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Read My Lips

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It’s 10:24 in the morning in the middle of September, and because it’s LA, the world is already burning. The sky hasn’t seen a cloud in hours and the sun is so bright that even as Pepper slides her sunglasses up her nose, her eyes are almost closed from squinting. There’s that take-off feeling of passing through the pressure differential of the outer lobby doors, and then she’s out in the day properly and instantly sweating.

Five new freckles pop up on her shoulders. She’s certain of it.

But her iced latte is cold, at least, condensation soaking her hand, and the shaded little table she prefers, tucked in by the landscaped hedges at the far side of the Stark Industries back plaza, is unoccupied and waiting. Almost no one sits there but her. Sometimes it’s nice to be the boss.

A bit of tightness in her shoulders and chest eases out when she sits down, leans back, and breathes. It’s been a morning. But now it’s time for a break.

She pulls out her phone, taking a long drink from her latte, and taps open her personal Instagram account. She’s been waiting for this since she woke up-- the notification post is flagged, the link to the Youtube video sitting waiting since 3:08 am.  

Which, actually, is a really unusual time for a Swatch Talk upload. Swatch Talk-- whoever she is, whoever runs the channel, isn’t a regular poster by any means, but she tends to put videos out in the evening or midmorning.

But they’re always good videos: short, simple, to the point. Well-shot swatches of whatever line of lipstick she’d gotten her hands on, always up close for detail, some teasing with the application sometimes, and what could be seen of her expression occasionally a little playful to break the monotony-- or if a formula was exceptionally good or awful. She never speaks, but always inserts a few infographics and leaves the high points of her review in the description of her YouTube videos or the text of her Instagram posts.

She isn’t a big YouTube channel-- definitely has more Instagram subscribers, but not that many more. She’d only broken ten thousand on Instagram the month before, and was still a few thousand shy of that on YouTube. But Swatch Talk’s an easy account to follow. Her pictures-- and her lips, not to put too fine a point on it-- are beautiful, and Pepper had found her the same way a lot of her follower base had-- a few months ago, after a few of the bigger brands had promoted some of her pictures.

But Pepper enjoys the videos for longer breaks. A few minutes of swatching and blotting, mindless and perfect to unwind to. She’s gotten out of the habit of calling any of her pleasures ‘guilty’, but there’s just something almost-- perfectly-- transgressive about taking a few minutes out of her day to drink unnecessarily complicated coffee and watch videos about makeup.

When it loads, the summary on the video is as sparse as the Instagram link. Not Swatch Talk’s usual sensible bulleted list, just the words ‘Lots of Colors in This One’. The thumbnail’s black.

She hits play, and as the video starts unceremoniously with a hand in front of the camera lens, her eyebrow lifts in reflexive judgement.

The inoffensive background music is missing; the audio is crackles and soft bumps, the brush of fabric and the clink of the tubes that are being lined up. This part is usually at two-times speed, if shown at all.

Swatch Talk sits down in frame, a blur that steadies and resolves into the familiar lips and jawline, and she frowns. Taps the left side of the video to rewind, flicks up the brightness of her screen. It’s a squarer blur than she was expecting, although most of that seems to be hoody.

Well, it’s not uncommon.

It’s so obviously an accidental upload— placeholder text, completely raw footage, and she’s about to move on to something else, but as the first tube is being applied, Swatch Talk pauses, and says— through the camera’s barely adequate built in audio— “No, love, last week was the matte line.”

And it is a masculine voice, deeper than she would have guessed and oddly familiar.

There’s no response that she can hear, but the lips smile lopsidedly-- “Well, can’t argue with your logic, but they do look different, and that’s why I’m swatching.”

Pause. Look of offense. “You look pink on me every time.”

Then a laugh, and a snort.

There’s a hint of New York drifting in and out of his voice, when he’s not mumbling around the applicator. She swears she’s heard it before. She watches him apply, blot, pose, pose, interspersed with a rambling argument - conversation with someone too far away for the audio to pick up.

It’s sort of sweet and sort of charming. The footage is so raw, but the bickering is gentle and kind, Swatch Talk’s got a sense of humour and an easy voice, and even hearing half the conversation is soothing.

And okay, she’s surprised he’s a man, and maybe she shouldn’t be, but she is. But it’s definitely still Swatch Talk, the application and response faces he makes as he goes are so familiar-- the pulled lip and headshake at a patchy colour, the tight o-lips at a bright watermelon that he clearly likes, the general pout and and back and forward tilt of the chin and playful blotting.

She watches for longer than she means to, finishing her coffee until she’s left sucking up what’s left of the ice cubes. Swatch Talk pauses mid flirtatious pout, chin tipped (and damn if she isn’t considering that nude, the whole line has looked amazing) and breaks out into a wide smile at something the person off-screen has said. It’s soft and sweet and open, and she remembers that this wasn’t meant to be seen by anyone.

She closes the tab, comes back to the heat that’s making her sweat even in the shade, and readies herself to get back to work.



There’s a few new notifications flagged in her Instragram and in her inbox when she gets home, and she does a double-take when another one is from Swatch Talk.  They usually don’t even upload once a week, let alone two in one day, but the title of the insta post is “Regarding last night’s post” and the video attached is five minutes long and much better notated this time.

  • Quick explanation of last upload
  • Word from the swatcher
  • Channel next steps
  • (Product is Nars Powermatte Don’t Stop)

The thumbnail is Swatch Talk’s characteristic lips-and-jawline closeup, smiling.  

She perches at her desk and hits play.

The video starts with a sped up application of a bright red liquid lipstick that goes on like housepaint and leaves Swatch Talk looking like he’s about to introduce the Rocky Horror Picture Show. As the music fades out and the video switches back to real time, he taps the closed tube against his lip and says:

“So, as most of the commenters correctly guessed, last night’s video wasn’t ready to go up.”

Dry, but not too accusatory. Pepper can only guess how many helpful comment threads there were, and he’s being very reasonable about it.

“I didn’t see what had happened until this afternoon, and I don’t have any product left up, so I’m just wearing Nars and you can call this a field test on how well it holds up through a monologue, yeah?”

He’s prepared this, obviously; he’s articulating better and mumbling less. His voice is still teasingly familiar, right on the tip of her brain, but it never quite clicks.

“All right: so what happened is I wanted to get the video out last night, but I’d had a long day and I didn’t have it in me to edit. My significant other was feeling helpful, so they just uploaded the raw footage while I was sleeping.”

They. She wonders if that’s for anonymity’s sake, or a personal preference. A second voice comes out of nowhere and makes her jump-- it’s a deep rasp, warped enough to be going through some kind of voice modulator. A point towards wanting anonymity.

We are the Other. Significantly. We like the raw footage better. More lips in it.

“Thanks, darling.” Swatch Talk quirks a soft smile. “But my brand was more swatching and less talking. Which said, you’ve all been giving me enough bull about the channel name being inaccurate, and I got a lot more supportive comments than I expected about this. Also a huge thanks to the channels who reached out with your own raw upload horror stories: it made me feel a lot better. After the initial panic passed.”

He twirls the lipstick tube, rolling it over his full bottom lip, turning it to show the red print that’s come off on contact.  

“So, some background. I... well, I swatch lipsticks.” He laughs, dry and short. “But really, I used to do lipstick swatches, all still shots, for an old boyfriend’s review blog. We are talking super old school here. He was an MUA who saw the future of social media, I was a twink with lips and a completely different skin tone then him. It made for good comparisons.

“And I had a part time gig lip modelling for... a company I don’t know if I am contractually barred from naming, when I was in college.”

She knows she’s heard this voice before, and not just that, heard it in this context. Telling her something. Not someone she knows in person, someone she’s listened to. Someone on the radio, maybe…?

“So I like makeup,” Swatch Talk goes on. “A lot. Or at least liked it a lot for a little while. But I stopped swatching when my old boyfriend and I broke up, and I stopped modelling when I managed to get a job after college. We’re talking. A decade ago. When I finished. Let’s just say that.” Blot, blot. Swatch Talk shows the screen that the lipstick is still coming off like wet paint.  

“Didn’t think I’d come back to it, but I went through kind of a lot a few months ago, needed something to do.”

It was a lot, ” significant other says, more subdued.  

“And it was wild getting back into makeup after ten years, you know? Everything’s changed! I mean, the quality, the selection, the product. And all these channels? Videos? Figured I could put some of my video equipment to use, kind of missed being on camera, long story.”

Video equipment, that should help but doesn’t clear up anything. Maybe he runs another channel-- maybe one of Tony’s or Bruce’s favorite watches, something she’d have heard in the background. Someone relatively well known but not on her radar… no, not the ones who do slow motion, they’re British, not the ones that drop things, they’re Australian, maybe that younger Mythbuster who broke off? No, not him. One of the ones that plays video games, maybe.

“At first I didn’t intend to talk, but after the upload…”

A pause just long enough to make itself felt. “I mean, I’d ask ‘why not follow your bliss, do a real full-on makeup channel’, and there’s actually an answer to that. Humans are social animals. Rejection’s scary.”

It feels like pain. Garbage adaptation.

“Yes, love. Agreed. But. It’s 2018 and everyone was a lot more kind than they needed to be about half an hour of raw footage, and the amount of shit I got for being a guy in the comments was… at best 5% of what 2008 me would ever have dreamed. So, as long as there’s an audience, Swatch Talk will actually have talking in it from here on out, and I’m looking forward to reviewing you the new Huda line as soon as I can get my hands on them, and maybe putting in a section to show how the various formulations hold up against food. Maybe demo some setting sprays that way.”

That was my suggestion! ” significant other interjects, pride clearly audible through the bassy voice scrambler. “ It is critical to performance. Eating is non-negotiable.

Swatch Talk’s teeth flash, the grin so sudden and fond and defined by what remains of the red lipstick that it’s striking.  

“So. Thanks for hanging in there, and I’ll try to see you this time next week as we try another big innovation: an actual schedule. Also going to include a short Q&A for the most frequently asked question in the comments, see how that works out. For now, this is Swatch Talk, signing off.”

She catches herself smiling, taps the like button to offset the inevitable few assholes who have already downvoted it. All right, count her in; he’s funny. And more videos means one of these days she’s going to figure out where she’s heard that voice before.