A flash fiction piece I wrote in 2017 that received an Honorable Mention by Stirling Publishing:
Fingernails can tell you a lot about a person. About starvation, breathing, love, dying. We learned this in nursing school.
My own tell a story of anxiety, depression, suicide (car, highway, cement wall). Pearls engraved with ridges of yellow lines and encircled by torn cuticles, always in retreat.
I take note of Laura’s bulging thumbnail as she removes her facemask in my office. Beautiful. Hispanic. Tiny. Her sister sits beside her, quiet and watching.
I’ve met Laura before in the clinic. She’s taking art classes at the community college. I ask her to bring art next time.
She sets down the box and starts to talk but her voice catches, she coughs.
Me, professional, business-like: “Where would you like to wear it?”
“Where can I?”
“Arms, belly, hips. Up to you.”
“Thinking my stomach. What do you think?”
She lifts up her T-shirt halfway. Her skin is dented and folded like a bunched-up quilt. A plastic tube emerges from her left side.
I point to the right side of her abdomen, “Here.” I’m not uncomfortable but I feel as if, in viewing her knotted stomach, with all its visible stories, I’ve intruded on a journal entry or a naked woman in a changing room.
Together we unearth plastic utensils from the box and go through the steps of inserting the device. It will monitor her sugar levels and she’ll replace it weekly. I warn, before the needle, “There’ll be a pinch.” I forget I’m not talking to a child.
She and her sister glance at each other and laugh. Laura nods when she laughs, “I’ve been through worse.”
Her hands are good at this. I glance at her fingernails once more. They balloon outward, away from the bed, as if a large pebble were lodged beneath.
My fingernails are excoriated. They’ve been picked ruthlessly and the cuticles lie dead, skin dangling like dry curled paper burning up. The picking of anxiety and self-hatred. No nail spared but for the left pointer and the left and right pinkies. The cuticles bleed on bad days.
They’re so ugly I’m embarrassed by them. People narrow their brows at them. The psychiatrist fixates on their destruction and he asks me to stop. But I can’t. I’ve been doing it for years, since eighth grade. I’ve only ever lasted a week. As a result, I take home prescriptions for Lexapro, Ativan, Lamictal. It’s a sign of deeper discomfort.
Laura’s fingernails tell me she has a disease of the lungs. Mucus and bacteria will clog her alveoli until she drowns.
Next time you meet someone with fingernails, imagine the rings of a tree. They can tell you about stained hospital curtains, antibiotics going into your arms, linoleum lights, microwaved blankets, suitcases of novels, bed pans when you’re too weak to get up, graduation parties, nocturnal clicks of a feeding machine and your baby sister watching over you. More color in her face than yours because your skin is sallow, almost yellow.