At 5:00 my girlfriend Carrie calls home to tell me she's crashed her Toyota. Everything has a cause, and in this case the cause is a driver, drunk or crazy, who swerved into Carrie's lane. To avoid a head-on collision, she jerked the wheel to the right and hit a utility box by the side of the road. I can imagine her now, clutching the cell phone and combing back her spiky hair with her other hand.
“God,” she says, beginning to sound shaky. “This is going to cost a fortune to fix, and Layla's eighth grade graduation is in, what, two hours? I was supposed to help her do her nails with that new polish we bought just for this, and now I won't even be home on time. Shit. I don't know what to do now.”
“Nails?” I say. “I can do nails. Linda made me learn how to do the baby's nails, before we got divorced. Don't worry -- I'm on the case.”
“Thank god. It's so great the way you get along with Layla. Most guys didn't even want to date me when they found out I had a daughter! Is it all right to just meet you at the school then?”
“Sure. By the way, are you all right?”
“I'm fine. Listen, I see the tow truck coming down the road. I have to go.”
“Wait – it's that sort of dark red stuff from Sephora, right?”
“Yes, that's it. I have to go now! Bye, lover boy.”
Carrie says our sex life isn't that great, so it's funny that her nickname for me is lover boy. I'm not sure I've ever had what she calls a great sex life; maybe I just haven't met the right girl. But I've been with Carrie for six months now and she seems as good as anyone ever has.
I walk into the kitchen where the new bag from Sephora still sits on the Formica counter. It says expensive and it says special event. In it is a bottle of base coat and a bottle of color, as bloody and mature as pomegranate.
“Layla!” I call into the house, and I wait for her sulky “What?” to echo back to me so I can locate her in the den where she is reading. When I come in she puts down her book, Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie. I haven't read that one, but I bet it turns out the butler did it.
Layla is twelve years old, a smart twelve years old who's a year ahead in school. She's tall and a late bloomer, almost steady-handed enough to do her own nails but not quite. Almost old enough to shave her legs, but not quite. I tell her that Carrie will have to meet us at the school, and that I'll do her nails if she'll let me. After a moment she nods.
Sitting next to her on the ratty green couch, I polish the nails on one hand and then the other. My ex-wife taught me how to do this: base coat first, then color.
We let them dry for a few minutes while I go off to find my own outfit for the evening, and then I apply one more coat of gleaming red. I've done a good job. It's satisfying. She looks older with the polish on--almost like a woman, but not quite.
“What about my toenails?” she says. “The new shoes Mom got me have open toes.”
There's a cause for everything. And in a moment, thanks to that drunk or crazy driver, I am kneeling on the green carpet at Layla's feet. It feels shockingly natural, as if I'd been there forever. The sunlight gleams off the fine hairs on her supple, thin legs. Her foot fits into my left hand with a warm alignment that makes me think of machinery. Her toenails are so shiny.
I touch one, very gently.
“Come on,” says Layla, “hurry, so it can start drying.”
I fight to keep my hands steady, and I keep my head down, but by the time I reach the last toenail I'm breathing as hard as if I'd just run a mile.