I painted someone else's nails for the first time this weekend.
I hadn't expected to--when I signed up for the New York Cares project (which told me that I would "socialize with men and women who have a history of mental illness as they pamper themselves"), I'd envisioned sitting smiling and chatting, while the residents lay in reclined chairs with facial masks on. But I guess I didn't really know anything. I was the only volunteer who showed up, and for a while I simply sat in the lobby (with its alternating orange and white walls, plastic potted plants), waiting, unsure of what I waited for. When I finally went inside, it was a room with gray tables and chairs, with a few scattered residents sitting around. No spa.
But there were two plastic bins with bottles of nail polish, cotton balls and swaps and nail files and nail polish remover jumbled inside. And there was Lily, who sat alone at a table in a shapeless cotton dress. I had wanted to introduce myself to everyone in the room, but when I approached her she told me to sit down. It was a command. I stayed. Sometimes, when Lily spoke, it took me a few times to understand. She seemed frustrated with me--and I tried to redeem myself--Lily, like the flower? I said. That's a pretty name.
I wasn't sure it helped. Lily asked me where I was from--and when I told her, originally China, she seemed upset, and started to yell about how that was where her checks went. I didn't understand or know how to react. I tried to talk about other things. I put on latex gloves and started to take off the small flakes of red polish left on her nails. Her nails were uneven, some long, some broken. I brought the bottles of nail polish to her table for her to pick out the colors. Though she was much older, I slowed down my words, and talked to her as I would have a child. What color do you want? She deliberated between a few. In the end she and I decided on orange for the nails and metallic blue for the tips. I wasn't even sure I could do the tips a different color--but Lily was sure, she'd done it herself, she said.
When I took off the gloves they left a chalky powder on my hands. When I tried to dust it away it left faint outlines on my jeans and coat. I tried to remember what people did at a salon. I put hand lotion on Lily's hands and filed her nails as well as I could. Lily was from Birmingham, Alabama. Where Dr. King was from, she told me. That's wonderful, I said. Do you have any brothers or sisters? Lily asked me. I told her I didn't and she asked me a few times why not, as if I could decide. She said she had a brother (or did she say two?) and five sisters, and that she was a baby. I tried to imagine them, their lives, and whether they visited her here. Sometimes it seemed too difficult to answer her when she asked me about my life. Do you have kids? She asked me, and I laughed and told her no, I'm only 21. That's not too young, she said. Where do you work? When are you going to visit your mama? She asked me. And I told her I didn't know, and it seemed impossible to explain that the writing I did for my job was different from the writing I did for me and that there were all the logistics of vacations and airfare to figure out my next visit home.
(When Lily noticed my ring and my phone, she asked, what's that? As if they were entirely alien objects from another world.)
I painted her nails--the nail first, then the tips, with increasing confidence as I went on. It was easier to paint someone else's nails. She scrutinized each finger after I finished. Not too much, she reminded me, often. I promised that I wouldn't put on too much. I was surprised by how nice they turned out, vibrant and bright.
She asked for another coat, but I didn't trust myself to not ruin the distinct colors. I always made a mess with my own nails, I was amazed I could do it at all. Besides, it was time to go. When I told her goodbye, Lily asked for my name again. I hope you come again, she said. And I was surprised. She said it in the same tone she delivered everything else, in a way that sounded angry. I hope I do too, I told her.
After, I went for a long walk through the Northern part of Central Park, in the beautiful spring sunshine. There were cherry blossoms and smiling dogs and orange breasted birds in the park. I watched ducks dive, feet skywards, bills pecking for food in the muddy stream. I thought about Lily. How little we understood of each other, and how I did want to return and see her again.