Sticking a Toe In

Dusting off the pre-pandemic lifestyle


By Maria Johnson

The other day I went rummaging through my closet, looking for a particular pair of sandals — those skimpy things you wear on your feet in the summer, when you have somewhere to go.


Anyway, when I finally found them, I literally had to dust them off, because I hadn’t worn sandals in over a year — because, um, virus — and if you’re not wearing sandals, why bother to paint your toenails, right?

If you’re part of the mani-pedi industry, just hold your fire for a second and play along, OK?

The point is, I went toenail naked for more than a year.

It was very liberating. A little bit like giving up hair color, which I did a few years ago and have never regretted, mainly because my friends are smooth enough liars to say things like, “I like your gray. Not mine, of course. But yours is nice.”

OK, fine. Good enough. But I’m realist enough to know that no one is going to look at your feet and say, “I like your toenails better since you stopped coloring them.”

Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

Unless you’re, like, 4 years old.

Yes, I realize the painting of nails — like every other way of dressing the body — is a social invention, a way that some women flash status and pizzaz.

It’s also true that the widespread shellacking of digits is a fairly recent development.

When I was growing up, in the 1960s and ’70s, some beauty salons offered manicures and pedicures — remember the TV ads with Madge soaking the cuticles of unsuspecting clients in Palmolive dishwashing liquid, gasp?? — but standalone nail salons didn’t exist.

Most women, if they painted their nails at all, did it themselves. My own experiments with bottles of bloody Avon lacquer, while sitting on a white chenille bedspread, did not go well, fume-induced headaches aside.

I might as well have dunked my fingertips in enamel, let them harden, then rubbed away everything around the nails with acetone, a la Michelangelo chipping away marble to reveal David.

It wasn’t until I experienced a salon pedicure (read: foot massage) in the 1990s — for about the same price as a bottle of polish and a couple of gallons of remover — that I had a toenail awakening.

From then on, I would have the piggies painted for sandal season. The fingernails, which were stuck in garden dirt, would never be the wiser.

I liked the dash of color at my feet. Plus, as someone who loathes high heels, it was a compensation, a way to say, “I care about fashion . . . up to a point.”

In a pandemic, let’s face it, the point moves way back. No one sees your toenails except your dog and maybe your partner, and trust me, neither one gives a fat damn.

Plus, in a Zoom meeting, no one can see your toenails, except maybe in an online yoga class. Actually, scratch that. No one in an online yoga class can see your toenails either. No one’s eyes are that good, and no one gets their whole body in the picture anyway. At best, all you can see is arms and legs flailing around, shooing cats away.

The truth is, not even your yoga teacher can see you — or hear you burping or groaning — because she has muted you. She just says, “Beautiful everyone,” every few minutes, which is PERFECT.

If there’s any time for unwarranted praise, it’s during a pandemic.

Like I said, lockdowns can be oddly liberating, although I confess, I’m a little worried about what I might let slip — from my mouth or other orifices — whenever I resume in-person yoga.

But at least my toes will look good because I finally got a pedicure again.

I know. Milestone.

Infections down. Vaccinations up. Toenails painted.

America is on the move again.

Which brings me back to the sandals. That’s why I dug them out — so the freshly varnished tootsies could dry on the way home.

At the salon, it hit me how much had changed. A mural of waterfalls had been replaced by a more explicit, and probably necessary, commandment: RELAX.

Everyone was masked, not just the nail techs who normally wear face coverings to filter out the dust of acrylic nail filing.

Also, plexiglass panels hung over the pedicure chairs, dangling between customer and pedicurist.

It made conversation difficult. The tech and I leaned in to talk underneath a shield.

“Have you been vaccinated?” I ventured.

“Not yet,” she answered at point blank range.

“I see,” I said, slowly reclining my chair backward.

She volunteered that her husband had had COVID but that she’d never exhibited any symptoms.

My mind flashed “ANTIBODIES.” I scooched forward.

The Dance of the Pandemic Bell Curve.

We continued talking, and it occurred to me how much I’d missed these incidental conversations, these ephemeral windows of understanding.

The tech confided that she was torn about the vaccines — scared that they might have been developed too quickly, yet hopeful that getting a shot might mean more freedom to travel internationally.

“I’m 50/50, you know? Some days, I think, ‘Yes.’ Some days, I think, ‘No.’ I think I will get it eventually,” she said.

I said that I was torn, too — fully vaccinated, wary of close contact with unvaxxed folk, and ready to stick some Munis Mauve toes into the water again.

She lifted a foot to show her own nails, painted yellow only a month before. She, too, had been going toenail nude until recently.

We shared a crinkle-eyed laugh through plexiglass, each of us putting our best foot forward.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. She can be reached at

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