Did I ever tell you? About my first time getting painted toes, and my misconceptions about the woman getting a pedicure in the next chair?
First of all, I was introduced to pedicures at the age of … I’m calculating … give me a second to do the math … um, age 41. Basically many “salon” grooming experiences such as waxing, massages, hair-coloring, manis and pedis … are relatively new to me. I wasn’t exposed to them growing up.
As an adult, my girlfriends have slowly introduced me to these wonders. Or talked me into having my own firsthand experiences, and deciding for myself whether I want to invest in them regularly as a personal habit, rather than a one-time indulgence
So one of my dear friends took me out for a day of pampering.
There was an extra reason for this outing. It was just a few weeks after my youngest daughter Jessie had died. I was still shell-shocked and trying to cope with loss. My friends were taking turns getting me out of the house in gentle ways. Going to the salon was a chance to let go, let someone else take care of me. To escape and float.
First we ordered frothy chai tea lattes from our favorite coffee shop: Zumi’s. Carried them next door the nail salon. In our flip-flops, because of course you don’t want to ruin your paint job at the end of the session by shoving them into closed-toed shoes. (That’s one of the things I learned.)
The biggest decision of my day was what color to paint my toes. Should I choose something feminine and pink? Something bold and crimson? Something dangerous and midnight dark?
Or something else? I plucked through the bottles of color. Chose five pigments. Mentally recited middle school science lessons: ROY G BIV. (Hint: that’s the acronym for the colors of the rainbow.) I gathered up a palette of visible light.
After selecting our polishes, we settled into overstuffed chairs and put our feet into tubs of hot soothing water. Sat side by side with books and magazines. Sipped our tea.
Staff women knelt down and started scrubbing and massaging our feet and talking to us. I tried not to think about issues of class and subservience, of manual labor and contrasts of privilege. Me in a chair, and someone crouched low before me. Me paying money for someone else trained to soften my feet, rub off the callouses, and make me pretty and desirable
It was so different from the hospital. From necessary invasive procedures and toxic drugs introduced into a body by highly trained nurses and doctors to save or extend life.
I didn’t want to talk. I retreated into silence. Used my book as a shield to ward off conversation.
The pedicurist settled down with a brush and file and clippers. I held my breath and tried not to mind having someone else handle my feet. But I couldn’t distract myself by reading.
So I glanced up from a novel to peek around. I looked at the woman fastidiously cleaning my toenails. Glanced left at my girlfriend reading her magazine.
Peeked right at the salon’s other pedicure client. She had sunk comfortably down into the upholstered wingback chair next to me. Relaxed. Chatting with the woman doing her nails.
She’d chosen a bottle of lady-like pearlescent pink polish. It seemed to fit her. She was tidy and trim, the glint of silver and precious stones a subtle wink on fingers, wrists and ears. Her short perky hair, tucked behind shell-like ears, was almost platinum. To hide her grey, I told myself, guessing her age to be least two decades beyond mine.
She wore linen. Kept a designer clutch tucked down into the cushions by her side. Lifted one hand and shook a Tiffany bracelet down over her wristbones.
You get the idea. She came accoutered in labels and brands. Ones I don’t own and may never be able to afford.
I couldn’t read anymore. So I closed my eyes and tried to relax through the filing and clipping of my own toenails.
And eavesdropped on the salon client’s amiable banter with the staff member giving her a pedicure. I learned that the woman on my right lives a few towns away. She likes this salon, however, and comes here regularly. She and the staff members are on a first-name basis. They talk about pets and kids and vacations and doctors. She’s comfortable here.
But she has a lot more money than the ladies that own or work in the salon. Or me.
I made assumptions about her. It’s amazing how catty you can be, even in the midst of grief. I wanted to find fault with her…maybe I was understandably irritable, poised to be annoyed and critical. Maybe my judgments were out-of-proportion, because all of my reactions were extreme right after my child died. Or maybe I’m just a selfish and petty person.
The town this salon client lives in has a noticeably higher tax bracket than ours. More conservative politics. Lots of wealth and generations of breeding.
From my perspective, she comes from a bastion of privilege … and I was predisposed to think poorly of her because of it. Or at least to think that she couldn’t possibly comprehend the depth of my loss, and the great yawning chasm that was broken open inside me, just below the surface of my closed eyes and clean toes.
I assumed she was shallow and spoiled.
After all, she was sitting in a nail salon on a weekday afternoon. Gossiping. (I was in the nail salon at the same time, but I was silent, and we were here for different reasons, right?)
Although we were seated side by side, with women crouched in front of us cleaning our toes, we didn’t really have anything in common. Not like my girlfriend sitting in the lefthand chair, who is a college-educated working mom like me, with kids about the same age, and enough flexibility in her schedule to make a date with me in the middle of a workday. A friend who knew my whole broken family and my deceased daughter and was gently trying to draw me out of the house and back into the light of day.
The woman on my right, talking about Cancun, was not like me at all. Obviously she had plenty of time and resources to indulge herself.
She couldn’t possibly understand why I was in the salon. Or that it was my first-ever pedicure. Or that I was living through hell.
Or what hell even felt like.
I tried to stop listening to their stories: the client and pedicurist. I didn’t want to know more about their plans and their lives. I just didn’t have any tolerance for mundane, everyday experiences. Like which doctor to visit to have a mole removed. What airline to take to Mexico. What yogurt to keep in the fridge.
Behind my closed eyes, didn’t I radiate waves of pain and anguish? Couldn’t everyone just SENSE my grief and loss as I sat in the overstuffed chair?
How could they talk about their normal lives when I was mere inches away, full of turmoil and sorrow and anger?
I was in the salon because I was fresh from the pediatric hospital and its traumas. Recently recovering from the experience of planning my child’s funeral. I had a reason … a good reason … to take a break. What was everyone else’s excuse?
The pedicurist dried my feet, put the foamy separator between my toes to spread them out as she worked. On her worktable were the colors I had chosen. I planned to wear red-orange-green-blue-violet on the tips of my feet.
When the pedicurist saw my array of colors, she hesitated. One on each toe?
Yes, a rainbow. I didn’t explain why. I couldn’t, without weeping. But my girlfriend knew the reason. The colors were selected in celebration of Jessie and her bright spirit and her flare for fashion and her favorite song “What A Wonderful World.”
The smallest toes would be bright red.
I opened my eyes as she uncapped the first bottle and dipped the brush into the sunrise-colored pigment.
The woman on my right was just about to have her color applied, too.
She looked my way. Noticed the rainbow of colors down by my feet … because honestly, during a pedicure, you always want to know what color your neighbor has chosen, and wonder if you’d be brave or foolish enough to wear what they have dared to put on themselves.
She arched a plucked brow. Lifted her left hand, curled her fingers into her palm, and adjusted the silver links on her wrist by waving it gently in the air.
She smiled lopsidedly at me with coral lips. This woman with plans to go to Cancun, and a mole that needed attention, and children off at college. And time for a pedicure on a weekday afternoon.
She wanted to chat. I didn’t want to, but I was curious what she’d say.
“You’re using a lot of colors.”
Her sentence lilted upward at the end. An innocent question. Why so many colors?
I inhaled before replying. The honest answer took an act of will and lots of practice. But I was determined not to back away from the truth, even if it was uncomfortable in casual public and social settings like this one.
“It’s in memory of my daughter. She died recently. Leukemia.”
“Ah.” The woman lifted her eyes to meet mine. Tucked a strand of artificially blonde hair behind her ear. Winced and nodded slightly.
I thought that would be the end of the conversation. Death is often of a conversation-killer.
But her eyes held mine, and she continued. “I started coming here a few years ago. Just to treat myself.”
I nodded back politely. Tried to smile. Nicely.
Inside, I ranted at her. So what? Do you think I care? You and me. We don’t really have anything to say to each other. We’re not going to bond over these personal truths that we share in a salon. We have nothing in common.
Yes, I was also here for a break … but our reasons for needing the respite … I could only imagine that they were dramatically different.
Then this woman from a wealthy community a few towns away, from a background of breeding and privilege, and a life that involved tropical destinations and indulgent salon appointments, said, “My older daughter and my husband were diagnosed at the same time. They were both treated. My daughter survived. She’s back in school now, but I had to take time off and go take care of her for a while. My husband didn’t make it. That was a few years ago.”
She looked down at her toes. Wiggled them in the water. She added softly, “I like coming here.”
I swallowed every assumption I’d made about the pampered matron in the chair next to me.
We sat next to each other. Didn’t make eye contact again. Or speak anymore. But we both relaxed, or at least it felt that way to me. As if we were suddenly comrades. With a shared experience that assured that we understood each other on a gut level.
Not strangers anymore, but intimately connected by a common experience. Side by side in the salon, letting someone paint our toes bright colors.
I appreciated – suddenly – that the color of our toes was our warrior’s paint. And the late afternoon moments in the nail salon are a strangely private opportunity, removed from the usual demands of life, to acknowledge sorrow. To breathe and let go. To retreat.
And that this woman, despite all the contrasts between her world and mine, her life and mine, has a lot in common with me.
I was humbled by what I learned that afternoon in the salon.
I realized – all over again, because I had clearly forgotten it — that appearances really don’t tell the whole story. That the woman next to me … whether we meet in a doctor’s office or in a grocery store aisle or on the bus or by the sidelines of a playing field or sitting in a nail salon … has her own story. And each story is worth hearing. And that it’s much more beautiful and colorful and poignant than all the fiction and preconceived narratives I might allow to fill my head.
Her story was right there, waiting to be shared.
Every woman has a story to tell. And we may have more in common than we’d ever guess. If we’ll just listen. Oh, and take the time to sit down and choose some colors and get our nails done.
Never apologize for a good pedicure or “spa day” at the salon. It can change your life. And you deserve it. We all do.