“Lemons” by Arisa White (6/7-6/13)
These COVID times silently growing my nails and cuticles long. Wasn’t it just last week . . . or two weeks ago. . . God, these feet need a soak and scrub.
My youngest sister told me, “You have the best toenails out of the family, and that’s not saying much.” Out of shyness and shame, I wore socks the first time I had sex. Years later, a lover holding my foot said, “Luckily, you’re tall, ‘cause your toes are far from your face.” I took my foot back.
This expectation for feet to not show the wear of your labor, and I’m from a big-foot family. Most of the time, especially the women, could not find their elevens or twelves, sometimes wide, and so you take that half or full size smaller because I’m so tired of not looking cute—
A shoe with feminine colorways, a fatale stiletto, something fashionable that will take the kerning from my toes, teach me to numb my dogs with dirty-dirty martinis.
The comedian Gina Yashere, on her Instagram account, documents her time sheltering-in-place, and around day 30-something she talks about needing a pedicure. Shows her foot, dry and crusty heel, and overgrown brittle and bruised nails. Regardless if it wasn’t her true foot, it was still foul. I haven’t watched her Corona Diaries since.
Why wait for a pedicure to clip and clean your nails, pumice and lotion your feet? Not asking anyone to participate aggressively in the beauty industrial complex, just daily grooming to make visible the ways you show up for your own care.
Gina Yashere is in a romantic situation with Ninja and my wife gives me lip when my nails start to do damage. I’m slicing her shin at night and stabbing her bicep when reaching for her tit. These little moments of injury in my attempts to be close, touch, conserve and raise heat.
I want that heat. Don’t want to be sorry because I’m being lazy, especially when I’m more than aware when it’s time to trim and file. Soles, for some days now, snagging the sock along. Big toe hitting on the shoe. And the scratch on my forehead—me putting on a sports bra.
My mom always wanted to know how Coko, from SWV, wiped her ass. With candy-colored fingernails, measuring at least half a foot long. We could be in the car, in the house, wherever a radio or TV had SWV on blast. My mom had to mention that “The nails curl up, so how’s she even scratchin somebody?”
First time meeting this acclaimed poet, I too was distracted by his long fingernails. I stared at his hands, asked, “Who are you?” Emphasizing the who, like where your people come from and what they taught you about your nails? My friend assumed I knew who he was.
Few years later, I attended a summer retreat and met his partner. Wondered if she liked to be scratched good. His sandals, his toenails reaching beyond the beds, root-like. This man, I realized, is growing himself tree and his woman, sylvan fever.
They, a brutalist kind of love. Their nails husbandry. Raking backyards, weedy pits, worms, slugs, insects we cannot name. Ecstatic. All their crescents black with earth, hirsute top his soil, rogue particles flutter spiritually, them beasts in clover grass.
Who taught me?–not much. Keep them short. Paint them on special occasions. Push back the cuticles. Vinegar kills fungus. Support your arches. Keep them dry. And then this story about my Uncle Butchie, who died of AIDS, avoided the army because his feet were too big and narrow, applied fresh lemon to his toenails.
I did this at times. For this memory of him. For the beauty I imagined of him. The intentionality from the moment of selecting lemons. Cutting it into eighths, the zest, the lemon in the air.
I took five wedges back to my college dorm, that spring semester my freshman year. It was the first time of my uncle’s remembrance. I rubbed my toes until covered in pulp and juice. Another along the heels, those callouses necessary to modern dance.
Even now, when life gives me a pandemic, I let the citrus do its medicine.
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, Sarah Lawrence College alumna, MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of the poetry chapbooks Disposition for Shininess, Post Pardon, Black Pearl, Perfect on Accident, and “Fish Walking” & Other Bedtime Stories for My Wife. Originally from New York and living in central Maine, Arisa is an assistant professor in creative writing at Colby College and serves on the board of directors for Foglifter and Nomadic Press. She is also an advisory board member for Gertrude and a community advisory board member for Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance.