ONE: There are only so many bottles of pink nail polish, too many minuscule toenails to be painted a delicate shade of Peptol-Bismol rose.
You grab the blue bottle off the shelf, straining to reach it. The navy colour won’t match with your school uniform, but it’s better than going home with nothing, raw nail beds with overgrown cuticles. “It’s nice,” you say to your mother. Her nails are bitten, marred like aphid-ridden leaves.
She nods, proud of you for making a choice. Soon, your nails will be like hers, too busy to cover up your imperfections. Off the market. Not for sale.
This is the art of being a woman, then: learning to make compromises. Learning to be happy for what you’ve got, because one day it’ll be gone.
TWO: The bathroom in your apartment is cramped, filled with half-unpacked boxes and a collection of lemony cleaning supplies. You live with three other girls, all in university, all working, bringing home mountainous tips from the bars they work at; distributing stories that make you clench your car keys tighter on the walks home.
Sometimes, the bathroom fills with the smoke of a freshly-lit candle. Somebody produces an array of nail-polish. The door shuts behind the four of you, turning minimal square footage into a clandestine getaway.
Even then, there is still the outside pushing in, leaking like a faulty washing machine, spitting spy cameras into the grout, into the dripping faucet, on the feathery bar of soap. It burns like acetone. You wonder if they feel it too.
“You think my boyfriend will like it?” One of your friends asks, holding up a glittery bottle of polish in the air.
You wonder, what if he doesn’t? You keep it to yourself, fill your lungs with the acrid scent of acetone instead. Silence hurts worse.
THREE: You are on a date, wearing your department store best. Stockings that itch, threaten to strangle your legs if you’re not careful. Perfume on the rennet-soft side of your wrist, behind the eloquent curve of your ear. It’s strategized, like computer code, like an intangible language: if this, then that. This is the way that life works, this is what you are used to.
He tells you you’re beautiful. Like a marble artwork; like the girl version of David, chiseled out of the default. Your heart is made of satin, did you know that? It would make you a perfect pincushion. The nail polish on your fingers is a deliberate declaration; you are meant to be his.
On the way to your home, he holds your wrist just a bit too tight, squeezes until the words coming out of your mouth become staccato bursts of I have to go we should totally do this another time definitely yeah for sure. It’s a soundtrack you’re well-accustomed to, a dance engraved into your muscle memory.
Again, pressed against the cold front door of your own home, he calls you a masterpiece. You are his work of art, did you know that? He paints you into a pretty picture, some consentless paragon of what he locker-room talks about the most.
So you think you get it now, why Mona Lisa frowned, why Mary always had her hands clasped together like twin surviving siblings, why they hang them on museum walls. A monument to your suffering, a portrait of pain that says more than your words ever could.
Hannah Smith is a high school student and avid feminist. Her work has won the 2019 Martyn Godfrey Young Writer’s Award. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta.