Painting My Nails Is the Only Time I Don’t Think

Animation: Stevie Remsberg; Source Video Getty

Personal Project is a week about hobbies and digging into our hidden talents.

I am good at painting my own nails, and have been since I was nine, when a neighbor friend and I opened a salon in her backyard. Our customers were each other, our moms, and a neighboring family of five daughters whose names all started with T. (Tessica, Trista, Tanya, Tara, Tiffany — maybe the only sequence I’ll always remember.) I remember once doing one of the T girls’ nails and her telling me I missed a spot, pointing out a sliver of bare nail alongside the cuticle. This from the kid who’d come to me with claws speckled with thick, gloopy chips of glitter on turquoise on mauve. I fixed the nail. We closed up shop. 

Twenty-plus years later, I am re-open for business, though, at present, only to myself. My hands now occupy a larger part of my thoughts than ever before, their care demanding what feels like hours a day. Twenty seconds is such a long time. And after the washing comes the lotion — the webby parts between my fingers are creepy and raw — and then 30 minutes later I have to pee again, and wash again, and lotion again. And now, every week or so, I peel off the gel polish I’m wearing, cut my nails, and assemble my makeshift home nail salon to paint them again.

Early this year, I bought myself a UV lamp and a starter gel manicure kit — a complete coincidence borne of the desire to save money. I loved getting my nails done at the salon: selecting a free hour every two weeks in which I rendered myself unable to listen to anything, look at my phone, or worry I should be working. My hands were occupied, controlled temporarily by someone else. But now, the salons are closed, and I worry about mine from a distance, and I paint my own nails at home, something I haven’t done regularly in years.

In high school I painted my best friend’s nails before formal dances I didn’t go to and switched my own polish once a week. In my first college house, an off-campus 3.5 bedroom my three roommates and I paid $325 a month for, I organized my collection in rainbow order on a wooden condiment rack I hung in the bathroom. My roommates were entitled — nay, encouraged — to ask me for a manicure anytime they wanted. I was always looking for excuses to be with my friends in one-on-one settings in which they would mostly talk and I would mostly listen. Doing nails is perfect for that.

It was this, actually, more than any supposed budgetary reasons, that made me decide to buy a gel manicure kit of my own. My thought was that I wanted to have friends over to my apartment, one or two at a time, but felt I needed an excuse. Not since high school has it felt plausible to ask a friend to come over with no planned activity in mind. People have partners and babies and other things to do. But maybe, I thought, if one of those things was getting their nails done, and I could do a pretty good job for free … I could even serve tea, or a glass of wine, or an edible, and a snack, and we could hang out for an hour or so, and then we’d either decide to order food, or they’d go home. I realize now this sounds like bribery.

No one’s been able to come over since I bought my UV lamp, and it seems like it’ll be a long time before anyone can. For now I practice on myself. Having gone a few years without painting my nails with any regularity, I find I’m rusty, and I can almost see where Tessica (or Tanya?) was coming from. Then again, my color selection is growing, and I have plenty of time to get better.

Painting My Nails Is the Only Time I Don’t Think