Sometimes, what you think you are writing for yourself, your own book of recollections for further reflection, ends up being someone else’s story. We are a series of interwoven stories, each facetted in such a way that our look into the world will always remain singularly and uniquely our own. We seem to spend so much of our time trying to blend into a niche, an idea of self, a space carved scared for us. We forget that the true magic of self rests in embracing and realizing that there is no other creature on this earth quite like you. No one could ever truly compete with you because while our commonalities are many, the way you perceive the world around you and what you give in turn is distinctly yours.
Each person to cross our path has the potential to teach. They offer a glimpse of a different life through their personal looking glass, one shaped by memory. With minds of limitless possibility, we absorb a wealth of insurmountable information, and still we cannot be everywhere, do everything, and know everyone. To truly understand the world we find ourselves in, we have to allow ourselves to see it through the eyes of others. We in turn, must share where we have been, what we have seen, and what we wish to become.
It is a beautiful November morning in West Hollywood. I should and could be at work, or in class, being productive. Instead, I am outside, bathed in a windy sunshine and I feel free for a little while, like I belong only to myself. For a few hours, I will practice kindness to the self and bask in its levity.
I walk a few blocks up the street an into an almost empty nail salon. It is eleven o’clock in the morning and no one else is there, expect Kim, the owner. Kim smiles up at me from behind tiny, rimmed glasses as I come in, and asks if I have time because she is alone today. Yes, I have time.
There are many reasons why I come back here. The first feeling I get when I walk into a space stays with me. My sister and I first discovered this salon a few months ago. It chants silently of warmth, like being invited into someone’s family space. We gone back, it became our place, we brought our brother with us, friends and now, I return alone. The walls are painted a rich orange, soft music plays, sunlight and a breeze rushes in from both the front and the back door. Often, Kim’s niece is there, along with her beautiful 4-year-old granddaughter. Her granddaughter eyes me curiously at first, like a new pet, not quite sure what to make of me, but soon she’s reading me from her notebook and telling me about her favorite colors, and piano lessons. I should try to remember to be this open, always.
It was my sister who taught me the beauty of this simple ritual. It does not come from a place of vanity, but from a need to relax and show stillness, kindness and care to the self. If I take the time to think why I continue to come back, I know it is because of the richness of the interaction. I could do my own nails, and I could go somewhere else, but I choose to come back here.
I’ve walked into other nails salons in the company of friends, and something in my chest constraints and sought to flee. Maybe it was the looks of disinterest painted on the faces of the women who reach newly lacquered claws into handbags that cost more than the women massaging their feet will make in the coming months. Maybe it was the tired looks of the workers who spoke among themselves in a language I could not understand. Guilt washed over me because even when I tried to break the language barrier, they were only able to smile back at me in a muted silence. I look down at my perfectly polished nails reflecting not wealth but a modest indulgence, and hide shame behind my eyes as I glance at the woman’s hands that just cradled mine in her own rough and cracked ones.
Kim and talk about our days, or past, we never loose eye contact. She is kind in her every gesture and strong in her feminine stance. We talked about our signs, and our Chinese horoscopes. She reminds me that Pisces rule the feet and I should take good care of them. Some days, 16 hours pass before I can enjoy the comfort of bare feet on hardwood floors. Kim pats my feet as if I were a little girl after they’ve been scrubbed and the nails painted to look like ripe cherries.
We talk about the economy and the dwindling number of new clients coming in, the regulars who maintain a vigilant loyalty. Kim moved to the US from Vietnam 20 years ago, and she has not gone back since, but others of her family have. She shares a common, repeat nightmare with many political refugees, like my mom. In their terror lulled dreams, they return to their country of birth, and are not allowed to leave. My mom has not gone home in 20 years. I asked her what she misses the most, she smiles, a sad reminiscent look takes over, and she tells me she misses everything, even a particular piece of broken tile on the street.
Kim’s childhood friend owned the salon before her, and Kim took over it 17 years ago. In Vietnam before the bombing leveled her home, she ran her own store. After the communist takeover, her husband was kept in prison for 7 years until coming to the US. Each morning, Kim’s husband drops her off at 8:30 in the morning, and 12 hours later they go home together. The salon isn’t always packed, and it is made to feel like a second home. Kim, her niece, and her friend, the only other employees, brings books to read, they watch TV, they drink tea sent from Vietnam, and share in the lives and the stories of the men and women who walk through their front doors.
We sit across from each other, the sky changes with the clouds, as we watch the neighborhood pass by. Much has changed Kim tells me. In 20 years many of the privately owned shops have closed, locals have relocated because the rents have keep up a steady incline, and real estate developers wage a constant war with the City of West Hollywood in hopes of buying out entire blocks they aim to turn into condominiums.
I spent and hour and a half with Kim today. I would gladly pay to just sit here and watch the stories flutter into existence behind Kim’s brown eyes rimmed with a blue halo. Next week, I will return not because I have to get my nails done, but because I have such a need to understand and feel the world around me, and there are so many things I have not yet done, and places I have only visited in someone else memory. Kim tells me her granddaughter asked about me again. It makes me smile to know she thinks of the woman so earnest in telling her to keep writing. I have the feeling she will. We lend pieces of our lives to those who are open to receive them, in them we will live forever.