“Would you mind if our male therapist, Grayson, takes care of you today?” The owner of the salon asks. He runs a feather duster over a shelf arranged with the accoutrements of the beauty trade. Apparently, I am the first customer of the day.
Interesting. He calls the person who will beautify my feet a therapist.
”I don’t mind,” I say, lifting my shoulders in the manner of a woman who wouldn’t care if her feet are cradled on a man’s knees.
In seconds I regret the casual acceptance. My feet are ugly. Gnarly veins trace thick blue skeins on my forefeet. Cracks run in vertical lines along both heels. One one foot, the big toe nail has grown thick and yellow and on the other I’ve lost a nail. I’d have preferred a little oriental woman from one of the other salons along the street; I imagine she’ll be less judgmental.
Can a man make my feet attractive again?
Even as I waver, the owner ushers me into a room where Grayson sits in front of a pedicure tub. The man entrusted with my feet keeps his head low. He arranges his tools, like a surgeon, on a tray right next to him, then rearranges them. I suppress a giggle when I notice Grayson wears gray sneakers, gray pants, and a gray shirt.
I place my feet in the foot spa, startle as hot water laps over my feet.
Grayson doesn’t greet me or make small talk. Shy, I decide. That makes two of us in a small, awkward space.
Or, he doesn’t speak English. With a name like Grayson? Has he always been called a therapist ?
He picks up my right foot and examines my nails, his head close to my toes.
Does he think they are beyond repair?
My feet were beautiful, once. My man had kissed my toes, and called my feet enchanting, Don’t ruin them, he said. Both, my feet and the relationship, became casualties.
Grayson has pierced ears, adorned by a pair of sharp toothpick-like sticks. His hair is short, and he’s used styling gel to coax peaks.
Seventies music plays from unseen speakers. Designed to keep customers entertained, I guess.
“This little piggy,” my man would say, “has walked its way into my chest; this little piggy has waltzed into my heart, and this little piggy has wormed its way into my mouth.” My big toe would fit in his mouth, snug, as he sucked it. He said it was the sweetest thing he’d ever tasted.
I tried it once. My toe stopped just short of my chin.
Grayson cuts my toenails, then files them. While he works on one foot, the other relaxes in the warmth of the bath. He proceeds to prod, poke, and coax dirt and debris from under the nail, and around the cuticle with his tools.
I flinch and he murmurs his first word to me: “Sorry.”
Gentler now, he applies some ointment on the nails and places my foot back into the tub.
He uses a foot file to slough off dead skin, and to smooth each heel. The tingling, tickling sensation is toe-curling intense. Such intimacy, with a stranger who won’t meet my eyes. Does the job require so much concentration that he cannot make conversation? I am tempted to stretch out my hand, run it over Grayson’s gel-slick hair.
What if I raise my foot just a tad, push the big toe up toward him? Will it hit him in the face? Will my big toe encounter his mouth? Will my actions make him talk?
Grayson’s hands are sure and strong on my feet. His fingernails, short and clean. He scrubs and scrubs, first with a brush and then, still dissatisfied, he tackles the calluses with a foot grater.
Oh my goodness! I close my eyes in response to his massage. He kneads his way from stress points on my feet all the way to my calf. I want to shutter the pleasure on my face; I want to wallow in the sensory experience.
I’d moan when my man massaged my feet. We’d sit on the couch watching television and I’d slide into a recline, placing my feet on his thighs. He’d begin with a casual caress which grew urgent in minutes. He’d play with one digit at a time, then the whole foot, from heel to toe. The suck on the big toe was the finale. He liked my right foot better than the left. “This is mine,” he’d say.
Yesterday, I learned he’d found a woman with beautiful hands, a hand model. Does she allow him to make love to her hands, when they are her fortune?
Grayson turns around and pushes a tray of nail colors toward me. “Polish?” he asks. His second word to me.
I examine the shades. Feeling adventurous, I pick a luminous, shimmery green.
He slides separators on to my toes. Painstakingly, he paints one toe nail at a time. He goes over them again, slow, deliberate, an artist creating his masterpiece.
When Grayson finishes, I examine his handiwork while he replaces tools. I point and flex my toes. They look like they belong to someone else.
“Lovely,” I say. “Thanks!”
He deserves a good tip. I withdraw some cash from my bag.
We stand at the same time, face to face at last. I can’t focus on the curve of his smile. Instead I’m fascinated by the fact that my foot therapist has only one eye. It shines a luminous green.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
A wedding vow, a soft kiss, a baby’s gurgle, a girl’s tear, a mother’s hug, a meal shared. I’ve located beauty in the expected and the unexpected, in the mundane and the sublime. Beauty is found in the tiniest of things, yet makes an immense impact.
While the recognition of loveliness begins with the sense organs, it transcends the sensory. Beauty lifts my heart and makes it soar, going beyond the eyes, the ears, the nose, the skin and the tongue. I recognize the intensity and magnitude of a glorious happening; it’s that which leaves me awestruck and stupefied. It’s that which surpasses my physical self to touch the very essence of my being.
Like all humans, I am able to discern beauty in my viscera, deep in my cells. Because beauty makes my soul bloom.
May we all continue to cherish it.
Sudha Balagopal is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. Her short fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, The Tishman Review, Lowestoft Chronicle and Superstition Review among other journals. More at: sudhabalagopal.com.