Lipstick Queen Cupid’s Bow in Apollo 

"It’s made me feel pretty. It’s made me feel like a person, not just a cancer girlfriend. And it’s made me brave. It’s made me brave a hundred times." Ella Risbridger on why lipstick has been her lifeline 

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By Ella Risbridger on

I’m not sure if I like this week’s lipstick, but I keep coming back to it. 
It’s something about the care it needs to apply it straight, or the way I have to sit down and steady my arm to draw the line, or the time that those things take.

Time that’s mine.

Time in which I can’t check Twitter, or subtly check the Tall Man over for bruises.

I can’t stop trying to check him over for bruises, now, trying to second-guess the results of tomorrow’s biopsy; he loathes it, unsurprisingly. Nothing like your girlfriend, having confidently predicted your cancer once, hoping for the chance to do it again.

But this lipstick – temperamental, fussy, demanding, slick – wants all my attention, and there’s something…undeniably good about that: I can’t look at anything else but myself, and just for a minute, that’s all that matters, is getting this lipstick on right. 

Or maybe it's something about the bold, old-timey give-no-fucks vampy purple of it. It’s the darkest of the whole range, and I bought it on a whim from the little green shop near the hospital the last time the Tall Man was in.

And I don’t want to go back: by the time you read this, we will be. Only for the day, of course, but I don’t want it nonetheless. I know it so well by now. The solid green of the antibacterial gel; the aubergine chairs and blue paper of the outpatient ward; the thick mugs of tea they give you in the Macmillan room. Waiting, huddled, in the archway between the hospital and the road, to collect the Tall Man, groggy and disoriented and bleeding from the biopsy. It doesn’t matter how many times one hears it: “apple corer to the hip” never becomes a less ugly or terrifying sentence. 

“It’s so normal that John has cancer,” my friend Caroline says, when I tell her, “that I forget about the everyday horror of it.” You do forget. You can’t not: you can’t live with the constant terror of loss on your shoulder, like a pirate’s parrot. You have to forget. Which makes it, I think, even harder to go back.

I wrote last week about it in an abstract sort of way – approaching it sideways through a veil of ice and swans and pretty words. No point even trying that this week. It’s here, and we’ve got to go back. This time tomorrow (today, for you) I’ll be pacing up and down outside Barts, with a Starbucks coffee cooling to unpleasantly sweet sludge in my hands, and this bright lipstick: just like last time, just like the time before. 

Something about that name (that name!), or the history of it: Cupid’s Bow (Clara Bow, a black and white movie star, a diva of a lipstick: temperamental, demanding like I say) Apollo (the bright, the pure, son of Zeus, father of Asclepius, god of medicine). It feels appropriate, and I like the way it makes me think of all these things, and all these stories. How could I resist a lipstick with a name like that?

Silly, frivolous, demanding lipstick has been the one thing that kept me together. From the very practical, to the absolutely intangible

Some combination of these things keeps me coming back to it, and leaves me, now, reaching for it, digging in my bag for it and using my dead phone as a MacGyvered mirror, drawing on my mouth again.

I have been speechless with terror all week, struck dumb by how afraid I am of what these tests might tell us. But there’s no good being speechless. No good trying to pretend this is something beautiful, or swans on ice, or anything like that. No good skirting around it any more. Not now. You’re reading this, and I’m at the hospital, and so I’m drawing on my mouth, and I’m telling you exactly how it is, and exactly how I feel: I am terrified, and cancer is awful, and I wish it wasn’t still happening to us. It is the worst. It is the dirt worst, and I hate it, and yes: buy this goddamn lipstick. 

Buy it, and wear it, and be brave and silly and frivolous and demanding, always be demanding, demand everything the world can give you, because life is short and life is hard and life (this comes over me in a rush, counting out the Tall Man’s pills for an inventory) is fragile and lovely and worth celebrating and worth fighting for.

Every so often I get someone furious with me for daring to write about lipstick when my partner is maybe-dying, and I am always surprised by the rush of matching fury that boils up inside me when this happens: don’t they know, these people, that lipstick has been my lifeline?

Silly, frivolous, demanding lipstick has been the one thing that kept me together. From the very practical – it's paid my bills, and it’s given me time to spend with the Tall Man – to the absolutely intangible. It’s made me feel pretty. It’s made me feel like a person, not just a cancer girlfriend. And it’s made me brave. It’s made me brave a hundred times, and it can do it at least one more: whatever the results are tomorrow, we’re going to deal with it. 

I'm not sure if this lipstick is flattering. I’m not sure if I care. It’s here, and it’s mine, and it’s loud and bold like an old-time diva. It’s a bit too slick. It’s a bit too dark. But I keep coming back to it, nonetheless, and I’ll wear it tomorrow, and feel like a vamp in the Starbucks queue, and wait for news, and pace, and wait, and rub my hands half to shreds with antibacterial gel, and then, at the end of it all, bring the Tall Man (half-drunk on anaesthetic) home. Which is the important bit, after all. We’ll get through it, and then we’ll get home, and whatever’s coming, we’ll deal with it together. 



About Sometimes It's The Little Things...

I’d never been much of a makeup person before last year, but strange things happen on the cancer ward. When my partner, the Tall Man, was suddenly diagnosed with a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I found myself reaching for a battered tube of Mac Ruby Woo – part armour, part warpaint, all crimson defiance. This is a column about lipstick, and about caring, and about cancer, but most of all it’s my lifeline and it’s proof – for me, at least – that putting on a brave face is half the fight. Read my story so far here.



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Sometimes Its the Little Things

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