Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life. ―Sun Tzu, The Art of War
I’m very prone to cuts and bruises and scrapes of all kinds—seeing my profusion of scars and Band-Aids and burns, you’d be forgiven for assuming I’m clumsy. I think it’s the certainty of my own nimbleness that leads me to take all kinds of stupid chances. In fact, I average far fewer injuries than I should, given my recklessness.
No one was exactly shocked, then, when I showed up at a party not long ago with a bruised fingernail. I’d banged my right hand on the heavy metal door of my apartment while trying to snap back and grab a sock that was falling out of the laundry basket; I almost got away with it. It hurt so much that I ran outside and buried my finger in the snow. The pain abated after a few days, but then the nail turned pitch black.
The black fingernail became a source of great fascination for me. I was extravagantly proud of it. “This fingernail is the most exciting thing to happen to me in years,” I said one night, admiring it by the light of the bedside lamp. “Thanks a lot,” said my boyfriend.
It was very conspicuous. People started to say, That just looks so painful!—which means, That looks disgusting. I started curling my fingers into my hand so no one would see it, and I began to look at other people’s hands obsessively, trying to deduce how frequently they’d notice mine. So many people had good-looking nails! At last, I decided mine had “breathed” enough, and that I should put some polish on it to spare everyone the sight.
Polishing fingernails is one of those skills I never learned, or received, or intuited— however such knowledge is transmitted. I tried to paint my nails and, as usual, the result looked vaguely grotesque and childish. And you could still see the black nail. This called for a professional.
At the nail salon, they exclaimed over my black nail (“That just looks so painful!”) and we settled on a dark gray polish—not my favorite color, but apparently imperative for camouflage purposes. The young manicurist, Carolina, had only moved from Seoul three years before, but her English was excellent. She attributed part of this to the fact that she liked to read. “What do you read?” I asked. “The Art of War,” she answered.
“That’s your favorite?”
“No, that’s the book I read.”
“Oh. Well, that’s a … classic,” I said.
Carolina told me to let the nail heal. I bought a copy of The Art of War on my way home. It was good.
The next time I went to the nail place, I told Carolina I’d finished it. But she would not be distracted.
“What did you do to your nail?” she demanded.
I tried to explain how I’d discovered a way to scrape all the blackness out—that I really thought I’d facilitated healthy nail growth.
“Now there is a big hole in it. It looks worse than ever,” she said severely.
“Can’t you … put some kind of filler in it?” I asked.
“There is no point. This looks very bad. I think it is permanently damaged. And you did it to yourself. I will try, but I don’t think I can help you.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.