Depilation Nation

By Marie Myung-Ok Lee

And so here was Dr. Yungman Kwok, graduate of the prestigious Seoul National University Medical College, in the SANUS Medical Group office in the Mall of America, preparing to do his first set of laser pubic hair removal.

LESS PAINFUL THAN WAXING

PERMANENT RESULTS**

PERFORMED BY MEDICAL DOCTOR FOR THE HIGHEST SAFETY STANDARDS

**May take multiple sessions

The women, lying on their backs in lithotomy position, their ears plugged with white headphones, were separated from each other by dividers, so while they couldn’t see each other, from Yungman’s point of view, they were lined up like horses in stalls.  The “nurse,” a young woman in scrubs but with no kind of medical training whatsoever (she was, most recently, a waitress at the Olive Garden), busied herself with making sure the headphones were plugged in properly.  She’d had them disrobe and then taken “before” pictures with the digital camera.  Yungman thought, how strange and trusting these women were, coming into this storefront office, next to an Orange Julius, and exposing themselves in this way.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Kwok,” he said, at a volume he hoped would carry over the competing noise being piped in the headphones.  “I’ll be in charge of your treatment today.”  The headphoned woman nodded, or may have been moving her head in time to the music.

He turned on the machine, a waist-high beige plastic box that resembled those old exercise devices with the belt that went around the buttocks like a sling and with enough electric vibration and jiggling, supposedly firmed up adipose tissue.  A number of the doctors’ wives in Horse’s Breath had owned such machines, and he smiled at the memory — to think that the finest medical minds at Horse’s Breath Memorial Hospital might actually believe that such a silly contraption could work.

The laser flowed through a flexible metal hose, calibrated in such a way that it would be attracted to the pigment in the hair, travel down the shaft, and disable the hair.  Disable, he thought, was a better term than removal, or “fry,” as the other operators in his class had flippantly referred to it.  Patients expected their hairs would crinkle and die like trees after a nuclear holocaust, but while some did, the majority of the hairs wouldn’t fall out for weeks, sometimes pushed out by new growth, which would hopefully be thinner and possibly lighter.   It would also depend on what stage of growth the hair was at.  Hair in the dormant, or anagen phase, could escape the laser completely, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, he was told.  Revenue increased geometrically with repeat treatment, and thus he’d been given a whole list of things to say to encourage the maximum number of treatments, always suggesting that even more cleanup could be done.

He depressed the foot pedal.  There was a beep, a burst of cryogenically cooled air numbed the skin, followed by the red pulse of the laser.  The sharp smell of vaporized keratin confirmed the laser’s strike.  When he moved the applicator, there was a crop circle of flattened hair.  The skin looked slightly rashy, irritation was a good sign.  But it could also make the patients feel uncomfortable.

“How are you doing?” he asked.  But the woman didn’t reply.  Yungman soldiered on, slightly anxious over whether he was doing too little, or too much.

The fourth woman in line had a mixed gold-red hue to her hair, like the color found in autumn leaves.  The hair over the mons pubis was already shaped into a heart.  Back in Horse’s Breath, Yungman once recalled seeing in pre-op what looked like a tilted Asian hexagram on a woman’s mons.  When the surgeon Stan Mitzner had seen it, he’d snorted and later made reference to the woman’s “landing strip.”  This had puzzled Yungman for hours.  When he finally “got it,” he realized what was even more puzzling was this American idea of turning pubic hair into topiary.

Yungman felt strangely sad about ruining the heart

“I’m doing this so I can see my tatts better,” she said, raising her head off the table as if she were doing a curlup in gym class.  She looked to be about twenty.

“Your tatts?”

“My tattoos,” she said.  “See the lion and the mushroom?”  She pointed with a chipped red fingernail at the labia majora.  A tiny bellshaped mushroom with green dots on the left flap, a roaring lion rearing out of the vagina onto the inner thigh on the right.

“You know,” she said.  “This is a little embarrassing for me, you kind of look like my grandfather.  Not that he’s oriental or anything, but he has those little glasses, and he’s bald.”

Yungman almost reared back.  Bald? He wasn’t bald.  Far from it.  His hair wasn’t as lush as it was when he was younger, and it had whitened and thinned almost to a nacreous translucency, but he certainly had a sufficient amount of “ground coverage,” as the radio announcers describe a snowfall that leaves no patchy spots.

“Does your grandfather need a comb?” he almost said, but refrained.

“So anyways, I’m actually doing this for my boyfriend for Valentine’s Day.  He’s kind of a neat freak.  I tried shaving, but it makes you itch like crazy, and those ingrown hairs — don’t ask.”

Yungman noticed that under a patch he’d cleared, he could just make out a tattoed “L.”

“We’re just doing this in sections,” the girl reminded him.  “Because I’m sensitive.”

“Yes, I’ll stop here for today.”  Yungman hung up the nozzle while she wiggled into the cheap net non-irritant panties that were provided.  She slid into her jeans, which themselves barely covered her mons, and Yungman told her the usual: no scrubbing, no sun exposure, no tweezing.  And then she was gone.

Part Two

Thank God for the tattoo girl-woman, Yungman thought.  Or else he’d go crazy with boredom.  Her project required multiple visits (she’d decided she even wanted the perineal strip removed), and with the emergence of the secret tattoos, he felt like he was on an archeological dig.    He had uncovered an “I” and a “C” following the “L”.  So now he had L-I-C.  License?  There was still hair covering the anterior portion, so perhaps it might spell A-L-I-C-E.  That made sense.  Because of the sensitive nature of the work they were performing, the operators were not informed of the patients’ names.  And because most of them stayed stone cold silent (even when he’d done his first nipple hair removal, which necessitated sitting face-to-face for almost an hour), the procedure seemed more factorylike than ever.  So he was grateful when “Alice” unhooked herself from the headphones and chatted.

She wanted to know where he’d come from, and he was rather surprised to hear that kimchi was one of her favorite foods.  She wanted to know what life had been like at his house, what did he eat, where did he sleep.  He supposed she wasn’t looking for tales about his last forty years in Horse’s Breath, Minnesota, the cold little mining town by the Canadian border, or their split-level ranch house that grew deadly icicles in the winter.  Or how their only son, Johnny, has been so tormented in school, possibly by classmates just like this girl, because of the shape of his eyes (and now Johnny was a successful lawyer, who had helped orchestrate Yungman’s post-retirement employment contract with SANUS).  But he’d lived in Horse’s Breath longer than any place else in his life;  they’d only moved to Minneapolis for his “retirement” six months earlier, and feeling so useless at home, he’d taken on this job where his valid Minnesota medical license at least meant something.

So instead, he told her about life in Hamnan, his house with its roof that curved at the ends like wings.  How the flue from the outdoor stove ran under the floor and warmed it in the winter.  He recounted their great fire-blackened rice pot, the meals of rice and vegetables and grilled meat.  He gently abridged things as he went.  She wouldn’t want to hear about the things he truly loved: soup with plump sacs of fish-eggs.  Fried springtime silkworm larvae.  Acorn jello.  Dried crickets.

Or, how, when the winter stores of rice ran out, right about this time of Valentine’s Day as a matter of fact, before any of the first crop barley had had time to ripen, how a starved rat could actually become something to savor in soup.  Or how his mother chewed a mouthful of dusty beans before pushing the paste into his mouth, so that they could both consider themselves fed.

“How is it that you like kimchi?” Yungman wanted to know.  “It’s not too spicy?”

“I love it!”  She told him that her cousin was adopted from Korea.  “Kim, Kimmie is her name.”

Yungman nodded.  There were an extraordinary number of Korean children adopted by families in Minnesota, but he didn’t know why.  Even the Stenstrom family in Horse’s Breath, after the wife’s hysterectomy had finalized their infertility, had adopted two little girls.  It had been odd to see the Korean faces of these two little orphans among the Scandinavian blondness of Horse’s Breath.  Yungman, who had lived in Horse’s Breath for so long and become so embedded in its fabric that even though he was Korean himself, he was visually slapped in the face by the girls’ tiny beadlike eyes, their dusky complexions, the lank black hair that seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it.  Mrs. Stenstrom brought them over one day soon after they arrived, and Yungman was at first perplexed — their families weren’t particularly close, what would occasion this kind of social call?

“I’m at the end of my rope, Dr. Kwok,” she’d said, practically pushing the girls toward him and his wife Young-ae as if returning a beautiful but troublesome pet to its rightful owner.  “They just cry all day.  I even made them some rice, but they wouldn’t eat it.”  They burst into fresh tears seeing Young-ae and Yungman, eliciting a frown from Mrs. Stenstrom.

“And you have to tell me what ‘shee-shee’ is!”

Young-ae giggled.  “It’s potty.  Number one.”

“Well, that mystery is solved.  What about ‘bop’?”

“Ah, bap.  That’s rice.”  More howls from the girls.  “Oh dear,” Young-ae said.  “Making them rice was certainly a good idea, but it sounds like you must have made them Uncle Ben’s.  Korean rice is sticky.  You have to cook it a long time to get it like that.”

“I made boil-in-the-bag,” Mrs. Stenstrom said, a bit guiltily.  “That’s all what we had in the house.”

“I can show you how to make Korean bap. Bap is also the word for ‘food’ or ‘eating.’”

“Gotcha.”  She carefully wrote all this down in a notebook.  “You know what else, the girls do the cutest thing.  They’ll run up to the door and crash against it and yell ‘jipee call lay.’  Karen, my daughter, thought it was so funny she joined in.  Only she says ‘yippee kay yay.’ They can do this for hours, those kids.  Gosh, I wish I had their energy.”

Young-ae nodded, then suddenly offered to have the children visit weekly, give the new mother a little time to herself.  Mrs. Stenstrom shook her head.  She appreciated Young-ae’s untangling the shee-shee and bap mystery, but the agency had assured her the children, being so young, would “adjust” in a few weeks.  In the meantime, she needed to have the kids looking forward, not back, so she’d appreciate it greatly if Yungman and Young-ae would refrain from speaking Korean to them.

Yungman waited until Mrs. Stenstrom went to use their bathroom.

“You heard what the kids said, didn’t you?” he said to his wife.

She nodded.  “But we shouldn’t meddle.”

He turned to the children.  “You were saying, take me home,” he said quickly in Korean.  “You aren’t orphans?”

“No, we have a mother!” yelled the oldest.  Yungman quickly put a finger to his lips.

“What happened?”  he whispered.

The girl gulped, looked around, the plunged in breathlessly.  “She took us to the market.  She gave us some candy and told us she’d be right back and not to move from this spot.  But she must have gotten lost.  Some policemen found us and took us to this place with a lot of other kids.  And then we come here.  She just got lost, that’s all.   And we keep trying to tell this lady—”

At the sound of the flush, Yungman stiffened.

“We want our mommy!  Please help us, Uncle!  Please!”

“Oh, how pitiful,” Young-ae murmured.  Then she elbowed her husband.  “She said not to speak to them in Korean!”

Yungman wished now that he hadn’t.  It was like the time he opened up Mrs. Sukkinen for exploratory surgery to see what was causing her bloating only to find golfball-sized tumors clinging like barnacles to her ovaries, overflowing into every essential organ.  He’d quickly closed her back up, estimating she had two good months left of life.  But the discovery of the cancer had led to the CT scans, the chemo, the radiation, the drive to Minneapolis for the endless doctors’ visits at the U hospital and the inevitable chum of false hope churned by doctors who had vowed to “fight” and found something personally insulting at the prospect of being “beaten” by an insensate bunch of rogue cells.  And in this frenzy, the bustle of procedures, the tangle of machines, the logistics of getting here or there, the drugs and their side effects, which then required more drugs which had side effects of their own — in this haze of motion, the living family could console itself that it couldn’t see the abyss that was looming, they became deaf to her cries that did she really need to have her arm pricked for blood every hour if she was dying? She didn’t even last the month, passing away quietly amidst the beeping monitors, radiation burns speckling her mouth.

The reality was, in Korea, people abandoned children.  Lots of people, lots of children.  They left them on benches, they brought them to the monasteries high up in the mountains (how do you think monks reproduce, if they don’t have sexual relations?), sometimes, they even sold them if they could find buyers unscrupulous enough.  Police stations came constructed with little chutes, the way people in Horse’s Breath had those little pet port doors, where you could slip a baby through, so it wouldn’t freeze to death in winter.  The candy and “I’ll be riiiiiight baaaaaaack….” trick was well known.

The only thing that kept the orphanages from bursting was the fact that Westerners thought Korean babies were cute.  And so South Korea was the first country to do this, export more than a hundred thousand of its children to be raised in places where people knew little — and didn’t care to know — about Korea and Korean culture.  In the North, he knew, children orphaned by the Korean war were sometimes sent to Hungary for their education.  But they weren’t exported, they never became Hungarian.  In fact, when they returned, they were treated as heroes, since their parents had obviously died for a noble cause, fighting the capitalist vermin.  But footage of the dirt-smeared South Korean orphans seen wandering along the streets of Seoul so touched an ex-farmer in Oregon that he had come and adopted a dozen children.  That’s how the leakage of Korean children had begun, and now the leak turned into a flow that could not be stopped.  You can’t reverse the current of a river, after all.

“Call this white lady ‘mother,’” Yungman said quickly, turning away as the bathroom door opened.

“Uncle!  Please!  We beg of you!”  Yungman pretended to study a National Geographic.

The girls cried when they left, weeping piteously as they were herded out the door,  Mrs. Stenstrom threw one backward look at the Kwoks, eyeing them suspiciously, not that she suspected Yungman’s treachery, only that she suddenly felt that it must be the existence of this Korean family in Horse’s Breath — how many other towns on the Iron Range would come with a Korean family? — was the  complication to the easy adjustment that adoption agency had promised.  How could the girls call her and her husband Mommy and Daddy when someone who looked like their ‘real’ Mommy and Daddy lived nearby?

Soon enough the girls were wearing sneakers and perming their hair.  They didn’t even look at him, in the way young people never see the old, when they passed in town.  It was probably a blessing, Yungman thought, that before the girls reached an age at which he might be called on to perform their first pelvic exam, the couple divorced and Mrs. Stenstrom moved to Wisconsin with the children.

“Is your cousin a happy person?” Yungman inquired to Alice.

“Kimmie?  Oh God, she’s the most bubbly person you’d want to meet.”

“And she likes kimchi.”

“Oh, no, she’s never had it.  I had some because we were at a Korean restaurant, you know, for Kim.  Isn’t that funny?  I love kimchi.  Maybe I’m part Korean.”

“You know,” Yungman said.  “Kim is a Korean last name, not a first name.  If she married a Korean, she could end up with the name Kim Kim.”

“Kimmie Kim, that’s kind of catchy.”

“No, I think it’s wrong.”  When he was working as a houseboy at an American army base, when the men got Korean women pregnant, sometimes as a joke, they’d get them to name the girl babies “Vagina,” which, to the Korean ear sounded both pretty and appropriately American.   And then when the soldiers returned to America, to their wives and girlfriends, the Korean women would be proudly introducing their Vagina to the next crop of incomings.  He wondered if this Kim girl would one day realize the ignorance of her adoptive parents, and if there was a way to fix a lifetime of nominal damage.

“It’s her name.”  She shrugged.  Though it was a small motion, it created ripples that traveled all the way to where Yungman was.  He waited to pulse the laser again.

“Ouch!  That one kind of hurt.”

“Sorry.  We’ll stop here today.”

“Well, thanks,” she said, smiling mischievously.  In three seconds flat she was in some kind of work outfit: safari khakis and a pith helmet.  “—For making my twat more beautiful.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said, although he had no idea what a twat was.

Part Three

“Alice” had to miss her next treatment because, although Yungman had repeatedly warned her against sun exposure, she had gone to a tanning salon; she’d come in with a strangely woody hue to her legs.

“They said it was some other kind of UV rays, different from the sun, it doesn’t burn you like the sun’s rays can.”

“But it still causes you to tan,” he explained patiently.  “With rapidly dividing melanocytes, the laser will target that pigment instead of  the hair, and you could get burned.”

She pouted.  “I drove all the way from Wayzata for nothing — it’s my day off.  I wish you would have told me about the tanning booth.”

Yungman wanted to throw his hands in the air.  How was he supposed to tree out the possibilities of melanocyte stimulation?  Should he have to warn her about not taking any trips to outer space for three weeks as to not be exposed to gamma radiation?  And in this too-fast world of the Mall of America, why was it was even possible to get a tan in the middle of winter?

“Just don’t do anything that makes you tan,” he said.  This is what his new, simplified warning would be, he decided.

“Wait, what about spray tans?”

“No, definitely not spray tans,” he said, even though he had no idea what a spray tan was.

*   *   *

The next session, “Alice” looked suitably pale.  Yungman could once again see the smudges of blue veins under her skin, the lion roared in more distinct ochre colors.  And today Yungman was able to work quickly, without causing her much discomfort.  They chatted again.  She said she was taking on a second job because she’d been pleased by the results and might want to do “everything”: armpits, nipples, perineal and perirectal area.

“I want to be smooth as silk,” she declared.

The old hairs fell away like old spider legs when you open a dusty drawer.

_L-I-C_ _-E.  It was like that word game, hangman, that Johnny used to play with his friends.

Alice Zee, he guessed.  Thus, the tattoo of the fungi with the colorful dots.  Doesn’t Alice in Wonderland sit on top of a mushroom?  Alice Zee had a lot of body hair for a caucasian.

She left with her usual wave and “Bye, see you next week.”

“Goodbye, Alice Zee,” Yungman said softly.

*   *   *

Today, only four patients in the morning lineup.  Yungman’s instinct was to rejoice.  That could mean a longer lunch.  But then his habitual pessimism took over, “rose-colored glasses in turbo-powered reverse,” as Johnny liked to say.  Yungman’s boss, Dr. Snedlund had praised him, actually.  The additional treatments “Alice Zee” was having was many more than what she’d originally signed up for.  Even though Yungman looked down on Snedlund, clearly a third rate doctor and third rate person, he found himself wanting to please.  So he took the sparse number of patients somewhat personally, as if he, Yungman Kwok, were responsible for a dropoff in interest in laser pubic hair removal.

And just as dark thoughts seem to breed dark circumstances, he was troubled to note that the pair of legs in bed No. 3 were dark.  A burnished color, like that of old oaken casks, roasted seeds, from which the labia glowed pinkly as if lit.

“There must be a mistake, this patient is much too dark,” he said aloud.  This person should have been turned away at reception.  Of course, Joelle the receptionist, normally a fingernail-painting fixture of the office, was nowhere to be found.

Yungman noted how the woman’s carotid artery was throbbing, as if passing rows of beads.  He wondered if, although plugged into her music, she had heard him.  He might not have expressed himself in the most elegant way.  But maybe, he thought brightly, she was listening to the music that was so popular today (at least judging by what his grandson listened, and which he had indeed sampled when Reggie had handed him the tiny white ear plugs), which sounded like screams of torture set to an electronic backdrop.  One couldn’t hear speech if listening to that.

Yungman wanted Joelle to rectify her own error, but who knows where she’d run off to?  After five awkward minutes, the patients occasionally doing their gym-class curlups to look inquiringly at him, he decided he’d have to take matters into his own hands.

“Excuse me, Miss,” he said to the dark woman.  She didn’t respond.  Yes, she must be listening to something loud.

“Hello, excuse me,” he called, louder.  Her eyes were shut.  Her lashes curled so exquisitely they almost lapped back on themselves, like an ocean wave.

“Excuse me!”  He had been instructed to avoid any “non-procedural” touching, but he went ahead and touched her shoulder with the lightest pressure possible, like the way Young-ae would flash a finger on the heating element of an iron to see if it was hot.

“Huh?” the woman said, as if annoyed at being disturbed from her reverie.

“I’m so sorry,” Yungman said.  “But we can’t do the laser treatment on you.”

“What do you mean?”  She sat up, the little bud-like headphones falling from her ears the way Alice Zee’s hairs had fallen from her mons.

Part Four

Cham!  What was he going to say?  He wasn’t the one who with the company-issued script that would explain in neutral terms why this laser couldn’t “handle” dark skin, how she’d need to find another center with a higher spectrum laser.  That if she were treated here, as Yungman imagined it, it would be just like in those old Charlie Chaplin movies when they overtaxed some so-called technologically advanced gadget, how the overabundant melanocytes would cause a straining of the innards, the puffs of smoke followed by small explosions that would lead to screws and other bits of machine flying everywhere.

The receptionist’s chair was empty, like loneliness.

“The machine can’t handle your kind of skin,” he ventured.

What?”

Yungman was aware, from the laser operators’ seminars SANUS had sent him to, that in the purchase of a laser defolliculator, the institution had to make a choice between “spot size,” i.e., the diameter of the crop circle that could be eradicated with each pulse, and spectrum range.  A higher spectrum laser that could accommodate a wider range of skin hues would thus have a smaller spot size, and vice versa.  Yungman was also aware that the higher spectrum lasers were also significantly more expensive, and Minnesota being more than ninety percent white people, he could see the economic logic behind its decision to buy a lower-spectrum model.  He couldn’t help noticing that this woman’s hair, like her eyelashes, was lush and spun itself into springy little coils — very neat and pretty.  Yungman had, over the years, become an involuntary taxonomist of pubic hair, or “pubes,” the current slang term the patients used, if they spoke to him at all.  Asians had sparse, straight hair.  White people’s hair came in all shapes and sizes and was most likely to be dyed, manicured, shaved, or waxed.

“You don’t need it,” he said, before remembering that it was verboten for the “esthetic care physician” to make any comment about the patient’s appearance, especially “down there.”  In fact, for some reason of semantics, they weren’t supposed to refer to it as “down there” either.  But frankly, this woman had the nicest looking “pubes” he  had seen in his entire career.  Plus, besides the whole melanocyte issue, he felt an almost fatherly inclination to tell her to save her money, tell society to “shove off,” and readjust the way she thought of herself “down there.”

“What do you mean, I don’t need it?”

“It’s so costly—” he began.  Couldn’t she see he was trying to help her?  What other kind of capitalist turns away business?

“I am here,” she said.  “Shopping at Nordstrom’s.  And I am here to have a service performed — I don’t appreciate your appraisal of my pubic hair.”

Red lights flashed in Yungman’s head,  He had a sudden vision of a sexual harassment case — could you imagine, at his age?  Already nearing the end of his useful life as a physician, the Medical Board would yank his license, no question.

“I misspoke,” he said, trying to regain his professional mien.  “I was trying to say we can’t do anything for your here.  Please speak to the receptionist, and she can refer you to another center, that is, if you still want to do it.”  He couldn’t help adding the last part.

“What are you saying?  Can you please explain this in plain English?”

“I am saying the laser can’t handle it.”

She flared her nostrils.  “Are you saying my bush is too big?”

“Oh no, no.”  Yungman, had successfully treated a woman who had hair running down half her thighs like rainwater sluicing off a roof.  How he wished he paid more attention to the seminar nurse during the part about the skin types, classified I,II,III, IV and IV-A that were and weren’t suitable.  All her remembered her saying — practically an invitation to forget — that “this is a costly elective procedure, and you are unlikely to encounter many Type IV-As, anyway.”

“It’s for your own safety.  Some lasers have a wider selection of frequencies they can use.” He chewed over his words.  Would use of words like “melanocyte” and “skin pigment” be offensive to a black person?  He had never even seen a black person in all his years in Horse’s Breath, and now he did see them, but his interactions had been so limited, mostly to the cashiers at Target.  The most he knew about them was what he gleaned from TV.

He was also cognizant he was keeping the other patients waiting.  The metaphorical conveyor belts was backing up, and Snedlund would sure to be displeased.  The customer always comes first.  But which customer?   Where was Joelle?

“What I’m saying is the laser could get your skin and your hair mixed up and burn you.”

She rolled her eyes.  The sclera looked shiny in the fluorescent light.  “Are you saying you don’t serve my kind here?”

Yungman was relieved.  Let her paraphrase in her own words.  “Yes, he said.  “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

Her carotid, which had been throbbing at about the pace of “Jingle Bells,” picked up the syncopation and rushed ahead at about “The William Tell Overture.”

“Shame on you!”  She re-attired herself (casual but elegant business dress), swept up her things, and with her free hand shook a finger in his face, so close she almost left a partial print on the lenses of his glasses.

“You haven’t heard the last from me,” she said, storming out, almost knocking over Joelle, who was returning with some kind of floridly colored drink in a cup so big it looked less like a cup and more like a child’s beach bucket.

“Uh oh,” Joelle said.  She took a sip from the straw, the liquid rising and falling like the mercury in a sphingometer.  “What was that all about?”

He shook his head.  “Please stagger the next appointments,” he said, although he knew he didn’t have any kind of authority over her, as he had once had with Rose Zabinsky, his secretary of forty years.  “I’m terribly behind.”

Part Five

What a relief, Yungman thought, when Alice Zee showed up in the second batch of patients.

She did a head curl to look up at him.  “What’s up, Doc?” she said, then let her head fall back down as she giggled.

Today: depilation of the perirectal area.  Yungman began there right away, as there was a fair amount of clearance he needed to do.  As the laser pulsed, he could hear the counterbalancing whirr as the vapor reclamation system kicked in, suctioning up the vaporized keratin and stray epithelial cells.  But it occurred to him that if he was smelling the smoke, that some of it was indeed escaping the suction, that he was literally breathing in some Alice Zee, fragments of her DNA were entering his bloodstream via the oxygen-exchange occurring in the alveoli of his lungs.

He wondered if she was nervous, perhaps a bit squeamish about the area he was working in today.  She prattled on about her work, at something call The Rainforest Cafe.  That was the one, he remembered from his lunchtime walks, where the tape recorded screams of macaws spilled out into the hall.  She was telling him about a little boy whose birthday it was last week.  He’d eaten too much howler monkey burger, cassava fries, and fried chocolate “piranhas,” kokui nut ice cream and cake, and, after a little excitement with the presents to shake and stir his stomach’s contents, he’d begun projectile vomiting.  Not an uncommon sight in any restaurant, she said, “But this kid was spewing in a ten-foot radius, like one of those rotating-head lawn sprinklers, like you see on TV — we guarantee 100% saturation!”

“It’s the parents’ fault if the child overeats,” Yungman declared.  “All children are greedy by nature, they need to be taught about the limitations of the stomach, how appetite diverges from physical need.  When I was young, I had a very wise person tell me to take only sixty percent of what I thought I needed.  He said I’d be surprised on how little I could subsist, and he was right.”

“That’s an interesting idea.”

“It’s true.  Even though today I revise it to, say to 80%, I still find myself often with too much food or drink.”

“You sound pretty wise yourself.  Plus, you look pretty good for a guy your age.”

“Thank you,” Yungman said, although stung by the “for a guy your age.”  What did she think he should look like?  An ogre?  A mummy?  When he was 28, he remembered thinking that 28 was the perfect age to be.   And yes, in his mind, in some respects he still felt that age.  “Eating right keeps you young,” he said.

With the next burst, she winced.

“I’m sorry, does it hurt?”  There was a bumpiness in the areas he’d just treated, the skin around the follicles swelling — always a good sign.  Irritation and edema was exactly that they were looking for.

“Um, yeah, a little.  It feels like you’re snapping a rubber band down there.”  She giggled, a little tensely.

Yungman tried to gauge just how much it would hurt to be snapping a rubber band “down there.”

“Oh, really?” he said, hoping he was conveying his unasked question, Why would anyone want to do this? Once she completed the entire package (including nipples and facial moustache), her total cost would be almost two thousand dollars — not to mention the things she could have been doing during those 10-12 sessions.

“You know, I’m not doing this just for my boyfriend,” she said.  “Anyway, I didn’t realize your hair doesn’t just fall out all at once, so it’s no good for a Valentine’s Day present.  But shaving leaves bad bumps, and you know, I like to be groomed everywhere.  Like, even if you can’t see it, I know.”

Yungman straightened.  His work in the skin ringing around the anus was done.   Alice Zee was, as she said, a clean person (how much toilet paper scraps and many more unspeakable things had he encountered throughout his career!), but she was just the best case of an intrinsically unpleasant situation.

He remembered Stan Mitzner’s comment about Dr. Holmberg the proctologist.  “What, does he dream of assholes all day?”  A typical Mitzner comment, crude, totally out of line.  And yet, Yungman could not help wondering the same thing.

Yungman assessed.  The treatment had worked well, the newer, thinner follicles had pushed out the wiry ones. He could see the mysterious outlines of the tattoo articulating itself, like Istanbul rising in the mist.

LICKME

At first, he thought it was a name.  Lickme, an Indian name.  But then he saw it was just poor spacing.

LICK ME.

He shook his head.

“Something wrong?”

“No,” he said.  “The treatment worked well.  Are you pleased with the results?”

“Um, yeah, I was, however, kind of hoping like all the hair would be gone?  There’s still hair.”

“Yes,” he said.  “Again, hair that’s in the anagen phase might merely grow back again — we call those Lazarus hairs.  But these are thin, which means the laser worked in destroying the previous hair in the follicle.  After this cycle, the hair might be gone, or if it does come back, it’ll be so thin and pale you will barely notice it.”  Then he remembered his script.  “The best thing to do might be to do another treatment to see if we can really make sure they’re gone.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes, Doc.”  She stared up at the ceiling.  When Yungman had worked as an OB-Gyn, he always pasted a tranquil scene of a beach on the ceiling for his patients to look at.  They always laughed and commented on how thoughtful it was.  Here, SANUS had some kind of projector  that painted red lettering on the ceiling (“Add Laser leg vein removal to your package for 50% off !!”).  “I think of my body as a canvas for my art.  The more you clear away, the more canvas, the more room I have for my expression, you know?”

Yungman nodded.  He understood the urge to want to do, to be different.  To express a unique inner self to a world that’s always threatening to overlook you.  But if this were his daughter lying on the table in the bowels of the mega-mall, talking to some strange man, with her mons pubis exposed, he’d want to weep.

“That’s it for today,” he said.  As she sat up and pulled on her net panties, putting LICK ME behind a screen, Yungman went into his rote spiel about avoiding sun exposure and keeping the area clean and dry.

“Yes, yes, not even a spray tan,” she laughed.   “But I look like a dead fish.”

“And as I said, if you have significant regrowth, you can call for a followup.”

“I will,” she promised, and she impulsively gave him a hug.  He could smell her fragrance, something surprisingly old fashioned, like honeysuckle.

“Thank you,” she said.  “For making the time go by faster.  And for being so respectful.  Like I said, you remind me of my grandfather, who always told me I could do anything.”

Yungman nodded, not knowing what else he could do.