Today I’m making the hour and a half jaunt to Seoul for personal upkeep: hair, nails, etc. When we lived in Seoul, this was a bi-weekly ritual, more or less. Since moving out to the country, however, its more of a bi-yearly affair. So, in honor of this day, I thought I would post an unfinished piece about my old nail salon near Gayang Station in Seoul.
I don’t know her name, but I want to call her Min. She is a tall, well-built girl in her late twenties with a face that is not beautiful but alluring in its inability to hide the sense of resignation that lingers around the corners of her eyes and mouth. She is the head stylist in the nail salon on the first floor of our building, and although we do not share a common tongue, we recognize that we like each other and that, most likely, if we could communicate, we would be doing so over cocktails, telling each other our life stories, sharing our hopes, desires and the intimate details hidden in the corners of our lives. However, as it stands, we do not and, therefore, will not, and instead she has led me to a chair facing the wall of windows that looks out onto the busy intersection of Yangcheon and Hwagok-ro where the foot traffic competes with that of the cars. She turns on the machine to dry my nails and gently places my hands underneath the warm flow of air that streams out of the grey plastic dryer. Although we can’t share words, we share a brief moment of human contact that is enough to let me know we are never that alone, regardless of how many miles, how many seas and how many languages may be between us and the places we think of as home.
As my nails dry, I watch Min in the reflection of the window. There’s something lovely about her image superimposed on the motion of the street outside. She walks back to the counter with cat-like grace, checks her cell phone and smiles, then starts to tidy up the shop with the two girls in training in their matching red cardigans, white shirts and red bow ties, clumsily trailing behind her. However, the shop is small and there are no other clients and eventually there is nothing else to do but sit and stare out the window and chat as the other two girls settle around her like kittens. Their voices take on a more intimate tone, and I feel like I’m in their bedroom instead of a store with a wall made of windows. I would almost feel embarrassed, but my ignorance of their language dispels any threat of unwanted eavesdropping, and I quickly disappear, fade away and become as translucent as the glass that I don’t look out of but in, onto this moment—private, sweet and sincere.
I have been visiting Min’s shop for the last year since I moved in with James. Before then there had been “Pretty Nail,” and prior to that “Nail Story,” but I’ve been most faithful to Min and her store, not only because of its convenient location, but also because of the overwhelming sense of tranquility there that I have found difficult to find any place else. At times Min’s shop is better than church, which for me serves another purpose as not so much a place for prayer but a place to go and purge myself of the accumulated tears of exhaustion, frustration, stress and sometimes sadness that build up over the course of a week, a month or a lifetime.
So, while church provides bargain weekend therapy for the suggested donation price of 1,000 won, Min’s is more of a refuge, offering momentary respite from the storm of the city midweek. Seoul, like any metropolis, is a conduit for stress and anxiety which can only be expected when over 24.5 million souls share one setting as the backdrop to their disappointments, dreams and other earthly affairs. Looking out the window, the pulse of the city is hypnotizing, but the spell is quickly broken by the peel of laughter coming from Min and the girls at the back of the shop. I check their reflection in the window and see their three heads together looking at someone’s cell phone, clearly laughing at a text message mostly likely sent from an admirer of one of the girls. I smile and am grateful to have been momentarily forgotten and go back to watching the ceaseless tumult of traffic, people and lights on the other side of the glass, which, at this moment, like me, could just as easily be on the other side of the world.
Twelve minutes or so pass by before I look down at my hands to check on the progress of my nails. The dark red paint Min chose for me appears to have hardened and dried, reflecting the white lights of the shop so that each nail seems as though it’s decorated with a jewel or star. With the polish, my hands look almost feminine and pretty, the red paint providing some distraction from their otherwise small size and boyish shape. I had always hoped to have hands like my mother’s whose long, elegant fingers I admired as a girl. She was devoted to their maintenance, and I would observe her routine upkeep of them in wonder and awe. She still maintains her shaping and polishing ritual though her hands are now bent and crooked with arthritis. In the end, time twists everything—memories, rivers, branches, limbs—and I suppose to some extent my patronage of Min’s nail salon is my way of paying homage to my mother’s hands and keeping my recollection of them safe from time’s corrosive tendencies– at least for now.
I look up and can see Min’s reflection moving towards me in the window. I turn my head to face her as she approaches, her long black ponytail swaying back and forth like a pendulum with each step she takes, matching the swagger of her hips. She gently removes my hands from the dryer, which automatically turns off, and inspects each nail. Satisfied she smiles and looks at me. “Finish,” she says, still holding my hands. I smile back at her and use the little Korean I know to say thank you as she rubs some lotion into my palms.
The two girls in training come over from their perch on the pedicure chairs in the back of the shop to help me with my coat and bag. I go up to the counter and hand Min the 15,000 won I have ready in my coat pocket. “Kamsamnidah,” she says as she takes the green and pinkish bills and bows her head. “See you soon,” I reply and after one last smile of appreciation I head to the glass door where I briefly catch a glimpse of myself before pushing it open onto the street where I’m instantly met by a wall of pop music blaring from the cell phone shop next door. The traffic lights change from red to green and another wave of pedestrians and cars washes over Hwagok and Yangcheon-ro as I turn right and make my way home in the cool night air that, although only early March, already begins to hold the promise of spring.