14 comments

African American Contemporary Fiction

In honor of the memory of dearly departed friends from Twitter’s writing community, Dawn Hosmer, Laila Doncaster, and Scott Bebe.

I unlocked the front door and burst into the living room. “Laila!” I called out, barely acknowledging the tempting food aromas coming from the kitchen. “You can’t believe how this jerk almost hit me on the highway. Like he didn’t even see me.”

“Hi, Mom!” She poked her head full of caramel-colored plaits around the corner. “Are you okay? I hope you like dinner.”

The hightop counter was set with two plates of steaming spaghetti and garlic rolls. Laila had even put out a wine glass for me.

“It looks beautiful.” There weren’t many spills on the counter, and none on the floor. 

“Can you take a picture?”

“Great idea.” As I scrutinized the scene, the lighting seemed too bluish. “Let me switch to the incandescent lights.” Once I’d adjusted the lighting, I took a photo of her culinary creation.

Laila’s joy collapsed, a bonfire of pride extinguished. “I meant of me.”

Oh. Shit. “Smile, honey. I’ll take your picture.”

Laila sighed and shook her head. Then she brought her fingertips to her mouth, and – No! Not again, don’t do it! – slowly tore off a sliver of fingernail.

This habit of hers annoyed me. “How many times do I have to remind you to stop biting your nails?”

Laila yanked her hand away, but something in her eyes broadcast wounded animal. I tsked. “It’s so unladylike.” Then I had a déjà vu moment. Before I could decide if it was worth reliving, I blurted out, “If you don’t stop, I’ll paint sulfur on your nails. You won’t like that, will you?” 

Right before my eyes, Laila seemed to physically shrink.

Alarmed, I said, “Chin up.” I felt like a jerk. She’d gone to so much trouble to make dinner, and I came down on her, dangling punishments, but bad habits were easier to break before they became entrenched. I reached out to give her a reassuring stroke. “Tell me about your day at school.”

She let out another sigh, some kind of erasure of words that would have otherwise contained multitudes. I lost an opportunity to learn something about her. I quelled my panic and went straight back into recovery mode. “Seriously. What did you talk about with your friends? Any cute boys?”

A faint smile began to glimmer, so I nudged her. “Come on, tell me.”

She broke into the unmistakable grin of a girl with a crush. “The Spring Into Motion Dance is coming up at school, and I really want Scott to ask me.”

“Who’s Scott?” I leaned on my elbows, totally interested and relieved that she was opening up. “What grade is he in?”

“He’s a senior,” she said, shrugging, pretending to be nonchalant.

“Mm-hm, and?”

“I don’t know, Mom. Scott is a senior and he probably doesn’t even know I exist. We’re not in the same classes, but like, we get lunch at the same time, and I see him run track when I have softball practice.” She placed her fork back down on her plate. “Forget it. Never mind.”

“We’ll come up with a plan to get this Scott kid to know you’re alive,” I said, inclining my head toward her.

“Never mind. Please drop it,  okay?” Laila’s voice faltered and her eyes shifted down to her lap.

Stunned like I’d hurled myself headlong against a brick wall, I said, “Okay. It’s  okay. Listen, I’ll wash the dishes so you can get your homework done. Deal?”

Laila nodded. I downed my wine, thirsty for its redemption. After we ate, I cleaned up. Laila disappeared into her bedroom, leaving me guessing if I’d ever get this motherhood thing down, because as her door closed her off from my view, I couldn’t help but feel the chance to learn the truest parts of her were slipping out of my reach. As I rested my wine glass, my matter-of-factly manicured hands trembled. I swore I wouldn’t let that surface, whatever that was. I sniffled with a tightened jaw and backed away from the sink, but an idea rippled through my mind and quickly vanished. 

Later, after I’d knocked on Laila’s door to say goodnight and gone to bed, the idea floated back. It knocked gingerly at a smudged window of my mind, like how a stranger who’d gotten a flat tire might approach a house with a single light on. 

Idea: A manicure.

Me: What about a manicure?

Idea: It might solve Laila’s problems. 

Me: What kind of foolishness is this? I have to be up early. Oh my God, brain, please shut off.

Idea: She’d have a hard time biting through gel polish. 

I sat up straight. She would, wouldn’t she? I inhaled sharply, getting excited. I could outsmart this lousy habit of hers. Ever since I’d first noticed six months ago, we’d tried mittens in her sleep, then Bandaids, but she’d always removed the obstacle and kept chewing. If only she could see how lovely her hands would be with a professional once-over, she’d stop. Maybe her confidence would improve and she could talk to that Scott kid.

I let my head crash onto my pillow and snuggled down under my black comforter, with a renewed hope for triumph. Laila’s sixteenth birthday was coming up, and a Mom-and-me manicure would be a unique experience instead of some forgettable trinket. 

More important, I’d be a successful mom who got her kid to stop a bad habit. 

Maybe she’d even fit in with the popular girls she always envied. I’d wanted to fit in with the cool kids during my high school days. Their parents could afford to buy them sports cars, trend-setting clothes, the Billboard Top 40 releases on CD, summer road trips, and makeup from the department stores. 

I’d needed to study overtime, apply for scholarships, save up for a used sedan, borrow music from the library, work at summer camp, and wear cheap makeup from the drug store. 

I hadn’t gotten a manicure until I was preparing for my first interview after college. It hadn’t been so much for being a late bloomer, but mainly because – I kicked at the comforter and tossed onto my right side. Because – a memory that I’d apparently buried came back to life and I tossed again. My eyes blinked open from the terrible realization that ate away at my chest. 

I used to bite my nails, too. The very thought made my breath hitch. Gosh, I’d forgotten about that. It was really time for my brain to shut up and shut down for the night. 

Yet, sleep eluded me. I glanced at the red glowing numerals of the clock on my nightstand. It was barely past ten p.m. Laila was probably still awake, and I couldn’t sleep, so I went to her room and knocked.

“Yeah?” her voice came through, barely audible.

“Laila?” I cracked open the door and poked my head in. “I have an idea.” I laid out the importance of grooming and how much fun it is to have someone take care of our hands, make our fingers attractive to boys like Scott. I thought it went over well. When her eyes turned glassy, I figured I should let her sleep.

***

At last, Saturday arrived and I drove Laila to the nicest nail salon in town. As we pulled up to park near a tree that was pregnant with pink buds, I thought I saw a familiar face tucked under an Army green parka hood.

I squinted, gripping the steering wheel. Sure enough: my kid sister. Laila and I got out into the cool air and warm sun. She had a sly grin, but looked down as soon as she side-eyed me. 

“Kimberly?” I asked. “What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Dawn, just passing by,” she said, shrugging. “Hey, Laila. You look nice.” Kimberly gave her a wink on the sly, but I saw that.

“Thanks, Aunt Kimberly,” Laila said, her grin returning. “We’re getting manicures today.” Laila’s shoulders slumped, and she hid her hands in her jacket pockets. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why she wasn’t excited to get those ugly stumps looking presentable.

It dawned on me that these two conspired for my sister to join us. “It’s a mother-daughter event, Kimberly.”

“No problem. I have an appointment, too. I hope you don’t freak out.” She held the glass door open for us. “Happy birthday, young lady,” she said to Laila.

It was, after all, my kid’s sixteenth, so I didn’t want to dampen her spirits. If she wanted my sister to be with us, I wouldn’t freak out and be that mom.

Laila perked up. “Thanks!”

I wondered how Laila would react to the pungent aromas of chemicals and acetone, but she didn’t complain. Sparkly chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceiling, refracting brilliant light throughout the salon. We hung up our jackets on a rack near the door and checked in at the ultramodern reception desk. 

We took seats, and I grabbed a ring of color cards on those fake nails. I thumbed through them until I got to an assortment of girly pastels, but Kimberly grabbed another ring. 

“Laila, do you like neon?” Kimberly asked. “This neon green is super cool.” She pointed to the ugliest sample nail. I prayed Laila would opt for something more traditional. 

My sister was only eight years younger than me, but she acted like a teenager around my kid. She wanted Laila to think of her as the “cool aunt confidante,” but I just wished she’d act her age.

“Kimberly,” I said, but before I could say more, Laila spoke up.

“Mom, I like the green.”

I hated when Kimberly put me on the spot like that, like my only options were to be that mom or give in to Laila’s every whim. But if neon green would stop the nail biting, so be it. “As long as it’s gel.”

Laila inspected the color card. “It is. I’m getting the green…if that’s  okay.”

I stroked her shoulder, hoping to tease out a smile. “Sure.”

Kimberly chose a mirror finish chrome, and I inched outside my comfort zone, selecting a metallic rose gold. Then we were directed to nail stations. Luckily we were seated in a row, with Laila in between Kimberly and me.

Ellen, according to her name tag, tapped her desktop and Laila placed her hands palm up on the surface. Ellen shook her head. “Palm down, sweetheart. First manicure?”

“Yeah.” Laila turned her hands over.

I glanced over and almost couldn’t stomach what I saw. “Laila!” Her nails weren’t just bitten, her cuticles and quicks were slashed with angry streaks of red. There were scabs and dangles of skin.

“What, Mom?” She returned her hands to her lap.

“Honey, what have you done to yourself?” 

“Dawn, please,” Kimberly said. “I think she’s embarrassed enough as it is.”

“Her nails aren’t healthy enough for a manicure,” Ellen said, her burgundy lips pulling into a straight, disapproving line, as punishing as a riding crop. It evoked the memory of standing at the podium of Howard University to receive my diploma. Summa cum laude, and my mom had dismissed my accomplishment, said it paled in comparison to landing a man. Without a glittering rock on my finger, I’d bypassed the most important initiation into womanhood: getting a man to take me off the market.

I took a deep breath, but it didn’t steady my nerves. I was shaking, but so was Laila. What was I looking at evidence of? My daughter mutilating her hands so badly she couldn’t even get a manicure? My head spun in a cloudy soup, and it seemed much too bright in the salon all of a sudden.

“We used to bite our nails, too, remember?” Kimberly went on. Her words illuminated what had clouded my thoughts.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“Mom!” Laila’s jaw dropped. “You’re such a hypocrite!”

“We used to bite our nails when we were kids. Remember all those awful things Mom tried to make us stop?” Kimberly eyed me to fess up.

“Mittens,” I said, having déjà vu all over again, but with a crushing clarity this time. 

“Then came sulfur dips, Bandaids and mittens at the same time,” Kimberly said. “Don’t forget the cayenne pepper. I quit before you did. It was easier for me because I was only copying you. You were one of the cool kids. I thought that’s just what cool kids did. But it took you longer to stop biting your nails…Remember?”

I did remember, however reluctantly. “You thought I was cool?” I saw Kimberly through new eyes. My kid sister looked up to me, and I’d only ever thought of her as an annoying tag-along.

“Did Mom tell you why I have to get this stupid manicure?” Laila asked, turning to Kimberly. “She said my unladylike nails were turning boys like Scott off. That he’d never ask me to the school dance with my hands looking like this.” She held her hands up, fingers fully extended for emphasis. 

“That’s not exactly what I said!” I protested, sheepishly. “I meant–”

Kimberly looked appalled and stared with accusing eyes. I felt awful. Had those obscenely insensitive words really come out of my mouth?

“Jesus, Dawn, that’s something Mom would say.” 

That hit me like a loaded weapon. I never wanted to turn into our mother, but dammit, Kimberly was right. I never felt like I fit in or got good enough grades for my mom’s approval, and yet my kid sister looked up to me? 

“You used to bite your nails down past the quick, too. Made Mom absolutely bat shit crazy.”

As Kimberly unwrapped the layers of my humiliation, my heart throbbed in agony and I could hardly catch my breath. Just like back then. Tears welled up in my eyes, as I looked at Laila’s face. Her sweet cherubic face, pained with…what was this? 

My mother indeed would have threatened me with some shame, but what would I do? “I think Laila is just feeling insecure, that’s all.”

“Oh? And tell me, big sister, how exactly is letting your own daughter feel insecure  okay?”

Laila looked back at me with an overwhelming mixture of hope, a prayer for validation and then I knew what the nail biting was about: Anxiety. If I let the light in her eyes go out at this moment, there was no guarantee it would ever come back. Any reasonable person could tell the light of her spirit shone more radiantly than any diamond, than any chandelier. Kimberly’s question was so dead on, I couldn’t defend against it. It wasn’t  okay. It wasn’t okay for a kid to feel insecure, unsafe, or so misunderstood by her own mother.

I swallowed hard, since it was my pride going down my throat. I couldn’t be failing this badly at motherhood. “If Laila can’t get a manicure, then none of us are getting our nails done today. Let’s go for ice cream instead.”

“And what will ice cream do?” Kimberly demanded.

“It’s not the ice cream, right?” I said. “We can talk. Laila, honey, I want to know what’s going on inside your head.”

“I don’t even know where to start, Mom, and it’s not like you’d understand. It’s not a big deal,  okay?” Her tears flowed freely from eyes as red as sirens.

I heard my mother’s voice in my head, whipping me with comparison-itis. I’d never measure up, that even graduating summa cum laude couldn’t outshine marriage. I felt her eyes stare through me like I wasn’t there, and a surge of courage coursed through me. I had the mettle to see myself in my daughter and not hightail it outta there. The state of her nails was an SOS. Whether anxiety was hereditary or learned, I had to do everything in my power to rescue my daughter. That started with acknowledging her inner world as real. 

“Does the tightness in your chest feel like a python is squeezing the breath out of you?” I asked.

Laila nodded; maybe I did get it. A little more light infused her eyes, prompting me to go on.

“And you wish sometimes it was an actual snake, so there was proof for people to see, and they could stop saying it’s all in your head?”

We held our breath for a second, then she threw her arms around me and buried her face against my neck.

“Honey,” I said, rubbing her back, “you’re not invisible. I see you. You’re obviously hurting inside, so you’re hurting yourself, and I don’t know why. I love you with everything in me, and I promise you’re not in trouble.” As my voice broke, my heart broke with it. Through those cracks, I felt a more confident and empathetic me emerge. “We have a lot in common, you and I. We have a lot to learn together.”

“Can we please just go?” Laila begged as her sobs subsided.

I looked toward Kimberly, no longer as a nuisance tag-along, but as a source of gentle but firm wisdom. “Come with us?”

She nodded. We grabbed our jackets and went to the park for ice cream. I’d come back to square one on multiple levels: as a mother, a sister, a daughter, and of equal importance, as myself. A new Dawn, so to speak. We began a much-needed conversation about our right to take up space in this world and be seen. I thought back to the distracted driver on the highway that nearly caused an accident, and realized that not seeing or validating my daughter could have led to a far worse tragedy. One that I would never recover from. All the glittering diamonds paled in comparison to the light in Laila’s eyes.

April 20, 2023 20:16

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

14 comments

Mary Bendickson
14:46 Apr 28, 2023

Relationship revelations. Great story.

Reply

15:30 Apr 28, 2023

Good morning Mary, thank you so much for reading and commenting. I'm very happy that you enjoyed The Manicure. Be well, Mackenzie

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Jules Truong
04:29 Apr 27, 2023

Very well written and full of emotion. As a daughter with a lot of anxieties, I think I really enjoyed reading your perspective as a mother who may not always say the righr things, but always has their heart in the right place. I will admit to being a little turned away, but I do truly appreciate the way it ends and the thoughts behind Dawn truly wanting the best for her daughter but not quite understanding why/blurting things out as almost a trauma response. Truly kudos to you and your skills as a writer! :)

Reply

13:46 Apr 27, 2023

Thank you so much for your thoughts and impressions of my story, Jules. I appreciate it a lot. Mackenzie

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Krystle Miller
23:52 Apr 21, 2023

Very well written. I don't know if you did this on purpose, but I loved that you named the mother Dawn representing a new day and a change of heart for the mother.

Reply

00:03 Apr 22, 2023

Thank you so much Krystle. I named the mom Dawn after my writer friend Dawn Hosmer who passed away from cancer. The play on words came to me later. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your impressions of The Manicure. I appreciate it. Mackenzie

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
21:53 Apr 21, 2023

Ouch, as a mom, this one hurts to read! I love the hopeful character arc of a mother who’s not doing things perfectly but manages to see that and to try to do better. Well done!

Reply

23:06 Apr 21, 2023

Beth, I know this was an emotionally challenging story to read because it burrowed into my heart and guts to write. Thank you so much for reading and sharing your impressions. The mom definitely wants to do her best. Mackenzie

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
April Heath
19:27 Apr 21, 2023

Very emotional story

Reply

23:06 Apr 21, 2023

Thank you April. I hope you come back for more! Mackenzie

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Terri Harrington
21:37 Apr 20, 2023

What a great exploration of mother-daughter relationship. I liked how you wove in sister-sister issues, also. Great job!

Reply

22:52 Apr 20, 2023

Thank you Terri. I enjoyed this exploration and I'm delighted you liked it too. Mackenzie

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
George Beckman
21:13 Apr 20, 2023

Well done, Mackenzie. May Dawn, Laila, and Scott look down upon this if heaven allows such fare.

Reply

22:52 Apr 20, 2023

Thank you so much George. I hope they have the perfect vantage point to get a smile and then go on about their heavenly activities. Mackenzie

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.