I’ve always been too self-conscious to sport a style of my own, and unlike my friends, I’ve never felt comfortable in what the masses are wearing. My personality—dark, satirical, literary, depressive—doesn’t always go with pretty or dainty. The look I’d like to go for is attractive with a jaded undertone, something that says, “fun could happen here,” as long as we’ve acknowledged in advance that life is abysmal.
One evening in May, after leaving my downtown editorial job, where I’d had some wine on an empty stomach with a coworker, I stumbled into the CVS near my Upper East Side apartment. A bottle of black nail polish caught my eye. Standing in a row with other contrarians, like blue and taupe, it was dark, defiant.
At home, waving the blackened brush over my fingertips, I felt like Geppetto in his workshop, crafting some new being with high aspirations for a better life. The result was miraculous. Black nails. Wow. Who knew? I’d always thought black nail polish was only for goths, but against my jeans and plain pink T-shirt, my manicure looked perfect.
For the next few days, I went out of my way to let people see my nails: I wrapped my fingers around the bar on the 4 train. When recording a video blog at work, I touched my face to get my hands in the shot. I put the world on notice. Things were different.
Clothes were different. I went shopping alone and felt confident as I picked out shirts and dresses, thinking, these will go great with my black nails.
My mom hated it and seemed hurt. “You’re 26 years old. Why are you doing this?”
My friends approved. “I think black looks good once in a while … it’s elegant,” said Cathy.
“Once in a while is fine for you,” I said, “but I want my nails to be this color permanently. I finally feel comfortable in my own skin!”
I carried around the bottle of polish and touched up my nails all over town: at work, in restaurant bathrooms. I branched out and polished my toes as well. I felt complete, studded in black. My anxieties about having no style of my own evaporated as I settled into my new nails.
One Saturday afternoon when I was visiting my mom in Queens, she asked if I wanted to get a manicure and pedicure. I hated going to the salon, but my feet were calloused from weeks of walking around Manhattan in sandals, and my nails looked disheveled thanks to my habit of polishing them and then rummaging through my bag for an iPod or wallet.
“Hmm. OK, but I’m getting black,” I said.
Mom looked horrified.
The salon had one lonely bottle of black, but I handed the technician my own, feeling sentimental. We, the polish and I, had made this transition to confident fashionista together.
He looked me up and down, sighed, and raised his eyebrows. “Oh. OK,” he said.
As he began scrubbing several weeks’ worth of black polish off my nails, two girls walked in. I caught a glimpse of them in the mirror. With their short shorts, tight t-shirts, and tan lines they looked 17.
“I told my dad the only reason I’m getting a job this summer is so I can get my nails done every few days,” one girl said to the other.
I shivered at the high-maintenance remark, remembering again why I hated nail salons, where the conversations touched on all things superficial and reality TV. When my manicure was finished, I admired my fingers. They looked much better than when I did them myself. People were going to notice. Leaving Mom to finish her manicure, I hopped over to get my toes polished.
As the same technician got to work, the female employees at his side had their eyes on my feet and fingers. One pointed to my hands and spoke in Korean. Billy, at my feet, nodded, spoke back, and laughed. He showed her the bottle of polish I brought. They both rolled their eyes and got back to work. I started to sweat.
They’re talking about me … Does it matter? Maybe? No … It doesn’t matter. I’m unique! I’m awesome, I’m …
The woman lifted her head again, spoke, and gave me a look of disgust, all to the pleasure of the man polishing my toes.
They hate me. I’m an idiot, I thought. My eyes darted from one disapproving scowl to the other, and my heart started racing. Just then, two ladies, who were both carrying bottles of delicate pink, sat in the empty pedicure chairs on either side of me. They spoke in Russian, and I felt their eyes graze my fingers. It was too much to bear. An old familiar pang of social anxiety struck my stomach, the kind that called when I didn’t know in high school that pointy-toed boots were out of style, or in junior high when the butterfly hairclips I bought were too large.
Another nail technician joined the fleet at my feet. “Nice color!” she said. The gaggle burst out in laughter and my face turned the shade of the Russian girls’ nails.
I tried to say, “It suits me.” The words got lodged in my throat.
His job finished, Billy led me over to the drying station. As I sat down, nauseous, and close to tears, the 17-year-old girl walked toward me, her nails a new, bright shade of red. “I’ve got to get this off,” she said to her friend. “Should I get black instead?”
I nearly yelled out. Yes! Yes, get black, PLEASE, GET BLACK. I watched her lift the dark bottle from its shelf and had to suppress a “THANK YOU!”
When I was through drying, Mom and I headed back out into the thick summer air. As I reveled in the comfort brought by the nail polish choice of a teenager, I recalled being 8 years old, overhearing my mother complain I was wearing my hair in my eyes because my older cousin Nancy was doing it. I am still that girl, seeking someone else to validate my appearance, needing more to hide behind than this black coat.