Photo: Adrian Kinloch
Her friends saw enviably rosy cheeks. She saw 18th-century painted ladies. Her dermatologist saw a skin condition with an unpronounceable name. After a few false starts, Jessica Winter finally stops turning red.
My facial features have never necessarily matched my inner state. My pupils are somewhat dilated most of the time, as if I've just bumped my head or dropped acid. In college I was constantly misplacing my glasses, and I was hopeless when it came to the minimal upkeep required for contact lenses; as a result, I tended to wander around campus squinting at people like the Wicked Witch sizing up Dorothy, even when I was in a Glinda kind of mood. I have a deviated septum—breathing through my nose was a skill I acquired only as a teenager—and a short upper lip, which means that in unguarded moments my mouth hangs open in bovine wonderment, even on days when I feel relatively confident of my three-digit IQ.
Then there are my cheeks. (The ones on my face.) Until recently, they blazed bright red day and night, in every season and emotional climate. I could spend an afternoon curled up on the sofa with a bag of Pirate's Booty and a month's worth of Us Weekly magazines and still look as if I'd just run a marathon in 100-degree heat, given birth at the finish line, and felt really embarrassed about it. For most people, a deep blush can signal exertion, coyness, shame, anger. For me, it could additionally indicate boredom, happiness, fatigue, or "What's for lunch?"
All my life, my cheeks were an unsolvable problem, blaring at me from every reflective surface in varying shades of cherry blossom, spiced burgundy, and scarlet fever. I've tried every concealer on the market, matched to my otherwise pale skin. Each would throw a translucent veil over the fire, like a shawl over a lamp; hours later, I'd peer into my compact and see Santa Claus staring back at me again, almost as if those overactive vessels beneath my skin could pump fast and hot enough to vaporize mere titanium dioxide and talc.
When I was 21, I stopped by a cosmetics counter at a mall in New Haven. They told me to exfoliate.
"No, it's not zits or irritation or anything," I said. "It's just blood vessels. See, there's nothing wrong with the actual skin." I patted my cheeks reassuringly.
I might as well have dragged my nails across my face. Cosmetics Girl No. 1 actually shrieked. "No, don't touch it! You'll make it worse."
"No, it's under the skin," I said. "It's not the skin."
"You're not washing right," said Cosmetics Girl No. 2. "You have to treat your skin better."
"I have perfect skin," I said ridiculously.
"Try this scrub," No. 1 said, warming up for a pitch.
I paused. "Would you tell me to scrub a birthmark?" I asked. "Or a mole?"
"Depends," No. 2 said.
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