and lifted her head like I better get ready, so I did. “You better promise that when you get hired there and everybody knows you and thinks you’re talented and great . . .”
“And they will,” I flicked my head to the side with one hand on my hip. “You know they will, girl.”
“Yeah, well you better promise that no matter how popular you are, you won’t start acting weird like you’re embarrassed to be with me or something.”
“Angie,” I said, just as serious as she was, “I’m sorry you have this condition that makes you say and even think insane things. So, what I’m going to do until you can get yourself healed is just say, Hon, I love you and I’ll always love you, whether you’re a hundred and three pounds or three hundred and one pounds. I’m just hoping that you won’t wind up being three hundred and one pounds. Because, first, it isn’t healthy, and, second, you’ll want to be on one of those weight-loss shows, and then I will have to disown you because I think they’re just so tacky! I’d die, Ange, I really would!”
Angie said, “And I don’t think we have to worry about me ever being a hundred and three pounds, unless somebody sews my mouth shut!” She laughed, one of her big old Angie laughs, which is one of my favorite sights and sounds in the world.
And I started picturing myself behind the biggest, most fabulous makeup counter in Macy’s.
Bil Wright is an award-winning novelist and playwright. His novels include Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (Lambda Literary Award and American Library Association Stonewall Book Award), the highly acclaimed When the Black Girl Sings (Junior Library Guild selection), and the critically acclaimed Sunday You Learn How to Box. His plays include Bloodsummer Rituals, based on the life of poet Audre Lorde (Jerome Fellowship), and Leave Me a Message (San Diego Human Rights Festival premiere). He is the Librettist for This One Girl’s Story (GLAAD nominee) and the winner of a LAMI (La Mama Playwriting Award). An associate professor of English at CUNY, Bil Wright lives in New York City. Visit him at BilWright.com.
"Wright gives voice, complexity, and heart to the kind of character often relegated to a cliché sidekick role...[Carlos is] a walking example of the inner strength teens need--regardless of their sexuality." --Publishers Weekly
"Wright’s occasionally flashy but mostly straightforward...prose should work equally well for bookish and non-bookish readers."--Kirkus Reviews
"Readers will simultaneously root for and marvel at this fascinating character."--School Library Journal
"There's a whole lot going on in Wright’s novel, but it’s handled deftly and, for the most part, believably. Best of all, Carlos is not completely defined by his homosexuality. It is an important part of him, yes, but so are his ambition, his concern for his sister, and his capacity for friendship."--Booklist
"A fast-paced and humorous chick-lit read, Carlos is sure of himself and yet willing to acknowledge when he makes mistakes. His loyalty to friends and family and grace under pressure come through as he overcomes stereotyping to achieve his goal."--Library Media Connection
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