Guilt feels like a punch to the chest. A proper dull knuckle thud on the sternum. My ribs ache from guilt. And my heart hurts – that’s what I’m really saying. My heart hurts and I am guilty and I am surprised by how much guilt hurts, physically – a punch to the chest.
I am always feeling guilty, which is part and parcel of the Cancer Thing: I cannot fix the Tall Man, I cannot make this better, I am never going to be good enough. I am always feeling guilty, and it is like a punch to the chest. Physical, practical, proper pain. My doctor calls it stress. I know it’s guilt.
Maybe that is why I reach for this lipstick – comforting old Clinique Pop Lip, reliable, infinite – although that in itself makes me wince with the guilt: I am always writing about Clinique Pop Lip, I am always wearing Clinique Pop Lip, I am lazy and unimaginative and, in times of crisis, can’t bear change. I know I should be finding new things to write about, new brands to try, new ideas and new themes and new lipsticks. But I am lazy, and I am frightened, and my boyfriend is sick, and I am so tired, and my heart hurts. And this lipstick – smooth, beautiful, easy – is here.
I have been cooking hearts this week, to cure him of his anaemia. It felt like something small and useful I could do, maybe, to make it better. It did make it better, I think. At least, his anaemia is better. I watched the butcher cut the lamb hearts open for me, to clean them and dice them – they were the brightest, brightest pink. As bright and garish as this lipstick – this Clinique Pop Lip Punch Pop. A stupid name. A punch to the chest. I should be writing about something new. I should be braver. I should be better. I should, I should, I should: punch after punch after punch. It never ends. Punch Pop.
This lipstick is the kind of colour I never wear: proper, no-holds-barred, hot pink. I put it on on a whim, because it’s there, and hate myself in it immediately. I am too loud, too obnoxious. I feel guilty for wearing it.
I Instagram a picture, reluctantly (I am convinced that selfies are the best route to self-acceptance) and women comment, “I’d love to wear this shade – I never would, though!” and “You’re so brave – looks great!” and “Wow –I’d never have the nerve.”
There are so many comments like this. So many.
Gorgeous lipstick, he says, and I smile at him, and we sit together with our tea. I take another selfie. I take up space
Something about hot pink makes us nervous. Something about hot pink makes us, collectively, feel guilty – like it might not be meant for us, like we might be pretending to be something we’re not, like we might not be worthy of the kind of attention that this bright, garish, heart-inside pink brings. Like the way people look at us when we wear hot pink might be somehow unmerited. Like we’re taking up time and space meant for something, someone, more interesting, more vibrant, louder and sharper and brassier.
I feel about hot pink the way I feel about writing this column: guilty, guilty, guilty.
You see, I want to do it. I want to have a hot-pink mouth, and tell you all that this lipstick is worth the way I write about it (it is). I want to write and tell you what it’s like when you’re 23 and your boyfriend is maybe dying. I want to write and tell you this is how it feels, this is how it is. I want to write and tell you thank you. Thank you for reading this every week. Thank you for making it possible for me to stay home with him. Thank you for making it possible for me to go with him. Thank you for making it possible.
But it’s not easy, writing this.
As everything with cancer, it’s a balancing act. Do the physical disadvantages of being at home outweigh the mental advantages? Does the benefit of me going to therapy outweigh the guilt of leaving him? Do the practical advantages of my writing this column outweigh the searing, constant guilt I feel for both exposing our private lives to this scrutiny, and never quite being a proper lipstick columnist?
And what it all boils down to, of course, is this: did I make the right decisions? Did I do the right thing? Am I good enough?
Some days, like today, I am not so sure. I scrutinise myself in the mirror with my hot-pink mouth, and wonder if I should wipe it off. Email my editors and tell them I can’t. Go back to bed, and hide, blanket over my head, until it all goes away.
And then the door opens, and it’s the Tall Man, with a mug of tea.
Gorgeous lipstick, he says, and I smile at him, and we sit together with our tea. I take another selfie. I take up space.
And I think about all the women who write to me, every week, saying they have bought lipstick because they read my column, and it made them feel brighter, better, more deserving.
Next week, I’ll have more energy – I’ll go to the make-up store, and try a hundred new brands, and talk easily about all the things that proper lipstick columnists know how to talk about. I’ll say something new and radical about some hip and indie brand you’ve never heard of. I’ll have something better to say. I’ll learn.
(Though I still won’t be able to fix the cancer.)
But, for now, this week, here, I can tell you this: I am here, with the Tall Man and a cup of tea. I am filing this column. I am filing it late, and about a lipstick I’ve already sung the praises of half-a-dozen times, but I am filing it. And the lipstick is worth it, and I’m wearing it as I type: bright pink, hot pink, garish, glorious, obvious pink, and I love it. I love the way it looks so out of place. I love the way it takes up space. I love the way it feels to be a person who dares to wear bright pink lipstick.
And I can tell you this, too (and if I’m really telling myself, who cares?): you deserve to wear this lipstick, and you can wear this lipstick, and you can wear this colour and this shade. You are completely worthy of this lipstick. You are completely worthy of the way people look at you. You are worthy, and you are good enough, and you get to put down your burden of guilt just for two goddamn minutes, and look in the mirror, and carefully, lovingly, paint your mouth this brazen, beautiful, unapologetic pink. You are good enough. You are brave enough. And you can do this.