UPDATE MAY 2008 — This story was entered in SciArt Media’s NH Short Story Contest and was named one of the winners. Look for the story to be included in a collection due out later this year.
The salon was brightly lit and tastefully decorated in rich neutral tones, with the soft jazz of a local radio station playing in the background, accompanying the hum of voices and occasional bursts of laughter. Maggie Collins sat in the lobby area, shifting uncomfortably in her seat, glancing at her watch as she calculated how long before Dan would be back with the kids. Time seemed to be slipping away from her, and she sighed, wondering how much longer it would be.
On the other side of the room a well-dressed woman sat flipping casually through a fashion magazine, her flawless makeup and perfectly styled hair a sharp contrast to Maggie’s own faded sweats and hastily gathered ponytail. She remembered a time when she’d been able to leave the house looking so cool, calm and collected… and she shook her head, wondering how she’d come to forget those days. The other woman smiled politely as she glanced up, meeting the wistful gaze.
“Lovely out, isn’t it?”
Maggie nodded, self conscious that she’d been caught staring, “It’s beautiful, yes.”
She was rescued from the awkward moment by the arrival of one of the nail technicians. Petite and pretty, the girl knew well how to put together a hip, young look, blonde hair pulled back to show her flawless skin, a perfect match to this place Maggie thought, wondering how old she was. The girl checked something on the desk before turning a bright smile to the two seated in the lobby.
“Maggie?” and at her nod, the girl smiled brightly, “I’m Trina, I’ll be doing you today.” Her gaze moved to take in the well-dressed woman, still seated, “Lisa will be right out for you Alyssa.”
The other nodded, returning her attention to her magazine while Maggie rose to follow the smiling Trina. Back through the rows of tables, each with its own bright pool of light, neatly arranged bottles and all manner of tools carefully laid out. At the far end of the salon a wrought iron trimmed mirror was the backdrop for an impressive display of polishes that had been arranged on a black and brass rack. Trina reached a slim, manicured hand out to turn the display so that Maggie could see the many colors.
“We’ll need to start by picking out a color.”
Maggie stared in some awe at the rows and rows of polishes. She felt suddenly as if there were a whole world just beyond her doorstep that she was only now rediscovering. “There are so many,” she marveled, reaching to remove a bottle from the shelf.
Trina nodded her understanding, “It’s hard, I know.”
The older woman set the bottle back, careful not to disturb the others. “Maybe you could suggest something?”
“Sure,” the girl replied good-naturedly, scanning the bottles with a practiced eye.
She spun the display soundlessly as she looked for the colors she wanted. Each she would inspect quickly before holding the bottle up against Maggie’s hands. At last she made her selection. “Yes, this… this would be good for you.”
It was a soft and subtle shade of pink, with the hint of a shimmer, and Maggie nodded her approval, glad to have the choice made. The task complete, Trina led her back through the rows of tables and chatting women to her station. She sank to the seat indicated with some relief, unsure what to do next.
Trina reached to take her hands, staring down at the dry, peeling skin, the barely-healing scrapes she’d gotten drawing with sidewalk chalk on the driveway, and the short unkempt nails, still dirty from the garden. She sighed, “Well, you certainly need a manicure,” she remarked, not unkindly. “You do a lot of work with your hands?”
“I’m a Mom, so yes, I guess I do.”
The girl smiled knowingly, setting Maggie’s hands back on the tabletop and glancing over the items laid neatly on one side of the station. She shook her head. “Someone’s got my clippers, I’ll be right back,” she said, rising and making her way along the rows of tables in an effort to locate the tool she needed.
Sitting alone, Maggie watched the other women, talking and laughing as the music played. Just across from her the well-dressed woman from the lobby took her place at a station, settling in as if it were her favorite easy chair. She was smiling at something one of the others had been saying before turning to the attentive Lisa and her own hands. Smooth and flawless, her nails were not over-long, but artfully shaped, the perfect backdrop for her distinctive diamond wedding set. She must be a regular, Maggie decided, glancing ruefully at her own cracked and battered hands.
“So you’re a mom?” Trina was back, settling Maggie’s hands into a bowl of warm, soapy water. It felt good.
She nodded, “I have three children.”
“Ten, seven and three.”
“Wow, you must be busy. No wonder your hands look like this.”
Maggie smiled, a bit sheepish, “I used to get manicures more often, but… well, you know how it is. I’m just so busy with the kids and all… ” She paused, letting her voice trail off as she glanced about the nearly full salon. “Although it seems like no one else has got that problem — it’s just me who can’t seem to find the time.”
“You were lucky then, to get a manicure as a Mother’s Day gift.” Trina said with a smile.
Maggie nodded, though she didn’t bother to tell the girl that the gift had come from her own mother, rather than Dan and the kids. She’d opened the carefully wrapped package with true anticipation, for it was so unlike the others she’d received that day. Of course her mom had known, without having to be told, that time alone was to be a most precious gift. “In more ways than one.”
“You can’t forget to make time for yourself.”
It was Lisa who had spoken, her gaze moving from Maggie’s battered hands to the well groomed ones before her. “After all, if you don’t do it, who will?”
Maggie nodded, feeling at once as though she had been missing out on something, and was only now finding it again. When had she forgotten this?
“You’re right I suppose,” was all she could think to say.
“Take Alyssa here, she’s always travelling for her job, yet she still manages to get in here every other week.”
The well-dressed Alyssa glanced to Maggie, taking in her worn sweats and uneven ponytail. She wondered how this woman could let herself leave the house in such a state, though she tried for all she was worth to keep any hint of disapproval from her voice.
“I treat it like a business appointment,” she explained with a self satisfied smile, “a small chunk of time, just for me.”
Lisa nodded emphatically, “And why not? You work hard.”
It was true, Maggie realized with a jolt, and she glanced to the two across from
Trina’s station. “I guess I’ve just gotten out of the habit of thinking that way.”
“Now’s the time to get back in the habit then.” Alyssa was quick to point out, “We’ve no shortage of men out there who’ll work us to death if we let them.”
“That’s for sure.” Trina was quick to agree.
“Unless of course, you’re married to the perfect husband — like your Mark.” Lisa put in readily.
Alyssa’s reply was automatic. “Mark treats me like a queen,” she said, glancing to the striking jade bracelet he’d brought home from his last trip to the Orient. Smooth deep green stones were surrounded and linked by swirls of gold — he’d said it reminded him of her… beautiful yet strong, unique and timeless. She smiled at the memory. “But even a great guy like mine will take advantage — you’ve got to make time for yourself your own priority.”
Maggie thought at once of Dan. Queen, no, he didn’t treat her that way, more like a partner, someone who he’d worked and sweated and strained with. Someone who he’d shared his deepest fears and most precious dreams. Someone who he’d wanted to build a family… a life with. He’d sent her on her way this morning with a good heart, all for her enjoying a special treat. She nodded slowly. “Yes, I suppose you do,” she said, half to herself.
“I swear Alyssa, you found the last prince on earth.” Trina sighed, recalling the many stories the woman had told of her husband and the way they lived. “As far as I can tell, most of the rest of the men out there are just plain creeps.”
“I remember feeling that way before I met Dan,” Maggie recalled with a shake of her head. She’d been convinced she’d never marry, and then one day he’d been there — a part of her from that moment on. “The right husband can make all the difference.”
“I’ll just have to take your word on that one.” Trina sighed.
“You’ve just had bad luck is all.” Lisa was quick to assure her coworker, though she had to admit that sometimes she couldn’t help but feel the same way. Newly divorced, childless and on her own, she’d come from the long sleep of her marriage rather abruptly, still holding fast to the hope that there was someone out there… someone special… someone who would treasure her and bring her trinkets just because. “You’ll find that one special guy — probably when you least expect it. You’ll see.”
“She’s right,” Maggie agreed, “it’s when you’re not looking that you’ll meet him.”
“You just make sure that he can take good care of you, and your little girl,” Alyssa advised, her gaze moving briefly to the framed picture Trina kept at her station. The young girl’s story was one of misfits and bad choices, and it gave the older woman pause to be grateful that her life had not taken a similar route. Alone to raise a child, with no husband and no prospects… the prospect was a troubling one.
The sweet rounded face and sparkling eyes stared back at them, and the mother offered a quick, silent prayer for her little one, safe in the care of her grandmother. She’d never loved anything like she loved her baby, and set her jaw determinedly. “Oh I will. You can count on that.”
“She’s beautiful,” Maggie remarked. “How old is she?”
“Oh, my Brenna’s age,” the other mother replied, “it’s a great age.”
Trina smiled, her youthful enthusiasm taking hold of her, wiping the worldliness from her sparkling eyes. “We have a lot of fun together. She’s my whole world.”
Maggie smiled at this, the wisdom of a well tested mother shining in her eyes. “They change your life, that’s for sure.”
Alyssa watched the two women, seeing the softening of their faces as they spoke of their children. Though she’d seen the looks so many times, she’d yet to understand how women could so completely forget all other accomplishments in favor of their children. It was as if nothing they’d ever done mattered now that they had carried and delivered a child, and she marveled at the ability to sacrifice all and everything — careers, freedom, comfort, adventure — to spend nights buried in laundry and playing board games. It seemed so… so simple… so routine… so hopeless. A lifestyle that would clamp hold and never let go. “My life is perfect, just the way it is,” she said with all the conviction at her command, glancing to Lisa for confirmation.
“No kids is no problem for me,” the manicurist agreed, her envious gaze moving over the impeccably dressed woman who sat before her. In fact, a part of her was grateful she and Jake had never had the misfortune to have a child — it would merely have been a tie to a time in her life she’d just as soon forget. Now she was free to look ahead… to plan for the day when she was the client who came in for regular manicures … the one taken on trips and bought fancy gifts… the one who would have nothing but the best and finest… She sighed, forcing her attention from the well-worn dream back to the present, and the generous tip Alyssa always left for her. “I like my freedom.”
“Neither of you have children?” Maggie couldn’t help but ask. She always felt sorry for childless women, an instant, irrepressible instinct that took hold and would not let go. She could not imagine her life without them, had come to measure her worth in her children’s eyes, and knew that whatever else she might do in her life, this was indeed her greatest and most important work.
A shadow passed briefly over Alyssa’s impeccably groomed features. “No — we’ve decided to put off children — for now anyway.”
Though the comment was benign enough, Alyssa couldn’t help but cast the plain and simple mother an expectant glance — waiting for the oh you don’t know what you’re missing speech. It didn’t come, and she looked away after a moment, burying the sudden, nagging worry that she’d waited too long under a ready reminder of just how comfortable her life was. Things had always worked out for her — she’d gone to the best schools, had the right friends, the splashy wedding and the romantic, elaborate honeymoon. They’d bought a fabulous home, furnished it impeccably and enjoyed the perks of a carefree lifestyle these many years. Only now… she swallowed again, remembering the feeling it had been to hold her newborn niece in her arms…
It was in those few moments that she’d dared to wonder at what it would be like to have a child of her own. Hard as she tried, she couldn’t imagine it. Gone would be the well-ordered life and artfully decorated home. There would be no more freedom to come and go, to travel and spend as they pleased. And though the child stared at her with intent blue eyes, she could see only the many sacrifices to be made as she handed the tiny bundle over to its waiting mother. She wasn’t ready for this. Not yet.
“Oh there’s plenty of time for babies.” Lisa was quick to point out, anxious to change the direction of the conversation for her client’s sake. “Besides I can’t imagine you’d be ready to give up the way you live — not by a long shot. Why in the last year alone I swear you’ve been to more places than any of us will ever see in our whole lives.”
The wistful tone righted Alyssa’s world in an instant, and she smiled, well-pleased by the answer she could give. “Well, we do a good deal of traveling.”
“Really?” Maggie asked, a note of longing creeping into her voice. There were times, especially lately, when she’d begun to dream about what it would be like to escape, to get away from the rut of cleaning and cooking. To break free, to have adventures and see the world. To know something of the places beyond her own four walls and rural roots. Besides her brief honeymoon in Bermuda, she and Dan hadn’t had the money to travel on their own. They’d saved every cent for the small but comfortable home on the end of a kid-friendly street. Furnished with hand-me-downs and yard-sale finds, they’d worked hard to make ends meet as the children came along and she’d given up working altogether. Vacations were once a year, simple and family-focused.
“Just tell them where you were last week.”
“The Dominican Republic,” Alyssa replied, remembering the lush, tropical get-away that had left her freshly tanned and recharged. It had been peace and quiet… fine dinners and hours in the sun… a wonderful reward for a year of hard work. She’d grown the account by 38%, sweating out every percentage point as if it were her own blood. She’d worked hard, spending more nights than she cared to remember in sterile hotel rooms, eating room service and reading over reports for the next meeting. Over the last several months, she and Mark had been living apart so much that she sometimes almost forgot she was married at all. Until this last trip it had been three straight weeks since they’d stayed under the same roof. This separation had marked them — though they’d tried had to convince themselves it was quickly and simply fixed by a few languid days together in the sun at an all-inclusive resort.
“How fabulous,” Trina sighed, removing Maggie’s hands from the bowl and settling them on a warm towel that she made a great show of folding. She took up one of her tools and began working as Maggie glanced again to where Alyssa sat. “The last vacation I had was a weekend camping in the mountains. It rained the whole time.”
“Camping! Oh God, that’s horrible!”
“You’d never catch me out in the woods.”
Maggie remembered her own frustration as the trip unfolded. The tent had been a nightmare to set up, and the kids had been into everything, bringing mud and mosquitoes in with them as they entered and left the tent. They’d given up on cooking dinner and gone out instead, enjoying the warmth and light of the fast food place before returning to the cold darkness of the campsite. The kids had been so cold, they’d all snuggled under a single sleeping bag, huddling around the campfire that Dan had managed to get going, burning and dropping marshmallows while they finished the chocolate they’d brought for smores. That night had been the highlight of the trip… “It was an adventure to be sure,” she said with a shake of her head.
Alyssa watched the smile that softened Maggie’s pale features. There was a sort of contentment that radiated from this bedraggled woman with the ratty nails, and she felt a sudden, inexplicable pang of envy. It was as if this simple mother had achieved something that she, despite her exciting lifestyle and high powered career, would never know. The thought cut her, and she thrust it aside. “I’ll give you a lot of credit for going along on that one. I can’t ever imagine Mark and I pitching a tent out in the woods.”
“And why would you when there are five star hotels with room service?” Lisa questioned.
Alyssa smiled, though her smile was not as bright as it might have been. “Mark says we work too hard not to be pampered when we’re on vacation.”
“Of course that’s right.”
“So your husband travels a lot too?”
“Oh yes,” Alyssa answered automatically. Mark had traveled most of their married life, and she’d grown accustomed to having the house to herself, to doing as she pleased when she pleased, to get up and go on a moment’s notice. “He’s away about a week every month. Really racks up the frequent flyer miles.”
“I’ll bet he does.”
Maggie wondered what it must be like to have the whole bed to yourself, no snoring, no hogging the covers. “Sometimes I wish Dan would go away, but he never does.”
All three of the women laughed at this. “How long have you been married?”
“That’s a long time.”
Yes, it had been a long time, Maggie realized suddenly. An age ago it seemed they had been young and in love — planning a wedding and a life together — anything was possible. So much had happened since those days — they’d lost beloved family, outgrown some friends, strengthened ties with others, endured pregnancies and the trials of new parenthood, lost jobs and found a way to survive anyway. She couldn’t image her life today without Dan and the children, and it occurred to her then, as Trina began a languid massage of first one hand, and then the other, that perhaps things had progressed just as they should, and that she was here, now, just as she should be.
Across the aisle Alyssa was caught and held by her own memories. “It’ll be ten next year for Mark and I,” she said, hardly believing it herself. Ten years… had it really been that long? She was startled by the realization of how much time had passed, almost as long as she’d been at Bartlett and Bradley. She’d been so young then, eager and determined to make her mark in a man’s world. And she’d done it too — a wave of satisfaction taking hold of her. She’d earned her place on the senior-level team, and she was only now feeling comfortable enough in her position to stop and enjoy the trappings of her success.
“I can just imagine the anniversary gift you’ll get,” Lisa was saying, glancing briefly to the tiny porcelain dish where her client’s diamond encrusted wedding rings had been placed. Her gaze moved to the elaborate bracelet that encircled her client’s slim wrist, and she massaged the smooth skin of the other woman’s hands almost reverently, lost in the imagining of what it would be like to own such fine things.
Alyssa smiled at this, for Mark could always be counted on to deliver a stunning gift when the occasion warranted. The cherry wood jewelry box that sat atop her dressing table was full of lavish jewels, each more fantastic than the one that came before. It pleased her mightily that he would make such grand gestures, and she’d always enjoyed the thrill of showing her baubles to those around her.
Each of her treasures had a story, and it gave her great satisfaction to have a material manifestation to mark every significant event in her life. She glanced to the simply dressed woman at the station across from hers, wondering how it must be to go without reward for hard work.
“Mark is wonderful — the perfect husband.”
The women lapsed into silence, preoccupied with their own thoughts, each acutely aware in those moments of how different she was from the others. A generation ago, women had fought for the right to make a choice beyond marriage and motherhood. Now, with every option at their command, acceptance of each other’s choices was coming much more slowly, bogged down by the weight of guilt and stress of trying to be all and everything. More and more women with all the options had grown disillusioned by the expectations and demands, coming to the reluctant, though realistic conclusion that opportunity and equality created their own unique and daunting challenges.
The mothers among them, even though they’d had a chance at a career, and the freedoms of childless living, nonetheless found it difficult to understand the choice to remain childless — a selfish, short sighted lifestyle that would leave a desperate, aching void in later years. Of course, there was, equally strong, the need to build something lasting — a family, bonded and shaped over a lifetime, celebrating good times, enduring bad — a living testament to all they held dear. It is these women who see children as their life’s work. And though they might be other things too, nurse, teacher, lawyer or businesswoman, they are this, first and always. Success in this single endeavor is proof of a life well lived.
And though the pull of this age-old need to reproduce is strong — running deep in the heart, the soul, of all women, there were those who still can never quite bring themselves to sacrifice their ambitions, long held dreams of success in a field they love. Their work is, for them, much as the child is to its mother, a lifelong endeavor worth every bit of time, every ounce of effort that’s needed. What cuts these women most deeply is the assumption that they long for a child, that they must reproduce to feel fulfilled — to be counted worthy. For many the truth is that their lives have no room for children, or they wisely recognize they haven’t the skills to mother. These women are forced to stand firm against tradition, against what they are told, against the bullying of well meaning friends and family. They have made the choice and moved forward, willing to face the uncertain consequences of a life lived in pursuit of other goals.
It was this, and other thoughts like these, that remained silently in the air in the crowded salon as Trina and Lisa worked to finish the manicures. With careful, practiced motions they applied the coats of polish that would adorn the newly sculpted nails — Maggie’s polish much like her, clean and simple with just the hint of a shimmer; while Alyssa’s was a lacquered shade that was tasteful yet striking.
“What are you and Mark doing tonight?”
Alyssa smiled, recalling the two tickets that had been waiting by her coffee mug in their spacious kitchen that morning— a night on the town would be the perfect end to their vacation. She smiled at the thought of the entrance they would make, he dark and handsome, impeccably dressed; she slim and sleek, in a designer dress that fit like a second skin. It would be a wonderful night — a hit show and sumptuous dinner to be followed by a nightcap in the comfort of their four poster bed. It would indeed be a night to remember. “He got us tickets to a show in town.”
Trina had been listening to the exchange as she expertly applied a top coat to Maggie’s nails. “And where are you headed after this?”
“We’ve got a family birthday party this afternoon — which’ll probably run into the rest of the night,” she replied, smiling at the thought of the fun her children would have romping with their cousins for games of flashlight tag and hide-and-seek. Rites of childhood that always left her with a lump in her throat at the sight of her youngest running after the rest into the darkness, screaming with glee. The adults meanwhile would sit and catch up, sharing the misadventures of the week just passed. It would be a simple, casual evening, yet a welcome cap to an otherwise unremarkable week.
“There, now you’ll just need to sit and dry.”
Maggie smiled, carefully inspecting her freshly polished nails as she leaned back in the comfortable chair. Her hands looked better than she’d expected, and she found herself smiling, well pleased. It seemed odd to sit unmoving, with nothing to do but let nail polish dry, yet she was determined to hold onto these last, few moments of solitude and pleasant relaxation. No one was asking her for anything or chattering in her ear, she could merely sit and think, with nothing to do and no place to be.
Alyssa’s gaze moved over the salon as she reclined in her own chair, well used to this part of the process, content to survey the room and those seated there. More than happy with the job Lisa had done, she sighed contentedly, thinking at once that her hands represented the rewards of her life. She’d earned every one with hard work and smart choices, and now in her prime, she was ready to enjoy all that could be had from work she loved, a handsome husband and carefree lifestyle. Each of these things told the story of her life, and the story suited her, suited her just fine.
“That’s a great color.”
Maggie’s compliment broke into her thoughts, and Alyssa sent her a smile, “It’s one of my favorites,” she paused, glancing to the mother’s neatly manicured hands. “Yours too, it looks great on you.”
“Just let me spray you, and you’ll be good to go.”
Lisa held a small bottle in hand, lightly spraying first Alyssa’s hands and then Maggie’s. The two women rose, carefully taking hold of purses as they made their way along the aisle through the rows of stations back toward the front of the salon. Alyssa reached the formica-toped counter first, and she set her tiny purse atop its polished surface. “I’ll go back to my standing appointment, if that’s all right Lisa.”
The other nodded, reaching for the slim wallet and removing the credit card Alyssa indicated with a wave of a lacquered hand. “Not a problem — I’ll just ring you through and you’ll be on your way.”
Trina had also taken a place behind the counter, and she retrieved the gift certificate Maggie had presented when she’d entered the salon. “I just need to enter this and you’ll be all set too.”
“I’d like to book another appointment,” she said, sending a quick glance to Alyssa and Lisa. “You two are right — if you don’t make time for yourself, no one will.”
“Good for you!”
“Now you’re talking,” Lisa smiled her approval.
“Perhaps I’ll see you next time,” Alyssa said as she scrawled a figure and signed her name with a flourish to the slip Lisa had placed before her. Gathering her purse she waited as Lisa returned her credit card and slip to her wallet and then retrieved the silver keychain from its place in the tiny purse. “Thanks so much Lisa — I’ll see you soon.”
“Have fun tonight.”
Alyssa’s smile lit her eyes, and she was in that moment full of appreciation for the life that was hers, “Oh, I will.”
Trina brought Maggie’s attention back to the counter. “You can have this same time in two weeks, if you want.”
“That’d be just fine,” Maggie answered, glancing to her watch and realizing she was fifteen minutes later than she’d said — where had the time gone? She shrugged, glancing to her freshly polished nails with no small amount of pride. They were the mark of her new pact with herself, she decided, and she sent the two still standing at the counter a sunny smile. “Have a great day ladies.”
“We will — and you too,” Trina called.
“I will, believe me, I will.”