The Astral Plane Nail and Waxing Salon

Illustration by Andy Friedman

Dear Silda,

I hope you don’t mind my writing again after my maybe-somewhat-inappropriate letter of a year ago, in which I expanded on my feelings of remorse about your pain. I understand, I think, why you never answered, and I respect your decision not to. However, I’m hoping that in the same spirit, you can respect my need to reopen the channels of communication, at least on my end. I have been thinking about you a lot lately, and to me that’s an indication that you, on some level, are thinking about me too. I’d like to share with you some of the ways I’m trying to heal. That might sound weird, but I know you are an incredibly strong and intelligent and also compassionate woman. I have admired you so much, ever since I saw you on TV, and since then, I have read every article you have been in—in your stoical dignity you have become like a role model for me!

So here’s what I’ve been considering: A blind-dating reality show wants me to act as hostess, an online dating service called Sugarbabies wants to feature me as a romantic adviser, and something called The Onion wants to feature me as a moral adviser. Which should I pick? Your advice would mean a lot to me and be super-healing.

oxox Ashley

P.S. And likewise, if you have any advice you want from me, on any subject, I will be honored to give it.

Dear Silda,

While I understand and totally respect your decision not to answer my last letter, I am beginning to think maybe you are not so compassionate after all. I wonder, if your husband had mistakenly been intimately associated with a 22-year-old college student from your set, maybe a friend’s daughter, and she remorsefully reached out to you, would you just totally ignore her? I’m sure you have read Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky (I have too), and I hope you remember that in it, a spiritual young prostitute helps save a murderer. Similarly, in the classic Western High Noon, Grace Kelly is about to leave her boyfriend right before the shoot-out when a prostitute tells her, “If it was my man I would go to him!” And Grace does it! My point is that artists have long recognized that escorts are often a unique and powerful force for good in the domestic as well as the sociopolitical spectrum. There are many more recent examples, Pretty Woman, and the one about the guy with the humongous hose on HBO—but they are really moot as actually I’m not even an escort anymore. However, I hope it is not prejudice against escorts that is stopping you from answering.

Meanwhile, last night I dreamed that you and I were eating lunch together at Tavern on the Green. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but there was a really good feeling to the dream. It made me want to write and ask, would you like to have lunch together?

oxox Ashley

P.S. I wasn’t going to say this, but I know I can trust you. Former vice-president Dick Cheney has been writing me letters! I never even wrote to him, and so far I have not answered. This just shows how not an escort I am: I could charge him a lot of money just to read his letters. But I’m not.

Dear Silda,

Just a heads-up to let you know that on my blog tomorrow I am going to be making a statement that the women of NYC and New Jersey who’ve so vocally judged me are really no different from me, that they want nice things too and use men to get them. I want to make sure you know that I do not include you in this. In my mind, you are different.

oxox Ashley

P.S. In case you are not answering because you don’t want a paper trail, you can leave a message on my blog. I will be totally checking!

“Meet me at the Astral Plane Nail and Waxing Salon in Queens. You know what I’m talking about. Midnight. We’ll be sending a car. Use the side door.” s.s.

Dear Diary,

She answered me! Right after I posted my kiss-off to the hypocritical women of NYC (and N.J.). I was somewhat obsessively reading the most recent comments on my last blog entry—and there it was, the message from Silda! And the funny thing is, I did know what she was talking about. But I was so excited to hear from her that I didn’t ask myself how I knew.

Then somehow, there I was traveling through Queens via car service, containing my excitement and thinking about what I was going to say to Silda. I was in a strange mood. Almost sad. Because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to tell her what I feel and why I want to talk with her. The same stupid unreal things would come out of my mouth, and she would not respect me and then it would be over. And why did I even care?

I looked out the window as I drove down the crummy streets of locked-up stores and overflowing trash containers. I felt so outside of things. There weren’t many people on the sidewalks; a few guys trudging home from late shifts; an overweight couple, holding hands and carrying lumpy bags; a dejected guy with a sign on his hat saying, “Obama condoms” and a whole tray of them hanging around his neck. We drove past a bus stop with no one at it. On its beat-up side was an insurance ad that said, “You have the car keys. You have the house keys. I have a deal.” The words were printed on the big gray face of a guy who looked like a client I’d had a few years back. He’d talked to me about his son in college, and when I looked at the ad, I had this feeling of house, car, children, security; a life that I could have no part of, but was fated to glimpse flying past. Yet this life, these lives have passed through me too, through my body, in the words and touch and cum of many men with places in the world; these little pieces of other people’s lives, stories about their children even, embedded in my body; joined with dirty things. I am part of it but have nothing to do with it.

Before “Client 9” this wasn’t true. I could’ve worked for however long I wanted, then found a way back to the world without anybody knowing. Now that will never happen. I can raise myself up; it won’t matter. In the eyes of everybody, I will always be a whore.

Then I saw the weirdest thing: a synagogue that had guys with machine guns hanging around outside of it. Seriously! These zhlubby guys! Two of them were laughing and joking together, but then there was another one peeking out from behind a bush, pointing his gun and staring at us as we drove by. Really, the world is so absurd, why should I even give a rat’s ass about it! It’s true what I said about the women of NYC! A client even said it to me once, he said: “You girls don’t do anything that all women don’t do—you just do it better and with a lot more class!”

Anyway, when we pulled up at the salon, I saw the side door immediately; it was the only lit part of the building. I told the driver to wait. As I approached the door I heard Top 40 radio coming from it. My heart beat. I looked back at the driver; he was watching me, but when he saw me look, he went back to reading something in his lap. I opened the door. There was a brightly painted alcove with a little table with a vase of artificial flowers on it, and a stairway. I began to walk up it.

And as I did, the music began to change. It was a song by Céline Dion, I think, I’m not even sure. Whatever the song was, it was like somebody grabbed it and pulled it like taffy. Céline’s voice got pulled way out of shape, got a hundred times higher and more powerful and … the music got split into hundreds of strands, each with its own sound, each strand like a river of electrical power running through my body as I walked up the stairs. There were words but I couldn’t understand them. Suddenly, too, there were pictures on the walls on either side of me, whole murals depicting what seemed like dozens of things at once: a beautiful naked woman with long black hair and a giant snake wound about her; another naked woman, holding an apple, angels, devils, winged creatures carrying children away … it was frightening, but I was not afraid. The stairs suddenly seemed miles long, but just walking normally, I was going up fast, toward a glowing platform at the top.

And then I was at the top. There was a woman in a long white sleeveless gown, and the light behind her was so bright that at first I couldn’t see anything but her. She looked like she didn’t like me at all, but still she said, “Lilith, enter by special invitation.” I tried to say, “That’s not my name,” but what came out was, “Thank you.”

And then she just wasn’t there. She evaporated. I was standing in an incredibly bright, posh, intergalactic nail salon, with several customers, all of whom looked weirdly familiar. But I couldn’t focus on them at all, first because the salon had no walls or ceiling, and second, it seemed to be in outer space, with darkness outside the circumference of the electric lights, huge planets and stars all around us. As events happened through the night, other things would appear in the sky, giant people and creatures, but they made so little sense that my mind couldn’t take them in and I can’t remember most of them.

Another woman approached me, an Asian woman. She was smiling warmly. “You have appointment!” she said. “What you like, manicure, pedicure, wax?”

“A manicure please.”

“Come this way.”

She led me to a row of beautiful chairs carved in ivory or marble, finely made, and upholstered in luxurious fabrics, including fur. I sat down and that is when I realized who was sitting next to me: It was Mrs. Elizabeth Edwards and she was getting a pedicure from Rielle Hunter! I looked away so I wouldn’t stare, and that’s when I saw, a little further away, Hillary Clinton getting a foot massage from Monica! I looked away again and realized that Silda Spitzer was sitting in a chair opposite me, reading a magazine! I suddenly remembered that it was she who had invited me—yet I found myself afraid at the sight of her. I looked down, wondering if there was a way to leave.

The Asian woman pulled up her little table-chair apparatus and sat down before me. “So,” she said. “You like French?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Very elegant for lady,” she remarked, taking hold of my hand, appraisingly. “How you do today?”

I didn’t say anything; I was noticing that both Monica and Rielle had much longer hair than I’d thought, down to their waists, and very thick—black in Monica’s case and red on Rielle.

The technician patted my hand. “You troubled. I understand.”

I sneaked a look at Rielle; she was working intently with a file on Mrs. Edwards’s nails. Mrs. Edwards was talking on her cell phone, seemingly to a friend about a kid’s birthday party. Monica was concentrating on Hillary’s feet; Hillary had reclined her chair and was sleeping with a paperback covering her eyes. And then—Jenny Sanford came out of a back room in a very beautiful robe and sat next to Silda!

“I am old woman now,” said the tech, expertly buffing my nails. “But long time ago, during Vietnam War, I was prostitute. I didn’t want to be, had to be. I was young, family killed, except little brother.”

Gigantic pictures appeared in the sky around us, pictures of men fighting, seen from far away, in a terrible pattern, then close up, their bodies powerful but broken, trying to help each other, failing, limbs torn off, blood pouring from them, running, shouting, trying to wield giant iron machines, bombs exploding, women running, their faces shattered, children naked in their arms … 

Mrs. Edwards ended her call, and turned toward the manicurist, respectfully.

“I took much pain into my body; many terrible things. But now I am married, work here in Queens. Husband still alive, have children, many grandchildren. You see?”

There was a whiff of spring air and fresh grass. Children appeared in the suddenly bright sky, laughing, chasing each other, playing in golden light. We all looked, admiring. “They’re beautiful,” I said. The technician’s face glowed with pleasure.

“But you’re different,” said Mrs. Edwards. “You didn’t choose it. They did.”

“Fate choose,” said the tech, not looking up.

“Fate, shmate,” said Mrs. Edwards, addressing Rielle. “You ‘ladies’ have worked some kind of scam. Because in the not-so-distant past you would’ve been stoned or at least shamed out of public existence—now it’s decent women who have to explain to the world why they allowed themselves to be ‘humiliated’! While you parade yourselves on TV and write tell-alls, or try!”

Rielle looked up and smiled. “I believe it was you who wrote the supposed tell-all?”

And then, I’m not kidding, Oprah appeared in the sky, with a crown on her head, and she was driving a chariot with Viri Canes Sunt written on it, and it was pulled by—OMG—James Frey and John Edwards, and they were naked!

Rielle’s lower body turned into a pillar of flame; she gestured toward Oprah. “In this time the Empress acknowledges in secret that sometimes Lilith loves better than Eve.”

“She did not say that!” cried Elizabeth. “She was on my side! You love better? With flattering lies and cheap lines like ‘You’re so hot’? I wouldn’t repeat that, not because I’m prudish but because it’s too corny!”

Rielle smiled serenely, looked back down at her work and said:

“As the worst of the venom left my lips,I thought ‘If, despite this lie, he stripsThe mask from my soul with a kiss—I crawlHis slave—soul, body, and all!”

“Oh please!” snapped Elizabeth.

I glanced at Silda; she didn’t look up from her magazine.

The Vietnamese lady squeezed my pinkie and whispered, “That you poet, Robert Browning.”

“Pardon me,” said Mrs. Sanford sarcastically. “But I don’t understand bragging about crawling on your belly, which you have been doing since the beginning! And as for poetry, I prefer Proverbs 2:18–19.

“Her house sinks down to death,And her course leads to the shades.All who go to her cannot returnAnd 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.

The Astral Plane Nail and Waxing Salon