I’m making my way down the path that leads to The Clinic’s front door. I’m walking through a rock garden, past beds of flowers, little miniature waterfalls whose tinkling makes me want to pee. I feel like I’m walking down a hallway, and the damn thing keeps getting longer and longer. I’ve seen horror films like this. Just when you think you’ve reached the end, you find that the end is out of your reach.
Just when I start thinking it’s a sign, there it is: the front door. Shit. Two fewer steps in the fog and I could’ve given up, left, called from the office, sorry, couldn’t find it, will call back to reschedule.
I could’ve never rescheduled. I could’ve never had to face the voice on the phone, that sweet down-to-earth tone that belongs to –
“Hi,” the woman says. “I’m Jessica.”
She’s not what I’d expected: a pudgy Latina with braces, heavy eyebrows, a little roll of fat bulging beneath her shirt, which says Oil of Olay, spelled out in little faux rhinestones. The front lobby is comfortable. That sucks. I’d wanted it to feel sterile to the point of hostility, stripped down and yet at the same time hatefully design-savvy. Leather couches and subtly lit mirrors, a smoke machine maybe. A medical-spa version of a disco, a bachelor pad in shades of black, white and gray. Metrosexual and clinical.
Instead it looks like the kind of place where you’d want to house-sit. Warm, soft tones, an olive-colored rug on the floor, a glass-topped coffee table with copies of Rolling Stone and Harper’s. A large, cushy-looking couch striped in olive and beige, tons of pillows, facing off against a flat-screen television set.
“Is this where you do the face stapling?” I ask Jessica.
I am a woman with a beard. I have an adrenal disorder – Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, it’s a mouthful – that results in excess hair as well as obesity, infertility and male-pattern balding. It’s a whole jukebox of fun surprises. I’ve tried shaving. I’ve tried waxing. I’ve considered electrolysis. Now I’m getting laser hair removal.
"Nope,” she says, and leads me into an private room. Now this is what I’d expected: white-on-white, not even a Thomas Kinkade knockoff to lighten things up. Excellent.
“Have a seat,” she says, and I perch on the exam table. I picture myself prone on this thing, eyes shut, nails digging into palms. The air in here smells like nothing, nothing at all. It’s as if they deep-clean the oxygen between appointments. For all I know, they do.
“I didn’t like Oakland,” Jessica says. She’s kneeling before me, peering closely at my cheeks and chin. “Too ghetto. So I moved to Hayward.”
“The training ground for gangs,” I say.
“Yeah.” She puts her hand to the side of my face and turns me slightly to the left. I flinch.
I’m not used to anyone touching me there. “But the parking’s easy.”
She pulls out a drawer, a clipboard, a piece of paper and a valentine-colored pen. She uncaps the pen and I notice the short, unpainted nails capping stubby fingers. There’s something endearing about her hands, something natural and undiminished. She marks a diagram, drawing with red ink on the blank, expressionless example. She’s a lefty.
"Full face,” she says, tapping the paper with the pen’s tip. It’s still uncapped. She’s giving the paper diagram freckles, acne. “Upper lip, chin, cheeks. The whole pickle.”
I bite my lip hard enough to draw blood – not from nerves, but to reassure myself that I’m here, I’m alive, I’m doing this.
Jessica puts down the clipboard and fixes me with a metallic smile. They make invisible braces, why didn’t she go that route? Then I flush, angry at myself. You’re judging her?
“Six sessions,” she says. “At least.”
Six sessions at three hundred a session. If I go for the package, it’s fifteen hundred total, one free treatment. A laser hair removal Value Meal.
“Jessica,” I say, “I’ve been to two doctors. Neither of them could fix me. If I pay you fifteen hundred dollars, can you make me look like a girl?”
She says: “Let me tell you how it works.”
The technician uses a hand-held laser instrument. It sends a light beam through the skin. The beam seeks melanin, a pigment found in hair and particularly in dark, coarse hair like mine. It hits and destroys the hair follicle. Cooling gel protects the skin. Topical cream and aspirin minimize pain.
The laser light works best for people with dark hair and fair skin. Dark hair and fair skin. That’s me!
That’s Jessica too. She tells me how her hairy arms made her feel like something in an African jungle. “No more,” she says, rolling up her sleeves. Now there’s just smooth, freckled skin.
Her eyes are warm. Trust me, they say. “I’m very happy,” she says. “So are my clients.”
Clients, not patients. Word choice means everything. Client means choice. It means you’re the boss.
“We’re on,” I say.
Jessica hands me a Popsicle stick with cooling gel. I swipe it across every problem area and in the end only my eyes remain uncovered. My pupils are dilated with worry, my left eyelid twitching.
“Hop up,” she says, patting the exam table. I do this with a motion that is nothing like hopping. It is more like the walk to the guillotine.
“Lie back,” she says, and I lower my head until it is level with my feet.
“Hold these,” she tells me, and places a cotton ball on each of my eyes. She pins them with the goggles, and in this moment I learn that I am claustrophobic. Blinded, I feel trapped, boxed. I gasp for air, but I try to do it quietly.
“When I activate the laser, I’ll say pulse,” Jessica says. “That way you’ll know what’s coming.”
Behind me the machine hums into life. The sound is background to the pulse that is beating in my chest, wrists and temples.
“You ready?” Jessica asks.
I think about the plane that will take me to Europe two days from now. What if a wave of claustrophobia rolls over me in that second before the doors are shut? Will I make for the exit before my lungs shut down entirely?
“Make it quick,” I say.
It is not quick. It takes an hour and that is made bearable only by a break halfway through. My hands dig into the crinkly white paper beneath me. I feel one of my fingernails pierce the surface and it’s almost like permission to scream. I moan instead.
“How you doing?” Jessica asks.
It feels like someone scraped my face with the blunt, rusty side of an axe, then sprayed it with lemon juice.
"Fine,” I say.
I’d trawled the internet to find out just how much this was going to hurt. Like a rubber band snapping said one message board. Another warned of a little stinging, a little swelling. One laser clinic’s website advised that patients might feel a slight prickling or burning sensation. Let me post on those message boards. I’ll give a rebuttal to that clinic. It feels like someone’s going fishing in my face. And Captain Ahab is one sadistic son of a bitch.
The laser feels like a roving fishhook. Each time it bites into my face I hear a beep-beepbeep.
That’s the beam seeking the follicle. Once found, it goes zap. That’s the hair frying. Not only can I feel it, I can also smell it.
“Just about there,” Jessica says. “You okay?”
Outside this clinic lovers are having late-morning breakfasts. Bikers and joggers huff past. Tennis partners square off. Drivers pump gas at the Chevron. Mothers squat in front of strollers and shake fingers.
I would kill to be any one of them.
“Hurry,” I say.
“Four more,” she says. “I’ll count them down.”
I bite my lip, curl my toes, remind myself why I’m doing this. No more razors in the morning, pulling my skin this way and that to get the closest cut. No more second shave of the day, the hair so thick and persistent it grows back even as it’s shorn.
No more stubble, no more shadow.
No more hopeful posing in front of the mirror: From this angle I can’t see it at all!
No more walking in a room and wondering: Are they looking at me?
“Jesus,” I say.
I pull off the goggles. Light, beautiful blessed light. I struggle to sit up. My tailbone is tentative, unsure if it’s able to hold me. My head is runny, my brain muddled. My face is a balloon expanded with too much air.
“Hand me a mirror,” I say to Jessica. All my politesse, my good-girl training, has vaporized in the moment. I need to see what’s been done to me.
“You don’t look that bad.”
“So hand me the damn thing.”
“Just be prepared. That’s all I’m saying.”
She hands it over.
There I am, my eyes red and wet above my inflamed skin. The singed hairs are everywhere, some already falling out. I brush at them with triumph.
I look great.