By Katherine Sullivan
My mother’s pinky toe is her favorite. The nail never grows longer than a quarter inch. She would sit there not in plain view but off to the side of the room. Biting her lip in satisfaction with her knee in the crook of her elbow. Her callused heal gripping the edge of the chair. Thumbing the corners of her toenails, picking at it until she created a small nick in the edge of her pinky toe.
I’d watch her when she thought I was watching Full House or Happy Days. I bet the Tanners or the Fonz, used nail clippers in the privacy of their bathroom. I’d just sit there with her in my peripheral stealing glances of her. Watching how once she was able to grip that nail with her thumb and forefinger she would look delighted. Then she would peel the nail across that little toe, it didn’t matter how far down the angle would be, often times ripping the nail from the flesh causing it to bleed. I assume it caused her great satisfaction because she would do it over and over again. Causing her to walk on her callused heals, hobbling from room to room.
My father wouldn’t let me sleep with socks on. He would say, “Your feet need to breathe.” Whatever that means, but it was cold in our house. Our furnace was a wood stove, it was in the basement and I hated sleeping with my door open. An open door let in heat, yelling, laughing, crying, and other adjectives which describe a dysfunctional marriage. So, I would sleep with socks on, a hoodie and a scarf.
My mother hated that I would sleep with a scarf on, more than my father hated the sight of suffocating feet, “Don’t sleep with a scarf on, you could choke to death.” I’d dream that from my head down to my toes parts of me just would suffocate. I wasn’t a big fan of my neck, so I was fine with letting that part of me suffocate too.
I always wore socks, still do. Perhaps my father’s warnings will come true and my feet will gasp their last breath of air and shrivel up like the Wicked Witch of the East. I hate feet especially mine I never wear flip-flops or open toed shoes. I cover my feet so no one will know that I too thumb the edges of my toenails. I love it when I feel them growing, the nail pressing against healed flesh. I guess there is something satisfying about tearing off pieces of toenails after a long day. When everything went wrong, a bad grade, a flat tire, a favorite pair of jeans that just don’t fit right anymore. Or when that looming question would flutter by, wondering should I break up with him and hitchhike across the country. That stuff all seems to go away with the tedious all-consuming act of pulling off the edge of a toenail ‘til it bleeds. Nevertheless, no one knows this about me because I always wear socks and sleep with the door closed.
Perhaps my mother recognizes that same hobbled walk but it’s not like we talk about because that’s just weird. No one would suspect me based on my perfectly shaped finger nails. My mother would say, “You could be a hand model, but not a real model.” Do you know how many people have said to me, “Do you play the piano?”
“No.” my response was always a little jaded, because it reminded me of my mother’s jab- my sister was the pretty one, she was delicate and not too tall. I was tall like my mother and father but not tall enough to be a super model.
“You have such beautiful long fingers; you should play the piano or be a hand model.” For some strange reason people love my hands.
My son bites his nails and then looks at my long perfectly shaped nails. I watch him looking at them, when we are watching, “My Name is Earl” or the History Channel. He will stare at the white edges of my nails. He will lean into me and hold my hand like he loves me so. I know what he is doing, all curled up next to me, like I don’t know. Wrapping his long gentle fingers that are like mine but each one chewed down to the nub. He will pull my arm around him as we snuggle on the couch. Looking closer with loving satisfaction at my nails.
Carnivorous or cannibalistic he attacks gripping with both hands, his wet mouth and teeth try to bite my ring finger gnawing at my nail. An idea that his Aunt Sasa told him about on her last trip home. She told him after she watched him biting his nails, like she does. She told him how she would try to bite my nails as a kid, something I obviously blocked from my memory. Probably due to the lack of oxygen to my feet and neck while I slept. I wriggled from his grip, flopping my hand around like a fish gasping for air, gyrating as if maybe I can survive, I mean my perfectly shaped nail without chipping. Throwing myself from the couch like a fish bouncing from the bottom of rowboat into safe happy pond water. My nails are quite pretty, I could have been a hand model, or played the piano but that takes too much practice and I have other things to obsess about.
Katherine Sullivan holds a MFA from Southern CT Full Residency’s Graduate MFA Program where she developed a thesis dedicated to the Maternal Voice. Katherine is a childbirth educator and doula who aims to develop a work of poetry showing motherhood as it truly is- magnificently beautiful even with all the harsh jagged edges. Katherine’s poetry confronts the social taboos of pregnancy, birth, and parenting. She challenges poets and writers to write about the honest physicality of birth as an empowering, beautiful and, at times, a heartbreaking moment.