Although it is now late summer 2009, the salon is called Nails 2000. It is modern enough, and seems hygienic. I’ve been going there once a month, more or less, since a friend took me there for a birthday pedicure several years ago, when the name was just a couple years out of date.
Most of the women there recognize me. They ask about my daughter since they saw me through nine months of pregnancy, when pedicures were a particular relief, and the two and a half years since, when the nail salon becomes a sanctuary where someone takes care of you instead of the other way around. No one asks you to do anything except raise or lower each foot.
They ask me about my sister, who I took, along with her other bridesmaids, for pre-wedding pedicures and manicures. They ask me about my father, who I took for a Father’s Day pedicure, which he enjoyed tremendously, much to my delight and his surprise. I should take him again.
They know I almost always choose variations of purple for both toes and fingers and that I read books I bring instead of magazines they offer and that I like designs on my big toes. They know my feet are very ticklish.
A new owner recently took over the salon. The first clue was the man who offered me wine after I chose my colors and sat down to wait. I declined.
I noticed a few new faces. I asked the woman who was working on my manicure, who used to wear braces and has a little boy who’s six, if the shop had changed hands. She said yes, that there were new girls, and others had left. She looked like she could have said more, but wouldn’t.
The second time I was there since the new owners took over, someone I had never seen before took me back to wax my eyebrows. Afterward, when I settled into the pedicure chair and pressed all the massage buttons, a familiar face sat down at my feet. I was relieved. She did my pedicure and manicure and all was well.
Then the waxer came back to paint the design. Tiny white daisies on the field of plum. Lovely. Then it all came undone. As I was about to get up from the chair and go home, the waxer/painter asked “Would you like a shoulder massage?”
I was caught off guard. This is not a spa. It is not a fancy place at all. It is a nail salon. They don’t give massages. I was confused. At the same time, massages are something I love and desire on a daily basis. I would choose a massage over most other activities, provided the giver is skilled. And I was relaxed from my manicure and pedicure. I must have been in a weakened, vulnerable state.
Despite the fact that I have never received a favor at any nail salon, and that I always pay for the services I receive, for an instant I thought she wanted to give me a massage just to be nice. I couldn’t figure it out.
So I said yes.
A decision I came to regret.
Suddenly I was out of my pedicure chair and she was whispering in my ear “$10 for 10 minutes.” I nodded, feeling a little intimidated at this point. Seeing my compromised mental processing, she egged me on. “You want 15 minutes? You want 15 minutes?”
I regained a small amount of sense. “No, no. 10 is fine.”
While this conversation was happening I saw the owner, or at least the man who had offered the wine last time, standing in a back hallway with another man. There were never two men there to run the salon before. What was going on? What were they talking about? Were they congratulating each other on sending one of their new girls to find the first massaging victim?
I was led into the back room, in fact the same one where this woman had, only hours before, applied hot wax to my face and ripped it off again. But this time there was going to be ambiance. She turned down the lights, turned on new age music, and cleaned up the waxing table. It was quickly transformed into a massage table. Or at least the blanket was removed, a clean sheet spread out, and medical grade paper spread over the hole where you rest your face.
Then she said “Let me help you off with your shirt.”
At this point I felt really weird. I have had many massages before, at chiropractors’ offices or spas, all given by certified and trained massage therapists. And I have removed my clothes on all of these occasions. So I am not at all afraid of being naked. But on none of these previous occasions did the person about to give the massage ask to take off my clothes. It was terribly awkward.
But, because I eschew confrontation and hate the thought of making someone feel bad, I just kept going. I laid down on the table and tensed up. She unhooked my bra strap. This was so much worse than any bad date.
She put on a kitchen timer (always a relaxing sound) and immediately slathered some sort of oil on my back. Then she went to work pounding and chopping and whacking me from every angle. She wrapped her fingers around my neck as if trying to relax my muscles through muted strangulation. She dug her palms into my lower back and rubbed as if she was trying to erase a tattoo that isn’t there. She was attacking my back so vehemently that my head was rattling around in the hole in the table. It occurred to me that she wasn’t necessarily certified or trained in anything. Or at least not in the type of massage I am used to. I have heard that some massage technique in Asian countries involves beating people with brooms or something to that effect, and can be quite painful at the time but beneficial after the fact. Perhaps, I thought, this was the kind of tradition she was used to. But certainly if you’re going to wail on someone rather than relax them, shouldn’t you warn them first?
Mercifully it was over quickly, and I fumbled around for my glasses and got dressed as fast as I could while she stood there and watched. She said I should have an hour next time. I fled the room.
As I paid up front for my mistake, the woman at the cash register asked “How did she do?” “Um, it was nice,” I mumbled as I edged toward the door. “Next time, you do half hour!” she suggested. I smiled the smallest smile.
On the way home I tried to shake the feeling of being violated and recapture the relaxation I had achieved earlier. When I got home I started to change out of my oily clothes when I realized I smelled something strange. I sniffed around the bedroom, looking for dirty laundry or a diaper in the trash. I asked my husband to consult. “Do I smell like mildew?” I asked. He sniffed carefully and answered diplomatically. “Something smells a little odd.” I jumped in the shower for a literal and metaphorical cleansing. No next time, thank you. I will stick to the purple polish.