I had been asked to be a bridesmaid.
This was a big test: could I do it? Could I stand in a row with five American women, in front of a church congregation, without being the odd one out?
Yes. I would just have to do it. I would just have to forget my Dutch sense of individuality and put on a dress that I was ordered to wear – the exact same dress that five other women would be wearing – and walk for several hours in high-heeled shoes of someone else’s choice.
I would have to ‘have my hair done’ – in a style, at a time, and at a location determined by others – and I would have to ‘have my nails done’ with a polish that was handed out at the bridesmaids’ luncheon.
But I couldn’t help myself. I had to resist a little, so I thought I would polish my own nails, rather than ‘have them done.’ Being ordered to buy a certain dress, certain shoes, certain panty hose, and to ‘have my hair done’ was about as much as I was willing to take. I was not going to have a manicurist fidget with my hands while making small talk. She would probably be a girl who had never left the region. “Where are you from?” “I’m from Holland.” That would be answered by a blank “Oh.” Sooner or later this person would ask me how I like it here, and I would give my standard neutral answer, “It’s very hot,” since she wouldn’t really want to know.
When I first applied the nail polish, I had just spent an hour trying to attach the inside of my dress to my bra straps so that it wouldn’t slip off at every step. The damn thing was extremely uncomfortable and the prospect of having to wear it to a party, where I should be having fun, made me furious. Why did I say yes? I didn’t want to do this – I wasn’t a dress doll. I barely knew the bride. It was one of those American things, entertaining enough to observe and write home about, but definitely not to be experienced. And then the nail polish was streaky. I tried and tried, but it would not dry smoothly.
Looking up, I saw myself in the bathroom mirror – hot, flustered, my gala hairdo ridiculous above my oversized t-shirt – and I wished I were back in Holland. I was a miserable failure as an immigrant and an embarrassment to my husband. He would just have to go without me. No, that would be embarrassing as well.
Despite my fury, I managed not to throw the bottle of nail polish at the mirror and tear off the dress, and when I had calmed down again, I reminded myself that this was not about me. I had been asked to be part of an acquaintance’s wedding ceremony. I had bought the dress, I had bought the shoes, I had had my hair done, and I would just have to have my nails done as well.
So I walked into the first nail salon that I could find, feeling the familiar little fear of stepping into the unknown, hoping it didn’t show. There were narrow counters placed along two walls of a large room – the manicurists sat on one side, their customers sat opposite them, facing away from the center of the room. All the manicurists were Asian. I had expected to find everyone chatting and exchanging gossip, but surprisingly, it was quiet. In my state of mind, this was a relief.
A lady asked if she could help me. At least, that’s what I think she said. I told her that I wanted a manicure. Then she said something else, but I didn’t understand. She had a very heavy Asian accent, and she was wearing a surgical mask in front of her mouth. Being a little hard of hearing, I lip-read a bit, so the mask was an extra handicap. She had to repeat herself four times, and then beckon to an assortment of nail polishes near the counter, before I finally understood that I was to choose a color.
I gazed at the different bottles. There must have been at least a hundred of them, with colors ranging from skin to dark purple, with the odd neon greens thrown in for contrast. I showed her my little bottle of polish, and explained that it was for a wedding.
Relieved that I had come this far, I took a seat on a plastic chair along a third wall. I stared at a woman who was having long nails applied, and I remembered my first encounter with fake nails. I had been here only a week, and my husband and I were at a title company to buy a house.
This was the biggest purchase of our lives, and the title company lady was explaining something very important, but I never knew what it was. All I heard was her Texas accent, and all I saw was her big hair, her fake eyelashes, and her very long, very pink, obviously fake nails. I remember staring at them and wondering how on earth she got dressed in the morning.
She would have been shocked to know that in Holland only prostitutes wear nails that long and hair that big. But Dutch stereotypes no longer applied, and sitting here, in the nail salon, staring at the woman whose nails were almost done now, I realized that – despite the way I felt right now – I had actually come a long way in five years. If a woman with fake nails would talk to me now, I would not be distracted for more than a few seconds. I also realized that in Texan eyes I was probably a slob.
My eyes started to wander around the walls of the room. The decorations sent out mixed messages. A life-sized statue of a Chinese Buddha sat with its back to one wall, grinning at all this earthly nonsense.
Directly above his head hung a glitzy poster of a woman’s hand with inch-long, bright red nails, holding a fat wad of dollar bills. Was this supposed to suggest that a woman with nice nails is financially more successful? Or did the money represent the price one pays for nails like these? Perhaps it was a not so subtle hint to tip generously?
Next to the nails poster was a religious calendar, showing Jesus bent over little children coming unto him. He seemed to be letting them in on a secret. Was it about nails and the true meaning of the poster next to him?
I was disturbed in my observations by a manicurist who told me to come and have a seat. I sat down and told her that I wanted a manicure for a wedding, and that this was my first visit to a nail salon, thus explaining beforehand any idiocy I might display in the near future.
And sure enough, she, too, asked me a question that I didn’t understand. She, too, had to repeat herself four times before I understood that she was asking me in what shape I wanted my nails filed. “Oh, uh, normal, I suppose,” I answered, leaving it up to her to decide what that was.
While she was filing, I read a laminated card that was placed on the table. It had the manicurist’s photo and name on it, and it proved that she was certified. I wanted to ask her where she was from, how long she had been here, and if she liked America, but I knew I wouldn’t understand her answers. And even if I did ask her, and even if I would understand her, would she be honest, or did she, too, have a standard reply?
After a brief filing, she massaged my hands with lotion. I must have felt tense, because her eyes smiled above her mask, and she told me to relax. I smiled back and tried. Then she applied a cream on my nails and placed my hands in a bath. I had no idea what it all meant, but by now I was tired and tamed, and I let it all happen without questioning.
Next, from somewhere beneath the counter, my manicurist suddenly produced a mean-looking instrument with which she began to cut away my cuticles. I braced myself, but I soon found out that having one’s cuticles removed is completely painless.
After this, she applied what looked to me like a very sloppy, clear nail polish, but before I found the courage to ask her about it, she told me to wash my hands at the washbasin to my left. The sloppy stuff came off.
When I came back, she patiently asked me six times if I could pay now, and when I understood, she explained that my nails would be damaged if I handled money afterwards.
She quickly applied a coat of my polish – no streaks – and then a clear layer from another bottle. The label read “UV non-yellowing power shield ultimate protection top coat.”
The surgical masks, the certificates on display, the whole procedure – “doing nails” was obviously a science.
My nails were done, and I was beckoned to a table in the middle of the room, where two other ladies were already sitting with their hands held in front of them in nail-drying contraptions.
Gingerly sticking my hands into the box in front of me, I felt as if I was joining in a strange mealtime ritual. I smiled at my table mates – this was probably the last step in the process. Soon I would be ready to be a bridesmaid. I suddenly realized that I had been so busy getting the dress right, and my hair sprayed, and my nails done, that I had not had any time to worry about the actual event that was going to take place an hour from now.
How I hoped I would do everything right for once.
An hour later, I walked down the isle of the church, in my bridesmaid’s dress and my bridesmaid’s shoes, with my bridesmaid’s hair, and … a bridesmaid’s bouquet in my hands. Nobody saw my nails.
I sometimes look at women (usually a lot younger than I) who are wearing full, elaborate makeup, with manicured nails and pedicured toenails and feel like we belong to different species. I grew up in the 70s, when no or minimal makeup and women’s liberation were the thing. A different species, indeed.