We’re headed down Interstate 15 South on the way to the doctor. My mother has a Benson & Hedges in her left hand and the radio dial in her right. She drives with her knees. “No reason to tell Him,” she says. In our house, there is only one Him, and it isn’t God.
“You’re not supposed to be sick. That’s why.”
Am I sick? That would be excellent. That would mean I could take one of the antibiotics that makes me throw up and get a rash all over my body – and the hair would fall out. If it’s as easy as that, I’m happy.
Dr. Frye has white hair and an unlined face. He steeples his long, narrow fingers under his pointed chin. “She’s hirsute,” he says. I don’t know the term, but I can guess. It has something to do with the fuzz on my back. And arms and legs. And, as it turns out, on my breasts, buttocks and face.
Dummy, didn’t you know?
But I didn’t. When you see something every day, you don’t really see it. Sometimes it takes an alarm, a call.
My mother puts a hand on my knee. Her grasp feels steady and almost too comforting. I want to tell her that the diagnosis itself doesn’t scare me. It makes me feel warm at the temples, the pit of my throat, in my heart as it pounds. This doctor is going to help. He’s going to fix me.
“We’ll want to look into this,” Dr. Frye said. “If she were my daughter, I’d get it taken care of as soon as possible.”
No, the diagnosis doesn’t scare me. What I’m worried about is the swing into action. My parents can’t even remember to water the lawn.
“We’ll run tests,” the doctor says. He marks a small sheet of paper with his physician’s scribble and hands it to my mother. She grasps it with her long red claws, wrinkling the center.
But instead of heading to the lab in the downstairs basement, we leave the office and walk to the car. My mother’s posture is rigid, her mouth determined. She holds her purse as a soldier might hold his weapon. The sun shines on my hairy face and gorilla arms. It’s peach fuzz now, but what will happen in the future? “What about the bloodwork?” I ask. I sound like a classroom goody-goody, a wanna-be perfect girl. I was once called “the mother of the class.” I’m still trying to figure that one out.
My mother hands me her purse. “Get my keys out,” she says. She’s always asking me to do these small things – get my keys, bring me a drink of water, hand me a cigarette, the pack’s over there – and I never say no. The keys are jangly and jagged in my hand. I run my finger along the ragged edge of the key that opens the door to our house. I do it hard enough that it hurts.
“Stop messing around,” my mother says, and snatches the keys out of my hand. Actually, she uses a word that’s coarser than messing. She can curse, but I can’t. When I ask why, her answer is the same as when I ask why she can smoke and I shouldn’t. “Because I’m stupid,” she says.
“I’m not messing around.”
“Neither am I. Get in the car.”
She unlocks her door.
“Are you mad at me?” I ask.
“Mad? Why would I be mad?”
“I don’t know. You seem mad.”
“I’m always mad,” she says. “I’m a mother.”
She pulls her purse out of my hands and tosses it in the back seat. A bit of paper escapes and flutters to the floor. She settles herself in the driver’s seat and beckons toward the passenger-side door. “Get in,” she says.
I’m still standing by the driver’s side. I don’t want to get in. Getting in means driving away. Driving away means no lab tests. No lab tests mean The Werewolf is still alive.
“Get,” she repeats, “in.”
“No,” I say.
I’m not the kind of kid who says no. Until this moment, I wasn’t sure I even knew how to do it. It feels good. It tastes like triumph.
And like all sweetness, it doesn’t last.
“I’m going to give you until the count of three,” she says. “And at two and a half, you’re getting your ass smacked.”
I don’t move, but already I know it’s over.
“One,” she says.
Why is she so insistent? Is there a reason I shouldn’t take care of what’s wrong with me?
Maybe she wants me to be The Werewolf.
“Two and a –”
“Okay,” I say.
She leans over and unlocks the door. I walk around the car and fit my fingers around the handle. In my mouth is the taste of rust, the sting of defeat.
“Don’t worry,” she says.
We eat lunch at Hob Nob Hill, surrounded by wood walls and cosseted by leather seats. My mother has the corned beef. I choose the fish fillet. I’ve decided to lose weight.
“You know,” Nails says, “we can take care of this ourselves.”
I nibble on a french fry. Losing weight can be a gradual process.
“You’re not a freak,” she says.
I look up and meet her eyes. Until this moment, I’d never given thought to that idea. A freak. Something out of a circus. Is she sure?"
“You’re my daughter,” she says. “I love you.”
Nails doesn’t bust out those words lightly. She’s not what you would call gushy. “Thanks,” I say.
When we come home the house is quiet and oddly peaceful. Middle is in school. Jonathan is at a babysitter’s. My father is at his Point Loma office doing paperwork.
“Come,” my mother says.
She takes me into my bathroom, her sanctuary. She retrieves a yogurt cup from underneath the sink and a cigarette from her pack. She flicks a lighter and inhales. “Let me look at you,” she says. “I’m not going to bite.”
“I might,” I say.
“You’ve got an awfully big mouth for someone so little.”
“I’m not that little.”
“You’re not that big either. Come here.”
It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. Ronald Reagan is in the White House. WrestleMania is in Madison Square Garden. My mother opens a cabinet and retrieves a disposable razor, then takes a can of shaving cream from the tub. I focus on the can’s red and white stripes until they seem to pulse in waves.
“You might have to do it every day,” Nails says, “or every other day. You’ll figure it out. It takes time, but you will.”
Is she going to shave my back? My legs? My arms?
“We’ll start with the face,” she says.
Of course. You can cover up everything else. It makes sense.
“First I’ll do it,” she says, “then you go on your own. It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it.”
Then her mouth crumples. She sits on the toilet and lights a cigarette. It hangs from her crimson lips and smoke rises to frame her face. Eventually she puts it out in the cup.
“Sometimes I just realize how much I hate your father,” she says.
I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Mom,” I say, “don’t cry.”
She stands up, rips a piece of toilet paper from its roll and blows her nose. The sound is coarse, a call to action. “Okay,” she says.
She turns a mint-colored tap and water cascades into the sink. Steam rises and spreads. “Here,” she says. She hands me a towel. It’s warm and wet. I press it to my face.
“Perfect,” she says. “The water softens it.”
I think of Rock, Paper, Scissors. If the water can defeat the hair, what can the hair defeat?
Nails pops the plastic cover from a disposable razor. She runs it under the steaming waterfall, then snaps off the tap. “All right,” she says.
She starts with my sideburns. They’re bushy and generous. They run the length of my face from ears to jawbone. I’ve noticed them, but I always thought they were normal, like eyebrows or the hair that springs from my father’s knuckles. I have hair there, too.
“It’s okay,” she says. “You’re not an ape.”
“Or a freak?”
“Where did you get that word?”
“You said it. At lunch.”
“No, baby,” she says. “You’re not a freak.”
I watch in the mirror. I think about the men who get professional shaves in barber shops, the careful motions of the blade. My mother is similarly gentle. Her motions are usually sharp with purpose, but this is a special occasion. In a way, I feel lucky.