Every February, our family spends a week in Florida living other people's lives. We sleep in a clean, air-conditioned condo with sunset views over Sarasota Bay. We eat poolside salads at my mother-in-law's yacht club. We poke holes in coconuts and sip the water through long, green straws. Our pockets are filled with shells. My wife visits a spa, and my two daughters wear sunglasses. One year, I drove a Porsche to Tampa.
This year, I got my first pedicure.
I was told an appointment had been made for me and M, my 8-year-old daughter. It had all been decided for me — not that I was opposed to it. They said it was for the good of the group. I'm a runner suffering from plantar fasciitis, which is a fancy way of saying everyone's had it up to here with me and my aching heel. There is little love for my feet in this family.
The salon was as bright and crystalline as a Long Island diner. An ageless woman escorted us to endless shelves of nail polish.
"What do you think of this blue?" M asked me, holding a small vial the color of Facebook.
"That'll work," I said as I checked my phone for likes.
Soon enough, they ushered us into soft black seats and lowered our naked feet into basins of what I assume was warm water. Two women we had never met massaged our heels and scrubbed our toes. M and I sat side by side and giggled at the luxurious absurdity while obsequious staff brought us mint tea and sparkling water. The two women asked us questions: Where you from? You got plans for the day? Did you know they're cannibalistic? We gave them answers: Vermont. We're doing an alligator tour on an airboat. No, we didn't know that. The overhead speakers played Salt-N-Pepa's "Whatta Man" so quietly it could well have been coming from the sandal boutique next door.
"So, are we doing this blue?" M's woman (we'll call her Tammy) asked her.
M opened her hand to reveal a glittering vial as gold as Olivia Newton John. Everyone looked surprised by this revelation, myself included. "Yes, but can my big toes be this color instead? Actually, my big toes and my ring-finger toes?"
"Sure, honey," Tammy said, smiling.
My woman (we'll call her Faye) nodded at me and winked. "And what color are we painting your nails?"
I chuckled, then noticed M tense up and spin her head towards me. This surprised me. For a girl who prides herself on rebuking girlish stereotypes, M was apparently balking at the thought of her dad wearing nail polish. Suddenly, I had a job to do.
"Do a lot of guys get their nails painted?" I asked.
Faye winked at me again. I guess she liked winking. "Some do."
"What color do you recommend?"
"Flat black," said Tammy, looking up from M's feet. "Definitely."
Faye furrowed her brow and glanced at Tammy.
"Black?" I asked. "You think so?"
M reached over and grabbed my wrist. "Stop it!"
"Flat black. It's so &%$*# rock 'n roll." Tammy shrugged at M and whispered, "Sorry."
"It's okay," M assured her, momentarily distracted. "I've heard it before."
"Not from me, though," I said.
M squinted at me accusatorially. "Yes from you."
My face grew hot. "Anyway," I said, "if you think flat black's the way to go, then let's do it."
Faye stood up, winced and walked away with her hands on her lower back. Tammy hunched over and continued brushing my daughter's big toes gold. M squeezed my wrist.
"You can't do that," she whispered forcefully, eyebrows raised.
"Because it's weird, Dad."
"Really?" I was trying to sound sincere. "Why's it weird?"
"I don't know." She looked away. "It just is."
"Well, I don't think its weird." I leaned in closer. "Look, who says only girls can use nail polish? Or wear a dress? Who decides this stuff? Who cares what other people do? Why should I care?"
She shrugged and stared at her fingers. I was losing her.
"It's like — okay, you like skateboarding, right?"
Her head nodded slightly. She was finished with this conversation — she already knew where it was going. In our house, we traffic in pep talks that celebrate individualism and question the expectations people put on each other. It would've been a fine time for me to stop dad-talking and just let it marinate. But if I've learned one thing over the past four and a half decades, it's this: You can't call something broke until you've smashed it into dust.
"Doesn't it annoy you how some boys treat you at the skatepark? It's not like boys are the —"
"Here we go," Faye said, shaking a black vial and taking her seat. She placed the polish on the tray beside her and then cradled my right foot. "You ready?"
When it was all finished, they gave me paper flip-flops to wear instead of my Vans. The nail polish evidently takes a few hours to fully dry. I wasn't expecting this.
We stepped out onto the sidewalk and, as if on cue, put on our sunglasses. "Can I take a picture of our feet?" I asked.
"Sure," M said as she slid up beside me. I could feel her hip against my thigh. "I still think it's a little weird."
"I know." Our toes looked like movie stars lying in the Sarasota sun. "It's okay."
Four months later — just yesterday, in fact — I sat on a bench in the locker room at the gym and removed my sneakers and socks. The naked man standing next to me, well into his second hour of nude conversation, looked down at my still-polished toes and huffed. I could feel the color in my face as he wrapped a towel around his waist. Just like that, I was defined by my feet.
All I wanted to do was disappear completely. I dressed quickly and hurried out of the locker room. Outside, the sky was dark and dropping everything it had on us. I shouldered my backpack, pulled the hood over my head and went back to work.