Autarchy

[Leer cuento en español]

Beyoncé is trapped in her gel nails. Well, not Beyoncé Beyoncé, it’s just that Maria refuses to allow her real name to be used, because it’s simply too distinctive, and she prefers not to be recognized in the street. So we’ll have to turn to her idol for a pseudonym (surely, there must be more Beyoncé fans than Marias in the world). Anyway, what happened is that Beyonce got sick before the virus got its official papers cleared to leave China, and she endured nine days of fever and misery, but she didn’t die, because she took good care of herself, and because she was lucky, and because she’s not in a high-risk demographic, and because she doesn’t know if she had coronavirus or just the flu or who knows the hell what. 

Now she’s completely cured. She may not know the precise nature of what she had, but she’s definitely cured. To celebrate her recovery, she’d forked over twenty euros for an old Chinese lady to attach some beautiful pink — natural-toned — gel nails, with a little flower at the edge, natural in a totally different way. To attach them tightly to the nail plate, attach them very, very tightly. 

It was the first time she’d ever gotten gel nails, but she deserved it, for fuck’s sake; she’d been clinging on to life by a thread (or at least had a really nasty fever) for nine days. She deserved some gel nails as a reward. Of course she deserved it. 

The only hitch was the arrival of the pandemic, this time officially and with a stamped tourist visa, so all businesses that weren’t strictly essential had been required to close indefinitely, by decree of the Bundesregierung. And now it turns out that gel nails aren’t a necessity. Unfuckingbelievable. All the Chinese nail salons closed. Every single one.

And now two weeks have gone by since she stuck her hand in that device with a UV lamp that burned like bloody hell. Two weeks — the nails are starting to look battered. Wikipedia informs her that nails grow an average of 0.1 millimeters per day. So that’s 1.4 millimeters already. Beyoncé’s voracious half-moons are encroaching further and further onto her cuticle. 

Poor Beyonce, half-heartedly telecommuting from the confinement of her apartment, types endlessly on her laptop and misenters number after number in Excel because those damn claws protrude farther every day and stick themselves where they’re not wanted, and everything gets messed up. She has to pore over every formula with a microscope. 

And worst of all, she can’t concentrate, because her friend Carmen (we’re going to have to call her Gwyneth due to privacy concerns) told her that oy, oy, oy, those nails and that gel must be veritable nests of coronavirus. Disinfect, disinfect. Ne-e-sts. 

Beyoncé checks the cells, half of them wrong, because those nests of coronavirus relish chaos. She is completely incapable of concentration, Gwyneth’s words a relentless drumbeat behind every thought. Plus, the laptop was brought to her from the office only a few days ago; no doubt it’s still bathed in viruses. She sprays her nails with disinfectant at every chance. Calculation, psss, psss, correction, psss, multiplication, psss, psss, etcetera, psss, psss, psss

And then there’s grocery shopping, yet another ordeal. She couldn’t get it delivered without pawning one of her more important organs, because she lives alone, and you have to buy provisions for a football team to qualify for free delivery. So she goes to the supermarket, whatcha gonna do? At least she gambles the lives of her gel nails: on previous excursions, two of them were ripped off by the cursed, blessed handles of the shopping bags, but she can’t have such misfortune every time (no matter how hard she tries).

When she ventures into the terrifying world outside her apartment, she applies every last tip forwarded to her on WhatsApp: she wears gloves and a mask, she doesn’t touch anything at all, she scolds a woman who is manhandling loaf after loaf of bread with her bare hands (c’mon, lady, Jesus Christ!), she keeps six feet apart in the queue, she sprints across to the other sidewalk when she spots a figure approaching in the distance. Look what she’s come to. When she arrives home, she initiates disinfection protocols as soon as she reaches the landing — a bucket of bleach at the entrance for her shoes, plastic bags to shield the plastic bags, coat banished to the disinfection zone (which she doesn’t have, of course, because she lives in a studio, not a mansion). She washes her hands as if digging for a secret layer of skin. She scrubs and scrubs the nests of coronavirus, which have been well and truly exposed. And then she rounds it off with a psss, psss, psss, and then a few more for good measure.

She feels hideous, with her nails in this state. One day she straightens her hair, which she always keeps curly nowadays, unstraightened since her last wild night at Fabrik; pwah, more than five years ago. She looks strange: between that hair and those nails, she looks like God knows what. She Skypes her mother, how ugly you are, then her best friend, how ugly, how ugly. And she sulkily washes her hair to bring back the glory of her curls, but her nails don’t fall out no matter how long she keeps on at her scalp.

She has learned to knit from YouTube videos, and the hours fly by, but she can’t get her nails out of her head, because they are always before her eyes, dancing to and fro with the needles. The nails without gel, the ones that broke carrying the groceries, still have remnants stubbornly glued on, and those can’t be pried off either. The other nails are increasingly on their last legs, but well-anchored, shining pinkly and in bloom, the half moon on the cuticles now full. Perhaps the cure is worse than the disease. 

Beyoncé only leaves the house to go shopping, but what truly makes her feel trapped are those tacky gel nails: what on Earth was I thinking when I get them done, I want my twenty euros back, I’ll never get gel nails ever again in my life, never.

With all her fretting about nails this and not nails that, the days rush by: she watches a film about explosions and sweat starring Angelina Jolie, and she forgets her nails; cooks and there her nails are, staring at her; psss, psss; sunbathes on her balcony in the breaks between the Berlin snow and nails? what nails?; does a HIIT workout and everything hurts except her nails; sews and sews and nails and nails and psss; she takes a nap and dreams about nails; reads Julia Navarro and sometimes they creep past the edge of the page, psss, psss, and other times, they are lost in the drama of the novel; she organizes bingo games over Skype and the nails knock the balls away when she tries to pick them up, psss, but it’s fun, and she doesn’t mind so much — not for nothing was she crowned “Online Bingo Queen.” 

She’s already been confined for 2.1 millimeters (or three weeks), and it seems like it’s going to be long-term, but the days are losing form, are losing form more and more. Her main concern in life is whether the Chinese women will open the nail salons. Well. Perhaps someday the gel nails will plunge over the finger cliff inevitable with the march of time. Perhaps that day will arrive before the uncertain date of the end of the quarantine. Perhaps. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

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