Vietnamese and English hum throughout the nail salon. Water swishes in foot spas. The acrid scent of acetate hangs in the air. In the waiting area, customers waiting for fill ins and pedicures stare out the front windows at the geometric neatness of vehicles parked diagonally, the blazing sun reflecting off car hoods. Oversized LED screens play muted Houzz renovations of worn out houses gutted and reformed into stunning contemporary homes, construction cosmetology for real estate as entertainment.
“Pick out a color. Please seat here. We will be with you in a few minute.” The manager, a lithe young woman with jet black eyes, directs a nail attendant toward a waiting customer seated in one of the faux leather chairs. The manager’s mobile phone buzzes.
‘Yes, yes, you have appointment. Yes. You come now. No waiting.”
An eruption of Vietnamese causes uncertain steps, backward, forward, sideways — an apparent trading of which attendant would do which customer. A woman waiting in a spa chair watches expectantly, her sandals neatly arranged beside her chair, her feet soaking in warm water.
“No, no, wait, two appointments are coming,” says the manager in mixed English and Vietnamese, speaking clandestinely to her attendants.
A wispy woman enters. She walks carefully, her feet in dainty sandals. From within a lemon yellow cotton bucket hat her doll-like face materializes: taut skin and smooth complexion, a rosebud mouth, and a Marilyn Monroe chin. Thin, trembling flax colored hair dangles from beneath her cap. The high kimono collar of her embroidered silk blouse almost camouflages her desiccated neck. Slipping off her sandals, she selects her chair, this empress of the nail salon. All eyes on her.
Opening her bag she removes her personal polish. A deep aqua for her toes, blush for her fingers. Her thin hands and arms expose veins and ligaments, aged rivers running over parched land.
Another woman enters confidently and takes a seat. Middle aged and dressed in casual career clothes, she is coming in for her bi-monthly pedicure appointment.
“That’s a gorgeous top you are wearing she says to the Empress.”
“Thank you. I got it in Korea.” Her voice, a soft soprano, had not lost its intonation of authority, only its projection. Her reply unmasked distant details of memory, imagined, not shared, its significance signaling a personal history of romantic travel, of geography and psychology, held in place by the extravagant blouse.
The waiting customer, who has been patiently soaking her feet, assesses the scene. The nail attendants are now occupied with other customers. She has been upstaged by “the appointments.”
A male attendant appears and offers to give her her pedicure.
“No, no, it’s fine. I need to go.” She has already shifted in her chair to gather her belongings.
“You come back. Make appointment. We make room for you,” says the manager .
“No no. It’s fine,” she says as she slips into her sandals and exits swiftly. She is not one to make a scene over a pedicure.
Beads of perspiration rise above the manager’s brows. The empress had arrived and thrown off the schedule. The empress never waits.
Her toes finished, the Empress sits for her manicure. She places three bottles of polish on the counter. “This one first, then this one, and this last.”
The attendant patiently points out, “I think not this one. Last time this one not dry. We use first coat also for last.”
“This one first, the polish next, then this one last,” insists the empress.
“No this one not dry. Last time sticky.” The attendant moves the bottle aside.
“Okay. We’ll do it your way.”
Above the nail attendant’s head on the LED screen, engineers oversee enormous drills and dozers sculpting a pool and patio rooms from a granite hillside facing a valley below, the owner’s three story executive home with its wrap around windows towering above the noisy work.
“Impressive,” says a customer.
“Yes,” says the Empress. “Shame we don’t have experts like that around here.”
“I’m sure they would be glad to fly in for a fee.” There is a hint of irony in these words, as if the customer might be testing the Empress.
“Yes, that is true.” She answers with conviction; with enough money you could call on such people. She watches the blush polish go on her nails. “I can’t use color on my nails. No color, said the doctor. I’m having surgery tomorrow. So no color.”
Her facelifts and restructured nose and chin can not mask the weariness and resignation in her voice. She rises to go.
The attendant intercepts her and directs her to a seat at the drying table. “Here. You sit here. Dry nails.”
“No. I don’t want this.” She sounds plaintive as she leans onto a chair. She looks out the window toward where she wishes to be, somewhere beyond the well ordered parking lot.
“Oh, all right.” She sighs and seems to shrink as she sinks into an oversized chair.
She places her hands flat on the table under ultra-violet light. The doctors will be able to see when her fingers go blue. She has not allowed color on her nails.