Lisa A. Phillips | Longreads | July 2019 | 13 minutes (3,256 words)
My in-law brushes warm wax on my bikini line. This part is soothing, and mildly erotic. Then rip: a stinging, quick pull, taking a section of my pubic hair along with it. I wince. She smiles kindly. Maybe she likes this part the best. If I were her, I would, some small sadistic part of me perking up with every rip.
An aesthetician who works out of her home, she is not my real in-law. An in-law is what, in my small town, you call the parent of the kid your kid is dating. I find out about this bit of slang when I arrive for my bikini wax. She introduces me to her previous client by saying, “We’re in-laws. Have you heard?”
“I have!” the woman chortles. This nascent relationship is hot news. Both kids are 13 and have lived here all their lives. I’m wary of the gossip. But what I’m more worried about is the fact that the house I’m standing in, where my new in-laws and their son live, is, if you have a really, really good arm, a stone’s throw away from ours. All I had to do to get to my appointment — and all the kids have to do to get to each other — is cross a street and a yard.
Just a stone’s throw away. I say this a lot, to underscore my stress as a working mom whose husband travels frequently. I had only recently gotten comfortable with a few latchkey child afternoons. Now the unsupervised couches and beds concerned me more than how many episodes of “The Office” my daughter binged after school. This was not the kind of situation I imagined when, years before, my husband and I chose to live next to a large neighborhood, in hopes that our only child would make friends nearby.
Our daughter, though, was an only child who enjoyed long bouts of solo imaginary play, and that made her particular about friends. Most of the time, the neighbor children didn’t make the cut: The girl who lived closest to us was too moody, the one on the cul-de-sac was a grade younger and thus unacceptable, and so on. Then there was the boy who would become The Boyfriend. For a long time he was like a mythological creature, because we had never seen him. We knew he existed. We had met his parents. But he went to a private school and he was a boy, and the boy part had made him uninteresting. So we didn’t push for what we once called playdates — talk about foreshadowing! — even though it was weird to think that two kids living a stone’s throw away from each other would not recognize each other on the street. This is life in a small town in the Northeast. I’m from one, and I know how surreal community life can be. Privacy, respect for boundaries and the freedom to carefully curate your social life trump mandatory neighborliness.
Then the boy transferred to her public middle school. Her first day of eighth grade, my daughter spotted him on the school bus, a gangly teen with large eyes and a narrow, handsome face, slouched in an oversized pink sweatshirt, which she would soon appropriate and wear as much as possible. It smelled of Tide, a scent I remembered from childhood. At long last, my daughter had a reason to hang out in the neighborhood. After her homework was done, she would announce, “We’re going for a walk,” sling on her earbuds, and scamper through the woods on the edge of our neighbor’s yard, to meet The Boyfriend on his street.
An aesthetician who works out of her home, she is not my real in-law. An in-law is what, in my small town, you call the parent of the kid your kid is dating.
Their puppy love, and the prospect that it would be catalyzed by easy access to each other’s homes, left me in a spot. I needed to get to know his parents better. A mutual friend pointed out the obvious route: “Just go get a wax. She’ll talk your ear off.”
I liked the idea. I’d come late in life to the finer points of womanly grooming. I failed at taming frizz, and smoothing lines, especially when the effort interfered with comfort. I let my hair go gray, which won me the occasional mixed compliment along the lines of how cool and how brave of you. For most of my life, I never bothered to do much about the untidy red dot rash shaving kicked up at my bathing suit line, or what I looked like down there in the off season. I was a child of the 70s, when you’d routinely glimpse a bit of pubic hair curling out of a woman’s swimsuit.
But there was something about middle age that was making me, at the eleventh hour perhaps, tend to myself more. The gray hair and an untidy bathing suit line, that threatened to move me from cool and brave to, I don’t know, chintzy, or giving up on herself. Sure, I was up for a wax with my new in-law. Even though it was November, not exactly swimsuit season.
“I’m not a Brazilian wax kind of girl,” I announce at that first appointment. Brazilians stripped away everything, even your butt hair. I am acutely aware my daughter is growing up in a world where this is becoming the default crotch care standard. It bothers me that a good number of straight men younger than 35 likely have never seen a sex partner’s pubic hair, not one strand of nature’s enticing fig leaf. A generation raised on online porn has erased from our erotic imagination those artfully scribbled thatches in the line drawings from The Joy of Sex, in favor of genitals as bare as a Barbie’s.
“I’m not either,” my in-law says. I’m not surprised. She is attractive in a casual, work-from-home way, her shape hidden in a baggy sweatshirt, her hair tousled in that way that suggests she spends a lot of time running her fingers through it in exasperation at one of her three teenagers. “A lot of women who come here aren’t. And then some of the ones who do it say it’s just for their partner, which I try to talk to them about. If you’re going to do it you should do it because you like it, not the guy.”
She checks the wax in the warmer. “Why don’t you pull down your pants and get on the table?”
“Underwear on or off?” I ask.
“It’s up to you.”
I keep my underwear on, in part out of genuine modesty, part out of a subtle PR message about my daughter and me: The women in our family, we don’t show our vulvas to just anyone.
I gingerly pull aside the cotton cloth so she can apply the wax.
In between rips, I say, “Your son is so sweet. He always takes time to talk to us, and thanks us for having him over.”
“We really like your daughter!” she says.
“How nice that our kids have such good taste, right?”
We discuss the walks. “It’s like they’re two wide-eyed deer who wandered into each other in the woods and were smitten,” she says. “Very old world.”
“Apparently in our grandparents’ generation something like half of all marriages were between people who grew up within a mile of each other,” I say, then wish I hadn’t, because that fate is not what I want for my daughter and surely not what she wants for her son.
I change the subject. “Just so you know, I’ve told her she’s not to have him inside the house when we’re not home. They also have to keep the door open when they’re in her room.”
“That sounds like a good policy,” she says. We agree to text each other about the kids’ plans, just to make sure they are where they say they are, and a parent is around.
My nether regions tidier, my flesh raw, I slide off her table. As I pull on my coat for the walk home, I notice the chalk board hanging over the entryway, the words in brightly colored script: fanny, coochie, lady parts, muff, vee-jay, beaver, snatch, pussy, honeypot, salty peach. “Sweet sweet taco,” I read. “Never heard of that one.”
“These are all words my clients have used,” she says.
I don’t know if my daughter has seen this sign, as my in-law may keep her work space off limits. But I think, this is a good thing, that the mother of the boy my daughter is dating has these words on her wall.
The thought is quickly followed by the hope that he would not find occasion to use any of these words with my daughter, not yet dear lord. They are only 13. What I remember about early desire haunts me, the way I couldn’t imagine wanting to touch and be touched and then, suddenly, I could imagine it and I did it and it overwhelmed me. The morning after my first experience of below-the-belt petting, the summer I turned 15, I sat with my sister and sobbed so hard I felt paralyzed. Then the below-the-belt petting didn’t happen for a long time and that sent me into a different kind of despair. The advent of lust does that. You are never quite whole again.
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What reassures me, as the winter deepens, is that the relationship between my daughter and The Boyfriend seems to be a good one. They talk, in person, which already sets them apart from most middle school relationships, which take place mainly on Snapchat. What my daughter and her boyfriend have is substantially IRL. They take leave of the neighborhood streets to explore the nearby woods. She knows the terrain from the years she was young enough for my husband and I to force her to come with us on walks. She would protest bitterly, then about five minutes into the journey she’d be happily scrambling up boulders and exclaiming at the water cascading down the hillside, as it did after heavy rains, in lush, temporary waterfalls. We’d note the condition of an old cottage slowly deteriorating into ruins: the roof cratered with holes that got larger by the season, then caved in; the couch’s upholstery and cushioning disintegrating down to a wiry skeleton. The brick fireplace in the center was the only viable thing. You could build another cottage around that fireplace.
“We hiked up to watch the sunset,” my daughter tells me.
“Oh, honey,” I can’t help but exclaim,”you are having a real romance!”
I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to say. I try to walk the fine line between talking about It — the relationship, so she would know we could talk about it — and steering conversation to other topics, so she would know I expect her to be a lot more than someone’s girlfriend. I emphasize to her my simple litmus test for relationships, the one I didn’t figure out until right before I met her father: Is he good to you? With the corollary: Are you good to him? So far, all signs indicate that she and The Boyfriend are being good to each other. If I had any part in fostering the girl who can pull this off at 13, I am proud of it.
Right after Valentine’s Day, I go back to my in-law for another appointment. The Boyfriend gave my daughter roses and a delicate necklace, guided, I imagine, by the tastes of his stylish older sisters. She tells me The Boyfriend paid for the roses with money he’d earned doing yard work. “I do think I see signs that he is going to grow up to be a good man,” she says.
“It’s one of the most important parts of parenting, I think,” I say, as I brace myself for another round of waxing. “Helping your kid learn how to do a good job caring for someone else.”
“They’ve lasted four months,” she says.
“She always notes the month anniversary. It’s adorable.”
“It’s already longer than most middle school relationships,” I say. This is the part I hate, watching my daughter conduct herself as if their relationship has a future, and knowing that the odds of it lasting grow smaller by the day.
“Would you get into Happy Baby pose?” my in-law asks. That is how she makes sure she gets all the hair. I oblige, relishing the stretch in my hip flexors, my lower back pressed into the soft flannel sheets she uses to cover her client table, the bite of the final tiny rips almost pleasant.
When we say goodbye, she tells me that soon she won’t be working from home. She and her business partner are opening a spa across town. “How exciting!” I say. “A little more of a commute for me, but it sounds like it will be great for you.”
Late winter is a reclusive time in my mountain town. Snow stops feeling exciting. Everyone grows weary of the cold, of scraping the windshield, of shoveling, of figuring out whether the wintry mix graphic on their weather app means you are in real danger of skidding, or you just have to endure some harmless gray wet dreariness. Events get scheduled and rescheduled and then for a while we all give up trying. One day when school is called off and it’s too icy for me to get to work, I anticipate The Boyfriend as my daughter’s obvious companion. I would do my usual snow day routine for both of them: hot chocolate and popcorn topped with butter, soy sauce, and Brewer’s yeast. My daughter’s friends love my popcorn, and it makes me happy to imagine that in the future they’ll associate that particular taste with me. All her life, I welcomed having more than one kid in the house. When she was small, the longer a friend stayed over, the better, as parenting was easier with a friend to alleviate the responsibility I felt to keep her occupied and away from screens. Playmates staved off loneliness, at times more my own than my daughter’s. In her teen years, I relished the opportunity to talk to another kid, a minor reconnaissance mission into the increasingly private and mysterious world of my daughter’s social life.
But The Boyfriend doesn’t show. The morning passes and he’s offline, sleeping, then he has chores to do, then he’s not answering messages, then it’s too late for him to come over. My daughter spends the day at the piano, singing, just as she usually does on snow days. I worry, because at her age I would have been crushed. I don’t press her. Perhaps she is just a more resilient kid than I was.
When the weather brightens, they spend less time together in the neighborhood. She has play rehearsals. His phone gets docked for a week, then another week, for various transgressions. They continue to see each other on the bus, and at lunch. They both join the track team. At a meet, I watch her sit with him on the bleachers. She leans forward, both of her hands in his. I can tell she is good at keeping the conversation going, at flirting. He leans back a little, in a way that makes me like him less for a moment, out of protectiveness for my daughter and some uncomfortable memories of boys who leaned back as I leaned forward. But he still looks at her with interest.
What I remember about early desire haunts me, the way I couldn’t imagine wanting to touch and be touched and then, suddenly, I could imagine it and I did it and it overwhelmed me.
Soon, though, the few yards between our house and his begin to seem impassable. Plans are made, then broken. I am agitated, watching it all, wondering if my daughter feels haunted, if she wants to stomp across the neighbor’s yard and confront him? Again I reassure myself: I have a strong kid. She is not me, a former needy stomper and confronter.
I gently query her about how she feels. She tells me she’s fine, they’re going to hang out again soon.
I miss having him around. At the next track meet, he greets me politely but avoids my eyes.
The last week of school, The Boyfriend breaks up with my daughter on the bus. “I knew it was coming,” she tells me. The timing, she added, sucked. “I think I failed my gym final.”
We laugh. She knows I find the idea of a gym final preposterous.
She eats dinner. She studies for her next final, or at least she says she is. When I ask her how she is doing, she doesn’t want to talk about it. She gets into bed. A little later, I pass by her darkened room, and she lets me enter. Finally, the sadness comes. I lie down next to her and put my arm around her waist. Neither of us sleep. I’m reminded of when she was small, all those nights when it was impossible to leave her because she was desperately upset to be alone, her pain expressed in epic, unselfconscious dramas, entirely unlike her sunny, independent daytime disposition. There were many nights like this, for many years, well after most of her peers seemed to have made their peace with the night. My own sleep habits never quite recovered. Back then, I tried to soothe her but I didn’t know what it was like to be her. Now, even though I know I won’t tell her this, I feel very much that I do know.
What she says that night, over and over: “There was so much I wanted to do with him. I had all these plans.”
This is heartbreak: the end of a narrative of hope. The story has to be over even if you’re not done writing it. While you’re laboring over a careful progression of sentences, your beloved seizes the pen and writes THE END.
We throw ourselves into summer. My daughter spends a lot of time teaching herself guitar and hanging out with her friends. I plan for the right afternoon to start my regular distance swims in the lake down the road. I look forward to this time of the year, when my bathing suit and towel are always at the ready in my car. I like to start swimming after a stretch of hot days, so the first time I breach the surface of the lake is a perfect, cool relief. I intently watch the weather. And I make an appointment at my now ex in-law’s new spa.
The spa is lovely, the walls a soothing cream color, the treatment rooms trimmed in black and white subway tiling. As I wait for my appointment, I ponder the menu of services: along with the waxes, several types of massages, facials, peels, sessions in an oxygen chair meant to freshen your complexion and clarify your thoughts. I hope one day I can persuade my daughter, who is now avoiding the Ex and his family, to come here with me.
My ex in-law walks into the reception area to get me. She is wearing a red dress that shows off the curve of her waist. She looks like a woman set free from working from home, where breaks between clients are tainted by the nearness of breakfast dishes in the sink, laundry, kids puttering around after school. I thought I would be nervous to see her, but I’m not. We are just two mothers who love their kids, who no longer love each other.
We embrace, and I say: “You didn’t think I would stop coming to see you, did you?”
* * *
Editor: Sari Botton