Last year, my friend P. who believes that an unvarnished nail is a crime against womanhood, treated me to my first manicure.
The manicurist was Asian and wore a pained expression as she looked at my stubby nails.
"What color?" she asked, obviously weary of all the variations of red and pink. I pointed to the bottle closest at hand--a pallid color that caused my friend to wince and shake her head. Clearly, I was going to need a lot of coaching.
The weary woman soaked my nails in what looked like dishwashing soap and water, then painted them pink like my mother used to do when I was little.
All day I fluttered my hands around, ridiculously impressed with myself. But I didn't return to the salon. I figured if I wanted my nails to look like the inside of a seashell, I'd paint them myself.
But this year, when I planned my trip to New York to meet my agent and editor, I decided I was going to be fashionable for a day--if it killed me. To that end, I listened to all kinds of advice: Wear black. Accessorize. Save on the clothes, but splurge on the shoes. I haven't try on so many clothes since I went to the prom.
I bought three pairs of shoes--all torturous to the feet, and every black item in the store. Then in a fit of despair and credit card panic, I brought nearly everything back.
I looked at my blunt cut nails in horror, and decided to let them grow. My one day as a fashionista clearly required painted nails. And I wasn't having any washed-out color either.
This time the manicurist was a Latina with thick dark hair that curtained her face as she worked. She worked in silence, refusing even to look at me. All her focus was on my hands.
While she soaked and filed and shaped, I studied her obliquely and wondered about her life. Where had she come from? Was she homesick? How much was she paid? What did she think of the women who sat in the chairs fretting over a chip in their nails?
Did she think we were spoiled and pampered? Or did she know that most of us worked as hard as she did, that we were often consumed with worries about bills, children, the future?
And what did her customers see when they looked at the taciturn woman who worked on their hands? A stranger, who apparently spoke no English. Maybe an illegal. Did they think of her at all?
I noticed that her own nails were short and unpolished.
After she had trimmed my cuticles, she massaged my hands for several luxurious moments. Her touch was both deft and gentle. Despite her obvious intention to remain unknown, anonymous, she communicated much about herself with her touch.
I closed my eyes as the overused muscles and tendons in my hands responded to her skill.
In the end, she only spoke one word to me. Pay.
And so I did. Being both grateful for her work, and a long-time service person myself, I tipped excessively. But the manicurist appeared unimpressed. Wearing the same impassive expression she had throughout the manicure, she tucked the tip inside a drawer.
I had the distinct feeling that she would never be allowed to keep it.
I didn't say good-bye, but once outside, I stopped and glanced back at her through the glass. As if feeling my gaze on her, the woman whose name I will never know, looked up; and briefly, in the same instant, we lifted our hands to wave.