I dressed up as a dominatrix for Halloween when I was 13. My friend's parents looked questioningly at my red lipstick, tight black dress, and knee-high boots.
“I’m a witch,” I said.
“What’s with the whip?” they asked.
“They were out of hats."
This was the year my parents allowed me to have a television in my bedroom; it was the year I stumbled across the HBO documentary filmed at Pandora’s Box — one of New York City’s most luxurious BDSM and fetish parlors. I was intrigued by the dominatrices — elegant, confident, powerful. At the time I was a shy tomboy and highly unpopular (my peers called me a “potato on stilts” because of my hefty upper frame and long skinny legs.) I could hardly speak to a boy, let alone boss him around. It’s no wonder those women became subconscious role models.
In college I joined a gym, lost my baby fat, and learned how to wear makeup and clothes that flattered my body. I left with a BA in women's studies and journalism and a MFA in creative writing, and worked for the campus paper. My writing, however, still felt stunted. So, like many before me, New York City became an Emerald City in my mind — a glowing, bustling place that would both get me out of Hicksville, and make me a writer.
The night after graduation, I U-Hauled my life to Queens, where I was quickly forced to acknowledge the naiveté of imagining I'd “find myself” in the bright lights of the big city. For a month, I applied to writing jobs and internships, and submitted samples — without a single reply. Then turned to Craigslist. Three places responded: an escort service in the Bronx, a diner in Brooklyn, and a laser hair removal office on Madison Ave. Number three seemed like the best option for making money (and not getting mugged) so I went in for an interview.
Located in the Diamond District, the office was on the third floor. The walls were mauve with white trimmings and the floors were mahogany. What I considered “sex music” (a mix between Massive Attack and Sneaker Pimps) filled the waiting room.
A petite Indian woman in six-inch designer heels and a white lab jacket casually looked me up and down.
“Who are your shoes?”
I looked down at my beige, crocodile-skin heels, a Canal Street purchase. “Gucci.”
I was hired. All I had to do was obtain my certification — for a mere $3,000.
“Believe me,” she said, “you’ll make that money back within a month."
Desperate to pay my bills (and excited to play the part of a real New Yorker), I signed up for the classes. A month later I was standing in the lobby, wearing a white jacket, calling out expensive-sounding names.
At this particular office (one of the least expensive in Manhattan), one session for the upper lip costs $100; underarms or full bikini costs $300; full legs, full back, or full chest is $600. Most people don’t realize it takes at least six sessions (usually eight) to see results. And, even after that many sessions, few people are 100% hairless. Most end up with between 20 to 85% less hair.
No matter how many times I told people this during consultations, a lot were dissatisfied at the end, especially since one zap of the laser feels like 1,000 wasp stings. The upper lip, pubic areas, men’s beards, and the flanks of their backs are the most painful spots. They’re also the most popular. On an average day, I treated six clients. Five of these were usually full bikini treatments. In other words: I saw a lot of vaginas. Most women were hygienic; they would come with their wet wash hankies and excuse themselves to the ladies' room before the treatment. Others had remnants of toilet paper sticking to their bodies. A few even came during outbreaks of herpes. It was at once disgusting and enlightening: Louis Vuitton, diamonds, and purebred Yorkies do not automatically equal refinement.
Technicians wear gloves. Even so, to make sure every hair is lasered down there (in the industry, that means up front and in back), there is a lot of maneuvering to be done. It’s uncomfortable, which most clients handle by talking — a lot. They’d ramble on about their lovers, cats, or jobs. And, I’d respond politely as I moved their labias back and forth and shot swarms of bees in for the kill. I’d started as an aspiring journalist, and ended up a cross between a therapist and a sadistic gynecologist.
I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in my body — I was taunted a lot as a child — and looking at other people’s nude bodies still makes me self-conscious. I somehow hadn't understood that this was such a large part of the job. But, I also wasn’t about to give up and crawl home because of a few hairy vaginas.
After a month it became routine. Most clients — female and male — were just as uncomfortable as I was. So I practiced controlling my uneasiness; when I managed to stay poised, I generally was rewarded with larger tips. Like a palm reader, I became an expert at disarming people by watching their reactions.
Larry, for instance, was the president of a major law firm in Manhattan. He was affluent, conceited, and charismatic. He also had an extremely hairy back. During our consultation, I warned him about how the laser would feel. “I can handle pain,” he said. He winked at me, “I’m not a pussy.”
I refrained from reminding him that most pussies could handle a lot more pain than the average dick, and I smiled politely, “Great! Let's get started.” About 30 minutes into his two-hour session, Larry was writhing about, crying, and cursing.
“You probably get off on hurting men,” he said. My childhood bedroom entered my mind: I was lying on my bed in my over-sized T-shirt, a bowl of popcorn sitting in front of me, dominatrices strutting across the television. I thought about the “love note” that had been slipped into my high school locker: “Dear Sarah, 1-800-Jenny-Craig. Love, Jason.”
“Not at all, sir,” I said. I pushed my palm into his back and continued the treatment.
And, then there was Spencer — perhaps one of the most interesting clients I met during my months on Madison Ave. Spencer was the wet dream of any Bridgehampton daughter: early thirties, tall and lean, blond and blue-eyed, wealthy. He was known among my coworkers for being courteous. Since I’d never given a man a full-bikini treatment — balls, ass (interior and exterior), and penis — my boss told me to take him.
“You’re new,” Spencer said. He seemed nervous, lying naked on his stomach on the treatment table.
“I am,” I said, maintaining my confident façade.
He remained quiet for a few minutes as though he was thinking to himself. “I’m getting married in a few months,” he finally said.
“How lovely,” I said, spreading his cheeks.
“That’s actually why I’m getting this done. My fiancée, Michelle, wants it all gone.”
I examined the areas he wanted treated — all of his hair was blond and fine, his skin pale. Of all the skin and hair types, his was the least likely to see results. I told him this.
“Do it anyway. I’m sure I’ll notice something,” he said. The client is always right, I thought.
When I began, Spencer started to make curious sounds. He was wriggling around, but not in pain. He was letting out sighs of pleasure. When he flipped over so I could zap the front, he revealed a full-blown erection. Outwardly, I continued, unfazed. Inside, I was bemused: as per my boss’ stringent requirements, we all “enhanced” our appearances at work to be “aesthetically pleasing for the clients.” That meant wearing tight, expensive-looking attire, high heels, and lots of makeup. This, I guess, was the desired result.
When I was through, he smiled.
“Thank you,” he said, and handed me a $20 tip.
I told my coworkers what I saw.
“That happens sometimes,” they said. “Just ignore it.”
Spencer’s next appointment wasn’t for another six weeks. But, he came in the next day.
“Michelle said you missed areas."
I was surprised; I had done a thorough job, especially considering the situation. But, I took him to a room.
When he disrobed, he looked like he had chicken pox; hundreds of tiny circles in red pen covered his ass, balls, and dick (including the head) to show me the individual hairs I had missed. I explained to him again that the laser would not work on “peach fuzz.”
After a treatment, the skin looks slightly sunburned and swollen. “If each circle isn't puffy, she’s going to speak with your boss,” he said.
It took me an hour to zap each red circle. The whole time — his knuckles white from clutching the table, his purple erection bobbing excitedly — he was quietly moaning in ecstasy. I kept wondering, “Can I go to jail for this?”
“Done,” I finally said. He looked more than adequately covered with bee stings. I thought he was going to ask me to leave the room for a few minutes. But, he just got off the table and threw on his jeans and Brooks Brothers jacket. “Thanks,” he said and handed me $100.
When he was gone, I stood still for a second: was the hundred-dollar bill a tip for a job well-done? Or hush money? Was Michelle really his fiancée or even a real person? Did I just unwittingly play a role in some BDSM ritual?
I never found out. It was the first week of October and I was still barely making rent; despite what my boss had told me, I was only pulling in $300 a week. So, I quit and became a waitress at an Irish pub in Hell’s Kitchen a few weeks later. Because I was the new girl, I was expected to work Halloween night. Management told us we needed to wear a costume. I’d kept my white lab jacket (a symbolic middle finger to my old bosses) and decided to make use of it.
Vampires, pirates, and superheroes looked approvingly at my red lipstick, my thigh-high lab coat, and the stethoscope dangling from my neck. “And, who are you supposed to be?” a drunk cowboy asked. He wrapped his arm around my waist and pressed me against his body. I smiled confidently and dug my nails into his arm — hard — until he let go.
This post was authored by Sarah Schwab.