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Blue Fingernails
Larry La Fountain-Stokes

His fingernails were blue, blue like the color of an early sky or of a light shimmering-blue sea. Silvina had painted them for him on Sunday in Tompkins Square Park, under some large green trees all bursting with fresh, new-found color: Brazilian-flag green, or perhaps a Madagascar banana hue. There was a radiant sun that spring morning, in spite of the biting cold, and they felt happy, amidst their fingernails and trees and who knows what else. They were thirsty for fresh air, not having seen each other in too long, and after a seemingly endless, dispiriting winter. Before they got to the park, however, walking down the planet, or down Eighth Street in Manhattan, down the Sinai peninsula, down so many routes that lead to the sea and to womanhood, his telescopic eyes spotting plates of felafel, humus, mint, kibbe, yogurt, all types of Arab food, and as if all hell had broken loose, suddenly getting hungry and everything but the kitchen sink, a very strong current that takes everything away, everything, starting with his oh-so-precarious masculinity drawn forth by a bittersweet mandragora breath. Instantly, they decided, much as someone might say, full of fear: The waves! The waves! A storm is coming! Having arrived at the beach for the first time in their lives, and seeing an earthquake, or a whale hunt, a certain tsunami, the sea about to split in two, and not one more second of this torture, stopping at the Syrian-Lebanese shop, all because of a phenomenal sun and some newspapers, some old ladies staring at it all, and look! I haven’t smoked in ages but I think that today I am going to go for it.

It was all written in the palm of his hand. Fairy tales filled his mind, inspired by what they saw: walls decorated with allegorical landscapes, scenes from the thousand and one nights, belly dances, seductively attracting them like a spy from World War II named Scheherazade, while they filled their mouths with familiar treats, their minds feeding their desire for adventure and an English pilot burned from head to toe in a lonely, empty hospital bed -- or was it a villa? -- in the Italian countryside, my sister, with a cheap Topeka discount-department-store whore on Loiza Street in Puerto Rico. There was something in the air, even the tiniest animals felt it -- chloroform, or burnt rubber tires? The smell of Chanel nail polish, or of fried Caribbean morsels in Piñones? Or perhaps the finest incense I had never smelled?

They sat on a bench and began to work, for they were quite puritanical, in their own way. Silvina’s were pink and she wanted to paint his, so that they would match: boy and girl, just like the new Pampers disposable diapers or any other random combination that would say: you and I. Like the green and yellow of the Brazilian flag. Or the black and white of an old TV set, left along the side of a road to Istanbul, that noble city which my grandmother, in her impeccably conservative way, insisted in calling Byzantium. Blue for boys and pink for girls, for if in Constantinople I played a violent, slapping count, and crossing the Bosporus is such a threat, my lord, especially if there is a spill of crude petroleum from the Caspian Sea. Imagine an older lady looking at them with curiosity, without speaking a word, for the wench hallucinates with the absentmindedness of a cruel and virulent mishap, like a sickness that mercilessly devours skin, without even leaving a saint’s welts. Like saying: Adam and Eve, Anthony and Cleopatra, or Laurel and Hardy. On the other side, a young man covered in tattoos was starting to get interested, while his girlfriend, absorbed in reading a newspaper, paid them no mind. They wanted to have some coffee; they had to meet a friend in half and hour, and they were afraid that the nails would not dry in time.

Silvina had little experience in the matter, even though she was a girl. To be a girl is a tongue-twister and my tongue is painted with many colors, she always said, and I say and breathe deep. Or rather, Jerry breathed deep and refused to get worried -- to participate in a blindman’s dance is one thing, the moon shines but I do not have Tegucigalpa to heal that wound, he thought. I am telling you everything by admitting that they feasted amply, ravenously. Tabbouleh, baba ganoush, shawarma, French fries, kibbe. Rice and lentil mujaddarah, as if the Reconquista had never happened, Puerto Ricans returning to their Arab roots, soaked up to their cuticles in olives and pita bread. They felt a strong need for something new, something that would shake up their routine and defrost the semi-arthritic bones of their hands. They walked towards the park, and an old saying came to their mind: "Full belly, blue fingernails." Just like that, just like Ramito sang it, accompanied with a tiny, four-stringed folkloric guitar.

Where had he gotten the idea to paint them? Where, where, I struggle to find paths but I cannot find the owner of these keys. It was not the first time: he had already done so, many years ago, in Cambridge, when he decided to be like the punks from Harvard Square; in Philadelphia, when he tried to be like the Liberty Bell; in Orlando or Marrakech, when he decided to be Mickey Mouse and bought black fingernail polish. He had painted them while sitting on the banks of the Charles River, or the Nile, or the Mississippi -- and had he ever made a mess! As soon as she saw Jerry, his sister, who worked at a small used-clothing store on Massachusetts Avenue and fortunately lived with him, helped -- not in vain was her middle name Auxilio -- just like one might aid a God-forsaken soul after some great cataclysmic catastrophe. Fingers muddled in black, they didn’t even shine. Does anyone bother to explain the complexity of these procedures? But this time it had not been his sole idea, but rather that of a bottled genie.

When he decided to be like the punks from Harvard Square, as if a library in honor of a victim of the Titanic or the sad memory of the Crusades… Please! How exactly was Jerry like a punk? All he wanted to do was to have painted fingernails, an armored sky with nuclear stars, and black seemed like a safe color, liminal. Would blue be the same? Black and blue, like the marks he got after a certain voluntary spanking, just like saying yellow and green, the day he tried to find out about sadomasochism down around Stop Fifteen, between Pluto and Jupiter Bar. And one day, while he was slam-dancing in Squeeze-Box, like black and white, or silver and gold, he thought that if he fell, they could harm him, even if it was dark and you couldn’t see absolutely anything (except the fluorescent smile of a cat-like red and blue, pure flag!).

Ana Maria, for that is how his younger sister was called -- a fleeting star of asteroids unknown by mere mortals like us -- removed the excrescence from his fingers (purple and orange?) and explained a couple of things to him. She had spent many years doing it and had it down pat, it was almost like a science to her. Something like astrology or astronomy, I never knew the difference: first of all, trim and file them and take care of the cuticles, in Venus; afterwards, a clear coat by Mars; then, the same thing several times, but with a color from Scorpio or Uranus; finally, clear Libra and Sagittarius gloss, to enhance the effect. One did not have to worry about Virgo (or Viagra) nail polish spills on the fingers, as that came out later while bathing with a little bit of maritime, pearl-colored Pisces scrub.

And the result, my dear beloved Madam? His fingernails had been a thorough success! The hands acquired a new, marvellous expressive character as a result of the astro-cosmetic intervention. He always carried the black fingernail polish with him, such an intergalactic constellation of a space-age war films, in order to be able to retouch them in case of an emergency. He always brought the bottle to work, every single day, unfailingly. His boss, a videographer, laughed when she saw it, as he was always in the clouds, because of his profession.

And then, as if he were an Arab woman (a desert astronaut, or a manicure queen, perhaps) in a harem, convinced that her man would come one day, locked up on the banks of the Nile, or between the Tigris and the Euphrates, with a multitude of other women, who all shared the same dream: that she was his favorite, and would be the first to step with very-nicely painted tiny toenails on the constellation of Orion. With his painted fingernails, which could be seen through the subtle veil that covered his face, making them more seductive. A large, strong man -- enormous, like a giant! -- with a long, dark beard and a deep stare, that was undoubtedly who would save her. She had painted her fingernails to be taken far away, on a magical carpet, perhaps, crossing asteroid fields and dwarf stars, to a cave with forty thieves, while cleaning an old oil lamp which he would find on Fourteenth Street in New York, in one of those stores where they sold large clocks with the face of the Virgin Mary, and rugs with Jesus and Mohammed and the twelve apostles, a photo of the moons of Venus and tigers and women in bikinis: if Mohammed does not come to the mountain, well then, you know, bring the mountain to Mohammed. Or toy soldiers that dragged themselves down the sidewalk, energized by their small Duracell batteries, like Mambrú, who went to war to never return. Or turtles that splashed in small plastic swimming pools, delighting passers-by, especially children. A clock that he had given his ex-boyfriend, with the face of the Virgin of Guadalupe, that made such a racket, with its almost infernally loud tick-tock, which kept them all awake at night, staring out the window in the distance, in the direction of Mecca and Medina, crying for that which he was not able to defend like a man.

Let us enumerate: blue fingers, blue nails, bluish space ships decorated with a green and white flag embroidered with lovely Muslim calligraphy. Walking down Eighth Street, passing a Syrian restaurant, the smell of mint tea, a place to get interplanetary tattoos, a woman who read the newspaper -- the New York Times -- or was it Tarot cards, or my astrological chart? A commune in the middle of the Cambridge academic community, a Hare Krishna center, a vegetarian restaurant on Tetuán Street in Old San Juan, just by Magic Mountain or It’s a Small World After All in the new Saudi Disney (there were no pigs to be seen anywhere): it’s three little sheep that scream in the desert when confronted by the big bad wolf. Light blue and pink, like the new disposable Pampers that they advertised on TV, arpeggio of a sonata for the first man who stepped on the moon, or perhaps a tambourine that keeps the rhythm for a sad lament, sung from the deep by an heiress of the great Egyptian chanteuse, Umm Kulthum. A pile of clothes next to the washing machine in the cooperative house where he lived in Philadelphia, Massachusetts, Cairo, Asterion, cradle of so many slave-holding democracies, but he was dressed as a boy that day in the Village. He would wear girl’s clothes in Cambridge, but it was just about hanging out in the house wearing recycled garments, sleeveless dresses full of flowered prints, perfect for hot days on Mercury or Timbuktu. He had new sunglasses, the first he had ever had in his life, because of the unbearable haze of the Sahara. Everything looked reddish (haven’t I told you, the night is long, but much longer is your silence…?).

He ran into her on his way to the park, on the Milky Way, on the road from Algiers to Tunis. He had just come out of the subway, deep river of such dark and mysterious waters, a bright flash when they almost crashed, for the light was blinding and the reflecting glasses scared him. It was night. He went out with a checkered skirt and fingernails painted black, en route to Boston, to a velvet-covered interplanetary bar with Chewbacca and Princess Leia, if Han Solo would only see me now, with black Bedouin boots from Thom Mc An with rubber and stainless steel platform soles, a non-imitable leather craftmanship not found anywhere else. He was going to a Queer Nation party in the South End, in honor of John Glenn and the dog Laika, because of the song by the Spanish rock-band Mecano and the ballad of Juan Goytisolo, I tell you, Spanish people really do know it all, no wonder the Alhambra, my child. The skirt had a certain Scottish air; he calmed himself with that excuse, although he still feared random violence. Nerves, his heart in his throat, his legs slightly chilly because of the winds which snuck in every so often, in spite of the heat, regardless of the heat, precisely because of the heat (desertic, no less, even though they were on the moon amidst some orange trees which provided a lovely shade, according to Ana Maria). Just like the Thom McAn on Stop Eighteen in Santurce, yes, precisely the one next to the Woolworth’s where he would buy tropical fish and candy as a child, candy in toy garbage baskets, or dehydrated Neapolitan ice cream which his friends would bring back from their trips to the Smithsonian, for his imminent spatial mission.

He had never noticed how difficult it was to sit down with a skirt and not show one’s underwear, especially when there was no gravity.

He gets off the subway on Broadway and St. Mark’s, although Granada or Seville would have been the same, not to mention Ceuta or Melilla. He walks towards the park and runs into Silvina along the way (but he does not recognize her, because of the dark veil). She paints his fingernails but they get all cruddy, like the first time, on the banks of any river (yes, the one they would have to cross with silver coins like Charon), the one which divides our planet from all the rest, this world from the other, the dark side of the moon from my memory and salvation. The old lady looks to the other side, no-good cyborg, while Silvina grabs a tiny twig and removes the excess from his cuticles, filling them with dirt and bits of crushed-up dried leaves. They hadn’t brought Cutex nor Q Tips. Nor Kotex, for that matter, and his fingernails bled like never before, black and blue rivers of a certain day marked by curiosity, when he tried to find out about sadomasochism and accidentally castrated someone (but only for the astrological climax) because he had always been told at home that that was the best thing to do.


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