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The Astral Plane Nail and Waxing Salon

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“Her house sinks down to death, And her course leads to the shades. All who go to her cannot return And find the path to life.”

“Sore loser,” smirked Rielle.

“Baby-eater!” shot back Mrs. Sanford.

“That’s a lie!” we all cried out, Rielle, Monica, and me. “So not true!”

Mrs. Edwards jumped up. “Succubus, licking up the discharge of sleeping men!”

We all protested. Silda put down her magazine. “Don’t be cruel,” she said quietly. “Truth alone is cruel enough for mortals.”

“Sit down!” fussed the Vietnamese lady. “You ruin pedicure!”

“I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Sanford, sitting down again. “The wounds are still fresh.” Silda took her hand, but she was looking at me.

“Mrs. Sanford,” I said timidly. “Is María here?”

“No, she’s not.” Mrs. Sanford shrugged. “I guess she must really have loved him.”

For a long time, we were all quiet. Mrs. Edwards looked like she was drifting off to sleep; Rielle was massaging her calves. Monica finished with Hillary; they hung around at the door exchanging pleasantries. Hillary slipped Monica a tip, which Monica discreetly pocketed. My nails were almost done and they were looking great.

I was about to ask the technician for her name when she said, “You know about Empress Theodora? She circus performer and mighty whore who become ruler of Byzantium and Rome with Justinian. She pimped out by parents as little girl, and soon she expert in all gateway of Cupid. She could cry about it, but instead she cheerful, make many joke; if she want boy, she just pull up skirt—she get many that way, have many lover same time! Long story, but eventually she meet Justinian who change law so he can marry her. He not make mistake. She great and powerful leader, smarter than him. She make aristocrat prostrate self before her, she mock. She change law so if woman cheat on husband he can’t kill. She do many wonderful thing. At 50 she die, Justinian heartbreak. Just to let you know. Look, you like?”

“Yes,” I said. “They’re great.” And they were. It was the best manicure I’d ever had. “How much do I owe you?” I asked.

“Owe me? You not owe me. I train you, I hope you pay attention. Now you do her foot.” She indicated Silda, who was barefoot with her slacks rolled up.

“But how can I do her foot with a fresh manicure?”

“This manicure perfect to give pedicure. Technician here always have perfect nail.”

So I sat before Silda on a small stool and attended to her feet. Somehow, I knew what to do. I looked up only twice. The first time, she was reading a magazine. The second time, she was naked and flawlessly beautiful, a woman whose face and body, as I looked, changed subtly and so rapidly that I could not say for sure what her features were or even what race she was. Her expression, though, I could not mistake: It was sorrowful and deeply forgiving, and I bowed my head before it.

Feelings came through me, and with them, darkness. Winged, I flew through darkness. I felt nothing then except in my belly, in my wings, and in my tingling, perfect claws. I dove down to seize a tiny creature; as I tore it I became it, and opened my infant mouth to cry in terror. “I don’t want to be this,” I whispered. “I know,” she answered. “But you have to.” My tears fell on her feet; I wiped them with my waist-length hair. She touched my face with her hand.

And then the pedicure was done. The salon was empty; even the Vietnamese woman had left. Silda made small talk with me for a few minutes, and then she gave me a tip.

From above, the dazed woman emerging from the side door of the deserted warehouse was very small. She seemed to have forgotten the car; the driver had to open the door for her and help her into it. I could see her as if from a great height—then the car door closed and I was her, though I scarce knew at first what that meant. I groped in my pockets, looking for something half-remembered, then stopped; there was a newspaper on the seat of the car, folded back to show the headline Feisty NY Gals Kick Some Ash/Resent Spitzer Escort Tagging ’Em Gold Diggers.

OMG. Right. My blog. They were talking about it in the paper!

I looked away, out the window. It was too dark to read the newsprint anyway. The car moved slowly down the street past refuse and closed, abandoned places and two drunk men helping an even drunker woman stay upright, she laughing as they stumbled out of a low building painted entirely black except for a garish picture of a blond lady with diamonds blinding her blue eyes. I would read the paper tomorrow. There would be the usual stuff about how disgusting and fucked up I am, and yes, it would hurt. But, as usual too, somebody would be on my side. A girl my age would say: “She is brave to be making these comments. She is not ashamed. She didn’t do anything wrong. She’s just like me and I respect her. Real recognize real.” And I would think, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But still I would be glad she was there.

Gaitskill’s last novel, Veronica, was a National Book Award finalist. Her short-story collection Don’t Cry was published in March.


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