The ensuite bathroom of the Hotel Via della Purificazione is as pale and clean as an egg. Seventeen-year-old Meinir Roberts downs a glass of white wine from the mini-bar and climbs into a freshly run bath, balancing a can of shaving gel, a Bic razor with strip of protective aloe vera, and a bar of soap that smells like freesia, on the lip. Grabbing the gel, she pushes on the aerosol until a foaming orb that looks like cuckoo spit rests in her hand. Bug spit, her gran used to call it, bubbles from a froghopper’s backside. Shaping a hole into its foamy seething mass, Meinir recalls what Dog said to her on the school bus.
“Rules number one, two, and fucking three. No apes in the back!”
It was the Friday term ended, three and a half days into their courtship, and she’d finally plucked up the courage to sit next to him on the way home.
“Yogi bastard Bear mun!” he’d added, nodding in the direction of her legs.
Until a few months ago, Meinir had found the growth of fine wheat-coloured hairs on her legs exhilarating – part of a longed-for process of transformation. But the hairs were thicker now, almost tawny. They had a zoological quality that made people uneasy. Whereas normally she’d have felt angry at Dog’s remarks, on this occasion, her anger was directed at her mother, who discouraged her from shaving.
“Shut it Dog!” she’d said, joining in with his laughter. “You can’t talk!”
‘She’s right there!” Hywel Griffiths had said. “Least she’s only got bum fluff on her fucking legs mate!”
Dipping the razor into the foam, now spread to an even centimetre across her calves, Meinir drags the blade up her legs, as though against gravity. Fuck her mother. Fuck Dog. She was doing this for her own reasons. As she shaves, she remembers the satisfaction she used to get from erasing pictures on her Magic Etch a Sketch – pictures she didn’t like, pictures she was tired of – the thrill of seeing the new screen materialise. Tabula rasa. The blade flashes brightly as it hits a shaft of sunlight trapped between the shutters. Portions of bright, clean, zingy flesh appear. But then, as she steps out of the bath minutes later, a whorl of cherry-coloured blood, with a hint of black, trickles inexorably down her legs.
In the hotel bedroom, her mother Elena is waiting for her by the window, with its views over the rooftops towards the Coliseum.
‘Tomorrow I thought we’d go to the catacombs”, she says. “The early Christians used to hide there to avoid persecution.”
‘Yeah ok”, says Meinir. “Cool.”
Her mother has her back to her. The white floaty dress she is wearing – Meinir guesses it’s Monsoon or Mint Velvet – makes her seem less like a person than a presence. Meinir contemplates how easy it would be to kick her out of the window – one final push – a reversal of childbirth. It is nothing more than a projection of her own desire to jump – which resurfaces whenever she is at the edge of things – but it adds to the guilt she already feels over shaving. She steps backwards towards the door, horrified that her mother might see her legs.
“I’m gonna go out”, she says.
“Don’t be long”, says her mother, turning to face her. “I booked a table in the restaurant.”
Meinir takes another step towards the door. The scrunched-up piece of toilet paper she applied to her knee to stop the bleeding lands on the floor.
“Cut yourself to smithereens! Bloody ridiculous!” says Elena.
Meinir walks down a side street off the Via della Purificiazone, relieved to be away from her mother – the box-like hotel bedroom – her old self. As she walks, she feels a breeze blowing across her legs. With her hair gone, it is as if the air is closer, as if there is nothing to separate her from the world. Out here, she is somebody else, somebody new; she has a future. Half way along the side street, a tall thin man in chinos, a blue jumper, is standing on the bottom step of what appears to be a student hostel.
“Senorita. You got blood”, he yells.
In the light of day, Meinir can see that she has cut herself in several places. Smithereens. A line of blood is proceeding down her calf towards her ankles.
“You come inside. I got, how do you say, plaster?” he says.
Ahead of them, a gang of teenagers is turning into the side street, their outlines framed by the afternoon sun. Beyond them is the roar of traffic, the tooting of horns. Meinir crosses the road to where the thin man is waiting for her, compelled by his maturity, by his decision to call her Senorita. She wonders what Dog would say if he could see her now? Would he marvel at her makeover – recognise it as an expression of her desire to reinvent herself? Or would he view it as a personal triumph – as proof of his power? Why she was with him was a mystery to her. She suspected it had something to do with the way he laughed, a breathy machine-like series of ha-ha-ha sounds, akin to panting. Mesmerising in its intensity, it had a strangely anaesthetic quality that made her forget herself.
“You stay”, says the man, as she reaches the steps. “I get plaster.”
The man returns with a first aid kit.
“I put it on”, he says, retrieving a plaster.
His left arm is stretched over Meinir’s right shoulder, holding the door shut. When she smiles, he smiles back, except that it is not a smile, but a twisting of his lips to the side, which she doesn’t process until afterwards. Grabbing her arm, he drags her to an anteroom beyond the lobby.
“Stop it, please!” she says.
The room is empty, except for a chair, the walls stark. He pushes her against the furthest wall, grabbing her wrists with his left hand, holding them in place above her head.
“Very nice legs. So smooth like baby”, he says.
A wasp is stuck behind the wooden shutters. Usually, the sight of a wasp would have her running from one room to another, but by now she can’t speak, let alone move. Her memory only seems to extend as far back as the moment she entered this room. She can’t be sure she even exists. Meanwhile, the thin man’s fist is deep inside her, wearing her sides away. It is as though she is being shaken out, purged, like an Etch a Sketch. Waves of red and black pain move through her body, breaking on walls, on the chair, on the windows. She remembers reading something in a science book; something about the movement of a person’s hairs providing them with a defence mechanism; a way of sensing the vicinity of their enemies. She, on the other hand, if she existed at all, was nothing but a peeled, threadbare thing.
“Stop,” she says. “Let me go!” “Fuck off!”
Words come out of her in the same way a person might finally cough up a hair stuck at the back of their throat for the longest time. The man takes his fist from her body. Lets go of his arms. Laughs loudly.
“You legs a fucking mess actually!” he shouts, as she runs away from him. “Why you no wax bitch?”
When she arrives back at the hotel bedroom, her mother is out on the balcony beyond the window, drinking Pinot.
“We missed our dinner reservation”, she says. ‘”I was worried.”
“Sorry. I need a shower”, says Meinir. “I got lost.”
She locks the bathroom door behind her in a hurry, desperate to escape her mother’s gaze.
“Are you sure you’re ok? Aren’t you hungry?”
“I’m fine”, she says, shouting now. “I just got lost!”
Her body is making the same, horrible, red and black pounding sound as before. If she can hear it, then so can her mother. She bins the shaving gel, the freesia soap, the Bic razor with aloe vera, before washing away the ladder of dried-up blood that is the thin man’s signature. She is still alive – it must mean something. She told him to fuck off – it must also mean something. But for now, she can’t be sure what. All she can be certain of is that nobody can know what has happened. It’s not that she can’t stand the idea of people finding out about the fist fuck; it’s more that she can’t risk them sensing the extent of the thin man’s hatred for her, how desperately he had wanted to eradicate her. It might make them hate her too. When she gets back to school after the holidays, she is even minded to let Dog fuck her, just so that he doesn’t suspect anything. She finishes the forensic clean up, pulls a pair of satin drainpipes from the laundry basket. As she is doing so, something catches her eye, a patch of hair on the back of her thigh, approximately the size of a hand, which she must have missed whilst shaving. She inspects the patch carefully, sweeping the hair against the grain. Follicles vibrate along their length like feelers, creating a subcutaneous tingling sensation. She sweeps the hair against the grain a second time, then a third, until she feels a vibration at the core of her, as though the follicles are in some way connected to her roots. She is still there. She was there all along. The thin man hadn’t reached in that far.
Her mother is back on the balcony when she steps back into the hotel bedroom. The urge to push her, to be pushed, to jump, is still present, except this time, Meinir remembers her friend Katy’s explanation for the phenomenon. Cognitive dissonance, that’s what she’d called it. The urge to jump, or to push, never really existed. It was just the brain’s attempt to rationalise the dizzy, nauseating feeling experienced at the edge of things. All it really meant is that you wanted to live.
“Actually, I’m quite hungry”, says Meinir.
When she grows up, Sian Hughes would like to be a full time writer! In the meantime, she works as a copywriter, blogger, and creative writing practitioner in schools. She is also working on a collection of short stories provisionally entitled ‘Pain Sluts,’ with help from a Literature Wales ‘Writers Bursary’. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found picking up after her three children, husband, and animals.
If you enjoyed Shaving for Dog, leave a comment and let Sian know.
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