How the Nail Salon Became My Way Through Grief

I rub the acetone-soaked cotton ball over my nail over and over again. I take each nail and make tiny little circles over it until the fingertips holding the cotton ball begin to prune. I am careful to get in deep where the nail meets the cuticle. Taking off black nail polish is a meticulous process — only one round is seldom enough. You have to put some serious elbow grease into it to get all of the black out, especially if you are planning on wearing a sheer color afterwards, otherwise your nails look dirty and dingy.

I think of all the nail techs who do this day in and day out, dozens and dozens of manicures in a day, and wonder about their health. Have there been any studies on nail techs and illnesses that could be directly related to the acetone they come into contact with on a daily basis? Can people die from this stuff? It can’t be good.

“Maybe the pandemic has been helpful to them, in a way. I hope the added protections they have to wear now will be good for them,” I think aloud, almost done with my left hand.

I hate doing my nails. 

Going to the nail salon for a manicure and pedicure is the one thing I’ve consistently given myself as “self-care” since I was a teen. The loss of that experience during the pandemic feels like a more profound loss for me than just getting a hand massage and a polish change.

Having someone pamper me during moments of pain allowed me some small measure of relief, a momentary respite from whatever was hurting me so much.

The first time I got my nails done professionally, I was 14 years old. I woke up to find my father’s belongings gone from our home. I’d known that my parents were breaking up, but I didn’t know when he would be moving out. Then, early one Saturday morning, before I arose from the cavernous depths of my typical teenage sleep-in, he did just that. No warning. No preparation. I opened my door and his ancestral altar that lay diagonally across the hallway from me was gone. And I knew he was gone, too.

For months before that day, I had begged my mother to let me get fake nail tips at the salon like she and her friends did. She didn’t feel it was age appropriate for a girl of 14 to have a full nail tip set, and since it was still the 80s, most people would’ve probably agreed. Although teens back then were in a rush to grow up just like teens of every generation, there was no social media to stoke the fires of envy to the wildfire levels of today. My mom was a firm believer in no fake nails and no hair dye until I was older, and that was that. While I didn’t yet care about the latter, it was a source of frustration for both of us that I was determined to continue pleading my case for the former.

Seeing my father was gone, I went back into my room and pressed play on my Walkman, listening to The Cure’s “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me” as loud as I could, like any self-respecting teenager in the middle of a life-altering moment in 1986 would have. When my mother came out of her bedroom and walked into mine, the narrowed eyes and icy silence with which she was met told her all she needed to know. The rage I felt seeped through my pores and into the bed beneath me. It was February, yet I was covered in a thin film of sweat. I was shivering from the coldness of being clammy and from the rage of being abandoned.

My mom stood at the door, looking at me. “Take a shower and get dressed,” she finally said. “Let’s go to the nail salon.” I knew that she was trying to cheer me up as much as possible. She knew getting a manicure was something I’d been wanting to do for months and probably the only thing that could get my father’s departure off my mind, even if only for a little while. What I didn’t yet know was how informative that experience would be to me in the coming years, how much I would link a hurtful experience in my life to the ritual of getting something soothing like a manicure soon afterwards. Having someone pamper me during moments of pain allowed me some small measure of relief, a momentary respite from whatever was hurting me so much. 

That’s how I’ve met grief ever since. Lesser grief, like the loss of a job or the loss of a person you thought was a friend. Larger grief like the loss of a significant other or the loss of a friend you thought was like family. Every variation has been met with a trip to the nail salon. Celebrations, birthdays, and grief were usually met with a manicure, pedicure, and the luxury of being able to sit and unclench my jaw even if for just a little while.

The last time I got my nails done was Valentine’s Day 2020. The next day I was in the arms of someone I loved deeply. Today, that person is no longer in my life. There have been no trips to the nail salon during moments of deep sorrow about that loss. There have been no trips to the nail salon during the moments I’ve felt sorrow about anything during this past year of unimaginable loss, so much of it played out on the world’s stage before us. There has been only a year filled with what seems like an unrelenting need for endurance, and no one to take my dry, over-washed hands into theirs, rubbing lotion into the furrows, kneading the loneliness away, even if just for a minute.

I finally finish up my nail polish removal and swear aloud that I will stop using dark colors until the pandemic has passed and I can go to a nail salon again. 

Even as I say it I know it’s a lie.

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