In his own way, David Attenborough encouraged her to go ahead with the shave. Attenborough always calmed her. His voice, gravelly yet kind, that spoke of a long lifetime of observation, wonderment, continuous gathering of knowledge of the natural world. The way he pronounced glacier glass-yer. The way he made creatures of the tundra, the desert, the circumpolar boreal forest, seem human or better as they lived out their stories of lucky flukes, sacrifices for their young, fatal mistakes.
During this period of what was supposed to be grief, but actually was limbo, marked by a numbness she didn’t mind as a temporary state, since it buffered her from unwanted intrusions, she watched an Attenborough special on oceans. King penguins waddled across her screen and plunked themselves down on hard ground, trapped in the torment of a growing itch. Amanda watched a penguin peck at itself relentlessly, until it had removed every feather in each of its four layers—the outer oily layer and the three layers of down—and in plucking off the feathers, the king penguin got rid of thousands of parasites picked up during its hunting forays at sea. This, Attenborough explained, was called the catastrophic moult.
Amanda felt an immediate affinity with the naked bird.
The king penguin stood exposed and vulnerable to predators, starving, surviving only on body fat, until every feather was replaced. Then, restored to its full capacity and power, it could again live fully.
Amanda had never before given herself a pubic shave and was unsure what instrument would be optimal. A specially designed razor? All she had was a Gillette Venus, still pristine in its packaging, although she had bought it months earlier. She had intended to use the razor the next time she shaved her underarms, something she hardly had to do any more, that was how slowly the hairs grew. It was the same for her leg hairs. She had forgotten all about the Venus until this moment. Possibly, in using it, she would not be following best practices.
But it was what she had and it would have to do.
She had been shaved by a nurse 30 years before, while in labour with Sophie. Although Amanda’s hypersensitive skin had not been cut, she had developed an excoriated rash, which she attributed to the hospital’s chemically scented shaving cream.
This time she would go with aloe vera.
She decided to soak in the tub, get the area loosened up before moving in with the razor. A bath on the maternity ward would have been divine three decades back—although she had read recently that bathing slowed labour, so perhaps not. At the very least, she would have appreciated low lighting, as she had learned about in her prenatal classes, which Paul had rarely attended with her. What was the name of that French obstetrician they had taught her and her pregnant classmates about, the one who promoted gentle birthing methods? Le Something. Le Corbusier? No, that was an architect. Lesage? Politician.
However. Back to the shave. It was not as tricky as she had anticipated. True, she did not work with the panache of the king penguin, but she was careful and thorough. She tried using a makeup mirror but could not get the angles right, abandoned it, continued by feel alone. A rinse left the skin soft, pores happy. And no nicks.
What did the shave mean? Amanda was not sure. She regretted not having read Jung.
She wanted to talk to Sophie about the shave but decided against it. Since Paul’s final illness, Sophie had been extraordinarily protective of her. Maybe it was too early in Amanda’s life for this to be happening. After all, she was in fairly good condition for a woman in her sixties. She did not need to be mothered by her daughter, at least not yet. Still, she let Sophie hug her a lot, and call her every day to check in, make sure she ate. She would not thwart Sophie’s oversolicitousness for now, since it seemed to be part of what her daughter needed as she processed her father’s death. Amanda knew instinctively that if she told Sophie about the shave, her daughter would find a way to turn it into a problem, the sign of a sinister turn in her mother’s mental health.
But still, she was sorely tempted to share news of the shave with Sophie. Because Sophie had read Jung.
She had never been able to convince Paul to scale back on creature comforts. He had insisted on so-called fine dining, revelled in receiving sycophantic service, while Amanda worried that the servers were burning themselves. How could they not, with a hot platter poised gracefully over their lower arm while Paul slowly weighed the pros and cons of accepting the platter’s contents. How many times had Amanda surreptitiously left large cash tips to restaurant and hotel staff, to assuage her guilt, make her feel less entangled in Paul’s behaviour.
Now, with Paul gone, she could live as she wished. She decided to mark the end of the ostentatiously rich part of her life by indulging in a final luxury, one she had not allowed herself but had secretly desired. Despite her misgivings, her fear of being misunderstood as a vacuous woman of privilege, she booked an appointment for a full body massage.
On the day, she walked past the elevator and up the stairs to the fifth-floor spa.
The aesthetician, Raylene, was kind, taking meticulous care even before she got started. Would Amanda prefer a soft or a firm touch? How firm? Raylene massaged all of her, even her breasts. Amanda was afraid she would feel invaded but she did not. Instead, soothed. To her surprise, the scented oil did not irritate her skin. Maybe Raylene had gently extracted the oil from a king penguin’s uropygial gland. Surely that was non-allergenic.
She sold the house, rented a well-lit but spartan one bedroom apartment, donated all her gowns to a small theatre company. Although not a worshipper of any kind, she liked the example set by the Buddha, how he had divested of all that was not necessary to his existence on any given day. How he had even refused offers of simple food for the following day. Today was all, today was enough.
As a young woman, she had been convinced she was the reincarnation of a medieval monk, and though she no longer believed this, she was still attracted to all forms of asceticism and their various expressions.
Friends worried. They told her they understood she was getting rid of everything out of grief for Paul, but perhaps she should not be so precipitous. In reality, they understood nothing. She and Paul had only maintained a facade of closeness. The truth was, they had not connected properly for years and had finally decided to end it, but before they’d been able to set a divorce in motion, pow—the diagnosis of stage three multiple myeloma. The doctors gave Paul the stark facts.
She and Paul reconciled enough to make life less brutal for him in his final stretch, which had turned out to be just under two years. She was by his side for every treatment, every appointment, every trip to Emergency.
Now she wondered if they’d made the right decision. Maybe it would have been better to live out the truth of their situation, to separate, to have Paul rely more on paid help for the practicalities of life—and for family support, Sophie. But Sophie and her partner Elissa had been going through a rough patch as a couple at that time, and Amanda hadn’t wanted for Sophie to also be faced with meeting the day-to-day needs of her dying father.
So Amanda had seen Paul through his illness right to the end. He had appreciated her staying, or at least she thought so, although with him it was always hard to tell, which was one of the reasons she had wanted to leave him in the first place.
Throughout their marriage she had known of his infidelities—he was sloppy at covering his tracks—but she had felt that with the dubious past she herself had brought into the marriage, she did not have solid grounds to complain.
To see her way forward she felt she must first look back, right back to the days of Kevin, her on and off boyfriend for seven years. L’amour de sa vie, the French would call Kevin, the great passion of her life, who had, through his flagrant cheating, destroyed her ability to link sex with love. As a response, she cheated too. Yet they kept getting back together. The one smart thing she had done with Kevin was not marry him.
But she’d had some excellent male friends. She tried not to have sex with them, because in the few cases where she had done that, the friendship suffered. A person could not unsleep with a friend, as useful as that would have been.
Considering that she was an arts major, she’d surprised herself by socializing mainly with medical students. She thought of herself in those days as a doctor manquée. When her med student friends showed her their thick, illustrated textbooks, she was awestruck. Although she considered herself a good memorizer, she knew she could never carry that skill far enough to get through the pounding medical school program. External intercostals, tunica intima, corniculate cartilage… how did her almost-doctor friends retain those terms in their minds? And remember what they meant?
One time, her friend Michael Borden, then in second-year Medicine, snuck her into the anatomy lab. Was she alone among humans in adoring the smell of formaldehyde? Would this not have stood her in good stead if she’d had the brains to become, say, a coroner? Michael showed her the desiccated cadavers on gurneys. And heads, yes, whole human heads, pickling in head-sized jars. Two big wooden boxes painted white. One labelled in red ARMS. The other, LEGS. She peered into the ARMS one, and there they were, a collection of dried out human arms with hands attached, all stuffed into the box willy-nilly, like toys. Yet the people who had once had those limbs attached to their bodies were, in death, teaching her friends about anterior meniscofemoral and deep transverse metacarpal ligaments. Those dead people were, through their disembodied limbs and severed heads, doing social good every day.
Michael himself now did social good every day, as a world-renowned epidemiologist. She’d see him on the television news from time to time, discussing whatever infectious disease was posing a threat in a certain region of the world that year.
If only she had kept in touch with Michael Borden and her other university friends, if only she had followed her desire to enter politics and help transform the world, if only she had not squandered time with Kevin and even more time with Paul.
Well. At least Paul had fathered Sophie. Sophie was a treasure.
In the days that followed she took solo hikes in the mountains, and as she walked the trails she speculated on what a relationship would be like with a new lover, someone brilliant and gentle yet spunky, someone who could make her laugh. She began to feel wistful for an era in which she had not lived, when she might have discreetly pursued a countertenor, a castrato with a sparkling soul and a generous heart. Her vaginal dryness and wall-thinning would mean nothing to him, or to her. Every night he would sing her to sleep.
But no. Escape would not do. Not anymore.
Leboyer! That was the French doctor’s name. Revolutionary ideas. Frequently misunderstood. She felt for him.
Feeling. It was back. All she’d ever wanted was to love, be loved, do social good every day. A way would present itself, and soon. She felt it.
Rona Altrows is Alberta Views’s 2019 Short Fiction Contest winner. Rona has written or co-edited six books, most recently At This Juncture (Now or Never Publishing, 2018).