From the Shy Files: Acrylic Carnage

My first year of college, I arrived shy and semi-Midwestern, fresh off the minivan to a huge state university four hours from my hometown on the outskirts of Buffalo. Despite its proximity to where I grew up, I might as well have been on Mars.
At orientation I secretly hoped that since I was nice, quiet and quirky, I would have no trouble gaining acceptance in this daunting collegiate community. I wasn’t looking to be the most popular girl ever, but I was ready for the new start and broader horizons I’d expected from going away to college.

I hadn’t counted on the Faux Yorkers.* In place of smiles and excited introductions, I was greeted at orientation with a wall of snobbery; pre-Greek, morning-makeup-wearing suburbanites who giggled at my accent and pointedly excluded me from their reindeer games.  Of course they had all shown up in squadrons from the high schools of Long Island and Westchester County. There was no room in the elevator for this girl from “upstate.” In retrospect I know now these kids had never been off The Island themselves and were grappling with the same massive insecurity we all were at 18. But at the time, their confident veneer was a shock.

By the time I was moving into my dorm room, I was right well humbled. The loop playing in my head was the same shy girl mantra that to this day crops up in my head like a wart that just won’t die, no matter how many times you dry-ice it. They know something you don’t know.

By the grace of Frank** I’d blindly picked a dorm that turned out to be located in the “nerdy” residential community. The ex-urban hordes had been forewarned against it, leaving a population of misfits, computer science majors and people who couldn’t get in anywhere else.

After I’d spent my first two days sulking in my room, Janki came knocking to hang out.  She and Diane (names have been changed of people I don’t know anymore)came from a small town in the Catskills, and seemed very sophisticated to me. They smoked Marlboro menthol lights. They went out dancing to clubs and frat parties, drank Amaretto sours and were dry-humped by strange men of all colors. They were not terrified of other people. And they wanted to include me.

One afternoon, the two of them gathered all the girls on the floor to take the bus to the mall on the outskirts of town.  The purpose? Getting our acrylic nails put on.  I put on my faker face and mentioned casually that I could sure use a touch-up, too.

In fact, I grew up on a sheep farm with hippie parents and had never seen fake nails that weren’t the Lee Press-On variety. This was totally exotic to me.

We arrived at the salon,which was called–I’m not joking–Asian Nails, and all got separate chairs. I was nervous, feeling kind of silly as I’d never done something so blatantly girly. Suddenly I was on my own, face to face with a middle-aged nail technician who was the only one working there not wearing a mask.

Perhaps the fumes had made her careless.  Perhaps a hard life had made her cruel.  Maybe there was a Sadists School for Manicurists.

She must have sensed my reticence and fear of confrontation as soon as I sat down. She must have been lurking in the back of the salon all day, waiting for some young nervous nellie to pounce on. Regardless, she was steel-faced and unflinching as she started cutting up my cuticles. The first few times she jabbed my finger, it stung.  A lot.  But hey, I thought, biting my cheeks, this is beauty stuff, right? It’s supposed to smart a little bit…? As I remained silent, struggling to keep my palms on the table, I’m certain I saw a maniacal glint appear in her eyes.

The 45 minutes that followed are difficult to remember. I must have entered a Yogic state. At the end of it all, I had ten massive new bits of pink and white plastic stuck to the ends of my hands, and rivulets of blood running down each finger. My forearms were sore from pressing my palms to the table. But I did not flinch, I did not cry out, not once, because I’d thought for sure that I was just being a wimp. I mean, people wax their legs, right? That hurts…?

Imagine my surprise when we all bade goodbye to Asian Nails and I commented to my new friends how I didn’t know how much this hurt! Man, you guys must all be tough to do this regularly. Imagine their stunned silence when Diane examined my bloodied fingertips and swore, marvelling that I would let this succubus with a cuticle-pusher methodically lacerate the delicate skin on my fingertips for almost an hour and not say anything.

I filed off most of the acrylics that night and kept all 10 fingers wrapped in band aids for the next 3 days. Going to the bathroom was a challenge.

Now of course, with my much-improved self-confidence, I wouldn’t fall victim to a sadistic fingernail professional. I recently got a manicure and gave a good “OWW” at the first sign of aggressive filing.

Although I still do tell hair stylists they’ve done a great job even if they’ve left me looking like Anton Chiguhr. We all want to be liked.

*This is a term I made up. It refers to people from the suburban areas surrounding NYC (LI, Westchester, Rockland, parts of Jersey) who consider themselves quite the height of fashion and coolness in their velour warm up suits and knock off Fendi bags, and who maintain they are from “the City” even though they only go to Manhattan once a year to see the Tree and buy sweatshop schwag in Chinatown.

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