by KARA VANDERBIJL
We stayed with a lot of strangers when we returned to Southern California for the summer after our first four years in France. It was as uncomfortable as you can imagine, with moments of gut-squeezing anxiety, like when your suitcase looks the same as every other suitcase on the baggage claim carousel.
Our first hostess was the sort of woman who flapped around the house in an expensive, colorful kimono and made margaritas before lunch. She also preferred that we fold down the duvet before sitting down on a bed in one of her many guest rooms. Naturally my mother and I were slightly reluctant when she invited us to join her at her favorite nail salon one morning. It was in a stucco strip mall; across the parking lot was a Starbucks and a Cold Stone Creamery. On the other side of a newly-paved street — and a stretch of landscaping so young the saplings were still braced — sat another nail salon, Starbucks and Cold Stone Creamery. Mom parked our rental car and we flip-flopped our way into the salon.
We leaned against the counter as we waited to be assigned to both a chair and the unfortunate human squatting in front of it. In a small alcove, the ladies had erected some sort of crude shrine in which a fat Buddha stared benignly at a pile of day-old donuts. My head began to spin. It was perhaps the acetone or that season’s newest shade. Mom and I got French tips, which we laughed about, because in France they call any kind of manicure “American nails”, just like they call French braids “Indian braids”.
Years ago, I read a children’s historical novel about China. One of the minor characters was an old man who had never cut his pinkie fingernail because it was a symbol of his wealth, the fact that he never had to do any manual labor. It grew in on itself, curled and brown.
This fact about ancient China is passed around like an urban legend, a sort of disgusting anecdote that amuses and impresses. What's funny to me is that although they are less physically repulsive, we still cherish these status symbols. We still like having an extra $30 to burn so that it looks like we spend all day sipping mimosas over brunch, gripping phones and flipping perfect beachy waves. It's like, have you ever done the dishes? Rolled out a pie crust? Picked up something? I don't understand the desire to look like someone who has never stepped off the pages of a lifestyle blog.
Is there only beauty in the immobile, the indestructible, the unchipped?
From an early age, I became obsessed with a picture book about the demise of Pompeii that the local library left at child’s-eye view. The images filled my thoughts. I was not afraid of volcanoes (there were more important things to be afraid of, like rattlesnakes in the backyard and earthquakes) but I was fascinated with the images of the people who had lived in Pompeii, the people who had without warning been torn from their pleasures.
Vesuvius left only traces: lewd sketches above doorways in what used to be a brothel, large paintings of penises in inner courtyards. The residents of Pompeii died with eating utensils in their hands. Locked in an embrace. Curled up into themselves, hands over their ears.
For a few years, I considered the merits of living by what I came to call the “Pompeii test”: I would only do things that would be instantly recognizable if I were instantly encased in molten lava for all time. Had a volcano magically erupted in Southern California on the day my mother and I were getting manicures, archeologists would have found us thousands of years later forever locking hands with the nail technicians. “Look,” the archeologists would say, “these women were comforting one another in their last moments,” or, “Look, these women were performing sign language” or “Look, these women were handing primitive tools to one another.”
It isn’t remembering Pompeii that keeps me from getting manicures these days, though. I feel unlike myself when I walk into salons featuring the same peach-colored walls, faux Grecian columns and flat-screen televisions playing daytime soaps. Women with perfectly straightened hair in yoga pants read fashion magazines while they get their bunions rubbed, then walk out gingerly in rhinestone-covered sandals. I have nothing against these women, but I am not one of them. I haven’t brushed my hair in a year.
It is fascinating to me that we develop beauty products that completely deny the ever-evolving, ever-moldable aspects of our bodies. We take our live fluid hair and fill it with products so it won't move. We dutifully hydrate with special creams to prevent wrinkles that we know we'll get anyways. To me, this is a lot like closing the curtains on an ocean view and plastering them with pictures of motionless waves.
Something must be said for allowing yourself to be ruined and ripened by your environment.
A few weeks ago I listened to a woman in the bus complain about her most recent manicure over the phone. She expressed disdain for the salon and called the technician who had performed the manicure a string of adjectives I wouldn't even assign to my worst enemy. I snuck a look at the toes peeping out of her T-strap sandals. They were painted a trendy neon orange. I couldn't pick up any visible flaws, except that she had none.
"Will We Ever Be Friends Again?" - Ida Maria (mp3)
"I Just Need A Hug" - Ida Maria (mp3)