Holy Grail

Holy Grail

Karen Gu


I welcome clients with my shopgirl singsong voice. At the store we make our clients more beautiful. We find their holy grail skincare and beauty regimens. Regimentation is key. A client buys more product with her holy grail regimen. She’ll come back in to adjust it, swap in one cream for another, a toner for a peel, and I’ll be here to help. The regimen evolves with the client. A regimen means more UPTs: more units per transaction, more sales.

The biggest UPT I’ve ever rung up was for the YouTuber. She looked familiar, and I could’ve sworn that I’d heard her voice before, but I couldn’t place her at first. She bought every lipstick in the store. It was hard to keep track of what had scanned and what hadn’t. Colleen helped wrap everything in tissue and filled up two giant bags as I swiped barcode over barcode over the quivering red light, over the steady beep beep beep.

As I scanned her lipsticks, she filmed with the newest, biggest, rose gold iPhone. Her makeup, like mine, was also nearing the end of its life at ten at night. She was oily in her T-zone, in the crevices of her nose. Her shimmery gold eyeshadow was creased, her lower lash line dotted with black flecks of crumbling mascara. The left inner corner of her eye was still pearlized with highlight, trapping the light; the shimmer was rubbed away on her right eye. Her lips curved into a high cupid’s bow, stained a deep blue-toned berry, the pigment clinging to dry patches. She was still beautiful, even under the hot lights at cash wrap.

Our employee discount is generous and encourages us to spend. We are on a quest to find our holy grail products too. The fixtures in the store are in constant motion. We get new shipments in every Wednesday night. This week is Luscious Lips. Next week is High-Impact Eyes. Next month is Double Points on Skincare. All the shiny plastic shelves are covered in oily fingerprints.

On my lunch break I go to the coffee shop in the food court. I get my usual. Hot oatmeal in a cardboard cup. The steel-cut oats steep for three minutes and then I tear into the paper packet of brown sugar, walnuts, and dried cranberries, stir it all up with a plastic spoon until it’s a thick sludge. I take it to go and eat in the back office.

There are bins of sample products there. We have to know the product to sell the product. We can test them out and take them home. We line them up on our vanities, hoard them in clear acrylic drawers.

The oatmeal sits in my stomach for the rest of my shift, reminding me of my body, my appetites. I get so thirsty under the hot lights. I feel crust building at the corners of my lips. As the day goes on, sweat and oil breaks up the makeup on my face. We touch up in the bathroom. We check each other’s teeth for lipstick.

Colleen tells me the YouTuber posted her video. I watch it at home. My hands are in the video. If you pause at 2 minutes and 39 seconds, you can see my chipped gold nail polish. We’re not supposed to have chipped polish at work. It doesn’t look good to the clients. I must have been picking at it. A bad habit. I think about the flecks of chipped polish I must breathe in. My spongy pink lungs studded with glitter and gold.

There are twenty million views and counting. She scoops out the lipstick with a butter knife, drops it into a giant vat. Without their tubes, the lipsticks look like stubby, misshapen crayons. They turn on the hot plate and the mass of pigment, wax, and oil moves and shimmers and shifts as it melts. Reds, browns, purples, pinks swirl into a hot raspberry glaze.

It’s Tuesday, my weekend, and I’m running errands, walking straight into the sun. I should’ve worn a hat, but at least my moisturizer is SPF 35. It’s a physical sunscreen. Colleen’s mom told me the small molecules in chemical sunscreen can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Colleen’s mom is a doctor, so she knows all about this stuff.

She smells like our perfume section: jasmine, sandalwood, cloying tuberose. She knows about ingredients, chemicals, about reading labels, neurotoxins and carcinogens, about detoxing, cleanses, and meditation. She floats around the aisles in palazzo pants and silk blouses with mother-of-pearl buttons. Her blowout glistens with healthy oils. Up close, fine downy hairs fuzz over her powdered skin. She saves her beauty points.

At the drugstore I am paralyzed in front of the nail polish display. The blues, the greens, the purples, the neutrals, the pinks, corals, reds, the glitters, the foiled metallics. I shake up the separated colors in glass bottles, bouncing the metal bead through layers of solvent, resin, pigment, pearl, plasticizer. Other women pass through the aisle, and I shift and crouch so they can look too. I can’t decide. I buy cotton balls, pantiliners, gummi bears, pure acetone nail polish remover.

Back at home, I survey my haul.

The nail polish remover looks almost identical to my alpha hydroxy acid facial toner. I set both pink plastic bottles on top of my bathroom vanity. It would be easy to mistake one for the other, to saturate a wispy cotton ball with the wrong solution. The smell would be the giveaway.

In high school chemistry class, our teacher brought out a styrofoam bust of a woman’s head to show us why we needed to wear safety goggles. Armed with a spray bottle of acetone, he pulled the trigger and liquified her styrofoam nose, eyes, mouth.

I am watching the YouTuber’s channel. Her videos keep me company as I put my makeup on in the morning and wash it away at night. They give me more ideas for client makeovers. She’s so successful now, but still seems down to earth, chatting to her camera, to me and everyone else watching. Like we’re all her friends.

Her tutorials always look so easy. The camera speeds up, fast-forwarding layers of eyeshadow, blush, and foundation. Her white teeth flash in quick, bleached smiles. Watch her dip her fan brush into a pan of frosty pearl highlighter. Watch her tap tap tap off the excess product before swiping across the high points of her face: cheekbones, browbones, bridge of the nose, cupid’s bow.


I watch WHAT’S IN MY MEDICINE CABINET: Her medicine cabinet is all glass and mirrors. Its shelves are full of serums, toners, primers, lotions, sunblock, eye cream, face cream, face masks, eye masks, lip masks, acids, and exfoliants. A jade roller, a microdermal needling roller, a metal stand for a stained pink beauty blender.

The ASMR of beauty products in acrylic drawers washes over me as I floss my teeth. Click clack of plastic against plastic. Compacts of pressed powder and highlighter clicking open and shut.

A chime sounds as I sweep mascara onto my eyelashes, looking up, eyes about to water. She has posted a new video: WHY I’M SWITCHING TO CLEAN BEAUTY. I put the mascara wand back in its tube and click play.

It feels like she’s looking right at me as I watch. “Now that I melted all these lipsticks together, I want to talk about why I did it. I wanted to test the average toxicity of all the lipsticks sold in the biggest beauty chain in the country. We got this lipstick mix sent out to the lab, and you wouldn’t believe the results. They were so much worse than I’d anticipated. Across brands, colors, formulas, the unifying similarity is contamination from heavy metals such as lead, aluminum, cadmium, and chromium. A few years ago the FDA did a mass test on lipstick toxicity, and it’s still the same. We’re swiping poison on our lips every day.”

She said the average woman eats up to six pounds of lipstick in a lifetime.

I think of all the days I carefully applied lipstick in the morning, outlining my cupid’s bow and then filling in my top and bottom lip, pressing them together, inspecting, smudging the edges with my fingers, making sure I got the corners of my mouth, pressing again, and finally blotting off the excess with a tissue to create a lived-in soft look, a blurred velvety finish all before I got on the bus.

But where does my lipstick go during the day? I touch up on my fifteen-minute breaks, my lunch break, my bathroom breaks. How many layers have I applied, and why do I always need another swipe, another application?

I pause the video and open my medicine cabinet. It has three plastic shelves. All my bottles and tubes and pots and palettes are organized by color. One by one, I peel back their labels to reveal even more ingredients. I hold lip gloss and lipsticks close to my eyes so I can read their fine print, their trace ingredients.

I take all my products out of the cabinet and jumble them in the sink. It gave me great satisfaction to bury my hands in the pile, to hear the plastic and glass clinking together against the porcelain basin. I was comforted by the abundance, the possibilities in their pigment, shimmer, and powder. Now their labels are in disarray, their glossy veneers scratched and torn. My fingers are sticky with adhesive. I clean them with acetone and the smell burns my nostrils.

I unpause the video and she continues, “Hopefully, you’re here at my channel because the idea of eating six pounds of lipstick scared you into clicking. We should be afraid. Mass cosmetics manufacturers are molding lipsticks from toxic chemicals like lead and endocrine-disrupting chemicals like phthalates and parabens. In your beloved tube of red lipstick could be petroleum-based compounds, butylated compounds, heavy metals. And just think, this is all sitting around your mouth, and as soon as you drink coffee, have your morning muffin, and eat lunch, you’re eating all of those nasty toxic ingredients from your lipstick too.

“Thankfully, we’re living in an age when clean beauty is flourishing. There’s another way to have your lipstick and to eat it too! It’s all about finding good nontoxic ingredients in your makeup and skincare. After all, the skin is the largest organ of the body. We have to take care of it, and we especially want to take care of our faces and our beautiful mouths. From now on, this is what my channel is all about. Finding the best clean beauty for you. Don’t forget to subscribe if you like this video, and as always, thanks for watching!”

Colleen’s mom is back in the store again. She’s here every Saturday, like clockwork. “It’s so nice to see you,” I chirp. “Did you see Colleen? She’s restocking skincare.” I ring her up for expensive serums in glass bottles with dropper caps. I scan the labels. They say fresh, natural, botanical, organic, pure, glow, collagen-stimulating. “I haven’t tried these yet,” I tell her.

“Oh, you have to,” she says, scanning my face, and I wonder if she’s looking at the foundation pilling on my dry skin, the flakes of mascara that have fallen off my lower lash line, making my eyes water.

“I got Colleen started on these. It’s never too early to start with anti-aging products. And you know, it’s important to read the ingredients. A lot of these brands pack their products with toxins.”

I survey the store. The rows of powder compacts, glosses, bronzers, highlighters, perfumes, the colors, the shimmers, the mattes. The wastebaskets of stained tissues and cotton swabs. I see women dipping their fingers into pans of blue, gold, violet, pink, copper eyeshadows, swiping the pigment on the back of their hands, the insides of their wrists, daubed onto their eyelids. I see women testing perfume on their erogenous zones, spritz and dab dab dab. I see women sponging foundation samples onto their necks and peering into the magnifying mirrors.

Colleen’s mother is waiting.

“I’m sorry. The ingredients, of course. You’re right, you’re right.”

She waves off my apology. I notice her immaculate cranberry gel manicure, her plump moisturized cuticles.

“It’s easy to forget that our skin is our largest organ. We have to protect it. Anyways, I don’t want to talk your ear off. You have customers. Colleen is sick of my lectures. You know her. She does what she wants. Thanks for your help, honey.”

On my break, I blot my face with toilet paper in the bathroom. The thin tissue soaks up the sweat, the oil, the bits of concealer that have lifted off my skin. I fish out a brick red lipstick from my apron. Reapply, blot, press my lips together, clean up the corners of my mouth with my fingers. My hands never feel clean here. I’m covered in a film of oil and pigment.

Colleen wrinkles her nose at my oatmeal.

“I can’t believe you eat that every day,” she says. “Don’t you get sick of it?”

I shrug. “It’s cheap. I feel full afterwards.” She chews a forkful of takeout salad. The spring mix gleams with oily vinaigrette. Red beets, yellow peppers, purple cabbage slicked to a high shine with dressing. I’m careful not to muss my lipstick with spoonfuls of oatmeal.

Colleen’s mouth is painted a figgy purple. More and more gets wiped away with each bite of her salad, leaving a ring of anemic pink in the middle of her lips. I point to my mouth.

“Your lipstick’s wearing off.”

She checks her face in her phone. “Shit. I never remember to wear longwear when I eat salads.” She wipes off the remainder with a food court napkin. The rough paper picks up some concealer around her mouth. She leaves a purple and beige kiss behind, crumples it in her fist. “I saw your mom today,” I tell her. “She bought all this organic stuff. I didn’t know we sold all that.”

Colleen rolls her eyes, her lids packed with copper shimmer. “She’s so full of it. Last year it was lemon water every morning, goat milk, and gluten free, and now it’s all-natural skin this and chemical-free that. She gets Botox, you know. That’s not natural.”

“It looks like it’s working for her. Whatever she’s doing.”

“You know, she just got this huge laser treatment on her face. She had to stay home for a week. You can’t go in the sun at all. Your face cracks like an egg and you have a new face underneath. That’s why she looks so good right now. She was molting skin all over the house.”

I’m opening today. The first hour no clients come through the doors, and I restock the single aisle of clean beauty products in the store. Here are the glass pots of paraben-free cleansing balm and the adaptogen moisturizer. Here are the antioxidant kale juice face washes and the ginger eye creams. Each product description tag in this section features a small green leaf. I read the fine print: “All clean brands are free of sodium lauryl sulfates, parabens, phthalates, mineral oil, formaldehydes, oxybenzone, coal tar, hydroquinone, triclosan, and triclocarbon.”

If this is the only section in the store with clean beauty, then all the other products must have one or more of those ingredients. Isn’t that just like when a fast-food chain advertises their chicken nuggets as 100 percent meat? What were they made of before? Shouldn’t we mark the rest of the products in the store with a tiny pink skull and crossbones?

The first client of the day walks in. She is a frail older woman wearing a pink sweater set, her hair a cloud of frizzy white. She is looking for some lipstick. I look at her thin lips, her crepey eyelids. At her age, surely a more natural formula would be better for her health. I walk her over to the clean beauty section and swatch a few coral and pink coconut oil–based lipsticks on my wrist for her.

“You know, I’m looking for something with more coverage. I don’t like to waste time reapplying. I like really bright colors with good staying power. I usually don’t shop from this section. Will you show me the new corals in the front section?”

“Oh, of course,” I stammer. “I just thought you might be interested in this section because it’s made with healthy botanicals and natural ingredients. I mean, there are a lot of chemicals in these cosmetics and it’s important to be aware of the risk.”

“Honey, I’m old. I’m at risk for everything. I came in here to get a new lipstick, not to get a health lecture. Are you a doctor or what?”

I look down, my face getting hot. “No, ma’am. I’m not a doctor and I apologize. Here, let’s go look at the new summer shades over in the front.”

More clients stream into the store. Sometimes they ignore me and sometimes they ask for my help. I guide the clients to the clean beauty section. I try to keep nerves from wavering my voice. And I’m guilty when I don’t sell them on our clean products, and they just keep walking toward the front to brush their fingers across bright eyeshadow palettes undoubtedly packed full of toxins.

What about all the power and dust swept into the air by our clients? What is it doing to our lungs? We do cough a lot in the store, phlegm rattling in our throats, disrupting the Muzak. Are our lungs shimmering with micro glitter? Are our esophagi streaked with metallic lip gloss and a spectrum of lipsticks? Is our foundation, our blush, bronzer, highlight seeping into our bloodstream, muddying the dark red?

Some clients don’t mind the tour of our clean beauty section.

“I didn’t know this was here,” they say.

“I’ve never heard of clean beauty,” they say.

“I guess I’ve been using dirty products all along,” they say.
Most clients don’t like me explaining what clean beauty is. I can see the mental calculations in their faces, trying to guess which percentage of the products in their medicine cabinets and makeup bags are clean and which are dirty, toxic, poison.

I modify my client greeting. I ask if they’ve been introduced to our clean beauty aisle yet. When they say they’re not interested, I demur and help them find what they are looking for. When I pick their colors and shades out of the backstock drawers, I can’t help but read over the ingredients.

The letters are so tiny. I hold the tubes, the jars, the compacts close to my eyes. I whisper the dirty ingredients to myself. My mouth fumbles over the spiky words, the shapeshifting molecules, melted and stirred into almost everything in this shop of colorful poison. When I get back on the floor with the products in hand, the chemicals are on the tip of my tongue, ready to spill out in a stream of syllables. It’s not my place to tell them, but don’t I have a responsibility to inform them? I bring out a champagne glitter eyeshadow to a client and hesitate before handing over the smooth black box.

“You know, there’s a great dupe of this shadow in our clean beauty section. I just wanted to let you know because our eyes can be so sensitive.”

The client looks me up and down. A sneer curls at her lips. “Um, I’m okay, thanks,” she says and heads over to cash wrap.

Colleen rings her up, and when she’s finished she comes over to me. I’m straightening the palettes and gift sets.

“What’s up with you today?”

“I watched that YouTuber’s newest video. It went viral. Remember the one who came in the store? She melted all the lipsticks and tested the composite formula. All these lipsticks we’re selling. They’re full of poison.”

I lick my lips. They get so dry in the store.

There was a woman who did her makeup on the bus. I saw her on my way to open the store. She must have primed and moisturized at home. She opened up her milky green plastic blush compact and applied it with quick strokes to her cheekbones. Her frosted pink fingernails moved in a blur as her cheeks became awash with pink. When she tapped off the excess on her brush, the powder swirled in the light.

I wonder if there was talc in the blush. It can be contaminated with asbestos. It can settle in the lungs, the bronchial tubes. I was sitting right behind her. Could she see me peering at her in her compact mirror? But she was in a hurry. She pressed eyeshadow into her thin eyelids, tugging at the delicate skin with the cheap sponge tip applicator that came in the package. The shadow was lavender shimmer. It looked garish on her pale skin. Then mascara as the bus stopped and started, her eye watering after the brush stung her eye. Her lashes went from blonde to spidery black. She thumbed away black tears. Now for the lips. A sticky mauve gloss with a doe-foot applicator. I could smell it from my seat: vanilla sugar cookie.

The heat is warping everything. Behind the bathroom mirror, along the smooth plastic shelves of my medicine cabinet, new natural lipsticks are sweating beads of sweet almond oil. Aluminum-free sandalwood deodorant is easing into a powdery softness that will smear too much under the arm. A chubby stick of shimmery coconut-oil highlighter is losing its shape, its flat surface melting into a wet dimple.

The sun slants through the blinds in bright white stripes, warming the glass bottles of essential oils and organic facial toners on the sill. In a few months, the active ingredients in these products will be rendered inert by the light.

At night, the air is still warm. A soft breeze rustles the leaves in the dark, cools sweaty brows, and rubs lilac petals against each other. This evening, at this temperature, with this humidity and this particular breeze, allows the lilacs to release their perfume, heady and sweet, intoxicating. I smell it from across the street, breathe it in deeply through my nose and then through my mouth, hoping to taste it.

I follow the scent in the darkness, mouth watering, nostrils flaring, and then there is the overgrown lilac bush in the neighbor’s yard. Up close, I can see the pale purple blossoms, and I hold a bunch close to my face. I crush them in my fists, hoping the scent will cling to my skin. I pluck the crushed flowers from the bush, take them inside, and press them on my pulse points: behind each ear, inside each wrist and elbow, the bottom of my throat.

On Instagram, I watch a beauty editor guillotine lipsticks with a steel palette knife. They yield to the blade like butter. With the flat side of the knife, she mashes chunks of lipstick together. The steel chimes against the glass palette as she works solid into semiliquid. We almost never see her hand, only the knife, dragging and mixing pigment. The neat square of the frame is awash in unctuous color: fiery red smeared into metallic purple becomes glistening magenta; dusty pink dragged into lilac blossoms into lavender; pearlescent copper smashed into blackberry becomes mauve shimmer. By the end, the lipsticks are unrecognizable. They have lost their branded packaging, their shape, their original color, and smeared across the glass, they look like oil paints being prepared for the canvas.

The YouTuber has a new video up called MY NEW BEAUTY PHILOSOPHY. “Hi, everyone, thanks for tuning into my channel. Those of you who have been following me from the beginning, back when I was a baby YouTuber and slathering my face with a toxic sludge of chemical cosmetics, know how far I’ve come. Since detoxing my face, skin, and body, you’ve seen me partner with a range of reputable clean and nontoxic beauty brands. I especially loved products that were clean enough to eat. That means the formulations were organic, natural, and from the earth without any of the toxic fragrances, stabilizers, fixers, and chemicals typically found in conventional cosmetic and skincare products. I’ll link my edible beauty mukbang in the description box below.

“Well, I have a big change to announce. Through deep investigation into ancient alternative cleansing therapies, I have found my new beauty philosophy away from the marketplace. I’m not interested in shilling product anymore and am dedicating this channel to all of you who are the beauty detox path with me. In order to draw out all the toxins we have absorbed through years of using conventional products, I’m reintroducing these ingredients to my body as medicine so I can achieve my maximum healing potential. All you need is a small amount to stimulate your body’s healing mechanisms. Keep watching if you want to learn more.”

It makes sense in a way. We need the poison to get rid of the poison. Like inoculation. Like vaccines. The contaminant is the cure.

Colleen’s mom and her Botox, her lasers, her molting skin peeling open to reveal her healthier face. Look at her, she’s glowing.

Use the knife edge of your front tooth to make the first bite. The lipstick will be soft under your calcium-enriched teeth. The surface will be oily at first, like putting a cold pat of butter on your tongue. When it warms up to body temperature, the bullet will melt into a pigment-ed chemical cream, coating the mouth, smearing your teeth with glossy, magenta, pink, red. When you rub your tongue over the roof of your mouth, it’ll stick like peanut butter. It will taste bitter at first and then, as it settles into your palate, it won’t taste like anything any-more. Look in the mirror. Stick out your tongue. Smile. Your mouth is the hot color of the season.


Karen Gu is a fiction writer living in Minneapolis. She was a 2018 Yi Dae Up Fellow at the Jack Jones Retreat and a 2017–18 Fiction Fellow in the Loft Mentor Series. Her writing can be found in The Margins and McSweeney’s

Illustration by Meg Lionel Murphy.

Grin & Shimmy

Grin & Shimmy