Carlee, Carlee, Carlee Chameleon

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Carlee, the beauty school director, tells me that she loves my glasses.

“Those are fabulous. I have a pair just like them! I love them!” She squealed. She is thin and wiry and impeccably dressed. A button-less, coral cardigan is draped around her sinewy, sculpted arms. Her white-hot-blonde curls dangle like tight springs at the tops of her shoulders. She was complimenting me, of course, because it is her job. But, I don’t mind. And, she’s right, my glasses are fabulous.

In the true spirit of chameleon-ism, I’m touring an aesthetics institute because, I’m thinking about changing color — again. I’ve been chided, warned, and scoffed at for entertaining this idea, but, I’ve also been patted on the back and encouraged. And, in managing other people’s responses to what I’m thinking about doing, I begin to realize just how much I’ve learned in this past year. And, not just about me.

When you’re a chameleon, color bleeds. You step on one leaf and your leg turns a waxy green, and then, in your next step, your webbed toe turns a bark-y brown. Then, you’re standing on a yellow blossom and your whole torso blooms along with it, igniting like a burst of sunlight. — Our surroundings change us. People. Places. Circumstances. Situations. Everyday, we step onto a new palate of incredible color. And, I can’t help but think, for so many years, all I wanted was to remain in one place. To understand myself in one color. — But, try as I may, it can’t be done.

Carlee holds the grey door open for me as we walk into a stairway of floor-to-ceiling windows. “This is our new space,” she says, “we just moved into this building, only a few months ago.” — I figured as much, because I made it to my interview on time only because I saw the shiny, new building, with it’s giant windows and inviting sign, as I drove by it on route to the old location — the location Google maps still deems accurate. At the top of the stairs, we walked onto a floor filled with classrooms. White, dry-erase boards lined the walls and book bags sat in chairs at empty desks. “The students are taking clients in the clinic today,” Carlee told me, pulling her cardigan tightly around her tiny frame. “And, it’s a good thing! It’s darn chilly up here!”

Carlee is the type of woman you’d expect to say “Darn chilly.” She is peppy, and, her breed of chameleon is chipper and bright. She is wiry, I suspect, because she is designed to pounce on you with unsolicited positivity and cheer at well-timed intervals. Her eyes are an icy blue, and they actually look at you, really look at you, when she is talking. “I hope I’m not going too fast,” she said, “I get kinda excited to show people around the new building. I graduated in 2008. And, I still can’t get over this new space!” Her tiny, one-inch heels click-clacked across the the top of the linoleum stairwell. “Let’s head back down to the clinic. Then, we can chat in my office.” Her eyes sparkled when they met mine, as if to hypnotize me, before she ushered me, with her twiggy arm, toward the stairs.

I watched the students in the clinic. Some were much younger than me, some, much older. They wore scrub-like uniforms with white, slip-on shoes. It was very clean and quiet. I found the whole scene very calming, custom-made for my OCD-like tendencies, tending toward cleanliness and the minimalist. I thought about one of the instructors from the the beauty school I worked for in Portland — Erica. — I recall her flawless skin and her immaculate attention to detail. For Erica, aesthetics were about so much more than appearances. They were about order. Beauty was her way of commanding the universe. And, there, standing beside Carlee, I felt bad for having thought Erica was an emotionless stickler. I see now, this kind of order, this clean and untouched universe, kept her sane.

Back in Carlee’s office, she sat behind her desk gathering materials to place in a white folder for my consideration. Tuition information. Financial aid applications. Course outlines. Scheduling options. And, should I decide to apply, a form to be completed by the person of my choice, serving as my letter of recommendation. She handed me the folder, closed, and looked at me, I mean, really looked. She was like a beautiful, delicately styled, praying mantis. I was not sure if she was going to hop across the desk and eat me, or gaze upon me with her big, icy eyes until I said something. And, then, I felt my color change right in front of her — I became, suddenly, a deep, peaceful, navy blue — a perfect match to the freshly painted, silky walls of her tiny office.

“Carlee, can I be honest with you about something?” Carlee tilted her head to the right, looking at me as if the answer to my question was obvious. “Of course,” she said.

“I’m thirty-two. And, I’m not sure if I’m going to apply for this program. But, I can tell you, I really like it here. The thing is, I’m a NYU graduate. And, that probably sounds like a snobby thing for me to say. But, when I think about investing in attending this program, I think, maybe, I’m too old or too something — like this is a non-sequitur — I don’t know. I’m not sure what I think I am. But, it would be a huge shift for me. And, I just wonder if you’ve had a student or students here that, maybe, sound like me. Because, I’d like to know that I’m not crazy for thinking about doing this. And, it’d be nice to hear it from someone who isn’t, you know, related to me.”

Carlee paused. She laced her manicured fingers together over a stack of manila folders that sat in front of her on the desk. She leaned in a bit, like she was going to tell me a secret, but, instead of talking, her eyes met mine and softened. Now, she appeared more like a lean giraffe than an insect, her neck craning, gracefully toward me. Her swooping curls, tumbled forward from behind her ears and fluttered gracefully at the sides of her cheeks.

“Sarah, I know you probably think I’m here to sell you a seat in this class. And, technically, I am. But, the truth is, whether you apply or not, whether you enroll or not, or whether you walk out this door never to return again — or not — this class will be filled. And, I want you to be here because you want to be here. And, that’s up to you. You’ve got lots of time to think about that. But, here’s my answer to your question. I graduated from this institute in 2008. I was thirty-four. And, when I got here, all I knew was — it sounded good. It sounded like something different. It sounded like something fun. And, it sounded like changing. Changing my life. And, since then, I’ve worked in this amazing industry, and now, I’m the director of this school. I love it here. I enroll girls who are eighteen and I enroll women in their sixties. And, there’s one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty: You’re never too old to want something new, to do something new, to be someone new. It’s great that you have an undergraduate degree. Really, I think that’s great. But, do you think it’s great? Because, if not, you’re never too old to learn something new. — And, if you want to do that here, we’d love to have you.”

In the parking lot, I sat in the idling car and I drank the cold, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that I’d left in cup-holder to the left of the wheel. The little, plastic, Oregon license-plate-key-chain that reads “SARAH” dangled from the rear-view mirror where I’d hung it the day I drove out of Oregon for the last time. My eyes welled up with tears as I stared down at my shiny, white folder. Filled with clean, white pages, begging for navy blue ink.

The truth is, we can’t know what color we’ll turn next. We can only know that we’re changing. Learning. Painting legs and toes and torsos — with every, beautiful step.

ARTWORK: “Chameleon 2” By Tilen Ti

(www.etsy.com/shop/tilentiart)

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