“Shedding Skin” by Angela Rega
Tonight, my skin is itchy. It burns and prickles where red, anthill mounds sprout on my inner thighs.
“Ingrown hairs,” he says to me. “You’ve got ingrown hairs.”
I try to squeeze the hair out. The skin is rough and has grown what looks like a purplish lid to keep it in. It hurts but I keep squeezing until the swellings change shape from round anthills to pointy cones and a little pus and water seeps under my fingernails from the squeezing. But no hair comes.
“You’re very hairy,” he says to me. “I didn’t know women were so hairy.”
I don’t answer. I stopped answering him a few months ago when I realized that we weren’t compatible. Instead I step into the bathroom, close the door, step onto the cracked and moulding tiles of the shower recess, grab my loofah and scrub my skin.
I scrub and scrub until the skin is chafed and raw, until I feel the hair coming through the skin. The bathroom is small and steams up easily; I push the window open to let the cool air in and stand on tipee-toe to see if anyone is out there getting a good glimpse of me naked. Sometimes he does that to piss me off.
The new girl in the brothel next door is sitting on the bench in the concrete yard, smoking. She looks up at the opening screech of my window; I duck my head so that she doesn’t see me. I noticed her for the first time last week. She’s got the kind of beauty that makes me feel self-conscious.
Overhead, a plane screeches; it descends over my rooftop and drowns out the noise of the neighbour’s Hindi radio program, the hoon boys’ cars down the M9 highway and him, wanting to know how long I’ll be in the shower. I suppose there is something positive to be said for living directly under the flight path.
He bangs loudly on the bathroom door, muttering about how long I take in the bathroom. “You should wax your legs, you work at a waxing salon,” he persists. “Then the hair becomes sparrow and it won’t give you so much trouble when it grows back.”
Sparse, I say to myself, becomes sparse.
I don’t answer. I’ve been waxing for years.
It always grows back.
The coarse blonde hair clogs up the shower cistern. I turn the tap on full pressure and push it down the drain with my toes, so I don’t block the water flow, and watch it wash away.
When I was a kid, there was a story my grandma would tell us. She’d take the three-hour trip on the slow rattler train with big olive green vinyl seats from her home, the Northeast National Park, to City Central. I remember the smell of grease and rusty iron when the train pulled in. We’d pick her up on the crowded platform, travellers carting pillows and blankets, and she’d arrive, carrying a battered suitcase with not much in it except for a change of underwear, some clippers and a story about her childhood. It was always the same story.
“Jen,” she’d say, “You know we’re related to the dingo.”
The only place you see dingoes in Sydney is in snippets in the news about them attacking children at camp sites. You never see a stray dog in this city, let alone a dingo. But Grandma said they were still roaming the Great Dividing Ranges, just a few hours away, up where she lived. She said she went walking in the Northeast National Park and would sit with her back against the sandstone rocks to sing with them. “They’re the wolves of our country,” she said, “only howling, never barking.” And then she’d tell the story about how the women in our family were related to the dingo. I’d shake my head in disbelief and she’d get angry and tell the story again.
“Once a month, the men locked the women relatives up. Locked ’em up in the barn to stop ’em from roamin’ free. When I was a child, I remember being tucked into me bed an’ hearin’ me father lock me mother an’ aunt in the barn, threatening ’em with his rifle, firin’ shots in the air.”
She would use her long, skinny, storytelling fingers to mimic a gun.
“Why didn’t your father lock you up, then?” I’d ask, skeptical but reluctantly drawn into the tale.
She’d poke me with that finger gun to shut me up. “Cos the dingo within waits for the moment you become a woman. I was still a little girl when the story I’m tellin’ you ‘appened. You’ll stay ‘ere til the dingo goes back to the forest within youse, my father would scream to ’em behind the locked door.”
Then she’d bang on my bed head as if she was her father, banging on that door.
“They’d howl through the night, poundin’ the doors so that it sounded like a harsh wind was tryin’ to escape. But it was them dingo women. It was always them.”
My Grandma’s eyes were wide and unblinking on that last sentence and it made the thick hairs on my forearms bristle.
Then she’d tell me once how her aunt escaped. Great Aunt Daisy managed to climb through the window and jump out to the open fields. She ran through to a neighbouring farm and killed a sheep. The bleating was heard by an angry farmer who came out and shot the yellow dingo straight between the eyes. In the morning, he hollered and cried when he saw my aunt lying where the dead wild dog had been, a bullet right between her head leaving a mark like a third eye and a blood stained face. The nails on her hands were still claws and the tips of her fingers covered in white fur.
Grandma’s father nailed up the windows.
“It’s for yer own good,” my grandma heard him say to her mother and then sighed like he was tired. “Dingoes are a menace to a farmer’s life.”
“How long are you going to take in there?” He banged on the bathroom door and knocked me out of my remembering.
“Hold your horses,” I said and toweled myself off. I wiped the steam off the bathroom mirror and stared at my reflection. At seventeen, I was changing. My nose was getting longer and the hair on head was becoming such a sandy colour. Just like my grandmother’s.
When she became a woman, Grandma knew to hide her dingo ways. She tied herself to her bed at the time the dingo within came calling on her. She didn’t want to be shot by a strange man’s bullets, let alone her own father’s. She wore long skirts and long sleeved tops to cover the hair that grew at that time of the month. She worked hard on the farm and soon met a man related to the crows. There was a tree she’d climb to get away and one day she found a man sitting in her branch plucking feathers from his shoulders. He understood the need to shed skin and they loved each other’s fur and feather from the minute they met each other. My Grandma used to say dingoes and crows are good together.
But that was a long time ago. Now, all that is left of Grandma is that story. I’m glad she told it to me so many times. At seventeen, with not much more than a pissy apprentice pay packet and a bed-sit rental at the back of the salon where I work, that story is pretty much the most valuable thing I have.
Squeezing at this ingrown hair hurts. It resists. It is stubborn, building a cocoon of pus that now lives on my inner thigh.
I come out of the bathroom and he’s lying on my bed, legs crossed, exhaling smoke rings and texting on his second mobile he uses for the business that he never discusses with me.
“Give us a flash.”
When I don’t respond, he gets up, tucks his shirt into his jeans, cigarette dangling from his mouth and ash falls onto my carpet. “Fuck, you’re a bore. I’m off.”
He tries to give me a wet kiss on the lips and when I move my head away he grabs at the back of my neck and forces my face towards his so that my jaw clenches.
“Don’t do that,” he says, his eyes goring a hole through mine. “Ever.” He lets go, pushing me back, the flat of his hands on my sternum. I want to get the courage to tell him I’m leaving but the words don’t come out.
I collapse onto the bed and watch him pull out my last $20 from my jeans pocket before he leaves. I don’t react. My heart has gone to sleep just like a foot or leg that has been immobile for too long. To compensate, my inner thigh throbs from the pain of my attempts to draw the hair out.
The waxing salon where I work is in a crumbling one-storey terrace on Sydenham Road with cement instead of lawn in the front and two plastic palms on either side of the fuchsia pink front door. I rent the bed-sit at the back. It is nestled between the 24-hour kebab shop and the “Rub and Tug” massage parlour that doesn’t bother to camouflage its entrance. Instead, the brothel adorns its front door with flashing fairy lights and the windows radiate a red hue even at 9 am in the morning. Each day on my break I sit out the front and hope I’ll get a glimpse of her again. That girl. TJ. Her name is TJ. I heard one of the girls calling for her out the back the other night asking her for a cigarette.
This morning the salon smells like a combination of cheap potpourri and wet dog. The appointment book is full of girls booked in for body waxes. If a girl waits too long between waxes, she is forced to wear long skirts and pants just like the wild dog women in my Gran’s story, like I did this month. They’ll get looks of disdain if their skirt flashes a hairy leg; the city is such a judgmental place.
“You need to do something about that hair on your legs!” A rude woman said to me on the bus this afternoon when I lifted my leg up from under my skirt to scratch at my hairy skin. Why do I have to remove it, if it just keeps growing back?
Sometimes our boss Li Li writes up on her special’s board: “Get your Booty! Only $25,” and then we’re inundated with customers. Not the women that want to rip the wild dog out of the private parts but the men that think that we are the massage parlour. They think the booty is some kind of special rub and tug session instead of pouring hot wax between bum cheeks and lips, ripping the wild hair out. They leave after we point them next door, slightly embarrassed and looking confused.
But they’re not dingo. They’re the hunters, the men with the 10-80 bait, the bullets. They remind me of grandma’s tales of her father with the rifle, locks and chains, and make my legs tremble so I have to clench my knees to keep them still.
And I work here six days a week to earn some money to live and get my apprenticeship in all aspects of beauty and hair removal. I have learnt to use hot wax strips to spread over legs and rip it off. It’s amazing what women need to get waxed to keep the dingo within: legs, labia, upper lips, chin, eyebrows, arms and even the tops of the toes. Now I can wax my own. Each time, it’s like ripping a part of me away.
But it keeps growing back. The dingo within is stubborn.
And as I scratch at my inner thigh furiously, apply antiseptic cream to this sore large ingrown hair that has reached the size of a cherry, I know that the dingo within is trying to tell me something. But her voice, the planes overhead, the Hindi radio and the car horns and him have made me hard of hearing for her howl in the distance.
I’ve worked out the days TJ works at the Rub and Tug next door. I try and make sure I’m around the window to get a glimpse of her each time she comes into work always hoping she doesn’t notice my attentions. She looks the same age as me but her eyes are older. Unlike my blue ones, they are dark. Almost charcoal. I’ve noticed her and sometimes, the image of her pulling her iPod out of her ears as she walks under the fairy lights into the fuchsia front door of the brothel is the image I see in my mind before I go to sleep.
She has an appointment today to get a full Brazilian. The wind chimes tingle as she enters the salon and I run my finger down the list of names, pretending I don’t know who she is, even though I know it’s the girl I saw from the shower. “TJ? 11 a.m.?” I ask, trying to look like I’m reading the list so that I don’t look at her, and she doesn’t see the heat rising in my cheeks. “Full leg and Brazilian?”
She nods and smiles. My heart beats quicker and feels like it’s lowered an inch in my chest cavity and my breath shortens. I smile back at her and beckon her to follow me.
I go to prep the room while she changes into her gown. When I walk in, she is lying on the waxing bench, with the gown covering her legs. Without her coat on, I see her arm is in a sling. Her dark eyes speak of wild things and freedom. “What happened?” I ask her. But she shakes her head and cries silently.
“Is it broken?”
“Nah, it’s not broken. I am,” she says.
I push her gown up above her knees, revealing her shins to begin waxing. There are feathers sprouting, through little black bumps of what look like sore ingrown hairs. You are the other half of me, I want to say to her but a girl can be silent in the face of true beauty even though the dingo wants to howl it out to the moon.
Beautiful crow girl.
TJ lies down on the bed and lifts her gown up over her belly button for me to wax the feathers off but I put the spatula down. “I’m sorry, I can’t.”
I put my hand on her shins and stroke the new feathers. They are soft and downy. She lets me. She doesn’t flinch.
“I can’t work next door anymore until my arm gets better.”
“I know,” I say. “Tell him – you need a couple of days off.”
And there is silence between us.
In her eyes, I see the reflection of the crow. In mine she sees the reflection of the dingo. She does not look away but smiles.
But I say nothing. Not yet. My hair has not yet fully grown back. And I know, that if her pimp has not hurt her arm when they fought, that once she knows the strength of being a crow girl, she will heal her arm, sprout feathers on them, too, spread her wings and fly.
Come with me.
“You need a wax,” he says to me. “I’ve never had a girlfriend so hairy.”
I walk to the kitchen to put the kettle on and he follows me. “Jen, you gotta keep this package here, all right? But hidden.”
“What is it?”
“Ask no questions, babe, and I’ll tell you no lies.”
“I’m not keeping anything here illegal. I’m renting the bedsit from Li Li. If cops came here, I’d lose my job and home.”
He drops the parcel on the bench, grabs both my arms and squeezes tight. “I need it here for a little while. Maybe you’re not the girl I thought you were. Maybe I can’t trust you. You know the rule – wife for life, keep silence or violence.”
“I’m not your wife and I don’t want to be your girlfriend anymore.”
He squeezes my arms so tightly I wince from the pain.
“You didn’t mean that.” His pupils are large and his grip unrelenting. He goes to my handbag and grabs my keys and wallet.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m taking them,” he says and walks out, locking the door behind him.
My boyfriend. He smells different to me now, like milk gone rancid. I start to cry and the skin on my legs gets hot and itchy, making me scratch furiously at my shins. The hair breaks through the skin and as each follicle opens, the hot itch starts to subside and my senses heighten. He smells differently and I see him differently. He is the hunter, the enemy.
And I’m scared he has locked me up. This man that came from neither fur nor feathers.
Just raw skin.
I didn’t inherit the feathers from my grandfather, only the fur from the women in my family. If I had, I would have had the power to fly away. Instead, like a dingo, my travels always bring me back to my home. To the same place.
I am grounded, trapped and fenced in.
But tonight I will remember Gran’s tale and believe it like I should have. I will let the hair grow and return to where I’ve never been.
He has locked the doors but not the windows. I climb onto the toilet seat and propel myself up to the bathroom window and scramble through. The bricks on the outside scratch my palms and my ribs feel bruised from pressing against the sill but I make it to the floor. I’m in the yard of Li Li’s waxing salon now and make my way through the backdoor and into the reception area. I hear the sound of Li Li ripping wax and creep to the register.
“Who’s there? Jen? Is that you?”
“It’s me,” I call out, trying to sound casual and I grab $50 from the register and shove it in my pocket.
“Jen, you work tomorrow? Early shift?”
“I’m sorry, Li Li,” I say, “I’ll pay you back.”
“Eh?” The sound of the wax stops and I hear her hurried footsteps down the corridor.
I push my hoodie over my head and push through the front door of the salon, leaving the wind chimes clanging, and break into a sprint. It is quiet at night in this city of tar and brick, of highways, playgrounds and garbage. A light rain has made the asphalt on Sydenham Road glisten; there is the strong smell of tar and petrol but I can smell wet grass and rotting leaves underneath. I run to the rhythm of my heartbeat and then I’m on all fours. An even saunter and I’m faster than the Emo kid pedaling his bike with the imitation shrunken head on his handlebars.
Grandma said one day it would be time for me to find my own way.
She’d say that when she was gone and I was grown her spirit would know where to find me. It’s not in the city. A dingo doesn’t like the routine of working under fluorescent lights ripping out the soul of other wild dog women, doesn’t like the sound of the buses and the trucks. A dingo can’t walk fast enough in high heels. And now, I am running barefoot.
As I run, the rest of the ingrown hairs disappear and in their place, my short-coated yellow dust pelt protects my skin. There is a rush of relief that floods my body as the itch has vanished with the cherry sizes pustule; the last of its blood and pus now running down my leg. My ears are tuned to the background noise of footsteps and cicadas, of distant cars and wind through branches that rustle leaves.
I smell her.
TJ is in the park behind the tire factory sitting on a kid’s swing, swaying back and forth. Her shins are covered in black feathers and her long curls are wings of ebony that flutter about her bare shoulders. She is crying but the presence of a dingo in the park does not scare her; when she looks into my eyes, she sees the reflection of me, the woman.
“I knew you’d come,” she says.
I rip at the bandage and lick her arm to heal it. And the feathers grow. She spreads her arms wide and the wind lifts her. She hovers above me.
I can run fast but she can fly far above me.
We travel all night. Down the motorway to O’Dell’s Ferry and then I swim as she soars across the water on the night wind to cross the Ranges River to Northeast National Park.
Where my grandma’s stories came from; where my grandma lived. Where wild dog women suckled dingo pups, because their mothers had been poisoned or killed by farmers.
I crouch down, pick up a twig and scrawl into the dirt with its pointy edge: Dingo and Crow Sanctuary. I look up and smile at TJ. My crow girl reads the message in the soil then laughs softly, tossing her head so that ebony feathers flitter to the floor.
We will settle here. Return to where we’ve never been. To freedom.
About the Author
Angela Rega is a belly-dancing librarian obsessed with folkore, fairy tales and furry creatures. She drinks way too much coffee and often falls in love with poetry. She has a small website here: http://angierega.webs.com