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The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

All Issues
JUL-AUG 2020 Issue
Fiction

Eau de Toilette

“In the end they chose safety over design, of course” Astrid said, tapping a marble tile with her fingers. “Carrara. And the fixtures – surprise surprise – Hansgrohe.” She surveyed the contours of her face in the bathroom mirror, patted some Creme de la Mer on her neck. “How do I look?” she asked, but she didn’t really need reassurance. Still, I nodded and smiled. While ruffling her hair she took notice of my reflection, furrowed her eyebrows. She then dabbed a lick of cream from the pot to each of my cheeks.

“You’ve hardly got any make-up on,” she said. “You could have made a little more of an effort, you know. This will make you more glowy.”

“I didn’t want anything too heavy. Plus, my allergies – ”

“– But there are ways and means, Emilie. God, you don’t even have blush on.”

She opened a golden compact, one of those hundred-dollar palettes.

“Okay so just hold still.” I closed my eyes. “I’d contour your nose and cheekbones, too, but my contour shade’s basically your skin colour…What do you think?”

“It looks great, thanks!” My face looked greasy. My skin prickled. The make-up felt like lead.

As we left the toilets, she reminded me to walk as if a thread were pulling me to the ceiling.

Launch day, and already the hotel seemed a little passé, though I knew it would never be this perfect again. Salt wind will lash at the wood furniture, sculpting it in subtle, irreparable ways. Thousands of fingernails will abrade the bed linen, curtains, the white decorative sea urchins made of clay. Only our words would be permanent. We were responsible for all the copywriting and branding, everything from the website to the bar menu to the positive, directional phrases inscribed on the spa walls. Beauty only prospers with self-care. Disruptive wellness for a new generation. Immutable diction immured in brand guidelines.

The hotel had hauled in journalists, models, musicians of the moment, influencers with a minimum follower count of half a million, the model DJs and the proper DJs. The only tourists there would be the ones who’d paid a premium to meld with the A-list. Photos of the event would be featured in Vogue, GQ, Tatler. In the next eight hours, the hotel would cement its core identity in a party that would be described as ‘beau monde’, ‘luminous’, ‘as incandescent as the Mauritian sun,’ as per the press kit.

But it was eight in the morning and only the reception staff were around. Zak, the communications and events manager, wasn’t waiting for us in the lobby as scheduled. A receptionist informed us that he was entertaining influencers by the pool. “Perfect, thank you” Astrid snapped. She opened her compact, seeking stability in her reflection; she then proceeded to sip her welcome cocktail for as long as the shot glass allowed, hoping Zak would turn up. She wanted to impress him with her physique. Today was to be one of the climaxes of her career. She’d worked indefatigably on the branding, the language, her body. I was tasked with tracking the designer dresses from Net-a-Porter, classifying all the firming, sculpting, polishing, perfecting creams she’d bought online, and scheduling her cross-training sessions, dermal fillers, pilates, yoga. She was the hard-earned end-product of all her efforts. A blush-toned slip dress. Two ultra-fine gold bracelets languished on her wrist. A series of statement rings gilded her fingers. She sported her signature cat-eye sunglasses, which she believed bestowed upon her a distinctively clipped, intellectual look. If all went to plan for Astrid today, we’d never have to ring a potential client again. And I’d promised myself that this would be the last month I’d work for her.

“Right, Emilie, let’s head to the pool. Not too fast, now.” She click-clacked her heels slowly down the main staircase, providing Zak with ample time to take note of her presence. I could visualise the puerile scene running through Astrid’s head: he’d notice her, then he’d come over to the staircase and offer her his arm. She’d be introduced to the influencers with sufficient gravitas, she’d pique their interest. Maybe they’d even ask her if she’d like to work for them in developing an aspect of their brand. Maybe she’d even gain a follow back on Instagram. But he wasn’t looking at her. He was devoted to the tanned bodies basking on white sun loungers, dripping in advertised wealth.

“Right,” she declared again, tousling her hair, angling her body on the banister. “Right. Click click click. No no, don’t take out the Canon. Just the phone. It’ll look authentic.” I took her portrait, then captured the unravelling panorama of blue; the lagoon, the jagged indigo mountains in the distance. We’d matched segments of the environment to Pantone colours for the hotel’s Instagram page; I uploaded the photo, hashtagged PantoneAmparoBlue. Zak still hadn’t turned to see us.

“Astrid, relax. Just walk down the stairs” I said.

“Walking up to them like that, it’s sad –”

“We’re not guests, we’re professionals. Walk down there like a professional.” I put my hand on her lower back, edging her down.

Thankfully Zak noticed her in time and waved us over.

“BAAABES!” he called out to us. Astrid and Zak air kissed. The models nodded their heads in acknowledgment of her presence, then got up to leave. They had just about two hours to get ready for the brunch, the launch’s major daytime event.

Zak kissed me on both cheeks, asked a waiter for champagne and caviar blinis.

“Astrid, you look gorgeous! Wow, Emilie, you look so great!” he said. Astrid beamed.

“If she were taller you could have mistaken her for one of the models. Maybe even Emily Ratajkowski, if our Emilie had straight hair.” Astrid said, rubbing my forearm. “That nice tanned Creole skin, you know?”

Astrid had ordered an outfit for me today and had refused to let me pay her back; a black slip dress, though more conservatively cut than her own. I wondered whether I’d have to return it when I eventually gave my resignation, or if I should keep it as a bonus.

“She does, absolutely!” he said, as the waiter handed out the champagne. We lifted our glasses up to the sun, sang “chin-chin!” in chorus.

“Now, shall we go through these quickly?” he said, removing the launch brochures that he’d tucked under a towel. They’d been printed this morning, after we’d made a few last-minute changes. They promised chic entertainment, a selection of Moët & Chandon and locally sourced produce. Each page had a ‘champagne header’ that I’d crafted.

I want champagne and one that bubbles up with might and main – Goethe

Much like his champagne, as soon as Monsieur Moët enters the room boredom disappears - A contemporary of Jean-Remy Moët.

“A pleasingly literary touch” said Astrid, reading them out. “And thank you again, Zak, for giving us so much freedom with the words”.

“My pleasure! I think there’s real artistry to what you do,” he said, refilling my glass, though I’d raised my hand to stop him.

“Relax a little, Emilie,” he said, his free hand pinching my shoulder in a semblance of a massage. Hospitality people were always like that, taking liberties, treating other people they worked with as if they really were a family. But what else could be expected of them? They lived in or around the hotel. They hardly went home.

“Yes, relax, Emilie,” Astrid added, nodding, encouraging me. “It’s a day to celebrate. The fruit of all our efforts.”

“Can’t, sorry. Allergies.” I said, and Astrid grimaced, like I’d ruined the moment, like I’d announced that I had leprosy. Zak looked happily bemused. He puckered his mouth into an expectant ‘oh’, as if I were about to reveal a secret.

“Er – you can’t take antihistamines if you’ve had alcohol,” I explained. “But I guess a sip won’t hurt.” Zak and Astrid resumed their beaming smiles. Ungrateful bitch. She knew – she must know – that besides the urticaria I hardly drink because she required too much looking after. She’d get too excited about projects and would describe exactly how she’d brand a product without having signed the contract; she’d become overly friendly with clients during launch parties, entangle herself in all kinds of trouble. I rose my eyebrows at her as I took one sip.

As they drank, Zak told Astrid all about the models who he’d been with this morning.

“They didn’t say anything, but I could tell they were pissed because they were given standard rooms, not villas. Obviously, they were allocated rooms according to their follower count, so it’s not like they could complain anyway. Like, who are they compared to Solana Vela? Anyway.” he said, throwing his hands in the air, as if to ward off their grievances.

“I so agree” Astrid said. “Speaking of Solana – let’s see what she’s up to.” We huddled on the sofa as she opened Instagram. Solana’s story showed her twirling around in a jade jumpsuit; ‘Retro Bianca Jagger’, she’d captioned. The influencer was the person Astrid was most excited to meet. “She has like, these tentacular feelers that go straight from her screen to our screens, you know? She’s really savvy,” Astrid said. I’d heard the phrase countless of times before. We even had Solana’s portrait blu-tacked in the office, as a reminder of our company’s goal: create feelers of our own, tailored to each client.

“I’d better take photos of the set-up, before the guests arrive.” I said, getting up from the lounger. I spent the next hour taking shots of the lounge area around the pool, which we’d branded Alma. I thought the name was slick, millennial and wellness-oriented. Alma had emerged from my computer into this version of real life, pristine: tee-pees with white dream catchers, fluffy rugs, artificial sugarcane flowers in terracotta vases. A glass walkway led to a platform in the centre of the pool, equipped with a DJ deck and speakers spray-painted rose gold. I personally didn’t approve of the tee-pees, but Zak had insisted. There was a distinct lack of a Mauritian signature, as was custom now with new five-stars across the island. Local was cringey, cheap. You’d give cocktails Kreol language names at the most. No sega dancers every evening, no curries, lentils and rugay for dinner. A certain erasure was desirable. Understated elegance. Japanese-Peruvian cuisine. Molecular cocktails. Even the beach had been rebranded, it was now called Helios. The shore had been raked of all impurities, the sea cleansed of all barbed creatures, the beach almost fluffy with sand extracted from the lagoon.

“Let me see!” Zak demanded with his usual enthusiasm, as I sat back down again. He took my camera, pressed through the photos I’d taken of Alma. “Very nice,” he purred, tapping my knee with his other hand.

“Ooh! And what’s this?” He’d pressed back to pictures of a wedding I’d shot last month. “Can I…?” he asked, his hand still on the button.

“Sure,” I shrugged.

“Hey, these are really great!” He removed his hand from my knee and used it to shield the screen from the sun’s glare. “I love this one. This is a Mauritian couple? I didn’t know you did weddings.’ He looked up. ‘Astrid, is this a new business venture of yours?”

I saw the thought manifesting in Astrid’s face, could predict the way she’d raise her eyebrows, half-smile and say a coy “maybe”. Later, she’d justify herself by saying it was good for our brand, that we looked like we were truly in sync. She’d only started acting this way recently; now she signed her emails off with ‘Astrid & Emilie’, talked about how maybe it was time that I’d officially become a ‘partner’. I was supposed to be thrilled. I’d be given shares in the company, I’d have enough to take a loan from the bank and buy an apartment, leave my parents’ home.

“No no, it’s just a little thing I’m doing.’ I answered quickly, glancing at Astrid. Her smile was strained.

I’d earned enough money now to start properly freelancing as a photographer. I wanted to get away from the exuberant trash that I was obliged to write. I didn’t want to type perfect minimalist gypset-bohemian ever again. I wanted to get away from language altogether, in fact. All the people here were walking manicures, and I wanted to document the cracks, the real life. Weddings and birth stories, to start. There was an element of performance, especially in weddings, but I was still capturing genuine feeling. Real anxiety, doubt, resolve. A bride alone in her room, two fingers massaging the bridge between her eyes, or the one who’d clasp her hands in prayer, thumbs under her chin or in her mouth. Most of those types of photos never made it to the final cut, but I kept them in a special folder. I liked to think that they represented something – as if I’d shattered a polished fingernail and gotten to the blood.

“But Astrid’s tinkering with the idea of a private social club,” I told Zak. “One or two venues in the centre of the island, so that business people can easily go there to work or head there after work, and another two or three venues around the coast, for the weekend. In fact, if there were a private lounge area away from hotel guests, Alma would be perfect.”

“Oh but we can make that happen! That’d be fantastic. And we’ve been looking for ways to penetrate the local market, too, get the élite more involved” he said, effusive.

Astrid couldn’t have smiled any wider, her gratitude so earnest, so manifest, it was embarrassing. She’d binned the idea long ago, actually. It was her first project, when she came back to Mauritius, fresh from Oxford and with no friends. She’d wanted to forge her first-class circle. She’d brunched on colonial estates, tanned on private catamarans, but none of her networking attempts had gone as planned. She learned too late that designing a group of influential friends started from birth in this country. She didn’t have the necessary connections. Her would-be friends were about to inherit their parents’ conglomerates, the businesses that ran the private sector. They didn’t want anything to do with ‘new money’ types.

Ten a.m., and Zak led us to out-of-the-way seats as the influencers trickled in. We sat huddled on white sofas covered by an oversized beige umbrella, from which we could watch the scene without disturbing the influencers with our presence. We’d enable them to behave more naturally, as if among friends only. They had already formed groups, as predicted: assistants had shifted sofas and loungers into literal Spheres of Influence. The business of posing had begun. Solana was slo-mo stretching by the tee-pees with her entrepreneur-slash-artist husband. Her assistant captured all the action. Some models in white swimsuits and matching silk kimonos worked the cameras by the palm trees; their bodies glistened in shimmering oil. No-one was in the pool. Other influencers had fun posing with gold-dipped lobsters, treating them as jewellery. The model June River connected her rose gold headphones to her rose gold laptop and played her set, moving her fingers across the vinyl in semi-realistic fashion. The air was filled with EDM..

“Is that Demetrius over there?” said Astrid. “My God, what a disappointment.” The Grammy winner had made no effort. He basked on a lounger like a lizard, earphones in, thick black sunglasses covering half his face. “Black fucking board shorts” she added, incredulous.

Zak patted her hand. “His name is enough for us,” he said.

I sat back and watched in a kind of reluctant awe. The influencers – or the assistants, rather – would themselves distribute the images the hotel had the right to use by the end of the day. Already, some of them were scurrying back to their rooms to process the images on Photoshop. I knew my friends and cousins would kill to be here right now, to be within an inch of these celebrities. They still can’t believe I get paid for this. I could imagine their incredulous, disgusted looks the day I’d announce my resignation: I’d been given a cotton candy life, and I was throwing it away.

A mid-range influencer left her Sphere, walked up to us with determination. She looked like Karin Sienna but with a much stronger chin. I figured she was either going to complain to Zak or ask for a favour.

“Let me tell you Zak, this party is such hard work, man,” she said, plopping down next to us. Zak poured her some champagne. “There’s too many of us for this space, our photos will all be the same. Generic.” She surveyed our faces without introducing herself.

Astrid reddened, pursed her lips. She’d chosen every influencer herself.

“What would you suggest we do?” I asked Karin. She looked at me cursorily; it was Zak that she wanted to impress.

“You people were responsible for this? Okay, so. Here’s what I would have done. So I curate mood? I divide each hour of my day into mood pieces to flourish better, you feel what I’m saying?” She leaned over Zak, her fingers swirling circles in the air. “And so many of my friends wanted mood pieces of their own, so I’ve made it into my business. It’s totally what this party needed. Different influencers for different mood pieces. Each piece accompanied by its own music, incense sticks, rituals, food. It’s like, maki-maki in a lemon infusion, served at one p.m., on the beach, on a banana leaf. Bossa nova playing in the background. There’s the light scent of lime, basil, mandarin in the air. It’s the only way to live. We should totally work on this hotel’s mood book.”

“Astrid and Emilie have already done work like that for us,” Zak said. “You wouldn’t know this, but they’re the best in the business here. I really appreciate all they do.”

Here, for sure,” Karin said, smirking at her champagne. Astrid opened her compact and retouched her make-up, shielding her face from us.

“You’re Mauritian, aren’t you?” Karin continued, turning to Astrid and me. It wasn’t a difficult conclusion to reach. We were the only non-whites there, besides the hotel staff.

“And I’m Monegasque,” said Zak.

“Partying’s in your DNA then!” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t return the touch. His other arm was encircled around Astrid’s hip.

“It’s in ours, too,” said Astrid, snapping her compact shut, gaining confidence. “The sun, the rum, the endless party lifestyle.” I thought of ‘Amize Creole’, a slur masquerading as a joke, a phrase that non-Creole Mauritians use to describe us. The Creole has fun. Like we’re only good for drinking and dancing and spending money.

“If you say so,” said Karin. The current mood seemed irrevocably spoiled. I looked at the pool, pure, cold, untouched.

“Noon already! I think we all need some food!” announced Zak. He spoke to the waiter in quick gestures; moments later, the waiter appeared with sea urchins. They had been caught that morning, Zak told us. They were freshly dead. The waiter cut and opened the echinate creature in half, cleaned its insides in an ice bucket, presented us with two dark pink shells lined in orange flesh. “The reproductive parts,” Zak explained to Karin. “So you just eat those, with a squeeze of lemon, like so.” As he was speaking I saw the waiter take note of Zak’s arm around Astrid’s body, saw him raise his eyebrows for just a second. I wondered how much Zak appreciated Mauritian women, appreciated other members of his staff. I pierced a slice of the orange organ with my fork, and tucked in.

By the time lunch was over Astrid and Karin were thoroughly drunk, and were much friendlier for it. They gossiped about the other influencers like the best of friends. Zak dozed on the sofa. The skin on his forehead was burning. The beach umbrella over our heads wasn’t enough to keep out the migraine light.

I saw a journalist making his way to us, accompanied by a photographer. His manner was almost flirtatious; a man ready to charm influencers into revealing their most scandalous secrets, a man who lived for glittering sentences. Perhaps he thought that we were interesting because we were at a remove. My face tingled and I got up, warned Astrid of the journalist, muttered that I needed the bathroom. “Stay,” she ordered, grabbing my wrist, pulling me back down. She shook Zak awake, but he only dug his cheek further into the sofa, catatonic.

The journalist introduced himself, asked who we were. As Astrid answered I saw his face sour.

“Oh,” he said. “I thought…” He checked his phone, as if it’d tell him what to do next.

“What ‘oh’?” Astrid slurred.

“My apologies. I thought you were one of the celebrities here, you certainly look the part!” he said, chuckling, as a salve.

He turned to me, the only one who wasn’t intoxicated.

“Do you work here?”

“Er, no. I work for her,” I said, pointing quickly to Astrid.

“Looks like you’ve been enjoying yourselves, huh?”

There was no way to save face. I dug my nails into my palms. I wanted to disappear.

“So you’re just going to go then, huh? Astrid continued, fanning herself with the champagne brochure, her make-up smudged with her tears. “And why not interview me? I worked so hard.” It was pathetic, how she refused to accept that we were background people.

“She worked so hard,” Karin nodded, stroking Astrid’s back as she sobbed. “And we deserve a photo.”

The journalist cringed, turned his back to us and walked away. I ran after him.

“Listen. We don’t know each other, but could you please do me a favour? Could you just please take her photo?”
He looked at me in disbelief, annoyed now.

“Please listen. It’ll take a second, and you can delete it afterwards. Please. She’s my boss. It’s all a nightmare.”

He puffed up his cheeks, exhaled for what seemed like a minute.

“I’m no stranger to horrible bosses,” he said. “I’ll do it. But only if you give me your number. I’m here for a few more days after the launch, want to explore the island. Fair game? I’m Eric, by the way.”
“Fair game, Eric” I said, smiling, giving him my number. I didn’t have to reply when he called, when I’d be safe at home.

We came back, announced the good news. Astrid got up clumsily, showering me with cringey, grateful smiles. She asked us if we could give her fifteen minutes, she had to pop to the loo with Karin, redo their make-up. While they were gone Eric asked me a barrage of questions about the real, authentic Mauritius that lay beyond the hotel, all the while laying his hand on my thigh.

Astrid and Karin were a little more dignified upon their return. They’d pissed the alcohol away, their faces were almost immaculately renewed. They cinched their bodies together and posed, dispensed laser-bright smiles for each click, conferred with Eric’s cameraman, verified that the images were acceptable, then posed again. It was like watching a frenzied light flick on and off.

“Emilie, why don’t you join in?” Eric asked, winking.

I declined. Astrid glared at me, tightened her neck. I was too tired for more drama. I clambered silently in their midst, smiled, a wreath of skinny arms wrapped around my waist. Zak continued to sleep all the while. I could see other members of staff going discreetly from Sphere to Sphere, making sure that all the guests were happy.

Eric stayed after the pictures were taken, made a show of mock-interviewing us all. He was having fun.

“So let me just check I’ve gotten your names right,” Eric said. “Astrid Roy, R-o-y? Lovely. What’s your surname, Emilie? Sauvage? How exotic! S-a-u? Beautiful.” I wanted to reply thanks, it’s from slavery, but I was exhausted. “And you both run The Final Word, is that correct?”

“Partners!” Astrid smiled, looking at me a little teary-eyed.

I sat down on the seat furthest away, took out my phone and scrolled, shutting her out. She didn’t have the time or inclination to worry about me, though; the magic had happened, the magic of influence. More curious journalists ventured our way when Eric left, believing us to be important. I kept my head down, kept scrolling, checked the hashtags linked to the launch. I heard a journalist ask Astrid what she was wearing, her favourite feature of the hotel, travel essentials that readers would like to know before visiting Mauritius. Fluff questions. I heard her say ‘self-made businesswoman’. I chuckled.

By the time the journalists left it was two o’clock, and Alma had emptied. The influencers had already retired to their villas and would only re-emerge near sunset. The morning’s detritus littered the area: papers used to blot runny make-up, hand towels and napkins stained with fake tan, bronzer, foundation; discarded highlighter and bronzer palettes; contour sticks; lip gloss. Some were almost new. I could easily slip them into my bag; it wasn’t stealing, after all. Share them with my mother. She still uses a cream that’s made almost entirely of paraffin oil, the beginning and the end of her beauty regimen.

“I’m going to the bathroom” I announced. Astrid waved me away, kept her head turned towards Zak and Karin. I walked past the staff who had descended upon Alma, sweeping it clean, replacing towels and rugs, folding them up into soft cylinders; walked up the stairs to the bathroom near reception. I tapped my hands on the veined, monochrome marble the way she’d done it this morning, scrunched the fluffy hand towels, picked the orange blossom eau de toilette near the sink. Someone – not us, must have been a last minute addition by the staff – had translated it as ‘toilet water.’ I laughed so hard it hurt to breathe. I sprayed some of the toilet water on my hands, inhaled it, giggling. It smelled wonderful.

A hive had formed by my left cheekbone, as big as a coin. I wasn’t sure when it had appeared and I was past caring. I opened the tap, soothed my fingers under the rush of water. I longed to splash my face with it, remove the day’s events that seemed to cover skin like a sickly film. Astrid’s make-up, her drunkenness, Zak’s touch, Eric’s touch. Today could have been her moment, had she not made such a fool of herself. If word got out of her behaviour we’d lose potential clients.

But wasn’t I responsible for her, for her foolish self? Hadn’t I created her, in a way?

After the failure of her social club project, she’d started working as a copywriter. She’d caught on after three years that the white women she was working for would never make her partner, no matter how talented she was, how qualified. She left. But when she’d created her own agency, contacting clients hadn’t worked out; they ghosted her when she said her name was Abhinithi, they didn’t trust an Indo-Mauritian woman to know English and French better than a copywriter of European descent. She’d hired me though she wasn’t making any money, and I’d thought it’d just be a matter of time before I’d be out of a job again. After another day of no calls and no interest I’d decided that I’d had enough. You’re wasting your potential, I told her. I reacquainted her with her impressive credentials, her résumé. She was a mess of clotted hair, saline and snot. We’ll play them all, I’d said. We’d rebrand her, since no-one remembered her name and face anyway. Applied all the marketing lessons we’d learned in our work for supra-luxurious brands. Abhinithi would be called Astrid. Astrid came with an armada of skin care, designer clothes, highlighted hair. Modulated her ethnicity so it’d be sufficiently ambiguous. When her physique was sufficiently sculpted beyond recognition we launched her on social media, where she gained 25,000 followers across all platforms in just a week. Then the clients started paying attention.

And now I just wanted to wash my hands. Enough. Enough of feeling as depthless as a veneer, exhausted, nauseous of glamour. I’d leave her today. I could live with my family for a year or two longer, save up some more. I’d get used to living with less money. There’d just be photography, I’d be dealing not with words but in light. The thought was too much, electric, made me want to run out of the hotel and into the street, run along the motorway back home.

I received a text from Eric. Where are you? It said. I’m in Room 205, looking at the photos. He sent me a photo of his computer, my face large on the screen. You look great, said the next text. Maybe the photos will make it in the magazine, who knows…you coming?

I walked to reception, asked the receptionist to ring a taxi for me. Asked if she could store my camera, my bag by her desk, my heels, too. I ran down the stairs, ran to the pool, plunged in.

Contributor

Ariel Saramandi

Ariel Saramandi is an Anglo-Mauritian writer and essayist. Her work has appeared in Granta, LA Review of Books, Lit Hub and other places. She is represented by Lisa Baker at Aitken Alexander Associates.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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