Back in my “I Dress Like a Slut but Am Really a Virginal Rube” teens, I had inch-long nails on every finger.
Natural. Home-grown. Because this was 1977, and your options were Lee Press-On Nails or some marginally less vile version they’d apply at the salon. And I was a teenager, and broke (Mom forbade me to work until my senior year of high school), and I wanted long nails, so I did it the old-fashioned way.
Inch long. Every finger. Natural.
How, you may ask, did I manage to do anything? Honestly, I’ve no idea. My life wasn’t a hellish hamster wheel of manual labor by any means, and I was never a big one for making the bed, but I did have the regular household chores to attend to, dishes, laundry, ironing, light dusting, and I did all the usual high school things, including the smoking of a great number of mentholated cigarettes, most of which I remember lighting myself. Me and the brothers, we liked the menthol. I recall an elaborate set-up-and-palm-heel-bump method of inserting change into vending machines (this is back before machines took paper money and credit cards, children); I was probably unduly proud of my ingenuity. I mean, wasting brain juice on vending machine workarounds? It’s a miracle I graduated, much less squeaked by into a good college.*
At some point between the end high school and my first year at college, I cut them all off. I’m not sure exactly why, but I’m sure that in part it had to do with the vastly different workload college demanded.
Another change kinda-sorta came over me, though: save for a few notable exceptions like dances and the like, I began adopting a more comfortable, mannish style for my new, collegiate life. Eschewing girlier stuff felt like the right thing to do in this new environment, both for practical and social reasons. It also felt more like me. The further I got from this strange and mystical land of High School where, if not to fit in, at least to not stand out quite so egregiously, I had to follow the code, and the code said “girly.” There were girly-girls a-plenty in college, but there were also all sorts of other flavors of girl, with no one way much better than another to be.
Since then, I’ve done stints in corporate or just regular Nice Lady drag, but mostly, this style (or lack thereof) has been mine. Comfortable, boyish-to-mannish clothes, notable spectacles, short-short (sometimes bitten that way) nails. I’d occasionally play with hair or makeup (1980s, I’m lookin’ at you), but the nails stayed short. I’d learned by then that I had “bad” nailbeds: short and wide, spatulate, in the parlance of Dorothy Parker’s “Horsey.” Not nails for polish, but hands for doing things. Okay. I could roll with that.
And I did, for some thirty-odd years. Oh, every once in a while I’d push my ragged cuticles way, way back, trying to simulate a regular-length nail bed, and give the red a whirl. But it never looked right. It looked…embarrassing, like I didn’t know the score.
More than anything, I hate looking like I don’t know the score.
So now it’s 2009, and I’m heading to Chicago to do a little work and spend a little time with some old friends. One of these, Chicago Jan, or “Jannicups,” as my family has known her since forever, had come out of a Difficult Time; we decided we’d have us a ladies’ day with luncheon and pedicures, using the gift certificate she gave me to a fancy spa years and years ago when I was coming out of my own Difficult Time. (See? I don’t do spas. Too girly.)
Only when I get there, I learn that instead of making an appointment for two pedicures (I’m down with my long & groovy toes), Jannicups made the appointment for two manicures. And this fancy-schmancy salon, they’re booked solid weeks in advance, even in a nasty downturn like this one. (The rich really are different than you and me, I guess. They have very well-oiled cuticles, for one.)
I was horrified at the thought of the poor manicurist who drew me even looking at my raggedy, gnawed-on nails, much less having her work on them. Nubs! And ugly nubs, at the end of not especially attractive hands!
But I really wanted it to be a special, just-us day, so off we went: me and my witchy hands, Jannicups and her delicate, well-cared for digits, to the salon. I justified the outrageousness of me, manicured, by suggesting that perhaps the expense and raucous color would jar me into not biting for a bit. I cracked so many self-deprecating jokes about ironies heaped upon ironies that even I grew sick of it. So finally, I let go, and let that nice young lady do her thing. I sat back and accepted it, which was, for the moment, my thing. I even picked a girly coral over the logo lime green I’d wanted initially; Jannicups was not going to let that particular irony pass unchecked.
The strange thing was, for the rest of the week, I rather enjoyed my tiny orange fingernails. I’d find myself pointing at things a bit more…pointedly, and gesticulating more wildly, and even sneaking embarrassed, admiring glances at them splayed against the dark brown of my pants, or wrapped around the stem of a glass of Riesling. At some point, I even stopped apologizing for them, gave up the endless explaining (“…and I thought we were getting pedicures”), let go of the fear I had attached to being viewed as a clueless wonder and just let my hands be my hands, to hell with it all.
They’re almost back to normal now. Polish doesn’t last long under the best of conditions, and travel with lots of typing is not the best of conditions. Plus my short and funny fingernails grow quickly no matter what their starting length, and the growout was looking unseemly. I’ll bust out the remover in the morning and get rid of what hasn’t been chipped off or picked away already.
I would like to think I may not nibble at them for a while, though. That maybe my good habits of the past week will carry on a little longer. Bringing just a little attention to one’s less lovely but deeply entrenched habits might just have the effect of dislodging them. Just a bit.
Mostly, I hope that the feeling of being just a little bit embarrassed, a little bit exposed, a little bit off-kilter, and living to tell the tale, mostly, I hope that is what stays with me. I cannot undo my habits until I know them to be habits; sometimes, to know, they must be spelled out for me in bright coral enamel.
Wake up, wake up, wake up. And if I fall asleep again, wake me up.
We must keep each other awake, you and I…
*I definitely didn’t do much writing, I remember that. What I had to, I did, and on the typewriter, and with cussing. You can learn to type with the pads of your fingers, but the nails, they will stick now and again. I believe I did a small bit of tortured writing in journals, although sadly (or maybe not), there are none extant.