The Washing Room
My Ngoc To
I’ve always wondered what kind of lifestyle it takes for someone to grow fungus on their body. I used to think that these people were the exception, but I have touched too many feet with clumps of dirt scrunched up under the nails to continue believing that the majority of the population keeps itself clean.
I especially loved thick, yellow toenails hiding years of bacteria between layers of keratin. Heels covered in calluses. Toe hair. Sores. A fine layer of dead, crusted skin running from the heels all the way up to the knees.
This is the world of a nail technician: flakes of dead skin and cuticles, bits of nails and hair, dirt squished into balls nudged into the corners of spa chairs. Anything that could get filthy got filthy, and three years of subjugation to this law taught me to wash my hands.
In the back of the salon, behind the television, nestled in the corner between the heaters and the water fountain, was a small room equipped with a toilet and a sink. There were little decorations as well: a plunger, a scrubber, and a dusty fake plant that had claimed its territory on top of the paper towel dispenser for the past ten years. There was also a mirror above the sink. It was covered with toothpaste, grease, spit: every imaginable form of human matter. There was a sign above the door that said “Restroom” for all those who desired to use it as such. I never paid much attention to that sign though. To me, it was the washing room.
Once, when I was in the third grade, I fell asleep on the bus and missed my stop, so my bus driver drove me home last, after she finished dropping off the other kids. It was a long drive and she talked for most of it. Towards the end she asked me what I planned to do when I got home. I wanted to say that I would take a shower. I suddenly thought about how wonderful it felt to be clean after a long day of school. I imagined that there was water pounding on my head and clear blue shampoo that I could pour on my hands and then lather into my hair. I imagined opening the shower curtains and seeing my bathroom mirrors, fogged up from the steam and the heat, and suddenly I wanted to take a shower right then and there. The bus was so hot—and my clothes were dripping with sweat from my hour-long ride. I wanted so badly to tell her everything, but I couldn’t.
I didn’t know how to say “shower.”
My cheeks turned red. I hung my head trying to think of the word, but, after a long pause, when it still hadn’t come to me, I lifted my head and said, “I wash myself.”
It started with two bags. Back then we didn’t have enough money to buy a washing machine for the store, so we just brought all the dirty towels home with us. Every night, my dad hauled these sacks with him. Whenever I heard the garage open, I ran downstairs and waited to see him come through the door. It was always the same order: the buzzing of the door, footsteps, a bang as he kicked the door open, and then the crackle of thin plastic as the bags flew through the door and slid across the linoleum floor.
Sometimes I helped him wash them. I would hand him the towels, five at a time, and he would carefully place them in the washer so that the weight was evenly distributed. Most of the towels were only slightly damp. But on occasion, I would pluck out a sopping wet one covered in slimy green mucus—the special aloe vera scrub that we slop over people’s legs in a deluxe pedicure. Other towels had bits of hair—perhaps from the workers—or bits of nail or skin that had latched on during the pedicure. But most of the towels were relatively clean. I was secretly thankful every time I could pick up just the towel itself. After we washed the towels, I washed my hands and then helped my mom cook dinner. My parents always ate quickly. Twenty minutes was more than enough to finish a few bowls of rice, enough time for the towels to wash. Once we finished, I scurried to the laundry room and helped my dad unload the towels into the dryer.
In the morning, I would come downstairs to find a pile of fluffy, white cotton towels folded neatly and arranged into piles, already fitted into a bag that was squarely tied at the top. And then it was that same order again, except backwards: when I would hug my dad, watch him pull the bags through the door, and then stare at the door as the garage grumbled onwards and into silence.
It was inevitable that I work there. All of us had to do it—it was the family business. My mother stopped being my mother and turned into my boss at the nail store. My two older sisters spent their high school days marching back and forth between home and the store. They called it war, and working at the store meant killing off customers as quickly and efficiently as possible. They would be called up for service when the boss didn’t have enough troops to handle the army. We would be playing Goldfish on the kitchen table, or stepping out the front door to walk to the park, and then the phone would ring.
Sometimes we pretended it hadn’t happened. Sometimes, we waited to see if it would start again, for only then would it be urgent. But the verdict always came, and it was a silent statement. I saw my sisters pick up the phone, drop their smiles, drop the phone, and then drop me—they had to go.
Days like this passed by gradually, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly, it was my turn.
I eat three times a day: once in the morning before I go to work, once six hours later when I’m at work, and again when I come home. At the store, I eat between customers. I finish with one pedicure, run to the backroom and pop in a bowl of instant noodles, and then run back one pedicure later to slurp down the entire bowl in five minutes. I have to because I have another customer waiting outside. If my boss doesn’t see me in five minutes, she calls the intercom and tells me to run back up to the front because the customers are starting to squirm in their chairs. The moment I finish my last noodle, I sprint to the washing room and wash my bowl. Sometimes I am in such a rush that I accidentally splash the broth or I leave soap marks on the mirror, but I don’t care and I don’t have enough time to wash it off because I have to go.
Each of her toenails had to be the exact same length and shape; a millimeter off made her scream in protest. She glowered over me the whole time I was cutting her cuticles, pretending to be in pain and squirming at the lightest suggestion of pain, and, when I scrubbed her feet, she made me scrub them again because a spot on her heel still felt a bit rough. Her legs were fat and heavy. I tried lifting them up to massage her. She saw me struggling and didn’t even make an effort to help. She wanted white tips on her toenails, which meant that I had to paint a thin layer of white at the edge of every nail and then take a brush and meticulously shape them into whatever shape she wanted. She then asked for a design. I gave her the design. She made me change it twice. When I did it for the second time, she bent over, made a face, and said, “Oh whatever I’ll just have to live with it.”
The other employees have first pick of customers; the good customers—the clean, polite, considerate, and generous ones—are given to employees according to their seniority and skill. Not only was I the youngest, but I had no experience with acrylic nails, waxing, or any other service beyond the basic manicure and pedicure. I could only rub feet and squeeze hands. I only knew how to cut people and scrub their parts.
This left me with a splendid selection of customers ranging from the dirty to the impolite, the indecisive to the cheap. At times, I found all these traits in a single customer. Like the lady whose nails I labored over for two hours.
She ended up not giving me a tip. When my boss came and saw my work, she apologized to the customer, “Please forgive this girl—she is new.” I cleaned up. My boss continued, “I won’t charge you. Tell you what—I’ll redo the pedicure for free.” My boss never looked at me. That was my mom. That was my first pedicure.
I finished cleaning. I gathered my basket. Then I went to the washing room, where I washed my face. And then I stayed there until my eyes were dry and white again.
One day my boss told me to do a pedicure at the first spa chair. I went to the back and grabbed my work basket, two towels, and a pair of gloves. I came back up front to find an old black man, probably in his late fifties, soaking his feet in the tub at the foot of his spa chair. I asked him how he was, and he replied, without looking at me, with a single nod. Trying not to think about his silence—perhaps he couldn’t understand what I said—I put on my gloves. When my boss saw that I was getting ready to start the pedicure, she came over and, without saying a word, gave me a mask to put over my nose. I gave her a quizzical look. She sighed and said, “Just use it.”
I put on the mask and asked the man to lift his feet from the now murky water. They rose up from the whirlpool bath like two creatures sprouting from the sea: huge and brown, covered in scales and barnacles and disease. I looked at my boss. She met my gaze firmly, and by the look of her eyes I immediately knew that I was to stay quiet; that, although this pedicure would take me three times as long as usual to finish, it would cost as much as the basic pedicure; that she gave me this pedicure because none of the employees would touch his feet.
There are four basic parts to a pedicure: shaping the toenails, cutting the cuticles, scrubbing the calluses, and massaging the leg.
His toenails were a quarter-of-an-inch thick. They had the texture and hardness of wood. They had grown to an incredible length and, as they grew, curved inwards. They were infected with fungus, green in some areas and purple in others. The man avoided eye contact.
I looked back down and grimly got to work. Even while wearing the mask, I could smell the bacteria on his skin. I had to think of a way to cut the trunks of toenails into stubs. I found my answer in the cuticle cutter, a pair of scissors with short, chubby blades. It was smaller than the nail clipper, but its blades were far enough apart for me to cut down his nails. So I went to work, starting with the little toe. It took me dozens of cuts to whittle each nail down to size. I made sure to cut them as short as possible—right down to the skin, so that no filth could accumulate underneath his nails. As I worked, little pieces of skin would sometimes fly out, and I’d duck as they nearly hit my eyes.
Fifteen minutes later, I finished and could move onto the cuticles. Most people clean the cuticles around their nails, which makes it easier to tell what’s cuticle and what’s tender skin. But this man’s cuticles were so thick that they grew in layers, forming a white gelatinous wall around the sides of his toenail, leaving me terrified that I would accidentally prick him.
Nevertheless, I started cutting, feeling my way around by judging the softness of what my blade was touching; if it was too elastic, then I knew it was skin. I was working on his big toe when I saw blood—I had cut a small part of his skin, and it was bleeding and spewing blood onto the rims of his toes.
I have cut people before, and every time I apply a clotting solution that makes the blood shrivel and dry. What disturbed me was his silence. When I had finished treating the wound, I fearfully looked up at him, but he had not noticed a thing. At first I thought it was because he was very tolerant of pain, but then I realized that he could not feel any pain; the bacteria on his toes had long ago killed the nerves in the skin, so that the cuts and wounds and festers on his toes were completely unknown to him. I was glad that he did not notice my shivers.
Now came the part that I dreaded most: the heels. The whole time, his feet had been completely flat down. I asked him to raise his feet up and prop them on their heels. He did, and in doing so revealed an entire topography of canyons, plateaus, and rivers that ran the length of his foot. It was a landscape made completely out of dead skin, dirt, and calluses.
By now I was trembling and fighting the urge to cry. I grabbed the callus remover. This is a liquid that, when applied to the bottom of the foot, will dissolve the layers of dead skin and calluses. I smothered his feet in this substance, and then I waited five minutes as it started eating away at his skin. When it had finished soaking, I got the razor and started shaving away his calluses. By the time I finished, there was a small mountain of brown foot flakes on the floor.
Scrubbing time followed. I scrubbed, and I scrubbed, and I scrubbed. I lifted his feet into the air and scrubbed every single nook and cranny of his foot. I scrubbed the sides of his toes, I scrubbed around his toes, and I scrubbed between his toes. When I had finished with one foot, I looked down and realized that the dissolved, dead skin that I rubbed off had accumulated into a fine layer of mucus that covered the entire pumice bar. It was so slimy it couldn’t scrub anymore; in order to finish the procedure I had to get a new bar.
Thirty minutes later, I could go on to the last part of the pedicure: the foot massage. Before I could begin, however, I had to wipe off the chemicals so they wouldn’t keep dissolving his skin. If the chemicals sit on the skin for too long, the customer comes back with a lacerated, bleeding foot and a less than cheery attitude. So I made sure to clean them well. I told him to put his feet back into the water.
Something immediately felt strange when my hands touched the water. My fingers were wet, but I was wearing gloves. I pulled my hands out of the water and saw that there was a hole in each glove, and that they were both dripping wet with pedicure broth. I checked the box of gloves, but there were none left.
Keeping the ruined gloves on my hands, I winced my way through the rest of the pedicure. The massaging part was not as difficult as it was grueling. I wanted to give this man a good pedicure, but the more I touched him the more I wanted to run away from him. The whole time, I could only think of the filth that was slowly multiplying on my hands. His legs were hairy and his skin so dry that the lotion would not absorb and I had to rub it off with a warm towel afterwards. Usually the massage was only five minutes long, but his lasted half an hour. By the time I finished, the towel was brown.
The man was quiet for the entirety of our session. I thought he was mad at me. I thought that, perhaps, any of the other employees would have handled his feet with far more clarity and precision than I had. I waited for him to leave the spa chair so that I could clean up the tub. But he didn’t. Instead, he leaned over and slipped me a five dollar tip.
Later on, the boss told me that he never tipped.
I slipped the five into my pocket and started to clean up. I got rid of the pumice bars covered in dissolved skin, swept up the piles of callus on the floor, scrubbed away the thin line of brown bubbles that dried to the walls of the tub, threw away the towels, sanitized my tools, picked up pieces of toenail that had flown across the room, and, when all of that had gone in the trash, I went to the washing room and washed my hands again, and again, and again.