The lawyer wears her hair as some wear mink, a black pelt cascading down her back. It covers the small scar on her forehead, memento of the only time her mother ever struck her. She told me that the blow plunged her into shocked silence; protection, she now knew, from the hungry soldiers who’d come that night for her sister.
She was 12 and her parents’ money was gone to grease a headlong flight from Manila and the Marcos regime. But Papa had made a fatal mistake: he’d trusted others to pay off the watchers at the border. One bribe from freedom, they were trapped. The commander had come with a solution: He’d long admired the older daughter. If she stayed behind with him, he’d look the other way while the family escaped.
The alternative? Probable death in a stinking camp.
And so the decision was made: her sister would become a soldier’s mistress. The little girl watched as her sister carefully dressed in the last of their finery: Silk lingerie, a strapless gown, expensive cosmetics.
A knock sent her father scurrying to open the door; he stood, stone-faced, while they entered. But her sister welcomed the soldiers and uncapped a red, red lipstick. Stroke by slow, scarlet stroke she painted her lips, watching the soldiers’ react, and then smiled.
A guard took her sister’s arm and the little girl cried out. Her mother struck her, hard, with the hairbrush. “Quiet,” she hissed.
At that, her sister whirled, knelt and hugged. “Be careful,” she whispered, pressing the lipstick into the little girl’s palm, “Don’t forget me,” and then she was gone.
Nine years later, during interviews week in her last year of law school, she told me she came upon the lipstick in a box of old photos. She’d never seen her sister since that night and rarely talked with her; her sister apparently had little interest in connecting with the family that sold her into a new life. Now, without really thinking about it, the lawyer slipped the lipstick into her briefcase along with her resume.
She had done well in a prestigious law school, earned a spot in the top 5 percent of her graduating class. She was told she was an attractive morsel for recruiters, a double minority, a protected class, a token with a brain. The recruiters lined up for her like hungry wolves, like greedy pigs, like…soldiers at a border crossing.
Suddenly it was all too much–too much uncertainty, too much pressure, too much change–and the memories flooded back. She nearly fled but, slipping her hand into her briefcase, she touched the lipstick. She remembered her sister’s composure as she plunged into a different and terrifying life. Shaking, she opened the golden tube. Slowly, carefully she drew the old, dried cylinder across her lips. She gently stroked, making no marks except in her mind, but her trembling eased.
She stood, and opened the door to the interview room. “Gentlemen,” she smiled.
The woman who told me this story first mentioned it when we were in high school together, and eventually fleshed it out at a brief reunion after a year with her new law firm. The last I heard, she’s an extremely successful lawyer, partner in a flourishing practice, and she still carries her sister’s lipstick as a good luck piece.