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Illustration by Chelsea O'byrne

Earlier this year, I decided to paint my fingernails. This, after 29 years of plain, pinkish-white fingertips, the same colour as the other males in my immediate circle.

Like most life-altering experiences, it happened at the Coachella music festival, that vapid Instagram-fest near Palm Springs, where adults – desperately clinging to their adolescence – endure heat and dense crowds to see a smorgasborg of world-class musicians. While there, a friend of mine decorated my nails green and black.

It felt normal. Everyone at Coachella engages in some form of experimentation, whether ingesting strange hallucinogens, wearing chains and leather chaps, tongue wrestling with a stranger or, in my case, the mildest of all options, adding polish to the end of my paws. And Harry Styles – the most talked about act of the weekend – wore nail paint, making the digital flourish seem entirely justifiable, even hip.

When I returned to Toronto, post-festival, my lungs coated in a layer of Mojave dust, my skin luminescent from the southern sun, I refused to remove the colour. There were a couple of reasons. First, I was too lazy to purchase remover. Second, I wanted to maintain the last vestiges of my vacation, staving off a full psychic return to normal life. (For comparison: In Palm Springs, every morning, I puttered down the street in a golf cart, smiling and waving at the locals, pacified by the vehicle’s electronic hum; in Toronto, I white-knuckle on the freeway, being accosted from all angles by angry honks and obscene hand gestures, unsettled by the growl of gas engines.)

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My family members, especially, were a bit confused when they first saw it. They assumed it was the physical manifestation of a quarter-life crisis. An older man might buy a sports car and plop a younger woman in the passenger seat but with my limited budget, a $15 bottle of polish from the drug store was sufficient. Was this the beginning of my descent into madness? What was next? Buying a wig, wearing eyeliner, taking LSD with other burnouts and attending raves under a bridge? Everyone was worried.

So why do I continue painting my nails? Well, it could be that I’m just trying to get attention by latching onto the latest pop culture trend. I’m a writer, an artist, an attention-seeker with a hobby, so I like the looks I get from passersby. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s the truth.

The answer could be less cynical, though. Maybe I just enjoy it. I like having flashes of brilliance on my fingertips as they crawl across the keyboard. And when they get faded or chipped, I get to pick out a new shade, renew, upgrade, transform, playing with different pinks and purples, colours that men are discouraged from wearing in our culture. As a writer, I thought my use of a language was supposed to be enough. But it’s fun being able to make a statement without saying anything at all, a kind of shortcut to self-expression.

There’s something else worth mentioning. For the past few months, I’ve been enduring a nasty case of melancholy. I call it “the Sads.” It would be inappropriate to self-diagnose with depression, but that’s very much what it feels like. Plus, when I had a phone call with a mental health councillor, I scored extremely high on his depression questionnaire. (Yay for me!)

I’m not alone, either. Look around. We’re in the middle of a mental-health epidemic. Everyone thought exiting the pandemic would provide relief from the collective neurosis wracking our brains for the past couple of years. But things seem to be worse. Personally, I feel awkward in group settings, detached from my friends and loved ones and isolated after spending two years alone behind my computer screen. Maybe I started painting my nails to get out of the post-pandemic funk, to shake the Sads by experimenting with my identity.

Just recently, I quit my job at a magazine. (You can imagine how my family members reacted to that news.) Obviously, the decision was somehow connected to my new nails – physical experimentation, career rebellion. Sure, I had been thinking about finding new work for a little while, but perhaps by colouring my nails and bucking the norm, I gained the confidence to go through with it. I’ve had a little less of the Sads ever since. So, to all of my fellow men, why not explore the cosmetic aisle? You never know what could happen.

Mathew Silver lives in Toronto.

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