Sunday, October 01, 2006


alexandra bernardo, originally uploaded by extrapolar.

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.

While my nails dried, the young woman returned to the seat in the corner where I'd first seen her. Her eyes remained resolutely down.

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.


Anonymous said...

I love that you stopped to wonder about her life, to imagine for a moment what it must be like to be her.

chuck said...

Will you go back and see her again?

Will she still be there?

What if you had had to go back inside-- to get your purse, let's say...would your relationship with the 'manicurista' then have been a new and different one?

Was she sullen--or simply intimidated in the workplace setting?

Did she feel 'solidarity' with you as a fellow 'service' worker? Was this the motivation for the wave? LIVING infinitely more subtle and nuanced than my inane
(frivolous?) questions would suggest?

Your empathic (empathetic?) nature permeates so much of your writing...maybe a current of 'pathos', too.

Dale said...

Poignant. So many missed? lost? impossible? connections.

Sustenance Scout said...

Beautiful story, Patry. And yes, sad. I often ask questions about family close by, where you're from, etc. and just as often get funny surprised looks, but sometimes things open up and the time flies (I have a hard time sitting still for long!), but what can you do when language is a barrier? At least a smile and a wave can overcome even that.

The Curmudgeon said...

The manicurist may not have been able to speak that much English. But that is not the only reason for her impassivity: Surely you've noticed, when waitressing, that you are often invisible -- merely a cog in the food or drink delivery machinery.

Years ago, when I was in undergrad, I worked in the dorm kitchen -- usually in the back -- but occasionally in the service line. People I knew, some I knew well, or thought I did, couldn't see me behind the starched white food service shirt and beneath the paper hat. I was merely the link between the mystery meat and their dinner plate. If I called someone by name, I could see, slowly, as the haze lifted and awareness and then recognition dawned.

I was otherwise invisible to them; I can see why the manicurist would choose to be invisible to her customers in response.

Zhoen said...


I'm going to go cut my nails.

Left-handed Trees... said...

Interesting and, yes, sad...I guess I am a silly, silly woman, because I always seek to make some connection with any person I meet...a smile, eye-contact, (once in a while) the middle finger, but hey. Something. Will she work her way into a book someday, the impassive manicurist?

Fred Garber said...

Patry....I enjoyed reading your observations and judgements in this post. Your gut feeling about the manicurist not getting to keep all the tip may be true. There is a good deal of exploitaion of workers even in small businesses. I am happy that you waved to her. You may have made her day. Patry, I challenge you to write about that encounter from what you imagine her perspective to be. Great post!

Patry Francis said...

r: Yeah, I suppose it was, though I did sense this was a strong young woman.

marilyn: Call it the writer's curse.

Chuck: To answer your (not frivolous at all) questions:
1. If I ever got a manicure again, I would want her to do it--because the hand massage was so wonderful. But for now my nails are happily short and unvarnished.
2. If I went again, maybe she would smile--but probably not. She seemed to find a way of existing in her job that worked for her.
3. Not sullen or intimidated. Just detached.
4. Throughout the manicure, I kept trying to make human contact with her in subtle ways, smiling, attempting eye contact and conversation--all to no avail. The wave, I think, was an acknowledgment that she'd heard me and seen me after all.

dale: I was actually thinking of you when I wrote about how healing the hand massage felt, and how much it communicated when we were silent.

karen: That is a gift. I have a dental hygienist like that. Everyone wants to go to her because her talk is so interesting that you ALMOST forget what she's doing to your mouth.

curmudgeon: Oh yes, I know the feeling of invisibility well--and sometimes, I'm guilty of it myself. I work mostly weddings (or should I say workED) and at times, I pay attention to the people, their story, the emotions of the day. However, by the end of wedding season, I often tune out and go through the motions--undoubtedly, my loss.

zhoen: Nothing wrong with long, glamourous nails. I loved them on Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's--and that cigarette holder! Ah, to die for...(I think that was my vision of how I was supposed to look in New York.)

left-handed: Even here you come with a smile! (Can you see me smiling back?)

fred: The nagging sense that the manicurist nad her co-workers were being exploited was what disturbed me most of all--and not only for idealistic reasons. Ultimately, worker exploitation has a trickle down effect. I'm almost certain she didn't keep the tip. For one thing, tips usually go into pockets, not drawers near the cash register--unless it was being pooled, which I doubt. What really convinced me was the lack of pleasure or appreciation with which she received it.

floots said...

really enjoyed this
those moments of contact
that distant intimacy
can be so important
thank you

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Wonderfully written story. Loved it.

Dave said...

Thanks for this post. Quiet people are such a mystery to me. (Well, so's nail-painting, but never mind that.)

Patry Francis said...

floots: "distant intimacy"--something like what we have here on the net.

rob: Thank you, and nice to see you here.

Lorna said...

a post equal to a manicure in its ability to soothe; I should have requested the pedi too

Patry Francis said...

dave: I never pictured you as a nail painter, but the way your camera and your poetry speak, I imagined you as something of a quiet type. Goes to show we don't always know our blog friends as well as we think we do.

lorna: I'm expecting the pedi next week at your place. Deal?

Anonymous said...

You sound like me getting ready for my son's wedding. A big new role. When I try to look good, it's the hardest too.

I'm so glad she waved.

Anonymous said...

Dammit, Patry! You reeled me into what I thought was going to be just a funny, frivolous little tale about clothes and shoes, and then you punched me in the heart!

(That's a compliment, by the way. Nicely done. The end really did make me clutch my chest...and wonder.)

Patry Francis said...

colleen: Sometimes I think we look our best when we don't try; we're just ourselves.

Patry Francis said...

sara: I think you followed the same trajectory I did. I went into the nail salon consumed with my fashion insecurities, and left realizing it wasn't the nail polish that mattered; it was the touch of the manicurist.