The Manicurist Who Changed Her Life

Annie gave her gorgeous red nails. But it was the profound advice she offered that helped the author change her entire outlook on life.


Posted in , Nov 25, 2021

Roberta Messner at the nail salon; photo by Scott Goldsmith

I wrapped my hands around my coffee mug and sank into my sofa, trying to let the stress of dealing with my mountain of troubles seep out of me. Instead, my eyes landed on my fingernails. They were ugly and ragged. As ragged as my spirit was these days. My long-awaited retirement wasn’t working out the way I had planned.

A series of medical crises had left me dependent on prescription opioids and deep in debt. Though I’d finally conquered the addiction, I remained buried in debt—and shame. I’d never felt so hopeless.

Maybe a manicure would give me a little lift, make my day better. I hadn’t been treating myself to anything lately, but it was one indulgence I could still afford, even on my strict budget. I didn’t want to run into anyone I knew and have them ask how I was doing, so I made an appointment at a salon I had never been to. Annie, the owner, answered the phone and said that she would be taking care of me.

Roberta's friend and manicurist, Annie
      Roberta's friend and
      manicurist, Annie

With a name like Annie, I wasn’t expecting the Asian lady with the silky black braid who came up to me and introduced herself. “So happy to meet you, Roberta,” she said, leading me to her workstation. It wasn’t just her smile that was radiant. It was her whole being. She seemed overjoyed at the prospect of painting my nails. She must really like her job, I thought.

While Annie was gathering her supplies, I overheard a conversation between two of her customers. The one who was recovering from a stroke showed off her icy blue nail color. “Annie says this is fit for a queen,” she said, beaming. The other had nails painted in a shimmering pink. “I couldn’t have made it through my cancer treatments without Annie,” she said. “Or my Debutante Pink.”

Annie reappeared at her station, brandishing a bottle of vibrant red polish. “This is you, Roberta,” she said. “Lucky Red!

She’s picking my color for me? I thought. That’s weird. Then again, I’d always loved red polish, and I could use some good luck for a change.

Annie took my hand and went to work. As she clipped, filed and buffed my nails, she told me a little about herself. She and her family were from Vietnam. They’d immigrated to America when Annie was nine and settled in California. While still in high school, Annie studied the nail tech trade at her mother’s urging. “What do you do, Roberta?” she wanted to know.

A lady waiting for her appointment called out from behind a magazine. “If Roberta won’t tell you, I will. She was head of infection control at the VA hospital. Whenever anyone had a question, Roberta knew the answer.”

I cringed, shrinking down in my chair. How had I gone from being a high-ranking nurse with a private office and a phone ringing off the hook to the messed-up life I had now?“

I’m retired from nursing,” I said at last. “Now I write little stories. All by my lonesome at my kitchen table.”

“Stories?” Annie exclaimed. “Favorite thing! I tell you my story.” She leaned in and applied the polish. “People used to ask what I do. When I say, ‘Nail Girl,’ even their eyes frown. One day, a man say he plucks chickens. Next time someone ask what I do, I say to them, ‘Chicken Plucker.’ Frown worse. Went back to Nail Girl. Best. Nail. Girl. Ever.”

I fanned out my fingers and checked out my manicure. My nails shone, beautiful now. The red Annie had chosen was bright and bold. Exactly how I wanted to feel. I left the salon smiling for the first time in months.

Three weeks later, I returned. I found myself studying the little sayings Annie had tacked on the walls. I zeroed in on one of them: Don’t look back. You’re not going that way. How I wanted to escape the prison of my regrets and make those words mine! As Annie set everything down on the worktable, I said, “It’s hard not to look back.”

Annie nodded, encouraging me to continue.

“You see, I was hooked on prescription painkillers,” I said, keeping my voice low. “I don’t need the pills now. But I can’t get rid of the shame.”

“Oh, Roberta!” Annie said. “Don’t hold that to your heart. Ball and chain no more!”

She cradled my hands in hers for a moment before lowering my fingers into a bowl of acetone remover. I watched as the flecks of old polish floated away, imagining that they were my yesterdays.

Annie told me more about her own battle with shame. She’d hated being a manicurist at first, feeling inferior to the affluent clients who seemed to have it all. “I look in the mirror. My forehead was wrong, my eyes wrong, my mouth wrong,” Annie said. “I added up all the places I need surgery so that I look like I belong in America.”

Still, she’d forged ahead, following a friend here to Huntington, West Virginia, where she set up her own shop two decades ago. “I had no money, but I work and work and work,” she said. As Annie built her clientele, her attitude shifted and she found her calling to become the best nail girl ever. “At beginning, you’re all just clients. Then you learn from me and I learn from you,” she said. “Now if someone give me $20,000? I don’t have surgery. I buy new kitchen.”

I’m a devout Christian. But when Annie talked about how embracing her Buddhist principles—particularly the idea that everything in life is impermanent—had helped shape her sunny disposition, I listened intently. It made me think of what Jesus told his disciples the night before his crucifixion: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

I grew so comfortable with Annie that one day I told her about my struggle to whittle down all my medical debt. And how depressing it was not to be able to do anything nice for myself anymore except get the occasional manicure.

Annie listened with no judgment in her eyes, only compassion. When she spoke, it was of pleasures that don’t cost a dime. “No need to go to mall. People stuffocate.

I chuckled. Annie’s command of English might not be perfect, but she made perfect sense.

“Go for walk, Roberta. Every evening, I walk in park. Talk to everyone’s dogs. Park and dogs are free.”

Her words shifted something inside me. For weeks, I’d been coveting a leather case for my pens. I’d circled the one I wanted in a fancy catalog and kept staring at the picture even though I knew I shouldn’t spend the money. That evening, after getting home from the nail salon, I stumbled upon an old, oversize eyeglasses case. Hmm… Its red and black pebbled leather was every bit as lovely as the pricey case in the catalog.

I loaded the old glasses case with my writing implements. They fit just right. I set my “new” pen case beside my journal, contentment washing over me. Annie would be proud.

One afternoon at the salon, one of the regulars was going on about the doom and gloom on TV. The atmosphere in the salon grew dark. Suddenly Annie bounced up from her perch at the worktable and ran to the front door. She used her hands to literally sweep out the negativity and usher in positive vibes.

“Best. Day. Ever,” Annie proclaimed. We all burst into laughter. At my next appointment, a new saying adorned the salon wall, complete with a huge smiling heart: If you can’t be positive, at least be quiet.

One time, I told Annie how I was having trouble with a story I was working on. “It’s about a painful time in my past,” I said. “But most of the details are gone. There’s a lot I just don’t remember anymore.”

Annie gently massaged herbal-scented lotion into my hands. “Some things we’re not meant to remember, Roberta,” she said quietly. “So we can move on.”

I thought of one of my favorite Bible verses, from Psalm 118: “This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” I’d recited it countless times, but until meeting Annie I’d never really lived those words, had never awakened each morning alive to the abundant blessings that God intended just for me. If anyone had told me that a Buddhist angel in a nail salon would change my life, I would have said, “No way.” But that’s exactly what happened.

“It’s the funniest thing,” I told Annie recently. “Since knowing you, I realize I could be younger, prettier, smarter, thinner. A whole lot wealthier. But not richer. And there’s not one person on this earth I would trade places with.”

Annie squeezed my hands. “Me either, Roberta,” she said. “I love the Annie and Roberta we’ve become. They are enough.”

Some folks might attribute my new way of thinking to a polish called Lucky Red. I say it wasn’t luck at all. It was Annie, who’d pointed the way to my Best. Life. Ever.

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