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Middle-Aged Woman on a Day-Out

middle-aged woman

I was having my small toenail filed when she entered the salon. The bell over the door dinged, announcing a middle-aged woman on a day out.

She was not a regular, not one of the “glamorous and furious“ women who breezed in, stacked with dogs, jewels, phones. Women who unsheathed bent toes, ankle bracelets, corns, and callouses for buffing, filing, clipping, and painting. The whole world was an inconvenience to them, but nothing compared to having to spend time in this small salon to bow to a social norm they pretended they didn’t themselves perpetuate and didn’t get dressed up for.

This woman, however, I’d never seen. Frankly, it didn’t seem she cared for appearance—a stance equally unnerving and comforting. Her body looked like she had fallen into a barrel and couldn’t get out. She was short, like her hair, which was contained in a bowl cut. Cute, flouncy, and much too young by about fifty years. She was a Kathy. Quaint, dated, ancestrally Christian, and reminiscently Northern European, which would account for her pasty skin and muddy blond-gray hair.

This woman, this Kathy, said something inaudible to the man behind the counter, and after he swept his arm towards the row of pedicure chairs, she nodded and walked slowly to the far end, next to me. Along the way, she bumped one of the purses hanging on the back of the manicure chairs. Its owner gave her a grim smile. She acted mortified, jumping back like it had bit her.

“Op! Sorry about that! So sorry! I didn’t mean to do that!”

She was one of those people who coats awkward social interactions with a soppy dose of niceness. The kind of woman who participates in activities and organizations when her kids are young, is bolstered by roles, but never fully forms as a person. She fits what was needed, and when that ends, she melts, lacking physical, intellectual, and professional presence. This woman retreats into a barrel, a carb-loaded ice-cream-fueled barrel, and in that fake comfort, she cultivates false security. It’s easy to feel secure in the absence of contradiction. After a time, the niceness is no longer nice, it’s thinly veiled superiority. This was Kathy.

This Kathy lumbered into the chair. Two small manicurists had to help, except she forgot to remove her shoes. She bent to take them off and shoved her barreled behind in the face of my manicurist, a sweet woman, who paused my massage. I smiled sympathetically while we waited. It’s difficult to maneuver around pedicure chairs, but who doesn’t realize their behind is that close to someone else’s face, an event of such magnitude.

Finally seated, Kathy picked up the chair remote, considered it, and pointed it at the TV on the far wall. She pressed until the manicurist shouted, “No, no, no. Chair! Chair massage. You want massage?”

The manicurist’s English was horrible—but I wasn’t here to judge.

The woman grabbed the remote and turned on the chair. Kathy’s entire body jerked forward like she’d woken from a nightmare, then she fell back and continued to convulse. She was on the chop setting. No one used the chop setting. I used it once by accident, lost a filling.

Kathy begged the woman to make it stop, pressed button after button, shouted and shouted, her body pushing in and out like a dancing puppet. Finally, the manicurist grabbed the remote. Kathy sank, in the mirror opposite, I saw her smile universally to no one in particular, her hands gripping the armrest. I bit my lip and spread my toes as my manicurist put on my flip-flops.

As her water climbed and the chair remained still, it dawned on Kathy that she’d forgotten to choose her color. She realized she had to get up again. She realized her shoes were off, her feet now wet. And yet, what she didn’t seem to realize was how little sense it made to get out of the basin and walk across the floor on wet, bare feet to the polish rack. As she lifted her body, the manicurist, thank god, pushed her back into the chair and asked what color she wanted.

“I think…” Kathy looked around, catching her breath, then fluttered, quickly. “Pink. I’ll have pink. Oh, you just pick one, whatever you choose. Any shade.”

The manicurists, not accustomed to absorbing the unwanted existence of a client, said something in Vietnamese to my manicurist—probably something like “this woman is annoying”—and then stood to choose a bottle of pink. I smiled. Pink was not a hot color, but there were one or two. She chose candy pink. Light, fleshy, girly, and fifty years out of date.

My foot massage had begun, although, really, it was a leg massage, at least the calves. The rest of my body was being kneaded by the fist-like apparatus inside the chair. It was an effective chair if you knew the buttons and stay away from the chop setting. I considered showing Kathy, but she had begun talking. Why is it women who can’t stand their own existence never fail to diminish mine?

She was saying to her manicurist, “I’m going to have to pay with a check. Is that OK?” She leaned forward and shouted, “A check?” Kathys shout to people who don’t speak English.

“You have cash?” asked the manicurist. I came here enough to understand Vietnamese facial expressions. She was pissed. She’d probably never heard of a check. Who uses checks? The middle-aged woman next to me, this Kathy.

“I don’t… Shoot, I don’t think I have enough.”

Kathy asked the price of the pedicure and began murmuring as she sorted through bills in her wallet. She was embarrassed. She didn’t know if she had enough. She didn’t know how much to tip. I was surprised a Kathy would venture out without knowing the exact cost of something and preparing for it thoroughly. Did she think people still used checks? Why didn’t she own a credit card?

“I think I have enough—yes, yes, I can pay cash. Nothing added though, OK? No extra-special treatments. Not today. I have $26, exactly. I’m so sorry! Maybe next time.”

A pedicure was $25. People like her don’t tip, or they tip too much and imagine that makes up for their impersonal, suffocating niceness.

“It’s my credit card, you see, it was cancelled.”

I thought Kathy was engaging me, but she was still shouting, so clearly she was talking to her manicurist, who apparently was resigned to no tip. She had pulled Kathy’s plump toes out of the water to buff the white calcium ridges on her big toe.

Kathy kept going. ”I’m not someone who likes to use credit cards. I’m not. I understand how necessary they’ve become—you cannot go out without them—but I try not to use them. My credit card company called me just this morning, just this morning. Just before I came in. I had it planned for a while, but then I got a call that my card had been used somewhere and they didn’t think it was me, so they put a hold on the card and called me right away.”

She went on and on. I closed my eyes and relaxed, processing things to do. I’d memorized my list that morning, it was my life. I carefully optimized each To Do to minimize travel time, from dropping the kids off until I picked them up. Bethany would get a car this summer, she’d help with the rides. I tried to optimize by cost once, but that failed. Travel time makes more sense. It is critical to stop, think, and be present. I didn’t need a pedicure, really, but I liked the way the chair pummeled the tension out of my back.

I was trying to relax, but it was impossible. Kathy’s slow, elongated enunciation kept seeping into my consciousness, dragging me back to her banal presence.

“I have to hand it to my credit card company. Did you know they record your spending, where you spend, and what you buy, so they know when something is wrong? It’s like they know me. It feels good, safe, to be known. I guess someone got my credit card number and used it at some… some quickie store, convenience store in rural Maryland, and I’ve never been there, and, of course, I wasn’t there when it was used, and they were terrific about it. They knew it wasn’t me. They saw the spending and said, ‘No,’ right. They called immediately. They stopped the card immediately. I couldn’t believe it. Really kind, no? Really kind.”

Her words, her accent, that drone… Plus, she was wrong. I was almost done.

“Soccer.” I interrupted, flatly.

“I’m sorry?” I had her attention, I faced her, she faced back but her eyes fluttered around. Head on, she was smaller than expected. Something about her face, the position of her eyes, nose and lips, they were squeezed in, like she had scrunched her face and forgot to relax. A lifetime of scowling.

“Well, what you are saying, all that you’re saying, it’s fine if you don’t go anywhere. But I travel constantly, my kids are on multiple travel league teams, and it’s goddamn annoying when my card gets cancelled just because I have a trip to some city in which I don’t live because I want to watch my daughter play soccer.”

I didn’t mean to swear, but I did. I looked over and saw her face. It was as if someone had taken her smile, wrung it out, and plastered it back on under her nose, dry, tired, and deflated. She heard me, good.

Or did she? Kathy soon coated the situation, smiling, brushing strokes of candy-pink niceness over to my chair and all around, smiling, smiling.

“That’s upsetting. How wonderful your daughter gets to travel, she must be good.”

I didn’t answer. I was done anyway. I stood up and hobbled to the dryers. I could see her in the mirror, looking cautiously down at the manicurist and up to the walls, contemplating the remote. Her presence was so agitating. I wanted to yell, “Just exist, Kathy. Just exist, just be in the world. It’s not hard. Just be you!”

But she couldn’t. I knew she wasn’t strong enough to hear it. I knew she wouldn’t hear me. I put on my shoes, paid, went for some cash to tip, and realized I was short. Jamie had taken a ten out of my wallet. I had to talk to him about stealing, it was getting too much. Never mind, I’d be back next week.

They knew me here.

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