It was late last Thursday evening around 7:40 pm. I thought I would drive past the salon where I usually get my nails done. I only go once a month. I can keep a manicure looking good for quite a while. And anyway, who can afford to go every week or two these days? Must adjust the budget you know.
The manicurists are normally pretty nice. They’re Korean men and women. The minute you walk in the door someone shouts out, “Hello! Can we help you?” Then you tell them you want a fill-in or a complete set, a pedicure…whatever it is you came for. Then they usually tell you to pick your polish color and sit you right down. It’s all very friendly. But, come on…tell the truth…don’t you sometimes just wish you knew what they were saying when the manicurists all start speaking to each other in Korean?
If you’re not careful you can let your imagination, or paranoia, or whatever you choose to call it – get pretty carried away thinking of what they could possibly be talking about. Whomever it is that’s working on your hands or feet suddenly says something and another of them, maybe way down at the other end of the salon, answers and they all start laughing and you’re thinking, “Did he just say something about my Mama?” “Are they laughing at me?” It’s crazy. I know. But, be honest.
Anyway, this particular night there weren’t many patrons left in the place. I just slipped in and I thought I was lucky to get in because they would be closing shortly. Some of the workers were already sweeping and cleaning up the pedicure stations and there were only four other women at the manicure tables when I sat down.
Now, I don’t know, but it seemed to me that when I came in a couple of the ladies who work there made kind of exasperated faces; like perhaps they were tired and were ready to be done with all this day’s drudgery. After all it was late and then here I come.
“Wuh yu wan?” the guy who always seemed to me to be the “head dude” asked me.
“Full set, please” I answered him. Then, of course, that set off a flurry of Korean talk between all nine of them and I’m thinking, “Does every one of them have to way in on this?”
“Sit heyah,” one of the women ordered me, gesturing toward a station near the back. It always seems like I’m being ordered around when I go in there. Sit here. Go wash hands. You pay now. I understand it’s not that, it’s just…well…you know.
The lady starts by giving me a wonderful hand massage. Boy, did it feel wonderful. I didn’t ask for a hand massage but I was getting one and I knew I was going to pay for it. I shut my eyes and tried to relax.
She very softly announced a few words in Korean and a couple of the others seemed to snicker at whatever she said. I opened my eyes and looked at her and she gave me one of those patronizing smiles. I closed my eyes again and she said something else. Another lady, who just suddenly appeared behind me, cooed a very melodic phrase that contained about ten words and I strained all my muscles to keep my eyes closed and not jerk around to look at her.
Hey, how about not sneaking up behind me like a Ninja please — I didn’t say.
My manicurist took out a pair of claw tweezers and began to work at removing my old acrylic. She was very rough. I tried to suck it up, but at one point I gave her a subtle clue that it was hurting.
“Ahhh sawdree,” she said to me. And someone else said something in Korean and she answered them in Korean with a ten second sentence.
That was when I thought… I would give ANYTHING to understand what they are saying right now. I shifted in my seat a little, as much as I could without disturbing my hand. I didn’t want to piss off my little manicurist.
She looked up at me and asked, “U wan eyebrows done?”
“Yes, thank you,” I answered. I always let them clean up my eyebrows. Not too thin. Just make them neat. Man, they could be vicious with that hot wax. Where’s that little lady? I thought. She always does a great job. I don’t know about this one.
Then she looked up again and put her finger across her top lip like a mustache. “Wax?”
“No, thank you.”
“You need,” She answered, frowning.
“No. No wax.” I don’t need no damned wax, I didn’t say.
Just at that moment, my ears starting ringing. I felt like they stopped up. You know, like at high altitudes and you have to chew some gum to make them pop open again? I opened my mouth wide and rotated my jaws and stretched my neck from side to side in an effort to pop my ears clear. I must have looked like I was having a stroke. My manicurist said something in Korean and a couple of the others around us giggled and answered her with a barrage of short choppy phrases. To me it all sounded like I was in a tunnel…and then… POP!
Whew. Okay. I thought. That’s better. And then…
– What’s wrong with that one?
– I don’t know. Maybe she losing her damn mind.
– Well, make sure you get the money first.
– Ah ha ha ha ha ha
I looked at my manicurist with a raised eyebrow. She looked up and smiled. Then she rattled off another Korean soliloquy, which cued her co-workers.
– She looking at me like she got an attitude.
– Well she can be the one tonight if she does.
– Not her.
– Why not?
– Cheap bitch. She never tip.
– She tip me. She don’t like you.
– I don’t like her either.
I pulled in my chin and shifted my eyes from one side to the other and back again.
Are they… Did I?
– Be quiet. We already selected one. No change.
Oh my lord. Can I…? I can understand them.
I fought with all I had to hold back a grin. I pressed my lips together. I bit the inside of my jaw. I must be imagining this. I slowly turned my head to the woman who spoke last, then I turned away to look down inconspicuously into my lap. Mustn’t let them know that I’m understanding them. Am I losing my mind?
– She act like she knows what we’re saying. My manicurist said.
– No way. She can hardly speak her own language.
– (Laughter, laughter)
I tried to steady my breathing. One of the other patrons sitting two stations down from me looked at me and smiled. I returned a weak smile which probably looked more like a nauseous grimace. I was certain my eyes must look crazy. The only way to keep anyone from seeing my eyes dart around in their sockets was to close them. I did.
My manicurist put on a facemask and searched in the drawer beside her for some attachment. The Head Dude was now at the credit card machine settling up with two of the last three other patrons in the salon.
“Okay, Okay. See you in two weeks. Two weeks.” He told them smiling and nodding up and down. The door made that “ding dong” sound as the two ladies escaped… I mean left.
– Looks like Nyugen’s got our candidate tonight. He turned and announced to the others.
– My lady not finished. I can stretch it out a little more. The manicurist working on the lady who just smiled at me said.
– No, no. It look suspicious. One of them somewhere behind me answered sharply.
What are they talking about? I can understand what they’re saying, but now I don’t understand what they’re saying. Huh. That was funny. I let out a small chuckle at that. Oh well. I’ll just sit here and get the scoop.
I felt so damned superior. More superior than I usually feel when I go there.
They think they’re so smart. I’m getting everything they say.
I was bobbing my head up and down and giving myself a silent little high five. Their words were coming out in Korean and I was hearing that; but right behind it, like a canyon echo, I heard the English translation. It was like reading a comic book word bubble in my head. The translated words coming in slightly seconds after their Korean words, yet finishing at the exact same moment. They talked more.
No one said any more about me, just yet. They were discussing personal stuff. One woman is divorcing her husband because he doesn’t come home anymore. She just wanted to know what she would do with his mother, who lives with them, whom she hates.
One of them asked the Head Dude if he needed someone to pick him up from the airport when he returned from California. No. He would take a shuttle from Atlanta to home. Already arranged it.
– Lock door after this one. A chunky little woman with a stark, high pitched voice commanded.
My co-patron was getting ready to leave. Her manicurist came around the table and picked up her pocketbook, keys and cell phone and placed them on her arm and in her hands carefully avoiding her newly dried nails.
I turned to watch her leave.
“Have a nice evening,” she said to me.
“Bye,” I answered her.
I looked around at each of the workers. Each one of them seemed to be engaged in wrapping things up for the evening as they continued to talk.
– Okay, it’s her then.
– Door locked?
– Turn off the sign too.
– I did already.
Four of the women finished what they were doing and came to stand around me and my lady. They watched her like students. I watched her now too. She was really skilled at this. My gelled nails were coming together beautifully. I admired the work as she grinded down the nail of each finger with meticulous precision.
“Nice,” I told her.
– Awww. Someone to my right said. That was sweet of her to say.
– Yeah. Too bad.
My lady just nodded at me and smiled with her eyes. She finally finished the grinding and shaping.
“Go wash.” She commanded me. I dutifully got up and went over to the sinks. I adjusted the always too hot water and pumped some of the bright pink soap into my hands.
Ewe my hands are dirty, I thought and washed them thoroughly again. This time I took one of the nail bushes to my fingers too.
– What’s she doing? Taking a bath?
– I don’t know
– She needs to hurry.
– Really. We have to clean up and everything.
– Must we do this tonight?
– It’s the 15th day. You know we have to.
I looked into the mirror and behind me. I felt like I caught them all looking at me, but now they were all engaged in some other activity. I must have imagined that.
What is this they’re discussing? They must be about to engage in some native ceremony. That’s why they seem so anxious to get me out of here.
I went back to my chair. My lady started with the buffing and shining.
“My, my that’s looking very pretty,” I told her.
“You like?” Another man, not the Head Dude asked me.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Is good.” He said. “You get wax.” He made the mustache gesture.
“No. No thank you. Eyebrows,” I said.
– What you asking her that for? A young girl snapped at him in Korean.
– More money. I told you. Always add on.
– Well what difference will it make with this one? She asked.
– Oh yeah. He said back to her.
Actually, I must not have gotten the full translation of that, because he must have rattled off twenty words. But my new translator only gave me “Oh yeah.”
Well, finally my nails were done. And boy, were they nice. I stood up and stretched. The second man came over and picked up my purse and my cell phone for me. I headed for the back following him and his orders “Come, come.”
I followed him toward the back of the salon and through the curtain that separated the two spaces. I sat down in the chair they had set up there. It was like a barber’s chair. I leaned back and braced myself for the hot wax. I suppose that waxing is a more efficient way of removing unwanted eyebrow hair than plucking. He took the tongue-depressor-like applicator and spread a piping hot glob of hot wax across my right eyebrow. Actually, that didn’t hurt so much. Especially in comparison to the feeling that comes but a few seconds after. He gently smoothed a strip of linen over the area and then, YEOW! He ripped it away.
I ain’t mad at him. But I do wish he wouldn’t lean all over me so much in the carrying out of this torture.
I grimaced and took it like a trooper. Just the left side and I can get out of this damn place. Translation and all. This certainly has been an interesting night, I thought. I know I haven’t been imagining any of this. I have been understanding what’s been said. I mean …stranger things have happened. Not to me, but I’ve heard of stranger things.
Anyway…I’m bracing myself, eyes closed and waiting for the next voluntarily, self-submitted-to torture, when someone says…
– Do it now.
– Now. They all said one after the other.
I felt a dull nudge just below my left ear and then a sharp pinch followed by what felt like something dragging against the outside of my throat. I had an overwhelming urge to gulp. And then my ears popped again. I went to jerk forward, feeling like I would choke if I didn’t sit up. But my effort didn’t move me at all. My eyes flew open.
To my right the Head Dude was standing beside me now. He smiled at me. He was resting his hand on my shoulder as he leaned down a little to pump at the lever on the side of the barber chair. It slowly raised me to a sitting position. My ears were ringing.
What are they all doing in here? I thought. What are you all looking at?
They were talking now. I could see that they were exchanging words. Korean or otherwise, I seemed not to be able to hear a thing, save for a high-pitched sort of electronic squealing in my head. It was dizzying. I looked from face to face. No patronizing smiles. No smiles.
I looked down at my lap. I could feel a sort of muffled crunch when I did that.
What is this in my lap? What kind of polish is… Is…is that blood?
Mechanically, I raised my hand to my neck. The hot, gooey, liquid covered my hand immediately. I looked at my hand.
Oh that is red, I thought.
I opened my mouth to ask a question. Only gurgling came out.
Was that me? I looked up at Head Dude beside me. He switched the dripping, serrated blade to his right hand and patted my head with his left.
“Close eyes,” he commanded gently.