Hands are always warmer than I expect them to be.
Take off gloves, she says. She’s wearing a black cotton mask, a plastic sheet over her dress. I tug at the tips of the gloves I’ve been given, wincing at the crinkling, which is too sharp in this too-soft room. The music is old but not loud enough to be remarkably bad—‘You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful,’ ‘Call Me Maybe,’ a few others I recognize but can’t name. There are loose strands of hair on the floor. The walls are all faded yellows and browns. Posters of blandly gorgeous women, hair swirling around them in a choke-hold.
Change, she says. I’ll be back in a minute.
She’s back in five, and I straighten up when I see her, suck my stomach in, flick my eyes away from the mirror. It’s hard to stop looking at myself when an entire wall reflects back. Just my own near-naked figure repeating in an endless, terrible loop—the light sharpening out the clumsiness of my flesh, the hair on my skin. I could be pretty, I suppose, like everyone could be pretty. It’s just a readjusting of light, the angle—a refocusing of sorts. I could be pretty blurred out, in passing—that second before an eye blinks over the body, erasure.
The ‘dress’ I’ve been given is a modified skirt that’s too loose to stay over my breasts. The elastic is nearly gone so I press my arms onto the sides of my body to stop it from falling. When she rubs gel onto my skin I almost flinch at the sudden touch. Her skin is warmer than I’m prepared for. The more she touches me the more trouble I have telling apart her skin and mine, her hands and mine—we have the same coloring, the same texture. The wax is warm, the spatula sharp. The women on the walls are beautiful, inked in colors so faded they might disappear any moment. I forget whether she’s masked so I check again. The black cotton cloth across her face is so natural I almost miss it—the blurry covering of a snake shedding. She could be anyone, just another body, veiled. The first time she rips the strip off I inhale.
You’re a regular? she asks.
I’ve been here before, I say, because I don’t like the word ‘regular,’ how it makes this place a part of me. The space where she’s waxed me is still stinging, the skin bare and clean—barren. She folds the used strip onto itself, keeps it by the side of the rack. By the time we’re done, an entire shelf will be stacked with torn parts of my body—hair flattened onto wax like pests in honey. My own body erased, beautiful. I sit straighter.
You have lots of hair, she says.
I consider explaining—it’s been seven months since I last waxed—but the moment has passed. Her hands are tight around my bicep. I have earphones plugged in but there’s no music playing—it keeps them from making conversation, asking me where I’m from, what I do, what I like, why I’m here. The thought of having to reply, craft this new mask, think of myself—it exhausts me. The women on the walls are blank, thoughtless. There’s a certain eroticism in that. She makes her way down my arm, pausing when she sees the light spots near my shoulder.
You have dandruff, she says.
No, I say. I don’t want to have dandruff, and if I do, I don’t want her to notice it. She has a heart tattooed on the back of her hand, right between her thumb and her index finger. I could ask her why she got it but then I don’t. Her skin looks freshly waxed, smooth as a ripe tomato, and when it brushes against my newly-barren arm I shiver.
Too hot? she asks.
No, I say. No, I’m fine.
When she leaves my arm to get more wax, I forget to let it drop. So it hangs there, an afterthought. I feel light, as if my body has lessened itself, but also heavy inside—a single seed weighing down an empty bag. She returns, wraps her fingers around my wrist again to angle it differently, moving my joints around with careless ease. There’s a large rip down the side of one poster, and a woman’s forehead hangs off her face as if it’s been waxed off. The pain is sharp when she rips the hair off the side of my elbow. It mellows to a high-pitched smear, a humming that echoes all the way to my feet. I soften. She tucks the dress-skirt I’m wearing onto my bra strap when she sees it falling. My back has curved. She finishes my arm, instructs me to check it. I make a show of inspecting the skin, though I hardly glance over it—I’ve always felt uncomfortable checking their work, watching them watch me check their work, their eyes sharp. My eyes hone in on my own flesh, picking it apart. The women on the walls are torn. I nod, my eyes cast down.
Lie down, she says. On back.
Her voice is soft, her features blurred. A kind of face I’d never remember. My earphones fall off but I don’t plug them in. My head falls to the side, and my reflection holds me down, eye on eye. My own figure repeating, endless, a million bodies tumbling into each other. I could be just another body, shedding my image on a wall. She hikes the dress up my thighs, makes a show of putting a towel over my underwear for modesty, but it only lies on my stomach, covering nothing. The hair on my legs is long and thick. The pain will be unbearable. I want to tell her to stop, to leave it at the arms, but then I don’t. The wax is heavy, holding me down. She sweeps her palm down the side of my left thigh. I shiver.
Too hot? she asks.
No, I say. No, it’s fine.
The women on the walls are silent. She rips the wax off the space just above my knees first. The sting is a quiet thing, a whispering thing. She moves upwards, closer to my pubic hair, which is as long as a thumb, curling out of my underwear. I want to be just another body, forgettable, but she places her hand on the small of my back, holding me down. The wax is too hot. When she rips it off, the strip gets stuck on my pubic hair and she pauses just a little, as if unsure how to proceed, then yanks it several times before it’s off. My leg jerks then trembles. She shoves my thighs apart, uses two hands to lift their dead weight off the bed.
Hurts? she says.
My skin is heavy, holding me down. My earphones lie beside my head, trembling. She moves down my leg, pausing to check the direction of hair growth. I cannot stop looking at myself. The skin on my arms is smooth as a balloon, ready to be pricked. The women on the walls are taut, waiting. She’s at my shin now, pressing my foot into her body and reaching forward to tear off the strip.
You go to gym? she asks, and her voice has a lilt to it, delighted.
Yes, I say.
You’re hard, she says. Your muscles.
She makes a fist. I smile. I want to be just another body, another stranger on the street—an eye caught for a second too long, then nothing. My foot presses into her breast. My heel touches her stomach. Her flesh is soft, melding itself around my bones. I am transfixed by the mirror, watching my body hold me down, a slender sheet of paper shredding itself. She moves to the other leg, spreading my thighs out again, blocking my view, so I let my eyes close until all the room is in flickers of gold. A few smears of warm yellows. A single muted brown, blurred.
Turn around, she says. On belly.
I turn around. She waxes up my leg, ripping the strip off the space where my thigh meets my ass several times, in quick succession. The wax is warm like blood. I press my face to my arm, reborn. The women on the walls are shedding. The sting is unbearable near my knee. I sink. Her hand is paper-soft, like mine, ready to be torn.
I’ll be back, she says.
She leaves the door open, and my legs are spread wide-apart, the towel covering nothing. I consider closing the door myself, but then I don’t. My body is wax-warm, aching, holding me.
She comes back in five. Her hands are so delicate when she rubs oil onto my limbs that my eyes close. I almost whimper. The women on the walls are listening. She traces a finger down the side of my thigh. I shiver, just another body. She leaves. I let the dress drop.
For minutes I lie there. My hands are warmer than I expect them to be. I redress, press close to the mirror, unmask, trace a finger down my thigh. The skin is taut, heavy with blood. The women on the walls are soaked, wanting.
Shreya Vikram is a writer based in India. A Dorothy West Scholar, she has been recognized by the Adroit Prizes for Prose. Her work is forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Atticus Review, Ruminate, and elsewhere. You can find more of her writing at shreyavikram.com