Finishing Touches

Manicured nails are such a curiosity. More fascinating still are the women who brandish those ten little pieces of enameled perfection to such great effect that I hardly remember what they’re saying, and can recall only the flashing, tapping, swirling fireflies at the ends of their fingers.

Point at someone with a stubby, unmanicured nail, and you might as well be shooting blanks; while a hardened arc of Fire Engine Red pierces the soul.

I don’t know when people have time to paint their nails. At night, before going to bed? Only singles do that, I suspect; I can’t imagine a partner waiting patiently in bed for the phalangeal paint to dry.

Before grabbing the car keys and heading off to work? Perhaps, but half an hour more of sleep becomes infinitely compelling as soon as the alarm rings. It must be the fear of losing one’s well-put-together reputation that pulls the polished ones out of their beds and toward the vanity for their weekday morning applications.

I don’t believe women who say they do their nails once a week. Paint chips. It peels. Stuff gets on it and it loses luster. I think these are the same women who won’t eat chocolate cake in front of you, but follow them into the kitchen after dinner and they’re scooping up the leftover frosting from the side of the plate. They’re spending more of their lifetimes on the upkeep of their nails than they’ll admit.

I’ve asked manicured women why they spend so much money and time to keep the tips of their fingers decorated. “It’s the finishing touch,” a friend told me. I looked at my bare, uneven fingernails. “So, then,” I responded, “I’m not finished?”

“I just feel better,” she said. “I think that women in business, especially, should have nice nails.” Would I have made more money all those years of being in business had I only been religious about color-matching my fingertips to my outfits? Did my clients even notice?

Beauty magazines answer that question every month, whether we ask it or not. People do notice the details, they say; after all, don’t you notice?

“How about just a nice coat of clear?” suggested a male friend once, when I complained of needing a manicure. “That looks clean and healthy, and it’s sexier than in-your-face colors,” he said. I brushed on clearcoat and left the house feeling confident.

A few days later, the clear stuff was peeling and yellowing and cracking, so I swabbed it off with nail polish remover on a cotton ball, thankful that I hadn’t enslaved myself to a color.

A manicure requires more than polish and some airspace for the fumes to escape. It requires a consistently steady hand, not to mention ambidexterity.

A manicure requires a tool to either push back or remove the cuticle, which acts as a bumper for the nail bed and constitutes a bothersome no-man’s-land between the sea of nail and shore of skin. You can’t paint that.

You also need a pointed orange stick and cotton swabs and alcohol-based liquid to correct any erroneous drips, swipes and fumbles with the polish brush. (Far worse than no manicure, to my mind, is a sloppy one.)

And it helps to have access to products such as Base Coat and Top Coat and fibrous strengtheners and fillers, enabling the perfect, convex oval of smoothness and sheen pictured in magazines.

Of course, acrylic or porcelain imposters can be applied if the real nails are flawed, but not without the consequence of added pocks and ridges in the natural nail that will, in many cases, fail to heal even years after the fakes are removed.

I can’t imagine going through all of this on a daily or weekly basis. Once every few months I head to the salon for a fix-up, including a manicure and pedicure to welcome a new season (or to match what I happen to be wearing at the moment).

Granted, I do feel more complete with a manicure. I feel like pointing at things. “This Manchego and chutney,” tap tap tap, “this one here, is fabulous,” I’ll say to friends sharing a menu at the tapas restaurant.

“What’s your cell number?” I’ll ask a new acquaintance, positioning my fingertips just so on the keyboard of my PDA, pressing down on the numbers with my pads so as not to chip the artwork.

I think that with a fresh manicure, I also tend to play more with my hair.

Oh, how the feeling of utter femininity flows through me when my fingertips are painted! How much better my clothes seem to fit me! How I imagine that others must be thinking, “She’s so ‘together.’ I wonder how she does it?”

And yet I won’t make manicures a habit.

Nails are tools. They make the tiny screws stay in the hinges on my sunglasses. They scrape away the price tags on gift items and peel the “home grown” labels off of produce. They click on website URLs and tap on my computer keyboard 10,000 times a day. They pick at lint on my sweaters and at flecks of dried skin on my face. They aren’t as useful when their edges are blunted by enamel. It’s like chewing with a night guard on your teeth.

So I tend to go forth naked of nail, except those few times that I treat myself. I find that I don’t think about my ordinariness until—in a meeting, at a party, or at the cash register—someone’s tidy tips come into view and I, unfinished, curl my own fingertips into a fist.

© Anne Nicolai 2007

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