“We never get to do things together, honey. This is incredibly soothing and it’s a great way to start your new life. I’m so excited you’re coming back home!” She hugs me tight.
I’m fractured by an intrusion. My mother. If only I could quietly slip away.
My mother pushes the door open and it announces us with a buzzer. We step into Nails R Us.
“What you need?” a man working on someone’s toes asks.
“Manicures and pedicures,” my mother says. “This is my daughter, Florence. It’s her first time.” She pulls the strands of hair away from my lowered head.
“Pick a color and wait,” he says as if he cares whether it’s my first time or hundredth. I walk to the wall of rainbow variations, drawn by their vibrancy. The colors are talking among themselves. “She’s a zombie. A poster girl for Basket-case Blue.” I do agree.
“Acid Green works with her skin tone. Her fat, bulbous toes will glow in the dark like her spleen.” “Oh, but why not try to play her up as one of the normal girls who didn’t just slather her mother’s bathroom in blood. Pink and red are close relatives that speak of bloodbaths. We can Barbie up those fingers and toes and placate her.”
If ever there was a way to shame me back to normalcy, this may be it. My life had turned into a long, bad made-for-TV-movie episode. The bathroom floor, my mother screaming, “Oh, no, not my baby,” and then the cops, the ambulance, the blood, always the blood and next thing I’m stuck in a home for waste cases like myself, who couldn’t make the cut on a daily basis but had no problem taking a razor to the wrists.
My mother comes up and hugs me from behind. “Oh baby, look at all these amazing colors! How about something sparkly and bright?” I smile. My mom has always been sunshine incarnate. She’d always wanted to dress me up and showcase me. I wanted only to disappear. I was her favorite project and she never gave up on a project. Even now.
I tried to explain to her once how it felt. Drowned in waters so deep that there was no real air to come up for. My body had never been mine. It had wrenched me around like a puppet for as long as I could remember. I shook, trembled, rocked, shuddered, palpitated. I wanted only to get away from it. My poor mother had cried and then baked me a cake. I ate it for her sake and threw it up later.
I look around the room at the customers. They sit reading People Magazine or watching Fox Newswhile getting their toes drenched in shades of popular. I start shaking when they notice me. I grab gray. I am nodded over to an open station with a step up and absorb my feet in the swirling pool the guy has started. My mother grabs a magazine and sits down next to me with a neon fuchsia. She tries to engage me in the articles about various movie stars that I don’t give a shit about. I listen to the customers around me instead. I’m intrigued by their explosive demands.
“I had an appointment. 3P. It’s now 310P.” A tall woman stomps her four-inch heels and stabs at her watch with her pointed fingernail. “What the hell is going on here? Do I need to take my business elsewhere?” One of the women who works there runs over to try to calm the huffing woman down.
“I’m here for a manicure and wax job,” a girl yells out and then covers her mouth. She looks at me and says, “Why did I have to announce that?” I smile at her and stare at the hellish flat screen.
A curtain near the back of the room parts and I glimpse an empty chair. 3P sighs with a great show of exasperation, “Finally! My turn!” but no one comes to show her in. The girl getting the wax job slinks lower into her seat and bites a thumbnail. I wonder briefly about her possibly wild bush and whether her worn Adidas hide dimpled, soft toes which you could picture dipping joyously into a turquoise Carribean ad. People are never what they seem.
I close my eyes, feel the water swirling around my feet, try to relax and not think about my life ahead. I breathe in, breathe out. I imagine my toes painted soft pink, sinking into a white sand beach. Or sparkly gold, dipping into turquoise. The hell with it, I think: I’ll get candy-apple red and maybe even a Brazilian to go with it. I know this will never happen, but maybe I’ll join the rainbow world for my mother’s sake.
The room has gone gray and the flat screen has gone even flatter. Even the water in the footbath has ceased swirling and little rivulets remain, frozen circles round my ankles now holding my feet in place. I cannot move them. My heart is busting through the walls of my chest and I can’t breathe. My mother’s mouth is moving, but I can’t hear her. Fear is racking my interior, but no one seems to see me. I stare at the girl waiting for a wax job. There is an embarrassed expression frozen on her raised eyebrows which hides something I did not see before, possibly regret, a tinge of sorrow. Maybe her life is another nightmare. 3P is still stabbing her watch and looking accusingly at the counter girl. I can see the manic stretch of pain that forces her to yell at people because nothing will ever suffice. She will always be cluttered with the trauma of transient memories of a father who ignored her and a mother who never spoke up. In the silence of this white fluorescent world, in the middle of the drowning waves, I see that all of these people mask their private hells in colored nails and empty errands. An older woman with red tints on the ends of her hair snores lightly in the corner. I had not seen her when I came in, but the schnarrrrch of her breath is all I can hear now. I find this strangely soothing.
I shift my weight and break out with a quiet tink, first one foot then the other. I step down carefully and begin to move through the room, heavy with dread but somehow light at the same time. I am floating, focused.
I can hear my mother’s voice behind me, but I keep moving. I sit in the empty chair behind the curtain. “Velcome,” a large voice commands. A meaty hand on my shoulder pushes down, releases any strength that was there, dissolves the muscle. The voice does not bother with an introduction, and I do not ask for one. “Vax?” it says, and I make a motion to stand. “I thought this was the polishing station,” I stammer. I have seen what waxing does to my mom’s eyebrows. I do not want my nether region to look surprised.
There is a twelve dollar add-on for a paraffin dip, and I say that I want that—that, I say, is what I thought was back here behind the curtain. Polishing and paraffin, not wax. Not vax. “Paraffin isvax,” the voice says. I rush away from the hulking esthetician, apologizing passively. I no longer crave color or its absence.
I move through what is now a storm of snores and complaints and angry evangelical pundits, and I think all of them must wax and polish and do all the other things that I am now deciding I cannot do. I feel like I am being tossed in the waves. I can’t find my shoes. My mother calls to me. I see the worried expression on her face as she tries to get her feet out of the whirlpool to come to me.
I am empty. There is nowhere to go.
This is Nails R Us. I return to the vat of wax and plunge my hands in until the wax buries my wrists. The heat stings my skin but dissipates once the rhythm takes over: dip, out, blow, dip, out, and so on. As the layers build my hands become ghosts.
The esthetician watches. She opens her mouth to warn me – enough, I could get burned – but does not speak my language. All around is the lull of foreign tongues. Where others may come for the promise of touch inside these cocoons I feel nothing. Fingers trap heat. Hair flutters along her lip. Then, here lies the beauty: The woman slips off my molds and stands them between us like candles. I reach with my reborn hands.
This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet are:
Jen Knox, who earned her MFA from Bennington’s Writing Seminars. She works as an editor and creative writing professor at San Antonio College. Jen is the author of Musical Chairs and To Begin Again (2011 Next Generation Indie Book Award winner, Short Fiction; Readers Favorite Award winner, Women’s Fiction). Some of her short stories and essays have been published or are forthcoming in Annalemma, Foundling Review, Gargoyle, Metazen, Narrative, Short Story America, Superstition Review and elsewhere.
Sara Lippmann, who has written for American Baby, GQ, Details and other magazines. Her fiction has appeared in Jewish Fiction, Big Muddy, Our Stories, Word Riot, Slice, The Brooklynerand elsewhere. Her column, “Read it Loud: Notes from Storytime,” runs regularly at UFR. She co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a monthly NYC reading series, and lives in Brooklyn.
Michelle Elvy, who lives on a brightly painted boat but does not paint her nails. She spent a year editing 52|250 A Year of Flash and is Associate Editor of Blue Five Notebook and founding member of the antipodean poetry collective Take Flight. This year she is writing and circumnavigating her way around New Zealand. Her other collaborative work can be found in past or upcoming issues of Poets & Artists and BluePrint Review.
Meg Tuite, whose writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals includingBerkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Valpairaso Literary Review, One, the Journal,Monkeybicycle, Elimae and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel “Domestic Apparition” (2011) is now available through San Francisco Bay Press. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.