Faces | by Anna Chotlos

7 mins read

The cadavers’ skin had already been removed. Though strangers, in the lab they resemble husband and wife, side by side on matching gurneys. He facedown. She belly open to the fluorescent lights. Their faces, hands and feet remain covered with black plastic bags. Formaldehyde permeates the tiny room. We crowd around the bodies. My hip presses against the stainless steel lip of the sink in the corner. As I put on blue gloves, I’m relieved that I cannot see their faces.

We review the muscles of his shoulder, carefully peeling back the lattice of ham-colored trapezius and deltoid. Touching the bodies feels a little like poking deli meat through a plastic bag. The woman’s abdominal muscles fold outward from her midline. A uterus looks like a thick rubber band stretched between the pelvic bones. With her index finger, my biology professor lifts an ovary to show us, a whitish ball the size of a wren’s egg, enveloped in a withered fallopian tube. It is smaller than I expect. She explains, as if it might happen to anyone, “We misplaced the other ovary during dissection.”


When I was little, my grandma once frightened me when I knocked on the bathroom door and she responded, “Just a minute, I’m putting on my face.”

Later, I learned that she meant putting on makeup, but for weeks, I believed she had to reattach her face every morning.

Grandma called her makeup her face—She needed it to look like herself and I never saw her without—while my mother treated makeup with mysterious reserve. Except on Sunday mornings, when she would dust a little blush across her cheeks and lean into the mirror to apply crumbly black mascara to her lashes, I never saw my mother wear makeup.

But in the back of one of our bathroom drawers, I found the evidence. Square pats of lavender, sage green and royal blue eye shadow. Tiny pencils in shades of brown. Rose lip liner. Three tubes of lipstick. The lipstick smelled stale, mineral, and slightly floral, the same scents archeologists use to describe the air inside ancient tombs. I liked the names of the colors- Starlit Rose, Claret Crème. An unnamed glittering fuchsia in a white tube with gold trim. Sometimes, I locked myself in the bathroom and smeared on my mother’s lipstick in front of the mirror, then blotted it off with Kleenex and hid the lipstick kisses at the bottom of the trashcan. Of course, my mother knew, but she let me think I had a secret, never mentioned the pink smudges on my face.


The first time I saw Othello, a white teenage girl in blackface played the title role. Her face and hands were painted brown. As she sweated under the stage lights, her makeup dripped from her hairline and rubbed off her neck and fingers like melted fudge. I watched, unsettled, as Othello’s sleeves slid up, revealing pale wrists.   


“Charcoal face masks are the hottest new trend in skin care,” the employee in the beauty section at Target chirped, handing me a pouch of black paste. “Charcoal is amazing- it really clarifies your pores!”

Back home in my bathroom, I mixed up a portion of dark gray goop in the disposable tray I had assembled out of the packaging and used the tiny mixing paddle to spread it all over my face.


Soot was an ingredient in Early Modern stage makeup—white actors portraying black characters painted their faces and bodies black with a mixture of burnt cork and oil. Shakespeare’s description of Othello’s “sooty bosom” referenced not only the color of his skin, but the literal soot the actor wore (I.2.72-3). Agonizing over Desdemona’s supposed infidelity, Othello compares her dirtied reputation to his painted skin, declaring: “Her name that was as fresh/ As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face” (III.3. 404-6). On stage, the material of his makeup would have made the metaphorical contamination real. As Othello smothered Desdemona on their wedding sheets, his greasy pigment would have rubbed off, black face smearing on his white bed and white wife. Most modern productions avoid the profoundly racist practice of blackface by casting black actors in the role of Othello.


I did not want to look in the casket at my grandma’s visitation. I would have preferred to remember her as she lived. But even from the other side of the room, I could see the end of her nose and shimmer of the lenses in her glasses over the edge of the casket.

Eventually, my mother persuaded me to come closer. Was it the pale lips? Or that the undertaker seemed to have looked at her most recent church directory photo and tried to paint her skin the same airbrushed beige? It reminded me of meeting friends at the stage door after plays in high school and seeing their stage make-up up-close, faces distorted and aged.

Even under the makeup, I could see the blue and purple unhealed bruises from the accident. My whole family stood in front of the casket, until someone, I think my dad, said,

“Well, at least they did a nice job putting her face back together” and we laughed at just how unfunny it was.

Anna Chotlos‘s writing has appeared in Peach Mag, Vagabond City, and on a square of sidewalk in Northfield, MN. She studies creative nonfiction at Ohio University.

Photo by Batu Gezer on Unsplash