I have always had hard-used hands with short, stubby peasant fingers and bitten-down nails. No elegant lotus petals here. These are the hands of an aged ten-year-old who hunts for worms under rocks, fishes decaying vegetable matter out of the sink drain, and chews her finger thoughtfully while reading.
I have yearned for grown-up lady hands, smooth opals that would look good playing the piano or holding a wineglass, with long, seductive red nails, as if the fingertips have been dipped in the blood of sex and transformed into rubies.
With my stubby, grubby, tough little hands, I have made exuberant acrylic paintings, leaving streaks of wild color embedded in the wrinkles of my knuckles. I have been attacked by rosebushes as I was trying to weed them. I have chopped innumerable onions for innumerable dinners. I have spread oil in the cup of the palm and prayed a moment before giving a massage to someone with AIDS. (One young woman died just a week later. Her skin was so fragile she couldn’t bear any pressure, so I simply laid my warm hands on her.)
I love my hands when I am giving a massage. They glisten with oil and redden with exertion, and the blue veins pop up like those on a weight lifter’s biceps. But could anyone call them beautiful?
So I had this date. He was going to take me to a nice restaurant, then to a concert. At the words nice restaurant, the spirit of my dead grandmother popped into my body. She was glad to see a little action after six years in the grave and a few more before that when her brain, sharp as a steel file for ninety years, didn’t work so well all of a sudden. My grandmother drove me to the mall — a treat for her; in real life, she never touched a steering wheel — and bought me a short purple dress, all the while humming “I Enjoy Being a Girl.”
“Grandmother!” I said. “I didn’t know you even knew that song. You hate those tacky musicals.”
“There’s a lot that you don’t know,” she said. “Look here: the piping on this dress is cheaply stitched. I got a suit in Filene’s Basement — it was originally $190, marked down to $140. I watched it for three weeks, and when they marked it down again to $120, I made my move. Snatched it from under the nose of a Lithuanian lady. Now, that suit had detail work. But this — it’s shoddy; cheap goods.”
“Grandmother, it was made in a sweatshop, practically with slave labor,” I said, turning the label over. “See here where it says, MADE IN SRI LANKA? Now, what do you suppose they pay those Sri Lankan women to sit all day and make a pile of these dresses? How often do they let them go to the bathroom?”
Grandmother looked at me with a cloudy, exasperated expression that combined age, death, anger, and love. “Oh, yes, I know. I remember. The Lower East Side was full of those shops. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire . . . But, still, they don’t have to use such lousy thread.”
From the dress store I proceeded to the nail salon. The smell inside could have peeled paint. Wearing surgical masks, a dozen young Vietnamese women were bent over the hands of their customers, buffing and polishing. I sat down before a sweet-faced woman. A photo of two toddlers was taped to the side of her workstation. Suppressing the concern over what would happen to these two children when their mother died at age thirty-one from ovarian cancer brought on by inhaling toxic fumes eight hours a day, I hesitantly gave her my rough little paw.
I did not say, Here is my hand in trust, hand that wore a gold wedding ring for seven years; hand that slit open the envelope with the divorce papers inside. Here is the hand that feeds me breakfast in the car while the other hand steers, applies lipstick while the car passes through the tunnel, brushes away crumbs while I balance the water bottle between my knees. Here is the hand that points to the word to be read aloud by the child, the scarred hand, the hand that has oiled, pummeled, and smoothed the bodies of strangers, the hand that pumped gas into my car this morning. Here is my forty-year-old hand, with its raggedy cuticles, yearning for love after all this hard usage. Here is my hand that knows how to love, but does not know how to stop me from biting its fingernails.
I did say, “I’ve never done this before.”
The manicurist’s smile grew wider. “Really? Would you like a — ” and she said something that sounded like “blwerripp?”
“Excuse me?” I asked politely.
She repeated, “Would you like a blwerripp?”
We went around like this a few times before I finally gave in and said yes, putting myself entirely at her mercy.
Across from me, a middle-aged African American woman with a natural fade and an air of regal solitude gazed out the window while a worker painted her nails gold. Enthroned on high, padded seats nearby, two middle-aged white women gossiped as they received pedicures: “He doesn’t have a job. No ambition. Content to push a broom and that’s it. I tell her she could do better. I know my daughter. Sooner or later, she’s going to get bored. But what are you going to do? She loves him. She’s twenty-five. It’s her own life.”
The manicurist bent over my hand and dug into the cuticles with a sharp, vicious instrument, wincing sympathetically with me when the ragged strips of skin started to bleed. Still, she kept going until my nails were clean little ovals — little being the operative word here; they were like chipped pebbles.
Then she scored the surface of my already fragile nails with an instrument like a miniature floor buffer — vroom, vroom. Next came the evil-smelling, industrial-strength rubber cement. Then the smallest size of fake acrylic nail had to be trimmed down to fit over mine. This made the manicurist giggle. It was like playing dolls with a real woman’s fingertips.
At last, she applied the purple polish — deep purple — and shellacked it into place with the same sealant they must use to protect the paint jobs on cars. I walked out of the salon waving my fingers this way and that, admiring the intense artificial shine as they caught the light of the setting sun. I had a hard time tearing my eyes away from my hands, which no longer seemed mine. A warm feeling welled up inside me. What was that about? Why had I submitted to such a violent and toxic procedure? And why did part of me feel good about it?
Beauty and pain, care and exploitation: that was the paradox. “Pain before beauty,” my mother used to say as she attempted to comb my bushy, kinky hair into submission. I would cry and struggle under her strong hands. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been rebelling against what I perceive to be the bum deal women have gotten. I never wanted the burdens of a woman’s role: the care for details, the responsibility for beauty and order. The commercials on TV when I was growing up emphasized how ashamed a woman should feel if her house smelled bad or her husband’s collar was dingy. The men seemed to get off scot-free in the hygiene-shame department.
“But I don’t care about that!” I’d wail when told to clean my room.
If being female is somehow linked to fastidiousness, then I’m missing a chromosome or two. I’m a natural-born slob. And although this can be endearing in a man, it is not how “ladies” are supposed to be.
Looking deeper into my psyche, I discover more gender incorrectness. While I am capable of gentleness, I can also be very aggressive, even competitive. Put me on a basketball court, and I’m Ms. Foul, butting my opponents with hips and elbows, making up with pushiness for what I lack in athletic skill. Not a pretty sight. The truth is, I want money and power and someone else to do the laundry and cook dinner and figure out where to put the couch. I don’t care about the damn couch. But now, all of a sudden, I found myself focusing on my fingernails? How did that happen?
The thing about being “womanly” is, it’s a huge effort. Even women who are good at it, even women who are addicted to it will tell you: it’s costly, it’s exhausting, and it’s hard work. We should get a tax break or something. Yeats must have observed women very closely, because he understood. In his poem “Adam’s Curse,” he compares the labors of poets with the labors of beautiful women. He says making a beautiful poem or a beautiful feminine appearance is as hard as going down on your marrowbones to scrub a kitchen pavement, or breaking stones like a pauper. And, in each case — poem or appearance — the work behind it must remain invisible.
In the poem, the woman says, “To be born woman is to know — / Although they do not talk of it at school — / That we must labor to be beautiful.”
No, they didn’t talk of it in school. And, although large parts of my happiness and misery throughout my school years were tied to issues of beauty, I was blind and deaf to the unspoken curriculum on how to make myself attractive.
Now, looking at my nails, I was wide-eyed and wondering: So this is it. So simple. And yet it does feel different.
At home, I slipped the short purple dress over my head. It matched the nails perfectly. Using my hands was different now, awkward. These hard things at the ends of my fingers got in the way. I clumsily applied a little makeup and drove off, admiring my hands on the steering wheel more than I was watching the road.
The moon hung full and low in the indigo sky. Berkeley in February was undergoing the second or third of its thousand springs. The purple princess was flowering, with deep violet petals; the cherry trees paraded their pink bridesmaids’ dresses, festooned all over with pompoms — a little over-the-top, but that’s the goddess for you.
At dinner, I was soft-spoken, laughed a lot, and didn’t delve immediately into the deepest possible level of conversation, the way I usually do. It was somehow easy to let my date pull out my chair for me, to wait politely while he served me first, to nod and smile and gracefully sip my wine. When I did talk, my fingertips floated and flashed in the air in front of me, trailing invisible purple sparks. I have no idea what either of us said.
Who would have guessed that so small a thing as ten acrylic nails and some polish would produce such a shift in awareness? It wasn’t only beauty I had been hungry for, though beauty was the necessary top layer. It was a different way of being in the world: Letting things happen instead of making them happen. Relaxing into sensuality rather than sitting up on the roof in the thunderstorm, trying to catch the dangerous zings and zaps of inspiration in a butterfly net.
Striding along to the concert with my long-legged, loping gait, I stopped to smell every dew-wet tree and flower. Listening to the music, wrapped in a cocoon of sound, I softly caressed my date’s hand with my own impeccable fingers. I wasn’t in love with him. I was in love with myself. Or, at least, the guy in me — the headlong-rushing, world-chewing, freeway-driving, money-earning guy in me — was enchanted to encounter this new feminine creature. Such a heady feeling.
It didn’t last. By the next day, or the one after that, I was tired of typing with splayed fingers at half my normal speed. I needed to cook, clean, write, and perform all the innumerable tasks I always had, and that extra bit of time it took to manage those nails was tiresome. I didn’t want to have to stop and contemplate my hands as beautiful objets d’art. I just wanted to get on with my life.
Those acrylic nails are supposed to be almost indestructible, but I am here to tell you that they can be chewed off, if strategically weakened by a continuous rocking-and-biting motion, in about three days. They don’t give up easily, though. Mine broke off like jagged purple mountains at first, endangering my swing-dance partners. But, within a week, I had managed to chew my way out of my new feminine consciousness, not unlike an animal gnawing its leg out of a trap. By the end of the second week, not even a trace of purple remained.