When I’m small, my mom tells me to lay on my stomach. She rolls up the back of my shirt, uses her long fingernails to trace the gentlest of patterns along the stretch of my back—ten minutes, twenty, maybe a whole episode of ER if I’m lucky. After, we switch places. She teaches me to be careful, transform potential scratches into whispers: a lazy lullaby of hushed caresses.
Stereotype: Lesbians always keep their fingernails short. “Clichés are clichés for a reason,” my best friend always says, and behold—my girlfriend isn’t thrilled when, sometime long after I stop identifying as straight or femme, I stop clipping my fingernails once a week. I don’t have a good excuse. Maybe I want to feel formidable. Maybe I want to feel safe. Maybe I’m longing for that peculiar, brittle breed of comfort my mom taught me so well.
Once, when I was sleeping, she threw a shoe at my head from the doorway because I left it on the wood floor, instead of the rug in the laundry room. Once, in the summer, she locked us out of the house for a whole day and didn’t tell us why. Once, when I promised it wasn’t me who used her hair spray (it was), she told me devils come in the night to take little lying girls to hell. She made me sleep with my windows open.
Sometimes, my mom was an angry woman.
Here is a refrain that runs through all my relationships like a thin red thread, the kind stretched so tight it will slice the pads of your fingers: “Why don’t you ever give me the benefit of the doubt?” I seek conflict ferociously, swatting away sympathetic nods and “I’m sorrys” to leave space for a baffling, greedy fury that blisters its way to the surface anytime the promise of a fight flickers in my periphery. Nothing satiates it, even when it consumes me, and it always does. All or Nothing: an obvious choice for the ravenous.
Now, she sits at the kitchen table and colors with gel pens, wraps herself in a crocheted blanket, strokes a 15-year-old cat while he purrs in his sleep. Now, she texts me sparkle-heart emojis multiple times a day, asks me when I’m going to drive to St. Louis to pick up our old piano, begs me to play for her again. Now, she weeps in my lap when I come to visit, sobs “I’m sorry” so many times the words start to sound like a foreign language. “I can’t engage any further,” she tells me when a fight is brewing. “I have to walk away.”
As the weeks pass, my budding nails begin to feel alien to my hands, like they don’t belong to my body, like talons forged to kill. I imagine I use a pair of pliers to rip them all off, one by one. The flesh underneath shrieks red at me but here are ten doors: ten ways to find me, or ten ways to leave.
When I’m small, I wake up to find notecards laid out on my dresser. Each one contains an easy word written carefully in thick capital letters: MORNING. LOVE. GOODBYE. I’m learning how to read. My mom leaves me simple messages and then I rearrange the cards, talking back, finding my own voice, slowly beginning to recognize and relish the shape of what we say to one another, the weighty heft of words.
Myth: Our fingernails keep growing after we die. Actually, it just looks this way because flesh shrinks as it dries out. It’s an optical illusion. But when I heard this as a teenager, I assumed it was true. I also misunderstood—I thought it meant my fingernails would survive independently of my body. I wanted to see for myself. After letting them grow long for weeks, I made a ceremony of clipping my nails. I gathered them up in cupped hands, deposited them carefully into a glass box on my dresser. I checked on them periodically, but they never grew longer, stronger. They curled up, shriveled, yellowed: a light dusting of faded edges.
There was no telling what would make her catch fire. Sometimes it was predictable, like if my little brother spilled a glass of milk: cold plume of fear twisting up my stomach because I knew what came next. Sometimes it was without warning or cause, and these were the worst times: a snatching away, like the moment the train goes underground during the sunset hour. A sudden loss, a sky aglow replaced abruptly with dark eyes in a windowpane.
Every time I hurt someone I love on purpose, I wrap these words carefully around me: “It’s in my blood.” Every time I leave the room after a fight and lock the door and—casually, promptly, like turning a faucet—my tears dry up into a satisfied smile, I tell myself we are all capable of saying and doing deeply hurtful things, inflicting pain and feeling nothing afterwards. Bending and breaking bones for pleasure. Sitting atop a pile of ragged limbs, swinging our legs and grinning. These reminders always feel relevant and true, in the heat of the moment. Or more accurately, for me, its afterglow.
Sometimes, I am an angry woman.
The floors of our house were strewn with eggshells she scattered in no predictable pattern. We all tiptoed around her mood swings as if we were sneaking out at night. What would happen if I gathered them up in cupped hands, all those tiny shards of white, put them into my mouth, swallowed?
I know that when I finally cut my fingernails, the coddled skin just past the clipped remains will be raw and pink and it’ll hurt so good to press it against any hard surface: the conference table at the office, the keys of an old piano. Until then, I have to press harder when I type. The tiny muscles in my fingers don’t feel stronger, just tired. I wake up and my hands ache, like they’re craving something precious—a thousand china teacups to hurl at the floor, one by one. My bare feet will dance upon them. Exit down a clean white hall, triumphant.
When I’m small, I make a papier-mâché dinosaur egg in my kindergarten class. I’m convinced the egg will hatch as long as I nurture it properly. I take it home and wrap it carefully in a pastel blanket patterned with small white bunnies. I leave it under my nightlight when I sleep so it will stay warm, and I check on it every day. One morning, I pull back the blanket to find that the egg has gone. In its place, a baby pterodactyl! I cradle my baby dinosaur, delighted. My mom smiles from the doorway. My big sister is furious when, days later, I still haven’t noticed the pterodactyl is made of plastic.
Fact: Human nails are made of a tough, protective protein called keratin, which is the same protein found in buffalo hooves and rhino horns. Keratin is made of the cells of dead skin.
I feel like asking her: What happened to your vicious half? I hoard theories: She’s storing it somewhere cold, a rainy-day grenade. She cranked up the heat enough to transform its properties. She infused it with something else, something less heavy, something that doesn’t drag down the corners of her mouth, flatten the arch of her eyebrows into a perpetual scowl. Or maybe it wasn’t her decision at all. Maybe she simply ran dry after all these years, her body exhausted.
But then, what sustains her now?
I bring home an overripe peach that sinks without permission under my lengthening fingernails. I glare at it. I fume. The way this peach gives where it should be firm makes me hate all peaches. I hate many guiltless parties these days—the carefree rich white businessmen I interview daily, the smiles of strangers, the layer of dust lining the furniture in the basement I live in, the bridges I’ve burned, cackling—and peaches are now one of them. I bury these punctuations in shallow graves. I forget why my fingernails are never clean.
Neither of us knows how to recognize tenderness in sharp edges, turn our weapons into a safe place to land. She had to pick a side. She clings to it, knuckles white. Here I am, stuck opposite, blaming her. Between us, a titanic grey plane, peppered with wells and minefields.
I could give, too. I could use my nails to make this peach a mess of gleeful guts, bright orange mixing with a deep, deep velvet, all of it swimming around a heavy stone of pit. I could place it all neatly back into the produce drawer, act like it belongs: unassuming violence next to a chipper, intact yellow squash.
Not now—my hands are still clenched, knuckles white. But when I finally cut my fingernails, I smile, heartened, as I watch my claws erode into something irrelevant: dead skin on tile. How silently they fall to the bathroom floor, the clippings scattering faintly like the feathers from my pillow.