After ten perfectly delightful years of hand-holding and foot caressing-my nail salon has closed. Its massage chairs, autoclaves and tiered displays of Esse lacquers with seductive names like Topless and Barefoot are gone. While other shops may be as inexpensive and quiet, (now that I’ve seen these attributes, it’s obvious why it closed), they don’t have my mother confessor-my champion-my podiatrist-without-portfolio-my nailist; Sheila.
Sheila and I first held hands when she was hired a decade ago after the nail salon changed hands (forgive the pun) for the second time. Softly, softly she filed and asked-“square or round, cut or push back?”-I answered in kind; just above a whisper.
Mani-pedis provide respite from a noisy and demanding world. In turn, as my nailists have told me over the past 20 years, I deliver the same slice of calm for them. I make appointments and come on time, I compliment the work they do for me and I tip like a drunken Lotto winner. Whatever ill-advise my mother may have bestowed on me, she was spot on with her eleventh commandment, “Be nice.”
Even with our conversations in short, barely audible tones, Sheila and I, like all women confined to small spaces, quickly bonded. She taught me Chinese, “xiu jiao manicure pedicure,” she’d instruct. I taught her my limited Korean. “Yeppoyo means piaoliang-pretty,” I’d offer. When I shared that I left teaching to be a writer, Sheila not only bought my book, she sent her daughter to the Flushing Main Street Library to borrow and return it nine times to help make me famous. We talked about our husbands (liked them), our in-laws (not so much) and our children, whom we adored. I learned her first born son had to be left behind in China. Sheila’s daughter, born here, had only seen her big brother on Skype. All of Sheila’s energy and income was spent on bringing her son to America. His passage was delayed for years due to unscrupulous lawyers and a cruel and equally unscrupulous Chinese government. Week after week she reported his immigration status: “He’s coming in the spring. Maybe this fall. Not till next year.” I offered to adopt him to hasten the progress. Her lawyer said no. Then two years ago, he arrived: a bright high school junior, very thin and by American standards—too quiet. Acclimation wasn’t easy at school or home: In their early months together, sister and brother barely spoke to one another, yet eventually Sheila’s family thrived under her steadfast guidance. After a particularly brutal snowstorm I asked Sheila if her children stayed home from school. Softly, softly, she filed and answered, “No. Walk in snow makes them strong.” She may have been my nailist, but she could have been a world famous child rearing expert.
When her son entered his senior year, I offered to help him with his common application college entrance essay. It took a month to convince him. Softly, softly-I sent friendly emails explaining the necessity of outside editing. He finally agreed. Without ever meeting, I got to know his love for science and how he used YouTube to view Salman Khan’s lectures on electrical engineering for inspiration.
Together, Sheila’s son and I put his hopes and dreams into a clear concise essay. Months later, I opened his e-mail, “I got into Cooper Union. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
That Tuesday, Shelia and I hugged and danced in place as we celebrated her son’s achievement. It was a relationship I thought would last forever. It ended 3 weeks later without fanfare, after a manicure-pedicure. She massaged my shoulders and whispered, “I will call you.”
Yesterday, a stranger held my hand. She was pleasant and thorough, but she wasn’t Sheila. I eagerly await the call from my nailist-friend who assured me she’d let me know when she’s found a new shop-I’m hoping it’s nearby with easy parking, but I’ll be happy if it’s anywhere I can drive to in less than an hour, and I’d settle for any place in the tri-state area…. Whom am I kidding, I’d hop a plane to Latvia if Sheila offered a xiu jiao weekdays--usual time.