Sarah Tuttle-Singer
A Mermaid in Jerusalem

Just when it was all too much, I went and got my nails done

A screen shot from Regina Spektor’s music video Fidelity

For the last three weeks, my nails looked like black piano keys.

They shone, ebony against my pale fingers.  I loved how they caught the light.

But through those weeks of some serious living – a plane flight back to Israel from LA, three times pouring scotch into a flask, an overnight in the Old City, a bonfire in the forest near Tal Shahar, too many dishes and too many loads of laundry, their shine dulled, they chipped, these old broken keys, my sad finger nails.

So I went to the mall as one does, on a rainy Monday when you look down at your hands which have become your mothers hands over the course of your own motherhood, and you can’t see beyond the chips and the scratches on your nails.

I miss my mom.

Every day, but especially now on this cold, wet Monday.

(Maybe especially because we’re in that weird little stretch between her death day and her birthday. But what birthday. I’ll eat the cake she can’t have.)

So I was sad.

I liked my nails black – because it reminded me of the piano we had in our house on Tilden Avenue. My mom and I would sit side by side and play duets – Chopsticks, heart and soul, we even would riff on a four handed version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

Then she’d smoke, and light incense to cover it up before her dad would drop by for a cup of coffee.

(We are always our parents children.)

My mom never did her nails. She had beautiful half-moons, embedded in nail the color of white keys, only slightly yellowed from her half a pack a day, GPC 100 ultra lights. She would garden – her hands plunged into the earth, she’d plant begnoia bulbs and prune roses, and “Saraleh, who has TIME for nails.”

I had time for nails.

(I MADE  time for nails.)

Sometimes red like cherries, or sometimes red like blood – they were actually the same exact shade of red.  It just depended how I’d look at it. Sometimes, I’d paint them grey  like smoke. For a while, they’d be, pink – bridal pink, blushed down to my own half moons, just peeking through the veil of shimmer.

Or back – like those piano keys.

“You know,” my mom said to me once shyly when I came home with Mint from Hard Candy on each finger, “Maybe next time you could buy purple. I’d be willing to try purple.”

(I never did. So she never did. And after she died, for about a millisecond while i held her hand, those half moons untouched by chemo and cancer, I thought about painting her nails purple like she asked. But it wasn’t her hand anymore so I didn’t.)

So just when I felt like it was all too much, I went to the mall and got my nails done.

The mall in Rehovot is where dreams go for one last gasp of Axe Body Spray, and the touch of Polyester, where all that glitters costs 10 shekels in a going out of business sale the store has run every day for the last three and a half years.

The nail place is right there in the belly of the mall, in a place with bright lights, where children are yelling because they want a balloon or an ice cream, and parents are yelling because they wish they had more money to buy their kids a balloon or an ice cream, and old people are yelling because if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,

The thing about the nail place is it’s right there in the open – in the middle of the mall. It’s so intimate and close sitting there while a woman you’ve never met peels back the black, and rubs your hands, she pushes down on that soft spot between thumb and index finger, and it hurts but in a good way. And it’s so foreign to me – even after these years living here.

Sometimes, I just want to go home.

Illustration by Avi Katz

The woman in front of me rubs my hands. She’s got a crooked mouth, and even eyebrows. On her left ring finger is a diamond nestled on top of a thick gold band. Her head is covered with a black scarf. She was chosen by someone, and chose him back.

She holds the lotion cap between her teeth while she rubs my hands.

Next to her the other manicurist shows her shoulders and the pretty little dip in her collarbone. Her hair is long and red and dreaded in some places, beaded in others. She taps my manicurist.

Nu, Batsheva, don’t put the top of the cap in your mouth. Marina was holding that one, and you don’t even want to know where her hands have been.”

Batsheva spits it out, and makes a face

“Why would you say such a thing? Can you imagine the movie in my head right now?”

“Yes, that’s why I said it. And now you won’t do it anymore. Ichsa – YUCK – stop!  Don’t do it again.”

She’s removing cobalt blue nail polish from the woman to my right.

“I didn’t chose the color,” she says. “My granddaughter did.”

“But it’s very in style now,” Batsheva says.

I notice her nails are bare.

“You aren’t from here,” the grandmother to my right tells me.

“No, I’m not. I’m from Los Angeles.”

“Ahhh Los Angeles! The angels! We have our own city of angels, too: Kiryat Malachi! City of Angels!”

“I lived with my boyfriend in Kiryat Malachi,” the redhead says as she pushes back the grandmother’s half moons. “And believe me, there are no angels there”

(I know about Kiryat Malachi – named after LA, actually. it used to be a tent city, for people from all over who came to Israel – who came to Israel like me, from somewhere else. Only they didn’t have malls and place where they could go and paint their nails, so maybe I should shut the fuck up and stop feeling so sorry for myself.)

Batsheva raises the lotion cap to her mouth again, then laughs and looks down.

“You’ve ruined me,” she says. “Ichsa.”

“Do you like it here?” the grandmother asks me.

“Of course she likes it here!” says Batsheva. “She’s home! Baruch hashem.”

Are you home?”  the grandmother asks. “I was once married to a man in Paris. He was Jewish but not Israeli, and we lived there, and every day, I would point toward Jerusalem and say ‘Home. Take me home.’ I’m a kibbutznikit! What do I care about Jerusalem, but I pointed in that direction, day after day. ‘Take me home.” I just missed my family. They were my home.  But he couldn’t leave his family and his home. And I remember once standing at the Metro — Porte de Bagnolet, yes, it must have been — and I happened to look in the trash can beside me, and I saw a package of Noblese cigarettes. Disgusting cigarettes. Its all my mom would smoke. I know that package with my eyes closed, I can tell you, dark green, with the writing in white in Hebrew. And there they were in that trash can in the Porte de Bagnolet station, wallah. I was in shock. And all I wanted to do was reach inside and grab that empty package and put it close to my heart and find the person who had thrown it away – I didn’t care if it was a man or a woman or a teenager or an alter kaker, and just say “take me home. Take me home. Take me home! So the next day, I packed my bags and came back home. I was so hungry for this place. And I don’t even smoke!”

Batsheva turns to me.

“Are you home?” she asks.

(I close my eyes for a second and I see my mom’s GPC 100 ultra lights that she would inside our piano bench.)

“Sometimes,” I answer. Sometimes. Not always. But maybe sometimes is good enough.”

“Ok, you need to pick a color,” she says handing me the color wheel with the nail samples glued on.

“Black,” I start to say, pointing to the shiny black nail like a piano key.

And then I think about my mom.

“No, wait.  I’ll take Purple.”

Batsheva’s cellphone rings – Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

“Nice,” she says. “I never paint my nails. Who has time for that anyway? But if I did, I think I’d chose that color, too.”

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel. She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems, and she now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors, talks to strangers, and writes stories about people — especially taxi drivers. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.
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