Lipstick by Lujain AlMulla

The ceremony was over. Almost over. We could tell because of the unnecessary aggrandizement of official personnel, who frankly had sod all to do with the graduation of this year’s batch of students, being lavished with words of thanks in yet another speech stitched with cliches. Formalities, formalities—enough to make your stomach churn. Many thanks to this guy, that one and the other. Flatter fest galore! In all honesty, I could only gather the odd chain of honourifics strung to important names and flowery well-wishing words directed at the graduates. You couldn’t hear much over the raucous noise in the stadium stands, but I could get the sense that it was a monotonous drone of ceremonial civility.

“Let’s get out of here before it gets too crowded at the exit”, I whispered, or rather, shouted in my cousin’s ear. She nodded and obliged.

Luckily for us, we had spotted two chairs as soon as we arrived at the venue, a tad late I should add, facing the centre of the stadium field, at the back of the stands, but close enough to see our cousin beaming in her graduates chair.

“The rest of the gang are sat over there” she pointed into the distance, “at the very end of the stands. Let’s try to catch up with them before they leave. We’ll wait for Dhai at the end, there, take some photos, and maybe head out to a nice place for dinner with her, yeah?”

“Why not”. We got up from our seats and made our way waddling sideways down the row towards the stairway. We alternated between excuse mes and sorrys for every person seated who had to have their view of the pitch replaced momentarily with our derrieres. After finally getting there, we realized that we now had to somehow make a way between a crowd of people who couldn’t find a seat and so decided to watch the ceremony standing on the stairs. Great. I was Moses and I was splitting the Red Sea with an outstretched arm for a staff. Pardon me. Pardon me. Pardon me. And we were finally down that flight of stairs. Now what? We had made it to the bottom platform but there was no way we could make it across. People were packed across it like sardines.

“We should try moving in the opposite direction and maybe we’ll find a way down to the pitch”, I suggested and of course, my cousin had no choice but to follow suit. A little less stacked with people, we scrunched our shoulders and zigzagged our way across the platform, occasionally ducking when we blocked the view of someone taking a photograph. All we needed was a military uniform and we were reenacting an episode of the Great War—two soldiers struggling across a row of  trenches. We jumped at the sound of a big bang coming from above and for a second I wondered if my conscience was taking the World War 1 scenario I was dreaming up a little too seriously. “Incoming!” I felt the urge to yell. But it wasn’t the bang of a missile, it was the evening’s firework display. And surely enough, people were now stopping to watch the fireworks, stacking up like tiles in a game of Tetris and I was having that moment of panic when you frantically try to stop the tiles from filling up the whole screen. Game over.

We were now faced with a choice. Either join the crowd and ooh and aah at the mediocre fireworks display, or take a detour up a flight of stairs that lead us nowhere closer to where we were trying to go. We took the stairs and we were back in the stands, clueless.

“Now what do we do?” I asked with little hope. My cousin pointed up the tiers with wide eyes. I looked to where she was pointing and surely enough, I saw a group of people sliding across the very back of the stands, making a way to the far left. It was our best shot and so we darted back up the stairs—a flight that wasn’t so crowded—and made it to the back wall. We shuffled sideways through the little space between the wall and the last tier, making it a fair distance across, and after stepping into several puddles of goo, our passage was blocked by metal rails that sloped all the way down. No big deal; I put one leg up and over the rails and then the other, and voila. Now, my cousin’s turn. She looked at me with a sardonic smile.

“What is it? Come on get over here”

“I’m in a skirt”

“Come on! After that Indiana Jones obstacle course, you’re going to let a skirt stop you! No one’s looking. Everyone’s heading downstairs. Look, I’ll sit on the rails in front of you and somehow cover it up”.

Just when she was about to go for it, we noticed two guys standing adjacent to us, arms folded as if ready to watch a live spectacle.

“Okay, now I’m definitely not crossing over with those sleazebags standing there”, she whispered, “just go ahead without me. I’ll try to make a way through the crowd”. We both looked downstairs with a gulp.

“You won’t make it through alive”. This was the part in every Hollywood film where the hero goes “I won’t desert you”, and, of course, I wouldn’t want to disrupt the Indiana Jones scenario reeling in my head, so I jumped back over the rails and we made our way down the tiered seats, finally coming to a halt at the back of a line of people heading towards some screened exit.

I am not good with crowds and this was slowly turning into a nightmare situation. Five steps per minute, I think we were taking. People’s breath was getting thicker and the racket was getting louder as we squeezed into the crowd. We finally reached the bottom platform, and the exit was slowly appearing in view. We just had to bear through this last flock of people. Odors oozed from every which direction and I began to feel woozy. A woman behind me was so crammed up against me, I could feel every sweaty fold of her body and I began to feel sick.

“Could you please stop pushing”, I snapped at her, “we’re not moving!”. She mumbled some incoherent answer behind her burqa. Focus on the exit, now. Focus. Just when I thought I was regaining some sense of stability in my mind, I felt the woman’s hand on my shoulder. I tried to move forward so she would move it off. It worked for five seconds before she placed it on my shoulder again. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s strangers touching me, so I pushed forward again. She then placed both hands on my shoulders and I could feel a panic attack bubbling. We’re not doing the conga line dance. There’s no conga music playing. Get your grummy hands off me, I wanted to scream out. Instead, I just flicked them away. I think she got the message then.

Getting closer to the exit, we could see that it was a short narrow stairway that lead to the pitch ground. The Chariots of Fire theme tune was playing in my head—a fitting soundtrack since we were practically moving in slow motion. A few more steps and I would be freed from this nightmare. I could finally breathe air that wasn’t 50% vaporized sweat and 30% body odor. Chariots of Fire was now blaring in my head and getting to its climatic piano sequence. We crammed between a few more people and finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel. I hung on to the my cousin’s shirt and we trudged down that last flight of stairs. We made it. Now where’s that darned fireworks display?

I could feel my lungs expanding with crisp fresh air, but still squirming at the thought of that woman pressing up behind me. I shook out a few more shudders from my bones and relaxed. My cousin and I shared a big reassuring smile and just as I was about to gesture a “phew” by swiping the back of my hand across my forehead, I noticed a dark red smudge smeared across my hand. Blood? I wish it were blood. I would have reacted less frantically if it were blood. In fact, it was a lipstick stain. My every being was cringing and convulsing because, you see, I wasn’t wearing any lipstick. Have you ever seen a baby fall on its face and then choke on its breath for a few seconds before building up a roaring cry. That’s the only was I could describe how I was reacting. All I could picture was someone, somewhere on the stadium grounds reapplying their crimson shade of lipstick.


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