The Way Woman Laugh

My mother walks through the door of the waxing room at the precise moment the Rumanian lady rips a hot strip of wax from my bikini line. I have been staring alternately at the second hand on the blank face of a wall clock and a poster of a silky-skinned brunette in a puckered white maillot, one leg kicking high into the air.

“Hello, my darling daughter,” my mother says.

I stare at her wordlessly. It does not surprise me that she has found me in the bowels of a beauty salon on Central Park South, poking her head into Korean manicure parlors, marble basins of hairdressers, softly-lit massage rooms. My mother can find me anywhere.

The Rumanian lady dips a spatula into the vat of hot wax and spreads it over my inner thigh like honey. She presses a strip of cheesecloth against the heat and smooths it with professional fingers, pausing for a moment before yanking it toward her in a small, efficient motion.

“Youch!” I yell.

“Is it painful?” my mother asks. “I’ve never done that. The lower leg, yes. But never – ”

“If you’ve gone seventy years without, I wouldn’t start now,” I say. The Rumanian lady lifts my leg above her shoulder, resting it there as she continues painting me with the spatula, hot, sticky, like the ocean at the end of a long summer day.

“I can’t watch,” says my mother, watching.

In the mirror I see my legs splayed, a paper towel tucked between them like a diaper – not a dignified position. Certainly not a posture of strength. I have not spoken to my mother in forty-seven days this time and would prefer to be doing so vertically.

“If Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, then the mountain will come to Mohammed,” she says brightly, moving to the foot of the table, standing directly in my line of vision. When she smiles at me, the rest of her face doesn’t move.

Mother has had her eyes done.

“Notice anything different?” she asks.

“What do you mean?”

“About me Anything strike you?”

“Hhhmm,” I appraise her.

She stands still, waiting.

“You look a little tired,” I say, “around the eyes.”

I watch her face fall, crumbling like a ridge of shifting sand. This is the bloody dance of mothers and daughters: we know how to wound each other, and that knowledge lurks within each of us like a loaded gun, precautionary, resting inside a dresser drawer where it will some day, despite the best of intentions, be cocked and triggered.

“Did you just visit Keiko?” I ask, invoking the name of her hairdresser, a blond man from North Carolina who changed his name when he began working at a Japanese salon on East Fifty-Sixth Street.

“Yes,” she says, gently patting the surface of her hair, which is lacquered as if a thin veneer were painted onto each strand, an outer shell of protection against city pollution, dripping air-conditioner vents, blasts of hot air pouring into open cab windows.

“It looks – nice – ” I murmur as the Rumanian lady powders my inner thighs, soothes them with lotion.

“I’ve always preferred a natural look myself,” says my mother. I look closely at her face in the florescent light of the waxing room and realize she’s done it again. She has made a department store make-up artist’s day. She is wearing three gradations of pink on her eyelids, blue-tinted mascara, and her lips are outlined, powdered, then filled in with a matte shade of violent coral. She smiles widely. There are flecks of lipstick on her teeth.

“How much, Mom?” I ask. I am lying on my back, weary.

“Lancome was having a special,” she says brightly. “A gift bag free with a fifty-dollar purchase!”

The linoleum floor of the waxing room is an ode to Fifty-Seventh Street. There is a brown-and-white striped shopping bag, a lavender hatbox, an array of pale ribbons poking from the tops like spilled confetti. When my mother buys herself presents, she has them gift-wrapped.

Here are the danger signs: I note them, one by one, the way as a child I counted the hundreds of lipstick samples that littered her bottom dresser drawer – make-over, lacquered hair, shopping bags, wide eyes, pupils darting back and forth almost imperceptibly, jiggling like the ripples of water in a placid lake just after a stone has skimmed the surface.

My mother in trouble. I sniff it like a dog who runs in dizzying circles, chasing its own tail.

I close my eyes.

“Tell me,” I whisper. “Give me the speech you’ve rehearsed all morning. Hit me with your best shot.”

Forty-seven days ago I stopped answering my phone.

Hi darling, it’s Mom.

Dear, this is your mother calling.

This is your only mother.

I turned down the sound on each telephone, so that all I heard when it rang was a click and beep of my answering machine, microspools purring around sprockets, filling the yawn of empty tape.

Call me, sweetheart.

I miss you, lambkin.

Return this call if you know what’s good for you.

I canceled my call waiting when I realized its effect on phone control.

“May I ask why?” asked the phone company woman.

“Because it’s driving me crazy!” I screamed into her ear.

“Thank-you for your honesty,” she said.

I distributed my mother’s photograph to all my doormen: a snapshot taken in front of St. Petersburg Cathedral in what used to be Leningrad. She is wearing a striped polo and flouncy skirt, sunglasses and camera dangling around her shoulders, lenses flashing like a tribeswoman’s necklace of desiccated piranha eyes. She is smiling, and somehow the spirals and domes of St. Petersburg look like Disneyland.

Armed and dangerous, I printed beneath the photograph. Not to be given access to apartment 23B. Wanted in twenty-two states.

The Rumanian lady does my lashes. This means I must close my eyes and keep them closed. She paints bluc-black dye on each individual lash, swabbing at my lids with a damp Q-Tip.

“What are you doing now?” my mother asks. I feel her standing over me, inspecting.

“Dying my eyelashes,” I say. Opening my mouth and closing my eyes simultaneously seems suddenly difficult, like walking and chewing gum. “Sort of like permanent mascara.”

“I’ve never tried that,” says my mother.

“Another habit not to get into at this late date,” I respond, lids fluttering, dye spilling, stinging the corners of my eyes.

“Qvviet,” says the Rumanian lady. “You are too tense.”

I tell my mother a joke so that she will crack up. I hear her laughing so hard I wish I could open my eyes and see for sure if she’s had plastic surgery. You can always tell by the way women laugh, as if they’re trying to hold back some essential part of themselves, as if mirth ages them.

The Rumanian lady leaves us. She turns off the lights in the waxing room and pipes in a relaxation tape of birds chirping and leaves rustling.

“Fifteen meenoots,” she whispers.

Fifteen meenoots? Alone in a room with my mother? With eyes closed and limbs bared?

“I had surgery,” says my mother. “They cut me with a knife.”

Darkness swirls beneath my closed eyes, and I see tiny amoeba-shaped doodles swimming through the dark red flesh of my eyelids like lost spermatozoa. My bikini line, as they so elegantly call it, is smarting to high heaven. I can just imagine my pink, angry thighs.

“Don’t you have anything to say?” asks my mother, her voice reedy with discontent.

“I can’t think of anything – ”

“Your mother, your only mother tells you she had major surgery and – ”

“It sounds to me like the elective kind,” I murmur.

“Elective is a matter of opinion,” says my mother.

“Whose opinion?”

“Dr. Maurice Richter, surgeon to the stars,” she announces gleefully. “A little nip here, a tuck there – ”

“And where exactly have you been nipped and tucked?”

“Only where I needed it, darling.”

“How much did all this set you back?” I ask her.”

“The insurance – ” she falters.

“For elective surgery?” I snap, forgetting for an instant about the goop on my lids and fluttering my eyes open.

“Ouch!” I yell.

“What’s wrong, cupcake?”

“It stings – ”

I hear her rise from her chair and grope through piles of ointment and cotton balls, then her fingertips are on my eyelids, and something cool presses down on me, moist and soothing.

“Thank you.”

“What’s a mother for?”

She swabs at my face with cotton, brushing over my cheeks, around my jaw.

“I had bones like this,” she says dreamily, “in the days before Dr. Maurice Richter was even born.”

“Ma – ”

“And I didn’t go for all this modern waxing and dying and tweezing, but we had our own ways of – ”

“Why are you doing this to yourself? Why are you – ”

“My hair was braided down to my waist. When I cut it all off, the hairdresser cried. Did I ever show you the braid? I kept it all these years, tucked in my – ”

“Sweater drawer, under the cashmeres,” I whisper, as if I had not opened that drawer every rainy day of my childhood, as if countless times I had not lifted the soft rainbow of wool and pulled the thick, dark brown braid from yellowed tissue and held it to my own head, or wrapped it around my waist once, twice; I wondered how many years a woman would have to live to grow her hair that long, what worldly sights the dead follicles had witnessed, whose hands had undone the braid, what prompted her to cut it into a chin-length bob, and how she felt as her own hair cascaded over her shoulders, down her back, falling around her, curling like a dead animal on the floor.

“Next we’re doing liposuction,” announces my mother.

“Pardon?”

“Vacuum the fat. They suck it right out of there.” I hear her slap what I imagine to be her thighs beneath elegant wool pants, courtesy of some Seventh Avenue designer showroom. Her legs look like drumsticks, prickly skin just barely covering bone.

“What fat?”

“As Wallis Simpson said: you can never be too rich or too – ”

“Who’s rich?”

“I’m wounded, darling. Your late father – ”

“Leave him out of it!”

Through the closed door of the waxing room I hear the low buzz of a facial machine. I remember it looks like a neon blue wand and makes an electronic sound like one of those mosquito zappers frying a bug. A tea kettle whistles in the distance, the clinking of plates. The Rumanian ladies are on their lunch break. Perhaps the waxing woman has forgotten about me. The blue-black goop is hardening around my eyes. I feel suddenly claustrophobic, and fight to open my eyes, but they are glued shut. My heart pounds. My palms sweat. This would be a way to go, wouldn’t it? Trapped in a waxing room with no panties on, a paper towel between my legs, vegetable dye streaking my eyelids, witnessed by my mother, who is sniffling audibly as if it is her own life ending, not her daughter’s.

“Crying can’t be good for your stitches,” I say, gripping the sides of the metal table as if it is a gurney and I am about to be wheeled into surgery myself.

“I don’t have stitches. Dr. Richter – Maurice – sewed me up with the dissolving kind.”

“They just disappear? Just like that?”

“Yes. They melt into the skin like – ”

“Like butter,” I finish for her, imagining pools of yellow fat sinking into the pale white flour of a roll.

A piercing sound permeates the room like the crescendo of an ambulance’s wail, and for a moment I think a smoke detector has been set off, or a facial machine has gone haywire, until I realize the high-pitched noise is coming directly from the corner of the room where my mother sits.

The screech builds and then softens like a siren fighting its way through a heavily trafficked street.

“You – ”

She spits the syllables across the room, tiny hand grenades, guided missiles.

“Don’t. Love. Your. Mother.”

“How can you say that?”

“Well it’s true, isn’t it?”

“I – ”

“Forty-seven days I haven’t heard from you.”

“I needed another break – ”

“A break! A girl who says she needs a break from her mother. Do you hear that?”

She swings open the door of the waxing room and the red beneath my closed eyes becomes brighter, softer, like blood.

“A daughter who can’t stand to be near her mother!” She calls into the inner sanctum of the salon, walls covered with hundreds of framed, signed photographs of celebrities and movie stars. “Has anyone ever heard of such a thing?”

A chorus of yeses resounds through the corridors. Or perhaps I am hallucinating.

She closes the door and again we are entombed together.

“I am going to die and you are going to feel very guilty,” she says, “not that I wish this for you.”

I hear her chair creak as she rocks back and forth like a peasant woman keening over an open grave.

“When a parent dies, according to Jewish law, they are mourned for a whole year,” she practically chants, “did you know that? Not for a husband, not for a wife, or a sibling, or a child – only for a parent do you mourn a year.”

“Should I start now?” I ask her.

She jumps out of her chair and hurls herself toward me; her hand across my face comes of out nowhere, with terrific force, as if the carved hand of a gargoyle had fallen off a ledge and crashed into my cheek. I see her through sharp streaks of blue-black across my corneas, and think, my mother has been x’d out. She pries my eyes open and stares me down in the dimness.”

“Shame,” she mutters, “shame.”

The Rumanian lady has finished her lunch. She bustles into the waxing room preceded by a cloud of boiled egg and garlic.

“Vat ees zees?” she asks. “Zee eyes, zey are all over zee place!”

She shakes her head at my mother, motions her to sit in the corner where she belongs, then, turning back to me, dabs at my face with cotton balls.

“Vat a mess,” she mutters.

I am crying. Black tears stream horizontally from the corners of my eyes into my hairline, dribbling onto the white paper that covers the waxing table.

“Not good,” frowns the waxing lady. “Not.”

Everyone is upset. My mother, the waxing lady – even the brunette poster girl seems to be furrowing her brow – and I have been horizontal for far too long, like an analysand on the couch who cannot imagine that her time is not up.

I leap off the table.

“Enough!” I shout at the Rumanian lady. “I have had enough!”

“But Meez – ”

“Don’t ‘But Meez’ me! You left me lying here too long.”

“But Meez, I thought you and Mommy vanted to – ”

I flip on the overhead lights and stare at myself in the mirror. Black lines stripe down my cheeks. I am naked from the waist down, my blouse wrinkled and bunched. My mother is huddled in her chair watching me; she dabs at her eyes, tissuing away the streaks where her mascara has run.

“Do you mind?” I ask, trying to retain some dignity.

“What?” responds my mother.

“Vat?” asks the waxing lady.

“Could I just get dressed in peace?”

Slowly they file out of the waxing room. The door creaks open, then closes behind them; I hear strains of a peppy, Muzak version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” piped through speakers in the waiting area where several women sit, feet soaking in green plastic tubs. Other Rumanian women kneel next to the tubs, wielding stainless steel instruments, smoothing and scraping calluses from the soles of manicured feet.

“What can I do?” I hear my mother wail to the waxing lady on the other side of the door.

“Vait.”

“Excuse me?”

“Vait. Have patience.”

“Patients?”

“Your girl, you are her mommy. She love you.”

I climb into my stockings, gathering the thin nylon around my ankles, sliding them up. I spill some cleanser onto a cotton ball, wipe gently, erasing the tic-tac-toe board that is my face. First I step into my skirt, then my high heels. I tuck my blouse into the waistline, smoothing wrinkles, cinching my belt tightly. Blusher, a little powder. I spray cologne into the air, step through the mist. I am almost ready. Outline my lips first in pale pencil, then more heavily with lipstick. I pull a tissue from a pink-and-white box, press it to my lips, once, twice. I aim for the wastebasket, but the tissue floats to the floor instead, phantom kisses a daughter leaves behind.