Waxing Nostalgic

I’d been with Mary for years. As had my twin sister, Marina. We never missed an appointment. You go through a thousand quacks and hideous waxing disasters before you find a treasure like Mary. And when you do, you stick with her.

Over a decade, we had cultivated the sort of relationships with Mary you would with the family doctor. Even in college, at UC Santa Cruz, I was the only women’s-studies major heading home at the breaks for precise, delicate eyebrows.

“Hi, babies!” she would say, her Korean face beaming, when my sister and I arrived. “How are my babies doing?”

Inside E.T. Nails, Mary’s spot was way in the back, next to the bathrooms. The waiting area was a converted storage closet. There was nothing to read, unless we wanted to decipher 5-year-old copies of La Opinión.

It was worth it, though. Mary needed no guidance. The shape of your face told her all she needed to know. There are infinite possibilities for errors in the subtle practice of eyebrow waxing, but Mary avoided them all. No burns, imbalances or bald spots. And she steered clear of clichés, like the angry Romulan or disappearing comet’s tail that waxers like to foist upon their customers without warning. Mary always remembered that I liked an arc, while Marina’s thinner face demanded straighter lines.

Then, tragedy struck: Mary was booted from E.T. Nails. Most people don’t realize that their salon workers toil in a feudal system, subject to the whim of landlords who lease space to them in exchange for a cut and fealty. Mary apparently upset the local lord of E.T. Nails, and was out on her own.

She did a short stint down the street at iNails, whose typography suggested that this was an establishment capable of delivering salon care through the Internet. At first, the move seemed like great luck, since iNails was cleaner and well lit and furnished visitors with unlimited stacks of Us Weekly. But Mary was on a downward spiral. She fought with the boss again and lasted just a few weeks. Next came a brief residency at the market next door, where behind the grocery aisles sat a couple of sinks, and Mary, trying to keep her customer base together.

Soon enough, that was over too. Sadness engulfed me. Then I remembered I had her cell-phone number. She’d always said she’d do emergency jobs on the fly, make house calls. Seemed strange, since she lives in Rialto, and it can’t be cost-effective to drive several hours back and forth to Los Angeles to do eyebrows for $14 each. But Mary was having tough times; maybe she really needed the money. And, we thought, it might be nice, fancy even, to have a private visit with your waxer.

It was a little weird, though, when Mary told me and Marina to meet her at a Days Inn near the corner of Hollywood and Western, about equidistant from a halfway house and an aging peepshow emporium. But my eyebrows had grown wild, and I was desperate — even this appointment took weeks of phone tag and wrangling.

When we got there, the parking lot was full of the kind of cars you drive when you’re on the run. We stood in the shabby lobby. Outside, SRO lifers from the former St. Francis resident hotel down the way wandered along the sidewalk in bathrobes and slippers. Half an hour went by with no word.

Finally, Mary pulled into the parking lot. “Hi, babies!” she shouted, motioning to us. “Come here!” With no explanation, she jumped out and opened the rear door to reveal a back seat full of cookies, Starbucks coffees and trays of other food.

“Okay, baby, you take this one,” she says, handing me a cake. “And you take this.” Marina now had a box of doughnuts in her hands.

Mary made a beeline to the second floor, where we opened a door to find a motel room with five girls sitting around on two double beds. We all looked blankly at each other. “No problem!” Mary says. “Leave food here.” Without exchanging a word, I handed the cake to a brown-haired hippie girl. Marina passed out her doughnuts. More blank looks.

“Okay, let’s go!” Mary said suddenly, and led us down the hall to another room. “It’s okay, babies,” she turned to say. “We do it in here.”

As she fumbled with the key, I calculated a 37.4 percent chance we would not survive the waxing appointment. The room was dark. Mary immediately set about replacing all the light bulbs with some she brought from home. I suggested opening the window, since that would give us plenty of light. “Oh, no!” Mary said. “We can’t do that.” Baffled, Marina and I watched Mary pull her equipment out of a bag, spread it on the table and plug in her melting pot of wax.

Now, a trip to the salon should feel like a luxury, not a low-level drug deal about to go sour. Mary helpfully fished in her commodious bag and pulled out a roll of doctor’s-office butcher paper, spread it on the bed and insisted that I lie down on it.

“Relax!” she commanded.

From the bed, I watched Mary screw in more light bulbs. Marina stood in the corner. The room was still too dark, so Mary dragged a floor lamp toward me. She struggled with the heavy lamp, tripped over the cord, and the whole operation hit the floor. “No problem,” Mary said, picking herself up. “Relax.”

No easy task on the butcher paper, which crinkled with every slight move in the silent room. And who knew it took an eternity for wax to get hot? When Mary started in, things were no less awkward, because the bed was too low and Mary couldn’t see, and she kept peeking out the window, and I was wondering what those other women were doing two rooms over with their doughnuts, and all this was happening on a motel bed in a Days Inn, and it’d been half an hour since anyone uttered a word. Crinkle, crinkle . . .

Marina’s turn went by in a blur, after which we both hightailed it out of there.

“Sorry, babies,” Mary said, smiling. “Next time better.”

Back home, we took a good look at each other. It was like looking in a mirror: All four eyebrows were crooked. We never heard from Mary again. And we still wonder about those girls in the other room, with their cake and doughnuts. Maybe they were next in line.

—Ronni Kapps, as told to Joshuah Bearman

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