Breaking Hands- Chapter 5
Esther's long red fingernails unwound the gold ribbon that was expertly tied around the most elegant gold speckled tissue wrapping I had ever seen. That's what you could expect from Esther's mom, Sara: glamour, good taste, the opposite of all I had ever known. Inside was a basket filled with curvy and boxy and round glass bottles of all the top, high end perfumes from designers like Chanel, Dior, Lancome.
“Don’t worry, I’ll share.”
Of course she would share, she was generous. I wasn’t. I wouldn’t have shared. I would’ve hidden a treasure like that away to ensure that I never again be without such exquisiteness.
Next came my Christmas present. Sara always tried to include me because she felt sorry for me. My mom was a disaster and Sara knew all about it because they had become acquaintances occasionally sharing the same coke dealer, Tommy. Tommy was a pockmarked, oily beast. At the time, he must have only been around 30 years old, but to a 14, 15 year old girl, he was a disgusting, old man. Why either of our moms would sleep with him was beyond our comprehension having not yet had to offer our bodies for compensation of any kind.
“Here Esther, you open yours at the same time because they match.” Sara handed Esther an obviously bigger present than mine, I couldn’t see how they would match.
We opened at the same time and revealed our loot: bottles of the most expensive nail polish in existence. Esther had scored at least 10 bottles of decadent and varied colors to my 3 bottles of pale peach, pink and peachy pink. I hated pink and peach.
“ Youre nails are much shorter than Esthers so you need to stick with pale colors. Reds look don’t look right on shorts nails,” Sara said. She was right. My hands were not worthy.
From the time I had nails, I bit them obsessively. Sometimes my nailbeds bled because I pulled the nails loose even after my fingers were throbbing in protest I was ashamed of my hands. They were small and stocky like a short, fat, working mans hands and I usually tried to keep them out of sight. My whole life people commented on on my hands declaring what a shame it was that I did that to myself......and such a pretty girl, too.
Once, my mom painted a liquid toxic substance on my fingertips to thwart my efforts but the bitter taste paled compared to the satisfaction of pulling off slivers of nails with my teeth. This wasn't just about the biting, though. This habit was complex and multi layered. Once I had a bitten off nail in my mouth, I would run the slivers between my teeth, a canine and a molar on the left side, with the tip of my tongue. If one nail got stuck there, I would chew off another to push into the space ejecting the trapped nail. Over and over, all day, every day, this is what I did. If you were to watch me do this, you would only only notice my tongue moving around under my cheeks and gums in an obscene way. You might think I had something wrong with me.
I had finally managed to fight this compulsion with the help of Esther. She rewarded me with kind words and would paint my nails for me. It was a form of intimacy I was in desperate need of. By this point, I had shut down all forms of affection from any source. I didn't like to be touched. Hands on my skin, even on my clothes, felt like fire. I went after boys but I didn't want them and I especially didn't want them licking and poking and prodding me. Sex only happened because I was too lazy to say no but also, and more importantly, each new time sex happened, I hoped something would spark in me...... something to make me more human.
So I let my nails grow for the first time in my life. But they still weren’t good nails. They still weren’t lady like or pretty. I looked at my nails and then at Esther's. Hers were long and strong, filed and shiny, very lady like. She was watching me in that way she did, her warm eyes were filled with protectiveness. She was a year younger than me but she took care of me.
“I think red looks good on Claire,” she said.
We were having Christmas in the townhouse that Sara’s lover paid for. He was an older man with a big Italian family and he owned a very successful restaurant. Sara was the bookkeeper at the restaurant but she clearly had a much larger income than bookkeeping would’ve provided. She was a beautiful woman with the same perfect, petite body as Esther and the same puckered, sexual lips. Sara was caucasian though, whereas Esther got half her beauty from her Filipino dad.
The townhouse was extravagant filled with expensive tiles and art and furniture. It was tastefully Spanish, not the tacky southwestern motif that was abundant in Arizona in the 80’s. The floors were all terra cotta octagonal tiles, the walls authentic white stucco, the counters tiled in royal blues and individually painted ones with Mexican designs.
And there was all new furniture. In every single room. The upstairs was balconied with wrought iron overlooking the open floor of the living room, kitchen and dining area. This was Saras reward for putting in her time with Mr. Cobb, the old man. This was the big payoff: the townhouse, the car, the clothes, the boob job. Yes, the boob job. I remember her convalescing in bed with a book always in her hand. But she was always reading anyway, even when she hadn't had surgery. This was something I loved about Sara, a part of her that influenced me in a big way. I had never been around people who read books. I was fascinated by this melodramatic, intellectual gesture: lying in bed with a book.
That townhouse was the third residence I lived through with Esther and Sara, me being the wayward mooch who became like the part time daughter. Sara went through rentals like my own mom did but Sara wasnt succumbing to cocaine. My mom was gone. Far, far gone. Sara was there.
When I first met Esther, she had just turned 15 and was already dabbling in cigarettes and alcohol, but nothing harder than that. I'm pretty sure I gave her the first hit of pot. By that point, I was killing brain cells daily by the dozens. Not just with pot. By the time I was 16, I had done speed, quaaludes, coke, meth, mushrooms, acid. But I wasn't one of those girls. I don't think so, anyway. One of those whose life story is about addiction. It could've gone that way but no, this isn't about drug addiction.
At that time, Sara rented a cute little split level apartment in Tempe, Arizona. They had just moved there from California. She and Esther both had that kind of California glow which was the opposite of the pounded leather effect you got from the Arizona sun.
Even their apartment was breezy and bright like California. Sara was a natural at decorating, she made each new place like a home in a magazine. She layered art with plants and baskets with gauzy ethnic textiles in a way that looked rich but relaxed. That's also how she presented herself; She wasn't rich but she was elegant and well read, delicate and worldly.
For some reason, Esther and I were drawn to the light colored, carpeted stairwell in that apartment, like it was a fort. One last childhood fort before the gates were opened and the world released it hounds.
“What’s a mire?” I asked when our laughs had petered out to little grunts and smiles.
“Mire,” she said, “is mud.”
“Why would someone wallow in it?”
“Because......they are pigs.” She said which set us to giggling again and then she added thoughtfully, “No, really, I think he is talking about being sad.”
Her face changed when she said that. She got quiet and so did I. She laid back against the stairs and put one leg over my lap. I sat there looking at her bare skin against my bare skin. We were still in our swimming suits having spent the day in the apartment complex’s pool. Her suit was Hawaiian print with yellow flowers, mine was also hawaiin with blues and reds. She was already a near complete woman with breasts and round hips. Her butt was perfect. My butt was big but my chest was flat. At least I was half a woman.
The skin on her thigh was smooth and slightly pink from that days sun. I wanted to touch it, to see if it was a soft as it looked. I didn’t know how to touch people, though, so like a boy on a date in a movie theater, I stretched my arms up and made myself yawn. When I brought my hands down again, I let one fall on her leg and suggested we walk to get slurpees to help us get more energy. I was so caught up in being inconspicuous that I didn't get to feel her actual skin. Only the act of it, not the sensation, remains. Esther sat up and grabbed my hand bringing up to her face and said, “What are we going to do about these nails?”
Then she put my palm to her cheek and smiled that big, full lipped, top two bunny teeth showing smile.