I am standing at the nail place with my best friend. It’s set to close in an hour and this has made it almost impossible for us to pick out colors. I snort to myself, a half-finished joke in my mind. “What?” asks my partner-in-cheap-nail-art, and, because she is my best friend, I try to explain the not-ready-yet joke to her without concern that she’ll think I’m an idiot. She already knows I’m an idiot. She’s my best friend, after all.
“I was thinking,” I say, trying to rapidly formulate it all out and then regurgitate in a semi-comprehensible way, “Like, how, if I were a different kind of lady-writer, I would pitch a story to some magazine like Cosmo? And how it would be a personal essay chronicling three different times I got mani-pedis, and the colors I picked, and why I picked them, and what it meant, and who I was when I got my nails done?” My best friend is smiling, but probably mainly because I seem so tickled at the prospect of this pitch alternate-Becca would make.
You know, alternate-you. It’s got to be something we all have. For me, it’s the version of myself who is one inch taller and 30 pounds lighter — nothing crazy. She only owns clothes she can toss on and look effortlessly chic. She’s dewy without being greasy, she wears a thin, thin, delicate gold chain and contact lenses all the time, and is frequently stopped by street-style bloggers. “Stokes, captured dashing to a West Village fitting, swears by her Rag and Bone button-downs and fresh baguettes as midday meal for the woman on the go.” Alternate me has an immaculate home. She’s got pasta in clear rectangular containers in her home and has been oil pulling for years. Her byline pops up regularly in glossy magazines and her collection of personal essays is like if Amy Poehler wrote GOOP and it is incredibly successful.
Alternate-me has a deeply personal private life that she manages to keep hidden from the masses while still being completely candid with her readership. Alternate me writes a piece about three separate mani-pedis and it runs in the New Yorker, a poem by a man in his 50s about fish in the lower-left hand corner.
The funny thing about alternate-me — the funniest thing — is that while I think of her as being deeply glamorous, she’s never very happy. She’s always secretive, elusive. She refuses to do interviews and is forever canceling plans at the last minute. Even in my fantasies the supreme version of myself is a character who is waiting for the bottom to fall out, feeling perpetually unworthy of love.
Which is, you know, fucked. I can’t be alternate-me. She isn’t someone I really want to be. Maybe she’s a ghostly premonition making it perfectly clear to me that success remedies nothing. Maybe that’s the lesson I should be taking away.
I think this as I stare at my hands. All my nails are stubby, and some are cracked. I type a lot and I take care of a baby and I garden and I bake. These aren’t things that lead to naturally beautiful hands. There is almost always dirt under my nails. When I am out of things to fret about (which happens more frequently than you’d think) I consider buying a nailbrush and “really buckling down” on my hand-beautification ritual which is right now comprised of, uh, nothing? I scan the length of skin that runs from the tips of my fingers to my elbows, the shirt pushed up so that the woman tending to my messy hands can put lotion on them. She rubs it in and I watch as the moles on my forearms dance.
A lightening bolt of fear shoots through my body: I’m going to die. I steady my breathing and I make a bad joke to my best friend, who laughs because that is what best friends do sometimes. Tonight we are going whole hog. It is only Wednesday but the week has felt long. My doctor’s appointment has been moved because the doctor in question had an emergency. Totally reasonable. Less reasonable was the doctor who wanted me to come in and let him perform the procedure. I have been known to walk away from coffee shops with drinks I don’t want because I’m too embarrassed and anxious to correct the error — imagine this person trying to explain to a doctor that you’d rather wait until YOUR doctor was back, even though there is a part of you dreading, dreading, dreading having to wait any longer to get these time bombs off of your body.
If alternate-me were writing a column about going to get her nails done, she probably wouldn’t furtively rail about her anxieties and the fear percolating in her chest about her melanoma. Instead, she’d talk about the importance of doing something for yourself. She’d recount going to get her nails painted when she had a boyfriend and how it took her twice as long to pick out a polish color because she was keeping what he’d like in mind. It was only in her time of isolation and loneliness (and first-world treats like a manicure) that she realized it was “okay” to do something for yourself.
Real life me doesn’t think it’s so bad to think about what color the dude I’m bumping uglies with my likes on my nails — if he cares at all. Real life me has a real problem with understanding that taking care of yourself isn’t innate selfishness. Real life me loves going and getting a manicure but never does it alone, and seldom does it at all because I feel an inordinate amount of pressure to convince all the staff to like me — that’s a control freak thing, a dehumanizing thing to do to other people, to make them simply objects only existing to bounce off whatever I feed them with my thoughts, actions, and words.
Now both versions of me are silent because the woman painting my nails has draped a hot, wet towel on my hands are forearms. She holds my hand in prayer position for a moment before removing the towel, applying a hot, cheap-smelling (and thereby, deeply reassuring) lotion to both arms. Methodically, and with strength and distance, as if I am a ball of pizza dough, she massages my arms working her way down to my hands. My throat tightens as she works on the muscles there and I feel more naked than I ever have in a locker room or with a new partner. My hands are fierce, tight, defensive little claws. Now they are being worked like veal and my eyes are welling up with tears.
Alternate-Becca would write a piece about hormones in the 30-year-old woman. Actual me wouldn’t, she’d talk about the second my eyes locked with the woman working on my hand, and how she gave me a tight distracted smile, and how I looked away at the TV because a touch had unexpectedly unlocked my fears and how there is nothing stranger than the false intimacy the constant contact of the city breeds.