My parents’ hands were the remnants of great struggle. Mine somehow remained untouched.
“You have the hands of somebody who doesn’t work,” my father always joked. My hands were smooth, soft and unsullied. The rest of my family’s hands, if placed in succession, could create a spectrum of ruttiness with my father on the very end.
My parents’ hands were the remnants of great struggle; my siblings’ hands were wiry, thin, darkening when exposed to sunlight, seeming to age ten years for every one or two. Mine somehow remained untouched by the inheritance of labor, and sometimes, the darkest times, I’d pretend I had been born into gentility—the daughter of a renowned history professor and an adventurer, or maybe an opera singer and a documentary filmmaker—before being stolen in the night by these strangers.
My mother met my father as a cable man. I was seven and convinced he was the largest man I’d ever met, towering at a little over six feet with the hands of John Henry. They were considerably ashy, hard and covered in calluses, and he’d acquired a small series of burns from touching the wrong wires every once in awhile. My mother didn’t seem to care—at least, not at the time. To her, they were Atlas’s hands, big enough to bear some of the burden of our household, but careful enough not to fall anywhere they didn’t belong.
Before Comcast, my father had a brief foray into the military, stationed in Panama. He spent those days with his hands in soap buckets or nestled in dirt, grabbing at thorns and carrying his own weight across metal bars. The only thing that remains from those days is a black hunting knife reminiscent of a small sword. He returned to America with a GI Bill earned by rugged hands learned in the art of killing, and wouldn’t use the document until years later, when he and my mother acquired a house.
They attended a community college to pull each other up by their bootstraps and throw their black fists into the ceiling built to keep them down. My mother eventually found comfort catering to gifted hands. Today she’s a surgical assistant at a children’s hospital, learning how to help repair babies’ hearts. Hers were delicate but hard as a tortoise shell, cultivated as weapons to scare the men away. Uncles, neighbors, hoodlums, alcoholic fathers, and boyfriends quick to anger had all taught her the art of violence. Her hands hardened alongside her heart, and both became good for work; bad for mothering. You can hold a child with sturdy hands, but they won’t feel soft against her skin.
My father eventually dropped out of school, finding that there was more money in practice than theory. He seemed to study everything and nothing at all, briefly majoring in general studies before leaving indefinitely with the belief that there would always be a need for strong hands; this became his modus operandi. He never learned how to draft a resumé; the jobs he applied to didn’t require them. Cable guy, bodyguard, mailman, all depending most on the body, none taking much note about their effect on said apparatus. His hands became tools to be worn out so he paid less attention to caring for them. He forgot to lotion so often that the skin between his index fingers and thumbs turned ashen and cracked, bringing forth little fissures of blood.
Though I moisturize as if it’s a papal tradition, I haven’t gotten a manicure in months. This wasn’t deliberate, not at first. I’d admire people’s nails from afar, planning my next transformational manicure in the back of my mind—“next week I’m going to get lavender gels with glitter on the edges”—but that week passed and something else always took its slot.
Gradually, I found myself avoiding manicures altogether as if, over time, I’d begun to link ornate nail designs with frivolity despite my personal philosophy that frivolity is sine qua non to the human condition. On the surface I embarked on a Mission to Feminize: I chose a pink glittery Black Power fist as the cover photo for an on-campus activist group; I placed Glossier stickers on my laptop—a peace sign here, a rainbow there; I browsed Verso, The Nation, and Lauren Conrad’s lifestyle blog; I injected a healthy dose of performative femininity into my daily praxis, but deep down I secretly yearned to be seen as a serious woman of serious means, sexually attractive but only through minimal visible effort, who keeps her nails haphazardly clipped because they’re easier to type with, who’s too busy to devote an hour to something as trivial as nail polish, too thoughtful to cover her hands in jewelry. Working girls can’t keep pretty hands. We can’t afford to.
Last summer I got my first full set of acrylic nails because a writer referenced laying her clean-cut manicure over Slouching Towards Bethlehem for an Instagram photo. Hers were a sleek lavender against neat, milky cuticles. This was the way of the quintessential writerly woman, I thought, so I shelled out twenty dollars for an ombre of beige setting into cream tips—a classy, subdued symbiosis of French vanilla ice cream against a chocolate base. One afternoon I spread them across The Sympathizer, casually, under that miasmic kind of summer sunlight that coats everything it touches in a soft halo, and took my own writerly woman’s photo. One week later I found that I couldn’t use the POS system at work with these kinds of nails; every time I brought my index finger down to the screen, the nail would hit it first, rendering it impossible to press the buttons necessary for ringing up a small coffee unless I bent my finger upwards, allowing the skin to do its duty but pushing the nail against it, just enough to make it sore.
I didn’t replace the acrylics when the time came to scrape them off, partly because of my mother: She took one glance at my nails—scraped and jagged, all moisture sucked clean from the beds by glue—and launched into a lecture. “You have to take care of your nails. You have such beautiful hands.” She looked through the windshield, as if unable to look at me. “You have to take care of them. It’s important.” I nodded and said “Okay, Mum.” The usual, though I felt awashed by shame that I couldn’t quite understand.
You can’t climb the economic ladder with a manicure; you need the hard, calloused hands to keep you steady.
My father got a package from Amazon: a rose gold watch from some high-end company I didn’t recognize. “I’m going to buy a few of these,” he said, “y’know, for different outfits.” I told him I was happy he could treat himself. He said he was, too. Up until that point the only jewelry he owned was his class ring and a wedding band from one of the failed marriages. He hadn’t gotten the former until ten years ago, fifteen years after the school had shut down.
Over time all of our hands have changed. I now wear less jewelry than ever before and, for a while, I’d venture out into wintry mornings without a tube of lotion on hand. As a result, my hands have roughened. My mother’s hands, I imagine, have softened at the same rate as her demeanor, but I can only imagine it’s because she lives in Houston now and, while I saw her last summer, I can’t recall the last time we touched.
My father’s hands are covered in rings, watches, all placed against calloused skin like precious stones on Roman corpses. He bought a Lincoln last year: used, but sleek and creamy, the shade of French vanilla ice cream. The last car he owned was a black 1995 Geo Prizm with two broken doors that only cost $500 because he bought it from an old hoarder who never left the house. I began leaving little bottles of lotion in the cup holder, for both of us, because he still gripped the steering wheel with cracking hands, and I didn’t want him to stain it with blood.
I read a lot and write a lot. Keep a look out for that.