Yesterday I painted my nails red. Understand, I am not one to grow long nails, never really have been and certainly not now when I’d never want a client to feel anything even remotely like a long nail on a shoulder, on a back, or while I’m fulcrum-ing their head at that hurts-so-good spot where skull meets neck…

But, the other day, walking past CVS, I was taken back 20 years… And yesterday, on the eve of my birthday, my fingers practically begged me, “Please, can you paint us red?” I just had to oblige. Also, something about now must be reminding me of then…

I was living at 211 Beacon Street in Boston, in studio 3D, although I can assure you that the words “three dimensional” utterly belie the Lilliputian size of the studio I called home for several years in my mid 20’s. It was a shoebox of a place, with a ladder I climbed up to where my futon fit, just barely, in the sleeping loft a couple of feet from the ceiling… a place where you were likely to bump your head if your dared to stand up tall, and a place where, too many times to tell, something like a ceiling fell. Yes, that’s right, a ceiling.

Fairfield Realty was the name of the management company for the building of my shoebox studio, and for $475 a month in the Back Bay of Boston they would practically look you in the face, laugh, and proceed to tell you you were lucky —yes, lucky— which was shorthand for they’d not be fixing your bathroom ceiling anytime soon. Like I said, it was not a place where a girl could stand up tall.

But I had a friend. Her name was Katherine. She lived on Marlborough Street, a block away, in a studio with an actual bedroom and ceilings that didn’t fall.

“Waterstones later?” Katherine would ask.

“Yes!” I’d reply.

Waterstones was an enormous, three-story, palace of a bookstore in a beautiful, old, stone building on Essex Street. It became my second home, a place I could while away long New England winter weekend afternoons, a place where I could, for a few hours, not notice that it was dark:thirty in the afternoon and oh-so-cold and getting colder.

This is how it went: after a quick hi-how-are-you kiss in the lobby Katherine and I would split up to do a walk-through, each of us perusing our favorite shelves and sections, gathering our stack for the day. Mine would invariably include new fiction, or women’s studies, or poetry, or psychology, the latter to find out what the hell was wrong with me. Thankfully, at Waterstones I also met many poets, alive and not, and they made me feel understood in the way that even the most perfect psychological diagnosis never could. Discovering Letters To a Young Poet was like finding a pack of letters in a bottle just for me. Mr. Rilke got me. And there’s nothing like feeling gotten, nothing. Mr. Neruda had grown up in the very city I had in Southern Chile. He knew endless rain, the kind you could feel in your bones, and he talked about love being round like a watermelon. And oh but I wanted a melon like that. And on and on… At Waterstones poets became friends.

After our walk-through, Katherine —who, whatever else she may have ended up carrying, always had at least one book, if not five, from the Humor-Comedy shelves in her stack— and I would meet at our predetermined spot by the big comfy chairs by the windows on the third floor —choice #1—  or, if the window chairs were full, in the quiet corner over by psychology, sitting cross-legged on the floor —choice #2. And there we’d read the afternoon well away into the evening, every so often looking up to tell each other something we’d found.

Those were paycheck to paycheck pay the rent and just buy food kind of days, so I never did buy many books at Waterstones, but please believe me, dearest palace of a bookstore, that any extra money I ever had did go to you and I was heartbroken the day I went back to visit you, after I’d moved to a place where I could stand up, and I saw the closed-for-business sign on your front doors. My heart sinks all over again just remembering.

Often Katherine and I read until 11, practically closing the place down, but sometimes, getting back to nails, we’d hop across the street to CVS, the drug store, to try on shades of red polish. Usually it was at Katherine’s urging, but I can’t say she ever had to twist my arm all that much.

There we stood, making single streaks of red on our nails, trying on a million shades, until we found the one we liked. We’d leave the store, our nails looking like bloody zebras, but our hearts warm with laughter.

It’s my birthday today. Happy birthday to me! Many things have changed since those shoebox studio days. For one, I can stand tall where I live. For two, I do something I love. For three, there’s you, and this here me writing to you. For four… oh there are more, many more. And yet, some things about now are reminding me of then and, truth be told, it’s scaring me just a bit. So this here is me, ushering in a new life year in the spirit of red —kindness, laughter and friendship— on some gray-feeling days.

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