A pink surgical mask was the most prominent feature on the slim woman’s face. Her glance at me in the salon’s doorway was a flicker, a firefly’s light. “Mani-pedi?” she asked.
“Choose color,” she commanded.
I nodded, noting she and fellow employees made a living by offering inexpensive services in volume. I was part of a system that beautified my superficial appearance but usually left a residue of shame.
The shop was crowded Monday nights, when the business advertised a $25 manicure and pedicure special. I came here as a rare treat, usually before the holidays. Polished nails told peers I didn’t bite my nails when I was anxious. They also suggested success, even though I hadn’t had a meaningful raise in seven years. Sometimes you go in for a mani-pedi but get so much more.
Selecting hues made me feel like I was preparing myself for a glamorous battle. Each shade carried a promise wanted as mental armor. I decided on OPI’s “The Berry Thought of You,” a raspberry shade that reminded me of Barbie’s lipstick. The woman in the pink mask tapped the foot bath to indicate she was ready for me. I kicked off my flip-flops, and sank into the chair in a spiral of thoughts.
When it was time to walk to the manicure station in my flip-flops, I scooted across the floor tiles. Seated face-to-face with my nail technician, I noticed her pink mask was printed with Xs that formed a diamond design.
“Pay now?” she asked after rubbing my hands in lotion.
From my fanny pack, I pulled out $35 to cover the service and tip. I always paid more than 20 percent, but I still felt guilty. I am haunted by the 2015 New York Times story about nail technicians miscarrying babies and losing their fingerprints linked to trade’s toxic chemicals. And yet, here I was. “I like your bag,” she said of my belted purse.
“Thank you,” I said, almost complimenting her mask.
But I quickly looked for something else: a silver ring on the right thumb, an imitation diamond bracelet and matching necklace. “I like your bracelet.”
She met my eyes. “He gave it to me,” she said. “He isn’t here anymore.”
“Not here anymore?”
“Up there,” she said, twirling her hand toward the ceiling.
Her nose twitched under the mask. Her eyes watered behind her glasses. Suddenly, she grabbed tissues and disappeared behind a curtain. And then she began to wail.
Another employee in a blue mask emerged to finish painting my fingernails. Meanwhile, I could hear my nail technician taking deep breaths behind the curtain. She appeared, relaxed, sans pink mask.
“I’m sorry. I got sad,” she said. “We had a restaurant. A Vietnamese restaurant. I cooked.”
We made eye contact for a few seconds. She gave my hand a squeeze and then held it up to dry in front of a fan clipped to her table. My chest felt warm.
When it was time to leave, we waved. Then she covered her face, blending in with other employees whose job required distance while getting very close.
Ann Votaw is a freelance writer in New York City.