Lipstick Dates & Zombie Jesus: Finding the Best Adult LadyFriend

(And a few peripheral details about some really awesome 80s movies)

“Here’s what I think you should do,” Mariah said. She pointed a finger at me and spoke deliberately through hot orange lipstick. We were sitting in in her Volvo wagon in front of my house during the cold of early December. I dug my butt down into the warmed leather seat. Mariah was about to bestow her wisdom on me. She has been spearheading my multi-year crusade to find the blouse that Beverly D’Angelo wears on Christmas Eve in the immortal 1989 movie, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

If you haven’t seen the movie, the blouse in question is a perfect metaphor for D’Angelo’s character: a demure, suburban mom with a splash of slut. It’s a white, silky, and almost prissy number — except for the gaping keyhole over the chest, excellently showcasing D’Angelo’s bonkers cleavage. In the movie, she pairs the blouse with a long green taffeta-esque formal skirt, black tights, and black pumps. I have wanted to recreate this outfit for years. Whenever Mariah visits the thrift store (which is often), she searches the white blouses for me. This is the type of friend that every adult woman should have: a friend who unconditionally sifts through strangers’ relish-stained and yellow-pitted blouses for your half-thought-out costume whims.

“The best thing you can do to get this blouse is to call the costume designer and ask for it,” Mariah said.

“You think that I should call the actual costume designer?” I asked. “Like, look up the costume designer from the 1989 movie, and call her?” I somewhat prejudicially assumed the costume designer to be a woman. Or an ascot-wearing gentleman.

“Yes. That movie’s like 30 years old. That blouse is probably just sitting in storage somewhere.” She paused. “Or it’s in a museum.”

Mariah is a couple years younger than me, but tends to be the grown-up in our friendship. If we were parents, she would be the dad. She is a classically lovely and photogenic woman, with knowing eyes and tasteful brunette bangs. I’ve learned a lot of important things from Mariah, like how to smoke a one-hitter and how to make a halter top out of a t-shirt (from the thrift store, of course).

In adult life, the most important friends have 2 qualities: 1) they keep you fun, and 2) they keep you from having too much fun and being an idiot. It is a delicate balance. For example: In a party environment, my friend Deb can feed me whiskey out of a shot glass necklace while simultaneously shutting down my loud vocal appreciation of male high school lacrosse players. Mariah can bestow her wisdom on the artistic process while passing me a bong. I require this juxtaposition of drugs and honesty from my friends.

Mariah is a roller derby friend. The most important thing that I ever got out of my adult years playing competitive roller derby were the soulmates (although the freakish tree-like leg strength was also nice). While diverse in personality, a common wild energy coursed through all of the women who skated with the Windy City Rollers. These were my people. Never in my life have I had a community of friends that accepted me unconditionally. One of my earliest memories of Mariah is from my first year playing derby. She was in her 2nd year, and played for an opposing team.

I played for the Manic Attackers in those years. To say that my beloved team was awful would be giving us some credit. We were slaughtered every single bout[1] — the final scores of our bouts tended to be in the realm of 200 to 20. As jammer, my position on the team was essentially to be the “ball.” My goal was to zigzag deftly through a swarm of tiger-eyed blockers; this is how a jammer scores points for her team.

Since my team was consistently pummeled, I got to play a lot, even as a rookie. And by “play” I mean “skid across the floor with my ass in the air.” Mariah was on the Double Crossers (a team I later transferred to, for a myriad of reasons including Mariah). She was a solid blocker. A beautiful, delicate, yet legit asskicker. I didn’t know her very well yet, but I remember her poignantly from one particular bout in my first year. We were losing terribly to Mariah’s team, and I was on my last legs — exhausted, having been knocked down at least 5 times in 90 seconds. I finally got myself away from the other team and began essentially limping around the track when Mariah glided up to me. Sweat was blinding me and my legs were burning. I felt like a massacred French fry that some monotone adolescent had left in the deep fryer all day. Looking fresh and effortless, Mariah eased close to me. And then she gave me this look out of the side of her eyes that I’ll never forget. It was a look that said “I love you. You’re so wonderful and you’re trying so hard! You are amazing. But I have to flatten you now.” And then she did. She tossed me to the middle of the track, legs splayed and my face on the ground. Mercifully, the whistle blew, ending the play, and I could drag my beaten body back to my team’s bench. But I didn’t hold it against her. We never held grudges for hard hits in derby — that’s just the game. You aren’t really playing if you aren’t getting your ass handed to you.

It took me until I was about 30 to truly realize how deep a female friendship can get. While there were a lot of lovely women in my life prior to my 30s, I didn’t have soulmates like I do now. I thought that the girls that were my friends in high school and college were the most kindred spirits I would ever find. But like, half of them grew up to be Republicans, so clearly we weren’t fully aligned. During youth there is so much judgment. When I would confide my vulnerabilities to my friends, there was often admonishment. When my anxiety kicked up and I handled things poorly, nobody could really empathize.

In the 1980s and 1990s, anxiety wasn’t yet “out there” as a legitimate phenomenon. Nowadays, society loves anxiety and everyone wants to claim it. I get irritated every time a new Buzzfeed article comes out, titled something like “20 things only people with anxiety will understand.” Now suddenly the universe has hopped on the anxiety bandwagon just because Buzzfeed says anxious people sometimes get nervous to go to parties. I’m competitive in every respect, right down to my mental illness. YOU GUYS DON’T REALLY KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE. You don’t have a panic attack because you have to stop at Walgreens to pick up toilet paper on the way home from work. But back when I was a teenager, mental illness was still a rather taboo subject. Particularly in the relatively disconnected region of Northeast Ohio. Kids who had anxiety or depression (though it was never called such) got the “suck it up, you can do it” reaction. No one thought of me as a child suffering from anxiety; they just thought of me as lazy and a “worrier.” This could sometimes play out with an (unintentional) lack of empathy from my childhood friends. This pattern lasted all the way up until my senior year of college, when they finally diagnosed me with panic disorder and I had an excuse for my rigidity to routines and hyperventilation when anyone talked about donating blood.

I think about some of these moments when I’m sitting with Mariah or one of my true adult friends. There’s no judgement. Last time I visited NYC, I had a panic attack at brunch in Bushwick while drinking a Bloody Mary out of a mason jar[2]. My dear friend Lisa provided some words of comfort, and then rapidly acquired the check so we could get the hells out. She wasn’t irritated that she had to wolf the remains of her house-made sausage breakfast frittata. She didn’t care that I hung out in the bathroom until she could get the bill. I can tell my adult female friends some of the ugliest secrets of my life and they truly empathize with me. They love me unconditionally.

It was January 2013, and Mariah my soulmate was looming over me on a ladder, the printed cats on her sweatshirt looking at me curiously.

“Can you put your hand over that bruise on your leg?” she asked.

I obliged, and straightened my granny-waist underwear. Mariah was photographing me topless.

Mariah likes boobs.[3] She’s also a very talented photographer, so due to the combination of these two factors, it just made logical sense for her to take photos of my boobs. The initial plan for the shoot was a Catherine Deneuve-inspired portrait. I’m still not sure how she came up with this, because I look like a young Catherine Deneuve about as much as those women who get plastic surgery to look like a Barbie actually look like a Barbie. The portrait would feature a tomato-red backdrop and me from the shoulders up. The photoshoot plan began in this relatively tasteful manner, and then devolved to include more graphic photos of me fully boobing out, posed with a dead turkey.

She came over at noon on a Sunday. My hair and makeup took several hours and three people to perfect. I hadn’t done this much primping at my wedding, but then again, I didn’t get to be topless at my wedding. By the end of the prep, my hair was wrapped up in an elegant, neat twist, but tousled enough to ensure that it looked like I had been rolling around in a male model’s lap all day. Thick black liner coated my eyes precisely, leaving a slight rattlesnake-tail flip at the outer corners. Pale pink rouge and lipstick added a flush to ensure that it appeared as though not only had I been rolling around in a male model’s lap all day, but REALLY ENJOYING IT. I felt a bit uncomfortable being so dolled up, but also super hot.

After the seated Catherine portrait shots were done, Mariah set up her giant lights and ladder in our guest room. I tossed my robe on the floor and stood awkwardly with my hands on my hips, hoping my nipples were hard enough to be photogenic but not too hard so that it looked creepy. Subtle nips.

“Now,” she said, readying her camera, “Try to look like you’ve had a few too many pills with your Chablis.”

I relaxed my face into what I assumed she wanted — a sultry, stoned look. Gave her my best “drunk Melanie at the sports bar.”

She cocked her head and grimaced. “Maybe don’t squint,” she said.

For the next several hours, Mariah posed me under the turkey in our guest room, draping sheer thrift store garments over my bathing suit parts (making sure that labial area stayed tucked). After the shoot we looked through photos, and I pointed out the ones I liked best. My favorite photos were the ones where I looked most sexy and attractive. Mariah, of course, liked the ones where I looked weird.

The final portrait choice was a relatively equal combination of sensual and slightly outre. This portrait hangs on the wall in her living room. When I come over for group dinners, Mariah seats me under my boob portrait. She is currently working on a new project, one where she photographs bare-chested men named David. She calls it “Modern David.” So far she’s got about at least 50 Davids. The Davids come over to her house for a portrait session, and one of the first things they often see is the portrait of me on Mariah’s wall. Actually Mariah has 3 photos of me up in her house. I like to think of myself as her muse.[4] But only one of the photos is topless. She says that all the Davids like it.

“They say… ‘I wonder what she’s thinking,’” Mariah says.

“Tell them the truth,” I say. “That I was thinking about Cheetos.”

Part of my adoration for Mariah comes from the fact that I think she is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Each year, she hosts a Zombie Jesus party on Easter Sunday. A couple dozen of our unshowered awkward friends congregate to eat vegan potluck nachos and watch voracious zombies nosh on lusty co-eds. Mariah provides detailed table tent-style cards to identify each dish on the potluck table. “Squash salad- Gluten-free and good for you!” In the past few years, the zombie movie marathon theme has expanded. At least one undead campy gore film is guaranteed, don’t you worry — but last year, Mariah took the party to a completely new level by including the movie Road House (starring a devastatingly handsome Patrick Swayze circa 1989). I had never seen this movie, and let me tell you- it’s iconic as fuck. Stop reading and go rent it right now. You can probably even find a used copy in a dumpster outside of a tattoo shop. You will watch it, and then you will want to begin UFC lessons. Swayze’s character is an in-demand bouncer at a large, rough country bar. He is convinced by a troubled bar owner to come “clean up” his joint. Apparently in Texas Hill country, quality bouncers are difficult to come by, and must be convinced to take a job with inordinate sums of money. Swayze’s blonde mullet and ability to throw a 300 pound troublemaker over a table captivated me enough to keep me seated even as I knew that I wasn’t going to get my hands on any beet slaw before it was finished off by what looked like a stoned lumberjack.

Unfortunately, I had to leave before Mariah showed the 2nd non-zombie movie of the night — Showgirls. (Mariah’s parties are cooler than mine, and I love-hate it.)

Mariah and I also go on a lot of dates — it’s a very romantic friendship. We hold hands and sit on the same side of the table. She also struggles a smidge with social anxiety, so we take comfort in each other’s presence. It’s a beautiful coping mechanism, and we can relax enough to enjoy situations that might sometimes give us anxiety. We stroll through fancy places, like bars that have “mixologists,” [5] and art exhibits that feature nude portraits of elderly soldiers. I tell her about all of the unethical things I’ve done recently, and she tells me all of the dirty shit she’s gotten into. And then we feel good about ourselves, relishing in our mutual despicable-ness. Sometimes during warmer months, Mariah will drive the Matador on our dates. The Matador is a 1973 AMC wagon, “the color of money,” as she says. It requires 10 minutes to heat up, even on a humid 90 degree day. While the standard wardrobe for most of our low-key dates is cut-off jeans and sleeveless t-shirts, skirts and lipstick are requisite for Matador dates.

Once when I was in LA visiting my brother, Mariah came to spend a couple of nights with me. We dined al fresco on shrimp salad. At night we snuggled on the sofa bed and in the mornings she photographed me eating macarons and sipping coffee at Cafe Los Feliz. Our dates feel like a honeymoon in an erotic French graphic novel. Minus the sex. While I tend to think that we come off together as poised and sensual, in reality I think we resemble two little girls pretending to be ballet dancers. (We do sometimes wear leotards.)

Mariah is also highly intelligent. She studied at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. While impulsive, she is not irresponsible. She bikes everywhere in a dense layer of reflective gear and a giant helmet — the sort of gear that overprotective parents pile on their children when they are learning to ride. When she shows up at our house, I’ve seen her bright blinking lights and neon yellow vest coming for blocks. My dogs are also in awe of Mariah. “They are comforted by my dull monotone voice,” she says. They somehow sense that she doesn’t need them, but will pet them if it is convenient to her.

Another key friend quality that Mariah has is her inability to lie. She’s brutally honest, and I appreciate that. Recently we both went out for Mexican diner food on a snowy Sunday night. Mariah wore cool-girl snow boots the size of trashcans, and I wore my somewhat-snow-friendly embroidered Peruvian boots.

“I like your boots!” I told her.

“Thanks,” she said, and looked closely at mine.

An awkward silence ensued as Mariah bluntly ignored the social norm of reciprocity when girls compliment each other’s clothing. She wasn’t about to pretend to like my boots if she didn’t like them.

Similarly, she’s been trying to help one of her close male friends get a date. She takes him to Brooklyn Industries and helps him pick out clothes that she believes young eligible females will find attractive — skinny pants and decorative plaid pocket squares. “If you want to touch a vagina,” she tells him, “You’re going to have to start trying harder.”

Although polarizing, her bluntness somehow comes off as charming in many situations. You appreciate the fact that Mariah is not going to bullshit you. Mariah charmed the pants off my parents the first time they met her in the summer of 2013. Most friends speak to senior parents with a delicate subtlety, politely laughing at my dad’s Groucho Marx-era jokes and my mom’s preschool-teacher-wit. Within the first two minutes of meeting them, Mariah had managed to get both of my parents to pocket weed brownies.

“They’re really not that strong. You guys need this in your life,” she told them. It’s very hard not to do things that Mariah thinks you should do.

When I told Mariah about this essay, I asked her if she wanted a pseudonym. She said “I don’t know- send it to me.” I told her ok, and prefaced it with “It might be weird to read about yourself.” She replied calmly “I’m pretty self-actualized.” And that she is, and that’s she’s my dream date.

A lot of people assume that Mariah and I are sexing, because we both occasionally enjoy the intimate attention of the ladies. Some people have even asked her if she is my husband’s and my “third.” I’m not really sure what that means — I’m terrible with that whole “polyamory” slang. Polyamorists say things like “sex positive” and “safe word” and “would you like to sample my honey bucket?” But I’m definitely sure that Mariah isn’t our “third,” whatever the hell it means. Our connection transcends sexuality, cleanliness, and tact. I am intensely grateful for our bond. Sometimes I even get jealous when she puts on lipstick for another woman.

BUT. She only wears the hot orange lipstick for me.

[1] Games are called “bouts” in roller derby, because we were constantly channeling Muhammad Ali.

[2] Seriously, Brooklyn. It’s cool for you to go back to normal glassware now.

[3] And to be fair, I have really awesome boobs.

[4] While she has not agreed with me on this, she has not vigorously disagreed, so.

[5] Another concept that the collective urban universe needs to ­retire.

Please follow Melanie on Medium & Twitter @rileycoyote and help her achieve her goal of cult-like domination. Visit the genius photography of Mariah Karson, too, while you’re at it.

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