ISSUE #66's GUEST CURATORS are Elizabeth Barker (previously featured as Storychord's Issue #53 writer), Laura Jane Faulds (Issue #30 writer), and Jen May (Issue #55 illustrator). Together, the trio produces Strawberry Fields Whatever, a music blog whose mission is to deliver thoughtful and rabble-rousing writing on beautiful rock-and-roll music, most of it from a very long time ago.
THE PROFESSOR AND THE BIKINI WAXER
by Kat Asharya
When she first dreamed about them, she thought they were a group of fearsome gay men getting full-body mud wraps while out for a midnight jog. They ran through a dark, foreboding forest, slathered head to toe in some dark, tarlike substance. What a strange spa this is, Nina thought in her dream, watching the black gleam of their muscles ripple under the moonlight. Does the exercise sweat out the toxins faster?
Issue #66 soundtrack: Weed Hounds "At Night"
And then the leader of the band of mud-covered men spotted her, the whites of his eyes bulging out in the darkness of night. He came at her with a high, piercing shriek, long hair fanning out behind him like shadow-fire, his heavy sword raised up to slice her head off.
Nina woke up, clutching her throat and gasping, the image of wide, disembodied eyes rushing at her still fresh in her mind. She was sweating in the bed, soaking the D. Porthault sheets, the ones she spent months saving up for.
Next to her, Evan slept, oblivious to her night terror. Nina wanted to wake Evan up and tell him about the dream. But she knew he had class to teach early the next day and would resent it. Instead, she curled close to him, trying to find comfort in his warmth. He didn't wake, but his body wrapped around hers in a bearlike embrace. His hand rested on the curve of her hips, and then slipped its way almost between her legs, cupping her gently yet solidly just where her inner thigh met the smoothest, softest part of her groin.
Evan had always held Nina in the palm of his hand like this, from the very first night they spent together until now, two years later living together up in the Hollywood Hills, in a nice hook-up from one of Nina's favorite clients. It was their odd secret; Nina had told no one, not even the girls at the spa, about this strange habit of theirs-- and they knew everything. It was impossible to explain, both shameful and comforting all at once.
Yet, in the earliest hours of the morning, pale sunlight just misting over the hills, Nina found no pleasure or comfort in Evan's strange embrace. Instead, his hand just stuck there, a lump of bones, tendons and skin lodged near her nether parts, as her heart beat wildly, rattling against her rib cage.
Nina tried to tell Evan about her dream the next morning, but he always grew impatient when Nina talked about "New Age nonsense. Evan lived in a world where rich, complex architectures of thoughts unfurled in his head, ready to be corralled into articles for academic journals and books that would resonate in his field long after his own passing. He didn't really have time to dissect dreams.
"I really think you should stop eating meat," he said over breakfast, scarfing down his tofu scramble before a full day of lectures and office hours with students. "You know that it's full of hormones, and the animals' fear right before being slaughtered lingers in the flesh." His eyes fixed on his tofu and he squinted and frowned. "There's some bacon grease here. I'm thinking I'm going to have to make my breakfast before yours if you're going to use up all the pans and stuff."
Nina put her fork down, staring at the bacon and eggs on her plate. She was on the paleo diet; all the other girls at the spa were doing it, too. "But my hours are earlier than yours," Nina said. Nina was the spa's most popular waxer; the front desk girls booked her early and late to accommodate her clientele.
"But you have a shorter commute to the spa." Evan stood up abruptly, pushing his plate of half-eaten tofu scramble away and shoving the small pile of journals into his satchel. He was tall and skinny, but Evan had a kind of bluntness and abruptness to him, from the way he walked to how he talked to even how he had sex. "So I'll see you later on campus? For lunch? Bring me a roll from that sushi place near you?"
"Sometimes it's an advantage to date a bikini waxer who works near a strip mall." He grinned, giving Nina a quick kiss on the top of head, before he dashed out.
Later that day she had an A-list client, a temperamental Oscar winner in a second marriage with a younger man who she was extremely anxious about pleasing. The star chattered artlessly as Nina worked -- Nina was proud that her clients trusted her to confide in her -- but she could barely concentrate and did a terrible job, lacking the usual gentle finesse and sensitivity she was known for. Nina didn't even flinch when the actress left her a 2% tip. She deserved it. It was only a dream, she thought to herself as she wrapped up for the day, putting away the pots of wax and the strips of cloth neatly in her locker. As a final touch, she misted herself liberally with the Malibu Lemon body mist from the spa's exclusive line. Evan didn't mind that she worked at a spa, but he didn't like it when she came to campus smelling like one.
Nina liked being on campus. There was always something very stately about it: undergrads everywhere in designer sweats, ambling between stately buildings and overgrown trees. It was like how she imagined visiting England would feel. The air here was fragrant with eucalyptus and jasmine, fresh and real, making her feel relaxed despite feeling out of place.
Nina hadn't really gone to college, just a few courses at her community college before she moved out to L.A. She'd always felt a little inadequate because of it, so it was an especially delicious irony that she was with Evan -- a stroke of luck, really, that they even met at a random Mexican bar in Santa Monica. Early on in their relationship, Nina once sat in on one of his classes and was rapt at how brilliant and captivating he was as a professor, how he could make these musty ancient Greek and Roman writers so lively and fascinating. She had no idea what he was talking about, but she was so proud of having landed a mate who was so charismatic and intelligent.
But more than anything, she liked how she felt when she came on campus and he welcomed her to his world. She liked the look of pride when she walked into the ramshackle academic hall, his eyes glowing with desire and ownership. She didn't quite understand where it came from until she noticed her reflection in a dusty glass door in his building one day. She was tanned, glossy, gleaming with good grooming, all shiny surfaces and sleek curves and angles. In most of L.A. she was just normal, but here she was an exotic creature, a beach-y goddess glowing with lustrous good health.
Carrying Evan's sushi in a little bag by her side, she stepped into his dusty, overstuffed office. Evan was on the phone, chatting in German, his accent guttural and drawling, like chopping up vowels in a food processor. But he looked at Nina and smiled, nodding to the chair across from his desk. Nina had to smile: last time she had been here alone, she and Evan had role-played a bit, she playing a coy undergrad who begged to have her grade improved. The sex had been particularly hot, raw and sweaty on the desk, and Nina flushed at the memory of being bent over, staring at a big red B+ as Evan entered her from behind.
The door flew open suddenly, and Nina startled, interrupted from her private memory, as an older gentleman stormed into the office. Tall and rangy, he had the absentminded fashion sense of most academics, his hair and shirt rumpled, but he carried himself as if he owned the room. He was scowling, looking fierce, thanks to a pair of bushy, heavy eyebrows that seemed to pull down his craggy forehead. "Evan, how many times have I told you, you can'ʹt cite the article--" He stopped in his tracks as he spotted Nina. "Well! And now you're holding extra office hours as well?"
Evan muttered something hastily in German and hung up the phone. Nina could tell by how quickly Evan stood up that this was a man he had to please. "I'm not an undergrad," said Nina quickly, trying not to cause trouble for Evan. "I'm his girlfriend. Nina." She stood up and graciously held out her hand, smiling brightly. "We were just having lunch together."
The professor scrutinized her for a second, and Nina had the uncomfortable feeling of being put underneath a microscope as his mind racked his memory. "The one who works for the Philharmonic?" he asked, looking hopeful.
"Spa," corrected Evan, hasty to insert himself into the conversation. Nina felt relieved: she hated having to explain what she did for a living to someone she just met. Evan quickly introduced his colleague to Nina: Tom Gallagher, who Nina knew from conversations at home as a particularly influential faculty member. Nina's smile only widened, as she said how highly Evan spoke of Professor Gallagher. But Gallagher had no time for pleasantries or chit-chat with the girlfriends of his junior faculty, and he dumped a pile of folders onto Evan's desk. "Look those over and get back to me by next Tuesday." He swept out of the room, nodding once more at Nina as he slammed the door behind him.
Evan just stood there for a moment, looking ambushed and diminished. Nina wasn't so used to seeing him this way; it made her sad for some reason. "Asshole," muttered Evan under his breath. "Well, I guess I know what I'm doing after lunch. I guess I'd better eat that roll you brought me fast."
Nina suddenly knew what Evan needed, in that intuitive, gentle way she'd honed over her years as a waxer -- the way she knew when someone could handle a more ruthless pain, but also when someone needed a delicate touch. It was precisely why she was considered the best of her profession in the city. She smiled, leaning back against the desk. "Actually, professor," she said playfully, tossing her hair and unbuttoning the top button of her blouse. "I was hoping we could talk about the grade you gave me."
Evan's eyes lit up, and he leaned in closer to her, his arm already snaked around her body. "I didn't give you a grade," he said, playing along, hoisting her onto his desk and nearly knocking Gallagher's stack of folders over. "You earned it." As he spread her legs, Nina reached out and neatened the pile nearby. She knew Evan would regret this if he had to deal with a mess later, and she didn't want that.
Nina had never enjoyed social obligations in academia with Evan. Evan would tell her who would be there -- say, a neuroscientist, an archaeologist, a women's studies lecturer and author -- and she felt like she had to study up, like she needed to read six newspapers, a few books and catch up on what they were interested in: the subaltern, the effect of oxytocin on female friendships, the ruins of the Hagia Sophia. Where does one even begin preparing for something like that? Nina barely had a spare moment between appointments to organize the stash of InTouch magazines in the spa. So usually her strategy was to smile agreeably and say very little. Being the waxer at the spa gave her a good course in being a good listener, and that served her well as Evan's partner.
It was Gallagher's party tonight, and Evan had been especially nervous, which made Nina even more skittish that she'd say something to embarrass him. No one was interested in Nina -- as usual, the other wives and girlfriends took one look at her and turned away, intimidated by her tawny skin and taut frame, and the other professors, after checking her out, were too busy trying to out-do one another in a show of intellectual pyrotechnics, retiring to the library with sherry and other after-dinner drinks. The truth was that it was rather boring, and Nina wished she were at home in her pajamas, watching "Law and Order" and eating rice crackers, instead of standing there, staring at the walls of books.
It was a handsome room, though, with shelves of books lining the length of two long, elegantly attenuated walls. Evan approximated the feel of this in their bungalow, his office walls covered with overflowing shelves. But this was the apotheosis: a monument to a life of the mind, floating above the sparkling wasteland of Los Angeles sprawled out in the view below. Nina's fingers delicately traced the lettering on the spine of a particularly old book on a shelf.
"Is the lady a particular fan of military history?"
Nina looked up to find Gallagher standing next to her, looking a bit skeptical -- like he couldn't believe she would be interested in anything like military history. "I don't know anything about that," she said, feeling embarrassed. She peeped over at Evan, who was talking with another group of professors on the sofa. He was embroiled in some conversation, but she felt a little at sea without Evan at her side, silently guiding her in and out of conversations. She took refuge with a sudden interest in the book she had fingered, pulling it out slightly.
"Careful now," said Gallagher. "This is a rare book." He took it off the shelf, handling it delicately. "It's not often you find such a handsome edition of Germania."
"Is it a first edition?" asked Nina, hoping to sound knowledgeable. But Gallagher only laughed. "Tacitus was a Roman historian. A first edition of his is either rotting in the ground, or under lock and key in a library devoted to ancient manuscripts."
Nina's face flushed, feeling stupid and idiotic. Evan would be disappointed in her if he knew what a gaffe she had made. She glanced over at him, still sitting with the other professors, his keen eyes on her ans she talked to Gallagher. "Sorry," she apologized. "It's not like we have Greek and Roman writers lying around the spa."
"What do you do at the spa?" he asked. "Are you the owner?" Again he looked hopeful, as if maybe he were standing in the presence of a real entrepreneur, or businesswoman, and maybe they could talk about capitalism or city planning or some other subject he knew about.
"No," she said quietly. She wished Evan was standing with her, so he could interrupt her and tell her what she should say or do."
"What do you do then?" Gallagher asked, raising his eyebrows. How fierce of a teacher he must be, thought Nina. His students must cower in office hours with him. "I wax," she said, her voice small and birdlike. "I"m a waxer."
"Oh," said Gallagher, looking slightly taken aback. Then she stood up straighter. If she was going to do such a thing for a living, she should at least be clear at how good at her job she was. "I do a lot of people." She rattled off the names of various celebrities, even the A-lister that just won the Oscar. Normally she didn't showboat -- her clients liked her because the tabloids couldn't pay her off for their secrets -- but she was pretty sure Professor Gallagher didn't have the editors of Us Weekly on his speed-dial.
"Rarefied company," said Gallagher. "Even I've heard of them, which is quite the accomplishment. And for you, of course," he said courteously, nodding towards Nina. "A kind of reflected glory."
Nina shook her head. "Hair and makeup people get that. Not waxers. No star is ever going to talk about their bikini waxer, you know? No one wants to draw attention to that part of them, and how crazy it can get down there. I'm good at what I do; I'm the best, people tell me. But no one will know."
She fully expected Gallagher to laugh, or say some kind of cutting remark: usually when she admitted to someone new what she did for a living, especially a man, they made some crass remark about looking at women's labia all day.
But Gallagher didn't do that. His eyes danced with amusement for a moment, but then he noticed her embarrassment. He looked at her thoughtfully, then down at the volume of Tacitus in his hands. "Obscurity is a typical fate for all of us until recently, with the Internet," he said, looking sympathetic. "Entire races of men were once lost to the wilds of time, barely mentioned in history books like these." He tapped on the book in his hand.
"Well, before there were actual nations. But tribes. Tribes of men, gone but for one two brief mentions in the history books." Gallagher opened up the book. "Here, for instance. Listen to his one description of a tribe of warriors he calls the Harii. This is the only mention of them in all of recorded written history." He flipped the pages and cleared his throat before he read aloud. "With black shields and painted bodies, they choose dark nights to fight, and by means of terror and shadow of a ghostly army they cause panic, since no enemy can bear a sight so unexpected and hellish; in every battle the eyes are the first to be conquered."
Nina's heart stopped for a moment, thinking instantly of her dream. "I know them," she said. "The Harii, you said?"
Gallagher looked surprised. "How? Did Evan tell you about them? I thought his specialty was the dramatists."
Nina blushed. What was she going to tell him? That she knew them from a dream? She had already messed up enough. She just shrugged. "Can I see?" she asked, hoping to peek at the book. She had a feeling of longing that she sometimes got with books -- of wanting to unravel the mystery set before her.
Gallagher smiled as he leaned towards her. "Here," he said, his hand slightly grazing her elbow as Nina looked through the book. Across the room, Evan watched her. She kept waiting for him to get up and rescue her, even though it wasn't so bad now, with Gallagher pointing out other tribes that only Tacitus had taken the time to record. Nina listened as Gallagher's voice warmed; she could see him in front of a classroom, infecting a class of bored undergrads with enthusiasm.
She looked up at Evan, proud that she had managed to make a good situation out of her slip-up. She was even learning something she could talk to Evan about. Evan met her eyes for a moment, pursed his lips and looked away, turning his attention back to his conversation as Gallagher moved in.
Nina worried about how she was going to tell Evan about her gaffe with Gallagher, but curiously, he didn't ask her. At first Nina felt relieved as they drove home, weaving through the hills slowly. But then when they came home, Evan pushed her up against the wall and kissed her hard. Then he fucked her hard: back, front, back again, making it into the bedroom only at the end. At first Nina found it exciting to be wanted so much, but as she looked up at Evan pounding away on top of her, his face grimaced, eyes closed, almost as if he were the one in pain. It's the opposite of my dream, she thought to herself. All you can see in the dark is their eyes.
Before she fell asleep, she did a mud mask. She was always conscientious about her grooming -- you couldn't work at a spa, a place that purported to make women beautiful, if you looked like a mess yourself. She smeared the charcoal mud on her face, working it into every single crevice, the cooling sensation a pleasant contrast to the throbbing and ache between her legs. She would have to skip over her own bikini wax tomorrow, she thought. As she watched herself in the mirror, the dark mud covering her face, she suddenly had the feeling that she was making herself disappear, that she was blotting herself out, obliterating herself. She closed her eyes, feeling a strange pressure building up in her chest that made her want to cry out -- but she kept quiet. Evan was sleeping in the other room.
She dreamed about them again. She was with them this time. Running, feet beating on the bare earth, the whole mob of them panting in near unison. Covered in mud wrested from the earth, still smelling of roots and peat. She felt the energy connecting all her limbs and organs, and yet she had no body of her own; she was part of a greater organism, running stealthily, quickly, with deadly intent across the land. A weapon in the hand, filled with a strange electricity of its own, waiting to find a target.
A sudden hush of quiet. She can feel it: the prey is coming. She doesn't know what they've done, only that they are the enemy, and must be killed. The enemy cannot see them; they only see shadows And then: a rush of muscle and heat, war cries, the cold shout of steel breaking skulls, loosening bowels from guts. The smell of blood and ripped flesh mingles with the delicious softness of aspen trees in the late spring. And she is among them, dark as shadow, her own mouth open wide as she cleaves her ax into a skull and lets out a war cry of her own.
When Nina woke up, the moon and the earth still echoed in her muscles, and the smell of blood and fear still filled her nostrils. It took her a moment to remember where she was. She must have jolted, because Evan turned restlessly, squirming next to her as she lay there, rigid with adrenaline. Asleep, he turned towards her and pulled her unconsciously into his arms, the way they'ʹd slept together all these years, his hands smoothing over the curve of her hips. Then they dipped into the soft creaminess between Nina's thighs, assuming their usual resting place.
Nina froze for a moment. Then, she rolled onto her stomach, displacing Evan's hand to the slope of her buttock. She rested her face in the pillow, her smooth, pampered skin making the cotton feel like silk, even as her hot breath built up and blotted out her sight. It felt like she was hiding in her dream still, nothing but eyes, shadow, bloodlust and night.
Kat Asharya is a writer and recovering filmmaker whose work has screened at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and Anthology Film Archives. Her book All Things Glorious and True -- a collection of open-hearted, feminist-tinged writing on pop culture and fashion -- will be published this spring. A former New Yorker now based outside Chicago, she recently completed her first novel, a supernatural punk romance about teenage skater werewolves. Follow her on Twitter, and read more at katasharya.com.
Niki Boghossian lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. More of her work can be found at nikiboghossian.blogspot.ca.
Weed Hounds are a four piece from Brooklyn, New York. Their first LP will be released via Katorga Works later this year.