Nails by Julia Kenny

I finally stop biting my nails when my seven-year-old shames me into it. Don’t bite, stop doing that, a gentle slap against the back of my hand. Are you embarrassed by my hands? I ask her, and she kind of shrugs me off. Her silence speaks volumes. So I dig out the clear polish and get to work. I wince as I paint over a broken cuticle. For the first day or so I marvel at how much worse they look with the shiny lacquer, at their vulgarity. If my daughter notices, she stays quiet. I worry about what she’ll find next. My chipped tooth, mottled skin. I try with all my might not to talk about my body in front of her, not to obsess. But she’s always listening when I least expect it. The other day, I hissed fuck under my breath and she called out from the other room, is everything okay?

Friends come over for dinner. She watches them kiss and races up to them. I saw you, I saw you! You saw us kiss? the woman says. We kiss all the time. My daughter giggles and does a dance. I’d bury my face in my hands if I wasn’t trying so hard not to bite my fingernails. My husband arrives home from work with a bag of groceries and we say hello. I went shopping in the morning but I’d forgotten nearly half of what he needed. I help him unpack the bag in our tiny kitchen. Almost immediately, the counter is again a wreck. I rub his back and feel him tense up ever so slightly.

All during dinner, I see my daughter’s eyes darting back and forth between us and the other couple. The other woman smiles a lot. She’s in a very good mood. Her laugh is light and comes easily. Her nails are short and tidy, a subtle crescent of white hovering just past her fingertips. I look down at my own hands, clutching my glass, so much fingertip exposed. I’m distracted and I try to reinsert myself into the conversation. They’re talking about politics while I was sure they were still on TV, and I make a joke that confuses everyone. My husband gives me a sheepish smile and shrugs and my ears go hot. I refill everyone’s drinks and let their chatter swirl around me, nodding along when it seems appropriate, grateful that no one brought dessert.

They finally go home and my daughter heads to bed. Once she falls asleep, I devour her. Her room is just barely lit up by a nightlight, and I study her in all her sleepy perfection. Gone are any angles, her face now slack, all eyelashes and tufts of unruly hair. Later that night, when she inevitably shuffles into our room, I’ll sneak back into hers. I’ll spread my limbs out across her tiny mattress, no one else to knock up against. I tell myself that if I get enough sleep, tomorrow will come easily. I’ll be light, I’ll smile and laugh. 

In the morning, she wakes up like a whirling dervish, full of questions and jokes and stories. I grimace. I’m tired. My husband makes breakfast while I brush her hair, beg her to get dressed a little quicker. I could take her, he offers, when I snap at her to get her shoes on. I glare at him. I’ve got this. I show her how to tie her laces, but she can’t seem to grasp the first step. She gets frustrated and asks for daddy, who swoops in. I move toward the front door, waiting. I check my phone. Within minutes she’s beaming with pride. She’s tied them herself. They hug and I tap my foot impatiently, loud enough that they both turn to look at me, disappointed. I overdo it on our way out the door, embrace him and give her a cookie for the walk, her eyes wide, watching.

Don’t bite, she says, on our way to school. With her backpack on my shoulder, I bring one hand to my mouth, while the other holds her cold hand, her gloves once again misplaced. I pull her soft fingers to my lips and kiss the dimples on her knuckles. For a moment, I feel a weight come off. Then I worry that the teachers will admonish me at the end of the day. We’ve also forgotten her hat. I bring my longest nail, my right ring finger, to my teeth and bite down, relishing in the familiar sting. I start again.


Julia Kenny’s fiction has appeared in The Greensboro Review. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.

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