Things we find in the nail salon
WRITTEN BY DIEMMY DANG
Recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards
For me, childhood summers have always smelled like acetone. Like toluene and formaldehyde and the slew of other unpronounceable things that permeated the air in the nail salon where my mom worked. Together in the salon for hours at a time, the two of us steeped in the concoction of chemicals that floated around us like dumplings in a steamer. Back then, I never knew that what I was breathing was toxic. I just knew that by tagging along with my mother to the salon, I became accustomed to smells that were sharp, that felt acidic and slightly noxious as they found their way to my nose.
Summers in particular were slow, as if in the humidity time could only trudge forward with heavy feet. And from June to August, I was a fixture in the salon, always curled up in the corner with a book. I didn’t mind it much, though. The nail techs all knew me, and I liked how close they were in the salon. Most of them were mothers. All of them were women with calloused hands and stunted English tongues, clinging to a shared rope of Vietnamese like together they could climb back to the vision of home they kept in their heads.
I’d always felt comfortable in the salon. Customers might not have noticed, but for me and the workers who frequented it, the peeling plaster walls constructed something of a home. To us, the nail salon was a community center, a space where gossip unspooled in native tongue and home-cooked meals were bartered in backrooms. The women took from it what they could, and, by proxy, I did the same.
Maybe the best thing I ever got from the nail salon was Mai. Mai, who moved to our town in the fifth grade with her mom after her parents split. Mai, who seemed so unburdened by the pre-adolescent awkwardness that had plagued me with acne and dwindling self-esteem. Mai, whose mom brought a fake Louis Vuitton handbag full of dried shrimp to work her first week.
Mai and I became friends in the way that only kids can--quickly, naturally, without even meaning for it to happen. Our friendship felt even more miraculous because it grew where no one had expected it to, sprouting from the crevices of the nail salon, in the back rooms and the corners and behind the desks where we would help sweep up. On top of that, we were complete opposites, which my mom said was because I was born in the year of the Dog and Mai was born in the year of the Dragon. Where I was predictable and consistent, Mai was constantly rushing and shifting and restless. Where I was a twig-like tangle of gangly limbs, Mai’s height had already begun to fill itself with blossoming curves.
Despite our differences, for three summers in middle school, we were almost inseparable. We could lounge around the salon together for days, me with my books and Mai with rumpled stacks of fashion magazines. When our moms got tired of our idleness, they gave us jobs—floor-sweeping, inventory-sorting, and occasional foot-massaging. The work wasn’t fun, and no matter what I did I ended up with an ache in my back. But we got to keep our tips, valuable pocket change with which we would buy cherry slushies from 7-Eleven and Cheetos in family-sized packs.
The summer before high school, I decided that Mai was invincible. We were in the salon together, as always, when a woman started to berate our mothers. Unhappy, entitled customers were common at the salon, but this particular woman was louder than each and every one. This woman spit insults from between her white, knife-like teeth as if they were a currency that could make her richer.
In response, Mai asked me to help her sweep the floor, collecting the nail clippings we swept up in a plastic cup. At first, I thought that the screaming lady made her nervous, that she didn’t want to give her another reason to be agitated. I should have known Mai wasn’t that type of person, though. By the time the irate woman left the salon, the nail clippings had found their way into her purple Prada bag.
The only thing Mai said to me after was, “If that lady thinks we’re all her servants, she’s just bullshitting herself.”
I admired Mai a lot for that, the way I admired her for a lot of things. She always seemed more courageous than I was, unafraid to make use of her feelings rather than swallowing them all up. Whereas I could blend in with the blandness of our surroundings, Mai was vibrant enough to stand out.
One weekend in July, Mai and I took my mom’s car and drove out into one of the grass fields that swathed the outskirts of our tiny town. It was late evening, during that time a little past sunset when the air cools down but the stars haven’t quite come out. We were parked on somebody’s farm, sitting in the open trunk of my mom’s Toyota. Mai smoked a mango-flavored vape as we stared into nothingness and talked about things that felt just as inconsequentially big as the open plain in front of us.
“Hey, so I’ve been meaning to tell you, I don’t think we’ll really see each other much after this summer.” Mai stared straight ahead, but the fingers that had been drumming her vape against her bottom lip stilled.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m moving away. Just me, though. I haven’t told my mom anything yet, so it’ll just be me.”
She went on to explain--how she wanted to be an artist, but not the kind that painted pictures or made sculptures. No, she wanted to be an actress, she wanted to make art of herself, she wanted her face on a big screen where everyone could see.
“But what about your mom? And school? You haven’t even graduated yet.”
What about me I wanted to ask. Does this have anything to do with the bruise on your face I wanted to ask. Mai had met me that day with a bruise sprawled across the side of her face, a messy greenish-purple watercolor that spilled down to the underbelly of her chin. It terrified me, not just because the bruise was nasty even in the fading light, but because when I ran the list of possible perpetrators in my head it was far too long and ambiguous. Her mom, an ex, one of the
people at school that had it out for her, the guy at the corner store who she used to steal cigarettes from. Mai ignored me when I asked, brushing aside all my questions until we wordlessly agreed to ignore the tension the same way we ignored the smell of chemicals in the salon.
I should have known that once Mai made decisions, she always stuck with them.
“Remember what I told you that day in the salon? I’m not a fucking servant, and I know if I stayed here I’d just end up becoming one.” Mai’s jaw was set, her expression unwavering when she finally met my gaze. And just like that, I knew she had made her choice.
The next day, when I went to see her off at the bus station, I was the only one there. I cried, and she didn’t. And then she was gone.
I wouldn’t see Mai until four summers later, when I was entering my senior year of college at a liberal arts school in Seattle. By then, I felt like my life had been taken and polished over, which was to say I felt like everything was shinier than it had been before. In Seattle, I was living in a big city, I was writing for a literary magazine, I was throwing myself into debt over an English degree and I didn’t care because I loved what I did.
The one thing I did carry with myself into my college years was my time in the nail salon. Despite scholarships and loans, I still needed money to pay for school, and I did so doing the thing I best knew how.
I met Mai by chance one day after a shift at the salon, at a bagel place with broken air-conditioning and silvery metal chairs. We both glanced at each other once, then did a double-take at the same time. We sat together, and by the time I finished my cinnamon-raisin bagel, I finally knew where Mai had been the past few years.
She had first gone to New York City, but there she felt that job competition was too steep and even the rats were always hungry. After bouncing around to three other cities and landing two gigs in small commercials, she ended up in Seattle. In Seattle, she moved from acting to singing, busking on corners near Pike Place. She told me she could see her career moving up, that she had started booking jobs at tiny venues and cafes. And to support herself until she landed that coveted record deal, she worked at a nail salon.
When I told her that I worked at one too, there was a beat of silence. We both took long glances at each other and then one of us reached out to take the others’ hand.
We weren’t sad, really. I could feel the promise of the future hanging in the air, heavy with the August humidity. We were making something of ourselves, doing things we were passionate about. But still, something felt off.
We had shed the town that we lived in, the mud-slicked one that we were meant to slip and stay stuck in. We had shed the expectations that were constricted against us. We had created new ideas of who we wanted to be. Temporarily, we had shed the things that bound us to each other as we worked for what we wanted.
But still, despite all of it, our hands were as calloused as our mothers’. Our yellow skin was by then cracked in most crevices, our lungs heavy with decades of chemical-infused nail salon air. We had the same kind of skin our mothers wore, the only differentiation being that theirs wrinkled and sagged like the pages of a long-abandoned book. I wondered if it was some prophecy for us and the people we might possibly be destined to be.
We thought that we had escaped our town and all of the things that made it feel small. But still, sitting there with our calloused fingers, we couldn’t shake the feeling that the only thing we had ever been trying to escape was ourselves.
Diemmy is a rising high school senior from Pennsylvania. She loves reading and writing fiction, and her work has been recognized at the regional and national level by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She is an editor of her school’s newspaper and literary