By Alyssa Landau
Molly started getting regular manicures around the age of twenty-nine and a half, though of course her nails had been painted before. She wasn’t an invalid. Her mother taught her to always have them primped and primed for momentous occasions, like birthdays and weddings or important job interviews and promising first dates. Every once in a blue moon, if she really felt like pampering herself, she would stop by her local salon on a quiet weeknight or a slow Sunday afternoon to get her nails done and maybe a quick massage, just because. If one of her friends suggested it as a social activity, she would also splurge for a mani-pedi, but on an ordinary day, Molly’s nails were bare and chomped down to the beds. She avoided nail salons for this exact reason: the visceral look of judgement and unsolicited advice from the manicurists.
“You have such short nail,” they would say in broken English, as though she wasn’t the one chewing them off in the first place. Molly would nod and smile politely, but then, they would misinterpret this as welcoming, possibly due to a language barrier, and eventually they would ask the inevitable follow-up question, “You bite your nails?” But it wasn’t really a question, they already knew the answer. They studied people’s nails for a living. It was easy for them to gauge the difference between the straight, clean cut of a scissor and the jagged, uneven tears of a teeth mark.
At that point, Molly would smile a second time and glance down at the magazine on her lap, until the woman responded to her body language and whispered to another coworker in their native dialect. She couldn’t understand what they were saying, but she assumed it was related to the irreparable state of her nails. Her nails are short, just like her temper, they probably said. Her nails are thin, just like her wallet, they giggled. Her nails are ugly, just like her, their heads bobbed in agreement. “You should really stop biting your nail,” the woman would say to her, even though Molly never answered her previous question. This was why she avoided getting her nails done. Plus, it was a waste of money.
Except now, she was almost thirty and the majority of her close female friends had serious boyfriends or were engaged, while she struggled to hold onto a man for more than a year at a time. She was dumped by her latest fling, a relationship that lasted all of three months, and even though she hadn’t liked him much either, her failed ability to lock down a long-term partner still stung. Though her mother always said it wasn’t polite to stare, Molly couldn’t help but notice that most women with rings on their fingers often seemed to have pristine nails, neatly filed and polished in pretty, feminine pastels. She started to wonder if it was a chicken or the egg type of scenario: did these women acquire husbands because they were more well-groomed than she, or did they simply take better care of their nails after there was an overpriced diamond accentuating them?
This wasn’t to say that Molly was someone who didn’t pay attention to her appearance. Her long, highlighted blonde hair was usually straightened or blown out, and she wore a subtle, yet calculated amount of makeup – enough to show she made some effort, but not so much that it seemed like she was trying too hard. It was just her nails that were unpolished, so to speak. Molly tried to add this to her weekly beauty regimen, but she didn’t have the energy, time, or cash for the upkeep it required. Regular nail polish only lasted a few days before it chipped, and gel manicures never cooperated with her nails, only remaining for half of the time they were promised before peeling off like cheap drugstore press-on’s, which she also tested out in high school, but they failed to stay put, too. The nail lady told her it wasn’t her fault; she just had oily nail beds. Great, another thing that’s out of my control, Molly thought. But now she was determined, no matter how much she had to spend, or how many visits a month it required, to keep her nails immaculate. She figured it would be easier for a man to envision a ring on her finger if her nails were already striking and brilliant to match.
It was late autumn by the time Molly fully committed to this plan, and one afternoon, she decided to experiment with a darker color to go with the season. She chose a rich burgundy, paying the extra five dollars for the long-lasting lacquer they applied after the polish dried, and pulled out her wallet to tip the manicurist. Over the last several months, she started to get her nails done every other week, and the women working in the salon had become like random roommates, learning how to coexist with her in a shared space despite having nothing else in common. They had even stopped commenting on the length of her nails, finally picking up on the pained expression she would make whenever they brought it up. Except now her nails extended beyond her fingers (the polish prevented her from gnawing into them), and she took a strange pride in the elongated white tips, which had grown strong and hardened like ice. The woman who gave her a manicure that afternoon was new and didn’t recognize Molly like the others, and when she removed her old polish, she peered down and said with a sweet grin, “You have such nice nail.” She asked the woman to repeat herself, convinced what she heard was not possible. No one had ever told her this before. She left the manicurist a thirty-percent tip.
That night, Molly traveled downtown to meet a boy for a cocktail at The Bar Room, a venue he proposed when they first arranged to meet. It was only twenty blocks south of her apartment, but she never heard of it before. She decided that if this guy was anything like the name of the place, witty and unpretentious, then she would probably like him, or they would at least get along well enough to throw back a few drinks. The taxi pulled up across the street from the bar at exactly eight, but she allowed herself to be several minutes late, touching up her eye makeup one last time before exiting the car. He was standing outside the bar wearing dress shirt and slacks. She blushed when he greeted her with a hug, both because he was better looking than he appeared in pictures, but also because she was now wondering if he saw her frantically applying mascara in the backseat of a yellow cab.
Molly shadowed his slicked-back brown hair through the door, looking up to notice he must be at least six feet if not more, as he guided them through a black curtain inside. The interior was more proper than she envisioned. Instead of the anticipated wooden barstools and high tops, there were cushioned swivel chairs and sleek black booths with red velvet seating. She speculated it doubled as a speakeasy or a burlesque club, except the crowd was more upscale, men in suits and women in black pencil skirts. She felt unprepared in her usual go-to first date outfit, a synthetic silk blouse with dark jeans. If there was a dress code or a memo, then she had missed it. For a moment she had an urge to bite her nails, before remembering the fresh coat of paint that was cemented earlier that day like a prison sentence.
“Don’t worry, this place doesn’t usually have this type of vibe,” he said as though reading her mind.
She felt a wave of relief but grew flushed at her own blatant vulnerability. This was the first time they were meeting in person. A mutual friend set them up, explaining that he thought they might make a good pair, with each of them having lived and studied in Spain at various times in their lives. Molly was always drawn to the laidback, creative aspects of Spanish culture, which was foreign to the stale New England suburb she grew up in, where artistic freedom and relaxation went to die. He was several years younger, her friend warned her in a separate message, but he was in his residency. A doctor! An almost-doctor. She was working as a pharmaceutical sales rep, so naturally, they would have infinite shared topics of conversation, her friend said, encouraging her. Molly’s expectations were admittedly low, but she was open-minded, and besides, she was not in a position to be picky. After all, beggars can’t be choosers, her mother always told her.
They sat down at a two-person booth across from each other, and the server dropped off the cocktail list but withheld the dinner menu, as though she already knew neither of them would be staying for supper. The lighting was dark, but a dim candle on the table glowed to frame his face. Molly could vaguely decipher the lines on his forehead, and there were many, all pinched together and tightened like the strings on a guitar. He looked perplexed by the drink selection, which he was studying with concentration. She was overcome with another impulse to bite her nails. Since quitting, her pinky had sprouted the fastest and blossomed into a long talon, and she wanted nothing more than to sink her teeth into it, imagining the crescent-like chunk that would result in return. She thought about the consequences of this, and how much her progress would be set back if she did. Besides, he was right there. Even if he wasn’t focused on her, she didn’t want to jam her fingers into her mouth on a first date. At least, not in public.
She felt a woman’s eyes on her from the adjacent booth, who was eating across from a silver-haired man, presumably her husband. Molly realized now that the older couple was watching them, playing some kind of private game and trying to assess whether they were on a date. Molly pondered whether that was what she had to look forward to in marriage. If decades later, all that would remain between she and her future spouse was a cold, overpriced plate and empty judgement directed at strangers.
“So, what are you drinking?” He asked, handing her the cocktail menu. She skimmed the selection and landed on the one with mezcal, smoky and honeyed. Her eyes turned to the price. It was close to thirty dollars, which was noticeably more than the average drink, even in New York. She did the mental math. More than one week’s worth of subway rides, condensed into a cocktail. She struggled to understand how anyone could afford to live in this city, and at the same time, felt guilty for having such expensive taste.
“I think I’ll just have a glass of the Cab,” she said, even though she really wanted the Mezcal Mule. Molly kept her elbow resting on the edge of the table, which she knew was poor etiquette, but she wanted him to notice her nails resting on the surface, and the way that the tiny specs of shimmer glistened against the candlelight. This would show that she was the type of woman who was composed. Her look was curated, sophisticated; she was ready for commitment. But he didn’t glance down at her hand, where she hoped he would. Instead, he gazed directly into her eyes, which somehow made her more infuriated.
“I was expecting you to pick something more exotic,” he said with a playful wink. It was an odd gesture, but something about it struck her as disingenuous. He didn’t wink at her because he thought he was charming, she realized, but rather because he thought that was the kind of thing charming people did, like in the movies or on T.V. She almost pitied him for not having a real model of romance to imitate. Still, she recoiled at his weak attempt at flirtation, and withdrew her arms from the table to put her napkin on her lap, temporarily covering her nails with the embroidered linen cloth. He seemed to sense her discomfort because then he explained, “You know, because you lived in Spain.”
“Right, well, we both did,” she said, assuming he already knew this from their previous messages. They texted briefly before meeting in person, and somehow their back-and-forth flowed naturally despite the obvious disconnect now. Molly found herself asking a second time what city he studied in, partly to be nice, but mostly to keep the conversation going, even though she already remembered the answer.
“Barcelona,” he said with a lisp, pronouncing it more like Barthelona to flaunt his rehearsed Spanish accent, as though this would somehow impress her. She cringed. The drink menu was in front of them, and she folded it face down on the table, poking her head around the restaurant to signal the waitress. She noticed the elderly couple still observing them in her periphery, and Molly made eye contact with the wife before turning away out of politeness. Even in the dimness of the restaurant, she could see the woman’s sea-colored irises were outlined with wrinkles, evenly spaced like the rings around a tree, and Molly guessed she was probably in her late sixties or early seventies. They shared a brief look of solidarity.
Eventually, someone came over to take their drink order, and Molly let him lead the conversation while she tried not to think of other things, like the ostensible loneliness in the older woman’s eyes or how long she had to sit there before it was appropriate to leave or bite her nails. He asked her a series of questions about herself, the types of questions one would find on a banking security form, like her hometown, the name of her childhood best friend, her favorite pet, etc. When she tried to twist this into a joke, asking him if he was secretly behind writing these questions, it went over his head, and she thought he now probably assumed she was looking for someone who worked on Wall Street.
Their exchange dragged on for some time while Molly chugged her red wine, growing conscious of the fact that most of her glass was gone after a few drawn-out gulps, while his IPA was still half-full. Normally, she would slow herself down, but she knew this was the only way she was going to survive the night. The pours were less generous at these exorbitantly priced establishments anyway. Maybe he was just nervous, but Molly started to doubt whether he had ever been on a date before, let alone held a natural conversation with anyone. At the same time, there was something attractive about his lack of experience and anxiety, probably the impression that her presence had this effect on him, but also the slight realization that maybe she wasn’t as hideous or as hopeless as she always suspected.
He excused himself from the table to go to the bathroom and Molly let out a deep breath that she wasn’t aware she was pushing down. Her cell phone vibrated in her pocket, but she glanced over at the booth where the older couple was sitting, expecting to commiserate with the wife, but both seats were now empty, and all that lingered in their place were two dirty dishes, as though Molly had imagined them there from the start. She played with her right pinky nail, which was so long it had become delicate and pliable, bending it back and forth with the fingers from her left hand. She did this often when she was bored, but this time she felt the nail slightly tear under pressure, as though surrendering to its abnormal length. She shoved her hands in her pockets to stop herself from finishing the job and ripping off the remains with her bare teeth.
Just then, Molly caught a glimpse of him walking back from the restroom. A few women also turned to stare as he passed, and this made him appear more alluring in the moment. It wasn’t just his height that drew people to him. It was that he didn’t know how handsome he was to others. He had large brown eyes, although he walked with his head down so they were hidden at first, and a dimple in his left cheek that only appeared when he revealed his full smile. Maybe she had been too hard on him. He was well‑intentioned, even if he was a little dull. She weighed the pros and cons in her head, though there wasn’t much to evaluate if she was being honest with herself. Sure, he was objectively attractive and career-driven, but truth be told, he was so bland that not even a tinge of alcohol could make his company tolerable. They would look good together, she considered, his chocolate hair against her golden locks, like yin and yang, black and white, pen and paper.
“I see you already finished your Cabernet,” he said when he reentered his side of the booth. “Do you want another glass?”
She took in the room again, noticing that the restaurant was beginning to clear out, with the dinner crowd shuffling home to reset for the nine-to-five, while the younger professionals probably fled in search of bars with more of a nightlife. It was a Thursday, but Molly was always amazed by how tame the uptown scene became after ten p.m., like all the city’s prime elite turned into pumpkins as soon as the kitchen stopped serving Steak au Poivre.
“Let’s just call it a night,” she said. A two-drink minimum was common courtesy on a first date, but she refused to endure additional small talk. Still, she struggled to tune out her mother’s voice in her head. You will never find a boyfriend with that attitude, she would say. You will never be able to support yourself on your own, she would remind her. You will never get married if you don’t start taking better care of yourself, she would admonish her.
The waitress came by to see if they wanted another round. He turned to Molly with an optimistic shrug, as though she might reconsider now that a neutral third party was present, but instead she asked for the check. When the server returned with the bill, the piece of paper enclosed in the signature black leather book lay between them like the elephant in the room. Molly made several attempts to put down her card, but he insisted on paying every time she challenged him, which caused her to feel even worse for cutting the evening short. It was possible this happened to him more often than she knew. He was probably a catch for someone, just not for her. After closing out the tab, he followed her bleached yellow mane out of the bar, and they hugged goodbye, only to realize that they were heading in the same direction and instead parted ways at the nearest street corner. She hailed a taxi and watched him walk away through the window before her car propelled uptown towards the eighties.
Out of habit, Molly reached into her purse to pull out her cell phone when her pinky finger snagged on the zipper, reminding her of the partly torn nail. It was about to fall off anyway, she rationalized, so she might as well break it herself. Like a cat seizing its favorite toy, she bit off a thick chunk, lacerating more than just the white part of the nail, and she experienced a rush of euphoria that was absent from her entire evening. She peered down at her hands, examining the manicure she shelled out for earlier that day, but it was flawed now that her pinky nail was significantly shorter than the rest, and some of the dark red paint was chipped from where she bit down. She would have to go back to the salon for a touch-up, so there was no point in trying to preserve them anyhow. They would probably look more uniform if she nibbled them down to the length of her pinky nail, she reasoned again.
Molly began with her right pointer finger, the second longest nail, and clamped down on it without remorse. Soon, she was tearing them all off, taking the ruby polish with them. The flakes of paint and nails formed a pile in her lap, scattering all over the faux leather seat as the taxi swerved through late-night traffic. She saved her ring finger for last, sinking her teeth into the sea of white keratin, and spit it out onto the floor of the cab. Realizing what she had done, she held out her fingers in a confusing combination of horror and satisfaction. Her nails were trimmed down to where they used to be so many months ago, nearly a centimeter too far below her fingertips, and the burgundy polish was mostly removed, revealing the nude unsightliness of her natural beds. But those were her nails. Molly tipped the driver extra for the damage she shed and stepped out of the cab to walk home.