The shade was Blue Boy, a new creation of Chanel somewhere between baby and air force blue with a touch of cobalt, and this was a first and more or less secret act for Martin: nobody knew he had painted the nail of his middle toe blue except for his wife, Lydia, who had given him the polish and a few pointers on how to use it.
Out of doors, Martin was not a man to expose his feet. Toenails, in terms of privacy, were a few notches below pubic hair, and public, open-toed footwear was the sad domain of hippies, college students, and all those demented people who lived in Florida and Arizona.
Martin wore shoes. Decent, dignified shoes.
But he admired his toe at night, and he admired his toe in the mornings, always pleasantly surprised by that alien splotch of blue waiting for him. He fantasized about walking down to the Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Division Street in the flip-flops that he did, somewhere, own (you can't stop a gift giver), but he restrained himself. It was unbecoming; it was silly; he did not want to be—he would not become—a flip-flop guy, but he knew the cause of his hesitation was elsewhere.
Martin continued to admire it, however, and since admiration is an unsatisfactory solitary activity, he began to think, more seriously, of an audience. He began to realize he wanted and maybe even needed one. But he didn't go anywhere with exposed toe, not yet, and he didn't tell Lydia about the growing conflict within.
Instead, he went to his job that rain-soaked week where things ran so smoothly there wasn't much of anything for him to do. He had found a niche in the organic furniture business, had skillfully exploited it, and now not only his work, but also his life, was on a kind of cruise control. Cruise control... Martin thought, seated at his black walnut hardwood desk made by his best Amish supplier. He felt the same way about cruise control as he did about automatic transmissions: It wasn't real driving.
So on Saturday morning, when the rain had stopped and the sun promised to heat his adopted city into the high seventies—a beneficent and auspicious kind of temperature—he walked to Stumptown with his blue toe gloriously on display.
Such decisions, following incubation periods of varying lengths and degrees, often come about suddenly, and such had his. While his wife had been busy grooming herself in the bathroom, he had entered their walk-in closet to pass gas, which he did, and to search it, the recesses, where he discovered the flip-flops behind a box of IRS forms and next to a purple, oversized dildo he thought Lydia had long since tossed in the trash. The footwear looked new and foreign and, much to his surprise and delight, it was blue—sapphire blue.
In Stumptown, where he was a loyal customer of five loyal years, no one noticed a thing: not the coordination, not the uncommon. No one paid him the least bit of new attention.
That night, he painted the rest of his toes blue, and the next morning, Sunday morning, when people were supposed to have the time and leisure to notice such things, he returned to Stumptown, feeling unavoidable, feeling monstrously and exhilaratingly exposed. Once again, no one noticed, no one said a word. No odd looks, either, not even one awkward moment. What the hell is wrong with these people? he thought.
He became depressed, but he didn't ask his wife what was going on. He assumed she would say something simple and dismissive like: That's Portland, but such an answer didn't get at it, what Martin was thinking and feeling, and so he brooded, brooding about action and originality and meaning and meaningful marks, and then he painted, with the utmost care and meticulousness, his ten fingernails.
Lydia did notice that, and she did ask him what he was up to, but Martin just shrugged and thought, I'm pretty, and the next morning, Monday morning before work, he went back to his coffeehouse wearing the sapphire blue flip-flops with his khaki pants and the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to accentuate and highlight the hand area. He queued for his usual Monday morning coffee, but when no one seemed to notice or care what he had so boldly and publicly done, he broke down and asked his fellow customers what they thought about all his painted nails.
Nice, they nonchalantly replied.
I like that shade, one woman added.
Yeah, another man said, what is it? Where can I find it?
Martin, having not shocked or surprised or impressed a soul, said, Is that all you people have to say? I mean—a deranged laugh-chuckle exited his mouth—what the fuck is going on here?
But no one answered his question. They all had their coffees and their muffins, or they were all, like civilized people, waiting patiently for them while the Tindersticks played on the in-house stereo and soothed everyone's Monday morning nerves.
Did these people have nerves?
Martin looked down. There was a boy there, wearing more complicated, more sophisticated, open-toed footwear—sandals—with fortified arch supports and straps made of supple leather. He stood as patiently as the adults, holding a white macadamia nut cookie in one of his little hands with his little fingers wrapped around it, waiting for his milk or latte. The patient adults made admiring comments to the boy's father (who looked to be about ten years younger than Martin), and they made big, encouraging, exaggerated eye and smile and hand and whole-body gestures meant for the boy himself. The big toe of the boy's left foot, Martin noticed, was painted green, the color of an avocado's flesh.
The barista, a heavily tattooed and pierced twenty-two-year-old girl named Amanda Lee who had been his friendly caffeine dealer for two years now and who was seven months pregnant and flaunting it in a cut-off T-shirt that read "BAKING", gave him a wistful smile, as if, he thought with dread, she were remembering something.
Martin rushed home. His wife, who worked from home, was surprised and pleased to see him back at such an odd hour and in such an odd state. Like she had done before, she showed him how to remove the nail polish.
People disappoint me, he said when it was all gone.
I know what you mean, she said.
He doubted that.
I don't know what to do next, he said.
Who does? she said, flipping through some papers.
What is it you want to do?
What can a man do? he wondered aloud. What I want to know is... What's the most radical thing a man can do?
Live, Lydia said.
Is it to accept? he asked. Tolerate? Love? Is it that? What is that?
You know what? she said. Let's take advantage of this, let's get your mind off it, and he knew by the shady and steady look in his wife's eyes that she wanted him to remove all her clothing.
When they were done, he looked at his naked nails, the normal pink tones snug beneath the keratin. He knew they were growing, right then, but he knew he would never see the growth, not in real time. So much was happening. So much was invisible. Where, for instance, did all this tolerance and acceptance come from? When? He would be thirty-eight in July, and Dayton, Baltimore, and Boston felt like three long lifetimes ago, but he only thought about his past when he was feeling sad and nostalgic and lost, which he was, but he didn't want to feel sad and nostalgic and lost. He wanted to feel happy and now and found, so he thought about the boy in Stumptown and that boy's avocado toenail. Martin thought about him and his nail walking through the streets of their Southeast neighborhood to and from school, and Martin pictured all the flowers and the growth—the insane, wild, beautiful flora of Portland. Those sunflowers! Those gargantuan, gorgeous, cockamamie sunflowers! Something good, something possible, was happening in the world, and Martin didn't understand it, but he wanted to be a part of it.
I want to have a boy, he said, and the words, his words, out in the world, didn't shock him.
Lydia, as if she had been expecting it, didn't gasp or protest or cry out for joy or make any other demonstrative sound.
What if it's a girl? she asked.
Martin thought about Amanda Lee, the barista, and how she was so unlike the girls he had known at that age, and not just because of the art on her skin or the metal through her body or the baby in her stomach. She had poise, and the right kind of confidence. She was vulnerably open to life, an optimist and an anarchist, like the rest of them, their happiness and hope worth a trillion angry bombs.
A girl, Martin said, would be perfect.
BIO: Kevin Tosca's stories have appeared in Fleeting, Litro, More Said Than Done, Thrice Fiction and elsewhere. He lives in France. His published work can be found at www.kevintosca.com.