(One morning last August…)
She is very lovely and she is standing by a little kiosk in the mall the way they do. Preparing an ambush. I have rushed to the mall for some last-minute reason. We are packing up to go camping and we need bug spray or batteries or both. I forgot to put on my “don’t talk to me” face when I entered the mall and when I catch her eye she knows she has me. Also I try to show a little compassion for people that have to do this for a job. I would hate it.
“What do you use on your nails?”
The question confuses me a little. Use for what? “Well…nothing.”
“Well I don’t have a lot of time and I’m not…I don’t…” It seems too personal and would take too long to go into my real reason which is that if I have polish on my fingernails I feel like I am suffocating. Physically find it hard to breathe. Is that weird? On toenails it’s not a problem. Plus I have never been real fancy about makeup, nails, those sorts of things. I switch into default. “I’m pretty busy.” It’s true.
“Busy or lazy?” she asks in a kind and knowing tone, as if we all have that problem. “Show me the worst nail you’ve got.”
“Worst nail I’ve got? There’s nothing wrong with –“
It’s too late. She’s whipped out a buffer and starts buffing away at the right index finger, the Finger for All Seasons. This is the finger that used to fit in the hole of a rotary dial phone, the mouse-clicking finger, the finger that takes the broccoli out of my front teeth and the one I would lick and hold up in the wind if only I knew what I supposed to be able to glean from that. I use this finger to flute the edges of pie crusts and to beep little kids on the nose. It’s probably my best finger.
She is saying something to the effect that all of their products are made with real gold. I look at the buffer. It is white. I am in over my head. Then she smiles at me. As I mentioned, she is lovely. She lowers her voice a little and leans in.
“I notice you have very large pores. What do you use on your face?”
“Nothing.” I know better than to say “soap,” even though it’s true. I’m not completely clueless. That would be like saying “garlic” to a vampire.
“Nothing?” She has difficulty concealing the look of horror on her lovely face. I consider beeping her on the nose, but she is still buffing away at the finger I use for that.
I can’t seem to say anything. She’s right. I have large pores. I am suddenly painfully aware of my appearance. I don’t always go to the mall dressed like a woman who has completely given up, but it happens. I think of how I rushed out of the house this morning in the old jeans and the drab windbreaker and the hat I once bought at Dollarama because I got caught in the rain. I pretended when I put it on this morning that it looked like rain, but I know I put on because my hair was an unwashed mess and I had no time to fuss.
The other day in a grocery store I came around a corner and caught a reflection of myself in a mirror at the far end of the aisle. Just as I was wondering “why would they put a mirror…” I got a little closer and saw that it wasn’t a mirror, it was a man. He was about seventy. He was also carrying a basket, and he and I were wearing the same shorts, more or less. So on top of everything else, I need new glasses.
I bet that’s never happened to the woman with the buffer. And she doesn’t know, this lovely young lady, how far you can end up from where you started, and that things that matter one day won’t seem like anything at all the next day, or decade. She doesn’t know what it means when you suddenly find that you’re 52 and some things are beyond your control. Some things take precedence over your pores. Your nails don’t matter, your pores are large, your hair is hopeless and you’ve started to disappear.
I have been lucky with my hair in a way. I have only a few grey hairs. The bad news is that my hair is thinning alarmingly, rapidly. I can feel it, jumping out of my head like failed ideas or petty little thoughts. I don’t have a lot of firm plans for my retirement, but I was hoping to have hair. I have also gained a few pounds and at this rate, combined with the hair loss, in about two months I am going to look like Winston Churchill.
They don’t tell you about this. They sell you “volumizing shampoo” and you don’t realize until you start to need it that what this should be called is “try this and maybe you won’t look quite so bald, dear” shampoo. Luckily, none of this matters at all, because no one can see me any more. Some days I truly wonder if I am still reflecting light.
It has come as a shock. The part where I disappear. I have started to understand the predilection of older women to wear purple sweatshirts and red hats. For one thing, it’s an antidote to the grey cocoon you find gathering around you: grey hair, grey skin, grey mood. It is also good to wear bright colours so you don’t get hit by a car. People don’t seem to see me in line ups at restaurants, at the Customer Service counter, on crosswalks. It’s a relief in some ways. If you have no hair but no-one can see you anyway, it frees up all that time you used to spend buying shampoo. There are things I’m not going to have to care about, or pretend to care about, any more. Plus I could probably rob a bank and no-one would notice a thing.
The problem is, there are some things I still care about. In my professional life, which is in theatre, disappearing is a problem. It’s strange to no longer be the promising young upstart. I find myself acting like one, and then realize with a shock that in 80% of my work situations I am now the senior artist in the room. It took me a long time to catch on to what had changed. Nowadays, when I meet colleagues for the first time, I have to allow a little time to prove to them that I am a) in the room, and b) not stupid. No one approaches you the same way when you’re not young any more. They start to be surprised when you are smart or funny, when you swear or drink hard liquor or have a sex life. I wore red keds to work once and a young co-worker told me that when she’s older, she hopes she will still wear cool shoes. A young mother of my acquaintance said something a little risqué in my presence and immediately clapped her hand over her mouth and looked at me like I was going to be shocked. She had no idea who she was talking to. I should have pretended to faint. I should have flashed my tits at her.
The good thing is when you have less time, you have less patience with bullshit, and this for me can only be a good thing. I’ve kept my mouth shut too many times. My politeness is deeply ingrained, but maybe I can unlearn a little of it. When the nail-buffing woman called me lazy, I wonder why I didn’t tell her to take her solid gold whatever-it-is and stick it? Maybe that day is coming. Maybe with a few more years under my belt I can stop saying shit that’s not true just to please people. It’s enough already.
I pull my hand away. The nail is gleaming on my tired and ordinary hand. I say: “I’m sorry. You’re very sweet,” (is she? is she really?),” but I have to go.”
I could have told her a bunch of other stuff like the truth but she wouldn’t have understood it.
I go and buy whatever I came in to buy. As I make my way, I notice a lot of women in the mall with thinning hair. A lot of them. Where did they all come from? Why did I never notice them before? It’s not like they’re invisible. On my way back out of the mall I avoid the young woman and her little kiosk the way you do. All the solid gold facial cream in the world will not be enough to save me. Do I want to be saved?
When I get outside I rub the fingernail against the concrete planter a couple of times to take the shine off.
©2015 Ellen Peterson