It was an ordinary day – I rolled out of bed seventeen minutes before I needed to clock in, brushed my teeth, and ate the last Chewy chocolate chip granola bar on my way to work. After putting my car in park, I unclicked my seatbelt and began digging through the backseat for my green apron. The stench of burnt milk wasn’t too overpowering as I put it around my neck, and I figured I had about two more days before I’d need to wash it.
“Hey Lauren!” Dan beamed, tipping his Red Bull in my direction.
“I don’t know how you drink those this early,” I replied.
“Oh come on,” he said, lightly punching my shoulder as I moved past him to the time clock. “How else do you get fired up?”
By clocking out? “I don’t know,” I said, forcing a smile.
As I punched my ID number into the computer and searched for my name tag, I watched Dan’s face go from fired up to deeply concerned.
“Oh,” he said, running his fingers through what remained of his receding hairline, “Lauren, take a seat.”
“Corporate sent us this, uh,” he said, shuffling through papers, “new dress code.”
The paper he handed me had MAKING AN APPEARANCE at the top in big, bold letters. Beneath it was an illustration of a much cleaner Starbucks apron, a tie, a scarf, and a pair of pants.
My eyes scanned the witty puns like “It’s all about that first im-PRESS-ion” and “As tuck would have it” before landing on it: FINGERNAILS: au naturale.
“I’m going to have to ask you to remove your nail polish,” Dan said.
“Okay,” I sighed, tying my apron and donning my hat. “I’ll have it off tomorrow.”
“Actually, I can’t let you start your shift until you take it off?”
“Are you serious?”
“Hey Lauren,” Dan said, raising his arms in the air, “you know if it were up to me, you could wear all the nail polish you want but this is policy. You’ve got to take it off.”
“Should I clock out and go home?”
“No, of course not. Just clock out and run to the CVS next door. You can take it off back here and then clock back in whenever you’re finished.”
“And is Starbucks reimbursing me for the cost of the nail polish remover and cotton balls or what?”
“Unfortunately no.” Sensing my frustration, Dan put his manager cap on, “Look, Lauren, it’s like what – five dollars? Just go to CVS, take it off, and start your shift or, or I’m going to have to send you home.”
As I stood in line at CVS – nail polish remover in one hand, a bag of cotton balls in the other – I tried to think of the last time my nails had been au naturale, and concluded it had to have been before high school, almost ten years ago. I promptly placed my items on the nearest shelf, walked out, and never went back to Starbucks.
I don’t know what it is about nail polish. I think it’s how no matter how badly my nails get beaten up, there’s always an opportunity for them to look brand new, to look beautiful…to start over.
Getting manicures is one of my favorite things to do. I love the way the nail polish feels when it’s being applied, the mini-massage you get when you’re waiting for them to dry…the pedicure chair. But mostly, I love that my hands are occupied, allowing me to disconnect from my phone and everyone trying to get a hold of me through it.
I’ve been going to the same nail salon since high school. It’s run by a lovely woman, Mei, and her husband, Peter. They have my cell phone number, and sometimes call me when they need help renewing their registration, paying tickets online, or calling various utilities to confirm their payments have been received. No matter how busy they are, they always manage to squeeze me in, and tonight was no different.
As Peter filed my nails, we chatted about school, my brother’s upcoming nuptials, and, of course, when I was finally going to be married. Mei was at the station next to us, dealing with a particularly difficult customer.
“So, look at me – look at me: I want two coats of this, one coat this, and then two coats of clear.”
“Okay, okay,” Mei nodded.
“Are you understanding me?” she snapped.
“Yes, yes,” Mei nodded.
“Then what did I say?”
“You say one two this, one this, two top coat.”
“What? Watchu say?”
“I know – I understand what you want.”
“I-I can’t understand her. Excuse me?”
Peter and I were talking about my bridesmaids dress for Taylor’s wedding when I felt a tap on my arm.
“Excuse me, I’m so sorry to bother you, but would you mind translating to her what I’m saying?”
Peter looks at me. I look at Peter. Peter looks to Mei. Mei looks to me.
It takes my mind a minute to process what’s happening – how distrusting this woman is of Mei, who must hear the word “coat” so often that she probably thinks she hears it while cooking at home, far away from this place and how this woman is unaware there is no universal Asian language.
I clear my throat, turn to Mei, and say, “Mei, she wants two coats of that one, one coat of that one, and two top coats.” before turning back to the woman, who has a bewildered look on her face.
“No, I was asking you—”
“I know what you were asking. I’m adopted, my parents are white, Mei is Chinese, and I’m Korean.”
Her face turned red as she started to mumble, “Oh I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“Yeah, you did.”
The day I moved to Southampton, a woman mistook me for a manicurist while I was talking to my mother on the phone. When I told her to wait for me inside the nail salon I happened to be standing in front of, she smiled at me and told me my English was “really good”.
“Thanks,” I said, “I’ve been working on it.”
I wonder if there will come a day when I don’t have to feel as though my outside is betraying my inside, when people are decent, when I can get a manicure in fucking peace.