A great mystery (II)

The memory of watching my mother’s knees swaying in the hammock chair came from when I was six or seven years old. When I was not much older, maybe seven or eight, a family friend came to stay with my sister and me while my parents were out of town. (Presumably they were in Europe visiting family, or my father was accompanying my mother on a work trip to the Middle East. I remember them going to Egypt and Jordan once or twice when we were still in grade school.

Sheila (pronounced SHY-la) came to stay with us. She was our former nursery school director and a friend of my parents. I remember her as older (probably in her early 70s), tall and big-boned, with a deep voice—a white-haired Big Bird. She was always opening her arms wide and inviting you in for a hug.

One evening while my sister was upstairs doing homework, I came into the kitchen and found Sheila, in underwear and a long-sleeve shirt, standing on an unfolded square of newspaper. She was bent in half, holding an electric razor in her hand. It was olive green and looked like something from the army surplus store, bulky and rectangular. It buzzed like a horsefly as she ran it up her legs in long, steady strokes, from ankle to thigh. Shreds of fine hair fell around her ankles, landing on the newspaper like a million tiny insect legs.

“Hi,” she said over the hum of the razor, when she noticed me standing there.

She straightened. Her pale blue underwear hung loose and bunchy as a diaper. Wisps of dark pubic hairs poked out of the front, wiry and slick.

I liked Sheila. But this sight of her standing in the kitchen on a square of newsprint made me want to run in the other direction. I was always uncomfortable at home when my parents were away. An eerie disfigurement settled over the house when adults other than our parents came to stay with us, bringing their other-adult smells and ways of doing things. Sheila had prepared tacos for dinner using hard corn shells and ketchup—something our mother never would have done. (She always made tacos with flour tortillas. We rolled them into tubes, like sushi, and dipped them in chile verde sauce.) Now, a pile of folded laundry was sitting on the dining room table. My sister’s t-shirts were mixed in with my own. Probably Sheila didn’t know which shirts belonged to whom. My mother never folded laundry at the table; she folded it upstairs on the master bed while watching the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour.

“What have you been doing?” Sheila asked me.

When I said nothing, she said, “Do you know what I’m doing?”

I shook my head, pretending naiveté. In truth, I knew exactly what she was doing. I had had several recent conversations with my best friend, Jana, on exactly this subject: We wanted to shave our legs, even though our legs still bore the fine fuzz of pre-teen girls. Shaving was something that older girls did—teenagers. We also wanted to wear bras even though we didn’t have breasts. We wanted to smoke cigarettes even though we were deathly afraid of them. We wanted to be grown up. Shaving didn’t seem exactly like the kind of thing you had to ask your mother permission for. But you did need a razor, and where else would we get a razor than from our mothers? This was the crux of the problem. We knew that if we asked our mothers, they would both dismiss us as being “too young.” So we were stuck, for the time being. This problem was the subject of much deliberation and discussion between us.

“I’m shaving my legs,” Sheila said. “This is something women do, even old women like me.” She gave a full-throated chuckle. “I use an electric razor, because I’m too lazy to bother with anything else.”

I nodded. I wondered about getting my hands on that razor of hers (although it looked almost as dangerous as a pack of cigarettes, if you didn’t know how to use it). I wondered when my mother was going to be home. “Neat,” I said. “I’m doing my homework.” I scurried upstairs to my wall calendar, the one with the horse photographs, where my mom had circled the day she and my father would be coming home: April 16th. I counted the squares on the calendar between now and then. Four days away.

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