His breath smells of spearmint and cigarettes.
“Can I ask you a question?” His dark brown eyes are fixated on mine. “My name is Kobi.”
He’s slim, wearing a fitted black dress shirt and slacks, and has his thick black hair slicked with gel. He has a good smile and wastes no time as I, like moth to flamer, gravitate toward him.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Persistent, he is.
All personal space is destroyed instantly, and he takes my hand. He’s close enough to kiss. And I almost do.
“Do you take care of your nails?”
Not being the expected marriage proposal for which I’d hoped, I sensed an impending predicament. I don’t believe in karma, but I felt the situation was apropos given that I’d just smirked at some poor sap who’d been wrangled into a neighboring kiosk’s massage chair. But with my deer-in-the-headlights gaze and his smooth talk, Kobi has suckered me in.
“No, I’m an archaeologist. I don’t really take care of my nails.”
“Oh, so the allergies bother you?” Kobi furrows his unibrow–his only unfortunate physical trait.
For a moment, I think I have an easy out. “Yes, the allergies.” I channel Utter Devastation. “Well, shucks. Guess I’ll be on my way to the Gap.”
Equipped to deal with an arsenal of excuses, Kobi deploys Plan B. “Well, you’re in luck!”
Son. Of. A.
“This product is from the Dead Sea, which means it’s all natural.”
Somewhat befuddled by this equation–as I’d been with archaeologist equals allergies–I want to ask why exactly the product’s source area means it’s all natural. But before I respond, he takes hold of my left thumb.
“What’s your name?”
“MATT.” Louder and slower; my inner anthropologist screams.
Kobi yammers on about the product, and starts using a tri-colored, belt-sander-like contraption on my thumbnail. He tells me he’s from Israel and asks where I’m from.
“Oh, yeah? Nice country!”
But then we’re back to my thumbnail.
“Now, watch and be amazed, Matt.”
He recites a litany of nail care steps–his own incantation.
“And then you scrub the top of the nail with this side of the magic cube.” He makes sure I’m staring intently at the side of the cube embossed with a blue rectangle.
“Now, let’s get under the light.” He pulls me by my thumb and I quash my juvenile temptation to fart.
He reveals The Nail. Honestly, I’m genuinely surprised at how different it looks from its gnarled, nubby neighbors. With its pronounced sheen from a treatment of vitamin aloe-vera oil, it’ll surely be the envy of phalanges everywhere.
Relieved that I’m not allergic to any of the crap he continues to coat on my nail, I keep going along with the whole charade, knowing that I’ll sneak away somehow. Double-plus bonus: now I have a nice nail.
“Just try and scratch it. Go ahead.”
I think about telling him that I don’t intentionally harm myself, at least not since I was a cutter. But I figure it’s not the time. After all, we haven’t even gotten to oils or lotions.
“This dry skin around your nail, you see?”
“Yes, see and.”
I like how we’re communicating in sentence fragments, yet completely moving forward with conversation. He drops a bit of oil onto the tip of my thumb and rubs it in. The dry skin disappears.
“Well. Look. At. That.”
He says it’s time for lotions. My curiosity is piqued, even though I know this can’t lead anywhere good, especially since my eyes keep watering from the overpowering fragrance bouquet enveloping me. But instead of running away with my shiny nail, I just stand there. He returns with various samples, asking that I smell each.
“And my favorite is Wild Kiwi.” He shoves a tube underneath my nose.
He dabs a little on his arm.
“You rub it in this way. Feel this.” With every cooed, seductive word, he rubs my hand through the lotion.
Most sane gay men wouldn’t object. But my neurotic, germ-averse mind begins its own cooing. Who knows how many people have touched his arm? How many of them wash their hands after they piss? What about the Gap?
So I pull my hand away from Kobi’s annoyingly clear, ridiculously smooth skin. He mumbles something.
“You know, you’re supposed to laugh when I tell a joke!”
Uh oh. Kobi angry!
The shit slowly starts hitting the fan. I begin back-tracking, saying I have to meet a friend for lunch and asking how late he’s here so that I can return and buy something.
“You’re not coming back.”
Stunned by his forwardness, I’m at a loss.
“C’mon, I’m not dumb.”
He knows the jig is up.
“Oh no, I know, I’m just, you know…”
I grasp for anything. But good excuses–allergies, skin-infections, herpes–escape me as I attempt to free myself from this sticky, kiwi-tainted situation.
“It’s the price, right?”
Thinking this is a way out, I say yes.
“Well, for you…I’ll make you a deal.”
God. Damn. It.
He tells me that I can have everything he’s shown me for the reasonable price of my firstborn and a pint of blood. Or $59.95. Still, I can’t afford it. So I play the broke graduate student card, telling him I can’t swing it.
With fifteen minutes invested into the ordeal, I know there’s no possibility of politely backing out. So when he says he’ll cut the price in half, I agree. He’s worn my polite, southern self down, just like the magic cube. I just want to leave. But then, out comes the mud bar soap.
“And this goes well with the lotion!” He picks up a chart with the soap’s price boldly printed as $45. “It cures psoriasis, eczema, and acne.”
I’m fairly sure that the neighboring Proactiv kiosk vendors will disagree, and momentarily entertain the notion of dragging them into the discussion–inciting an inter-kiosk war and escaping in the melee. But at this point, even I’m beyond niceties.
“NO MUD BAR! This will have to do!” I scream at him, motioning to the box that reads Seacret: Skin Care From the Dead Sea and wondering how it’s come to this.
“But you see the red skin that you have on your face? This can be helped with the bar.” He points to my face for passersby to judge.
Oh, honey. Even though I’d just taken a shower and my skin is dry–just dry!–I feel self-conscious.
“The damn Seacret is enough!”
What’s next, asking if my shirt is really one hundred percent cotton?
Kobi retreats to the register and swipes my card. He puts the Seacret in a bag, the quality of which is one rung down from a takeout container for a Panda Express pu pu platter. He hands it to me and stamps the accompanying receipt in bold red lettering that reads “NO REFUNDS, ONLY EXCHANGES.” And smiles.
Why, Kobi, why?
With my dignity bagged, I try to melt into the crowd, but feel the stares, almost hear witnesses mutter “Dumb sack.” After rummaging through a few more stores, I leave incredibly unsatisfied.
On my way out, Kobi and multiple other kiosk vendors stand poised and ready. I wait and blend myself with a passing group. But right as we pass the kiosks, the group disperses, and I’m left between multiple chatty rocks and a hard place: the kiosk vendors and Sears.
“Sir, can I ask you a question?”
I dart into the land of pastel shirts and pleated pants, then out the door. Circling back around the mall to where I think I parked, I raise my hand above car roofs and press my panic button. Sunlight glances off my thumbnail, spraying oddly intense light in all directions. Mesmerized, I stop and stare.
But then my alarm sounds nearby, snapping me back from the edge of Mount Doom. Searching for blinking taillights, I shield my eyes–the side of my hand propped on my forehead’s deeply-set wrinkle ridges.
I wonder if there’s a cream for that?
But before I can think about it further, I get in and turn the key.
And my shiny nail and I are gone, with the smell of kiwi and torched gullibility wafting in our wake.