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My Nails, Myself

MY YOUNGER SISTER says that in order to appreciate this story you need to know certain things about me: my disdain for makeup; my penchant for black; how color makes me nervous. She's been trying to change me for years. It's been a kind of family project, really. And you'd have to know my sister to appreciate the sheer force of will I've managed to resist all these years. Just the other night when I told her about what I put myself through at California Nails she came back with how acrylic nails had changed the life of her friend John's wife, once a mousy, androgynous introvert.

You've seen the window on Nicollet Mall. At eye level little birds are perched on twig swings. Vines and flowers--orchids, tulips, carnations and sunflowers--creep and bloom on swatches of yellow, green, and brown satin. Amputated hands cuffed in gold lamé model acrylic nails varying in length, color, and design. On one hand with nails five inches long, a string of tiny pearls drapes from the tip of the thumb to the pointer finger. Another hand stands upright on its wrists; chains and tiny gold charms dangle from the tips of every red nail. Other nails are adorned with entire murals.

Tom and his wife My own the shop. Since My knows little English she is reluctant to speak. Tom is impeccably mannered. He speaks slowly in a mild voice.

"Women want to have artificial nails put on basically to promote their elegance, their femininity and, of course, their individual look," he says. My intentions, on the other hand, have nothing to do with elegance or femininity. And I cling to my individual look, such as it is. I want acrylic nails for the same reason some women might, say, take a safari: for the experience.

The fingernails the shop grooms are nothing like what Tom remembers as a child living in Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam. As a symbol of prestige men grew their nails in long, exotic spirals, like the leaves of orchids. "They didn't have to make a living by their hands," Tom says. "They lived by their minds or spiritual values." Since women did the work, they had to keep their nails short. Even the women of wealthy families. They managed the family money while the men lived lives of leisure reading literature and philosophy.

Tom's parents worked for the Vietnamese government during the time it was under French protection. "They didn't have any freedom," he says. Eventually they started their own business, which was profitable enough to send Tom to Saigon, where he was educated as a physician.

In 1983 he and My left Vietnam in order to educate their children in the United States. "It's a great opportunity for my children and their future to grow up in this country," he says. "In our opinion, educating our children is a kind of payback to our parents."

Today one child is a physician, another an ophthalmologist; the third is about to enter law school; the fourth is still in college. Tom wanted to get the necessary certification to practice medicine here, but the residencies were few and the requirements of the Council of Foreign Medical Graduates were prohibitive.

I wonder what attracted a physician to manicuring. "We were attracted to nothing," he says. "We had to make a living."

A surgical mask covers My's nose and mouth. Her hair is black. She wears a gold satin blouse and a white jacket resembling a lab coat. It suits her no-nonsense demeanor. My recollection of the multifaceted process is a blur, but I remember the strength of her grip as my hand reflexively pulled back when she reached for the power tools. My resistance to change was matched only by her determination to get her kids through college. At several points I had to remind myself to relax my clenched jaw. She clipped thorns of skin from the sides of my nails with a tool durable enough for yard work. I sheepishly asked if my nails were a mess. "Yes," she said flatly.

When she glued the faux tips to my own healthy pink nails, I swear I heard ten little whimpers, my fingertips gasping for air. My asked me how long I wanted the nails. I went long, trying to seem as confident in myself as I was in her work. She coaxed me back to about a half-inch beyond the tips of my fingers. Even at that I would be handicapped, unable to do such life-affirming things as dial a phone; feel myself scratch my head; type. At one point she sent me to wash my hands, but I can't remember if it was before or after she applied what seemed to be layer after layer of liquid acrylic, until my new nails were thick as denture enamel. I turned my head whenever she buffed, now with a thick, padded emery board. You'd have thought she was drawing blood.

I panicked at selecting a color. Waving an arm, My directed me to the dozens of little bottles displayed around the shop. All shades of red, pink, orange lacquer. "What color?" My asked again.

"Red," I replied weakly. Realizing I hadn't been much help, I tried again. "Dark red."

She rested finger after finger on a small pedestal and stroked fire engine red over each nail. They were drying in front of a tiny electric fan when Tom came by smiling approvingly. "I don't feel like myself," I confessed. He raised his shoulders and spread his arms wide in exasperation. "That's the point," he said.

My new nails extended nearly an inch and a half from my cuticles. I'd been in the chair nearly two hours and no longer recognized myself. In this altered state I was supposed to select a decoration to go on the top of one or two nails. Judging from the displays the choices were infinite, from painted designs to itty-bitty knickknacks. Again I deferred to My.

In a moment she appeared with a small glass swan and an orange stick. She lifted the top of the swan. Minute sequins shined like diamonds. She squirted a drop of glue onto the top of the swan's head, dabbed the orange stick into the glue, and plucked precisely one sequin at a time from the bowels of the swan. She placed them one after another in a "v" at the tip of my pointer finger until she completed four rows. Then she coated the top with what seemed a lifetime's worth of sealer.

For my left hand she loaded white paint into a gun and rifled through her drawer of stencils. She was looking for something specific as she held up each card and examined its cut-outs the size of gnats. Finding what she wanted, My proceeded deftly, centering the stencil on my nail and spraying paint through it. I couldn't make out the image until I held up my hand.

There she was on the round red of my middle finger, proudly extending the torch above her head, the Statue of Liberty. My mouth dropped and I looked at My. "Freedom," she said, naming the lady. "I like. If not for her, we not be here."

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