BY HANNAH HE
In August, my mother asked me, Yao qu zuo zhi jia ma? Want to go get our nails done?
See, things were different then. In August, we were lazy. In August, we moved as unhurriedly as the honey dripping from my father’s roasted pecans, sticky with sugar, the air thick yet melting like butter. We were lazy, and we licked our fingers clean of watermelon juice, stuffed ourselves with mango cubes, overflowing, never spilling. We were lazy, and we flipped through Vogue magazines, tightroping between work and summer, even as time woke up, picked up where it had left off in June, and took off running, remembering it had places to go, a universe to run.
Still, we did not care. The pecans sat glistening in opaque plastic containers, taunting their next victim for a sweet, satisfying crunch. Watermelons reverberated deep and hollow when you knocked; mango juice dripped down our forearms in zig-zag motions, leaving all-too-familiar sticky trails.
And yet—somehow, at some point—we did care. Maybe the sun had laid its head down too soon last Sunday. Maybe the chair I’d been slouching in had done the deed and twisted my back, leaving me paralyzed from shock. Shocked by a sudden impulse to do something somewhere else, with someone else. Maybe it was the one rotten mango we forgot in the back of the fridge, perfectly yellow and leathery on the outside, but nursing a gray, swollen tumor at its core—hiding. Hiding like we all were, from the raw truth of a time-ticking bomb we refused to see, with skins and seeds and fibers in all their ugly glory.
In August, my mother asked me, Yao qu zuo zhi jia ma? She asked me, and I knew. We both knew. Let’s go, I said. What better than a pop of color on our fingers and toes to erase this growing dullness, this rotting gray seeping through our consciences and pulsing through our veins?
A soft click of the front door, and we were gone. Adrenaline: you never knew what would happen next, who you’d be when you came home. Would I remember the ache within my bones when I left? Or would August wrap its arms around me, whispering, let go?
At dinner we can’t stop admiring our flawless fingers, canvases painted in glossy coats of blueberry blue and eggplant purple. We think we’re different from the girl and woman who left—are we?
Blues and purples go well with our skin, my mother notes. Dark colors make our skin look paler, less yellow, don’t you think?
My gaze remains fixed on the glittery half-circles at the tips of my fingers. Why would you want to look less yellow? I ask silently. I hum in contemplation, which she interprets as agreement, a sign to go on.
Ni de zhi jia hao chang. Your nails are so long, she sighs. You’re lucky you got your father’s genes. No. I catch the words that fall from her lips. Take them back, I breathe. Don’t be this way. Don’t do this to yourself, I think. But she does and I find myself slouching in my chair and my back hurts and I remember that sigh and all the other times: the time I played piano; the time I slammed the closet door on my finger, leaving a scar; the time I hit puberty and my fingers outgrew their stubbiness, lengthening and evolving into a delicacy, like butterfly wings.
Like all the other times, she takes my hand and cradles it in hers, her sweet perfume enveloping us both. She smells of vanilla and freshly roasted pecans and bittersweet goodnights. One by one, she straightens my fingers and stares, then looks back at her own. Not quite so oval or long, but still beautiful to me. Your nails look pretty, too, I say.
In September, the watermelons and mangoes and pecans are gone. In September, the nails are gone. In September, I am gone. You see me, but I am not here in this five-foot body of mine, seeing with these dark brown eyes of mine, living at all. I go to school because my brain tells me to, I do my homework because my teachers tell me to, I fill in Scantrons and dry my tears and text my friends happy birthday! then forget about it.
Can’t you see? I am the golden-skinned mango, so illusively perfect, lingering in a distant time—so last season—harboring a dull pain, the pain of becoming. Becoming older, becoming heavier, becoming this and that. Cut me open: I am rotting, yet salvageable.
I can only watch. Leaning against the door frame, I watch as my mother sits hunched over on the toilet seat, rubbing at her nails ruthlessly with cotton balls dense with alcohol. I watch as she rubs out that day in August, the way the glitter caught the light of the western sun. I watch and wonder what happened to that girl in August. I whisper, Don’t do this.
Within a few swipes, four bare nails stare back at her. Six more to go. A jumbo-sized bottle of nail polish remover sits within reach, with a faded label that reads Five Below. Finally, I ask, Doesn’t it damage your nails? The nail polish remover, I mean.
Without looking up, she says, Ng, dan shi bu piao liang. Yes, but they’re not pretty anymore. And with that, she scrubs her nails harder, faster, as if saying it out loud made it more true. A pungent odor oozes out of the bottle, stinging my nose, but I bask in it. The sensation creeps up to my head, and I’m intoxicated, woozy, and overcome with the same desire to go do something somewhere else. And, also, maybe a little bit lazy again.