Friday, January 3, 2014

The Porn Star Cat, the Java Temple Conspiracy and the Great Duck Massacre

The parlor game goes like this: your porn star name is the name of your first pet and the first street you lived on. My porn star name is Puff Woodhaven. There were some animals before Puff, like the cat who scratched my sister when she was little and was banished, and the Java Temple birds that were done in by a hurricane, but I didn’t personally connect with them.

I knew of the cat who scratched my sister only because the clawing cat, whose name I was never told, was always cited as the reason I couldn’t have one. I knew about the birds because I was the one who found them dead. The Java Temple birds, a type of finch, were a gift from my grandmother.

My mother was one of nine children raised on a farm in North Carolina where animals were food, not pets. She went to the big city, Wilmington, to waitress, go to nursing school, and date soldiers stationed at a nearby Army base. She met one who was shipping out to Hawaii and that seemed the best bet to get off the farm. They married on Dec. 3, 1941. He shipped out to Hawaii, all right, but a little problem called Pearl Harbor meant she had to stay behind. She went back to the farm, where she raised my sister alone, and waited. It was four years before he came back and took them to New York. By that time she had changed her mind about him, but it was too late.

She wasn’t happy about living in her Italian mother-in-law’s house on Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens. My grandmother was a hairdresser who looked like one of the Gabor sisters and acted like one, too. Java Temple birds would have been her taste, not my mother’s. Nana had her own money and a social life. My mother was a housewife, far away from her family. To her, Nana was an exotic alien. To Nana, Mama was a rube. They both made fun of each other's accents behind their backs, and not in a nice way. I arrived into this unhappy household.

When I was four, we moved to a Cape Cod style house in Elmont, Long Island. The only way my father could afford it was to rent out the two upstairs rooms…to his mother. So even when we had our own home, Nana was still living with us, much to my mother’s disgust.

Hurricane Diane hit Long Island in August of that year as a heavy, blustery rain. Even though my mother must have known a hurricane was coming, she put the Java Temple birds in the garage where either the noise of the storm scared them to death or the change in the air chilled them. It was a convenient way to get rid them, to claim they had been forgotten in the garage, a place they should never have been anyway. Even at age 4, I knew it was suspicious. And since I was the one who found them dead in the cage, it was not a great first memory to have.

We spent our summer vacation every year in North Carolina on my mother’s family farm. I hated it. All my Southern cousins, aunts and uncles teased me because I was a Yankee. One summer I found a kitten that was my solace and comfort for the entire two weeks. I named it Puff and it licked my ear, an orgasmically pleasant sensation. I can’t imagine or remember how I convinced my parents to let me bring Puff back to New York, but the cat made the trip. Once home, it wasn’t allowed in the house. School started, and I came home one day to find Puff gone. My inquiries met with evasions. The cat was sick…mumble, mumble.

I never knew what happened to Puff. I just knew my mother had something to do with it. I believed my dolls were alive and had feelings, so I had even more of an emotional investment in a real live animal, and it was gone without explanation. No one even suggested looking for it.

Meanwhile, Nana, undeterred by the mysterious hurricane death of the Java Temple birds or the disappearance of Puff, continued to torment my mother. She was always talking about a monkey her boss at the beauty parlor had, how she wanted to give us the monkey. She had us all hopped up about that monkey, and my mother had to be the bad guy and say no monkey. She had a new baby that she didn’t even want, and that was enough.

One thing my mother and Nana agreed on was children: the fewer the better. Anything more than one was viewed as low class in my father’s family. My mother had three. My brother was redeemed by being a boy and a blonde, blued-eyed one at that.  I was the unnecessary extra girl.

At Easter we’d get three chicks, one for each of us.  Before it became politically incorrect, Woolworth’s would sell chicks that had been dipped in food coloring, so you’d have live pink chicks, green chicks, and blue chicks mixed in with the yellow ones. Chicks are too fragile to live with children or survive long after being bathed in food coloring. They always died and were removed before I knew about it. Or maybe they were just removed and I was told they died. Not one of them made it to chicken, which was just as well, considering what happened to the ducks.

One year we got three ducklings for Easter. I named them Daisy, Daffy and Donald and seemed more enthralled with them than my sister or brother. The ducklings grew up into fat, white ducks and raced around our yard, honking. I could pick them up, but just barely. I’d run around the yard and they’d run with me. There were photographs taken of me hugging the ducks, a whole booklet of 3x3 black and white snapshots. After my mother died and I went through the family photos, I couldn’t find those. I’m not surprised.

One day I came home from school and the ducks were gone. In my memory, there is a photograph in my mind. I am standing in the kitchen. My father is sitting at the kitchen table and my mother is standing by the stove. They look puzzled. My mind has canceled the rest, the part where I feel something, where I react to what I am hearing.

My mother and her accomplice, an old European woman who lived down the block, killed my ducks, plucked them and gutted them. The woman took one carcass as her reward for helping. My mother cooked one for dinner that night and the third was in the freezer. My father is telling my mother she has to get rid of the duck in the refrigerator because it is upsetting me. My mother is annoyed that I am thwarting her plans. She doesn’t understand why my reaction matters.

My grief didn’t stop Dad from eating the already cooked duck, which he dismissed as too greasy. All the love I invested in Daisy, Daffy and Donald…and their eulogy was “too greasy.”

I don’t know how I got past that day, but if I didn’t know it before, I knew it then that I was being raised by a woman who was insensitive and couldn’t be trusted to protect me or anything I cared about.

I never met a therapist who wasn’t appalled by this story. One time I tried to defend my mother by explaining that as a child on a farm, she had raised piglets that were later slaughtered for food. Their bladders could be blown up like balloons. Their little tails made a tasty treat when cooked over an open flame. Those were the stories of her childhood she shared. Intellectually, though, I still could not understand how even a child raised on a farm could do this, being a devotee of Charlotte’s Web.

“But you weren’t raised on a farm,” one therapist pointed out. “Your mother wasn’t thinking about your feelings.”

No, she wasn’t. She never did. But even so, she knew it was a pivotal moment in my childhood and our relationship, even though it was never talked about until the end. I left home at 18 to go to college and never came back. We always lived at great distances from each other and only saw each other for a day or two at a time, now and then.

By the time she was 50, she was in declining health, both mentally and physically. She left my father and tried living with my sister, who was too religious for her. She tried living with one of her own sisters who promptly put her in a mental hospital in South Carolina where electric shock therapy only made her worse. Then she came to stay with me.

I was a gracious, if indifferent, host. I worked during the day and my son was in school. Our condo was tiny. There wasn’t much for her to do and she was alone all day. She couldn’t remember how to cook or clean anymore and the least little thing rattled her. After a week she called my father and said I didn’t need her so she was coming back to him. I drove her to the airport. It was the last time I saw her. Her health declined rapidly after that and she died the following year.

Out of nowhere, as we were walking down the ramp toward the boarding gate at the airport, she started talking about something that obviously bothered her. It was disjointed and rambling and it took me awhile to figure out she was talking about the ducks! Twenty-five years too late, and now we’re going to talk about the ducks? Finally? It was like she knew this was going to be the last time she saw me, and this was what she had to say, but she didn’t know what to say because she still didn’t get it.

She said it was humiliating to have to beg for old lettuce from the grocer. That was her explanation. That was it. The simplicity of her reasoning caught me by surprise. There was no time to go into it anyway. She was literally boarding the plane and she was too mentally disoriented now for me to get any satisfaction out of attacking her.

I didn’t get a chance to say: Long Island is famous for its duck farms. Surely someone sold duck food. Or we could have taken them to Valley Stream Park and let them loose at the pond. I think I could have been persuaded to let my ducks enjoy the company of other ducks there.

Why was decapitating, gutting, and cooking them the only option? We weren’t so poor that we needed the food. And did she really think I was going to be all right with that? Me? The child who never got over my turtle dying?

We never got to have that conversation. So instead, I spent my midlife crisis years drawing pictures of the ducks for a therapist, who was more interested in discovering repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Isn’t childhood duck abuse enough trauma?

They don’t sell chicks or ducks in Woolworth’s anymore. I don’t think there are any Woolworth’s left. Ducks needing to be rescued are not easy to come by and really difficult to get past landlords, so I didn’t become the crazy duck lady. The need to protect and rescue something would take a different turn.

Excerpt from chapter 2 of Confessions of a Crazy Cat Lady, my book on Amazon Kindle

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Pathetic Little Notoriety

Fame has it up and down sides. Most of us would like a dose of it, but it can have a bitter aftertaste, even when your fame is more like a minor notoriety.

For two-three years in the early 1990s, my essays appeared regularly on Style Weekly's Back Page, but my photo never appeared with them, so my fame level was just name recognition among the small group of people who read the back page of this weekly newspaper. One time, a man hearing my name presented me with a copy of Style and asked me to autograph it, which struck me as bizarre, not to mention a useless gift for him. (It was very bittersweet, since the only job I could find at the time of this notoriety was working part-time in a hotel gift shop for $5 an hour, while at the same time Style was running ads with the names of their Back Page regulars as the "voices of the city.")

To this day, 20 years later, when I say my name, I still occasionally meet someone who will remember a particular essay I wrote. That’s kind of gratifying. And it helped quickly fill my Twitter feed with followers when I was really just another tweeter in a vast sea of tweets.

At the same time in the early ‘90s, I was also a volunteer for channel 12’s Call 12. I was visible for seconds in the background of this noon news segment a couple of times a week, answering phones. I was never identified by name, never spoke on camera, was rarely if ever seen in close up. Yet people on the street recognized me from that. I actually had more fame from that than from writing, (although when I quit volunteering, the recognition instantly ceased.)  It was frightening at the time. I wondered what life must be like for the news anchors and reporters who were on TV all the time if I had strangers coming up to me, smiling as if they knew me.

Huge fame is a nightmare in many ways. You want the money or the credit for your work, the appreciation of your beauty or talent, but with it comes the crazies. If even the most pathetic little notoriety as I once experienced attracted crazies, imagine what it’s like for the legitimately famous. I think the people who truly appreciate your work and are real fans politely hang back. The ones who are chasing every familiar face have their own agenda and are not fans. They want the photo of them with the famous person to validate themselves. I have no idea why anyone ever wants an autograph. I guess it’s for the excuse to stand next to the famous person for a minute. Then there are the assassins and the stalkers and the delusional who think they are in a personal relationship with the famous person.

For 11 years I owned a monthly newspaper about local music that did not do puff pieces or advance stories. We just did reviews. We liked bands or disliked bands. I never printed more than 2,000 copies a month. I doubt I had more than 800 readers at any time, and the vast majority of them were the musicians being reviewed. Nobody influential read it. We did not make or break any careers. We could not help anyone get a record deal, or even a gig. We did not help anyone make any money, and we made no money ourselves producing the newspaper. The money we took in from advertisers went almost completely to the print shop that printed the paper. I paid reviewers $5 a review. I did not receive a salary from the paper.

What we did do was we liked some bands that other bands didn’t like, or even hated, and it infuriated them that we cast their enemies in a favorable light from time to time, even if the glow from that light meant absolutely nothing in the scheme of things. Musicians can be extraordinarily jealous and bitter people because so much of what makes one band shoot to the top over all the others is just sheer luck.

And the embittered would take out their wrath on me. Abusive personalities by nature, it was comfortable and easy for them to abuse me because I am a woman, and they would do so the way men abuse women…by calling me fat, ugly, a skank, whore, bitter, desperate, unlovable, the c-word (and I don’t mean Cat Lady, but that c-word, too), all the insults used to bully and debase women. I am convinced in my very bones if a man had owned and edited that newspaper, they would not have persisted in their abuse as long and as viciously…or even at all.

Yet at the same time that I was all these horrible things, still, in their minds only I had the great power to make something in their life better, to right some wrong for them, to elevate them to where they thought they should be, and I didn’t do it. And for that I must be punished. It doesn’t matter how many times or how convincingly I explain that nothing I did or didn’t do would have made a difference in their lives.

I ceased publishing that newspaper in 2004 when I no longer had the time or interest to devote to it, and a couple of those characters continue to stalk me online, a full decade later, with all the same complaints and bitterness. It is now 20 years since the very brief period when the paper was actually a little popular, and this is still going on. This week I received a message through Facebook that one of them intended to shit on my grave. I reminded my husband that I have no desire to be buried in this town, for other reasons than this -- but now also for this -- because even if I live another 30 years, this person will have this mission to accomplish because that’s the only goal  he has left that he might be able to fulfill, fame having eluded him. That is the terrible nature of fame, even in my most pathetic case.

Monday, May 20, 2013

My Shoulder Chip


I was working in production at The News Leader when I was in my twenties, even though I really wanted to be a reporter. That wasn't happening. I had no mentors or connections, and without that, I needed to go to some small town and get experience on a little community newspaper. I just had a hard time accepting that truth when other people in production were being promoted upstairs to the newsroom. One girl was society-connected and went to a classy private women's college. She got the wedding desk job I applied for. The other was an unwashed hippie type who slept around and sold drugs to editors, so she was given a copy desk job, which actually turns out to be a dead end of the worst kind. The third had not even finished a degree in anything, but she was taken upstairs as a reporter. She was black. There were no black reporters. I guess they needed one.

So when I was given an opportunity to write for the employee newsletter, I thought that was my chance to gain some experience and acquire a mentor. The editor of the newsletter was a former News Leader editor who had been forced upstairs to the executive offices just to get him out of the newsroom when he reached retirement age and wouldn't step down to make room for new blood. I have no idea what he did other than the employee newsletter, which he never wrote any articles for. He just supervised it. It came out infrequently.

Over time, I realized, although he let me write the occasional feature story, mostly he wanted me to sit in his office while he told stories or pretended to work. He kept his door open so executives passing by would see me sitting in his office. One time he offered to drive me to my car, which was parked several blocks away from the newspaper office, and then circled the block around the newspaper several times before actually taking me there. It began to feel very creepy, like he wanted someone to see me driving away with him. I felt like an ornament, not a contributing member of his staff. And in the year or more I contributed to his paper, he never did a thing to advance my career in any way. Finally, I told him I could no longer freelance for him. I didn't have the time.

Not long after, I applied for a job as writer/editor for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board newsletter. That job would have changed my life. It was more money, more responsibility, and would have finally put me on the path to working in my chosen field. Without it, I spent another 15 years lanquishing in secretarial and assistant type jobs. I felt the interview had gone very well. When I didn't hear anything, I called and not only was I told I didn't get it, I was told why -- which is very unusual. Usually they just say another candidate was a better fit. One of my references said I had a "chip on my shoulder."

I was shocked, disappointed, chastised, and knew immediately which reference it was. For years, I slumped under the burden of that, and only today, three decades later, have I realized that although he meant that as a damning insult to ensure I didn't benefit from leaving him, it was actually a virture. It meant even at my young age, I felt confident in my ability. I felt I could do more and deserved to do more. I was too good to flirt with an aging old man and massage his ego. I felt I could stand on my own without a society college pedigree or trafficking in sex and drugs. I didn't need Affirmative Action to get a leg up.

But obviously I needed something, and that was the confidence to not let that man's comment rock my confidence like it did. I vowed I would go to his funeral and give him the evil eye in his casket, but it took him another 20 years to die, and by then I didn't care. Nobody did. Despite his illustrious career as an editor-terror through the 1950s and early part of the '60s, he barely got a mention in his own paper when he died.

I lived with that chip for just as long, realizing too late that it was actually the best thing about me.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why Men Break Your Heart


There’s no glossing over it. Being abandoned by a man is a hard thing, and it’s bad for months. You can get through it, though. Sometimes you look back and see the worst of it was just a bridge that got you to a good place you never imagined you could reach. At least, that’s been my experience. But it’s a gut-wrenching trip over that bridge.

I have been thinking about this again lately because I've been close to three women in the past few years who were all abandoned with little to no advance warning and left reeling. 

This is the thing. You may think everything is fine, but it's not. The reason you don't know is because the other one is waiting, waiting for the new person to come along who will catch them so they can walk out of their old life right into the new one without a single day of feeling lost and alone. The only problem is your crying and hysterics as they go out the door. What's the problem? "We haven't been happy in a long time, and you know it."

I don’t understand this mysterious “happiness” people always think they are missing, like it’s out there someplace, but there it is. Men are really guility of this a lot. They will stay with you, eating your food, letting you pay their bills and clean all around them, until they find the new woman, and then they go. They won't leave their comfort zone until the next one is lined up and ready. 

***

This happens often around age 40. You think you only have one last chance at some elusive happiness and something snaps in your head and heart. You want to try to grab that mythical brass ring one more time. It’s not about the person you’re leaving at all, even though it’s going to be harder on them than anyone else.

***
The one who is left behind may think they desperately want to put the relationship back together, but it’s a cracked cup. Even if you get it back in the cupboard, it will always be a cracked cup. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life thinking if you don’t meet expectations, or keep him happy, he might leave again. Some women are willing to make the sacrifice, but who are you, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy? What are you getting out of this? It's not like you're keeping a cheating husband in order to maintain the title of First Lady of the Land or get maximum sympathy at a future state funeral. 

That's why the right thing to do is not to fight it. Try not to let him ever see you cry. Make it your goal to get back up and put your life back together without him. Yes, the old move-on cliche. You can do it. 

It’s hard to imagine a different life when you’re in the middle of the last one being torn asunder. But gradually, your eyes will perceive new pleasures on the horizon, and you will move steadily toward them. I go for months now without thinking about old heartbreaks. Most of the time, I can’t even remember what they looked like. It may feel really bad now – there’s no getting around that, so just focus on getting through.

***
There’s not much you can do when temptation meets up with general malaise. A man once told me: with men, it’s never the woman. It’s just the timing. There’s always other women making themselves available to your man. Sometimes they hit him at just the right moment, when he’s bored or doesn’t know where his life is going. Sometimes this other woman lets go of your man right away, and you never know anything even happened. And sometimes the other woman wraps a web around your man he can’t get out of, and now he’s stuck in a new drama. Like she’s pregnant. Or threatening suicide. Or has become a Fatal Attraction type that calls him at home or shows up at the door. You need her...and yeah, him, too, now...out of your life. This is their drama, not yours.

***
Yesterday, I was with a group of people and we were talking about our dads. Every person at the table's dad had done the same thing. Some had waited until our moms died. Some had waited until the kids were at least in high school or older, and then they met someone new. And in every single case, the new wife or girlfriend and her family totally absorbed our dads. Our dads became less invested in their own children. His money -- our inheritance -- started going out the window toward the needs of the new wife or girlfriend and her kids. And when all these dads died, all their money disappeared with them. Some people at the table were still really upset and trying to fight the new wife or girlfriend, but I can only shrug. Dads are men. They abandon their spouses, their children, for the new ones. Whatever the reason. For "chemistry." For "happiness." To feel young again. They leave behind a lot of hurt and are mystified that no one understands. It makes perfect sense to them. 

***
I can empathize with the pain. The most recent victim invested five years in her relationship, but there were signs. Neither one would give up their apartments to share one. They kept their safe houses the whole time. They went through a lot of hard times together, but still kept this wall of noncommitment. Then she came down with a routine, but communicable, ailment and they didn't see each other for just one week to avoid his catching it. That was all it took. The new woman, who magically appeared at the right place at just the right time, has Angelina Jolie-like powers -- beauty, intelligence, a direction in life. If I can comfort the abandoned one, all I can say is there's no fighting this kind of enemy, the Super Other Woman. Men are powerless against them. Your only hope is she will tire of him quickly, but then why in the world would you want him back? Better to regroup. Climb out of the rut and shake it off. I like both these people, but they both need more than they had with each other. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Isn't It Romantic


When I decided to get married for the third time in 2001, according to statistics, it was not a popular option. More and more couples in America were opting just to live together. People advised me not to do it. Our tax refunds would take a beating. There was no real financial benefit to it. That there’s actually a penalty made me very reluctant.

But I had seen this episode of “E.R.” about two lesbians in the emergency room. One had a stroke and her partner said she didn't want extraordinary medical intervention. But her partner didn’t have a legal right to make any decisions for her. The doctors had to contact an estranged brother and get his permission, and he said to try to resuscitate her, so the poor lesbian partner had to watch while they entubated her lover until she died.

Yikes. I had an estranged brother, and I didn't want him making any decisions about me. I also had an adult son who lived in New York and I really hadn't had much contact with in a decade. I had a father living in North Carolina who I hadn't seen in 20 years. The idea that my boyfriend of four years wouldn’t be able to say, “Don’t tube her until she dies…”

Isn’t this romantic? Is this how you plan a wedding?

Why don’t you just give him power of attorney, someone suggested. Because a marriage license was $33 in Hanover County, and a legal document drawn up by a lawyer was more, that's why.

Besides, we had been together five years, and I felt like a silly Cougar woman still introducing him as my boyfriend. Women my age, with heavy Miss Clairol habits, shouldn’t have boyfriends. It sounded addled. It would be even stupider introducing him as my legal guardian.

“It’s time we thought about getting married,” I told him. “What’s the least we can do and still satisfy your family?”

He had never been married, and his family likes the weddings. The last cousin wedding we attended was at a mansion you could rent out for weddings and receptions. There was an oil painting of the bride in a room with bowls of shrimp on ice all around it. All the napkins had the couple’s names on them and the wedding date. Everyone got a miniature plastic wedding cake. When you pulled the tiny bride-and-groom top off, it was a bubble blower. You blow bubbles after the departing couple instead of throwing messy rice, which kills birds or something like that.

There was a free bar, guys in tuxes cooking made-to-order omelets on hot plates, and a deejay playing records. People got loaded and did the Macarena and the Electric Slide around a pool full of floating floral arrangements.

My 80-year-old dad, who sent me $500 when I eloped at age 20, and $500 again when I eloped again at age 22, wasn't going to pony up for a big wedding now. I’d rather have a car anyway, if he wanted to pay for something, which he did not. No one in my family has ever seen me get married, and I’d like to keep it that way. They never approve and they’re always right, so let’s not get started.

My boyfriend said his family would like to see him get married, even if I didn't want anyone to see me get married. We could go to a magistrate at the courthouse, but the immediate family and a grandmother had to be invited. The immediate family also included his father and his new wife.

Damn it. That meant I needed a dress and a ring now because people have to see something. License, magistrate’s fee, dress and a ring. Would that be enough of a show to justify their attending, but not big enough to make my family think I shafted them on the invitations? This was getting complicated, and expensive. I picked a Tuesday night in July at the historic Hanover Courthouse, which also happened to be the fifth anniversary of our first date.

Soon after the decision was made, at a bar where my boyfriend's band was playing, he stood up and said, “We have an announcement…” So now I had to invite the band and their dates. And all his friends.

Looking back, from the perspective of 11 years later, I have a lot of regrets. I regret not actually doing a better job of the wedding and inviting all my estranged family, what few friends I had, and yes, the people at work, even though most of them would not have attended. It's the thought that counts. My wedding video doesn't show anyone at all from my side, and consequently, seems all about the groom. Not that that's a bad thing. It was his first marriage, after all.

I regret the dress I picked. Finding a dress was next to impossible for my size and a late afternoon wedding in the middle of summer when you are really too old to go strapless or have bare arms, and you no longer have a waist. I didn't want to spend a lot of money. I ended up with an off-white sheath with a full-length vest over it and a white Jackie Kennedy-like hat that I decorated with plastic flowers and ribbons. My bangs were too short. You really need to spend more time than I did on the dress and the hair because you will never be photographed so much in your life unless you become a movie star. I didn't hire a photographer, but everyone there brought their camera and sent me pictures.

And then to my horror...I saw the dress again on the mother-of-the-bride in a slideshow of a redneck wedding held at a Waffle House west of Roanoke. The slideshow won some kind of journalism photography award and was in an exhibit. Every woman in the wedding party was obese.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Occupied by Nail Salons


I don’t know how my parents felt about people of Japanese or German descent after World War II. I did notice that my mother was still angry at Gen. MacArthur even as he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. I couldn’t figure out why, being a child, but years later I knew I wasn’t going to feel too bad when Gen. Westmoreland died. He sent a lot of boys my age to their deaths, and some of it may have been because of career or aggrandizement rather than the necessity of war. Why do generals tend to die in bed?

So I feel a little odd to see so many Vietnamese restaurants in my neighborhood now, or that the most popular beer joint is called Mekong. This was once the enemy. Now it seems like we have been occupied. And the biggest occupier is the nail salons.

I am still looking for the perfect salon. Ever since I became addicted to shellac manicures and the occasional pedicure a year ago, I have been going to a different salon every time, but it’s hard to tell that it’s different. No one speaks English at any of them. Sometimes I ask where they’re from, and inevitably it’s Vietnam. I never hear Thailand, where I lived for two years during the height of the war, or China, or Taiwan, or Malaysia, or Japan, or Korea, or any other Asian nation. Or any Hispanic nation. Or European country.  It is always Vietnam. Why does this one country have a monopoly on nail salons in my town?

A big part of why I have not picked a favorite salon and settled in yet is because I can’t tell a difference. I don’t know what any of the women are saying to each other – and they talk continuously to each other in their native language while working on customers – so I have no sense of who they are, what they are interested in, what they think. I have no anecdotes to tell my husband when I get home. I hear nothing at the salon – nothing I understand anyway. I have not bonded with any of the technicians. I especially don’t care for having the man in the salon – and there’s usually one – do my nails.

The prices tend to be very close from place to place. The service is identical. Pedicure chairs and foot baths are all the same. I  request that my cuticles not be cut, but they don’t understand me. It becomes too hard to explain and throws them off their routine. As a teen living in Thailand, I got 50 cent manicures and 75 cent pedicures, the latter included having my feet and legs scrubbed with pumice stones up to my knees. But they also had a bad habit of cutting my toenails into points, which resulted in ingrown toenails and visits to the Army medical hospital for painful toe surgery.

Since restarting pedicures, I have developed a mild nail fungus on one toe, which makes me wonder how thoroughly the foot basins are washed, or hands, or tools, after each customer, or what gets into my toe when I shuffle out in those flimsy salon flip flops because my big toes take half a day to dry? I never had toe fungus before I started getting pedicures again.

Is the economy of Vietnamese nail salons like having Apple products made in China? If Americans ran nail salons, would manicures be too expensive for most women? My technician chatted to me a lot yesterday, her eyes twinkling. She spoke some English, but still I couldn’t make out much of it, so we didn’t bond, although I appreciated the other tech in the salon sitting beside me and rubbing my arms affectionately as my nails dried. I could see why so many soldiers were attracted to Asian women when they were in service, and at the same time were able to leave them behind. It feels good for the moment, but tomorrow’s girl is just as good as yesterday’s, and the relationship is comforting, but brief and forgotten.