HOT PINK TOENAILS

I’m lying flat on the Dead Sea, feet turned towards Jordan, hot pink toenails pointed to the sky.

I came down to the Sea last evening at around 7. It was over 110 during the day, but by 7 it had come down to a cool 98 degrees. On one side of the Jordan Valley Rift, the Israeli side, the sun had sunk behind the mountains, leaving t hem purple; on the other side, Jordan had turned into pink-blue haze. Later at night I’d see the lights of their Dead Sea hotels and resorts.

The staff is putting away the beach chairs and cleaning up the debris from the sandy beach, the lifeguards are gone. I walk down a wooden boardwalk which goes right into the oily water, holding on to thin rails, advancing towards a pavilion at the end of the walk where people who don’t wish to venture out too far can get into the water and hold on. But I, at the end, slowly lower myself into this sea that’s almost ten times saltier than the ocean, gray and dense at this hour, and with slow, focused strokes, careful not to splash and get any of it into my eyes, I make my way farther out.

Soon the boulders of salt disappear from under my feet. Slowly I turn and lie on my back, suspended between heaven and earth. I feel held and safe like a baby; nothing bad will happen to me as long as I remember not to move or turn too fast. Don’t make waves is taken very seriously in the Dead Sea, and everyone has stories of seeing someone ignoring the warnings and jumping into the water, head first, screaming when the water gets into their eyes and mouth.

Indulge in macho behavior, and the water burns. Bear witness softly, and it will hold you like a mother.

What do I think about in this belly of the earth, floating at its lowest point? At first, nothing. Then, catching sight of my hot pink toenails, I think of pedicures.

This morning I had my toenails done. They get dirty even in winter and I like to have them thoroughly cleaned and, in summer, painted. The woman who did it had come from Russia and lived in the city of Arad, in the south of Israel, half an hour’s drive away.

“I wanted to settle closer to the center [of Israel],” she told me as she worked, “but my sister left Russia and settled in Arad so I decided to live near her. Then my parents followed me from Russia, they settled in Arad, too, so now I don’t leave because my family is here. You have to be with your family, of course.” I thought of how far I chose to live from my family and said nothing.

Floating in the Dead Sea, I contemplate the hot pink toenails pointed towards heaven and remember other pedicures I’ve done,. Closer to my New England home there used to be a day spa with walls painted blue, no television and no music. Instead, the receptionist brought me herbal tea as I sat in a big chair and looked down at the dark hair of Irene [not her real name}, who was seated below and working on my feet.

You ask her how she is and she tells you. She lives in Springfield, has a married son who rarely visits and a brother who lives together with their sick mother. “When I divorced I lost everything,” she tells you. She works at three jobs to make ends meet. She does pedicures most afternoons and Saturday, makes tips as a waitress at a local restaurant five evenings a week, and is a private caregiver to an elderly gentleman on weekday mornings. She goes to see her mother every night in order to give her an injection.

“Can’t your brother do it?” you inquire.

“She says it hurts when he does it, but not when I do it.”

The day spa closed down and I have no idea what happened to Irene and whether she found a new third job.

“Why can’t you stop thinking about bad things?” my mother used to ask me when I was very young and couldn’t stop asking about what happened to the dead bird I’d found in the park, the woman seeking handouts by the supermarket, or the small moth caught in the spider’s web. “Why can’t you just be happy?”

Floating in the Dead Sea, hot pink toes flashing in the warm sulfur water so healthy for my joints and muscles, I think of Irene and pedicures:

Why can’t you just be happy!