The other day, I sat at a table fitted with a plastic partition with a square slot at the bottom for my hands to slide through. Privé is the newest nail salon that sprung up during the early days of COVID-19, obliterating any sign of the Payless Shoe store that had long occupied that space.
Privé is a glittering place with chandeliers, long banks of manicuring stations, and reclining massage chairs for pedicures flank both sides of the room. Orchestral melodies fill the air, and a light show display rolling through a waterfall wall just behind a row of hand washing sinks completes the look.
Every few weeks, this is where I get plastic welded to the ends of my fingers. I do it for two reasons. First, I love how my hands look with a new set of fingernails. All filed and painted. It’s perfection! Second, I do it due to my self-diagnosed oral fixation—I’m a nail biter–leading to my husband’s disgust at my overly bitten and often bloody nails and cuticles.
I’ve never thought about my nails beyond how they look when I walk out of the salon. I’m usually delighted if the nail color is what I had in mind and if the ending length and arc make it possible for me to zipper and button anything that might need zippering and buttoning afterward. However, my laissez-faire attitude changed once I met him.
He told me his name was Nick. Nick was in his late twenties or early thirties, with a thick Vietnamese accent and bleach-blond hair. When he reached through the square slot, grabbed my hands, and brought them closer to him, I expected the customary gasp at my naturally frozen digits. Or a tongue cluck, also customary, at the shape of my manicure, chipped, peeled, and missing four nails. Instead, he raised each finger, twisting and turning it, examining it like a jeweler grading a precious gem.
“Not good,” he whispered under his mask. “How old are these?”
“What? My nails?”
He shook his head some more and then proceeded to pop off each assaulting fake fingernail by wiggling an artificial secondary nail between my natural one and the other.
Once my fingers were plastic-free, Nick drew my hands closer to his face and examined them again. Then he dropped them. “I’m going to make you new nails. They will be thin and straight. They will be perfect.”
I admired his dedication, assuming that he intended to make me, his customer, happy. I was wrong. Nick’s intention had very little to do with me. He was doing it for himself.
His process was intriguing. First, he rifled through a plastic box filled with various nail shapes. He began to size up different pieces, eyeing the fit, measuring it on my nail, and making annotations, all the while humming a tune distinctly different from the flute solo piped in through the ceiling.
Once satisfied, Nick lifted a placed nail, “See how it lays flat, then falls down?” He mimed this, flattening his hand and then suddenly curling his fingers into a downward claw.
I nodded my head without knowing why I was agreeing. But by the sixth fitted digit, I realized, he was observing how the bones in my hand laid from my wrist to the tip of my finger, with how my natural nail grew, and that every fitted nail piece had to fall in line with my natural curves. To my surprise, I realized Nick was an artist!
“How long have you been doing nails?” I asked.
“Thirteen-years,” he said, taking a metal Dremel head out of the nail kit. He laid the post next to the placed nail piece, studied it, and then traded that piece for another.
“Do you like doing it?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, then stopped measuring and looked up and grinned. “I did not like it in 2008. Look, see?” He pointed to several indentations in my nail bed. “See, here? This is why!” Nick took a plastic piece and placed it over the top of his nail, then mimed it lifting and peeling away.
Satisfied that I understood him, he picked up the Dremel lying on the table and turned it on, lightly filing down the bumps and indentations of my nail bed.
“What happened in 2008 to change your mind?” I asked.
“I learned the saxophone. Oh!” Nick turned off the Dremel. He unscrewed the file and retrieved another from a drawer in the table. “See? I knew it was wrong!”
“This!” He raised the replaced head and held it next to the one in the tool. I saw no difference between the two. There were no distinguishing numbers or names on either. They seemed to be the same width and length and roughly the same tread around the cylindric head. Nick went back to the filing, still humming that same tune.
Once he liked the nail, Nick would glue it down and then take out a fat emery board. Positioning the emery board at a forty-five-degree angle, he moved it lightly along the bottom part of each nail. Then he would raise a finger, inspect it and drag the board in a long, slow line before studying it again.
Each time he finished a nail, Nick would gesture for me to look at it. I began to understand what it was I was seeing. Nick was taking a piece of plastic and manipulating it to fit seamlessly with my existing nail. He was creating a prosthetic, one that he informed me would make my natural nail grow out and fit precisely with the faux one.
“See? I won’t break now. It won’t lift.”
It was precision he was interested in, the inability for anyone to recognize that I was wearing fake nails. He was engrossed in the quest to create. He was Michelangelo, chiseling at a forgotten block of granite. He was Van Gogh dotting stars in a rippling sky across a canvas, or Darwin calibrating finches. Nick was someone who saw beauty before anyone else.
Who was I? Someone who tries, but not nearly hard enough. My fear of becoming something more significant, someone better, blinds me. I was no, Nick.
When all my digits were shiny new and flawless, Nick looked at them with pride. As I began to leave, I asked him what it was he was humming all afternoon?
“Rhythm Nation,” he said.
“As in Janet Jackson?”