Valentine's Day


I went to get my eyebrows done at Nina's salon yesterday. She has a shop on Fifth Avenue by 25th Street near my old office where I worked when I first moved to New York. She does not know my name, I think, but I have been coming here for years.

Sometimes, if there is a crowd, I must wait until she finishes with everyone else to do my brows. She knows them intimately, and I will not let anyone else touch my face. Only once in the past nine years have I ever dared go to another shop, and then I felt somehow like I was cheating on her.

Nina tells me that she has been a beautician for 35 years--long before she came to the U.S., in Uzbekistan, but it was a Communist country then, so she didn't have a choice. She lives in Queens now, near her grandchildren. All her free time, Nina says, she spends with them. She loves her job, is good at it, does not even take her vacation days. I ask why not and she says that her husband is always asking her to go with him, but it's a vacation for her when he leaves. I laugh.

I imagine what it must be like, boarding a bus to a train into Manhattan every day, standing on her feet nine hours in a narrow salon, then back home again. I think that I would hate it, but she seems so happy--and beautiful today, hair curled, lips glossed raspberry red. I remember the day I saw them swollen, a permanent lip liner tattoo, she said. It looked so painful that I remember asking if it was.

"When you're young," she said, "beauty is natural. Not so when you're old."

I look in her deep, patient eyes, see the laugh lines around her lips, hope that I too can be so stunning at her age.

We talk about everything and nothing while she dyes my eyebrows, to thicken them up. It was her idea in the first place and I was against it for a long time, but was surprised to see how much better they looked afterwards. While I wait for the dye to take effect, I eat my lunch as Nina waxes the eyebrows of one of her stylists, another Uzbekistani woman. She works meticulously smearing the wax, pulling up the strips, tweezing flyaway hairs. It seems to take forever. When the dye is done she rubs wet cotton balls across my brows to clean them off and finishes threading.

"Will you do something special for Valentine's Day?" she asks.

"No," I say.

She asks me if I have a boyfriend; I say no.

"You're beautiful, no boyfriend?!" she exclaims, surprised.

I think about the months that have passed since my last relationship and feel suddenly overdue.

"When my mother was alive," I say, "she would always buy me chocolate. Now that she's gone, I don't have a Valentine anymore."

It is an awkward thing to say, but the truth. I find myself laughing, maybe to lift the heaviness of it. Nina's eyes darken, then brighten.

"Okay, you come and I make lots of chocolate for you," she says, laughing.

Thanking her, I excuse myself to the bathroom.

I remember the heart-shaped box of chocolates and card--Happy Valentine's Day! Love, Mom--that she always gave me. These are the tiny memories that unravel me, the ones I don't see coming. I miss her. And suddenly my eyes start tearing up and I am grabbing fistfuls of tissue, tilting my head back. I think of all these years she's been gone that I've spent dating all the wrong men, trying to make it to the next holiday or birthday with them before breaking it off, a kind of madness.

But never Valentine's Day--a day on which I want to remember the feeling of being loved by someone truly special, as she was.

There was only one man who ever lingered, beside whom I found myself, quite unexpectedly, waking up on February 14th. I tried not to make a big deal of it, but I cooked breakfast, brought him a plate in the living room. He looked surprised, grateful, and thanked me, before eating and leaving for work.  We are still friends today and he says that, if it were true, he would certainly remember me cooking for him. I can't imagine how he could've forgotten, but I suppose that is the way it is with things not meant to be.

Staring in the bathroom mirror, I think of all these things and feel strange, as though I'm looking at someone else's face. My eyebrows, dyed and threaded, are now crisp and dark. My cheekbones and lips are the same, but my eyes, reddened by tears, seem larger and more brooding. I was almost 21 when my mother died, and now I am 31.

That's a lot of Valentine's DaysI think.

But despite the gray hairs in my dreadlocks and slight bags under my eyes, I look none the worse for wear--a sort of melancholic beauty. I cup a palm of cold water against my eyelids to get the redness out, though it stubbornly remains.

Leaving the bathroom, I find Nina sitting with her stylists--a Latina woman, who talks little and smiles much; and the other woman, bearing freshly arched eyebrows.  It is a slow day, no other customers here but me.  And as I grab my coat, Nina says that she will give me a Brazilian the next time I come.

My eyes fly open at the thought of the pain, the strange intimacy.

"Nina, no! Why? I've never done that before," I say, horrified.

"That's why you gonna try it," she says. "Everything clean, but if you want I leave you little something--the boys gonna love it."

And I am laughing now, doubled over, holding the sides of my belly.

"So you think this will solve all my men problems, Nina?"

We are both laughing now.

It is exactly the laugh I need. That and the other stylist, the one with the brows and mounds of lovely flesh rolling off her belly, who says, in a thick Russian accent, "Yes, you will looooove. I get it done every month."

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  1. Crying and laughing. Love you. Wonderful wonderful post.

  2. Hmm...
    I do understand the intimacy you and your mother shared. I hope to be able to leave that kind of special impact on my daughter.
    So, did you get the Brazilian?*Wink*
    Life is kind of too short dear, live it well. But do not hurt others in the process. By all means; Love. Love like its your last day on earth.
    And, moving on after your mom's passing will not be unfaithful to her memory... Maybe she is praying-and waiting- for the moment you can truly be happy. Help make her transition smooth, let her go...
    Wish you all the best!

  3. "But despite the gray hairs in my dreadlocks and slight bags under my eyes, I look none the worse for wear--a sort of melancholic beauty."

    Love that. :)
    Great read.


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