Thursday, December 18, 2008

In my defense, I NEVER CLAIMED to be normal.

If I ever walk up to you and sniff your face, you can blame my aunt B.

When I was a little kid, I used to spend afternoons after school at my grandparents' house. My aunt, who wasn't yet married at the time, still lived with them. And occasionally, she'd let me watch her put on her makeup. 

My aunt's makeup ritual would have been elaborate to an ADULT. To a second-grader, it bordered on the mystical. She would take a seat at her low vanity table, and survey her assortment of vials and compacts and tubes. First was the concealer, dabbed on in strategic places, then blended carefully. Then came liquid foundation. Then powder. Then eyeliner (this took a while, as she carefully pulled and lifted the applicator to create an almond eye shape, almost feline at the outer corners). Then eyeshadow -- three or more colors, painstakingly applied and blended. Then a touch of lipstick to the mouth, and dotted on the cheeks and forehead and rubbed in to give her face a rosy, pinky glow. At each step, she'd pull back from the glare of the vanity mirror and check the overall effect, frequently moistening a finger to undo the latest application, grumbling under her breath until she had the cosmetics on the way she wanted.

The whole process took over 45 minutes. And this was makeup ALONE. Hair and wardrobe hadn't even been considered yet. So it's really not surprising that she would therefore be so meticulous about the finished product. If we ever reached up to hug her after her ministrations, she'd hiss, "Watch out! Don't touch my face!" It wasn't long before she'd perfected the air kiss, a quick peckish motion in the vicinity of your cheek in greeting. 

Over the years, she became less adamant about the absolute-no-contact rule, and modified her salutation into a sniff. In order to preserve her carefully applied lipliner and lipstick, she'd curl her lips into her mouth, and press her nostrils onto your cheek, inhaling at the same time to create a light suction effect, not unlike a kiss, I suppose. In Vietnamese, the phrase you use to describe that little sniff is hit vao, pronounced HEET vah-oh, and it's become the standard greeting for more than one of the perfectly-made-up women in my family. If it hadn't started when I was such a little kid, it would probably seem gross, but at this point, it's just what they do. I've even caught myself doing it when I greet them in return, strangely. 

And there was the one time I did it to a girlfriend who is not acquainted with my family, and heck, she's not even Vietnamese. Not that that would have helped.

She'd just had a baby, and husband and I had gone over to visit the new little family. As good friends do, we'd made and brought dinner along with us, so when I saw my friend for the first time, my hands were full of a slow-cooker, teeming with some kind of soup or stew. A hug (our normal greeting) was therefore out of the question, and without thinking about it at all (clearly), I leaned down and sniffed her cheek. 

Keep in mind the poor woman had recently had her first baby. She was wearing her glasses, which means she hadn't been sleeping regularly enough to know when to put in or remove her contact lenses. And chances are, if you're not sleeping regularly, you probably haven't had a regular shower routine, either. Not that I even remember whether she smelled bad or anything, but if you hadn't showered recently and a friend put her head next to your face and inhaled sharply, wouldn't you feel uncomfortable?

The instant I'd done it, I thought, "Hey, I'll bet that seemed REALLY EFFING WEIRD to her." But I had no idea how to address it. She didn't say a thing about it (the fact that she didn't rear back as if I'd tried to bite her is a testament to her grace and poise), so I pretended like nothing strange had happened, and to this day we've never discussed it. 

So, I'm just sayin'. If I sniff you, it's 'cause I love you.

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