I Wasn't Ready


Day 1 – Monday, June 15th, 2015 
1:21 PM

I laughed it off but I wanted to die. I wanted to cry. Maybe it was too soon for me to be diving right in but I smelled the acrylic and saw the sign MANICURE hand-painted in the window and I went in. 

" {Insert some Spanish for how may I help you?} "

It was a really wide and desolate room - no sign of any nails or toes. Maybe I was expecting to see some little Asian women. 

"Hi, I want to get my feet done..."

"QUE?!" 

She looked like a regular older Black lady from Baltimore. Dark and very frail, with a strong attitude in her tone. I sat right next to her on the bench like I'd known her all my life. I was comfortable.

"I don't speak Spanish."

I still have no idea what she was saying to the lady next to her but it wasn't nice. She was talking enough sh't to make us all laugh, while mimicking my words in an attempted pretentious American accent. She yelled up to a younger woman that was sitting upstairs. I thought maybe it was the owner of the shop. I thought maybe she could speak English. 

I walked up the stairs and felt like I was on the Grand Concourse or Fordham Road. Lots of their nail shops are on the second floor too. But when I got to the top, it looked just like Yanira's Dominican Salon that Facey and I used to go to every other Saturday in the Bronx. Foggy vanity mirrors with dim yellowy light bulbs and tattered red leather chairs were waiting to be filled with the healthy wide hips of the whispering colored women whose eyes moved simultaneously with each of my moves. There was one big metal fan pointing at all of them. I wondered how they hadn’t passed out yet. I knew it was scorching under that dryer because they were wearing towels, held up with those tie-up hairnets – the only defense for protecting ones ears from melting in the heat. Those dryers are not made for skin. Just a few moments ago, when I was walking alone down the streets of Havana, I felt like I was home in the Heights. But when I got to the top of those stairs, I was a black sheep. Everyone heard what the woman downstairs yelled and all at once, they began to shower me with more "Que pasa mami?” and “Que tu quieres?" than I could reply to...

"I want to get my feet done." I pointed down at my feet. Trying to compensate for my inability to utter any of those words in Spanish.

She was lost. She didn’t even respond.

"I don't speak Spanish..." I felt dumb.

"Tu no Cubana?" She balled her face up so tightly. This was my first language immersion lesson: Cubans speak with their entire faces. She was pissed with me. 

“No. I’m American.” I hated that I had to admit that.

“I’m Ah-merrr-ee-cahn…” She mocked me but she sounded ridiculous. The shop laughed. I didn’t. I looked down at my feet, wanting to race out of there with the speed and silence of a Manhattan mouse but I couldn’t get out of there now, not even if I tried.

My feet were barely soaking in a transparent jade-green bowl – about the size of the bowls that my Aunt Barbara and the Pentecostal mothers used to wash and pray over each other’s feet just before the Friday night shut-ins at Jasper Roll’s church over on 3rd in the Bronx.

One foot by one foot, she took her time removing my old polish, scraping the dead skin, and filing each toenail. There were no filing machines, no cotton balls, no massage chairs, nor were there any rapid-hydro pumps to give my feet that extra clean feel. The chair I sat in was more like one you would find in a high school classroom and she did all of the work on my feet underneath her desk. She showed me a small basket of colors to choose from. They looked pretty old, like the ones your grandmother has under the sink in her bathroom from back when Ray Charles was poppin’. A thin oily substance floated on top of each color – colors that had no liquid flow at all. It was tiramisu behind the glass of those bottles. I chose the closest thing to white but it looked more like silver when she began painting it on. She went the extra mile and added a white French line that I didn’t ask for but didn’t mind.



When it was time for her to put on the clear topcoat, she lifted my foot to her lap. It was then that I could really see her Indian-brown face, long and lustrous black plaits, and the cutest curly-bracket shaped nose. She appeared to be between 16 and 18, no more than 21.

“Que tu nombre?” I hoped I asked that right.

“Yareesa.”  It was such a pretty name. She was such a pretty girl. But she still didn’t smile.

“What es you naym?” Her English was decent enough for me to understand.

“Valencia…”

“Balencia?” She bawled her face up again. “{Insert some Spanish here}”

They all started yelling from under the dryers. I didn’t know what anyone was saying until finally someone hollered,

“Where you fruuh?” Rolling the r but missing the ending m.

“New York… I’m from New York.” I was excited that they were interested in me but still felt stupid for not knowing that that’s what they were trying to ask me the whole time.

“Ayyy… Nueva York…{More Spanish that I didn’t know.}”

“Dias.” She finished my toes and I handed her a twenty. Once again, that face scrunched up so hard and this time, I just knew it would get stuck.

Using my context clues, I figured out, she was upset because that bill was so big. She didn’t have any change. No one in the shop did either. It was so weird. She told me to wait while she ran across the street to get change for the money. When she came back, she passed me a 10, without even looking me in the face. I tried to say thank you but she was gone. She disappeared into a room in the back of the shop by the time I looked up. I didn’t get it … Why was she so hasty? I couldn’t even tip her. Everyone was still looking at me like I was some freak-show so I did what I had been waiting to do since I got there.

“Gracias! Adios!” I left as fast as I could.

“Adios, chica!”


I made a right and then a left on San Francisco to get back to my hostel. I sped past Paola, my new friend from Chile and dove behind my twin bed. I could not go back outside until I knew enough Spanish. I never wanted to be embarrassed like that again. I needed to get my Spanish-English dictionary as fast as I could. I could never leave the house without it! But to my dismay, when I looked through my unpacked bags, it was gone. Damnit! I lost it in the airport!



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