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 she was okay.
“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. I wait for the dye to work, eating my lunch while 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.
It is the same phrase I have heard, again and again, as though my face should have something to do with my heart. I think about all 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 true. I find myself laughing 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–on which I prefer to be single, to remember the feeling of being loved unconditionally by someone truly special, as was my mother.
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 32.
That’s a lot of Valentine’s Days, I 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 wax the next time I come.
My eyes fly open at the thought, the strange intimacy of it.
“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 what I needed. That and the other stylist, the one with the arched brows and mounds of lovely flesh rolling off her belly, who says, in a thick accent, “Yes, you will looooove. I get it done every month.”