Pretty Feet

Holly Leigh  <hols@pop.ma.ultranet.com>

My haughty streak flares up when I rub against my physical limits. A car accident left me with burn injuries that both scarred my face, my body and claimed all ten of my fingers. Simple tasks, like slicing an apple, tying a shoelace, wrapping a gift, are beyond my reach. Now, I must surrender jobs that require scissors. Against my grain, I seek help for the basics and usually pay for the privilege. Every six weeks, like a horse getting reshod, I submit to a pedicure.

I first stepped into the cool confines of a salon under protest. The elite aura made me scoff; the rituals of beauty smelled artificial. I had visions of women with leather tans and zebra-frame glasses, ladies whose twisted toes, painted alarm-red, protruded painfully out of their sandals. I scorned the whole notion of treating feet. I feared detailed stories of bunions and corns.

Recent visits to the salon have faded my sour humor. Now, I sink into a pitstop of gentle glamour. Enclosed in a cubicle behind sheer curtains that veil me from the outside world, my feet soak in a tub that hums. Lipstick plants hang under skylights, and ivy vines crawl high in the corners. Polishes are lined up like shiny soldiers against a wall. Foil wrappers in a candy dish glint under the low angled lights. For 45 minutes, I sit back with a fringe pillow, read or rest, and listen to the tumbling murmur of Russian accents -- an oasis.

This is very unlike what I experience at the hair salon, where I used to relish being praised simply for owning long, thick curling locks. Now, fingerless, unable to braid or brush, with zigzag scalp scars, it's ridiculous for me to wear anything but shorn hair. But the true torture of the haircut is the mirror that tosses back my surgery face, the relentless stare of a semi-repaired but forever skewed self.

Back at the nail-oasis, instead of mirrors I sit across from a person whose cool Russian reserve and practiced skill calm me. I like the surprise of her hair colors and marvel that she gets through a workday comfortably in thigh-high boots. She works on me with a quiet warmth. Now I garner lavish praise for my dainty arch, my small feet, my father's feet, exact copies, kept soft and white, cushioned in sneakers year-round ever since my injury. Before, next to my hiking boots, I kept a crop of black heels, rhinestone jazz shoes, some showy red suede boots. Reminders of the worlds I used to conquer, I gave them all away. But I did stash the low-heeled, bone-white, soft leather cowgirl boots in the back of my closet. Maybe someday the pavement will feel less precarious under the nerve-damaged leg that has left my balance so wavery I am limited to Nikes.

Before a beach trip with friends last summer, a wild color impulse took hold of me and I opted for colored glitter polish. My friend's kids loved the sparkles, and so did I. Even though I knew my white feet would, inevitably, turn lobster-red, I squeezed joy from every step, striding beside the ocean, kicking surf with one of the children, a tireless five-year-old. I no longer swim but walk the margins all day in the mix of hissing waves. With my feet sinking in the cool damp of crumbling sand, I feel swallowed, then held fast by the earth.

I tiptoed on toward flashier color choices. Florida for the holidays offered another excuse for exposed feet, but I still shuddered at the livid pinks and glaring reds. So I went with metallic silver. Squinting over the top of my book, I warmed to my nails' striking presence at the end of the patio lounge chair, little armor shields resting on top of my toes. In the dreary month of February, we agreed on champagne, and at home I waved my feet in admiration of this new mellow-yellow glow.

Except for my buttocks and one calf, the only "virgin skin" territory left on my body, unscathed by burns or surgery grafts, is my perfect feet. When I was injured, doctors advised me to cut off toes for makeshift thumbs, but disfiguring my feet in order to gain minimal grasping sounded absurd to me. I recoiled, and then researched: good outcomes required certain factors, and my hand had lousy circulation. The idea of interfering with my already shaky walk worried me, and as for transferring body parts -- no thanks.

I had to toss my leather cowgirl boots, the black pumps and sparkled jazz shoes. But the pedicure has acted as a watershed. Now colored nails replace colored shoes, in a kind of game. I bestow on them a hidden identity, a power inside my socks. In the everyday world, I often cower before ugly remarks and distorted looks from other people who stare at my hands or face. But my feet remind me to be grateful for their service of mobility. And they remind me of the beauty I still have left. My gripes about trudging out for the pedicure have ended. I now express my daring not with leather but with lacquer.


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